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Ancient “Sea Monsters” Reveal How the Ever-Changing Planet Shapes Life, Past and Present

Never-Before-Seen Fossils From Angola Bring a Strange Yet Familiar Ocean Into View

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will open a new exhibition Nov. 9, 2018 revealing how millions of years ago, large-scale natural forces created the conditions for real-life sea monsters to thrive in the South Atlantic Ocean basin shortly after it formed. “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” will offer visitors the opportunity to dive into Cretaceous Angola’s cool coastal waters, examine the fossils of striking marine reptiles that once lived there and learn about the forces that continue to mold life in the ocean and on land.

Over 134 million years ago, the South Atlantic Ocean basin did not yet exist. Africa and South America were one contiguous landmass on the verge of separating. As the two continents drifted apart, an entirely new marine environment — the South Atlantic — emerged in the vast space created between them. This newly formed ocean basin would soon be colonized by a dizzying array of ferocious predators and an abundance of other lifeforms seizing the opportunity presented by a new ocean habitat.

“Because of our planet’s ever-shifting geology, Angola’s coastal cliffs contain the fossil remains of marine creatures from the prehistoric South Atlantic,” said Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the museum. “We are honored by the generosity of the Angolan people for sharing a window into this part of the Earth’s unfolding story with our visitors.”

For the first time, Angolan fossils of colossal Cretaceous marine reptiles will be on public display. Through Projecto PaleoAngola — a collaboration between Angolan, American, Portuguese and Dutch researchers focused on Angola’s rich fossil history — paleontologists excavated and studied these fossils, which were then prepared for the exhibition by a team of scientists and students at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. The exhibition was made possible by the Sant Ocean Hall Endowment Fund.

“Fossils tell us about the life that once lived on Earth, and how the environments that came before us evolve over time,” said Louis Jacobs, professor emeritus of paleontology at SMU and collaborating curator for the exhibition. “Our planet has been running natural experiments on what shapes environments, and thereby life, for millions of years. If it weren’t for the fossil record, we wouldn’t understand what drives the story of life on our planet.”

The exhibition will immerse visitors in this Cretaceous environment with lively animations and vivid paleoart murals of life beneath the waves — courtesy of natural history artist Karen Carr — that bring to life 11 authentic fossils from Angola’s ancient seas, full-size fossil reconstructions of a mosasaur and an ancient sea turtle, as well as 3-D scanned replicas of mosasaur skulls. Photomurals and video vignettes will transport visitors to field sites along Angola’s modern rugged coast, where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists unearth the fossil remains from this lost world.

A Strange but Familiar Ocean
“Sea Monsters Unearthed” paints the picture of a flourishing ocean environment that in some ways will look strange to modern eyes, yet still bears striking similarities to today’s marine ecosystems.

Peculiar plesiosaurs — massive reptiles with long necks, stout bodies and four large flippers — swam alongside 27-foot-long toothy marine lizards called mosasaurs and more familiar creatures like sea turtles. From surprising mosasaur stomach contents to the one of the oldest known sea turtles found in Africa, fossils and reconstructions of these species will offer visitors a fuller picture of their remarkable life histories and the ecosystems they were a part of.

The exhibition will also explore deeper similarities across the ecology and anatomy of ocean animals then and now. After the marine reptiles that dominated these waters went extinct 66 million years ago, modern marine mammals would not only later replace them as top predators in the world’s ocean, but also converge on many of the same body shapes and survival strategies.

The Forces That Shape Life, Then and Now
This unique period in Earth’s history reveals how key geologic and environmental forces contributed to the early establishment and evolution of life in the South Atlantic. As Africa and South America drifted apart and a new ocean basin formed, trade winds blowing along the new Angolan coastline created the conditions for upwelling, an ocean process that drives the circulation of nutrients from the deep ocean to its surface. These nutrients in turn jump-started the food web that attracted the ferocious marine reptile predators featured throughout the exhibition.

Just as tectonic forces helped create this Cretaceous marine environment, they also shaped the arid coastal cliffs where the fossils are found today. Starting 45,000 years ago, a geologic process called uplift caused Earth’s crust to bulge along Angola’s coast, lifting part of the seafloor out of the water — and along with it, the layers upon layers of fossil-filled rocks where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists work.

Though humans do not operate on a tectonic scale, their actions also have major impacts on ocean life. Humans are now the ocean’s top predators, with one-fifth of the world’s population relying on food from upwelling-based ecosystems. Scientists caution that with such great pressure on modern upwelling-based fisheries, overfishing could change the future of life in the ocean by threatening fish populations, marine ecosystems and even human health. — National Museum of Natural History

About the National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. The museum is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world with approximately 7 million annual visitors from the U.S. and around the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

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Early armored dino from Texas lacked cousin’s club-tail weapon, but had a nose for danger

Pawpawsaurus’s hearing wasn’t keen, and it lacked the infamous tail club of Ankylosaurus. But first-ever CT scans of Pawpawsaurus’s skull indicate the dino’s saving grace from predators may have been an acute sense of smell.

Well-known armored dinosaur Ankylosaurus is famous for a hard knobby layer of bone across its back and a football-sized club on its tail for wielding against meat-eating enemies.

It’s prehistoric cousin, Pawpawsaurus campbelli, was not so lucky. Pawpawsaurus was an earlier version of armored dinosaurs but not as well equipped to fight off meat-eaters, according to a new study, said vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Jacobs is co-author of a new analysis of Pawpawsaurus based on the first CT scans ever taken of the dinosaur’s skull.

A Texas native, Pawpawsaurus lived 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, making its home along the shores of an inland sea that split North America from Texas northward to the Arctic Sea.

Like Ankylosaurus, Pawpawsaurus had armored plate across its back and on its eyelids. But unlike Ankylosaurus, Pawpawsaurus didn’t have the signature club tail that was capable of knocking the knees out from under a large predator.

Ankylosaurus lived about 35 million years after Pawpawsaurus, around 66 million years ago toward the end of the Cretaceous. During the course of its evolution, ankylosaurids developed the club tail, and bone structure in its skull that improved its sense of smell and allowed it to hear a broader range of sounds. “Stable gaze” also emerged, which helped Ankylosaurus balance while wielding its clubbed tail.

“CT imaging has allowed us to delve into the intricacies of the brains of extinct animals, especially dinosaurs, to unlock secrets of their ways of life,” said Jacobs, a professor in the SMU Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.

While Pawpawsaurus’s sense of smell was inferior to Ankylosaurus, it was still sharper than some primitive dinosaur predators such as Ceratosaurus, said vertebrate paleontologist Ariana Paulina-Carabajal, first author on the study.

Pawpawsaurus in particular, and the group it belonged to — Nodosauridae — had no flocculus, a structure of the brain involved with motor skills, no club tail, and a reduced nasal cavity and portion of the inner ear when compared with the other family of ankylosaurs,” said Paulina-Carabajal, researcher for the Biodiversity and Environment Research Institute (CONICET-INIBIOMA), San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. “But its sense of smell was very important, as it probably relied on that to look for food, find mates and avoid or flee predators.”

Most dinosaurs don’t have bony ridges in their nasal cavities to guide airflow, but ankylosaurs are unique in that they do.

“We can observe the complete nasal cavity morphology with the CT scans,” Paulina-Carabajal said. “The CT scans revealed an enlarged nasal cavity compared to dinosaurs other than ankylosaurians. That may have helped Pawpawsaurus bellow out a lower range of vocalizations, improved its sense of smell, and cooled the inflow of air to regulate the temperature of blood flowing into the brain.”

First CT scans shed light on Pawpawsaurus’s sensory tools
Pawpawsaurus is more primitive than the younger derived versions of the dinosaur that evolved later, Jacobs said, although both walked on all fours and held their heads low to the ground.

“So we don’t know if their sense of smell also evolved and improved even more,” Jacobs said. “But we do suspect that scenting the environment was useful for a creature’s survival, and the sense of smell is fairly widely distributed among plant eaters and meat eaters alike.”

The team’s measurements and conclusions are reported in the journal PLosONE in the article “Endocranial Morphology of the Primitive Nodosaurid Dinosaur Pawpawsaurus campbelli from the Early Cretaceous of North America.” It is published online at PLosONE.

The skull was identified in 1996 by Yuong-Nam Lee, Seoul National University, Korea, a co-author on the paper, who was then a doctoral student under Jacobs.

The team’s discoveries emerged from Computed Tomography (CT) scans of the braincase of Pawpawsaurus campbelli’s skull. Pawpawsaurus belongs to one of the least explored clades of dinosaurs when it comes to endocranial anatomy — the spaces in the skull housing the brain.

The Pawpawsaurus skull was discovered 24 years ago by 19-year-old Cameron Campbell in the PawPaw Formation of Tarrant County near Dallas. Conventional analysis of the skull was carried out years ago to identify it as a never-before-seen nodosaurid ankylosaur. However, these are the first CT scans of Pawpawsaurus’s skull because it’s only been in recent years that fossils have been widely explored with X-rays.

In humans, a medical CT will scan the body to “see inside” with X-rays and capture a 3-D picture of the bones, blood vessels and soft tissue. In fossils, a much stronger dose of radiation than can be tolerated by humans is applied to fossils to capture 3-D images of the interior structure.

From the scans, paleontologists can then digitally reconstruct the brain and inner ear using special software.

“Once we have the 3D model, we can describe and measure all its different regions,” Paulina-Carabajal said. “We can then compare that to existing reptile brains and their senses of hearing and smell. Hearing, for example, can be determined from the size of the lagena, the region of the inner ear that perceives sounds.”

The size of the lagena in Pawpawsaurus suggests a sense of hearing similar to that of living crocodiles, she said.

Olfactory acuity, the sense of smell, is calculated from the size ratio of the olfactory bulb of the brain and the cerebral hemisphere.

“In Pawpawsaurus, the olfactory ratio is somewhat lower than it is in Ankyloxaurus, although both have high ratios when compared with most carnivorous dinosarus,” Paulina-Carabajal said. “They are exceeded only by carcharodontosaurids and tyrannosaurids. The olfactory ratios of ankylosaurs in general are more or less similar to those calculated by other authors for the living crocodile.”

The research was funded by the Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica (Argentina), Seoul National University, and SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man. — Margaret Allen, SMU

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North America’s newest pterosaur is a Texan — and flying reptile’s closest cousin is English

Every toothed pterosaur identified from North America’s Cretaceous has been discovered in North Texas. New species marks only the third.

A new species of toothy pterosaur is a native of Texas whose closest relative is from England.

The new 94-million-year-old species, named Cimoliopterus dunni, is strikingly similar to England’s Cimoliopterus cuvieri.

Identification of the new flying reptile links prehistoric Texas to England, says paleontologist Timothy S. Myers, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, who identified the fossil as a new species.

Pterosaur relatives from two continents suggests the prehistoric creatures moved between North America and England earlier in the Cretaceous — despite progressive widening of the North Atlantic Ocean during that time.

The Texas and English Cimoliopterus cousins are different species, so some evolutionary divergence occurred.

That indicates the populations were isolated from one another at 94 million years ago, Myers said.

The similarity between the two species, however, implies minimal divergence time, so gene flow between North American and European populations would have been possible at some point shortly before that date.

“The Atlantic opened the supercontinent Pangea like a zipper, separating continents and leaving animal populations isolated, so gene flow ceased and we start to see evolutionary divergence,” said Myers, a research assistant professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU. “Animals start to look different and you see different species on one continent versus another. Pterosaurs are a little trickier because unlike land animals they can fly and disperse across bodies of water. The later ones are pretty good flyers.”

Based on fossils discovered so far, it’s known that toothed pterosaurs are generally abundant during the Cretaceous in Asia, Europe and South America. But they are rare in North America.

The new Texas native, Cimoliopterus dunni, is only the third pterosaur species with teeth from the Cretaceous of North America. All three of the toothy Cretaceous-era pterosaurs discovered so far from North America are Texans. Nevertheless, Cimoliopterus dunni is most closely related to England’s Cimoliopterus cuvieri, said Myers.

The Cretaceous spanned about 80 million years from 145 million years ago to 66 million years ago.

Each of the Texas pterosaurs was discovered near Dallas.

Pterosaurs can cross marine barriers between emergent landmasses, effectively ‘island hopping’
Besides the new 94-million-year-old Cimoliopterus dunni, Myers in 2010 identified the 96-million-year-old Aetodactylus halli, a close cousin to Cimoliopterus. The third Texas pterosaur, 105-million-year-old Coloborhynchus wadleighi, was identified in 1994 by then-SMU student Yuong-Nam Lee. It too has an English connection: The first Coloborhynchus species ever described is from England.

“Given the small sample size, it’s odd that we have two that are so closely related to the English species,” Myers said. “It’s hard to draw any statistically significant conclusions from that, but it definitely indicates this is not a one-off, and that there was some relatively strong, significant connection. Two means a lot more than one in this case.”

Myers isn’t suggesting a land bridge. But scientists have suggested the sea level of the North Atlantic fluctuated over time.

“Pterosaurs don’t necessarily need land bridges to disperse because they can cross marine barriers between emergent landmasses, effectively ‘island hopping’ from one continental mass to another,” Myers said.

Nevertheless, identification of the new toothy Texas pterosaur deepens a mystery surrounding the flying reptiles: There still is no evidence of close ties between North American and South American pterosaur populations, he said.

“There are toothed pteranodontoids in South America — lots of individuals and lots of different species — but no close relatives to the toothed pteranodontoids in North America,” he said. “That might indicate there was some barrier to dispersal from the south. It’s unusual we don’t see a connection between these pterosaur populations. Maybe we will when we find more of this material.”

Myers reported the new species in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in “First North American occurrence of the toothed pteranodontoid pterosaur Cimoliopterus.”

A long-lived group, whether toothy and small, or toothless and big
As a group, pterosaurs, which lived alongside dinosaurs, were long-lived. They survived about 162 million years, from the Late Triassic, 228 million years ago, through the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago.

Pterosaurs were among the earliest vertebrates to steadily flap their wings to power their flying.

Early forms were toothy and had wingspans similar to a flying fox, while later they were toothless and as large as fighter jets.

Pterosaurs nested on land but their bones are often recovered from shallow marine rocks. Some species have slender, pointed teeth, suitable for a diet of fish.

“This group is very abundant around the world in the middle Cretaceous — except in North America. The only evidence we have of the toothed members comes from Texas,” Myers said. “In general we see a broad trend in pterosaurs away from teeth, so at the end of the Cretaceous all known species are toothless.”

Pterosaur hunted fish offshore from North America’s Interior Seaway
Cimoliopterus dunni likely hunted fish just off shore in the shallow Western Interior Seaway.

The prehistoric Seaway covered the central United States and Canada, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

Myers identified the new pterosaur from a partial upper jaw — specifically the tip of the blunt snout, or rostrum. The rostrum has sockets for 13 pair of teeth. Atop the snout is a thin, prominent crest that starts near the front and extends back. The crest is fully fused to the jaw, a good indicator the pterosaur was not a juvenile, Myers said.

“The crest is really striking,” he said. “It’s almost preserved in its entirety.”

Prolific amateur collector Brent Dunn discovered the upper jaw in January 2013 while walking the spillway of Lake Lewisville north of Dallas. The fossil, coated in reddish mud, had weathered out of the ground. The marine shale layer in which it was found is part of the Eagle Ford Group, a rock unit unique to Texas.

The fossil was found alongside ammonites and crustaceans, called index fossils, because they date the shale layer. Ammonites also indicate an open marine environment, with no fresh water influence.

Although Cimoliopterus dunni would have been large, it was mid-sized as pterosaurs go, with a wingspan of about 6 feet.

“It wouldn’t have been small and cute,” Myers said. “You would have thought twice about approaching it.”

It’s fortunate to have the beautifully preserved fossil because the potential for preserving pterosaur bones is low, Myers said. Their bones were light and hollow, filled with vacuities to help them fly, so they tend to crush easily and break into pieces. “So their normal cylindrical bone is pancaked flat,” he said.

Dunn, a long-time member of the Dallas Paleontological Society, donated it to SMU’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology. He died in 2013. Myers named the fossil for Dunn. — Margaret Allen, SMU

Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins Plants & Animals Researcher news SMU In The News

Smithsonian: Take a Deep Dive Into The Reasons Land Animals Moved to the Seas

Synthesizing decades of discoveries, scientists have revealed links between changing environments and animal movements

karen carr, Louis Jacobs, Smithsonian, tetrapods, SMU

Smithsonian magazine online tapped the expertise of SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Science journalist Alicia Ault interviewed Jacobs on the subject of why land animals moved to the seas over the past 250 million years. The article, “Take a deep dive into the reasons land animals moved to the seas,” delves into a new scientific paper published by two Smithsonian scientists and appearing in the latest issue of the highly ranked prestigious journal Science.

Jacobs is a world-recognized vertebrate paleontologist and has served as president of the international Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. He leads SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

Currently his field research is focused on Angola in southwestern Africa. He co-leads Projecto PaleoAngola, a collaborative international scientific research program to understand the effect of the opening of the South Atlantic Ocean on ancient life. In the laboratory, Jacobs’ research utilizes advanced imaging and stable isotope techniques to investigate paleoenvironmental, biogeographic and phylogenetic issues of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.

Jacobs serves on the National Park Service Science Committee Advisory Board, which recommends National Natural Landmarks to the U.S. Department of the Interior. He has served as president of the international Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and in 1999 he was director ad interim of the Dallas Museum of Natural History. Before joining SMU, he served as head of the Division of Paleontology at the National Museum of Kenya. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, a Specially Appointed Professor at Hokkaido University, Japan, and a Visiting Professor at Richard Leakey’s Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya.

Jacobs is the author of “Quest for the African Dinosaurs: Ancient Roots of the Modern World” (Villard Books and Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000); “Lone Star Dinosaurs” (Texas A&M U. Press, 1999), which is the basis of the Texas dinosaur exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History; “Cretaceous Airport” (ISEM, 1993); and more than 100 scientific papers and edited volumes.

The Smithsonian article published April, 16, 2015.

Read the full story.


By Alicia Ault

The movement of animals from the land into the sea has happened several times over the last 250 million years, and it has been documented in many different and singular ways. But now, for the first time, a team of researchers has created an overview that not only provides insight into evolution, but may also help more accurately assess humans’ impact on the planet.

The oceans are teeming with tetrapods—“four-legged” birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians—that have repeatedly transitioned from the land to the sea, adapting their legs into fins. The transitions have often been correlated with mass extinctions, but the true reasons are only partly known based on fossils and through study of Earth’s climate, for instance.

Those transitions are considered to be “canonical illustrations” of the evolutionary process and thus ideal for study; living marine tetrapods—such as whales, seals, otters and sea lions—also have a big ecological impact, according to Neil P. Kelley and Nicholas D. Pyenson, the two Smithsonian scientists who compiled the new look at these tetrapods, appearing this week in the journal Science.

Instead of gathering evidence from a single field, the pair pulled together research from many disciplines, including paleontology, molecular biology and conservation ecology, to give a far larger picture of what was happening when animals transitioned from the land to the sea across millennia.

Almost by necessity, scientists tend to work in narrow silos, so this research will help broaden their views and potentially make for quicker progress in understanding evolution. Knowing how these creatures adapted over the last few hundred million years, and especially how they’ve changed in the era since humans appeared, could help us become better stewards of the planet.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind summation of all that’s known about those different groups that evolved to go back to the sea,” says Louis L. Jacobs, a professor of earth sciences and president of the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at Southern Methodist University. The paper lays it all out in a way that allows scientists to make comparisons across species, he adds.

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SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

Culture, Society & Family Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins Plants & Animals Researcher news SMU In The News The Bone Wars

Texas author, journalist and historian Clay Coppedge, who writes for the weekly newspaper Country World News, covered the research of SMU vertebrate paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs and the infamous Bone Wars of the late 1800s.

See an SMU video and press release about the research, “Texas frontier scientists who uncovered state’s fossil history had role in epic Bone Wars.”

The Bone Wars was a flurry of fossil speculation across the American West that escalated into a high-profile national feud. 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.

The Coppedge article, “Bone Wars,” was published in a November issue of Country World News, and was published in December online at

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 Jacobs’ new study.

A professor in Dedman College‘s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Jacobs joined SMU’s faculty in 1983.

Currently his field projects include work in Mongolia and Angola. His book, “Lone Star Dinosaurs” (1999, Texas A&M University Press) was the basis of an exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History that traveled the state. He consulted on the new exhibit, Mysteries of the Texas Dinosaurs, which opened in 2009.

Read the full story.


By Clay Coppedge
Texas Escapes

It’s been pointed out that there were two great revolutions in American life in the 19th Century. One was the Civil War. The other was a scientific revolution. Just as the firing on Fort Sumter was the shot that got the Civil War going, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in “Origin of Species” in 1859 created a similar upheaval in the scientific world.

At the same time, scientists, naturalists and other observant types were finding the bones of creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago that were unlike anything the world had seen or imagined. Some of these creatures were truly gargantuan with neck bones alone measuring three feet across. Even the land where people lived had changed dramatically over the eons; in some cases it hadn’t even been land at all – it was a sea. This was a hard thing for people of the time to grasp.

Europeans never had much luck finding dinosaur bones. Too lush. Too wet. The American West was neither of those things. Striding into that vast and arid land, two scientists led the search for dinosaur bones and new species to name. Their respective and separate searches developed into an intense rivalry between the two bone hunters – Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Othenial Charles Marsh with the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale.

Read the full story.

Follow SMU Research on Twitter, @smuresearch.

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SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information,

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.