Live from the Field: The Smoking Gun

Kim Beck, a regular excavator with the
HMNS team, looks for fossils eroding out
at the surface.

Our paleontology team – led by Dr. Robert Bakker – is back in Seymour, TX this week, digging for Dimetrodon at a site they’ve now been working for several years. (You can read more of what’s been found already in our daily blog from the field in 2007).

Listen to the podcast below to hear David Temple – our associate curator of paleontology and a one of our BEYONDbones bloggers – fill us in on the progress from yesterday - including the discovery of “The Smoking Gun,” and evidence of cannibal Dimetrodon – as well as the history of the site the team is digging on, which is so rich that scientists have been pulling Dimetrodon and other Permian-era species out of the ground there since 1877.

If you’re a paleo expert, you can skip this paragraph and head straight to the update – but David mentions a few things that not everyone is familiar with: “matrix” is a term paleontologists use to describe the material that surrounds fossils. “Wet screening” is the process of putting matrix on a small-weave screen and running water through it to find any tiny fossils that might have been missed. And, Dimetrodon grandis is the very largest species of Dimetrodon ever found – making it the biggest, baddest predator of the Permian.


Our field team will be updating us on progress at the site every day this week – so check out yesterday’s update from Kat Havens, another of our excavators – and come back tomorrow for more from the fossil field!

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.25.08)

plastic containers
Creative Commons License photo credit: fungusakafungus

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Sounds like synergy: researchers at the University of Hawaii are making biodegradable plastic - from the waste products of corn ethanol production.

You would think “causes lung cancer” would be enough to make smoking “uncool.” But apparently, PSAs aren’t enough – you have to associate an unhealthy behavior with a group that’s already considered “not cool.”

New research indicates that Saturn’s moon Titan could harbor life, in the form of extremophiles that have taken advantage of the water brought to the surface by ice volcanoes (!). (via)

Think a human cell is tiny? Researchers at MIT are working on a “virus-based micro-battery” that’s half the size.

Travel across America with Lewis & Clark, or sail with the intrepid Captain Cook – in a new, interactive map of some of history’s most famous journeys.

We give carpoolers a special lane – do hybrid owners deserve priority parking?

Scientists have developed a long-term storage technology that’s being used to create a modern Rosetta Stone.

Archaeologists in Mexico may have found a Mayan path to the underworld – but which came first, the legend, or the path?

Skin cancer has its own distinct smell.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.18.08)

Robot Vista
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kiwi Flickr

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Robots: they’re so hot right now. A new surveillance bot looks really cool – but it’s also extremely noisy (and so not very good for surveillance.) And – this robot could save your life.

A humpback whale has lost its way, somehow ending up in the Baltic Sea – an area that lacks the food it will need to survive.

What’s it like to be an Olympian’s brain?

It only stood waist high, but it might have given Usain Bolt a run for his money – the small British Ornithopod Hypsilophodon foxii was so fast it had a special adaptation to keep its ribs from rattling at top speeds.

Shockingly, Bigfoot find turns out to be a hoax. (Though with a web site like this, I can see why major networks attended the “press conference.”)

The NASA spacecraft Cassini has taken “razor-sharp” images of 1000-meter deep fissures in the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons – a place believed likely to contain life (or at least, more likely than other places in space).

A new study from the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center indicates that low density foods may be the key to weight loss. Sponsored by the Mushroom Council, the study recommends foods that have a low ration of calories to volume, like…mushrooms.

As Arctic ice melts, Canada will search for the remains of a 19th century expedition that was lost in pursuit of the Northwest Passage.

Dimetrodon sighting

In search of it’s next meal, a very rare young Dimetrodon stumbles upon a group of working paleontologists…surprised, its fin stands straight up in a threat display, and it’s front two killing fangs are poised for action…

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Juuuuuust kidding.
They’re really much bigger than that.

Luckily for our paleontologists, I’m just kidding – this is not a creature you would ever want to run into alive. They were the top predator of their time, about the size of a Bengal tiger when they were full-grown – and just as mean. On the other hand, they lived about 290 million years ago, and show evidence of being early ancestors of mammals – like you and me. So it might have been pretty cool to see one alive – at least for the few seconds you had left.

Led by Dr. Bakker, the paleontology team has been searching for Dimetrodon in North Texas for over two years now – and they’ve made some fascinating finds. For the last week, they’ve been running their annual Paleontology Field School for educators. During this program, science teachers learn to dig for fossils, and then take what they’ve learned about geology, paleontology, biology, anatomy and more back to their students.

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A tiny Dimetrodon vertebrae found at the site the team
is working on in the background.

More than just digging up bones, the team is working to unravel the entire ecosystem of the Permian period, as expressed in the Red Beds of North Texas – the best beds for fossils of this era, in the world. It’s extremely slow work – once a fossil has been found, no matter how tiny (and some are almost ridiculously miniscule), it must be logged, mapped into place (this information is used for futher study, back in the lab), and then removed for preservation.

Significant, larger finds are jacketed first, with plaster, to be excavated further back the museum in Houston or in the Paleo Prep Lab at The Woodlands Xploration Station.

mapping

Carol, a teacher from the Houston area, assists in
mapping a site, using a Sharpie to trace their shape
on a thin sheet of plastic. Later, the maps will be
scanned into the computer for analysis.

Once they are digitized, the maps will help reconstruct the death events that took place – was this fossil a part of one individual – or another entirely? Was this Dimetrodon tooth shed in the act of eating a Xenacanth shark? – which will contribute to a better understanding of how these animals related to one another.

Dimetrodon fang

This is a great find – a huge Dimetrodon fang, one of the largest Dr. Bakker has ever seen. This photo shows what a fossil from this area looks like when you uncover it; now, it must be mapped in place before being removed from the site and packaged up and stabilized for the trip back to Houston.

Excavated

Once it has been excavated, you can see the same fossil fang a bit more clearly. If you look closely, you can see that the serrated edge of the tooth is preserved and still visible – almost 300 million years after this Dimetrodon died.

collared lizard

The wildlife around Seymour is surprising – jackrabbits,
roadrunners (meep, meep!) and much more. This
collared lizard energed from its burrow under a rock to
circle the site, vigorously bobbing it’s head at us (which
is how it says “Back off! This is my turf.”) – which seems
comical until you realize how hard they bite.

They’re still working out at the site; over the weekend, they discovered a new Dimetrodon skull, a fully articulated Diadectes hand (which is rare, because hands and feet are normally the first part of the body to be eaten or wash away) and a Dimetrodon scapula and humerus in perfect condition, and still attached. We hope to have photos for you soon. In the meantime, a new group of teachers joins the team today – who knows what is yet to be discovered?

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The thrill of discovery
comes with a price.