Monday, December 13, 2010

Samuel W. Williston and the Meeting of Science and Art

Wet Willi! New Dimetrodon Discovered by HMNS Team
Image provided by the HMNH, via flickr.

When the Houston Museum of Natural Science reveals its remodeled paleontology hall in 2012, its recent discovery of a nearly complete, articulated Dimetrodon will be a beautiful centerpiece for the portion dedicated to the Permian era. The Permian is well represented in the Lone Star State, and as the biggest predator of the time, sail-backed Dimetrodon is its most famous denizen. Often mistaken for a dinosaur, as most large, strange looking beasts of the past are apt to be, Dimetrodon was a synapsid, more closely related to you and I than to Apatosaurus and Triceratops. The branch of the evolutionary tree that bore Dimetrodon was an offshoot of the one that led to the early mammals of the Mesozoic era, though by that time, Dimetrodon was long extinct.

The beast's nickname, "Wet Willi," is a tribute to Samuel Wendell Williston, an American paleontologist who started his career as one of O.C. Marsh's fossil hunters during his Bone Wars with E.D. Cope in the last quarter of the 19th Century. Williston helped excavate the type species of Allosaurus and Diplodocus for Marsh, and like many paleontologists of the time, his interests were broad. Naming a Dimetrodon after him is fitting; he was active in the area where Wet Willi was found and in 1911, he wrote the book American Permian Vertebrates. Remarkably, Williston produced all of his own artwork for his books and papers, which included not only detailed reconstructions of fossil bones but life restorations.

Pelycosaur bones, as drawn by Williston. Fig. I - VI are radii and ulnae of Varanosaurus; Fig VII A-C are of an odontoid of an undetermined pelycosaur; and Fig VIII is the carpus, or wrist, of a Dimetrodon. From American Permian Vertebrates.

Williston was one of those special scientists who are lucky enough to possess artistic talents, as well. I'm always impressed by those who can do both. Both skills require keen observation, patience, and discipline. Both nurture each other. I really hope the museum can find some small way to pay tribute to this aspect of Williston's work in their exhibit- emphasizing the ways the creative and the analytical can work together can only help draw more youth to science.

Dimetrodon restoration by Samuel W. Williston, from his Water Reptiles of the Past and Present.

Richard Swann Lull's biographical memoir of Williston
Excerpts from A Brief History of Fossil Collecting in the Niobrara Chalk prior to 1900
The Williston Facebook page

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