Texas Nessie – NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
In May 1991, avid fossil collector Mike Donovan made an astonishing discovery 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 enjoyed.
Almost twenty years after this remarkable discovery, Donovan’s dream is now a reality. The long and complicated process began in September 2015 when Darlene Sumerfelt, head of the Heard paleontological laboratory and senior preparer, was contacted by Debera Donovan about her late husband’s fossil collection, which contained a wide variety of bones in more of 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 from SMU performed an initial assessment. This analysis revealed that about 40% of the skeleton was present and that the plesiosaur was a species of Trinacromerum. The bones of the skull 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 shed light on the relationships between this group of plesiosaurs. Additionally, it may provide clues as to how these animals evolved and distributed the ecosystem around 93 million years ago in what is now the DFW area. This makes the specimen not only a fine example of a plesiosaur fossil, but also an example of great scientific value.
Specific locality information for the specimen is lacking and can only be restricted to the west-central part of Collin County. Fortunately, while preparing the bones, Sumerfelt found several imprints of ammonite in the matrix surrounding the bones. The prints were sent to an ammonite expert who identified them as Collignoniceras woollgari regulare, which provides precise stratigraphic placement. Therefore, this specimen probably came from the lowest ten meters of the Arcadia Park formation of the Eagle Ford Group, which provides an approximate age of 93 million years.
Preparation of the plesiosaur bones took place over a four-year period using pneumatic tools called airscribes to slowly peel the rock enveloping the bones. The preparation team led by Sumerfelt included Joan and Richard Sheppard and Fletcher Wise. As the preparation progressed, Mike Donovan’s dream of seeing this fossil become a fully assembled museum exhibit also became Sumerfelt’s dream. Funds are expected to be raised as a 14-foot full plesiosaur museum stand and exhibition enclosure would be far beyond the means of a non-profit museum. Fortunately, funding was secured from many sources, including the Dallas Paleo Society, and the project progressed, hiring Triebold Paleontology in Woodland Park, Colorado, to mount the bones for the exhibit. Shortly after delivery to Triebold, the COVID shutdown began and the project was put on hold. Work resumed a few months later and ended in February 2021.
During the time when the bones were in Colorado, artist Pamela Riddle was busy creating a beautiful digital mural for the exhibit. The mural is 22 feet long and depicts a plesiosaur along with other creatures from the time this plesiosaur lived.
In late February 2021, Triebold Paleontology delivered and installed the 14-foot-long plesiosaur. Sumerfelt and his team designed the text panels for the exhibit and contractors were hired to do the enclosure and lighting for the exhibit.
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 exhibit has finally come true. Thanks to six years of coordinated efforts by dedicated experts and volunteers, this exhibition presents a magnificent scientifically important specimen, representing dreams fulfilled, thousands of hours of work and generous and gracious donations from the community. Bringing Texas Nessie to the Heard Museum has truly been a labor of love.
The Heard would like to thank the Debera Donovan Foundation for this generous donation.
The exhibition is now open and “Nessie” is ready to pose with you with her fabulous toothy smile!
In life, this vicious predator had a streamlined body and reportedly looked a lot like a giant penguin swimming in water. The plesiosaurs propelled themselves with four fins. The two at the front were for propulsion and the two at the rear were used as rudders for steering. Each fin moved in a manner similar to a penguin’s wing, moving backward to move quickly through the water. Penguins are among the fastest oceanic predators when they “fly” through water. Plesiosaurs could have been as fast or faster with their two pairs of “wings”.
This plesiosaur lived in the Cretaceous, 93 million years ago, in a great inland seaway that divided the North American continent into two mainland masses. The Inland 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. That’s why this huge sea creature was found in our own backyard!
Soft tissue prints were found showing that the skin of the plesiosaur had a smooth surface without scales.
Based on the nested design of their teeth, it is speculated that their diet likely included fish. Their long, curved teeth could have enabled them to impale and hold back their slippery prey. Plesiosaurs did not have gills. They were reptiles breathing air. They could, however, remain submerged for long periods. They were also viviparous, that is, they gave birth to live young. Evidence has been found of an adult female plesiosaur with a fetus inside.
About the Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary
The Heard was founded in 1967 by Bessie Heard. Miss Heard was 80 when she saw the need to preserve a place where future generations could experience nature. Today, Heard’s mission to bring nature and people together to discover, appreciate, experience, restore and preserve our invaluable environment is achieved through education, especially of young people, which emphasizes the appreciation of nature and its conservation. For more information, visit www.heardmuseum.org.
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Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary
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McKinney, TX 75069