Paleo paper-folding – SMU paleontology student creates prize-winning origami dinosaurs - North Texas e-News

2022-07-08 01:13:12 By : Mr. William Wang

Dallas, Texas (SMU) -- When SMU paleontology student Travis Nolan chips a 287-million-year-old fossil  from the rocky, red soil near Seymour, Texas, he uses an unexpected skill – origami – to envision the complete creature. 

Nolan has been fascinated by dinosaurs since his dad came home with a dinosaur puppet when he was three. By the time he was eight, he was a member of the Dallas Paleontological Society, assisting in local digs. 

A church bulletin folded into a paper airplane inspired seven-year-old Nolan’s interest in origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. He began folding simple projects, then quickly progressed to more intricate designs and became enamored with creating original origami designs. 

Now he combines these childhood passions in an unusual way, preparing dinosaur fossils as an SMU paleontology student and winning international origami awards for his original dinosaur designs.

“When I fold an origami version of the prehistoric animal I am excavating, it helps me know the animal really well,” says Nolan, a junior majoring in Earth sciences and minoring in biological sciences. “Some of the skills needed for reconstructing an extinct animal from its fossils can also be useful for designing that animal in origami." 

A childhood visit to the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour, Texas, fueled Nolan’s dinosaur fever. The museum features fossil discoveries in an area known as the “Texas Red Beds,” one of the richest deposits in the world of pre-dinosaur reptile and amphibian fossils from the Permian period, roughly 250 to 300 million years ago. At 13, he began volunteering at the Whiteside Museum, assisting in the excavation of Dimetrodon, Diplocaulus, Eryops, Diadectes, among others. This summer, Nolan is conducting research on Seymouria baylorensis, an ancient reptile unique to the area.

Nolan’s long-term professional goal is to study the biomechanics of dinosaurs and earn a Ph.D. in paleontology, while continuing to combine his interests in paleontology and origami. 

“I approach origami as a puzzle,” says the self-taught artist. He folds an Alioramos (a genus of tyrannosaurid theropod dinosaur) from a piece of 12 x 12-inch kami paper in about 20 minutes , but other designs have taken as long as 60 hours. A purist, he works from just one sheet of paper, sometimes as big as nine-foot square. Cuts are prohibited, so, if the paper tears he starts over.

SMU paleontology student Travis Nolan has combined his childhood interests in origami and dinosaurs to become an international origami champion who creates intricate prehistoric creatures from paper. photo by Hillsman Jackson, SMU

Nolan has earned a big reputation on the international origami circuit.  He won the gold medal in the original design category of the 2021 International Origami Internet Olympiad for his paper creation of a 500-million-year-old predatory shrimp, the Anomalocaris. He placed fifth in the overall competition, helping the USA to rank third in the Olympiad for the first time among more than 800 origami artists from 60 countries participating in the competition. 

“Folding the Anomalocaris was a nice challenge,” he said. “It has long, thin flippers, crazy eyes and big jaws.” 

Nolan also uses his paper-folding skill for good as a volunteer with Paper for Water, a Dallas nonprofit that creates origami ornaments to raise money to fund water and sanitation projects worldwide. As a resident of SMU’s Service House, where students dedicated to service and social change live as a group, he teaches other students to fold origami ornaments for the nonprofit and is working to create an SMU Paper for Water chapter.

“Origami has led to friendships and lured me on adventures,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I’m still that three-year-old kid who thinks a dinosaur puppet is cool.”

SMU (Southern Methodist University) is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and over 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.