SMU’s Michael Polcyn is a global expert on mosasaurs – ancient reptiles that swam the world’s seas millions of years ago. So when preparations began in 2010 for an Ocean Dallas exhibit at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the museum tapped his expertise.
Polcyn, director of SMU’s Digital Laboratory in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, created digital reconstructions of two mosasaurs for the exhibit, including Dallasaurus, discovered in North Texas and named for the city of Dallas. He is one of numerous SMU professors and graduate students who provided scientific expertise to the $185 million museum, which opened in December in downtown Dallas.
Polcyn’s contribution is an example of SMU’s collaboration with the Perot Museum and its predecessor, the Dallas Museum of Natural History. From loaning fossils to <providing technical assistance, SMU’s faculty and Shuler Museum in Dedman College and the Innovation Gymnasium in the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering have teamed with the nation’s new premier science museum.
Texas fossils on loan from the Shuler Museum include a 113 million-year-old dinosaur; sea turtles from more than 70 million and 110 million years ago; the giant footprint of a 110 million-year-old dinosaur; and a rare 110 million-year-old crocodile egg. Also on loan are fossil wood, cones, leaves and images of microscopic pollen grains used to create a model of an extinct tree.
The fossils on display in the Perot’s T. Boone Pickens Hall of Ancient Life tell an “evolutionary story documented right here in North Texas, told in strata exposed between DFW Airport and the North Sulphur River in northeast Texas,” says SMU Professor Louis L. Jacobs, an internationally recognized vertebrate paleontologist.
Scientists from 10 countries convened in May at SMU for the 4th Triennial International Mosasaur Meeting. The group, which visited the Ocean Dallas exhibit, was the first scientific conference to hold a reception at the new museum.
“The Ocean Dallas exhibit was a significant opportunity to showcase the extraordinary story that the rocks tell us about life in the deep past in the Dallas area,” Polcyn says. “It was a great experience working with the museum’s creative and technical professionals on this project. Many of the fossils in the exhibit were found by interested citizens walking the local creeks and rivers in search of these beasts, and they deserve tremendous credit for bringing these finds to the public.”
Another SMU fossil on loan is a life-sized model of the 35-foot dinosaur Malawisaurus, which stands sentry in the Perot’s spacious glass lobby.
“The new museum building is an icon, but it’s also a statement by the city about taking the advances of science to the public,” says Jacobs, who led the team that discovered Malawisaurus in Africa and provided the cast to the museum. Jacobs, who was ad interim director of the Dallas Museum of Natural History in 1999, now serves on the Perot Museum Advisory Board and Collections Committee. He also will be the first professor to teach a university-level science course at the museum next fall or spring.
“I designed the Earth and Life course to engage students hands-on and outside the box, to inspire them through the museum and flame their interest in the evolution of life and in the entwined future of people and our planet,” he says.
Perot Museum Curator of Earth Sciences Anthony Fiorillo is an authority on Arctic dinosaurs and an adjunct research professor in SMU’s Earth Sciences Department. “A look around the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall shows the importance of the relationship between the Perot Museum and SMU, especially with respect to the numerous graduate students who are active participants in my field expeditions,” he says.
SMU paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs, who along with Polcyn is featured in Perot Museum Career Inspirations videos, advised on the text of the paleoenvironment. “The world of the past is a test case for global climate models, which are computer driven,” she says. “If we can reconstruct climates of the ancient Earth accurately, then we can create better models of what may happen in the future.”
In addition, SMU doctoral students assisted with excavation in Alaska of 69 million-year-old Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum, the new species of dinosaur named for the museum’s major beneficiaries, Margot and Ross Perot.
The Perot Museum’s Texas Instruments Engineering and Innovation Hall features a small-scale, autonomous unmanned fire-fighting helicopter built in the Lyle School of Engineering Innovation Gymnasium, as well as interviews with Director Nathan R. Huntoon and SMU students. Huntoon served on the Perot’s Technology Committee and the Engineering and Innovation Committee.
“Any first-rate city needs a strong public scientific face with which it’s identified,” says SMU Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences James E. Brooks, who serves on the Perot’s Collections Committee and who was a longtime board member of the Dallas Museum of Natural History. “The Perot Museum is going to be that organization.”
– Margaret Allen