Department of Earth Sciences alumni display SMU pride at Hokkaido University Museum


On the right is Dr. Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, a professor at Hokkaido University, Soporo, Japan.  He received a master’s and Ph.D. In Earth Sciences from SMU.  On the left is Yosuke Nishida, now an editor for Springer based in Tokyo, who received his MS in Earth Sciences from SMU.  The photos were taken in the Hokkaido University Museum.

Dale Winkler, Shuler Museum of Paleontology, featured in a series of essays on the Trinity Project, published on Frontburner

D Magazine, Frontburner

Originally Posted: October 11, 2016

In addition to Pioneer Cemetery, there’s another quiet space in Dallas that holds the bones of ancestors: the Shuler Museum of Paleontology, located on the SMU campus. The Shuler Museum has no fully assembled skeletons of prehistoric carnivores on premises or other dazzling displays (though the day I visited, there was a stack of giant turtle shells in plaster jackets in the hallway, outside the entrance). For one, the museum is a shoebox of a space located on the basement floor of the Earth Sciences building. There isn’t the room for that sort of thing. Second, the fossils here function as teaching and research collections. A casual visit from a non-expert like me requires an appointment and a great amount of patience from the host, which I received in abundance from vertebrate paleontologist and museum director Dale A. Winkler.

The museum is arranged library-style with mastodon tusks and similar large bones laid out neatly on gray industrial shelving, while smaller specimens — teeth, small bone, shell, scute, and more — are held in cabinets with pullout trays lined in soft material and organized by collection. The occasion for my visit was to view those specimens described by Bob H. Slaughter and others in the 1962 report “The Hill-Shuler Local Faunas of the Upper Trinity River, Dallas and Denton Counties, Texas.”

My questions, then as now, are basic: what kinds of animal roamed the area now known as the Great Trinity Forest? What kinds of plants and trees were present? What was the climate like? How was the Trinity River floodplain formed?

Answers to these questions can be supplied in part because there’s a fossil record, thanks to the efforts of Winkler, Slaughter, and Ellis W. Shuler, the person for whom the museum is named. Shuler was hired by SMU in 1915, the year it opened, to teach geology and related courses. He served as head of the Geology Department and Dean of Graduate Studies until his retirement, in 1953.

As a researcher, Shuler often wrote about subjects close at hand: dinosaur tracks at Glen Rose, geology of Dallas County, terraces of the Trinity, and vertebrate fossils in river deposits. In a 1934 report, he posited, “The industrial use of sand and gravel in the City of Dallas has uncovered almost daily over a period of 50 years bones of fossil elephants.” That’s because, according to Shuler, “the best preserved fossils are found in the sand terraces along the Trinity river about 50 feet above the present floodplain.”

He did more than observe Dallas’ “fossil elephants” (or more precisely, mammoths); he convinced the operators of local quarries, who routinely tossed fossil remains “aside on the dump heap,” to allow him to excavate. That’s no small task, getting a business to stop the wheels of progress to dig for fossil elephants. This is especially true for sand and gravel operations, which have been a lucrative enterprise in the Dallas area since at the early 1840s. Sand and gravel, then as now, provide the essential ingredients for building a modern city — roads, runways, structures, pipelines, culverts. A Dallas Morning News headline from 1946 says it all: “No Oil on Your Land? Then Try for Gravel.”

In the late 1950s, Slaughter continued the tradition Shuler had begun. He was given permission from Dallas quarry owners to excavate fossil-rich zones. Two of those quarries — called the Moore pit and the Wood pit — were located 700 yards apart in an area off South Loop 12 (now called South Great Trinity Forest Way). A third site, called Pemberton Hill, was situated 400 yards to the northwest of the Moore pit.

Labor at these three locations unearthed evidence of: ancient camel, bison, armadillo, sloth, saber-tooth cat, mastodon, mammoth, wolf, tapir, turtle, crocodile, eagle, a variety of horses, vole, mink, hare, and more.

During excavation at the Moore pit, one of the numerous clay balls regularly encountered in the sand was inadvertently sliced open. Inside was a coprolite (fossilized dung) that contained the hard parts of insects, later identified as: beetle, ant, bee, wasp, stink bug, leaf bug, cockroach, cricket, millipede, and centipede.

Slaughter and colleagues dated the alluvial deposits where specimens were found in excess of 37,000 years, or late Pleistocene. For an age comparison, the city of Dallas received its town charter a mere 160 years ago.

Once the Moore and Wood pits had been depleted of sand and gravel, and excavation stopped, another enterprise emerged in the early 1980s for which the citizens of Dallas continue to pay. The giant holes from mining were filled with trash — illegal, hazardous trash over a long period of time.

What Slaughter called the Wood pit, a mining operation located at the south end of Deepwood Street, was at the heart of Herman Nethery’s notorious Deepwood landfill. In 1997, the massive landfill caught fire and burned for 52 days. After an extensive environmental cleanup on the city’s dime, the site became the Trinity River Audubon Center in 2008.

Not all municipalities treat their mammoth sites the same way, and at least one North Texas gravel pit owner has reached out to paleontologists with an invitation to dig, rather than the other way around. The “fossil-rich alluvial terrace deposits” of Shuler’s and Slaughter’s time are of our time, too. What will we choose to do with the resources under our stewardship in the name of progress? READ MORE

Touring the Perot’s Giant Gems of the Smithsonian with a Local Gem and Mineral Hunter

Dallas Observer

Originally Posted: October 11, 2016

It all started with a load of gravel hauled in from around the Trinity River.

When Bill Candler, former president of the Oak Cliff Gem and Mineral Society, was 5 years old he found a few fossils out in the driveway and displayed them in his bedroom. He was incensed when he later discovered them in the driveway once again after his mother had thrown them out. He was a rock hound.

This weekend, Candler toured the Perot Museum of Science and Nature’s Giant Gems of the Smithsonian collection, which has never been seen together anywhere. Resting among the colored brilliance, sits a golden topaz weighing more than 10 pounds.

“We find topaz here in Texas,” Candler said. “The rare ones have a little blue tint.”

Blue topaz, the state gemstone of Texas, can be found in the central part of the state around Llano, Candler said. The mineral comes in many colors, and the clear ones can be irradiated, which turns it a blue color and makes the gem more likely to be hoarded by a collector.

“While most of the world’s blue topaz has been enhanced by irradiation, Texas’ is naturally occurring and is sometimes faceted or cut to show a star in the middle of the stone,” he said.

While the terrain in North Texas holds fossilized treasures, because limestone is the predominant rock, collectors can’t expect to find many coveted specimens lying around locally, Candler said. They may have to wander over to East Texas where petrified wood can be found, or to the Big Bend area which has some of the finest agates in the world.

Gem and mineral enthusiasts also score finds during field trips conducted on private ranches. Different parts of the country produce different types of specimens, Candler said, pointing to a display of tree-like, dendritic gold in one of the museum’s regular exhibits and noting that many examples come out of California. He also said some of the finest specimens were hauled out of mines inside a miner’s lunchbox.

Candler said while rock picks are essential, a rock hunter’s most important tool is a dollar squirt bottle with water in it to help get the dirt off so a person can tell whether or not they want to carry a rock back to their car. All rock hounds collect “leaverite,” Candler said, which he described as “a rock you want to leave right there.”

“You don’t want to carry 500 pounds of rocks back to your car,” he said.

A green beryl, or emerald, necklace.

A green beryl, or emerald, necklace.
courtesy Perot Museum

Minerals form inside a hollow spot of a molten rock, Candler explained, and when fluid cools off fast crystals grow. But the slower it cools, the bigger the crystals. Slow cooling air pockets within the earth give minerals a chance to find each other, he said, so you might have a pocket of fluorite, quartz, aquamarine and topaz all together.

“Usually you’ve got a bunch of elements combined to make one mineral,” said Candler, who studied geology prior to business and real estate at SMU. READ MORE


Special DPS – SMU Lecture! October 4

Tuesday, Oct 4th, 7:30 PM, 153 Heroy Hall, Southern Methodist University

Dr. Barbara Seuss of Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, will speak on “The Buckhorn Asphalt Quarry – An upper Carboniferous ‘Impregnation Lagerstätte’ “. In the Arbuckles near Sulphur, Oklahoma, a Pennsylvanian asphalt seep preserved aragonitic shells, tiny larvae and protoconchs, and delicate ornamentation and microstructure of many species. The deposit contains the best preserved Paleozoic molluscs in the world. Dr. Seuss will discuss the geology of the deposit, its facies and fauna, isotopic analyses, and bio-erosion and predation observed in some of the fossils. SMU faculty, students, and DPS members and friends are invited to this free lecture. Parking will be free in the lot just W of Heroy Hall.

For more information:
Dr. Bonnie Jacobs, Professor
Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences SMU

Geophysics in Alaska 2016

SMU Adventures

Originally Posted: September 27, 2016

Two SMU graduate student researchers, with SMU Professor of Geophysics Matthew Hornbach, traveled to the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, to participate in a research project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to chart heat flow and chirp data on the ocean floor. This research project team, which includes two geophysicists from Oregon State University: Dr. Robert Harris and SMU alumnus Dr. Ben Phrampus ’15, is working aboard the Norseman II research vessel. READ MORE

Fondren library closed Saturday, September 17th

Fondren Library will be closed this Saturday, September 17th for Game Day. Regular hours will resume Sunday September 18th at Noon. READ MORE 

SMU climbs to 56 in U.S. News & World Report rankings

SMU News

Originally Posted: September 13, 2016

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU rose to its highest ranking among the nation’s universities in the 2017 edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges, released online today.

Among 220 institutions classified as national universities, SMU ranks 56, up from 61 a year ago.

The new ranking again places SMU in the first tier of institutions in the guide’s “best national universities” category. In Texas, only Rice University ranks higher. SMU and the University of Texas-Austin were tied.  Among private national universities, SMU ranks 39.

SMU’s increase was one of the five largest among the top 100 universities. Since 2008, SMU’s 11-point increase is one of the four largest among schools in the top 60.

For the rankings, U.S. News considers measures of academic quality, such as peer assessment scores and ratings by high school counselors, faculty resources, student selectivity, graduation rate performance, financial resources and alumni giving. SMU ranks 24 among all national universities in alumni giving at 25 percent.

In other ranking categories, SMU ranks 32 as one of the best national universities for veterans.

“It is gratifying for SMU to be recognized for its positive movement among the best national universities,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “The ranking is an example of the momentum of the Second Century Campaign and the University’s Centennial Celebration.

“We appreciate external recognition of our progress and believe it’s valid, but we also know that rankings do not portray the whole picture of an institution and its strengths. We encourage parents and students to visit the institutions they are considering for a firsthand look at the academic offerings, the campus environment and the surrounding community to best gauge a university.”

The rankings of 1,374 institutions, including national universities, liberal arts colleges, regional colleges and regional universities, are available now online and on newsstands Sept. 23. Find the “Best Colleges 2017” guidebook in stores Oct. 4. READ MORE


Follow Geothermal Lab researchers as they collect heat flow and seismic chirp data in Alaska

SMU Geothermal Lab

Originally Posted: September 8, 2016

mattrobcaseybenalaska-300x200SMU Geothermal Lab researchers Dr. Matt Hornbach, Madie Jones, and Casey Brokaw along with OSU researchers Dr. Rob Harris and Dr. Ben Phrampus are collecting heat flow and seismic chirp data in Alaska. READ MORE

Watch: SMU geophysics professor discusses earthquake


Originally Posted: September 4, 2016

A 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit Oklahoma Saturday morning, prompting officials to shut down dozens of waste water disposal wells within a 500-square-mile area of the quake’s epicenter.

The earthquake tied the record for the strongest ever recorded in Oklahoma. The earthquake epicenter was about 9 miles northwest of Pawnee. One surveillance video from a public school in North Central Oklahoma shows the moment the tremors started.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered that 35 wells be shut down due to evidence that links earthquakes to the underground disposal of wastewater from oil and gas production. WATCH