June 13, 2015

Southwestern Adventist University Showcases Own 'Jurassic World'

, senior journalism major, Southwestern Adventist University

As movie-goers clamor for the dinosaur thriller “Jurassic World” this weekend, Southwestern Adventist University has teamed up with National Geographic to tackle a thorny question about the extinct species.

A camera crew from National Geographic Channel’s British offices flew to the campus in Keene, Texas, to produce two documentaries about Nanotyrannus bones in the university’s vast dinosaur collection.

Only five, or possibly six, examples of the Nanotyrannus dinosaur have ever been found, and the university’s Dinosaur Research Project discovered Nanotyrannus No. 3 in 2001. The controversy surrounding the Nanotyrannus stems from some scientists wanting to classify it as an adolescent Tyrannosaurus rex rather than a unique breed.

Chadwick and Lidia Davila, junior education major, working on the bones in the lab. (Darcy Force / SWAU)

The two National Geographic documentaries — “Dino Death Match” and “Ultimate Dino Survivor,” both of which premiered last weekend — argue that the Nanotyrannus was its own breed.

Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota, joined the camera crew for two days at the university to host the documentaries. He brought along a cast of a Nanotyrannus dinosaur that had been classified as a T-rex. Comparing it to Southwestern’s Nanotyrannus skull, he found that the two were nearly identical.

“Larson went over all the reasons it couldn’t be a T-rex,” said TJ Sands, a Southwestern junior theology major and assistant to Art Chadwick, co-director of Southwestern’s Dinosaur Research Project. “There are more than 50 differences between the Nanotyrannus and T-rex skulls.”

During the filming process, scientists studied a cut section of one of the Nanotyrannus bones that was then ground so thin that they could pass light through it. They found evidence pointing to the likelihood that the bones, were, in fact, a Nanotyrannus: They found what might be medullary bone. Similar to birds, adult female dinosaurs produce medullary bone to draw calcium and create eggs during ovulation.

“If the dinosaur was in ovulation, then there is no way it could be an adolescent,” Sands said. “The argument would be moot.”

The television documentaries coincide with Hollywood’s release of “Jurassic World,” the fourth installment in the blockbuster “Jurassic Park” series.

The opportunity to participate in the documentaries was another chapter in the history of the university’s 18-year Dinosaur Research Project. Chadwick and his colleagues, working in collaboration with the Earth History Research Center and the Hanson Research Station, have been conducting an on-going dinosaur excavation and taphonomic research project in the Lance Formation of eastern Wyoming.

People come from around the world every June to do research or gain class credit at the excavation site. Once excavated, bones are wrapped in plaster and hauled back to the lab and museum on Southwestern’s campus. The collection has grown to more than 17,000 bones.

One unique aspect of the Dinosaur Research Project is its database. Southwestern has the only dinosaur bone collection in the world with complete 3D images of every specimen. The database includes descriptive information about the condition and characteristics of each bone, the persons who discovered and cleaned the bone, and mapping so the location of each bone can be viewed in relation to all the other bones in the quarry. Southwestern students are involved in the whole process, from finding the bones to cleaning and taking the 3D pictures. Students, teachers, and scientists around the world use the database for research.

Chadwick, a research biology professor at Southwestern, said he and Larson spent considerable time between filming in the university’s dinosaur collection.

“Peter Larson had never been here before, so every time there was a break in filming we would turn our attention to the collection,” he said.

Both the museum and the excavation site are open to the public by appointment.

Visit swau.edu/dinosaur for more information or to schedule a visit.

For more information on National Geographic Channel’s dinosaur programming, visit natgeotv.com.