Clink! Clink! Chris immediately dropped his shovel and knees to the ground. “A bone!”, he shouted with a slight whisper. We immediately stopped cleaning as it was no longer a chore. It was the scapula. At 33 years old, Chris Flis is an expert paleontologist, who is a museum volunteer for the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s paleo field studies. The Whole Earth Provision employee has owned quite some adventures. He’s dug up triceratops, mammoths, and the illustrious apatosaurus and diplodocus, which are two of the largest Sauropods. I would be learning a great deal from him on excavating fossils. We began clearing the area to dig up what was underneath. The bones were large and seemed to be plentiful. Chris and I began excavating our new specimen. “This is the apex of my life!” I will continue to say this until my next adventure, but this time there will be no other adventure in the future that will even make such loud sounds as this will. We are digging up a dimetrodon!
From years of diggers shedding the ground one layer at a time we just found ourselves the jackpot which was just inches below the earth’s surface that lied near a wall which would all have to be dug out. Searching for these fossils is like pulling the lever on a slot machine. You can play and win absolutely nothing, but the moment you walk away someone else will decide to drop a coin and bingo! Each layer you peel is a quarter, it just all depends on how long you want to play before you go search for another slot machine to play on the quarry. Finally, over hundreds of years, it was our turn to play the slots. “The Craddock Bone Bed is an amazing place to be. How it got there and why is it so concentrated with specimens. You can mine there indefinitely and you’ll always find something.” says curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, David Berman of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA. “The land isn’t just a good place to find more dimetrodons, but for new species as well.”, he adds. In tears, with a grin from ear to ear knowing that this animal died before mammoths, before triceratops, and even millions of years before the Tyrannosaurus rex including all other dinosaurs here was a dimetrodon from the Permian era! It owned the body of a komodo dragon, but had a large sail on it’s dorsal. Was the sail to act as a threat to increase it’s size? It was an apex predator of it’s time, it didn’t have to, but perhaps intimidation towards other dimetrodons such as male lions do in competition? Communication? Possibly, like the green anole lizard, both sexes used it’s red dewlap throat for inter- and intra-specific communication. I also believe the fin was used to regulate temperature just as a stegosaurus would do with it’s plates or even like that of elephants and it’s ears to keep cool! Being a zoologist, you’re allowed to take your knowledge and adapt it to the past to make an educated guess on history. Like they say, history repeats it’s self so these animal adaptations and behaviors today could have easily existed in the past. Not only with it’s “elephant ear” operation, but it also actually has mammal like characteristics too, which involves humans to be related to it! Like you and I, the dimetrodon has a temporal fenestra. “With your forefinger, press behind your eye socket, should be slightly soft. Feel the hole there? That is the very same hole that the dimetrodon has!”, says Dr. Bakker. I was digging out my first known ancestor! Compared to the amount of time we’ve been here, the dimetrodon is the dominte species that ruled the Earth. And for the first time in over 270 million years, Chris and I were the first two to expose the body to the world!
As the day went on, the two of us picked the ground exposing the bone bit by bit carefully not chipping the specimen. Excavating this Synapsida was a turtle race. The rocks look like the bones so knowing the anatomy on these specimens along with the other specimens that can be found in the quarry is a plus. It’s important to use tiny tools because if you make a tiny break, you make a tiny mistake oppose to a large chisel creating a large break. With this tiny clay carving pick I am slowly turning the earth over in the middle of a 4,400 plus acre sized ranch brushing off any lose remains with a small paint brush and placing the lose dirt in another area of the ranch which we call the “spoil pile”. If this bit of information was released to the wrong people Chris and I would be admitted in a psych ward for insanity. I agree, it was crazy! It was like counting grains of sand at the beach! Hours later Dr. Bakker came by to inspect our work. Like a forensic scientist, he studies the “crime scene”. “How did it die? Who killed it?”, Bakker muttered to himself. As he examined the bones and the way they lay he searches for chew marks on the bones he says, “It needs a name.” While Chris couldn’t think of a name Bakker leans over and says, “Quick, give me two syllables.” Without giving any thought like a newborn’s first breath I could only think of one name that I’ve been wearing on my heart for the past 3 years. “Chelsea.” Dr. Bakker quickly looks at Chris for approval. “Chelsea it is.”, Chris says with a smile. Naming an extinct specimen is almost equivalent to city managers naming neighbor hood street signs after their girlfriends, Laurel Avenue or Rachel’s Way, but this was something on a grander scale. This wasn’t going to be a name where people state a location to where they trade insurance from a car wreck or a road that was used as a shortcut to Brian’s house. This is an extinct animal that was created millions of years before Jesus was even an idea of being born. Our new specimen was no longer just bones. She had a name, a name that had never left my mind even when disaster struck. Some girls were made for Heaven and Heaven will tear you apart, just like the razor sharp serrated teeth of the dimetrodon.
The perks of being a free lance journalist is that I am at free will to write about anything that I please. My passion for science is a self epidemic that spreads through my own brain like a tumor. I study specimens from the Xenarthra order and wonder why the pangolin has been rejected out of the group now owning it’s own order, Philodota. I then recall the aardvark being in it’s own order, Tubulidentata so I study it. I study animals by using the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon method, which has led me to study ancient life. After I’ve accumulated enough knowledge, I write about it or just share my knowledge in conversation with friends or guests at the Houston Zoo. My hobby studying zoology has enabled me to have lunch with Jeff Corwin, take a stroll through San Diego Zoo with their ambassador, Rick Schwartz, and even hang out with Jack Hanna talking about our childhood on our first pets. Leaving the Houston Zoo didn’t keep me away from the zoological gardens. I wrote about it helping to promote animal conservation for the sake of being a voice for science and helping the animals. I appreciate Shark Week for not only their crazy spectacular Great White breach jumps, but that it’s a great message to convey to the mass. During the duration of Shark Week, Dr. Robert Bakker was installing a large prehistoric megalodon jaw. I interviewed him for a local paper. When the new paleo hall was being built, I interviewed him once more. I must have left an impression on him because just before we parted he told me that I was one of the most well knowledged reporters that he has ever met. I’m not sure if he was spilling words that he might say to all reporters such as the guy telling his date that she is the most gorgeous woman that he has ever seen, but I swallowed them with a smile. “You should come volunteer so you can dig for me.,” said Bakker. If I were drinking something I would have spewed it out of my mouth, but food or drinks aren’t allowed in The Morian Hall of Paleontology. “What! Are you serious?”, I replied. “Sure. We could use a guy like you.”
David Temple chased the owner of Craddock Ranch down for nearly a year for an approval to go research their ranch by endless phone calls with the city hall for contact information. “So what will it take for us to get a deal going?” “First step is showing up.”, said ranch owner, Bill Whitley. The following day David Temple and the paleo team jumped in their cars and drove to the ranch while Dr. Bakker flew in the day after along with a film crew. “Bill Whitley’s family tradition is to allow scientists and museums on the property at free of cost.”, says Temple. “Those fossils aren’t mine.”, says Whitley. “They belong to the world. They belong to the scientific community.”, Whitely adds. As for now The Smithsonian and HMNS are the only ones allowed on the site. By piggy backing each other, this can increase their knowledge and be twice as strong. In other cases this would be a form of business competition, but the biggest competitor here is not having enough information. Every year an erosion occurs on these sites and when it washes out, it’s gone. So it’s great that the site is being excavated and material is being collected. “You can’t say enough about the Whitley’s for their generosity. It’s such a rare attitude and it goes back 100 hundred years,” says Temple.
This opportunity to swing into full force is not common, but also not rare. Journalists are usually in for a few days and take notes without any first person experience. Getting a full, hands-on opportunity such as what my adventure would be is probably a little more than what other journalists could possibly handle. I just got asked by one of the most legendary paleontologists to come dig with him! Describing him as the Michael Jordan of dinosaurs is an insult. He is beyond the number 23, and owns a PhD from Harvard. He’s been the paleontology curator for HMNS for 7 years. He is infamously known for advising the movie, Jurassic Park, written many books such as Raptor Red and The Dinosaur Heresies. He’s also the first paleontologist to discover that dinosaurs were feathered. I rushed home and had a talk with Chelsea. She’s always told me that I need to be where my brain is needed, and if I’m good at something then go there. In words of philosopher, Alan Watts, “If you really do like what you’re doing, you’ll eventually become a master of it, and then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is.” I want to become a full-time writer for television and benefit science during my spare time. As of now, I’m a freelance creative concept writer for various television programs on TruTV. “Why not go to LA and turn it into a career?”, says Chelsea.
Reality is nothing but a Rorschach test. It’s what you make of it, so I took her advice and began volunteering for the museum as the insect zoo keeper and assisting Temple in paleontology. Even though it’s a volunteer position, it’s a great resume builder for my next step. Perhaps working for La Brea Tarpits in Los Angeles? There are meet and greets such as the “Breakfast with Bakker” on November 9th at the museum where you can meet the man and get an autograph, but I get to dig expired animals with him and put a major dent in every child’s bucket list. I had friends from all over the United States from various zoos, including the spokesperson of the National Wildlife Federation congratulate me on my dig. This was a front row seat to the greatest paleo dig with an all access pass. Until I leave next year for Los Angeles, I will continue writing and promoting science and working for HMNS. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my last days in Texas and I am very thankful for this complex environment that I live in. One day I’m helping a villager build his hut with homemade bricks in Malawi, Africa, a few months later I’m being flown out to Los Angeles to perform on America’s Got Talent, and now I’m digging up fossils with Dr. Bakker. At times I feel like I am the living rendition of Forrest Gump. I’m not here where I am because I thought I could. I am in this position, because she knew I could, and I thank her for that.
Everyone received nicknames which I soon forgot, but for Troy Bell’s moniker, T Roy. Now would that be T. Roy or T. roy such as T. rex; Tyrannasaurus rex, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or any other Latin name for that matter. Binomial nomenclature has taught me that species is always lowercased. Even though I was knighted as the “Frisky Dingo” which was created by David Temple, I never did recall it echo through the vast lands of the Red Beds. In fact, I never recalled anyone shout out my name at all. Not that I was ignored, but out on a dig you’re there to work. Everyone maintained their focus on their bones as if they were hungry for gold. Stating that these fossils are gold isn’t far from the truth. At the Craddock Ranch, the one rule they order is for no one to take home a fossil. All fossils are to be used for education and science. Of course you could find one, keep hush, and put it in your pocket as a pocket souvenir, but that was impossible. The look on one’s face that they’ve found something was a dead giveaway. Holding onto a fossil was the Craddock Ranch’s worst kept secret. Even though the bones didn’t shimmer and shine and was covered in dirt and mineral deposits, they sure as hell held their weight in gold. So no one took any bones home nor did I ever reply to “Frisky Dingo”. What a waste of a great alias.
The day that we arrived, it took David Temple, Dr. Bakker and I nearly 7 hours to reach our destination from Houston. After many discussions on war, airplanes, fossils, and history we were exhausted. We pull up to our facility and a large electronic garage door opens to where a small paleo lab sits on the right, antique furniture scattered about, and a place for old cars to add another tick scratch on the wall, as they did not have any plans to exit the building. An elevator shaft in the large brick warehouse descends to our level, with a tired woman at nearly 1 a.m. in a motorized scooter by the name of Nancy. Nancy was a woman that you nor I have ever met, but have known for years. She greeted paleontology co-curator David Temple of HMNS, Dr. Bakker, and myself. The morning come, I’d be allowed to hunt down an animal that weighs up to 550 pounds equalling the weight of a large African lion. This animal could have easily ripped your flesh from bone without giving any mercy, but where we were going, no camouflage was needed. Nor a calling whistle or a loaded gun, but a knife, ice pick, compass, and a great deal of knowledge on the sedimentary level of the land. We are dinosaur hunters traveling back to the future.
My sleeping quarters already had someone inside sleeping, which was Chris. I quietly released my luggage and laid my head on an old military cot that stood before me. A wind chime softly whispered through out the night from the breeze of the ceiling fan. As exhausted as one was I couldn’t sleep not a wink. I had my headlamp. Why not just dig now? But there I was, giggling like a school girl next to a past out man with an old rusty antique gynecologist’s chair standing outside our door. I was in Seymour, TX. Population 2,660.
At 5:30 am my alarm goes off. Seconds later like awakened dogs in the pound, other alarms went off. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by other paleo geeks that all equally shared the love for ancient life. Studying past life to receive a better understanding of why animals are the way they are today through divergent and convergent evolution. So as we traveled to the Red Beds there underneath the ground, ancient life left their remains as gifts for paleontologists to receive, to prove that they once existed.
Chris and I along with our friend Leigh Cook were the first to reach the main quarry where many dimetrodons have been unearthed. The oversized blue tarp that was tucked over the quarry to protect the dead specimens was weathered and stripped with cow hooves, torn through the bottom where cattle have walked through the bone beds. It was a dinosaur hunter’s worst nightmare to imagine crushed bones that wouldn’t be presentable for display. Leigh, Chris, and I cleaned the site up to prepare it for the other paleontologists that would soon be there in days to come. We prepped ourselves as we were hoping to find rattlesnakes underneath the tarp, and in lieu of snakes we received a family of pack rats. Two youngsters attached to their mother’s nipples as she ran for cover. Pack rats they were, chewed paint brushes, pens, and various left tools were all gathered in the nests of the pack rats. They’ve made their home on top of an old Permian bone bed. Bone, sweet home.
For anyone who says digging up a fossil is quite simple have no clue about the false knowledge that they are spilling from their mouth.
Lugging “spoiled” dirt around, and digging tiers 5-foot deep can drain the life of you. This is all done with a few small essential tools that you would find in a pumpkin carving kit. Chris told me that if someone asks you to help dig up a dinosaur, they are really not your friend. So apparently none of us were friends. It’s equivalent to helping someone move a sectional couch to the 3rd floor of an apartment. As a first-timer at entry level position, I originally volunteered to do all the menial work while the others did the actual digging. I quickly realized that every part of this dig was menial. My back ached, as I emptied out my 20th bucket under the shadeless sky that carried the sun, and I was quite happy to be doing this all on a memory and not a cent more.
The Craddock Ranch lies in Baylor County and has been in the Craddock family for 4 generations. since the late 1800s. “Over the years it’s been a constant stream of researchers and right now the Houston Museum of Natural Science is here to study.” says ranch owner, Bill Whitley. Everyone from Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The Smithsonian, Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, who has Sue on display, which is one of the largest and most extensive T. rexs ever to be found, and to the pioneers including Charles Sternberg who discovered the fossil beds in 1882 while fossil collecting for Harvard University. At times, Sternberg had original land owner, Tom Craddock help search for the fossils too. Jacob Boll, Swiss naturalist who helped collect specimens for Louis Agassiz, who was a major influence on the development of American scientific culture also studied on the ranch and lastly, Edward Drinker Cope who has discovered the Trimerorhachis, an early amphibian owning the lengths of 3 foot and even though Edward Drinker Cope passed away at 56 in 1897, he continues to make the news. HBO is working on a farce comedy called “Bone Wars”, which refers to a period of extreme fossil speculation and discovery. Cope’s fossil archenemy was Othniel Charles Marsh, who gave name to our favorite 3 horned beast, the triceratops. The two scientists laid 30-ton mistakes all over science as heads were unknowingly placed on incorrect bodies to own a dishonest discovery of new “specimens”. Including Marsh’s mistake in 1879 of “discovering” the brontosaurus which he discovered 2 years before, but called it Apatosaurus. So did the Brontosaurus exist? Sure it did, but for correct scientific literacy, we shall call it an Apatosaurus for they are the same animal and Brontosaurus is no more than a synonym. At times, Marsh and Cope’s scientific discoveries were anything but serious, so Steve Carell and James Gandolfini have been casted to play these two paleo buffoons in a comedy that I am greatly looking forward to watching. Should some of this film be shot on the Craddock Ranch? Will it ride the renaissance of the 4th addition to 2015′s Jurassic Park? The “Bone Wars” project have contacted Dr. Bakker in recent past about this new genre that I like to define as “psycho” or Sci-Co (Science Comedy). Bakker has invited the film crew out to Seymour and perhaps Bakker may have a small character role in the film for paleo-geek eye candy. After all, Bakker’s character, Dr. Robert Burke was in Jurassic Park: Lost World where he was eaten by a T. rex, which was written into the script by Steven Spielberg to favor paleontologist, Jack Horner who believes that the T.rex was a scavenger. Soon after the movie, Bakker called Horner and said, “See, I told you that the T. rex was a hunter!”
The Red Beds isn’t a clever title like Iceland or Greenland. They have been named the Red Beds for a very particular reason. The red clay blankets the quarry, wearing Sunday’s best isn’t the way to go while digging. I was caked in red clay, my clothes were ruined, my favorite “hiking” Macbeth Shoes are now red which were once black, and my skin finally encountered some sun that it’s been longing for. I stripped naked and tip toed into the shower. With shampoo in my hair and avalanching down my face I slowly opened my eyes to find a large female black widow just inches from my face. Any other scenario I’d ignore the small venomous arachnid and we’d go about our merry way, but I was naked with soap in my face with squinting eyes and here I’ve got this hyperhidrosis punching spider hanging on a web. I couldn’t have felt more vulnerable. I did what any spider killing fiend would have done. I grabbed a bottle of Axe shampoo and caked it like syrup till it creeped through the drain. What is normal to a bottle of shampoo is chaos to a spider.
As days were added to our dig, Chris unearthed the fourth cervical vertebra and right maxilla while I worked on the large neural spines where I found the dentary which had teeth lined across including it’s large killing fang along with the nasal bone. It’s Chris’ tradition that if you find a piece of the skull you go into town and have yourself a piece of pie at The Rock Inn Cafe. It was a great find, for her articulated body was peacefully revealing her beautiful long slender neural spines and both of her kissing bones known as the clavicles. She was slowly coming together. As far as we assumed, her whole body was there and appeared to be quit well preserved. So later that evening pie would be served.
As the sky replaced the sun with the moon, David Temple and I went out rattlesnake hunting. Driving up and down old abandoned roads searching for snakes that would be soaking up the heat from the small two lane asphalt roads. I estimated that it’d take a snake less than 45 seconds to slither across the road so our window of opportunity to capture a deadly cold blooded reptile was quite small. 20 minutes of traveling these roads a 4 foot snake had entered the second lane. “Stop!” I shouted to Dave! We both jumped out of the truck with our cameras and my snake stick. We took photographs and filmed the venomous creature and observed him from afar. Any other day I’d be all over that snake, but you must remember, we are in Seymour, TX-a town where places like Sonic drive-thru become a careers. Seymour, TX is a very lonely town for city folk, so I wasn’t too sure of its quality in healthcare.
Additionally, I was told that a hospital bill for a rattlesnake injury would be $50,000. While I did not necessarily have that kind of money hanging out in my pockets and more importantly, I did not want to ruin my dig. So as the snake slithered away I simply flicked its tail to give it a good rattle.
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different types of good weather.” While all this may sound true and I do believe so, but for a paleontologist, rain is bad while digging.
The day that shadowed the day before was drenched in rain that would disallow the paleos to excavate. It was devastating. I need to dig a bone like an addicted smoker needed a cigarette. Three days in of digging and the bug had bit me. A bug who wasn’t as venomous as the brown recluse or the black widow, but just as lethal. Chelsea was my golden ghost. I couldn’t ease my mind if I wasn’t near her. While at a Mexican restaurant who has no time to cook refried beans to put on their menu, I could not stop looking at my coprolite (fossilized poo)-loving friend Troy’s enchilada. The three enchilada’s were embedded in cheese and all I could think of was extracting them out with a fork. “You’re one of us,” said Leigh with a laugh. “Gooble gobble.” Could have been added to her statement and I’d been okay with that. because in a way, we were all freaks about paleontology.
While it rained, Temple took a group to Butcher Hollow, a bridge where “The Seymour Killaz” supposedly hang out at. They are the local gang that the town hardly takes serious. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s “Killers”,”Killas”, or “Killaz”, so I’ll just give the gang some anserine edge and add the “az”. I imagine Insane Clown Posse farm boys with scattered tattoos which lie on skin like mange would on various areas of a stray dog. I was told that “The Seymour Killaz” roll up their right pant leg. This may represent their posse here in Seymour, but if they were in Houston they’d be nothing but hogwashed hipsters, riding fixed gears participating in that irresponsible monthly event that they live for on Friday nights. Underneath the bridge were disconnected doll parts scattered in a disorderly manner along with bored vandalism. On large columns were desiccated cacography spray painted on the walls. “Jennifer Loves Money.” and “Warning: Spray Painting Is Illegal, Just Kidding”. Rotted carcasses of pigs, cats, and other woodland creatures lay face down in puddles of water as flesh melted off bones. The pile of animals did not come here to die. Someone with a good aim brought them here to let them rot. A grotesque morgue with doors wide open. Yellow jacket hives draped underneath the bridge. It was almost impossible to not walk into them. While others would not fathom the idea of kissing a yellow jacket’s nest, it was mine. A yellow jacket’s sting triggers a response to the colony so like “The Seymour Killaz”, you mess with one, you mess with all. I feared that there would be a possibility that I would be underneath this bridge being protected from the rain going into anaphylactic shock while my asthma inhaler was 4 miles away in a warehouse that has retired as a skating rink and a church. I’d be slowly dying while everyone took photos of doll parts, which seemed like scattered human limbs left for maggots. That fear lasted a nano second. I grabbed my cel phone and snapped a shot of myself pressing my lips against the hive which was cloaked in “The Seymour Killaz”. I was graciously stung once. Not too long before we arrived in Seymour, a body was pulled out from underneath the bridge. It took the local police 4 days to retrieve the body. So had I did get attacked calling the police was no longer a valuable option. Your best bet is to be murdered in the town over, Olney, TX. Early this day I showed my father a video of the rattlesnake through text. He was not impressed, but concerned. “You’re going to get killed. You need to do something better with your life.” So my following text was a digital image of me being initiated in the kiss of death.
At 4:30pm the rain ceased and the sun was up. While we did not go to the main quarry we did go search for new sites. This is where I was yelled at if I had gotten struck by a rattle snake. As Troy and I were walking down a trail looking for what he claimed as a “killer spot” I trailed behind. He was already excited for his great find of the day. A lead bullet that possibly links directly to Charles Sternberg. Could it have been his bullet? Did he kill an indian while digging up bones? I’m not sure? I was more concerned about paying attention with each step to not step on a rattle snake. Wham! I fell to the ground without warning. I crawled away fearing for an additional attack from whatever it was. Troy, 20 feet away with his head down looking for rocks while I lied there in pain holding my leg. I looked down to find a 3 inch spike lodged in my leg. I carefully pushed the spike through my jeans and rolled my pant leg up to expose the site. Without hesitation I ripped it out of my calf. An inch of the spike was lodged in my leg causing my leg to be a bloody mess. Troy finally comes to assist. “Are you okay?!?”. “I think so?” “Did you get bit by a rattlesnake!?!” “No I walked into that damn mesquite tree!” “Are you sure, because your leg is turning blue and why are you bleeding so much?” Having Troy say this, I had to think if I actually did rip out a thorn or get bit by a crotalus pit viper. “I was punctured by that damn spike! I took it out.” “Are you sure it was not a fang?” This had me reevaluate my injury and began looking around for a toothless snake. Like a hypochondriac I began to believe that I was bitten by a rattlesnake. “No, I’m pretty sure it was a mesquite thorn. Even though I was bleeding from two puncture wounds which quite resembled a snake bite, Troy did not suck on my leg, nor did I find a geriatric snake with missing fangs. He helped me up and I limped away with my new wound, trekking back through Hell. For the first time, I began to feel the weight of this town picking me apart. just as I had been doing so to the bones in which it lies on.
Digging up fossils can be a lot of fun. I find it very cathartic and used my time as a form of meditation to create pure bliss. Chris and I shared stories on how we both attempted to make our own fossils from when we were children. At 7 years old, I had a rough idea of how a fossil was made, but had no clue that you can’t just sit a tadpole on a rock and let it sit in the sun for a few days. Chris’ plan was more creative as he grabbed his dead specimen and smooshed it between two mud patties and let it dry. Either way, we were both very wrong about fossilization. “I started digging fossils at a very young age with a geophysicist for a father. I couldnt seem to get my fill of paleo and simply saturated myself with books on the osteology of animals with great interest in the relationship between creatures of today and their ancient cousins.”, shares Chris on his interests in paleo at such a young age. While excavating it’s no question that bones are going to crack or break. These bones are millions of years old, they’re fragile. It’s part of the game. Super glue the lose ends and get back to picking. Hopefully this is the only mistake that we must worry about for the bones. This is why tossing tools back and forth is unacceptable. To perform a one-man 3 Stooges act is very supererogatory, since bones are already breaking or cracking while picking, so it’d be a shame for additional bones to break. You must also be aware of your surroundings. While Chris and I may have been working on our bed, we must practice being mindful of our actions and environment. Twenty minutes ago, what was once a walk way may turn into an excavation site, in which it did. So constantly relearning where one can step is a good habit to form while on the quarry. The safety of the bones always come secondary for they are already dead. Human safety is the biggest concern for the landowner. A mistake in judgement can have dire consequences. The only emergency that the group has ever had in the past is when a woman had a giant venomous centipede crawl up her leg and bite into her thigh. She described the pain to being on par with childbirth. Emergency procedures clicked in and the team rushed her back in town and had to decide if this case should go to Wichita Falls or if it’s something that the medics in Seymour can handle. Had it been a snake bite then the group would have had to drive to Wichita Falls as Seymour does not have the anti-venom. “We have that route memorized of which path to take.” says Temple. With an IV and fluids along with antibiotics she fully recovered after a day and a half and was back out in the field. “Centipedes are the worse because not only do they bite you multiple times, but they also chew,” Dave continues.
The proceeding day, I learned that the Red Beds are very unforgiving. Due to the fresh mud, we had to walk 2 miles trekking through fields of rattlesnakes, scorpions, possible mountain lions, venomous large centipedes, cactus, and mesquite trees with 3 inch thorns which I’ve already had two encounters with including a spike puncturing through the sole of my shoe into the arch of my foot that paleo artist, Kieth Strasser had to pull out. Leigh, Chris and his girlfriend, Mallory, and myself were the only ones interested to make the hike to check on our bones. While the three took their time looking for fossils along the way, I spent my time searching for animal tracks such as a badger’s den that I had found, which was vacant. As Chris moved ghost like through the mesquite brush, I was in a utter mess cursing at the spiked leguminous plant trying not to be stabbed. While walking through an obstacle of cactus called the Opuntia, I decided to eat the fruit that grows on it. I dusted off the spiders and chomped it like an apple. It wasn’t bad at all. I figure if I am going to pretend to be a survivor man hiking through this mess I might as well act like one. No pun intended, but we found our bed “bone dry”. We tore off the many layers of tarps and again, no pun intended but had a bone to pick with Chelsea. As we chipped away rock and clay following the pattern of it’s body from the path of the prehistoric water flow more bones revealed exposing the neural spines in full size. This isn’t the first full dimetrodon found on the Craddock Ranch. The last well articulated dimetrodon was discovered by David Temple in 2010 while digging a drainage to free water from the quarry during a rain. The specimen was named Willi, dedicated to Samuel Williston, who gave a great amount of understanding of Permian vertebrates. A Rice University thesis about the story of Will was written by Marce Stayer, who also volunteers at HMNS. The thesis, “A Dimetrodon’s Journey: 287 Million Years from Seymour to Houston” explains how and why he was preserved so well, uneaten by scavengers during his time of death. Once Willi’s head is cleaned, he will be displayed in the Permian exhibit at HMNS. With great help from Mallory, the sheets were quickly pulled off the bone bed. With the three of us excavating, we quickly divulged the identity of Chelsea to give us a better understanding of how she may have died. This was the first day music was played. “A peace bone was found in a dinosaur wing,” Animal Collective sang to us as more bones were disclosed. “Cause an obsession with the past is like a dead fly and just a few things are related to the old times”.
While in town I learned that we were temporary local celebrities. In a quick child’s game of telephone, the entire town knew about the dinosaur hunters coming to town. The restaurant, the gas station, Dairy Queen. It was quite remarkable. “I know about you guys!”, a woman at the convenient store exclaimed as I purchased an orange Sunkist. “What have you guys found so far!” The town was just as prideful about their bones as a cheerleader to their team. I appreciated everyone’s open arms. The small town was proud of their history and was more than happy to share it with paleontologists. In the evening David Temple and I among a few drove by the upcoming Whiteside Museum of Natural History that is in construction. It sandwiched in between a church and a fire station. While a mural of rabbits, buffalo, and other ungulates gave view to the religious side to not insult their beliefs, prehistoric creatures faced the fire station. With all the town’s paleo pride I guess there will always be naysayers. So if dinosaurs are indeed Satan’s greatest trick, I applaud him and if history does repeat itself, I want a dinsosaur. As one would imagine, the Tyrannosaurus rex did not have feathers. An homage to Dr. Bakker’s discovery, fellow HMNS paleo volunteer, Gaby Wannall, and I joked about going to the craft store to purchase feathers and glue them on the mural of the T. rex, but the nearest craft store was 40 miles away in Wichita Falls. An 80-mile joke that wasn’t worth the drive.
Towards the end of my fossil diggin’ days it came to a bitter sweet end as the crew grew smaller from 21 people to nailing it back down to Chris Flis, Troy Bell, David Temple, and myself along with Chris’ father Jim and Mallory. Dr. Bakker had already flown back home to Boulder, CO to go do a media appearance. I decided to sleep in that morning. A 7-mile jog with a 5-inch Texas sized millipede in my hand to release back into the wild, I finally arrived to the quarry winded and dehydrated. “No legs yet, but chances are good that they are still hidden in the wall,” says Chris . Still examining the body playing scenarios in Chris’ mind on how the specimen died. He sets a compass near the bones and shoots photographs. How did it die? “Bakker taught me the CSI approach treating a bone bed like a crime scene. I like to think we are something like a prehistoric coroner in the middle of a 280 million year old who-done-it,” Chris explains. Like this animal, I killed a few hours rummaging out in the fields. I shot my hours dead: There’s a new sheriff in town. I searched for an endangered species called the Texas Horned lizard (Phrynosomoa cornutum). While the government had been shut down, due to the Republican’s asinine behavior, the Fish and Wildlife Service would all be shut down until otherwise. I’m not too sure if my logical reasoning is accurate, but in my mind no one would arrest me for catching a horny toad, which is illegal due to the rarity in Texas. I caught and released 4 horny toads that day, including a 2-incher that I decided to name, Zipper, which paid court to my old pet alligator, Zipper whom I gave to actor Andy Dick as a gift. It was a success to find a great abundance of lizards in the area that I surveyed. That night the 6 of us, including Nancy, had a small private dinner on the second floor of the warehouse, which has been remodeled into a nice home. Squash, green peas, and sweet potato that would be kicked back with Sunkist. It was a grand meal. We shared stories about Dr. Bakker and laughed how Temple and I got pulled over by the police while dropping off Keith Strasser back at his hotel. Due to the meth labs in the middle of nowhere, we assumed we were randomly pulled over due to our late-night driving while our vehicle was covered in red dirt. Red dirt that can be found in the middle of nowhere. You know, where a meth lab just might be found. We also discussed plans for the Whiteside Musuem in Seymour of who would be the curator and how the Houston Museum of Nature Science would be associated with it and what extinct specimens would Keith Strasser make a model of for display. While the concrete of plans are still wet, it’s too soon to know when it’ll dry. While Troy passed the butter, Nancy passed around Dr. Bakker’s latest book “The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs” which we all signed. Appropriately ad-libbing The Pixies, next to Dr. Bakker’s signature I wrote, “Dinosaurs are gigantic with big big love! Love, Jacob Calle”
I first approached the HMNS as a journalist, and even though I’m now a volunteer, at times I am still introduced to my fellow coworkers as a writer before being called a volunteer. My initial plan of attack on this adventure was to fulfill my dream and absolutely had no interests in writing a full story other than sharing it under 144 characters, but I kept getting asked, “So what’s your angle? How are you going to write about this trip!” As I muttered empty words that couldn’t satisfy the people who asked, I just wanted this to be my own personal journey, for my love for paleontology comes before being a writer. I dug up a dimetrodon, sat in improved lectures by Dr. Bakker, and made great friends including my new teachers, Chris Flis, David Temple, and Dr. Bakker. This is exactly what I wanted and I fully thank Dr. Bakker for granting my wish. Being a volunteer at HMNS is one of the greatest jobs that I’ve ever had that doesn’t pay the bills! There are certain things that can not get done without volunteers. When it comes down to archeology, paleontology, and even astronomy volunteers are important. Volunteers from The George Observatory at Brazos Bend have reported objects to NASA that they didn’t even know about. Citizen science is what keeps the museum running. At the museum, volunteers aren’t just stamp lickers for envelopes. We are the heart that pumps the blood and keeps the museum alive. There are 600 active volunteers. We are the soldiers standing frontline at the exhibits waiting to execute any questions by guests. As questions are killed off, we leave a spotless crime scene and walk away uncuffed. The only evidence that we have left is knowledge. Knowledge that can be contagious. If you feel that you can become a soldier for HMNS, please come enlist and pick up history where it left off. This is our planet, our story.
Heading back to Houston with David Temple, we grazed through old towns that were barely alive. Bordered store fronts and buildings collapsed which once owned a significant amount of history. What were these towns used for and like dinosaurs, why did they die? These questioned were all answered by Temple as he had something to say about every town and the historical landmarks which were set in them. Temple was my personal 7-hour audio tour guide. He knew about the personal lives of the people who lived in these ghost towns. and the businesses that kept them running. When asked how he knew all this, “I just ask questions when I stop for gas.”, he simply stated. As the world becomes more modernized with Apple computers and Starbucks coffee, did these townees move further towards the city? Where did everyone go? Did they watch an episode of Sex in the City and learn that there is much more than growing cotton and finding scorpions on your front porch? We found a small malt shop. Not wanting to break Chris’ tradition of having desert after finding a piece of a skull, Temple and I pulled into the 50′s weathered restaurant where you may have found John Travolta hitting on Sandy had you traveled to the past. Being vegan, I only drank half of my vanilla malt for the milk was upsetting my stomach, but it was a malt well deserved. I set my conscience to the side and raised my glass to Chelsea as how I first met her. I dug up my first dimetrodon and found a piece of the skull. Reeling in a big fish is like digging up a dinosaur. and with Dr. Bakker as your captain, it made quite the week. You’ll never know how it feels unless you experience it. When will you have your piece of the pie?
by Jacob Calle