Wow, Fossil Friday has a teeny tiny head. 

Cotylorhynchus romeri, meaning “cup snout,” lived about 280 million years ago, and is a distant mammal relative. The fossil record indicates that it was a common large land animal in North America about 30 million years before the first dinosaurs.

Cotylorhynchus was the largest of the early relatives of mammals, measuring about 12 feet in length and, possibly, weighing over 800 pounds. Likely a plant-eater, its small head and broad body differed from the larger head and narrower body of DimetrodonCotylorhynchus may, in fact, have been one of Dimetrodon’s favorite meals. 

Find this fossil in the Museum’s Hall of Primitive Mammals.

Carnivorous plant tentacle in amber

The evolutionary history of those plants that use a variety of strategies in order to catch and dissolve insects in order to obtain nutrients is little known, as fossils are rare. Their ancestors grow nowadays in nutrient poor environments, such as anoxic bogs, and therefore have to supplement the sugars they get from photosynthesis with animal nutrients. They are the only known reversal in ‘the natural order of things’ whereby animals eat plants. 

The earliest evidence found (so far) for their existence is this fossil sticky hair, found alongside a couple of leaves of a Venus fly trap (the ones that snap shut around an insect rather than entice it into a bowl of digestive juices) entombed in Baltic Eocene amber (47-34 million years ago) found near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. They were discovered as part of a project to use amber inclusions to reconstruct the Eocene ecosystem. The project has obviously been divided between palaobotanists and palaeoentomologists. 

This tentacle was coated in natural glue, and is designed to trap any part of a desperate buzzing insect that it contacts as it desperately tries to free itself from its predator’s deadly embrace while digging itself in deeper into the mire. Previously these plants were thought restricted to Africa, where their modern descendants are found, so finding examples from Europe came as a surprise. The discovery also helped calibrate a molecular clock, which suggests that the gruesome family has been around for at least 38 million years. 


Image credit: PNAS and University of Göttingen/Alexander Schmidt.

Original paper, free access:

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Hesperocyon (“The Dawn Dog”)

… is an extinct genus of canids (subfamily Hesperocyoninae) that was endemic to North America, ranging from southern Canada to Colorado. It appeared during the Uintan age-Bridgerian age (NALMA) of the Mid-Eocene 42.5 mya—31.0 Ma. (AEO). Hesperocyon existed for approximately 11.5 million years.

This early, 80 cm (2 ft 8 in) long canine looked more like a civet or a small raccoon than a canine. Its body and tail were long and flexible, while its limbs were weak and short. Still, the build of its ossicles and distribution of its teeth showed it was a canid. Although it was definitely a carnivore, it may also have been an omnivore

(read more: Wikipedia)

photo by Daderot; illustration by Robert Bruce Horsefall, 1913

Thank goodness it’s #FossilFriday! Meet a 1.3 million year old ground sloth, Megalonyx wheatleyi. It’s name means “great claw” and it was collection in Williston, Florida in 1941. 

About 9 million years ago, before the Isthmus of Panama had formed, megalonychid ground sloths crossed from South America to North America. Megalonyx wheatleyi was the result of almost 8 million years of sloth evolution on the North American continent. Extinct ground sloths were much larger than their living, tree-dwelling relatives, but like them, they were plant eaters. 

See this fossil in the Museum’s Hall of Primitive Mammals

Ovary of a parsley plant

Plant fertilization takes place when pollen from the male part of a plant lands on the female-receiving part called the stigma. Within minutes after making contact, the pollen will germinate and grow a long tube down into the plant before reaching the ovary. Once at the ovary, the pollen will discharge its sperm into the embryo sac, fertilizing an egg that will develop into seed-containing fruit. Plants have evolved many mechanisms to prevent self-pollination, which hinders adaptation to changing environments and spreads genetic mutations to new plant progeny. Earlier this year, researchers uncovered a 100-million-year old amber fossil that perfectly preserved plant fertilization in action, suggesting this ancient process led to the huge diversity of plants we see today.

Image by Meritxell Vendrell, Universitat Autònoma, Spain.


When Texas Was at the Bottom of the Sea

A hike to the “top of Texas,” the world’s most famous fossil reef, leads to a new sense of the sublime

by Olivia Judson

It’s 12:30 on a November afternoon, and I’m sitting on top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas, eating trail mix. The sun is bright, the sky without a cloud, and the view is huge. In front of me—I am facing roughly south—I am looking down on the jagged spine of El Capitan, a mountain that sits at the front of the range like the prow of a ship. Beyond it, I can see at least 70 miles across an arid plain sprinkled with rows of smaller hills. The road to El Paso and the border with Mexico is a gray scratch across the landscape. It’s gorgeous.

But the view I came for is the one I’m sitting on. The rock beneath me, which looks almost white in the glare of the sun, is full of fossils. Zillions of them. Back when these life-forms were alive—265 million years ago or so—the Guadalupe Mountains were underwater, part of a flourishing reef that once stretched about 400 miles around the edge of a long-vanished sea.

Reefs are a fascinating fusion of biology and geology. They are, after all, made of stone—but built by life. Moreover, although the individual life-forms involved are typically tiny, the results of their activities can be gigantic, resulting in a massive transformation of the landscape. As usual, Charles Darwin put it better than anyone. Writing about corals, he said: “We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals!” …

(read more: Smithsonian Magazine)

photographs by Brian Schutmaat


So I was out running errands for Curious Gallery and other projects and decided to stop into a nearby Goodwill. One of the treasures I found was this awesome plate made of stone matrix with ammonites and other fossil inclusions. The biggest was carved out in relief to show it off better. The whole plate is ten inches in diameter, and it’s probably one of my best thrift store finds to date.