Dallas native and Southern Methodist University student Travis Nolan is an origami champion whose artistic skills serve his paleontological studies.

When he chips a 287-million-year-old fossil from the rocky, red soil near Seymour, Texas, he uses the Japanese art of paper folding to envision and craft what could be a model of the full animal.

Travis Nolan courtesy SMU

Nolan says he has been fascinated by dinosaurs since his dad came home with a dinosaur puppet when he was three. When he was seven, a church bulletin folded into a paper airplane inspired his interest in origami. By the time he was eight, he was a member of the Dallas Paleontological Society, assisting in local digs.

Now he’s winning international origami awards for his original dinosaur designs, and says origami contributes to his understanding of Earth and biological science — his major and minor area of study, respectively — and vice versa.

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

At 13, Nolan started volunteering summers at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymou, assisting in the excavation of Dimetrodon, Diplocaulus, Eryops, Diadectes, among others, in 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. This summer, Nolan is conducting research on Seymouria baylorensis, an ancient reptile unique to the area.

Nolan says his 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.

(Lucy Ladis for the Daily Campus has a great story about Nolan here, for more about his process.)

Nolan has earned a 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 says. “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 nonprofit founded by young Isabelle and Katherine Adams (who we wrote a story about here) that makes 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, Nolan 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.”