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NRCS and Landowner Team Up With Houston Museum after Rare Species Discovery

Story by Randy Henry

Conservation partners working together unearthed a rare look into prehistoric history at the 4,950-acre Craddock Brothers Ranch in Seymour, Texas, when a bulldozer contractor digging a stock tank under the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) found several amphibian fossils still intact at the bottom of the tank in November.

USDA-NRCS personnel, ranch owner Bill Whitley, and a paleontology team from the Houston Museum of Natural Science merged into a unified effort to excavate the rare species of amphibian called Trimerorhachis or Panzer Mudpuppy, which looks like a combination of frog-like and modern mudpuppy characteristics covered in bony armor and lived roughly 280 million years ago.

"The cooperation between the landowner, contractor, NRCS, and Houston Museum was ideal and worked out perfectly after the rare fossil discovery," said Jeff Groves, NRCS district conservationist in Baylor County, Texas.

In Baylor County, over 100 years of collecting fossils has revealed 50 varieties of Permian animals, and one particularly rich fossil deposit that was discovered on the Craddock Brothers Ranch is known throughout the world as the Craddock Bone Bed.

Plus, the discovery was located near the Red Beds, which gets its name from the color and makeup of sandstones and mudstones in the area. Many fossil remains of fish, amphibians and retiles that lived millions of years ago are embedded there from a time in history called the Permian.

"The proximity of the site and landowner Bill Whitley, who continued a 100-year Craddock Brothers Ranch tradition of allowing museums access to these fossil beds, really helped add to the museum's future exhibit possibilities," said David Temple, associate curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Temple says the amphibians were very common in the early Red Beds, like those in Archer County, Texas, but then they became rare within the Clear Fork Group where good skulls and bodies were hard to find.

Moreover, this rare discovery is only the third of its kind found worldwide. The Houston Museum has been surveying all the fossil sites in the Clear Fork sediments that outcrop the ranch, but only bits and pieces of Panzer Mudpuppies were recovered so this is the first time a complete skull and jaws have been discovered.

"We choose to pursue the Texas Permian, for it's a period in time that Texas played a huge role and most of the world's fossils of this type came from Baylor County or very nearby," Temple said.

At present, Whitley has kept up a tradition that his forefathers started in 1909 about the discovery of fossils on their land, and he believes the fossils are for all the public to discover and not personal gain.

"Over the years, our family history opened the gates for discoveries on the ranch, so we give back to the world what has been buried here for millions of years," Whitley said. "When I was growing up paleontologists from around the world came out on the ranch, and the bone beds rendered several fossils for museums."

Whitley has worked with paleontologists over a long period of time to ensure fossil discoveries are done correctly, and that was a priority with NRCS when this fossil find was unearthed. NRCS and the Craddock Brothers Ranch have a great partnership working together and conserving the ranch with EQIP contracts dating back to 2003.

"We have worked with NRCS in Seymour to get the best conservation practices and programs for our ranch, and that relationship helped with getting the fossil discovery ready for the Houston Museum of Natural Science," Whitley said.

The Panzer Mudpuppy was a dominant bottom-hugger with powerful jaws, curved fangs, and big eyes weighing in at around 20 pounds that survived for approximately 20 to 30 million years. The mudpuppy measured from seven to 14 feet in length.

"The Panzer Mudpuppy slab is a world-class specimen and will be a an exciting part of this story from Baylor County, so it will allow us to tell about these armored mudpuppies with details of how they lived, died, and came to be all together," Temple said. "With an annual attendance of 500,000 students at the museum, having everyone working together on this site will bring this find to them and the rest of the world."

With a successful EQIP history on the ranch, NRCS worked with the landowner, bulldozer contractor, and the Houston Museum paleontology team to make sure the excavation went as planned during the post-discovery at the stock tank site.

"The relationship that NRCS has built with the Craddock Brothers Ranch has certainly played a key role in being able to preserve an important part of our past while getting conservation on the ground," Groves said.

Excavation Fossil Site at Ranch

Paleontologist David Temple

A member of the paleontology excavation team from the Houston Museum of Natural Science chisels away at the unearthed fossil discovery of the Panzer Mudpuppy on the 4,950-acre Craddock Brothers Ranch in Seymour, Texas. The rare discovery was found while a stock tank was being dug by a bulldozer contractor.

David Temple, associate curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, describes the fossil discovery slab that was unearthed and is displayed on a table directly to his right in Seymour, Texas. The Panzer Mudpuppy roamed the Baylor County area more than 280 million years ago, and measured from seven to 14 feet in length.

Inverted Upper and Lower Skull Panzer Mudpuppy Top Outer Skull

With the rare discovery of the Trimerorhachis or Panzer Mudpuppy, which is only the third of its kind found worldwide, this photograph shows the upper and lower skull sections inverted and not broken into pieces. The fossil site on the Craddock Brothers Ranch is considered rare because other prehistoric amphibians discovered from the Texas Permian time period have been broken, and this find was in a group at the bottom of a stock tank being dug on the ranch.

The Panzer Mudpuppy was a dominant bottom-hugger with powerful jaws, curved fangs, and large eyes covered with a bony armor outside skin. This photograph shows the outer bony armor cover the mudpuppy wore while surviving for 20 to 30 million years in the Baylor County area near Seymour, Texas.