Get dirty doing real paleontology during Fossil Wash Day in Sugar Land

If you want to be a paleontologist, you’ve got to get your hands dirty… and sometimes wet.

Now you can learn just what it takes to get down to the nitty-gritty of separating fossils from soil and get a little messy yourself! Just come to the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land for Fossil Wash Day this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. You’ll be able to help our staff and other volunteers spray down samples dug from our very own exclusive fossil site near Seymour, Texas, the home of the famous fin-backed prehistoric reptile Dimetrodon. While you’re washing, you can chat with our experts about your favorite dinosaurs. Who knows? You may be the first to lay hands on a bone that hasn’t seen the sunlight in hundreds of millions of years.


Fossil Wash Day is a community gathering perfect for dinosaur fans and families interested in real science.

Fossil Wash Day is a four-year tradition at HMNS Sugar Land, the perfect location for splashing around and playing with mud. The “big back yard” has a nearby water source and is perfect for the process. Large clumps of Baylor County clay will be placed in five-gallon buckets of water with a bit of hydrogen peroxide to help deflocculate, or break up, the sample. Then the clay will be taken from the buckets of water and plopped onto a screen which will catch small fossil fragments.


Searching for fossils is a job for both children and adults, and is a big help to our museum paleontologists.

“We’re looking for the things we missed. The things we didn’t know were there,” said David Temple, Associate Curator of Paleontology, who usually hosts the event. A scheduled visit to a fossil site in Germany will prevent him from joining the fun.


HMNS Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple teaches two children how to bag fossils at Fossil Wash Day. While Temple usually appears at the event, he will be out of the country this year.

“Once we run the samples through the screens, we empty the screens out and find bits of bone and things, and we catalog the bits,” Temple said. “It’s citizen science. A way for the public to get involved. It’s a chance to do real science and you’ll never know what you’ll find. And you do find things.”


At Fossil Wash Day, small bones such as this phalange discovered by a volunteer help the Houston Museum of Natural Science collect data about Permian-era reptiles and amphibians.

Most finds from these samples contain fossilized teeth from prehistoric sharks, Dimetrodon and others. Fossils discovered at the event go into our collection, where they are valued for the information they share about the distant past. From teeth, depending on the details on the fossil, paleontologists can tell how Permian-era creatures fed and fought with one another. Broken Dimetrodon teeth, for example, show that the animal chewed its food instead of swallowing it whole.

“If you’ve got shed teeth, you can tell something fed there, even if you don’t find bones there,” Temple said. “As opposed to finding a socketed tooth where the carcass has rotted. Sometimes we find crushed bone. From these fossils, we learn what they’re chewing on and how the teeth wear.”


The clay matrix from Seymour, Texas is transported in clumps back to Houston. In the clumps, you never know what you’ll find.

If you’ve got fossils at home, bring those along, too, and have them identified. With the paleontologists and volunteers working alongside the public, it’s a great opportunity to spark up a one-on-one Q&A. There will be more volunteers inside the museum preparing Eocene-era fossils from another dig site near Bryan-College Station. Plus, you’ll get a look at other specimens in our fossil touch carts.


Rinsing red mud from a screen.

“Fossil Wash Day is a super hands-on kind of thing. You get filthy,” Temple said. “Wear something you don’t mind getting wet.”

Back to Seymour, Back in Time: Part Two — Bringing back a city

The visit to our active digs at the Craddock Ranch red beds exhausted Kelly and I, but it was fascinating to learn how the Houston Museum of Natural Science discovers, jackets and moves its Permian fossils to our lab. The second day, we lent a hand at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour for their one-year anniversary celebration. I conducted interviews with Museum Director Chris Flis, our associate paleo curator David Temple, and a handful of Seymour residents, while Kelly shot photos, posted Tweets and produced Periscope videos.


The Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour, Texas has the potential to breathe new life in to the city through historic ecotourism. Jason Schaefer.

The Whiteside has the potential to bolster Seymour’s dwindling economy through historic ecotourism. Locals want to keep Baylor County fossils at home, housed in a single facility, in hopes that visitors will spend a weekend and their money in the shops, restaurants and hotels of the dusty Texas town. Dimetrodon has the potential to attract paleo-fans and academics alike from far and wide and give Seymour a new brand as the home of the richest Permian fossil accumulations in the world. It has been known as such unofficially for nearly 100 years.

Flis, Temple, and paleo curator Dr. Robert Bakker, who arrived in Seymour the previous night, regard the Craddock bone bed as crucial in the understanding of some of the most important enigmas of modern paleontology. In the past century, the information unearthed from the caked deposits of these ancient rivers has answered many questions about Permian ecosystems. However, with each layer removed, new riddles emerge. How many species of Dimetrodon were there? Why did they live so far away from the swamp, where the herbivorous Edaphosaurus lived? Shouldn’t Dimetrodon have preyed on Edaphosaurus? Should Dimetrodon be considered a mammal ancestor? And, perhaps the most fascinating, why are there more carnivores than herbivores buried here? Paleontologists are certain the story is in the bones, and for this era, there’s no better place to find them.


At the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, Dr. Robert Bakker puzzles over the broken shin bone of a Diadectes, a rare Permian herbivore. Kelly Russo.

The exposed Permian landscape from north Texas into southern Oklahoma dates back about 290 million years. To the southeast of Seymour, the rocks get a little older, providing samples from the Pennsylvanian era, about 310 million years ago. The landscape grows younger as you travel west out of Baylor County, then ages again in eastern New Mexico about 100 miles away. Here, paleontologists have found other Permian-era sites that extend as far as Arizona, Flis explained.

“Those sites are well-known for trackways, but they’re not well-known for bones,” Flis said. “For bones, Texas is the best.”


Jacketed lumps of earth lining the wall of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History contain not only fossil specimens, but valuable information about Permian ecosystems. Jason Schaefer.

The soil is rich with exposed Permian fossils. Visitors can walk across the landscape and happen upon excellent specimens of vertebrae, joints, and bits of Dimetrodon’s famous fin spines right at their feet. The bones are preserved so well in the clay soil, they still carry their indigo luminescence when turned in the sunlight. These aren’t mineralized bones, but the real thing. They are the actual mummified parts of animals that human hands have never moved, that haven’t been exposed to light or air since their deaths.


The Craddock red beds are rich with outstanding bone fossils, nearly half of them crushed, broken or bearing tooth marks from Permian-era violence. This fragment of Dimetrodon rib could tell paleontologists more about how the reptile lived than a complete skeleton. Kelly Russo.

It’s not just the bones or their ubiquity in the red beds that makes the Craddock so valuable. It’s the story the bones tell in pieces. A perfect skeleton is great for anatomy, but for information about ancient ecosystems, the pulverized fragments are pay dirt. Paleontologists learn much more about the interaction between extinct species from bones damaged by chewing or some other trauma than from bones unscathed. There’s no story in a complete skeleton.

“You don’t know how it died. You don’t know who chewed it,” Bakker said. “It tells you nothing.”

When Bakker and HMNS teams first began digging at the Craddock about 11 years ago, he was looking for shed Dimetrodon teeth, he said, knowing that losing teeth was common for the reptile. He didn’t expect as many as he found.

“There were shed teeth everywhere,” Bakker said. “It was like a Civil War battlefield that souvenir hunters hadn’t gone over.”


The Whiteside Museum of Natural History is outfitted to prepare its own fossils with its own lab. Volunteer Dr. Mitch Fruitstone removes sedimentary rock from a fossilized jaw specimen. Jason Schaefer.

The team estimated less than five percent of the specimens would be chewed and have tooth marks. After all, T. rex swallowed his prey in chunks, tearing flesh from their bodies without much mastication. From what he’d learned from his predecessors, Bakker expected the same of Dimetrodon. However, the bones were marked in high frequency, about 45 percent, and some were chewed to pieces.

“This means Dimetrodon wasn’t chewing like a dinosaur. It was chewing like a wolf or a hyena,” Bakker said. “That’s the most surprising thing. That’s a way primitive guy, but it’s chewing like an advanced mammal predator. … Our group is the first to document that.”

Through observations made at the Craddock, these discoveries broke open new possibilities for the life of Dimetrodon and the Permian world in which it lived. It could be an ancient relative of mammals instead of reptiles. As a cross-section of the development of life on Earth, the Permian represents the dawn of land-dwellers, when amphibians first began to crawl out of the water. The link between amphibians and reptiles was discovered in the Craddock in 1904, putting Seymour on the paleontological map. Named Seymouria baylorensis to pay homage to its home town, it contended with gravity better than its amphibious predecessors 20 million years earlier, and had other adaptations that allowed the species to succeed in the dry Permian landscape.


Volunteer Dr. Mitch Fruitstone demonstrates precision fossil preparation as a child looks on during the Whiteside Museum of Natural History’s first anniversary celebration. Jason Schaefer.

Now, a model of the animal occupies a hallowed space in the Whiteside, a shining example of the value of this area to the study of the Permian. As Baylor County digs continue, paleontologists layer details about the past with each layer of soil removed: microfossils, traces of flesh-eating arthropods and fossilized pollen grains, and what appears to be different species of Dimetrodon or perhaps just male and female aspects. Bite marks and stab wounds from Xenocanth suggest the ancient shark preyed on Dimetrodon from the water while it hunted the shark from land. With each shovel of soil and swing of the pickaxe, more comes to light about Eryops, Diplocaulus, Trimerorachus and Edaphosaurus.

For the agricultural residents of Seymour, the science could spell success for a struggling community. A contract with the landowners ensures the fossils excavated from the Craddock will remain in Texas, and most of them at the Whiteside. According to Bakker, having a municipal museum is “a huge game-changer” for Seymour, for HMNS and for the state.



Dr. Robert Bakker uses his sketching skills to teach children about Dimetrodon. “Science should make you giggle,” he told the kids. Jason Schaefer.

“Our hope would be that the Whiteside would be a locus not for just digging local fossils but for teaching short courses, especially for teachers so they have hands-on experience digging fossils,” Bakker said. “We’ll take them out and they’ll go back to their classroom and show how fossils are dug.”

The building itself is not without its own history. A renovated Chevrolet dealership, it was handed down from former owner Gene Porter Robinson, who had sold cars out of the building since the 1950s. As Chevy went corporate, Robinson kept the business open, remaining active until 2001 as one of the last remaining independently-owned dealerships in the franchise.


Judge Clyde Whiteside of Baylor County, and the namesake of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, sits beside models of Edaphosaurus and Dimetrodon during the museum’s first anniversary celebration. Jason Schaefer.

When Robinson died, Judge Clyde Whiteside recognized the value of the lot, and cherishing his friendship with Robinson, decided to purchase the half-block with the clear intent of turning it into a museum to re-invigorate the community.

“I bought my first car right here,” Whiteside said, seated in his wheelchair beside the first Dimetrodon model display. “Hopefully this will bring people back. … Now that we’ve got this interest in [the Craddock], we’ve got five active digs going, and we’re finding stuff you wouldn’t believe! I’m not a scientist, I’m a lawyer and a farmer. But it’s working, and I’m thrilled to death by it. It makes my life worth living.”

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

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Stealth Frog-oid in the Permian Ponds: The Panzer Mudpuppy and its Sonar

“Ping….ping…..p i n g…..”

We heard it in the U-boat movie Das Boot. And in Run Silent, Run Deep. And in the History Channel special about the Battle of the Atlantic. A single “ping” figures in a plot twist during The Hunt for Red October. The “ping” is the sound of underwater hunting.

It’s the sound of sonar.

When early U-boats threatened to cut off England in 1917, British scientists worked feverishly to invent a way of tracking submerged subs. The answers came in the between-war years.  A machine would emit a metallic “ping” into the water. If there was a large object underwater nearby, the ping would echo back and be amplified by the machine. The time between ping and echo-ping told the distance; the strength of the echo told the direction.

Sonar went to war big time in 1939. Combined with the code-breakers who deciphered U-boat orders sent by radio, plus anti-sub aircraft, the Allies defeated the new U-boat offensives in 1943 and 1944.

What’s that got to do with our new fossil hall?


Our field crews have brought back the largest single fossil ever dug from the Permian Red Beds of north Texas. Check it out:

judy block david temple

It’s the “Judy Block”, a slab of pond sediment 10 feet long and three tons in weight. Inside are dozens and dozens of complete skulls and jaws from a new species of Panzer Mudpuppy. These were bottom-living amphibians, distant cousins of frogs, who crowded onto the riverbeds and ponds all through the Early Permian 295 to 275 million years ago.

And our Judy Block is a dramatic lesson in Nature’s Passive Sonar.

Active Sonar is used by porpoises and whales — they make clicky noises underwater and use the echoes to find food and, in the mating season, each other.

Passive Sonar is more elegant and delicate. The sonar operator doesn’t ping or click — that would give away the operator’s position to enemies. Instead, the passive sonar operator listens with extremely sensitive microphones. The Hunt for Red October demonstrates how submariners avoid making any noise but just listen and listen and listen — every tiny sound being amplified by the best acoustic equipment. The fossils in our Judy Block show Nature’s equipment in the fossil amphibian.

Look at the skull:

hall blog trimtneurocanalcolor

Running across the bones are a system of sonar canals (technical label: “lateral-line canals”). Most fish have those canals today. Many frogs have a similar apparatus. Under the microscope you’d see a marvelous device. Tufts of tiny sensory hairs are clumped together inside jelly capsules (the jelly is secreted by the cells that hold the hairs). The capsules are connected to nerves that run to the brain.

Imagine you are a Permian Mudpuppy and glance at the three scenes here:


You sit still on your pond bottom. You are passive. But your sonar is super-alert. The water is so murky that you can’t see anything. Doesn’t matter. A fish wanders by above your head. It suspects nothing. But the fish’s tail sends out vibration waves through the water. Minute vibrations bump into the sensory hairs in your sonar canals. You’ve got thousands of the hair clusters, and so your brain knows where the fish is swimming and how fast it’s going.

Your fire-control computer in your brain knows instinctively what to do. Wait. Wait … wait … then FIRE!

You twist your head up. You open your jaws wide. The sudden suction draws the fish into your jaws. Chomp! Yum.

Sonar canals were features of most early amphibians. You can see them in the giant Gator-Headed Amphibian, Eryops, that ruled the waterways in the Red Beds times. In the new hall, we will display a complete Eryops across the pathway from the Judy Block.

When you come to the new exhibit, pause at the Judy Block. Stare at the sonar canals. Get lost in a time-travel reverie. Multitudes of those animals lived their lives through millions of years, each generation being successful through the high-tech acoustic machinery.