Nature Notes: At the Museum of Texas Tech, Exploring the Deep History of Life in West Texas

Mountain lions and mule deer, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs and falcons – West Texas has a rich assortment of wildlife. But rich as it is, it’s only the present chapter in the history of life. And that history contains volumes.

Across ages, complex communities of animals have emerged and flourished on the land we inhabit. They flourished, and they faded – leaving their traces, fragments of their story, in the land itself.

At the Museum of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, visitors encounter some of those vanished creatures, drawn from the fossil record of West Texas. The university’s paleontology collection contains even more.

Meet quetzalcoatlus, the largest flying animal ever known. Consider phytosaurs, massive aquatic reptiles from a tropical past. From “redbeds” on the plains, encounter the earliest known mammal.

Bill Mueller is a paleontologist at Texas Tech. In years of excavations, he’s unearthed dozens of previously unknown species.

Many come from the Triassic Period – about 250 to 200 million years ago. In canyons and outcroppings of the Llano Estacado, dazzling red rocks – “redbeds” – contain fossils from Triassic time.

This land was then near the equator, part of the supercontinent of Pangaea. Reptiles and amphibians flourished in rivers and lakes, in lush woodlands and swamps.

“This is a very cool specimen,” Mueller said. “That’s the lower jaw off of a phytosaur. If it was complete it’d be a little over 4 foot long. You’re looking at 25-foot-long crocodilian-looking critter.”

Phytosaurs were spread worldwide. But there were unique species here. The armored reptiles were adept at seizing fast, slippery prey. Tech has the world’s second largest collection of phytosaur skulls.

Competing for prey were salamander-like creatures called metoposaurs – 10 feet long, weighing up to 1,000 pounds. The Museum has the world’s most intact metoposaur skull.

Playas – ephemeral lakes – are a resource for wildlife today. In Triassic West Texas, similar playas also drew wildlife – including hairy, cow-sized herbivores called dicynodonts. They had tusks, and beaks like turtles. All of Texas’ dicynodonts are found in the Tech collection.

Then, there was adelobasileus. East of Lubbock, Mueller found a skull – and tiny fossilized footprints.

“This is quite possibly the tracks of the oldest known mammal,” Mueller said, pointing to the fossil. “This came from about 100 meters from where the skull of adelobasileus came from.”

Only a single skull of the rat-like creature has been found. But it pushed back the date for the emergence of mammals.

Ages rolled. A hundred million years after the Triassic – in Cretaceous time – much of Texas was covered by an interior seaway. Big Bend National Park is a major source of fossils from that time.

  In 1971, a UT-Austin grad student working in Big Bend found the fossils of a wing – of tremendous proportions. Skeletons of the same animal were later found nearby. They belonged to a pterosaur, a flying reptile, which the scientists named quetzalcoatlus. It had a 35-foot wingspan. A composite specimen hangs in the Museum at Tech.

Quetzalcoatlus was not the only giant of Cretaceous West Texas. Other deposits contain the fossils of aquatic reptiles known as mosasaurs. Reaching lengths of 50 feet, they were the Cretaceous Seaway’s apex predators. With double-hinged jaws, they gulped large fish, ammonites and other marine reptiles whole.

Beginning 45 million years ago, the Trans-Pecos witnessed fierce volcanic activity. It’s written in the landscape – in the Davis, Chisos and Chinati mountains. In Big Bend, paleontologists find fossils from that fiery epoch.

“We dug up four titanotheres,” Mueller said, “which are kind of like giant rhinoceros. And they were buried standing up. And you could see, there was like a stream channel and then there were volcanic ash deposits. The titanotheres bogged down – just like cattle do around stock tanks now sometimes – they bogged down in all that volcanic ash and they died. It was two adults and two juveniles.”

They didn’t go to waste. One bone was pried loose – evidence of a scavenger. And among the titanotheres was another fossil – an insect-feeding snake, which likely came to feed among the carcasses.

In summer 2017, the Tech Museum was undergoing renovations, to update exhibits. Paleontologists like Mueller continue to decipher the story of life on Earth. The Museum of Texas Tech is an opportunity to contemplate that history – and the many creatures that have staked their claim to this land.

Nature Notes is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.


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