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

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

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

Six Dedman College faculty members recommended for tenure and promotion

Congratulations to the faculty members who are newly tenured or have been promoted to full professorships to begin the 2016-17 academic year.

Recommended for tenure and promotion to Full Professor:

Recommended for promotion to Full Professor:

For the full SMU faculty list READ MORE

Scientists offer explanation on how oil and gas activity triggers North Texas earthquakes

Dallas Morning News

Originally Posted: July 25, 2016

In a long-awaited study, researchers have offered a possible explanation for how oil and gas activity may have triggered earthquakes in Dallas and Irving last year.

The disposal of wastewater from oil and gas production and hydraulic fracturing “plausibly” set off the tremors, which shook Dallas, Irving, Highland Park and other cities from April 2014 through January 2016, said Matthew Hornbach, the study’s lead author and professor of geophysics at Southern Methodist University.

While the quakes were too small to cause much damage to buildings, they spread alarm through a metro area unaccustomed to feeling the ground shift.

The quakes contributed to a tenfold increase in North Texas’ earthquake hazard level, prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to warn of stronger quakes that could cause billions of dollars of damage, and moved local emergency managers to begin preparing for worst-case scenarios.

The study, posted online this week in the peer-reviewed journal Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, is the first scientific work to offer an explanation for the Dallas and Irving quakes. It also provides new evidence that other recent quakes in North Texas’ were likely induced by humans.

Such findings in recent years have prompted pushback from oil and gas companies. This week, through a trade group, they again came out swinging. Steve Everley, a spokesman for an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, questioned the scientists’ work. “Were they looking for media attention?” Everley said in an email. “The authors’ willingness to shift assumptions to fit a particular narrative is concerning, to say the least.”

The state agency that regulates oil and gas, the Railroad Commission, said in a statement that it was reviewing the report “to fully understand its methodology and conclusions.”

Independent experts contacted by The Dallas Morning News praised the study, while cautioning that more work remains before the cause of the Dallas and Irving earthquakes can be firmly established.

“It’s the single best explanation for the increase in earthquakes within the Dallas-Fort Worth basin,” said Rall Walsh, a Ph.D. candidate in geophysics at Stanford University who studies human-triggered earthquakes. READ MORE

Meet the Scientist, Paleontology

Originally Posted: June 29, 2016

SMU alumna, Katharina Marino, who used to prepare fossils in the Shuler labs and then worked as an educator at the Perot Museum, is now pursuing a Master’s degree in science communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand.  She has started a blog in which she interviews scientists.  Her first interviewee is another SMU alum, Yuri Kimura, who received her Ph.D. at the same time Katharina received her Bachelor’s degree.  Please click the link below to read this very nice interview from two of our finest.


New study by geophysicists Zhong Lu, professor, Shuler-Foscue Chair, and Jin-Woo Kim research scientist, Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, finds massive sinkholes are unstable

Science Daily

Originally Posted: June 14, 2016

Geohazard: Giant sinkholes near West Texas oil patch towns are growing — as new ones lurk

Satellite radar images reveal ground movement of infamous sinkholes near Wink, Texas; suggest 2 existing holes are expanding, and new ones are forming as nearby subsidence occurs at an alarming rate

Two giant sinkholes that sit between two West Texas oil patch towns are growing — and two new ones appear to be lurking, say geophysicists. Satellite radar images reveal substantial ground movement in and around the infamous sinkholes near Wink, Texas — suggesting expansion of the two existing holes, with subsidence in two other nearby areas suggesting new ones may surface. READ MORE


Geohazard: Giant sinkholes near West Texas oil patch towns are growing — as new ones lurk

SMU Research

Originally Posted: June 13, 2016

Residents of Wink and neighboring Kermit have grown accustomed to the two giant sinkholes that sit between their small West Texas towns.

But now radar images taken of the sinkholes by an orbiting space satellite reveal big changes may be on the horizon.

A new study by geophysicists at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, finds the massive sinkholes are unstable, with the ground around them subsiding, suggesting the holes could pose a bigger hazard sometime in the future.

The two sinkholes — about a mile apart — appear to be expanding. Additionally, areas around the existing sinkholes are unstable, with large areas of subsidence detected via satellite radar remote sensing.

That leaves the possibility that new sinkholes, or one giant sinkhole, may form, said geophysicists and study co-authors Zhong Lu, professor, Shuler-Foscue Chair, and Jin-Woo Kim research scientist, in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU. READ MORE

New research on Alamosaurus

Journal of Systematic Palaeontology

Originally Posted: June 6, 2016

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Ronald S. Tykoski and Anthony R. Fiorillo recently published new research titled, An articulated cervical series of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis Gilmore, 1922 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from Texas: new perspective on the relationships of North America’s last giant sauropod.



Matthew Siegler, Earth Sciences, What If The Moon Were Bigger?


Originally Posted: May 25, 2016

The questions kids ask about science aren’t always easy to answer. Sometimes, their little brains can lead to big places adults forget to explore. With that in mind, we’ve started a new series called Science Question From a Toddler, which will use kids’ curiosity as a jumping-off point to investigate the scientific wonders that adults don’t even think to ask about. I want the toddlers in your life to be a part of it! Send me their science questions and they may serve as the inspiration for a column. And now, our toddler …

Q: How big is the moon? What if it were bigger? — Hagen G., age 5

The first part of your question is easy-peasy. The moon has a circumference of 6,783.5 miles, about 27 percent that of Earth. Imagine setting out from Boston and walking to Peshawar, Pakistan. (Don’t do this. Among other hazards, there is an ocean in the way.) That same walk would take you all the way around the moon at its equator. Here’s another way to think of it: If Earth is a softball, then the moon is a shooter marble. (The circumference of the sun, in this analogy, is represented by the General Sherman sequoia, one of the largest trees in the world.)

But what about a bigger moon? This part of your question took me from a simple Google search to sitting on the telephone with a planetary scientist while we both made thinking sounds and waved our hands around in an attempt to gesture our way through logical speculation about gravitational physics. So, thanks for that, Hagen.

The scientist, Matthew Siegler, is a research assistant professor at Southern Methodist University and an associate research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.1 He told me that the question of what would happen if the moon were bigger matters because the moon and Earth are a system. Our gravitational pull affects the moon. The moon’s gravitational pull affects us. We’re linked to each other by the push and pull of invisible hands. And that has some big impacts on our planet. READ MORE