Sandia National Labs

News Release

Sandia Labs' Computer Expertise Helping to Demystify Dinosaur

Computer scientists at Sandia National Laboratories, working with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and The State Museum of Pennsylvania, are applying computer models developed for the Department of Energy to help unravel some of the mystery surrounding dinosaurs, including whether a certain species may have been warm-blooded.

Sandia scientists are using their expertise in 3-D computer imaging to create a detailed model of the skull of a rare, crested duck-billed dinosaur, known as Parasaurolophus. Besides helping to solve some of the many unanswered questions surrounding dinosaurs, the project gives Sandia scientists an opportunity to expand and hone computing skills that are vital to their research mission for the DOE.

The computerized version of the dinosaur skull will also provide an exciting spin-off: In the same manner scientists can tell the character of the sound a trombone makes simply by studying its shape, the Sandia team plans to use the 3-D skull model to simulate a variety of sounds consistent with the observed shape of the Parasaurolophus' approximately 4.5-foot trombone-like crest that rose from the back of its skull. The crest contained a labyrinth of chambers connected to the dinosaur's breathing passages. Most paleontologists believe the crest served as a resonating chamber and allowed the dinosaur to make loud, low-frequency sounds. The crests probably also acted as a means for visual identification by other hadrosaurs, or duck-billed dinosaurs.

Parasaurolophus, one of the dinosaurs that appeared briefly in the film Jurassic Park, lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, about 75 million years ago. Although hadrosaurs were the most abundant of the large plant-eating dinosaurs of that period, a few kinds of hadrosaur dinosaurs, including Parasaurolophus, are very rare and remain relatively poorly understood. Remains of two or three species (the exact number is still disputed) of Parasaurolophus have been discovered, and little is known about the amount of variation present within each species.

Dr. Thomas Williamson, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, said the computer imaging also may help answer whether Parasaurolophus was warm-blooded. There has been long-standing disagreement over the possibility of warm-blooded dinosaurs. Williamson said he will be looking for turbinate bones in the air passages of the dinosaur. Almost all warm-blooded animals have turbinate bones, and no existing cold-blooded animal has them.

The project began by using a CT (computed tomography) scanner at St. Joseph Medical Center in Albuquerque to produce about 500 thin-sliced X-ray images of the dinosaur skull. The slices of every part of the skull are then assembled into a 3-D computer model that can be viewed inside and out, and from any possible angle. The images are used to determine the density of the bone and to sort through what is not bone, which in this case is primarily sandstone. Williamson works closely with the Sandia team to make those determinations.

The Sandia team, which consists of computer scientists George Davidson, Carl Diegert and Constantine Pavlakos, are using some of the world's most powerful computers to create the computer models.

The Parasaurolophus skull was discovered in August 1995 in the De-na-zin Wilderness area of the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. Williamson was leading a party that was conducting research on Late Cretaceous animals under permit from the Bureau of Land Management. The skull was first noticed by Dr. Robert Sullivan, senior curator of paleontology and geology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. The find included the 4.5-foot long nasal crest and the lower left jaw with all 43 rows of teeth. The bone is jet-black and glossy. However, some of the elements are fractured and the crest is somewhat distorted by crushing.

Sandia National Laboratories is operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation for the Department of Energy. With main facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, Sandia has broad-based research and development programs contributing to national defense, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Technical contact: Carl Diegert, (505) 845-7193,

George Davidson, (505) 844-7902,

Museum contact: Tom Williamson, (505) 841-2835,

Chris Miller,

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Last modified: March 29, 1996

Sandia National Laboratories is operated by Lockheed Martin Corp. for the U.S. Department of Energy.