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

SMU scientist Brian Stump leads global seismology consortium

SMU's Albritton Professor of Earth Sciences Brian StumpBrian Stump, Albritton Professor of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has been elected chair of the board of directors for a university-based consortium that operates facilities for the acquisition, management and open distribution of seismic data.

The programs of the Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology (IRIS) contribute to scholarly research, education, earthquake hazard mitigation and verification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

IRIS was founded in 1984 with support from the National Science Foundation. The late Eugene T. Herrin Jr., who held the Shuler-Foscue Endowed Chair in the University’s Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, was a founding member. IRIS facilities primarily are operated through its more than 100 member universities and in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists from member institutions participate in IRIS management through an elected nine-member board, eight regular committees and ad hoc advisory groups. Stump’s term of office as chair of the board is for three years, and will expire at the end of 2013.

“IRIS was formed because it was realized that we needed to support the global seismic network and needed the free exchange of information and ideas,” Stump said. “Instrumentation is so expensive that the seismic community needed to find a way to make equipment available to anyone who needs it for research, regardless of the size or funding capability of their parent institution.”

More than 4,000 portable monitors are available through the IRIS/PASSCAL Instrument Center at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. These instruments proved invaluable to Stump and his SMU team in researching a series of small earthquakes that occurred in North Texas between October 30, 2008, and May 16, 2009. The ability to quickly place monitors at the site of the original quakes allowed scientists to record 11 earthquakes between Nov. 9, 2008, and Jan. 2, 2009, that were too small to be felt by area residents.

“The monitors available to IRIS members are well-used assets,” Stump said. “They’re constantly in service, like library books that fly off the shelves. We never have enough equipment.”

Stump also is one of two distinguished lecturers sponsored this year by IRIS and the Seismology Society of America.

The Global Seismographic Network consists of more than 150 permanent stations around the world. It is operated by IRIS in cooperation with the USGS Geological Survey and allows seismologists to examine large events occurring anywhere to determine if they were caused by natural events such as earthquakes, or man-made events such as mine explosions or nuclear tests.

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> Visit the IRIS website at

Renowned SMU seismologist Gene Herrin dies

Eugene T. Herrin Jr.Eugene T. Herrin Jr., an internationally respected seismologist and holder of the Shuler-Foscue Endowed Chair in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, died of a heart attack on Nov. 20, 2010.

An SMU professor since 1956, Herrin is known for his pioneering work in nuclear surveillance. He discovered that certain wave generators, including explosions and earthquakes, create not only seismic waves but also infrasound waves. Based on that discovery, Herrin was one of the first proponents of using seismo-acoustic analysis to distinguish the difference between mining explosions, earthquakes and nuclear weapons tests.

Early in his career, he made seminal contributions in the areas of heat flow and earthquake seismology, including the development of the fundamental regional travel time curves still in use by the seismological community.

He played a significant scientific role in the development of infrasound detection of atmospheric tests and the design and implementation of a global seismic network for test ban verification and earthquake detection. He also made contributions to national security through successful and enforceable nuclear proliferation negotiations. In addition, he played an important role in the development of plate tectonic theory and the creation of array seismology to detect small earthquakes at great distances.

“Dr. Herrin’s work has played a critical role in establishing accurate worldwide monitoring of nuclear tests,” said Brian Stump, Claude C. Albritton Jr. Chair in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “His research was fundamental in creating the international monitoring network that enforces the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

As a consultant to Teledyne-Geotech for more than 50 years, Herrin played an important part in a successful university-industry relationship, said Jack Hamilton, retired Teledyne-Geotech CEO and engineer. “Dr. Herrin played an indispensable part in our company’s development of instruments used in nuclear test monitoring.”

Herrin’s first breakthrough in experimental seismology occurred in 1963 when he determined that the earth’s mantle is not laterally homogeneous as previously thought. He won the Grove Karl Gilbert Award from the Geological Society of America for this contribution.

A devoted teacher, Herrin supervised 25 Ph.D. candidates during his years at SMU. His students now play important research roles worldwide in the monitoring of nuclear tests, Stump said.

“I owe everything I am as a scientist to Dr. Herrin,” said Jessie Bonner, a senior scientist at Weston Geophysical who earned his Ph.D. in geology in 1997 from SMU. “The best thing about Dr. Herrin as a mentor is that he wouldn’t do the work for you. He would come down to the geophysics lab, grab a chair and we would work on the problem together. He would give me just enough information to solve the problem on my own.”

Dr. Herrin was honored with a chiming of the bells at SMU at noon on Nov. 29. A celebration of his life will take place at a later date.

> Read more about Gene Herrin from SMU News

Research Spotlight: When airplanes and volcanic ash collide

Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruptingFloating ash plumes from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano have caused massive disruption to the world’s air traffic, highlighting the danger that volcanic ash plumes pose to aircraft.

The threat from volcanoes has become more severe as the world’s air traffic has increased, and as more people settle closer to volcanoes, says SMU vulcanologist James Quick, a professor in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College. Quick previously served as program coordinator for the USGS Volcano Hazards Program.

One of the most infamous encounters between a commercial jetliner and a volcanic ash plume took place in 1989. KLM Flight 867, carrying 231 passengers in a Boeing 747, flew into an ash plume after the eruption of Redoubt volcano in Alaska. According to USGS reports, the volcano spewed enormous clouds of ash thousands of miles into the air and nearly caused the airliner to crash.

Captured on audio was the frantic conversation between KLM’s pilot and the Anchorage control tower as the aircraft’s engines began flameout. Hear the cockpit audio in this video, as well as Quick’s comments on the danger.

Volcanic ash plumes can rise to cruise altitudes in a matter of minutes after an eruption, Quick says. Winds carry plumes thousands of miles from the volcanoes and then the plumes are difficult or impossible to distinguish from normal atmospheric clouds.

Worldwide from 1970 to 2000 more than 90 commercial jets have flown into clouds of volcanic ash, causing damage to those aircraft, most notably engine failure, according to airplane maker Boeing.

Volcano monitoring by remote sensing allows USGS scientists to alert the International Civil Aviation Organization’s nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers as part of ICAO’s International Airways Volcano Watch program. The centers then can issue early warnings of volcanic ash clouds to pilots.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

For the Record: Feb. 5, 2010

Robin Lovin, Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics, was co-speaker (with Victor Anderson of the Vanderbilt Divinity School) in the Douglas Sturm Dialogue, “Justice, Reparation, and Forgiveness: Finding a Moral Vocabulary for America’s Racial Future,” which took place Feb. 4, 2010 at Bucknell University. The Sturm Dialogue, which features two distinguished thinkers in ethics and social justice, is sponsored by Bucknell’s departments of religion and political science and Social Justice College, and held in honor of Bucknell emeritus professor of religion Douglas Sturm.

Alice Kendrick, Temerlin Advertising Institute, Meadows School of the Arts, has been elected to the National Advertising Review Board. The NARB is a 70-member appeals board that is part of the National Advertising Review Council, which was established in 1971 to provide guidance and set standards of truth and accuracy for national advertisers. Kendrick is one of 10 members of the public and academia on the NARB.

Jason McKenna, Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College, has received the U.S. Department of Defense’s highest award for civilian career employees. As a senior research geophysicist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center, he became one of 6 recipients of the Department of Defense’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award in December. He received the honor for his “contributions to the safety and welfare of defense personnel worldwide” through his work in research and development of products for detecting and defeating clandestine tunneling to ensure security at U.S. borders. Read more from The Vicksburg Post.

Santanu Roy, Economics, Dedman College, received a 2009 Annual Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education from the Greater Dallas Indo-American Chamber of Commerce. The award was presented by Meera Shankar, ambassador of the Republic of India to the United States, during a banquet Dec. 10 at The Westin Galleria in Dallas.

Hamilton Visiting Scholar to discuss life on Mars

NASA scientist David Des MaraisNASA scientist David J. Des Marais, the Hamilton Visiting Scholar in Geophysics for SMU’s Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, will present two departmental lectures and one public lecture Nov. 17-20.

Des Marais will deliver his free, public lecture, “Life on Mars,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Frontiers of Flight Museum, 6900 Lemmon Avenue, at the southeast corner of Love Field.

His departmental lectures will be from noon to 1 p.m. in 153 Heroy Hall:

  • Nov. 18: “Early Evolution of Earth Biogeochemical Carbon Cycles”
  • Nov. 20: “Marine Microbial Mat Ecosystems and Earth’s Early Biosphere”

Des Marais is a staff scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, where he is an interdisciplinary scientist for astrobiology on both the Mars Exploration Rover 2003 science operations working group and the Mars 2005 CRISM infrared spectrometer. His areas of specialization have included the stable isotope geochemistry of carbon in lunar samples, meteorites and oceanic basalts, the biogeochemistry of microbial communities in hypersaline environments, and the biogeochemistry of ancient (Precambrian) carbonates and organic matter.

For more information, contact Sandi Herrera.

Research Spotlight: Jurassic climate, from treeless to tropical

An ancient soil crack, or clastic dike, produced by alternating wet and dry cyclesThe Congo Basin – with its massive, lush tropical rain forest – was far different 150 million to 200 million years ago.

At that time Africa and South America were part of the single continent Gondwana. The Congo Basin was arid, with a small amount of seasonal rainfall, and few bushes or trees populated the landscape, according to a new geochemical analysis of rare ancient soils.

The geochemical analysis provides new data for the Jurassic period, when very little is known about central Africa’s paleoclimate, says Timothy Myers, a paleontology doctoral student in SMU’s Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College.

There aren’t a whole lot of terrestrial deposits from that time period preserved in Central Africa,” Myers says. “Scientists have been looking at Africa’s paleoclimate for some time, but data from this time period is unique.”

There are several reasons for the scarcity of deposits: Ongoing armed conflict makes it difficult and challenging to retrieve them; and the thick vegetation, a humid climate and continual erosion prevent the preservation of ancient deposits, which would safeguard clues to Africa’s paleoclimate.

Myers’ research is based on a core sample drilled by a syndicate interested in the oil and mineral deposits in the Congo Basin. Myers accessed the sample – drilled from a depth of more than 2 kilometers – from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, where it is housed. With the permission of the museum, he analyzed pieces of the core at the SMU Huffington Department of Earth Science’s Isotope Laboratory.

“I would love to look at an outcrop in the Congo,” Myers says, “but I was happy to be able to do this.” (Above, an ancient soil crack, called a clastic dike, produced by alternate wetting and drying cycles from seasonal rainfall.)

Read more from the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: SMU receives $5.25 million for geothermal data project

Geothermal map of North AmericaThe Geothermal Laboratory at SMU has been awarded $5.25 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to help provide data for the planned National Geothermal Database.

The grant allocation is part of $338 million in Recovery Act funding that was announced Oct. 29 by DOE Secretary Steven Chu. The funding is intended to help dramatically expand geothermal production in the United States.

Principal investigators are SMU’s David Blackwell, Hamilton Professor of Geothermal Studies, and Fabian Moerchen of Siemens Corporate Research. The project team also includes Jefferson Tester, the Kroll Professor of Chemical Engineering at Cornell University; William Gosnold, chair of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of North Dakota; Seiichi Nagihara, associate professor of geosciences at Texas Tech University; John Veil, manager of the Water Policy Program at the Argonne National Laboratory and Martin Kay, president of MLKay Technology LLC.

“The primary benefit of this project is that it will support developers of geothermal power plants by decreasing the costs of the resource identification and the risks inherent in the exploration phase,” Blackwell said. “The project will rescue important data from deterioration or complete loss and provide a set of tools to be used by other parties to submit data to the NGDS.”

The SMU Geothermal Lab is hosting its annual conference, “Geothermal Energy Utilization Associated with Oil & Gas Development,” Nov. 3-4 on the Dallas campus. Registration is available at the door. Find more information at the conference web site.

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For the Record: Oct. 22, 2009

David Blackwell, Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College, received the 2009 Joseph W. Aidlin Award at the Geothermal Resources Council (GRC) annual meeting in early October. The GRC, the primary professional educational association for the international geothermal community, gives the Aidlin Award each year for “outstanding contributions to the development of geothermal energy.” Blackwell’s mapping of North American geothermal resources, and his research into using hot wastewater produced from oil and gas wells as a source of electricity, have dramatically expanded the potential for global geothermal energy production.

Faculty in the News: Sept. 22, 2009

Mosasaur skeletonWilliam Lawrence, Dean, Perkins School of Theology, discussed the importance of truth and discovering what it is in an essay for KERA Public Radio, originally broadcast on Sept. 14, 2009. audio

Michael Polcyn, Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College, appears as an expert source in “Mega Beasts: T-Rex of the Deep.” The science documentary debuted Sept. 13, 2009, on the Discovery Channel. Read more from the SMU Research blog. video

David Chard, Dean, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development; and Reid Lyon, the Simmons School’s Distinguished Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership, were interviewed by Krys Boyd of KERA Public Radio’s “Think” on Sept. 10, 2009. They talked about the importance of educational leadership at students’ schools and districts and how such leadership affects the quality of their education. audio