With almost 100 years of operation in San Antonio, the Witte Museum strives to shape the future of Texas by offering the community illuminating experiences in nature, science, and culture.
The Witte’s goal of leading the charge of scientific discovery in Texas is on full display at the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery. One of the museum’s five permanent exhibits, the gallery features stunning dinosaurs and fossils, bringing to life the giant creatures that walked the shores and plunged the depths of ancient seas that once covered Texas hundreds of millions of years ago.
Dr. Thomas Adams, Curator of Paleontology and Geology at the Witte Museum, is conducting cutting-edge research during what he calls a “paleontological renaissance.” Texas has had a long history of fossil discoveries and excavations, and the Witte and the work of Dr. Adams, along with his students and colleagues, are playing an essential role during this exciting time for Texas paleontology.
We sat down with Dr. Adams to discuss his latest research and why paleontology in Texas is so important to global learning about these ancient animals.
The Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery at the Witte immerses visitors into the world of dinosaurs and beautifully shares the story of Texas Deep Time. How do you figure out how to tell that story in the museum?
As a paleontologist, I’m interested in understanding past environments and ecosystems because those things help us create a picture of a moment in time, which is what we share here at the Witte in our exhibit dioramas. Museums have this great ability to take something that we all already love—like dinosaurs—and take it to the next level. I don’t care if you’re 9 or 99 years-old, the dinosaur gallery is one area of the Witte that we all love. Everyone becomes enamored and transforms into a kid full of wonder and imagination when they see the flying Quetzalcoatlus or the dinosaur tracks in the exhibit hall.
It’s the rocks, and the fossils in them, that tell us the story about the past. Certain areas of Texas had a unique set of circumstances occur that exposed the right rocks, with fossils in them, for us to study and interpret. The limestone we see throughout San Antonio, the Hill Country and South Texas is direct evidence that an ocean was here, and it’s the fossils inside those rocks that help us understand what that ocean was like or, in the case of dinosaur footprints, what the shoreline was like at that particular time. So, knowing how to read the rocks helps us understand what the environment was like and we use that understanding to capture moments for our exhibits.
What makes Texas an ideal place to do research as a paleontologist?
Texas is unique in that we have this huge fossil record of dinosaur footprints. They’re found in at least 24 counties across Texas, with multiple localities per county, and each one can have anywhere from one to 300 footprints. We’re talking about thousands of tracks and hundreds of dinosaurs. Texas is at the top of the list of places where you can find dinosaur footprints.
Unfortunately many of the dinosaur track sites are in danger of being lost, either from increasing urbanization or amplified weathering and flooding due to climate change. Footprints are preserved in rock, and they’re not like bones where you go out and collect them to bring back to a lab or museum. We tend to leave them out where they’re discovered (it’s hard to collect a creek bed!), but rock isn’t permanent and it will eventually erode. This is happening as we speak.
What is the Witte doing to preserve this important part of Texas history before it erodes away?
We’ve partnered with students and professors from Trinity University, UTSA and the University of Kansas and are working together on a National Science Foundation funded project to study and digitize Early Cretaceous (120-108 million years ago) dinosaur trackways from central Texas. We’re going out to dinosaur track sites that are at high risk of being lost to preserve the track sites using advanced digital imagery and to analyze the geology to provide information on the landscape where dinosaurs lived. We are working to preserve three track sites (and more) that are of the highest risk using advanced imagery techniques, while also analyzing the geology to provide information on the landscape where these dinosaurs lived. The goal of the project is to preserve the geological heritage of these fossil sites and gain new insight into the environment and behavior of these ancient animals.
Why are dinosaur footprints so important for the story of how dinosaurs lived? What will we lose if these sites aren’t preserved?
Dinosaur footprints weren’t always seen as important. For many decades, the focus was on body fossils—the hard parts such as bones, teeth, and shells—which come from organisms that died. Fossil footprints and trails, on the other hand, were produced by living animals interacting with their environment.
When you stand on the same rocks that footprints are found, you’re standing in the same place these dinosaurs lived and breathed—this becomes incredibly exciting. These dinosaurs are leaving evidence of a moment in a day. You can see what direction they’re going. You can calculate how fast they’re going, and whether they moved in groups or alone. You can even see social arrangements. It makes dinosaurs more real and teaches us about their behavior.
What should someone do if they think they found a dinosaur footprint or fossil?
The first thing I tell people—don’t disturb it. Leave it where you found it. Where a fossil is found is just as important as the fossil itself. We need to be able to collect all the evidence we can before we remove it. Take several photos and put something in the photo that will help give it scale (a coin, pencil, or ruler). Take some notes on where you found the fossil. Then contact your local museum or college. I always ask people to email me photos, and I can usually make identifications quickly.
How does all this tie into the mission of the Witte?
The goal is to incorporate everything we learn into the Witte’s Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery and provide experiences that inspire the community to help shape the future of Texas. I really hope to include the new methods and technology we’re using in this project to show how it is changing the way we do science. This process is a large part of how we know what we know about Texas paleontology.
The Witte provides public access to the latest information and also is a place for preservation. What’s really great about this current research project is we can preserve these dinosaur tracks as models, and the Witte is the ideal institution for holding this material. We can archive these 3D models and make them available to researchers, to the public, to educators and share them in exhibits and programs. That’s the primary goal of what we’re doing – to have this information preserved for generations far into the future when these fossil tracks are gone.
Additionally, the Witte is launching a robust paleontology program with new research and field excavations throughout Texas. The work on dinosaur tracks is just one of many research projects I am currently pursuing that will help position the Witte Museum as a leader in Texas paleontology. We also want to be able to provide opportunities for high school and college students to gain invaluable experiences that can lead to career readiness.
Before we go, how did you become a paleontologist?
Like most children, I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was very young. I remember visiting my first museum and seeing my first dinosaur when I was 7 years old. Ever since then I’ve been hooked. But it was when the movie Jurassic Park came out that I decided to become a paleontologist. I went back to college, where I had a wonderful mentor who inspired me to pursue a career in paleontology.
Dr. Thomas Adams is the curator of Paleontology and Geology at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. He has conducted paleontological research in Texas, Alaska, Wyoming, China, and Mongolia. Adams’s research is focused on Texas, including Cretaceous ecosystems and faunal diversity and research on crocodyliform evolution and dinosaur paleoichnology.
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