Prehistoric discovery

Prehistoric discovery

By Wyndi Veigel

If you’re a fan of fishing, boating or swimming in Lake Lavon, you might be surprised to discover the area now covered by the lake has a bit of a prehistoric past.

A Wylie family with an affinity for combing the shores of the lake looking for small fossils made quite the discovery on Super Bowl Sunday 2019.

Matthew Payne, his wife Tana Trent and her daughter Landry, 11, uncovered an 80-million-year old mosasaur skeleton. 

Though the animal’s name may sound like a dinosaur, and it did appear in the Jurassic Park series, it is in fact a marine lizard, according to Michael Polcyn, Senior Fellow at Southern Methodist University Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

The discovery of the marine lizard wasn’t, well, all that unusual for the family. This is their third mosasaur fossil find in Collin County.

“As a family it’s something we do together,” Matt said. “We look for small fossils and crystals and go on ‘treasure hunts.’”

In June 2014, Matt, his daughter Karmyn Magdaleno, 20, and Tana found a lone bone in the flood pasture directly across the street from the Sachse Walmart on Hwy. 78, lying on the top of the

After emailing a photo of the bone to Dr. Dale Winkler at SMU, it was identified as a mosasaur vertebra.

The family’s second mosasaur discovery occurred on Super Bowl Sunday 2017 when Tana and her 16-year-old daughter, Conoly Trent, were walking along the shores of Collin Park at Lake Lavon. This time, they found 16 bleached, exposed bones laying on the surface.

Once again, they sent photos to Dr. Winkler who confirmed it was another mosasaur. They were introduced to Polcyn, who is an expert on mosasaurs.

After securing a permit to excavate, Polycn and his team were able to dig the bones out. The total excavation only took a few hours.

To the untrained eye the mosasaur skeleton might have gone unnoticed on that fateful day in April, but to Matt, whose nickname is ‘Eagle Eyes,’ he could tell that something was abnormal in the pile of rocks.

That abnormality turned out to be a large rib bone and part of a sternum from a mosasaur. 

This time the family called Polcyn directly and permits were acquired to complete the excavation. As one could imagine, the scientist was

surprised and extremely thrilled to hear from the family again.

“It’s rare enough to find one so it was a bit of a surprise,” Polcyn said. “But citizens like this are so important and it’s fantastic that they are able to bring finds to the attention of scientists.”

As the excavation began, a closed group on social media was formed to keep the now federally protected site a secret while allowing trustworthy individuals the ability to see the archeological dig.

“Excavating bones is really interesting,” Matt said. “The community and locals have enjoyed seeing this.”

As the dig continued for four days, more and more parts of the marine lizard were uncovered including parts not previously discovered.

“We found some significant skull bones, limbs and girdle material which is quite rare,” Polcyn said. “We have a few pieces that we didn’t know about.”

During the archeological dig, the bones are individually uncovered, then covered with plaster and then removed in order to preserve the bones.

Immobilizing the bone keeps them safe, much like a cast does after a broken bone on a human, Polcyn explained.

After the plaster hardens, the bones are transported back to the lab at SMU where they can be uncast and then assembled into a skeleton – a process that can take months or even years.

Polcyn explained that since the dig site is federally protected, only those associated with the SMU team are allowed to dig at the site. Members of the team included volunteers Bill Johnson, Ricky Manning, Wayne Furstenwerth, Larry Bell, Sandy Polcyn, Susan Smith and Joe Simpson.

Along with the time period, scientists have uncovered that this particular marine lizard is a 12- to 15-foot-long creature of the species Latoplatecarpus willistoni. Based on the fossil discovery, it is estimated that the mosasaur was close to an adult in age, Polcyn said. 

The mosasaur species typically dined on fish with its needle-like teeth, as well as octopus relatives and even jellyfish. 

Since Lake Lavon doesn’t contain octopus or jellyfish, and isn’t prehistoric in nature, one might question how a marine lizard came to be found on its banks.

“They are being found currently because of erosion,” Polcyn said.

During the time that mosasaurs were alive, much of Texas was covered by water as part of the Western Interior Seaway, allowing the marine lizards the perfect environment to thrive, dine on fish and eventually die.

After the fossils are uncovered and uncast, they will become part of the Shuler Museum of Paleontology at SMU, which will give scientists the ability to study the bones and learn more about the marine lizards.

SMU also works closely with the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas to aid in its dinosaur collection.

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