Research: New insight into a 19th-century fossil feud

Texas dinosaurs

Research: New insight into a 19th-century fossil feud

In the late 1800s, a flurry of fossil speculation across the American West escalated into a high-profile national feud called the Bone Wars. Drawn into the spectacle were two scientists from the Lone Star State: geologist Robert T. Hill, now acclaimed as the Father of Texas Geology, and naturalist Jacob Boll, who made many of the state’s earliest fossil discoveries.

Hill and Boll had supporting roles in the Bone Wars through their work for one of the feud’s antagonists, Edward Drinker Cope, according to a new study by SMU’s Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College.

The study by Jacobs expands knowledge about Cope’s work with Hill and Boll. It also unveils new details about the Bone Wars in Texas that Jacobs deciphered from 13 letters written by Cope to Hill. Jacobs discovered the letters in an archive of Hill’s papers at SMU’s DeGolyer Library. The letters span seven years, from 1887 to 1894.

Hill, who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, not only provided Cope with fossils of interest but also shared geological information about fossil locales.

Boll, who was a paid collector for Cope — as was the practice at the time — supplied the well-known paleontologist with many fossils from Texas. More than 30 of the taxa ultimately named by Cope were fossils collected by Boll.

“Fossils collected by Boll and studied by Cope have become some of the most significant icons in paleontology,” said Jacobs, president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man. His study, “Jacob Boll, Robert T. Hill, and the Early History of Vertebrate Paleontology in Texas,” is published in the journal Historical Biology as part of the conference volume of the 12th International Symposium on Early Vertebrates/Lower Vertebrates.

Jacobs describes the late 1800s as a period of intense fossil collecting. The Bone Wars were financed and driven by Cope and his archenemy, Othniel Charles Marsh. The two were giants of paleontology whose public feud brought the discovery of dinosaur fossils to the forefront of the American psyche.

Over the course of nearly three decades, however, their competition evolved into a costly, self-destructive, vicious all-out war to see who could outdo the other. Despite their aggressive and sometimes unethical tactics to outwit one another and steal each other’s hired collectors, Cope and Marsh made major contributions to the field of paleontology, Jacobs said.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

September 11, 2012|Research|

Research Spotlight: Digital dino track a roadmap for saving at-risk natural history resources

Portable laser scanning technology allows researchers to tote their latest fossil discovery from the field to the lab in the form of lightweight digital data stored on a laptop. But sharing that data as a 3D model with others requires standard formats that are currently lacking, say SMU paleontologists.

University researchers used portable laser scanning technology to capture field data of a huge 110 million-year-old Texas dinosaur track and then create to scale an exact 3D facsimile. They share their protocol and findings with the public – as well as their downloadable 145-megabyte model – in the online scientific journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

The model duplicates an actual dinosaur footprint fossil that is slowly being destroyed by weathering because it’s on permanent outdoor display, says SMU paleontologist Thomas L. Adams, lead author of the scientific article. The researchers describe in the paper how they created the digital model and discuss the implications for digital archiving and preservation. Click here for the download link.

“This paper demonstrates the feasibility of using portable 3D laser scanners to capture field data and create high-resolution, interactive 3D models of at-risk natural history resources,” write the authors.

“3D digitizing technology provides a high-fidelity, low-cost means of producing facsimiles that can be used in a variety of ways,” they say, adding that the data can be stored in online museums for distribution to researchers, educators and the public.

SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs is one of the coauthors on the article. “The protocol for distance scanning presented in this paper is a roadmap for establishing a virtual museum of fossil specimens from inaccessible corners across the globe,” Jacobs said.

The full-resolution, three-dimensional digital model of the 24-by-16-inch Texas footprint is one of the first to archive an at-risk fossil, the SMU paleontologists say. They propose the term “digitype” for such facsimiles, writing in their article “High Resolution Three-Dimensional Laser-scanning of the type specimen of Eubrontes (?) Glenrosensis Shuler, 1935, from the Comanchean (Lower Cretaeous) of Texas: Implications for digital archiving and preservation.”

Laser scanning is superior to other methods commonly used to create a model because the procedure is noninvasive and doesn’t harm the original fossil, the authors say. Traditional molding and casting procedures, such as rubber or silicon molds, can damage specimens.

But the paleontologists call for development of standard formats to help ensure data accessibility. “Currently there is no single 3D format that is universally portable and accepted by all software manufacturers and researchers,” the authors write.

SMU’s digital model archives a fossil that is significant within the scientific world as a type specimen – one in which the original fossil description is used to identify future specimens. The fossil also has cultural importance in Texas. The track is a favorite from well-known, fossil-rich Dinosaur Valley State Park, where the iconic footprint draws tourists.

The footprint was left by a large three-toed, bipedal, meat-eating dinosaur, most likely the theropod Acrocanthosaurus. The dinosaur probably left the footprint as it walked the shoreline of an ancient shallow sea that once immersed Texas, Adams said. The track was described and named in 1935 as Eubrontes (?) glenrosensis. Tracks are named separately from the dinosaur thought to have made them, he explained.

“Since we can’t say with absolute certainty they were made by a specific dinosaur, footprints are considered unique fossils and given their own scientific name,” Adams said.

The fossilized footprint, preserved in limestone, was dug up in the 1930s from the bed of the Paluxy River in north central Texas about an hour’s drive southwest of Dallas. In 1933 it was put on prominent permanent display in Glen Rose, Texas, embedded in the stone base of a community bandstand on the courthouse square.

The footprint already shows visible damage from erosion, and eventually it will be destroyed by gravity and exposure to the elements, Adams said. The 3D model provides a baseline from which to measure future deterioration, he said.

Besides Adams and Jacobs, other co-authors on the article are paleontologists Christopher Strganac and Michael J. Polcyn in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU.

The research was funded by the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at SMU. – Margaret Allen

> Find more information, photos and links at the SMU Research blog

February 15, 2011|Research|

Research Spotlight: SMU researcher names rare ‘flying lizard’

Aetodactylus_halli%5Bkc%5D-lorez.jpgA 95 million-year-old fossilized jaw discovered in Texas has been identified as a new genus and species of flying reptile, Aetodactylus halli.

Aetodactylus halli is a pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles commonly referred to as pterodactyls. The rare pterosaur – literally a winged lizard – is also one of the youngest members in the world of the pterosaur family Ornithocheiridae, according to paleontologist Timothy Myers, who identified and named the creature.

The newly identified reptile is only the second ornithocheirid ever documented in North America, Myers says. He is a postdoctoral fellow in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College.

Aetodactylus halli would have soared over what is now the Dallas-Fort Worth area during the Cretaceous Period when much of the Lone Star state was under water, covered by a vast ancient sea.

Jawbone of Aetodactylus halliWhile rare in North America, toothed pterosaurs belonging to the Ornithocheiridae are a major component of Cretaceous pterosaur faunas elsewhere in the world, Myers says. The Texas specimen (right) – a nearly complete mandible with most of its 54 teeth missing – is definitively younger than most other ornithocheirid specimens from Brazil, England and China, he says. It is five million years younger than the only other known North American ornithocheirid.

Myers describes the new species in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. He named the pterosaur Aetodactylus halli after Lance Hall, a member of the Dallas Paleontological Society who hunts fossils for a hobby. Hall found the specimen in 2006, embedded in a soft, powdery shale exposed by excavation of a hillside next to a highway near Mansfield. He donated the specimen to SMU.

Myers’ article in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology is titled “A new ornithocheirid pterosaur from the Upper Cretaceous (Cenomanian-Turonian) Eagle Ford Group of Texas.”

The research was funded by SMU’s Huffington Department of Earth Sciences and Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read more at the SMU Research blog

May 4, 2010|Research|
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