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As a paleontologist and the Witte Museum‘s curator of paleontology and geology, Thomas Adams sees his job as being something of an interpreter.
“We want to tell the Texas narrative because there’s a story to be told,” Adams said. “It’s already written in rocks. We just need to translate it.”
For Adams, some of that translation is informed by his own discoveries. He has unearthed a new species of prehistoric crocodile, one he named Deltasuchus motherali and outlined in a recent scholarly article. The species was about 20 feet in length and a top predator in the food chain when it roamed Texas millions of years ago.
Adams, along with co-authors Chris Noto at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and Stephanie Drumheller-Horton at the University of Tennessee, published the description of the new crocodile species earlier this month in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. This is the third new species Adams has discovered and named. His most recent find, the species’ partial skull, was unearthed in North Texas in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
Funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society, the excavation site in Arlington has a surprisingly complete ancient ecosystem ranging from about 95 million to 100 million years old, when all of Texas was underwater except for a peninsula that included what is now the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Adams called his work “a unique opportunity to document a site about a period we know little about, the Middle Cretaceous.”
The Cretaceous period occurred between 145.5 million and 65.5 million years ago. During the mid-Cretaceous, the planet’s land mass split into several smaller continents, creating large-scale geographic isolation and expansive new coastlines.
Texas is a rich source of paleontological research, with 22 different counties having dinsoaur track sites, Adams said.
“The highest concentration of dinosaur tracks in the world is right here in Texas,” he said. “The tracks represent a period of time in Texas when seas were rising and animals were taking advantage of open shorelines to walk across the state.”
Deltasuchus motherali is the second fossil Adams has named since joining the Witte. He came to the museum in January 2013 to consult on the design of the first permanent dinosaur gallery in the 90-year history of the museum, the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery. At the time, he was teaching geology at San Antonio College and was the local expert brought in to help with developing the Witte’s traveling exhibit, Dinosaurs UnEarthed. Once he turned his attention to the dinosaur hall, Adams thought about how paleontology would complement the Witte’s educational mission.
In the process, he became the Witte’s first paleontologist, one with more than 20 years experience as scientist working in the field, researching fossils and authoring scientific papers. Adams holds a doctorate degree in geology from Southern Methodist University.
The Witte’s first foray into paleontology was its work in 2014 in partnership with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to document the dinosaur tracks at Government Canyon State Natural Area, where more than 300 footprints were uncovered.
Adams’ mission is to create a new paleontology program at the Witte from the ground up.
“We have an opportunity to build a program that serves not only the museum but the entire community, working with students via different programs across the city,” Adams said. “It allows us to play on an international field and do something unique in San Antonio, since research on paleontology tends to be limited here.”
Since joining the Witte, Adams has been approached by students interested in pursuing paleontology, with some volunteering as interns to do research.
“They can learn how to curate and manage collections and how to write and present a research paper,” Adams said. “We provide opportunities for students that they don’t ordinarily get.”
Adams is always on the hunt for the next big discovery, encouraging those who may have found potential fossils on their property to contact the Witte and ask for the paleontologist to help with identification.
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“For us to understand the future, we need to understand the past, not just historical but the geological,” Adams said. “We know that climate change has happened in the past, so we can look at the fossil record and see how they adapted to that before.”
As for his most recent discovery, fossil crocodiles such as Deltasuchus “help us understand how diversity changes in Texas, specifically as well as globally over time, because the evolutionary history of animals helps us understand what is happening to life as a whole.”
A native of Iowa who has lived in San Antonio since 2005, Adams balances his work at the Witte with his original research in paleontology and geology, and he makes time for programs that expand the Witte’s reach. In June, Adams accompanied students from Trinity University to Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in China as their on-site instructor for field geology.
“By my working in unison with programs such as the one at Trinity, it enables the Witte to go beyond the four walls of the museum to go into the community with expertise that can enrich the lives of those interested in the geological history of Texas,” Adams said. “That’s how I was inspired, by a wonderful mentor when I was a student who taught me about paleontology.
“We aim for the Witte to inspire a new generation of paleontologists and geologists.”