The Whiteside Museum of Natural History (WMNH) was established as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation in December of 2013 due to the herculean philanthropic efforts of the late Judge Clyde E. Whiteside. As his lifelong mission was to create a natural history museum for Seymour based on the incredible paleontological importance of Baylor County, Judge Whiteside financed the museum’s incorporation and hired Christopher J. Flis as its Museum Director and Resident Paleontologist to oversee the museum’s development. We interviewed Chris to learn more about the history and ongoing science at the museum.
Why is Seymour, Texas, an important location for a natural history museum?
The first Lower Permian vertebrate fossils were found in Baylor County in the late 1870s, with legends of the paleontology world headlining the initial discoveries, including Edward Drinker Cope and Charles Sternberg. More recently, Dr. Robert T. Bakker and I have been engaged in Baylor County Permian research for over 10 years. More than 125 years since the first Permian fossils of Texas were discovered, Seymour and Baylor County have been described as some of the best places on Earth to study basal synapsids, reptiles, and amphibians due to the incredible abundance and exceptional preservation of Lower Permian vertebrate fossils.
Since the 1870s, the majority of the fossils collected from Baylor County were transported to permanent collections at Princeton, Harvard, and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as private collections around the world. As a result, no fossils remained in Texas, and the communities of Baylor and nearby counties never had a chance to learn about the paleontological importance of their own backyards. With the creation of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, Seymour and North Texas now have a museum with a permanent collection of fossils that will remain in their community and state. WMNH to date has enjoyed approximately 21,000 visitors, including 5,000 school children engaged in no-cost, school-sponsored visits. WMNH provides all visitors with an interactive glimpse into the natural world and more specifically the ancient life that once inhabited North Texas.
Can you tell us about the role of volunteers at the museum?
WMNH retains a successful volunteer program that currently holds approximately 30 active members, and we are very proud to have such active volunteers. Volunteer duties range from helping with guided tours of the museum to working in the paleo prep lab on fossils that I bring in from my research sites. I currently have 10 paleo prep technicians and field-team members that I have trained to prepare fossils. Prior to our grand opening in 2014, none of them had any experience in paleontology. And now, 4 years later, I can say that they are experts in fossil preparation and paleo fieldwork.
Ms. Sandy Stripling is a retired teacher who absolutely fell in love with fossil preparation and is my expert tech specializing in preparing Dimetrodon and other Lower Permian Pelycosaur, reptile, and amphibian skulls, and the delicate bones that comprise them. Needless to say, she loves teeth. Gil Allison is retired from the Hospital Administration field and comes in twice a week from an hour away to work on Dimetrodon fin spines and is also active on my fieldwork team. It is very rewarding to see volunteers come in and find a joyful sense of pride and responsibility from having the opportunity to work with 287-million-year-old fossils from incredibly important research sites located only 5 miles from Seymour. They are contributing to the preservation of the incredibly rich natural history of Seymour and its neighboring communities.
When people visit the Whiteside Museum, what might they see or experience? What do you hope they’ll take away from their visit?
Ok, so I have to be a kid again here, and I admit that working as a paleontologist and in a museum often prevents me from growing up. WMNH is a really wonderful place with incredibly fun and interactive exhibits. It’s comprised of six exhibit halls, starting with the Permian Paleontology hall where we focus on the incredible fossils found as close as 2 miles from the museum. As one of the absolute best places in the world to study Lower Permian vertebrates, the hall is filled with hundreds of fossil specimens collected by museum staff. The dinosaur section follows the Permian area and focuses on some of our Texas natives, including a complete Tyrannosaurus skull and a one-of-a-kind, fully fleshed out model of the king of the dinosaurs. Visitors can also experience the native animals of Texas exhibit that displays more than 20 full-body mounts of bison, coyotes, mountain lions and other critters. The African Hall is important for the community of Seymour as well, as WMNH has numerous ice-age fossil sites that include mammoths, mastodons, and other animals whose relatives thrive today on the African continent. In this exhibit, guests can see full-body mounts of the African Lion, as well as more than 25 other specimens. The WMNH Zoozeum is one of the most popular exhibits, as we display live lizards and snakes, as well as more than 20 other live amphibians and reptiles. Many of the specimens are native to the Seymour area, though we have numerous exotic animals as well which helps to show the relationships of past and present animal groups.
The last exhibit hall is our paleontology prep lab- it’s our pride and joy. It’s one of the largest public-friendly prep-labs in the U.S. This is where I bring all the fossils and skeletons from my dig-sites, so the volunteers and I can clean and prepare them for research and exhibit. We have 7 incredible microscopes we use for cleaning fossils. When the public comes in to the lab for a tour, they are given the opportunity to interact with the museum scientists and use the microscopes. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing someone, young or old, who has never looked through a microscope. There is a moment I think we have all experienced at least once where we have taught someone something new or given them a chance to experience something amazing for the very first time, a moment we can see on their faces the second it happens. The reward for both parties is incredible. Ultimately, we want the mission of WMNH to be providing a world-class museum and science education experience to the world, based on the rich fossil history of Seymour, Texas. We are living in a time when the school field trip is going the way of the dinosaur. Education outside of the classroom is a vital tool to expanding our youth’s way of thinking and broadening their access to education. There is a huge world out there, and it’s our responsibility to open as many new doors to the future of our youth as possible.
It looks like there is a lot of ongoing science at the museum. Can you tell us about the research being done?
Dinosaurs are so incredibly sexy- that’s what people are most familiar with in pop-culture. Look at the classic 1933 film King Kong, where the giant ape battled a T. rex and a pterodactyl. And of course, Jurassic Park. Icons of our culture. As much as I love dinosaurs, I have an enduring fondness for the Permian. This is where we find land ecosystems that are dominated by the first large terrestrial carnivores and herbivores. Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus are some of the planet’s first large land-walking meat-eaters and plant-eaters. They thrived some 60 million years before we see creatures that we would call a dinosaur. The WMNH is fascinated by these new ecosystems and the colorful evolutionary history that is told in the rocks right here in Seymour. The best bone-beds in the world that tell the story of these first big land-dominating basal synapsids, reptiles and amphibians are only 5 miles away from our museum.
The Craddock Ranch Bone Bed near Seymour, Texas; Baylor County, represents one of the most faunally diverse samples of Lower Permian terrestrial vertebrate deposits in the world and has yielded abundant fossils of numerous Sphenacodont types as well as more than 12 additional genera and 15 species of reptiles and amphibians. Currently we have over one dozen Dimetrodon skeletons in varying completeness being worked on in the lab and the field. One of the big mysteries darting back to the 1870s in the time of Cope and Sternberg, was how many species of Dimetrodon were there? How do you tell the sex? We’ve made a lot of headway into answering these questions in the last 4 years.
What are your goals for the museum? Are there any research projects or education initiatives you’d like to tackle in the future?
When the late Judge Clyde Whiteside’s dream of building a museum for Seymour, Texas came to fruition, there was a lack of faith from the public that we could maintain WMNH in a town of no more than 2,500 people. The history of small town museums is one marred by short life expectancy due to lack of funding and support. Following our first 4 years of existence, we have seen an overwhelmingly positive and steady attendance of more than 20,000 guests and over 5,000 school children. Our support from the public and especially the community is truly incredible at this point. We have changed a lot of lives for the better, and we provide the community with a healthy source of interactive education that has been long needed. It is becoming progressively challenging for schools to receive funding to provide beneficial learning opportunities outside the classroom. Field Trips are a highly effective supplement to classroom education, as it exposes students to new life experiences. Consequently, their interest and engagement in science is expanded greatly. Field trip programs inspire our youth to explore outside of their normal learning environment, experiencing science first hand from a primary source rather than a textbook. Tighter budgets and standardized tests in schools have resulted in fewer field trip opportunities and often the elimination of field trips all together. The Whiteside Museum of Natural History is committed to expanding the availability of science education to beyond the classroom walls and reinvigorating the importance of school field trips by providing science education to schools at no cost.
On the research side of the fence, we have slowly been attracting more universities to come out to the museum for free Permian Paleontology lectures and dig-site training. This year we had Sul Ross University come out for a day of lectures focusing on paleoecology, biology, and the geosciences including stratigraphy and geology. Following the lectures we took them out to the research field sites to give the students some hands-on experience in digging and collecting, as well as the chance to experience the geology first-hand. I highly encourage students and universities to join us for these field-courses. As we are collecting vertebrate fossils all year round, our collections department has thousands of specimens that are available for students and universities to use for their studies. The nice thing about having our research sites within 5 miles of the museum, is that we can be out at a site and back to the museum on the same day. This is an incredible resource for institutions to utilize.
WMNH is first and foremost a museum of natural history dedicated to the rich paleontological history of the area. But one of the most important things about paleontology is not only what we can learn, but how much of our newfound knowledge we can pass on, and with hopes to inspire the next generation to find their passion in life. Having the opportunity to teach our community, and the world, about the fossils that are incredibly unique to Seymour is a blessing.
To learn more:
Visit http://www.whitesidemuseum.org/ to learn more about the museum