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Remains of the day: Seymour researchers unearth prehistoric skeleton

Museum director Christopher Flis (lying on the ground), and volunteers Stewart Nolan, son Travis, 13, and Leigh Cook work to unearth a Dimetrodon skeleton for the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour.
Museum director Christopher Flis (lying on the ground), and volunteers Stewart Nolan, son Travis, 13, and Leigh Cook work to unearth a Dimetrodon skeleton for the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour. Star-Telegram

Just outside this small Baylor County town, researchers at a new museum are carefully digging away, hoping to unearth a significant discovery.

In a place where scientists have been poking around in the red dirt since the 1880s, researchers at Seymour’s Whiteside Museum of Natural History believe they have found a Dimetrodon skeleton.

Working on the side of the hill since the first of the year, Chris Flis, the museum’s director, and a small team of volunteers have slowly scraped and brushed away the gray clay encasing the remains.

“Right now, we don’t know what species it is, and it’s very exciting,” Flis said. “… This skeleton is going to tell us a lot about what was going on with Dimetrodon families — why they went extinct in certain areas and why some of them survived and turned into some of the species that we’re familiar with.”

The four-legged Dimetrodons may not be as exciting as a Tyrannosaurus Rex or some other beasts popularized in Jurassic Park and scores of other dinosaur flicks.

And actually, they weren’t even dinosaurs; they were pelycosaurs — more closely related to mammals than reptiles — and roamed the Earth 60 million years before the first dinosaurs.

The best guess on this latest Dimetrodon — dubbed Mary — is that it lived about 290 million years ago, far enough back to have roamed this part of North Texas before the region disappeared under the ocean in the early Permian Period, forcing the Dimetrodons to adapt or die.

Mary has fins that shoot straight up, where later species’ fins were swept back.

When the skeleton is removed from the ground, Flis hopes to display it in the Whiteside Museum, which opened last June.

Housed in a former Chevrolet dealership, the small museum is trying to draw attention to Seymour’s unique history. In the short time they’ve been operating, Flis and his volunteers — he’s the only paid member of the staff — have been involved in other digs near Seymour. He actually has a waiting list of nearby ranches that want him to come out and take a look at potential dig sites on their property.

In the next couple of weeks, Flis will encase the surface of Mary in plaster, then carefully start digging down about 5 feet to make sure they get all of the bones. Sometime later this year, most likely in June, they’ll pull it out of the ground and encase the rest of the bones in plaster.

Then, after cleaning and studying the bones in the lab, the museum will submit its findings for peer review sometime next year. The museum is presenting its findings about another site north of Seymour dealing with “mass herbivore communities” in a March conference of the Geological Society of America in Stillwater, Okla.

Located 135 miles northwest of Fort Worth, Seymour has a small fossil named after the town, called a Seymouria, a creature that also serves as a link to today’s mammals and reptiles.

They eventually plan to display Mary’s skeleton at the museum.

More to be learned

Flis first came to Seymour while working with fellow paleontologist Robert Bakker, who has been fascinated with the area since he was a child.

“I learned about Baylor County as a kid reading labels on fossils at the Smithsonian — they have the finest, most regal D’don mounted skeleton in the world, dug 100 years ago right at Seymour,” said Bakker via email. “And I vowed, as a fourth-grader, to go to Texas and visit the finback home. (That scared my New Jersey parents.)”

Bakker, who is the curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and usually makes an annual trip to Seymour, has been one of the most outspoken and controversial paleontologists. He was one of the first to suggest that dinosaurs had feathers but has largely worked outside of the academic world in recent years. He also had a character based on him in The Lost World: Jurassic Park that got munched on by a Tyrannosaur.

Despite the fact that digging has taken place around Seymour for more than a century, Bakker insists that there is more to be learned about the time when Dimetrodons started coping with the changing environment around them. While there are plenty of specimens, few have been found that document the period when these beasts started changing.

“Bone-hunters searching for big skeletons in this interval rarely were rewarded with the skulls and jaws that might tell us how Darwinian processes were remodeling the Dimetrodon lineages,” Bakker said. “The total sample of specimens was less than a twentieth of what had been dug from beds above and below.”

That is why the work of this tiny museum is crucial, Bakker said.

“What Texas science needed was a dedicated Permian museum right in the middle of the outcrop, a place staffed by sharp-eyed hunters of D’don, folks who could search the myriad arroyos and dry washes,” Bakker said. “Thanks to Judge Whiteside, that’s exactly what Seymour got.”

‘It’s an historic place’

The museum’s namesake, Clyde Whiteside, 88, is hoping the museum will serve as a draw to bring people back to the town where he grew up.

“Some of these places have been worked since before the turn of the 20th century,” Whiteside said. “It’s an historic place that needs to be preserved.”

Whiteside’s roots in Seymour run deep. His grandfather came to the town in 1889 and grew up in a bustling community where people went to the movies on Saturday night and had picnics with live music on the courthouse grounds. Now living in an assisted living center in Wichita Falls, 60 miles away, and in a wheelchair, Whiteside, a retired district judge and former state legislator, said he is doing everything possible to help his hometown.

Seymour, a farming and ranching community that is also invested in oil, has about 2,700 residents. Besides its rich history with prehistoric animals, Seymour is best known for recording the hottest temperature in Texas history — 120 degrees on Aug. 12, 1936.

“Seymour was a generous town that had some great people,” Whiteside said. “I feel very fortunate to have grown up there, but today things are not as good. The moving of the highways has caused all these little town tragedies. I’m doing what I can to bring it back.”

Besides the museum, Whiteside helped restore the town’s auditorium, now called the Whiteside Auditorium, and helped rebuild the town’s park.

‘A lot to learn’

He hopes the museum can serve as a magnet for visitors and a resource for Seymour.

“We would like children to be interested in what’s going on at the museum,” Whiteside said. “We’re going to have classes there in the future. We hope to provide that for the education of the young people.”

So far, schoolchildren have provided the bulk of the museum’s visitors. Since its June 7 opening, the total attendance has been around 4,000.

“I think we’ve seen everybody from Seymour in here more than once,” Flis said. “And most of the schools have visited within a one-hour radius.”

That includes places such as Wichita Falls and Vernon, but Flis eventually hopes to stretch that out to include students from as far away as Fort Worth and Abilene.

He believes the Permian Period still has interesting things to tell us.

“The Permian is really the last gasp of the big reptile before the emergence of the dinosaurs,” Flis said. “We still have a lot to learn.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

If you go

▪ The Whiteside Museum of Natural History is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Mondays.

▪ For more information, call (940) 889-6548or email info@whitesidemuseum.org.

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