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Bone diggers

By: Kevin Hamilton
The dig was in a very remote part of Archer County, somewhere south of Lake Kickapoo. Driving from Iowa Park, there were so many right turns and left turns made, you didn’t need to be blindfolded to eventually feel disoriented.

Then through gates and a cattleguard, and along a rut-scarred oil field road the pickup ventured, until it stopped at what looked to be a gully wash.

At the bottom, unseen from the road, four men toiled in the mid-afternoon sun, digging for bones from the Permian period that took place over 250-million years ago.

Believe it or not, over 30 such sites dot the land in Archer and Baylor Counties. It is noted for one of the most extensive Permian deposits in the world (the other locations being the Ural Mountains and China).

The leader of the dig is paleontologist Martin Sander from the University of Bonn, Germany. One of the three “pupils” is Chris Shelton of Iowa Park.

“Everybody wants to work in the Permians,” said Shelton. The son of Donnie and Barbara Shelton of Iowa Park, Chris is a 1997 graduate of IPHS. He earned Bachelors of Science Degrees in Science in Geology from Midwestern State University in 2003, then Masters in Science and Biology in 2006. He is currently at the University of Bonn. “I’m still trying to get the grant to actually begin the studies,” he said of his doctorate work. “I had to save my own money to come here. When it comes in, I will be granted for the next three years.”

Also along for the week-long dig are Herman Winkelhorst of Holland, and Koen Stein from Belgium.

The dig location – which is being kept secret because of its rich deposits – was actually identified years ago by longtime Archer County Historical Commission Chairman Jack Loftin of Archer City. It is Sander’s second trip to Archer County, and he is no stranger to Texas. Coming to the University of Texas at Austin from Germany at age 22 to study paleontology, Sander decided to write his thesis on the Permian fossils, being led by Loftin to the many sites identified in the 1930s by Dr. Alfred Romer. Sander received his doctorate, returned to Germany, and is now the head of Archeology and Paleontology at the University of Bonn.

At the dig site, a canopy is stretched across a long trench and overburden where the four have obviously been digging with ernest. Sander concluded about two tons of soil and rock had been excavated.

“We started Wednesday (in early September),” said Shelton. “We scouted it out the first day ... found five or six long bones. The first two days we cleared the trench out and the overburnden, and started working with layers down. It’s really become rather productive. That’s one reason we don’t really want people to know where it is.”

Sander, a veteran of over 20 such digs, lends his expertise to the group in performing time-tested techniques, such as making plaster molds over complicated desposits (several fossils in a grouping). Some of the students, like Shelton, are eager to incorporate new methods, including a technique where holes are bored into the shaft of the bones and studied under a microscope.

“The key of my study is to take these long bones, cut slices through and look at them in the microscope,” said Shelton of his doctorate work. “And on the bone structure, we can tell whether or not they were warm-blooded or cold-blooded.

Because mammals are warm-blooded, and the pelycosaurs are the mammal-like reptiles ... the basil mammals before they began to evolve ... and you get your first true mammals in the Triassic which, by then, they were already into thermic warm-blooded. It is to see the evolutionary changes, and the growth series.”

Asked if that boils down to finding the missing link between the Permian wildlife and the dinosaurs that came some 100-million years later, Shelton answered, “Kinda. We are still wondering on some of these species if they are juveniles or some of the adults. Hopefully, some of the bone histology will tell us. Martin is one of the leading experts in the study of bone histology. He does a lot of work with dinosaurs ... works all over the world.

“I actually met him here (at the dig site),” continued Shelton. “He was doing a field trip in 2007 for the Society of Paleontology in Austin. I used some of his papers in my shark cocralight (sp) thesis, and asked if I could tag along and work with my dissertation with him. He said yeah, come on.

“We met in Archer City. I went to some of these sites with him. We got to talking about projects I could do,” Shelton remembers. “He said I could either work on bone histology or something else. If I could learn the techniques of sampling, I could probably apply it to anything ... it would be beneficial. So, for three years I was trying to save up money ... he read my thesis ... we are actually writing a thesis now. He wanted me to pass this information on because people don’t do a lot of field work these days. They just study things that have been collected. A lot of these sites are being lost, as are a lot of connections to the landowners. A lot of the professors that did this are now in their 80s or 90s. Martin felt it was very important that I learn this.”

According to Loftin, one of the many fossils collected in the current dig includes a four-inch jaw of the amphibian Archeria (found by Koen, which is pronounced “Coon”). This animal was named for Archer County by the primary paleontologist, Dr. Alfred Romer, in the 1930 at the famous Geraldine site.

Loftin worked with Romer in the 1960s.

The Permian Era was not known until 1876 when a naturist, Jacob Boll from Cambridge England, was employed to search and list the flora (plants, flowers) and the fauna (animals) of the new wild country of western Texas.

According to Loftin, Boll came to Dallas, then Jacksboro, rented a covered wagon and began his northwestern tour.

He followed the muddy tracks of the Kellogg Copper Expedition up through southeastern Archer County to what is now Onion Creek and about three miles east of Archer City.

Boll stumbled onto a rock in the shape of a head with eye and nasal sockets (Eryops). This was the first piece of the Permian Era every found on earth (and now displayed at the Archer Copunty Museum).


Walking on what appears to be gravel washed downslope from the dig, Shelton stoops and picks up a handful. “Here’s one, two three, four, five pieces of bone.

And i found another claw. That makes four.” Looking back at the trench area, he said “We’ve been digging for four days. The hill was practically where the trench is now. We pushed it back, and dug down. We’ve hit smaller stuff on top. And there’s larger stuff on the bottom.”

Shelton has an eye for finding bone. As a youngster in Oklahoma and living in the country, Shelton said “I was probably two or three. I had this long gravel driveway. It was stuff right out of the Arbuckle Mountains. And I remember going out and finding fools gold ... pyrite, calcite, and fosilized trilabites, which is like a little beetle. And I remember that’s what got me hooked was when I found my first rocks and minerals. I went ‘wow!’ And I’ve stuck with it ever since. I’d always go out on my own and find these sites, and look for new sites and always collected stuff. Everybody says I have an eye for it. Once you have your eye trained, you can recognize bone.”

Asked what he wants to do once his doctorate work is complete, Shelton answered, “I don’t know if you know who Walt Nowquist was. He was a naturalist from Midwestern who passed away sometime ago. He used to do paleontology and stuff, and when he died, it just disappeared (from MSU). My biology professors know that when I get my Phd, I want to come back and try to start the paleo program again. This (dig location) is like gold. We aren’t but 30 minutes from the university. No where else in the world can you find this. You gotta go where the fossils are.”

After working the dig location, the four men were scheduled to fly out at the end of the week to Chicago and New York, where they would peruse museum collections. “Eventually, I’m wanting to do another tour, and try to negotiate samples from those museums, and try to get more tissue samples” said Shelton. “People are reluctant to let you chop up their bones. We have a technique where you drill this little hole in the shaft of the bone, you try to get where you think the original embryonic bone started ... and it just grows out from there. Ideally, it should hold a record of growth. And we also have a non-destructive micro CT which we are still working with. Hopefully it will show tissue structure without having to cut. We are pretty much pioneering the technique. They have done it on larger mammals, but it hasn’t been done yet on the Permian’s.”

Walking back towards the trench, Dr. Sander raises his hand in a greeting. “While all you guys are talking, I’m doing the dirty work! Come on in and have a look. I’ve just wrapped a long bone.”

A number of the fossils being uncovered belong to the Dimetrodon, a lizard-like predator in the Permian period that grew up to 11-feet in length and is best know for the spectacular sail on its back.

“What continues to fascinate me, is this is the home of the Dimetrodon,” notes Sander. “The Dimetrodon is one of the most popular plastic dinosaurs. It’s in any toy collection. I have a collection of about 50 or 60 of them myself.”

Asked again if the Dimetrodon was something of a “missing link,” Sander laughed then said, “They are the beginning of the mammal. Have you been to the Archer Museum? There is a very nice Dimetrodon.

“The neat thing to come back here is ... this is the only place in the world where you will find this stuff. Dinosaurs ... certain dinosaurs ... you find all over the place, because they are a lot younger. But this is North Central Texas. It is the only place where we get decent material.”

Sander said his initial work with the Dimetrodons was based on his interest in the origin of warm-bloodedness. “I worked on the origin of these deposits when I was at work 25-30 years ago,” he said. “Trying to find out why there were these accumulations (of fossils).”

His theory? “This was a coastal plain. The animals died at different times. They were buried in sundry ways and got incorporated, sometimes in pond deposits. You’ll also find more sharks teeth, and fossilized shark feces.

“As a general, these animals don’t show that many mammalian features,” he continued. “One thing is we have only one opening in the skull, and that’s beyind our eyes up here. These animals have only one hole, and the dinosaurs have two. So we can see there is a very early split ... about 100 million years ago ... where the mammals went out and did their thing. And reptiles went another.”

Are paleontologists still working out the geneological tree from the Permian period?

“We have a pretty good idea what the tree looks like,” Sander answered. “We can start using it, and for example, since we know the shape of the tree, we know warm bloodedness evolved twice ... and that’s what I’m really interested in. Because you have warmbloodedness in birds ... you go back to dinosaurs, you have two, and those evolved in mammal image. And that’s what I’m interested in.”

Sander noted that all the famous paleontologists of the mid-20th century were working in this area. “And then everybody got into dinosaurs, and the knowledge here was almost lost ... where the localities are, etc. So there isn’t much activity going on now.”

Sander is interested in the work Shelton is doing with bone histology.

“Ultimately, as a result, we are asking different questions now,” he said. “Some of the bones we are collecting are specifically for cutting them up. The neat thing about fossil bones ... it has two bits of information. Its shape, and its micro-structure. Studying that is the new paleontology.

“But these young men should also know the classical stuff,” he said, waving to the three colleagues. “They should know how to dig up fossils, describe them, give them a name.

“These students should do work in classical paleontology. They should know how to do this, the basic skills. To be comfortable here in 95-degree weather, digging up the bones and saving them for science. Because if you don’t have these skills, you cannot collect the data.”

Sander noted that many forms of collection come from construction sites or quarries, even tunnel and mine digs. “There is a pretty close link between paleontology and economy.

“It is economic driven,” he said of bone collection. “Paleontologists just can’t get enough fossils. So we depend on amateurs, or on some kind of economic incentive that will produce the throughput of rock where interesting stuff will surface.”

The early September dig by Dr. Sander and his group was actually a “plan B.” The initial grant, from the German Science Foundation, was meant for a dig in Nevada. Because permits weren’t given at the time the men came to America, they instead headed to Archer County.

And the result is a very productive dig.



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