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Thanks To CT Scans, Scientists Know A Lot About Texas' Pawpawsaurus Dinosaur

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SMU.edu/Illustration by Karen Carr
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Pawpawsaurus lived 100 million years ago and was first identified from a skull found in Fort Worth.

CT scans aren’t just for people -- they can also be used on dinosaurs.

A skull from the Pawpawsaurus was discovered in North Texas in the early '90s. It was recently scanned, allowing scientists to digitally rebuild the dinosaur’s brain. Louis Jacobs is a professor of paleontology at SMU and he talks about his research.

Interview Highlights:Louis Jacobs ...

... on the reason behind the name Pawpawsaurus: "It was named Pawpawsaurus because the rock unit that it was found in is called the Pawpaw formation and that's in Fort Worth."

... on what the CT scan uncovered: "Basically, a CT scan, you are X-raying through the body and then you can make 3D digital models of what's recorded. We do it with humans and medicine all the time, but dinosaurs and fossils require more energy. So, the X-rays are put through with more energy and you can get a good model."

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Credit SMU / PlosOne
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Volume-rendered reconstruction of the skull from the first-ever CT scans of the Pawpawsaurus.

... on how you go from scanning to rebuilding a brain: "Visualization through software is ... you can see inside the Earth, you can see inside the clouds, you can see inside people, you can see inside everything. The advances in the software make digital visualization accessible. We had the data from scanning the skull of Pawpawsaurus and then from that we rendered 3D models of the brain and also the nasal passages to figure out how the air went through.

"We wanted to see the relative proportions of the different parts of the brain. We wanted to see the inner ear so we could get some idea about the kind of things they hear; we did the nasal passages so we could get ideas about the amount of area for smelling, sniffing, and just to see the way the air would go through the nasal passages. We decided to do the skull because it was well-preserved and had a good brain case, and if you can see into the brain then it opens up a different world, a different way of looking at dinosaurs and other extinct animals. You can start to make estimates of what their senses were like and if you can make estimates of what their senses are like, then you can start to think about what were their lives were like, and what was it like here."

Louis Jacobs is a professor paleontology at Southern Methodist University 

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.