Saturday, 3 October 2020


Eighty years ago, during the Great Depression, unemployed Texans were put to work as fossil hunters. 

The fossils collecting program was part of the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey that was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency that provided work to millions of Americans during the Great Depression. 

From 1939 to 1941, the agency partnered with the UT Bureau of Economic Geology, which supervised the work and organized field units for collecting fossils and minerals across the state. Despite lasting only three years, the program was responsible for the excavation of thousands of fossils from across Texas including four dig sites in Bee and Live Oak counties, with the majority of their finds housed in what is now the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School Museum of Earth History. 

If you are like me, this sounds like a wonderful idea and work akin to paradise. You will be shocked to know that there were grumblings of malcontent by some of the workers. And yet, happy or sad, those lovely folk unearthed tens of thousands of specimens 80 years ago that only now are being studied in their complete context. 

The collection is housed in the state collections of The University of Texas at Austin and for the past few years, Steven May, a UT researcher, has been poking through those drawers with a special interest in specimens from dig sites near Beeville, Texas. 

Over the years, a number of scientific papers have been published on select groups of WPA specimens. But May's paper is the first to study the entire fauna. This extensive collection of fossils is helping to fill in gaps in the state's ancient environment.

The fauna from this area paints a picture of our modern-day Serengeti — with specimens including elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators, antelopes, camels, 12 types of horses and several species of carnivores. In total, the fossil trove contains nearly 4,000 specimens representing 50 animal species, all of which roamed the Texas Gulf Coast 11 million to 12 million years ago.

In addition to shedding light on the inhabitants of an ancient Texas ecosystem, the collection is also valuable because of its fossil firsts. They include a new genus of gomphothere, an extinct relative of elephants with a shovel-like lower jaw, and the oldest fossils of the American alligator and an extinct relative of modern dogs.

The emphasis on big mammals is due in large part to the collection practices of the fossil hunters, most of whom were not formally trained in palaeontology. Large tusks, teeth and skulls were easier to spot — and more exciting to find — than bones left by small species.

"They collected the big, obvious stuff," May said. "But that doesn't fully represent the incredible diversity of the Miocene environment along the Texas Coastal Plain."

In order to account for gaps in the collection, May tracked down the original dig sites so he could screen for tiny fossils such as rodent teeth. One of the sites was on a ranch near Beeville owned by John Blackburn. Using aerial photography and notes from the WPA program stored in the university's archives, May and the research team were able to track down the exact spot of an original dig site.

"We're thrilled to be a part of something that was started in 1939," Blackburn said. "It's been a privilege to work with UT and the team involved, and we hope that the project can help bring additional research opportunities."

Reference: Steven R. May. The Lapara Creek Fauna: Early Clarendonian of south Texas, USA. Palaeontologia Electronica, 2019 DOI: 10.26879/929