Mammoths at the Museum

Mammoths at the Museum

Howdy y’all, three weeks into my internship at Waco Mammoth National Monument (WMNM) and I haven’t incinerated any fossils, which is surprising. In this post I’ll be highlighting the place where most research for WMNM is conducted and where I first got my start working on fossil material, the Mayborn Museum Complex! I’ll talk about the museum’s collections and the work that I do there as well as highlight the exhibits on display at the museum.

Most fossils from WMNM are currently held in The Mayborn’s Geoscience collection. Along with the Geosciences collection, the complex also houses a Bioscience collection, Archeological collection, and History collection, but I dare not enter them. These fossils include the entirety of the initial nursery herd of mammoths (only female and juvenile mammoths) uncovered from 1978-1990, as well as fossils from various other critters that called the site home: coyotes, deer, bison, birds, turtles, and even the tooth from a juvenile saber-toothed cat. These other fossils help us paint a better picture of the ecosystem that our mammoths lived in. The Geoscience collection also houses other non-Waco Mammoth fossils and mineral samples, including the fossilized remains of a Cretaceous pliosaur, a carnivorous marine reptile that once roamed the ancient seas that covered Texas during the time period. Many of its fossils, and the fossils of our mammoths, remain in field jackets, which are made of burlap sacks and plaster and essentially act as casts to protect fossils for transport. For these fossils to be prepped and studied, they first must be removed from their jackets.

Recreation of the Pliosaur in the Mayborn's Cretaceous Seas exhibit

Now, let me explain what fossil preparation is. Fossil prep is the process of cleaning and even gluing together fossil material. Most of our fossils in collections are fragmented, generally due to the deposition of rock and sediments or improper excavation. We clean our fossils with acetone and glue fragments together with Acryloid B-72 (a plastic consolidate used in many fossil prep labs) in acetone. Finding fits for fossil fragments is kind of like putting together and 3D puzzle that has no instructions. It’s like a more frustrating LEGO set. The Mayborn Museum does not allow pictures in their collection, but I found a loophole. Pictures of fossils on the museum’s official social media are fair game, so, I CAN show off some of my handiwork. I recently got to feel like a CSI as I helped the museum’s collections manager, Anita Benedict, identify mammoths in old pictures from the excavation. We used a not-always-correct map of the excavation site to identify our mammoths by matching their orientation to the orientations of mammoths on the map. I wish I could show a picture of the map so y’all could get a better understanding, but rules are rules. I do believe that I can identify any of our mammoths by just looking at one picture now. 

Mi jefa, Dr. Lindsey Yann, presenting one of Mammoth C's near-completed legs that was prepped in collections.
Close up of Mammoth C's ulna and radius. I did a lot of work reconstructing and cleaning the ulna. Fun fact, last year's Mosaics intern actually started the work on the ulna and I finished it!

The Mayborn Museum is home to many exhibits that highlight the history of Central Texas. As expected, there is an exhibit dedicated to WMNM that features a model of Mammoth Q, a large bull mammoth and the highlight from WMNM’s dig shelter for most visitors (I personally prefer the lone camel). Mammoth Q is also accompanied by a video that highlights the discovery and excavation of the nursery herd as well as a recreation of the herd’s death at the hands of a flash flood, which was the initial hypothesized kill mechanism at WMNM. The screams and cries of the mammoths in the video can be heard throughout the museum, frightening children for years to come. I know people who grew up coming to the Mayborn, and they all say the mammoth video scarred them. 

The museum also has other paleontological items for lovers of prehistory. You are greeted by Stan, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton that the Mayborn currently has on loan as soon as you enter the museum. A statue of the pliosaur and one of its monstrous flippers, partially in its field jacket, are the highlight of the museum’s Cretaceous Seas area. Numerous shells from ancient sea urchins, snails, and ammonites litter this area as well. One of my favorite objects on display is a dinosaur footprint that was collected from Glen Rose, Texas. The footprint most likely belonged to an Ancrocanthosaurus, an ancient meat-eating dinosaur that roamed the Central and Southern United States millions of years before T-Rex was on the scene. I will be studying a similar trackway made up of similar dinosaur tracks for my Master’s project at Baylor University in the fall. Acrocanthosaurus also might be my favorite dinosaur (no one ever asks you what your favorite dinosaur is anymore…).

Stan the T-Rex
Dinosaur track from Glen Rose, TX.
The Pliosaur's massive flipper

The Mayborn is also home to exhibits about the Waco sub-tribe of the Wichita Confederacy, which included the Waco, Wichita, and Tawakoni tribes. The Waco called the McClennan county area home and are the namesake of the city of Waco. Along with the Waco, the museum also features an exhibit about the Comanche and their presence in Central Texas. Other exhibits at the museum include artifacts and memorabilia from Baylor University’s history, a children’s area that features local critters one may find in the Waco area (snakes, frogs, tarantulas, etc.), a room dedicated to SpaceX, which has a rocket test and manufacturing facility in nearby McGregor, TX, and more exhibits to keep children occupied.

One of the grass huts that the early Waco people used a homes.
Baylor's mascots, Bruiser and Marigold, forever trapped behind glass.

The Mayborn is a great place for families to learn about the history of Central Texas and the epicenter of paleontological research for Waco Mammoth National Monument. Y’all should maybe come by the museum, say hi, and see some cool stuff or something.

Stay curious,
Evan Cerna

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