Dead Things That Might Be Under Your House!

The line between hallowed ground and home is a thin one in Houston. Our city isn’t exactly known for the preservationist spirit of its citizens, and looking out your window at skyscrapers or suburban expanses, you may not see any visible evidence of the city’s history, but that’s exactly the problem: You don’t see it because it’s under your feet!

Are you dubious of the of this assertion? Well, after we’re done I guarantee you will never rest assured that you are the only resident of your happy home. We will begin long ago, past the stretch of collective human memory. In this time, herds of Mammoths roamed over a cold savannah that stretched across North America. In this unfamiliar landscape, Giant Sloths thundered here and there using their huge, retractable claws to literally scratch an existence out of the land, and Glyptodons fought off saber-tooth cats.

When you think of Paleontology, you don’t think Houston, but the remnants of that epic world are here. In the Paleontology Hall of HMNS Sugarland there is displayed the skeleton of a giant armadillo, HolmesinaIn North America during the Pleistocene, armadillos the size of Volkswagen Beetles roamed Texas; Holmesina is a smaller species of armadillo cousin from that era. When I say “smaller”, I mean that instead of being 7 to 10 feet long and up to 5 feet tall, they were closer to 6 or so feet long and a couple feet tall. Still quite large… Our specimen was discovered in 1955 by Florence Dawdy, along with her son and a friend on Brays Bayou, not far from HMNS!



Holmesina specimen at HMNS Sugarland

A giant sloth was discovered not long ago in the Galveston area. Many don’t know this, but there was a time when the coast was a hundred miles further out from Houston than it is today, but as the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age and ocean levels rose the graves of countless Pleistocene prey and several Human habitation sites were swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. Occasionally spear points or fossilized camel bones will wash up on certain beaches in the area, like High Island. 


Megatherium, a type of ground sloth. Note the giant claws, which were retractable,like a cat’s claws!

A Columbian Mammoth was discovered in a sand pit in the town of Clute near the Lake Jackson area in 2003. Columbian mammoths are the less hairy cousins of the famous Wooly Mammoths. Both species thrived in the vast grasslands that stretched from Minnesota to Mexico 10,000 years ago. The Wooly’s tended to stay further north, while the Columbians roamed in the warmer Southern regions. 



Columbian Mammoths

The Columbian Mammoth was named after Christopher Columbus, the most famous explorer of the New World, because this species of mammoth is unique to the Western Hemisphere. The one found in Clute was the first mammoth to be discovered in the Texas Gulf Coast area. The mammoth is nicknamed Asiel, and if you’re ever in the area, you can stop by “Asiel’s Restaurant”, which boasts a replica of the skull, and an exhibit including some real fossils of deer, camel, and giant sloth that were also discovered in the area.

So there are indeed a few paleontological discoveries that have unexpectedly popped up in the Houston area. And who knows, maybe the next find is under you right now! Next week we will turn the dial of geological history forward to the era of human occupation to discuss some more intriguing specimens found lurking beneath the surface of our city.

Incidentally, we happen to have an entire Hall of Paleontology devoted to prehistoric North America here at HMNS, so next time you’re visiting, be sure to check that out. We have examples of all three animals discussed in the article.

Swifter than eagles! Stronger than lions!*



Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971; AOL Time Warner

Nope, not the *Hsawaknow but extraordinary beasts instead, arising from where the fantastical and the wondrous collide.


Some animals are so exotic that their initial discovery is difficult to comprehend. Stories of griffins, dragons and more may seem like tall tales to us today, but most mythical beasts actually have a basis in reality. People who unearthed odd bones and stones often relied on religious and cultural stories to explain what they had uncovered.


More than two thousand years ago, gold miners sought their fortunes in the vast Gobi Desert. These miners were Scythians—nomadic people among the earliest to master mounted warfare. Relying on their accounts, Greek writers reported that in the sweltering heat of the desert, the miners battled the mighty griffin—a fierce half-eagle, half-lion hybrid that ferociously guarded extravagant treasures of gold. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature.



Joannes Jonstonus (1603-1675). Historiae Naturalis; Griffon (Tab. 62); 1657. (590 J73 vol. 2)


Classical folklorist and historian Adrienne Mayor, Ph.D. argues that the many similarities between Protoceratops dinosaur fossils and griffins indicate that the mythic creature likely originated from ancient paleontological observations.

The Greeks and Romans developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories.


griffons3Protoceratops. Mick Ellison/American Museum of Natural History



Dragons are among the most popular and enduring of the world’s mythological creatures. These fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination. Dragon tales are known in many cultures, and they populate our books, films, and television shows, shown as playful to fearsome.

A variety of creatures’ remains have been said to belong to dragons. With their enormous size, reptilian shape and threatening teeth and claws, some dragons might easily be taken for cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex. The fossil remains of extinct animals have sometimes been taken for dragon bones—and helped perpetuate old dragon stories.



Falkor, Toothless, Drogon, Smaug


Fossils of lepidodendron (an ancient tree-like plant) have also been exhibited as dragon skins, even as recent as 1851, when pieces found were said to be of the body of a gigantic fossil serpent.

“The idea that impressive fossils played a role in how people of the past imagined monsters and giants has been influential on several surprising fronts. People now realize that in fossiliferous lands, the bizarre bones of extinct creatures could help to explain dragon imagery” writes Dr. Mayor.


griffons6Black Country Museum

… and more!

Join Dr. Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University and HMNS on October 20 for a paleomythology lecture on Mythological Beasts: Dragons, Griffins – and Dinosaurs? and a fun-filled Family Talk October 22 on The Griffin and the Dinosaur. Book signing of The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times and The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science will follow both programs. Sponsored by AIA, Houston Society with support by KPMG.

Tales of the Continental Divide: The Adventures of Mesosaurus

Mesosaurus was an unusual reptile. It looked kind of like crocodiles do today, with a long, thin body, eyes located on top of the skull, webbed feet, and an average length of about 16 inches. It also lived kind of like many crocodiles do today, in freshwater environments. Possibly one of the weirdest things about mesosaurus is that it did all of these things during the Permian period, 320-280 million years ago. That’s 130 million years before crocodiles (and dinosaurs as well) even existed!



Mesosaurus, next to an Ichthyasaur of a much later age, photo courtesy in the Internet Archive Book Images


                In fact, Mesosaurus is was one of the earliest reptiles discovered to have made the transition back into a marine environment. The earliest reptiles appear in the fossil record around 340 million years ago, so it seems that after a mere 20 million years, this retile was done with terra firma. In fact, one of the mesosaurus skeletons that have been discovered is the earliest reptile found with amniote embryos fossilized with it, meaning these are one of the ealiest animals known to have laid hard-shelled eggs. So we’re talking about the early history of reptiles here.


Lower Permian

Lower Permian Mesosaurus, photo courtesy of elrina 753


But speaking of reptiles, it should be pointed out that mesosaurus is not like most of the reptiles we see today. Ancient reptiles can be divided into different categories, based partly on the number of holes they have on either side of their skull. Snakes and lizards are diapsids, defined by two particular holes on either side of their skull, but mesosaurus was an anapsid, which means that it lacks these holes. Anapsids are very primitive reptiles, and in fact some scholars classify them as “parareptiles”. The only species of anapsids living today are turtles and tortoises, who have a fascinating history of their own.



Mesocaurus in matrix, photo courtesy of Museo Civico di  Historico Naturale Milano


The most common type of large reptiles found in the Permian were synapsids, like the dimetrodon in the Permian section of our Hall of Paleontology, and the Edaphasaurus in the great mural featured in that hall. The only synapsids that exist today are, well, all mammals. That’s right, that big, fin-backed lizard in our hall is more closely related to us than to a dinosaur. But of course he’s still a distant relative, like an old uncle.



Recreation of a Dimetrodon, photo courtesy of Rick Hebenstreit


But back to Mesosaurus… There’s another reason that this animal is notable, and that’s the 7,772 mile journey some of its fossils made after their deposition! During the Permian, when mesosaurus was doing its thing, Pangea, the ancient Super Continent, was still forming. Pangea formed around 270 million years ago, ushering in the end of the Permian Period and the extinction of the great synapsids, and making way for the reign of the dinosaurs. It was actually the formation of Pangea and the resulting environmental changes (helped by volcanic activity and climate change) that caused this extinction, which was the worst extinction event in Earth’s history.


Photo Courtesy of David Smith


Around 200 million years ago, Pangea began to break apart. The continents that are now called Africa and South America separated, drifting away from each other and carrying the already fossilized bones of Mesosaurus with them. In the early 20th century, Continental Drift was a hotly debated topic, and it was the fossils of mesosaurus that helped to validate the theory. The remains of this fresh water-dwelling reptile, can be found in Eastern South America and Western Africa, separated be 7,000 miles of ocean. We are sure mesosaurus lived in fresh water, because the rock that its fossils have been discovered in specifically forms in that environment. So, either some of these little guys hopped a tramp steamer, or they were dragged with their respective continents. This, along with numerous other bits of evidence, like the mid-Atlantic Ridge, have helped to validate the theory of Continental Drift.


A Study in Patience

Written by Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

This summer I bring dimetrodons back to life.

No, life has not found a way, I’m not extracting DNA from inclusions found in amber; I work in the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land. It’s a small brick building with a splendid collection of history both recent and prehistoric whose residents stand 30 feet tall and have razor sharp teeth.

Every weekday from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon I sit behind a large table, stare through a lit magnifying glass, and with implements of dentistry I carefully extract the bones of Diego, a 280 million year old dimetrodon, from the hard north Texas rock.


I am an exhibit.

Visitors of the museum who meander all the way back to the Paleozoic section have the opportunity to watch me work and to ask me questions about anything they please, thankfully usually pertaining to my work. One of the most common questions and comments I get deal with patience. “Wow, that seems really tedious” or “How do you have the patience for that? I certainly couldn’t do it” to which I grin and laugh politely with a “yes it is detailed work for sure”.


After a few weeks of these comments I would like to make a few comments on the work myself and let you in on some of my secrets on being patient.

My first task upon arriving as the new Paleontology intern for the summer was to sift through the context dirt that once surrounded Diego and now filled a half dozen catering trays stored in a small closet in the museum. I would pick out a pile of dirt half the size of a golf ball and search for the microscopic bones hidden among the dirt often spending hours without finding anything. Now you may be saying “How could you keep your focus and stay patient when you had so much work to do?” To which I answer now “one rock at a time”.

I never thought about the amount of dirt in the tray nor in the closet, I just focused on my little pile, combing through it as if I might find a diamond or some other jewel (being an unpaid intern, this seemed like the greatest outcome) and after just a couple weeks I had finished looking through every single tray in the closet. This early lesson in discipline set me up perfectly for my real job, fossil prep. Now when I attack a bone I don’t think about trying to get all the rock off and reveal the entire bone. No, that would drive me insane. Instead I focus on pushing back the rock a micrometer at a time. Under intense magnification I watch flakes the size of a grain of sand that appear to me to be the size of paving stones come off in bunches. In rare cases large flakes of rock that covered half the bone come flying off in a single touch of my tools and I am filled with such elation that may surpass ever seeing the Texans win a Super Bowl from the sideline. My first lesson in patience is to focus on the little things, take small victories, microscopic even, so that when something big happens you are surprised and filled with joy.


Now I would be a liar if I said my neck never ached and I never got frustrated with lack of progress, so this is my second lesson. When I begin to feel weary from hunching over the desk or when I become irate at the stubborn rock encrusting my precious Diego, I change my pace. I get up and stretch; I walk around the room and study the fossils on display. I get a drink of water, or I simply rotate the bone and take a different perspective on the situation, attacking at a different and hopefully more prosperous angle. I chuckle to myself every time I change the angle of the rock and where it was once impossible to cut through, large chips start to fly off the bone. Lesson two is when the impatience starts to creep in just take a deep breath, stretch, then change your perspective and you’ll be amazed at the result.

Four hours a day, that’s how long I work. It’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but those 360 minutes can feel like 3,000 if you get impatient and watch the clock. During my workday I try not to look at the time more than 4 times because nothing will drive you more insane than watching time slowly crawl onward. They say a watched pot never boils, well a watched clock never ticks. I have come to believe that a minute spent staring at the clock feels slower than an hour spent doing something. So next time it’s 4:30 on a Friday and you’re caught up with all your work don’t just sit at your desk and watch the little clock in the corner of your monitor, don’t even sit around, go clean the break room, go talk to someone in your office who is also done with their work, do something productive and engaging that you normally don’t do and next thing you know it’ll be 5 o’clock and your weekend has started.

Anyone can be patient and everyone can be impatient, patience isn’t something you’re born with its just something you do, like a sport you have to practice to get better. So next time you start to feel impatient just focus on the little things, change your perspective, and don’t look at the clock and you’ll start to notice life get just a little easier.