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.

ida-smaller
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.

On the Sixth Day of HMNS…hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker

There’s always a lot happening at the Houston Museum of Natural Science – especially during the holiday season. Today’s post is just one of the 12 ideas for fabulous family fun we’ve put together for you (it’s a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas) We’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Today, hunt dinosaurs with famed paleontologist and HMNS curator of paleontology Dr. Robert Bakker. The video was shot in May 2008 on the ranch in Montana where Leonardo, the mummified dinosaur on display in Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation, was found. Dr. Bakker tells us how a fossil like Leonardo was made, then takes us through the process of fossil hunting – from how to train your eye to find the smallest fragments to what to do once you’ve got a good layer of fossils going.

And – don’t miss Leonardo’s world premiere at HMNS! This spectacular mummified fossil – covered 90% with skin and including mummified internal organs – is going back to his permanent home in Malta after the exhibit closes on Jan. 11. Leonardo is truly a wonder – it evokes, more than any fossil I’ve ever seen, a real sense of what dinosaurs must have been like in life. You won’t want to miss seeing this in person.

Check out the first five days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.
On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.
On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.
On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.
On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.