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LOCATION:  The Houston Museum of Natural Science is found in downtown Houston near the intersection of Hermann Drive and Fannin St.


GEOLOGIC FEATURES: Invertebrate and Vertebrate Fossils (including unique displays of Dinosaurs)


DESCRIPTION: The Moran Hall of Paleontology houses a number of distinctive invertebrate and vertebrate fossils as well as fossil plants.


Extra: Included in this Field Trip Stop is an extra-credit handout (see the Addendum found below) that I have used for students to attend the museum and closely observe the fossil specimens. The style of this assignment can be adapted for any fossil museum.  One of the primary purposes of this project is to get students to look at specimens for more than a few seconds while carefully considering the fossils’ morphology, past behavior, and place within the evolution of organisms on Earth.



(1) What is the definition of a fossil?

(2) Fossils are often preserved as (a) Casts or (b) Molds, or the original organism has become (c) permineralized or (d) recrystallized (replaced), or (e) evidence of their behavior can have been left as trace fossils.  What is the meaning of each of these five terms?

(3) What is the difference between an invertebrate and a vertebrate organism?

(4) CHALLENGE: In reconstructing an ancient period of time, what information can fossils provide about earth history? What information might fossils not typically provide?

(5) What might be the value of short-lived species of fossils that are globally widespread (that is, tolerant of widely varying environments)?

(6) What are Index Fossils?

(7) What caused the massive extinction events at the end of the Paleozoic (Permian) and Mesozoic (Cretaceous)? Explain.(8) CHALLENGE: Other than the sudden massive extinction events known to have occurred at the end of the Permian and Cretaceous Periods, why do most vertical fossil distributions suggest that extinction is the norm throughout geologic time?


ADDENDUM:  Student Worksheet for HMNS Morian Hall of Paleontology

VIDEOS: HMNS Morian Hall of Paleontology tour- 



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Figure 1 - Trilobites. Trilobites appeared in the Cambrian and  thrived throughout the Paleozoic before going extinct at the Permian-Triassic Boundary. They are among the first organisms on earth to have hard parts. (Phylum: Arthropoda)

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Figure 2 -  A Eurypterid ("Sea Scorpion") from the Silurian. Eurypterids existed from the Ordovocian through the Permian. (Phylum: Arthropoda)

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Figure 3 - Paraspirifer bownockeri, a Devonian brachiopod that has been pyritized (common in the Silica Shale, Middle Devonian, Ohio). Brachiopods were plentiful in the Paleozoic. (Phylum: Brachiopoda)

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Figure 4 - Carboniferous ferns and other plants. The black fine-grained sediment indicates quiet water with associated sediment filled with organic material. The presence of land plants suggests deposition in a swamp or lagoon. 

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Figure 5 - .Crinoid Hanging Garden (Jurassic). Crinoids are attached to a log which eventually sank bringing the attached crinoids with it. Crinoids, sometimes called Sea Lillies, are not plants but are marine animals belomging to the phylum Echinodermata. Upon death, crinoids will disassociate into numerous small segments. The fact that the crinoids are marine, still whole, and the sediments are fine-grained, suggests a deep, quiet-water basin.

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Figure 6 - Ammonite Cephalopods from the Mesozoic Era. Ammonites are a Class of the Phylum Molluca. The appeared in the Devonian Period, flourished in the Mesozoic, and went extinct at the Cretaceous Period. Despite their size, these cephalopods were quite mobile, using gases to buoyantly move vertically and expelling liquids laterally in order to move horizontally. Strong jaws allowed them crush prey. 


Figure 7 - The Ichtyhyosaur reptile Stenopterygius (Lower Jurassic). Ichthyosaurs are commonly referred to as Reptilian Sharks or Fish Lizards. Icthyosaurs belong to the Class Reptilia of the Phylum Chordata. These predators occurred throughout the Mesozoic oceans.

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Figure 8 - Cut and polished section of Jurassic tree. After burial, the tree was subjected to fluids enriched in silica, likely from overlying deposits of volcanic ash. (See the Trip to Petrified Forest N. P. for more details on the fossilization process.)

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Figure 9 -  Cut and polished sections of Jurassic trees from the museum's Zuhl collection,

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Figure 10 - Tyrannosaurus rex ("Wyrex") (Upper Cretaceous) (Foreground) ; Denversaurus (Upper Cretaceous) (Background)

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Figure 11 -  Tyrannosaurus rex (Upper Cretaceous) (Lower half of photo); Diplodocus (Upper Jurassic) (Upper left); Acanthosaurus (Upper Center). Diplodocus was a herbivore whose long neck suggested that it ate foliage growing high above the ground. 

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Figure 12 - Triceratops (Bottom half of photo) (Upper Cretaceous of North America) The three-horned Triceratops was a herbivore; A pre-adult Tyrannosaurus rex ("Bucky") (Upper Cretaceous) (Upper Center); Tyrannnosaurus rex ("Wyrex") (Upper Cretaceous) (Upper Left).

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Figure 13 - Allosaurus ("Big Al") (Upper Jurassic) (Lower right of photo); Stegosaurus (Upper Jurassic) (Center); Diplodocus (Upper Jurassic) (Upper Right). Allosaurus is often mistaken for Tyrannosaurus but differs by being smaller in size with longer forelimbs having three fingers instead of two. The herbivore Stegosaurus had two rows of bony plates along its back probably used for thermoregulation as well as a tail having two pair of bony spikes at its end presumably for defense.

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Figure 14 - Edmontosaurus (Upper Cretaceous) skin impression. This dinosaur was a herbiverous duck-billed one.

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Figure 15 - A Cretaceous trackway with footprint impressions (Trace Fossils) in the sedimentary rock. Trackways such as this one can be used to learn about the ecology and behavioral interactions within paleoenvironments.

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Figure 16 - An Eocene fish (Mioplosus) choked to death by another species of fish (Diplomystus) from the fresh water Green River Formation, Wyoming. This formation represents a series of intermountain lakes associated with the uplift of the ancient Rocky Mountains.

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