Thursday, November 8, 2007

Now Playing: Tricks of the Trade

Finally! We figured out how to post video. Yesterday's post showed how to make a map of a fossil site to preserve bone location information. Above, David Temple explains how to plaster jacket a bone bed in order to remove the fossils for further study at a museum.

Now that we know how, we'll post more "Tricks of the Trade" video here - so check back soon!

Updated video:

Dr. Bakker explains what you're looking for, when you're looking to find fossils, as well as what has been uncovered as a new layer in the K2 site.

In the process of digging down to the Aimee layer from the top of the hillside on Day 4, Chris discovered a Dimetrodon vertebra that had to be removed before excavation could continue. In this video, he carefully removes it from the place it's been sitting for almost 300 million years.

Making a map of our buried treasure. Kathy explains the process of mapping a bone layer, which documents exactly the way each bone was laid out in the bed, helping the team determine how each of the bones relates to the others, even after the bones have been removed from the site.

Here, you can see why mapping the location of the bones is so important. Here, the team flips a 350 - 500 pound plaster jacket that contains multiple Dimetrodon fin spines and vertebra, still in place as they were buried. It will be transported back to the Museum for further study.

Day 4: Pirates of the Permian

Dig what you can! Give nothing back!
Dr. Bakker's re-interpretation of Jack Sparrow's Pirate Code was a fitting theme for today's dig, as bones popped out of the sediment like buried treasure.

If you saw the photo post earlier today, you know it started out with a bang - right off the bat, Kathleen discovered a Dimetrodon fin spine still attached to a vertebra (a first for the site) and Shirley uncovered a tiny Xenacanth tooth embedded in Xenacanth cartilage - very unique. While David and Neal headed into town to visit Kim Beck's class, several others headed over to the spoil pile (a location on the opposite site of the hill the Amy site is located, where a different museum;s team discarded a lot of really great - but not large - fossils). They found this:

A huge Diadectes vertebra, in one piece - you can see the body of the vertebra (the part that connects to the other vertebrae in the spinal column) at the top left. This is the same species that was discovered at the K2 site on Monday, but from a different - and significantly larger - individual.

Chris, Kathy, Kathleen and Shirley continued to excavate the lower level of the Amy site, and discovered that some of the spines are actually what looks to be a full rib, tapering to the end of the site.

The rib is visible arcing across the top of this photo. You can see how the bones taper to a very small size at the far right of the photo, as well as how this would have been wrapped around a Dimetrodon's belly.

VIDEO - Making a map of our buried treasure. Kathy explains the process of mapping a bone layer, which documents exactly the way each bone was laid out in the bed, helping the team determine how each of the bones relates to the others, even after the bones have been removed from the site.

This tooth was also newly discovered today - it has the characteristics of Dimetrodon loomisi, the "mystery animal" the team identified yesterday from a giant fang found at the K2 site. A very long root is visible attached to the tooth - meaning that it was lost after death, not while eating. This may identify the entire Dimetrodon in the lower Amy layer as this species.

In addition, everything in this layer is facing north, and there are many types of fossils found - an amphibian, 2 species of Dimetrodon and Xenacanthus so far. This indicates that it was probably a stream bed of some kind, where multiple animals got caught up after death and were then covered with soil.

Led by Johnny Castillo, half the team moved up the hill opposite the Amy site to begin to remove plaster jackets that were created during the last dig trip to stabilize and protect the fossils found at the Spine site. These jackets contain an impressive Dimetrodon spinal column that has several of the fin spines in place, extending upwards from the spine. Before it was covered, enough was visible that you could actually envision the fin of this giant beast as it was laid out 290 million years ago. The team works on removing dirt from around the plaster jacket, while also collecting any bones that may have been preserved in the surrounding dirt. The object is to make the pedestal of dirt underneath the plaster cast as narrow as possible, in order to make flipping each 500-pound jacket easier.

Adam works on removing soil from underneath this jacket, to create a smaller pedestal. At the end of the day, they had found multiple additional vertebrae in the surrounding soils, and so much had been removed that the plaster cap appeared to be floating.

While all this was going on, David and Neal were bringing the dig into town for the students at Seymour High School. They brought in fossils from the site - as well as a bunch of rocks - and challenged the students to tell the difference, while also discussing local geology.

Students examine Xenacanth coprolite - shark poop - found at a new site on Monday.
The students learned about arthropod footprints, trace fossils (which show how the animal lived - like fossilized burrows) and one very unique characteristic of this area. Bones from 10,000 years ago - like Mammoth and Saber Tooth Tigers - are found right on top of 300 million year old fossils like Dimetrodon. The stuff in between - like the entire history of the dinosaurs - just washed away.

Angie Bourland looks at a fossil passed around during class.

As the Museum's official bug chef and 2007 Houston Chronicle's Most Adventurous Palate, it seemed only natural that David had also brought bugs to pass around. And eat.

David passes out dried, BBQ-flavored meal worms for the class to try. As he explained, "Everyone in here is an insect-eater. If you look at the USDA requirements for your Cap'n Crunch, your tomatoes, your peanut butter - you'll see a certain number of insect parts are allowed." To which junior Hunter Rush replied, "Wait a minute - they put insects in my Cap'n Crunch?!?"

SHS freshman Nick Wiles eats a bug. And promptly runs to the sink to "wash it down."

All in all, a productive day - for the team, and the students. They did "dig it all" - but maybe they gave something back, too.

David Temple - Copro-right or copro-wrong?

One of these fecal fossils is an imposter. Can you tell which one?

All were found in the Seymour area - but only one is a fake. See if you can spot it.

Photos from Day 4

With the benefit of several new diggers who arrived in Seymour last night, the team started working to remove the jacket at the top of the main site. They also continued digging out the top of the hill over the lower Amy site where they found a new associated Dimetrodon on Tuesday.

Shirley, Kathy and Kathleen Havens start working on the upper layer of the Amy site. The goal is to dig down to the lower level (preserving and mapping whatever bones are found in the layers between) to uncover the rest of the associate Dimetrodon skeleton.

Working down from the top of the Amy site, Kathleen uncovered a Dimetrodon vertebra that is still attached to the fin spine - a first for the team. The vertebra is on the lower left of this image (you can see the circular edge of it) and the fin spine is the shelf-like horizontal edge extending through the photo towards the right. Under the pointer, you can see the rest of the fin spine, where it was broken after death. The apparent twist that caused this break may help the team figure out the current of the river bed this animal ended up in. They'll continue to excavate this today, so we'll have a clearer image of the find this afternoon.

A close up of the broken section of Kathleen's new Dimetrodon spine (shown in the picture above at right) - this is the first piece of bone that was uncovered on her new layer. The vetebra attached to the rest of this spine were found shortly after this picture was taken, to the left.

At Shirley's level on the very top of the Amy site, this tiny Xenacanthus (prehistoric shark) tooth was found actually embedded in a piece of shark cartilage. Like all teeth for this species, it is a "pickle fork" tooth - meaning it has two crowns, both of which are visible here.

Johnny Castillo and David Temple work on excavating beneath this double plaster jacket, which contains multiple associated Dimetrodon spines and vertebrae. They will remove as much soil as possible from around, and under, these plaster mounds. Once the pedestal it sits on is as small as possible, they will flip the jacket, plaster over the bottom and stabilize it for the trip back to Houston.

While the rest of the team continues digging this afternoon, David and Neal are visiting Kim Beck's class to talk to the students about looking for local fossils and the geology of the area. Check back later today for more information on the class' experience and today's finds.

Kathleen Havens, Museum Team Member

Kathleen Havens is the Museum's Assistant Director of Youth Education - which means that she's responsible for all the explosions, mummy-making, paint splatter, robot-battling and all the other fun summer camp experiences available for kids at the Museum.

In fact, one of the summer camps she developed is Crime Scene Investigators - which gives her invaluable perspective on the dig process in Seymour. She's also been to Comfort, TX with the team to investigate a sauropod footprint trackway; this is her second trip to Seymour.
"I love the process, and the procedure. The fact that you never know what you're going to find next. It's always so exciting when someone yells across the site 'Oh! Look what I found!"
As a summer camp teacher, Kathleen enjoys bringing what she learns here back to her students.
"There's nothing like showing students a real piece of bone or something you found to make it real for them. Otherwise, it's just something out of a textbook."