The Heard’s indoor exhibits provide an interactive environment in which visitors can discover, enjoy and experience various aspects of the Texas natural environment. The exhibits also enhance the experience of visitors to The Heard by providing interpretation of natural events and objects found that might otherwise be overlooked or misunderstood when encountered on the wildlife sanctuary.
The Heard Museum currently offers exhibits on Texas’ venomous snakes, rocks, minerals and fossils, seashells and marine life, North Texas ecosystems, a children’s fossil dig, a marine room, and more. Exhibits at the Heard Museum provide valuable learning opportunities for the more than 20,000 students who visit each year.
In May of 1991, avid fossil collector Mike Donovan made an amazing find in Collin County: the partial skeleton of a plesiosaur. He nicknamed the fossil “Texas Nessie” and spoke often of how he hoped the bones would eventually be displayed in a museum, where they could be viewed and appreciated.
Nearly twenty years after that remarkable discovery, Donovan’s dream is now a reality. The lengthy, complicated process began in September of 2015 when Darlene Sumerfelt, Heard Paleontological Lab Manager and Lead Preparator, was contacted by Debera Donovan regarding her late husband’s fossil collection, which contained a wide variety of bones in addition to the partial skeleton of a plesiosaur. After the bones were donated to the Heard Museum by the Debera Donovan Foundation on September 30, 2015, Sumerfelt and plesiosaur expert Mike Polcyn of SMU, performed an initial evaluation. That analysis revealed that approximately 40% of the skeleton was present and that the plesiosaur was a species of Trinacromerum. The skull bones were unique in that they were not compressed, as is the case with most other known specimens of this type of plesiosaur. In fact, the preservation and completeness of this specimen provides anatomical details that will help illuminate the relationships among this group of plesiosaurs. Additionally, it may provide clues about how these animals were evolving and dividing up the ecosystem about 93-million-years-ago in what is now the DFW area. This makes the specimen not only a beautiful example of a plesiosaur fossil, but also one with great scientific value as well.
Specific locality information for the specimen is lacking and can only be narrowed to the central western part of Collin County. Fortunately, during prep of the bones, Sumerfelt found several ammonite imprints in the matrix surrounding the bones. The imprints were sent to an ammonite expert who identified them as Collignoniceras woollgari regulare, which provides a precise stratigraphic placement. Therefore, this specimen was likely from the lowest ten meters of the Arcadia Park Formation of the Eagle Ford group, which provides an age approximation of 93 million years old.
Preparation of the plesiosaur bones took place over a four-year period using pneumatic tools called airscribes to slowly chip away the rock encasing the bones. The prep team led by Sumerfelt included Joan and Richard Sheppard and Fletcher Wise. As the prep moved forward, Mike Donovan’s dream of seeing this fossil become a full mount museum exhibit became Sumerfelt’s dream as well. Funds would have to be raised as a full 14-foot plesiosaur museum mount and exhibit enclosure would be well beyond the means of a non-profit museum. Thankfully, funding was obtained from many sources which included the Dallas Paleo Society, and the project moved forward, hiring Triebold Paleontology in Woodland Park, Colorado, to mount the bones for display. Soon after delivery to Triebold, the COVID shutdown began, and the project went on hold. Work resumed a few months later and was completed in February 2021.
During the time the bones were in Colorado, artist Pamela Riddle was busy creating a beautiful digital wall mural for the exhibit. The mural is 22 feet long and depicts a plesiosaur as well as other creatures from the time this plesiosaur lived.
In late February 2021, Triebold Paleontology delivered and installed the 14-foot-long plesiosaur. Sumerfelt and her team designed the text panels for the exhibit and contractors were hired to do the exhibit enclosure and lighting.
Decades after that exciting moment when Mike Donovan first discovered and excavated this epic example of an ancient marine predator, his dream of a museum display has finally become a reality. Thanks to six years of coordinated efforts of dedicated experts and volunteers, this exhibit showcases a beautiful, scientifically important specimen, representing dreams fulfilled, thousands of hours of labor, and gracious, generous community donations. Bringing Texas Nessie to the Heard Museum has truly been a labor of love.
The exhibit is now open, and “Nessie” is ready to pose with you with her fabulous, toothy grin!
In life, this vicious predator had a streamlined body and would have looked much like a giant penguin swimming through the water. Plesiosaurs propelled themselves with four flippers. The two in front were for propulsion and the two rear were used like rudders for steering. Each flipper moved in a manner similar to a penguin’s wing, sweeping backward to quickly move through the water. Penguins are among the speediest oceanic predators as they “fly” through the water. Plesiosaurs might have been as fast or faster with their two pairs of “wings.”
This plesiosaur lived in the Cretaceous Period, 93 million years ago, in a large interior seaway that split the continent of North America into two landmasses. The interior seaway stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean in the north. The seaway was filled with abundant marine life including large, predatory, marine reptiles such as the plesiosaur in our exhibit. This is why this huge sea creature was found right in our own backyard!
Soft tissue impressions have been found showing that plesiosaur skin had a smooth surface absent of scales.
Based on the interlocking design of their teeth, it is hypothesized that their diet probably included fish. Their long, curved teeth could have enabled them to impale and hold their slippery prey. Plesiosaurs did not have gills. They were air-breathing reptiles. They could, however, remain submerged for long periods. They were also viviparous, meaning they gave birth to live young. Evidence has been found of an adult female plesiosaur with a fetus inside.
Referred to informally as “Tootsie” and “Peanut,” these tortoises are Stylemys nebrascensis. While this species is similar in some ways to modern tortoises, it lacked foreleg musculature for digging tunnels. These fossils are 34 million years old. Fossils from this species are regularly found in the South Dakota/Nebraska Badlands. Jim Caddell donated these specimens to the Heard in June of 2013. Preparation for displaying these fossils began in the lab in October 2013. After four years and more than 5,000 volunteer hours, they are now on display in the museum.
What Makes This Exhibit Unique
The adult tortoise fossil on exhibit will be mounted much like an ‘exploded’ drawing with the three elements that make up a turtle (carapace, skeleton, and plastron) separated for visual study and examination. This “3D” example will provide a unique educational opportunity for teaching the anatomy of these unique reptiles.
This specimen also provides an opportunity to view a complete fossil Stylemys. This is rare for a number of reasons. Many Stylemys nebrascensis that are discovered do not include the skeleton. Additionally, the entirety of the fossil also comes from a single individual, which is a rare occurrence. Mineral deposits in the shell expand over time, fragmenting the shell. By the time the soil around the fossils erodes and the shell is visible at the surface, sometimes only fragments remain. Often, the tortoises were scavenged after death, leaving the remains in poor condition. Due to the weight (over 200 pounds) adult specimens are seldom collected.
Approximately half of the juvenile tortoise has been prepared and cleaned. The other half remains in its original condition allowing visitors to get a better sense of what the volunteers work on in the preparation process. For this reason, examples of the tools used will also be displayed to demonstrate and educate the museum visitors on the fossil preparation process.
About Turtles and Tortoises
Tortoises are amazing creatures and belong to the order Testudines, which dates back to the Triassic period. They have survived four mass extinctions, ice ages, and continental upheavals. In the vertebrate world, only eel and crocodilian species have a nearly equal longevity. After you have observed these two 34 million-year-old specimens, be sure to observe two modern species of tortoises, also on exhibit at the Heard.
The Living Lab allows people of all ages to explore the natural sciences including biology, ecology and geology and invites a better understanding of The Heard’s most valuable asset—the Heard Wildlife Sanctuary. The section of the museum is complete with specimens to manipulate, measure and observe. Scientific questions are also presented in a fun and interactive fashion. The Living Lab features three dioramas, which provide a glimpse into the major ecosystems found at The Heard. Seasonal features include a working observation bee hive and native fish.
If you enjoy reptiles, Texas is a terrific place to be. With more than 120 species to choose from, our state has more snake species than any other. Several species of native Texas snakes are available for viewing in the exhibit. You will have an opportunity to sort fact from fiction by learning more about the lives of these fascinating, often-feared and misunderstood creatures.
Photographs and the opportunity to closely examine live examples provide a wonderful opportunity to gain knowledge in the identification of snakes. Several species of non-venomous snakes are included for comparison with the venomous species they most resemble. Information on snake bites and venom is available as well.
This village features eight buildings in playhouse scale that emulate structures that would have been typical in prairie settlements in the late 1800s. Kids will love going back in time and have fun playing in and exploring these buildings including a miniature school house, grocery store and settler’s cabins!
Through this exhibit, the Heard hopes to continue to connect visitors to the history of the prairie and also its ecological significance. Less than 1% of the Blackland Prairie remains, making the tallgrass prairie the most-endangered large ecosystem in North America.
School teachers: check website for special pricing for groups and guided-tour opportunities.
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“Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairie Wildlife Management: Historical Perspective” – Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
“Texas Blackland Prairies” – World Wildlife Foundation
“Texas Eco-Regions: Blackland Prairie” – Texas A&M Forest Service
Plants recommended for the Blackland Prairie – Wildflower Center
“General Background on the Blackland Prairie for Teachers” – Austin College
Blackland Prairies Dirty Dozen Invasive Plants – Texas Invasives
“A Prairie in Pieces” – Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine
If you’ve ever walked along a beach, you may have seen firsthand just how numerous and various shells can be. The Shell Room hosts a fascinating collection of preserved invertebrate marine specimens and artifacts collected by Miss Heard over many decades.
Two of the most unique features are the complete life cycle of the Conch and the giant marine clam – a favorite place for kids to sit. You’ll also see corals, sea urchins, a puffer fish and more. This exhibit also shows a small glimpse of the many ways man has used shells in tool making and as a medium for art.
Once described as being so numerous that they obscured the sun when in flight, the Passenger pigeon is now extinct. Though over a century has passed since the loss of this species, it remains a poignant example of nature’s abundance, as well as a powerful reminder of humanity’s ability to exhaust seemingly endless riches. The echoes of the passenger pigeon’s life still resonate today and can teach us lessons of stewardship, hope, and sustainable living for the 21st century.
This exhibit features one of the few known remaining Passenger Pigeon specimens.
Mosasaurs lived in Earth’s oceans when dinosaurs walked the land, approximately 85 million years ago. They are often referred to as the T-Rex of the oceans; however, they are not dinosaurs. They were vicious, carnivorous sea reptiles that could grow up to 50 feet long. 85 million-year-old fossil remains of this large marine reptile are now on display in the Heard’s exhibit hall. Learn how a team of devoted volunteers took it from rock located in Duck Creek in the city of Garland to the museum floor.
The Heard Natural Science Museum maintains an extensive group of natural science collections. The collections include minerals and rocks, sea shells, insects (including moths and butterflies), bird skins, mammal skins and a herbarium. These archived collections are part of The Heard’s resource for its ongoing research, education outreach and natural science exhibits. In addition, The Heard actively creates collections from prairie fragments, small pockets of undeveloped native habitats. This provides an important window into the past or snapshots of prairie flora and fauna as they exist in documented points in time.