Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Earth Sciences Undergraduate News

Meet the SMU student who is an international dinosaur origami champion

Dallas Morning News:

In the basement of SMU’s Heroy Science Hall, Travis Nolan cups an origami reptile in the palm of his hand.

Technically, it’s not a dinosaur, though it looks like one. Nolan says the reptile, called a dimetrodon, walked the earth before dinosaurs even existed. The dimetrodon he’s holding has a small beige eye, curved tail and tiny claws on each rust-colored limb.

“The best way to describe it is a Komodo dragon,” said Nolan, “with the front half of a bulldog, and a giant fin on its back.”

Nolan says dimetrodons could get as big as 12 to 15 feet in length. The model in his hand is about six inches long. He created it from scratch, from a single square sheet of paper.

Nolan is an earth science major at SMU, specializing in geology. He’s also an international origami champion, and combines his interests to create intricate models of prehistoric creatures. His original design of a 500 million-year-old predatory “unusual shrimp” called Anomalocaris took first place in the 2021 International Origami Internet Olympiad’s Own Design category.

Dinosaur origami figures made by Travis Nolan, an SMU paleontology student, photographed in...
Dinosaur origami figures made by Travis Nolan, an SMU paleontology student, photographed in the SMU Heroy Science Hall Monday, July 11, 2022, in Dallas, TX.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)
Creating origami dinosaurs is a passion project for Nolan, who’s loved prehistoric creatures from a young age. It’s also an exercise in exploring the unknown.

Creating complex creatures from a sheet of paper is a bit like trying to answer expansive questions about how dinosaurs walked the earth millions of years ago, he said. Nolan is using the expertise and knowledge he and other paleontologists do have to create something meaningful from a seemingly blank canvas.

“You have to start from approaching a problem that doesn’t seem approachable,” Nolan said, “and then, breaking it down, and working through that similar process.”

Nolan said he’s been captivated by dinosaurs since his dad got him a dinosaur puppet when he was 3. His interest in origami grew gradually after he learned how to fold simpler projects like paper airplanes and geese.

But when he saw pictures of detailed origami dinosaurs and dragons created by professional folders, they blew his mind.

“They were working from the same starting point as I was: one sheet of paper,” Nolan said. “They were doing the same thing, but ending up with these crazy complex things. And I think that really caught my imagination.”

Most origami projects, be it a dog or a dinosaur, start with a crease pattern: a pattern of folds on a piece of paper that Nolan said is like the “roadmap” for creating a 3-D final product.

Crease patterns for common folds like cranes or frogs are easily available online. Patterns for prehistoric creatures like the dimetrodon, or Anomalocaris, are in shorter supply.

To fold those three-dimensional creatures, Nolan comes up with the crease pattern himself.

That involves taking a long, hard look at his square paper and figuring out how each corner and edge fits into his final product.

“If I want to fold a dog, then the first thing I need to figure out is, what part of the dog is coming from what part of the paper?” Nolan said.

Once he’s got his crease pattern down, Nolan begins to fold. He says there’s a lot of trial and error baked into the process.

“I can design a crease pattern, fold it – it doesn’t look right,” Nolan said. “This flap’s too long, that flap’s too short… and so you can go back and sometimes you can tweak the last one, and sometimes you have to start over.”

Nolan goes between tweaking his crease pattern and testing it until he has the pattern in perfect shape. Then, he makes a final fold using a new sheet of paper.

Travis Nolan, an SMU paleontology student who makes origami dinosaurs to visualize what...
Travis Nolan, an SMU paleontology student who makes origami dinosaurs to visualize what certain dinosaurs might have looked like in the prehistoric era, makes an origami video for a Morning News video in the SMU Heroy Science Hall Monday, July 11, 2022, in Dallas, TX. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

He said the planning process for an original creation takes him about a month if he fits it in between his schoolwork and other commitments, depending on how complicated the creation is. Folding takes him eight to 12 hours for a moderate-level design, and upwards of 20 hours for a more difficult one.

Louis Jacobs is professor emeritus of earth sciences at SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, and has known Nolan since Nolan was a kid. Jacobs said Nolan is a great student and praised his concentration skills.

“When he sets about doing something, he can really focus down on the details and concentrate,” Jacobs said. “And I say that because I don’t know too many people that could really remember how to fold some of those extinct origami animals. I mean, they’re very intricate and complicated.”

Nolan has been competing in the International Origami Internet Olympiad since 2016. The competition has been around since 2010, and takes place online.

The 2021 Olympiad featured 800 origami artists from 60 different countries with several different rounds of competition.

Nolan used thin, handmade paper from Germany to craft his predatory Anomalocaris, an extinct relative of a modern arthropod, fitting the category’s theme of “Sea Life.” He said taking first in the original design category at the 2021 International Origami Internet Olympiad was the “coolest thing.”

Now, Nolan is entering his junior year at SMU. He’s looking at Ph.D. programs in paleontology after he graduates, and wants to see what doors open up from there. He is also a volunteer with Paper for Water, a nonprofit based in Dallas that creates origami ornaments to fund water sanitation projects around the world.

Nolan plans to keep exploring the unknown. For him, creating origami dinosaurs is about more than the final product.

It’s about using art to bring extinct creatures back to life, one fold at a time. READ MORE