A trip back in time

They didn’t have a DeLorean, but eight Rice University students and their instructor, Rice paleo-anthropologist and lecturer August “Gus” Costa, were able to travel back to the Paleozoic Era March 21-22 during a weekend road trip to several significant fossil sites in the Lone Star State.

Students search for fossils at Whiskey Bridge outside of Bryan, Texas. All photos provided by Gus Costa.

The students are enrolled in Costa’s class, Palentology: Written in Stone, a first-year writing-intensive seminar focusing on introducing students to the history of Earth as told by the fossil record. The overnight trip was the first in the history of the writing-intensive seminars, and the students have been assigned to write a retrospective paper about the trip.

Costa said the goal of the trip was to give students field experience and allow them to discover fossils themselves. He also noted that he aimed to structure the trip so that the students would be able to travel back in time following the path of the Brazos River, which cuts across the different prehistoric time periods.

“Starting outside of Houston and following the river, sequentially we went back in time,” Costa said. “Once we crossed Highway 20 heading north toward Mineral Wells, we jumped into ancient terrain, where you move backward approximately 100 million years into the Carboniferous Period and then into the slightly younger Permian Period. This period is famous for red mineral deposits and Dimetrodons, which were early

A student holds a fossil uncovered at Whiskey Bridge.

mammal ancestors.”

The trip began early morning March 21. The first stop of the six-hour journey was Whiskey Bridge, right outside of Bryan, Texas, which has marine fossils dating back 40 million years to when the area was covered by a shallow ocean. Costa chose this as the first stop to give the students experience in collecting fossils on their own.

The next stop was Glen Rose, Texas, home of Dinosaur Valley State Park. The students spent approximately one hour viewing the park’s dinosaur footprints, which date back approximately 100 million years.

The students and Dr. Costa at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas

“I really enjoyed stopping at Whiskey Bridge, where we got to look for fossils on the banks of the Brazos River,” said Rachel Lee, a Sid Richardson College freshman. “I got some great hands-on experience carving away at the sediment with my pickax, and I found some pretty cool fossils. We also got to see some dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur Valley State Park. It’s hard to imagine how huge some of these dinosaurs were until you see a track from one of them, which really puts it into perspective.”

The students arrived at their destination, the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, later that afternoon and stayed through Sunday. The museum, located in Seymour, is a remote North Texas town of approximately 2,500 residents where the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) has been excavating Dimetrodons, which are reptiles from the Permian Period (the last period of the Paleozoic Era). Between their class activities, students spent a “night at the museum,” camping out in sleeping bags among the exhibits.

The Rice group poses for a picture at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History

“Most of us slept under a model of a T. rex head, which was a little too lifelike when we woke up at 6 a.m.!” laughed Christopher VanGundy, a Sid Richardson College freshman.

During their time in Seymour, the students were able to view many prehistoric fossils in a laboratory setting, including Dimetrodon bones. They also visited excavation sites and performed site reconnaissance to look for signs of fossils.

The students also spent time with the museum curators and other paleontologists, including famous dinosaur hunter Robert Bakker, curator at HMNS. Bakker served as an adviser for the movie “Jurassic Park” and was the inspiration for a character in “The Lost World.” Bakker also popularized the idea that dinosaurs were active, warm-blooded creatures, an idea that was very controversial when he wrote about it in the 1970s.

Students performing site reconnaissance with Dr. Bakker.

“Meeting Dr. Bakker was definitely an interesting experience,” Lee said. “His vast knowledge of paleontology was made clear within the first five minutes of our interaction, and he continued to impart more knowledge to us as the trip went on. He is extremely passionate about what he does, which is always fantastic to see.”

The students also met Chris Flis, director of the Whiteside Museum.

“He pretty much runs the entire (museum) operation, with occasional help from volunteers,” Lee said. “It was amazing to see how a single person could go out and find so many great fossils and then clean them up and assemble them with very little help. He was extremely knowledgeable, and was very willing to share his experiences with us.”

Students examine fossils at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History.

Because of extremely heavy rain, the students were unable to view or assist in the excavation of a full Dimetrodon skeleton that is currently being uncovered on the premises, but they still greatly enjoyed and benefited from the experience.

“I learned so much about the geology and paleontology of Texas, which was really eye-opening because I’ve lived here my entire life without really knowing much about that,” Lee said. “It was also great to see paleontology in the field because until now, I had only experienced paleontology through museums, literature and in the classroom. I got to see how actual paleontologists went about their work, which made me respect them even more.”

“I think this kind of trip is important to the Rice learning experience because it forces you to think like the experts in the field do,” VanGundy said. “Talking about paleontology is one thing, but actually going out and doing it is completely different. This kind of experience is incredibly useful in establishing a thorough appreciation of a subject.

VanGundy also said the field trip was very well thought-out and called Costa an amazing professor.

“We learned a lot not only about paleontology but also about geology and geography,” he said.

Lee said that many times students learn a lot about a topic without really thinking about how it is applied in the real world.

“This field trip gave me a chance to implement a lot of the skills and information that I had gained from this class,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience that I don’t think I would have ever had if I hadn’t taken this class.”

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.