Steven J. Norris, Ph.D., Greer Professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, broke new ground for himself in November by giving his first ever lecture on fossils from the Permian period at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences (HMNS).
Norris spoke to fossil enthusiasts and the general public Nov. 14 about fossils uncovered during excavations in Seymour, Texas. The HMNS showcased fossilized bones of numerous animals from over 280 million years ago, and Norris put his extensive knowledge – and powerful microscopes – to work, revealing a microscopic world beyond looking at bones in a display case. Norris has been a member of the HMNS Paleontology team since 2014 and has gone to the dig site in Seymour several times, but this was the first time he has given a talk at the museum. He previously spoke on the HMNS Facebook page Nov. 5 about his research into the excavations, and also gave a talk at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting in 2017.
“I’ve been interested in paleontology since I was a child,” Norris said. “This is the first opportunity I’ve had to really engage in it as a hobby.”
Norris fondly recalls having a series of Golden Books about dinosaurs as a young boy, and as he grew older his fascination in evolution grew with him. Norris has taught histology to both medical and graduate students at the medical school, and his experience lends itself to exploring fossils on a more intricate, microscopic level.
“The type of work I’m doing is focused on sections of fossilized bones, and during my lecture I described the structure of the bones in the animal,” Norris said. “I also covered how we treat the fossil with specialized chemical agents that can dissolve the bone matrix within the specimen.” This approach has revealed the elaborate outlines of blood vessels and osteocytes (bone cells), as well as flexible remnants of the layers laid down as the bone grew.
Such work involves a bit of patience and plenty of persistence, not unlike the excavations themselves, Norris said. Fortunately for researchers, the Seymour area has an abundance of fossils from the Permian period belonging to ancient reptiles that predate the dinosaurs.
“Once an area containing fossils has been identified, it’s a matter of carefully excavating it,” Norris said. “When uncovered, the specimens are removed in as intact a state as possible and taken to a lab where they can delicately prepared.”
The connection between paleontology and medicine isn’t as far removed as one might think, he said.
“We’re finding out just how similar these ancient reptiles were to modern-day animals. That kind of teaches you that all of the same processes or building blocks that are present in humans had already evolved in these amazing animals over 280 million years ago,” Norris said.
Norris said he looks forward to future collaborations with HMNS and more discoveries.
“I’m going to continue doing this work for a long time,” Norris said.