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

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

Jun 29, 2016

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."

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

... 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