Back to Seymour, Back in time: Part One

Far up in north Texas, past Ft. Worth and Wichita Falls, past the point where the flora turns from trees to shrubs, past a town with a funny name, Megargel, pop. 203, past a massive wind farm with tall white blades lording over thousands of acres of land, and then another, and another, lies the humble community of Seymour. Nestled in the Red River Valley near the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, the little city contains a high school (Go Panthers!), a couple of small hotels, a handful of fast food restaurants and steakhouses, several churches, and a tiny collection of historic prairie-style homes tucked behind Main Street. It’s the kind of town you live in not for the amenities, but for the rich soil and the open sky that stretches to the horizon, and the friendly rural folk, farmers and ranchers, who with their own hands have built it up from nothing.

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Wind turbines stand over fields of wheat on one of several wind farms outside Wichita Falls. Kelly Russo

On a weekend, you can enjoy a movie under the stars, take the family to the park, or hop in your SUV and explore the landscape. Nights open above like a planetarium, studded with a billion stars that would delight any gazer, and if you’re up for some night adventure, it’s a great time to search the dirt roads for nocturnal wildlife. But for all this, a trip to Seymour is incomplete without a visit to the pride of the city: the Whiteside Museum of Natural History.

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Seymour storefronts and cobblestone streets are a testament to this city’s history. Jason Schaefer

A recent addition to the rural landscape and a welcome diversion from daily life on the ranch in burning heat, the museum has blossomed into a local treasure in a single year. Under the direction of geologist and paleontologist Chris Flis, the once-dusty abandoned building that used to house a car dealership now contains excellent specimens of Permian-era fossils discovered less than 10 miles away in the Craddock bone bed, including the iconic Dimetrodon.

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Murals on the Whiteside Museum of Natural History provide a fascinating departure from the rural look of historical storefronts. Kelly Russo

With the help of paleo curators Dave Temple and Dr. Robert Bakker, The Houston Museum of Natural Science has obtained its Permian fossils from this site for the past 11 years. Flis began building the Whiteside collection from the Craddock and other local dig sites, and in the past year, to use Temple’s words, “He’s been busy.”

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A model Tyrannosaurus rex head at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History displays the contemporary conception of the dinosaur’s appearance. T. rex had pinfeathers on its head and jaw. We joked he looked a little like John Travolta. Kelly Russo

Racks of specimens jacketed in element-proof plaster-and-burlap casts line the back wall of the Whiteside, and in the fossil prep lab, the skeletons of Edaphosaurus, Diplocaulus, and Eryops line a long table as Flis categorizes the fragments to piece together whole prehistoric animals. These bones, about 280 million years old, represent a time in the fossil record when amphibians first exited the water and dragged themselves across land, eventually developing into early reptiles. And the Craddock bone bed is one of the richest cross-sections of this time period in the world.

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At the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, an open jacket of an Eryops skull, a Permian-era amphibian, displays the methods paleontologists use to prepare fossils. Jason Schaefer

Kelly and I visited Seymour, the Craddock and Whiteside the weekend of June 6 to gather information about our site and assist in the celebration of the Whiteside’s first anniversary. While the trip didn’t require any miles-long hike-ins through the backcountry, nor a tent and a sleeping bag since we “camped” in the Sagamar Hotel for four nights, the trip was nothing short of an adventure. We met the locals, played in the dirt, prospected for new fossils, and helped our paleontologists work on our active Dimetrodon digs. The work was sweltering and filthy, but the excitement of discovery, of putting hands on bone that hadn’t seen sunlight in hundreds of millions of years, holding history in the palm of your hand, was enough to keep us out in the heat, fueled by the magic of wonder.

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The spinal column and fin spines of an Edaphosaurus, a Permian-era land herbivore, line a long table in the fossil prep lab at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Kelly Russo

The first day, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. To beat the heat, Temple prefers to rise early to eat breakfast around 6:45 a.m. at the local Maverick diner, where Seymour’s agriculturalists congregate for any combination of bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes, and biscuits. Kelly doesn’t drink coffee, but I required about a half-gallon just to get the day started. I’m a late riser.

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Kelly (right), and educator and HMNS volunteer Shana Steinhardt, photograph a Texas horned lizard on the Craddock ranch near Seymour. Jason Schaefer

After the rich meal, plenty of calories to burn, our group caravaned off to the Craddock, a 4,400-acre ranch down a lonely county road. A dirt truck path carved through the mesquite and cedar brush was our only access to the dig site. Normally, we were told, the land is dry and brown, more a desert than a semi-arid valley, but following heavy rainfall two weeks prior from the same storm system that flooded Houston in May, the land was the greenest it had been in a decade. The rain caused an explosion of life, giving us five sightings of the Texas horned lizard, our state reptile, now listed as a threatened species due to its rapid decline in recent years.

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This Texas horned lizard, listed as threatened by the State of Texas, was one of five sightings that we had during the course of our trip. Jason Schaefer

But what’s good for the land ain’t so hot for digging fossils. On the way out to the site, Temple worried the mud would be too sticky for our company vehicles to push through, and even if we did, that the soil at the site might be too wet. Paleontologists depend on dry conditions to fleck away sedimentary rock with delicate tools. Wet ground means a difficult dig and sometimes the loss of specimens.

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Paleontologists and volunteers from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Seymour locals gather at our dig site in the Craddock Bone Bed. Kelly Russo

Conditions weren’t as bad as we thought, however. The site was about as good as it could get in spite of the rain. We cleaned up some litter, tarpaulin fragments and other jacketing materials that had aged in the weather, and set to work removing a pile of scree that had fallen in the rains and partially covered our biggest jacket. You can dig with anything you can prod the ground with, breaking up the clay into dust like a toothpick cleaning teeth, but Temple prefers a bayonet with a modified pommel to stab the soil and unlock it with a quarter turn. Others used screwdrivers, dental picks, or awls. Dr. Bakker hadn’t yet joined us; he would come a day later.

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A regular sight on the Craddock, Donald Gayle Coltharpe, lease-holder for the Craddock ranch, carries his dog Sissy perched on his shoulder. Kelly Russo

We dug slowly, handful by handful, making sure no bone fragments were lost in the soil we collected in buckets and discarded over the side of a nearby ravine. That first day, with the help of volunteers Dr. Mitch Fruitstone and Shana Steinhardt, Kelly and I learned about the process of extracting bone from the dirt. Using whatever digging tool you choose, you enter the soil at a shallow angle, digging into the side of a hill rather than down until your pick hits solid rock. It’s easier than you’d think to notice the difference. Though the sediment has hardened with time, it crumbles away easily. Bone fragments and rock will not break apart unless struck with an implement, hence the ginger digging. The idea is to remove the dirt from the rock, not the rock from the dirt. Each significant sample that is discovered must have its depth in the soil and location relative to other fossils recorded to place it in the geological record.

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The plaster jacket we hoped to flip over the weekend and transport back to the museum was buried under a layer of sediment after heavy spring rains. Jason Schaefer

The goal of the day was to “flip the jacket,” that is, carve the dirt out from under a fossil-rich lump of sediment until it stands on a pedestal, then turn it upside-down to plaster the underside. When the specimen is completely jacketed, it’s ready for transportation. Contrary to what the movies may suggest, paleontologists do the painstaking final prep work for fossils not in the field, but in a controlled environment, a laboratory with fine, electric-powered implements.

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Using a replica bayonet as a digging tool, HMNS Paleontologist Dave Temple teaches me how to uncover the plaster jacket without harming it. Kelly Russo

The plaster field jacket is made of layers like papier mache. Diggers begin with a separation layer, usually aluminum foil, so the plaster doesn’t stick to the specimens, and then dip fragments of material like burlap or cotton into plaster of Paris that hardens in minutes. Once the specimen is completely covered and dry, it is marked for cataloging so paleontologists know what it contains and its upright orientation when they return to it days, weeks, months, or sometimes years later.

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A jacketed Dimetrodon rib specimen from a neighboring dig site illustrates both the layering and soil removal techniques paleontologists use to preserve the integrity of fossilized bones. Kelly Russo

By one in the afternoon, we broke for lunch and to tour a nearby longhorn ranch. We had dug no more than a foot into the soil around the jacket, and Temple was nearly bitten by a four-inch centipede, a common sight for this part of Texas, but it was a good start to the weekend, with much more adventure to come.

Author’s note: This is the first part in a series detailing the HMNS excursion to the Craddock Bone Bed.

Discovery! Mass Burial of Ancient Red Beds Amphibians Uncovered

PhD scientists aren’t the only ones to make spectacular new fossil finds. Case in point: a skilled bulldozer operator digging a cattle tank in Baylor County caught a glimpse of fossils – hundreds of tree trunks, branches, leaves and…skulls! It’s the biggest discovery ever of flat-headed, bottom-living frog-relatives in the famous Clear Fork beds.

Background of Discovery – the “Age of Frog-oids”

The north Texas Red Beds from the Early Permian Period are most famous for the fin-back reptile Dimetrodon, a tiger-sized predator who was close to the direct ancestry of furry mammals, including us. But the Red Beds habitats swarmed with amphibians too, creatures who hatched from frog-like eggs and breathed with gills early in life the way salamanders do today. So common and diverse were Red Beds amphibians that this geological time-zone can be called: “The Age of Frog-oids.”

Some frog-oids were huge and armed with alligator-shaped skulls. Some were tiny and squirmed through the mud like squatty snakes. Others ruled the pond bottoms and stream beds, hugging the mud with low, wide bodies and wide, flat jaws – a design ideal for ambushing crustaceans and fish passing overhead. One of the dominant bottom-huggers was the “Panzer Mudpuppy,” a twenty-pound amphibian with powerful jaws, curved fangs, and big eyes that scanned the water above. Known technically as Trimerorhachis (“Three-Part-Spine”, in honor of the vertebrae, which were composed of three sections), this flat-bodied hunter was an extraordinary geological success. It survived for twenty or thirty million years, a constant companion to the big Dimetrodons who prowled on shore.

The “Panzer” part of the nickname comes from the armored skin. Amphibians today have mostly naked, frog-oid/toad-oid skin. Red Beds amphibians were different. Their bodies usually were completely covered with thin bone scales that worked like the scale-armor suits of medieval warriors. Darwinian theorists have suspected that “Panzer Mudpuppies” were key elements in the Dimetrodon diet. Few land herbivores were available, so the fin-back predators may well have waded into the water to snag amphibians. If the theory is true, then Trimerorohachis played a vital role in the survival of our reptilian ancestors.

Gaps in the geological record

Despite 130 years of intensive study, “Panzer-Mudpuppy” history still had gaps. This amphibian was very common in the earlier Red Beds, like those in Archer County. But then it became rare. In the later Red Beds, the Clear Fork Group, good skulls and bodies are few and far between. What happened? Were there local habitats where “Panzer Mudpuppies” enjoyed reproducing and growing in Clear Fork time? No one knew, until Jimmy Smajstrla and his bulldozer arrived at the Craddock Ranch. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Bill Whitley, ranch owner, the Houston Museum has been surveying all the fossil sites in the Clear Fork sediments that outcrop in the ranch. Bits and pieces of “Panzer Mudpuppies” were recovered but no specimen had a complete skull or jaws.

The Discovery

Mr. Smajstrla had a ranch job to perform: excavate a new tank to trap water for the cattle. However, he also had a talent for paleontological discovery. When his twenty-year-old Caterpillar, named “YSOB,” was digging down to the ten foot depth, the blade overturned grey clay chock full of fossilized plant parts. Smajstrla salvaged many valuable chunks and led the HMNS party to the spot. Fossil wood is rare in the Clear Fork, so the discovery was exciting.

Then came what no digger had dared to hope for. Even deeper went the ‘dozer. Fossil parts were in the bed below the plants. Not botanical remains this time, but what thrills the heart of every paleontologist: skulls and jaws, dozens and dozens of them, many perfect. For the very first time, science had a beautiful sample of later “Panzer Mudpuppies.” Some of the heads were larger than any previous discoveries. The official name of the skull-bed is “The Judy Site,” in honor of Mrs. Judy Whitley. What will the “Judy Site” tell us? Lots. We’ll know much more about the habitat choice of the “Panzer Mudpuppies.” And we’ll be able to detect micro-evolutionary changes. Investigations have just begun.

We look forward to sharing updates on our investigations as well as new finds with you. Stay tuned!

Find Fun Fossils at Dino Days 2009! This Saturday

dinoDaysJoin us Saturday, Nov. 7 for HMNS Dino Days, a family paleo festival that features fossil related activities and arts and crafts. Museum paleontologist Robert “Bob” Bakker will be on hand to answer any of your dinosaur questions.

This is a great chance for enthusiasts of all ages to come learn and discuss dinosaurs. We encourage you to bring in your own rocks, fossils, and other unique objects for identification. While you are here, take some time to help our volunteers sift through soil to recover bone fragments, teeth, and claws spanning 287 million years of natural history. Some of the Cretaceous age sediments you can sift through come from Texas and may contain fossilized shark teeth – and if so, finders keepers!

C. chubutensis 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: reed_flickr

So come join us this Saturday for an afternoon of dinosaur fun from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The activities are included free with your museum admission.


Famous Fossil “Ida” (Plate B) Joins Lucy on display in New York

We are very excited to have recently announced the next venue for Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia: Times Square! The world’s most famous fossil, Lucy, will soon go on display in the world’s most famous destination – when the exhibition opens June 24 at Discovery Times Square Exposition, a new, state-of-the-art facility located in the former printing presses building New York Times.

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A recreation of what Ida would have
looked like in life, by paleoartist
Viktor Deak.

In addition to Lucy and the other fascinating fossils and stunning artifacts seen in the world premiere of the Lucy’s Legacy exhibit in Houston, the exhibit in New York will feature preliminary results from the research recently completed on the Lucy fossil in UT’s High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility, one of the world’s premier labs for this work, as well as an interactive experience with Viktor Deak, one of the world’s leading paleoartists. Deak created the 10-foot-tall, 78-foot-long mural representing 6 million years of evolutionary history in Ethiopia (check out an online version here) that you may have seen when Lucy’s Legacy debuted in Houston – and he’s created brand-new paleoart for the exhibit in New York. He’ll be in the exhibit frequently, where visitors can observe him at work, ask him questions and learn first-hand how he has merged his passions of science and art to communicate an understanding of our prehistoric past, as well as how he utilizes modern technology to re-create a vision of our beginnings more vivid than ever before.  

Perhaps most exciting – we announced today that the newly famed fossil Ida (Plate B) will also be on display in the Lucy’s Legacy exhibition when it opens in New York. Officially called Darwinius masillae, this 47 million-year-old fossil is almost-unbelievably well-preserved, providing a window into our primate past – when the key adaptations of opposable thumb and big toe had just evolved.

Hear Dr. Robert Bakker, visiting curator of paleontology, discuss the significance of Plate B of the Ida fossil – including preserved fur and stomach contents – in the video below.

Headed to New York this summer? Know any science buffs in the area? Be a fan of the “Lucy’s Legacy in Times Square” page on Facebook for the latest news, photos and video from the exhibition.