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paleontology

The “Texas Serengeti”

How cool is this?

During the Great Depression, some unemployed Texans were put to work as fossil hunters. The workers retrieved tens of thousands of specimens that have been studied in small bits and pieces while stored in the state collections of The University of Texas at Austin for the past 80 years.

Now, decades after they were first collected, a UT researcher has studied and identified an extensive collection of fossils from dig sites near Beeville, Texas, and found that the fauna make up a veritable “Texas Serengeti” – with specimens including elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators, antelopes, camels, 12 types of horses and several species of carnivores. In total, the fossil trove contains nearly 4,000 specimens representing 50 animal species, all of which roamed the Texas Gulf Coast 11 million to 12 million years ago.

A paper describing these fossils, their collection history and geologic setting was published April 11 in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

“It’s the most representative collection of life from this time period of Earth history along the Texas Coastal Plain,” said Steven May, the research associate at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences who studied the fossils and authored the paper.

In addition to shedding light on the inhabitants of an ancient Texas ecosystem, the collection is also valuable because of its fossil firsts. They include a new genus of gomphothere, an extinct relative of elephants with a shovel-like lower jaw, and the oldest fossils of the American alligator and an extinct relative of modern dogs.

The fossils came into the university’s collection as part of the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey that was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency that provided work to millions of Americans during the Great Depression. From 1939 to 1941, the agency partnered with the UT Bureau of Economic Geology, which supervised the work and organized field units for collecting fossils and minerals across the state.

Despite lasting only three years, the survey found and excavated thousands of fossils from across Texas including four dig sites in Bee and Live Oak counties, with the majority of their finds housed in what is now the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School Museum of Earth History. Over the years, a number of scientific papers have been published on select groups of WPA specimens. But May’s paper is the first to study the entire fauna.

You can see the paper here, though it’s pretty dense. One of the things May realized in studying the bones is that the fossil hunters of eighty years ago mostly collected big specimens. So, he went back to the original sites in Bee and Live Oak Counties and did some more detailed work, finding a bunch of remains from smaller animals. That helped fill in the gaps, and there are still a bunch more specimens from the original finds yet to be studied. And all of this was part of a public works project designed to provide jobs for people still unemployed from the Great Depression. Like I said, how cool is that? Link via Gizmodo.

Archaeopteryx chat

And now, a brief moment of Science from HMNS:

On Thursday, June 17, from 10 – 10:45 a.m., HMNS is hosting a live online discussion with paleontologist Pete Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute. Pete will be discussing his new research into the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx fossil that is currently on display at HMNS – and the astounding new discovery he and the team he worked with have made.

During this online event, you can ask Larson questions about his new research and learn more about our current Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution exhibition.

The Research
Click here to read an abstract of the paper; Brian Switek (@laelaps) has a good post on the content on the excellent Dinosaur Tracking blog. As Switek put it, “By using a kind of scanning technology called SRS-XRF, the scientists expected to detect the distribution of chemicals in the skeleton and the surrounding rock. This would allow them to get a better idea of how the skeleton became fossilized and what it may have looked like in life.” Read on at the links above for more information; get the inside scoop from Larson himself during the event on June 17.

The Event
This event will take place online from 10 – 10:45 Central Time on Thursday, June 17. Space is limited, so be sure to submit your registration today. To register: click here; once the registration page loads, click “Register” (a blue link on the left side of the page), then enter your information and click “Submit.” If you have any problems, please contact us at [email protected]

Tune in if you can and learn more.