James Brooks receives 2015 AAPG Presidential Award for Exemplary Service

Institute for the Study of Earth and Man

James Brooks receives 2015 AAPG Presidential Award for Exemplary Service

James E, Brooks, SMU Institute for the Study of Earth and ManJames Brooks, provost emeritus and professor emeritus in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, has received the 2015 AAPG Presidential Award for Exemplary Service, one of the highest honors of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG).

AAPG President Randi Martinsen bestowed the honor upon Brooks “for a lifetime of inspired and dedicated service to his profession and community, and for the education of hundreds of students for whom he has served as an outstanding teacher, wise mentor and genuine friend.”

AAPG is the premier organization for U.S. petroleum geologists. It is one of the world’s largest professional geological societies with more than 36,000 members.

Brooks, an AAPG member, is an expert in North American and Middle Eastern stratigraphy and geomorphology. He’s been at SMU for 60 years as a professor, department chair, dean of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, provost, interim University president and as chairman of the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man (ISEM) in SMU’s Department of Earth Sciences.

Officially retired, he remains on the department staff in various roles, including as president emeritus and vice chair of the board of trustees for ISEM.

“He is a beloved teacher, mentor, role model, counselor and principal professor of dozens of M.S. theses and Ph.D. dissertations,” said former AAPG President James Gibbs. “He has been very supportive of petroleum geology science and business.”

In announcing the award, the AAPG commended Brooks — an AAPG member — for his inspired and dedicated service to his profession, community and students.

“I’ve known Jim for 40 years, and he is a man whose character, accomplishments and modesty I greatly admire,” said past AAPG president Marlan W. Downey.

“An extraordinary number of distinguished people have passed under Jim’s wings at SMU and ISEM in Dallas and have been influenced by him,” Downey said. “Jim is one of the ‘good guys.’”

Written by SMU and AAPG

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

May 1, 2015|For the Record, News|

Research: Whale fossil provides key to unlock date of East Africa’s mysterious uplift

A 17 million-year-old Turkana ziphiid beaked whale fossil from the Great Rift Valley, East AfricaPaleontologists have used a fossil from the most precisely dated beaked whale in the world to pinpoint for the first time a date when East Africa’s mysterious elevation began.

The 17 million-year-old fossil is from the Ziphiidae family. It was discovered 740 kilometers inland at a elevation of 620 meters in modern Kenya’s harsh desert region and is the only stranded whale ever found so far inland on the African continent, said SMU vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs.

Uplift associated with the Great Rift Valley of East Africa and the environmental changes it produced have puzzled scientists for decades because the timing and starting elevation have been poorly constrained. Determining ancient land elevation is very difficult, but the whale provides one near sea level.

“It’s rare to get a paleo-elevation,” Jacobs said, noting only one other in East Africa, determined from a lava flow.

At the time the whale was alive, it would have been swimming far inland up a river with a low gradient ranging from 24 to 37 meters over more than 600 to 900 kilometers, said Jacobs. He is co-author of a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that provides the first constraint on the start of uplift of East African terrain from near sea level.

“The whale was stranded up river at a time when east Africa was at sea level and was covered with forest and jungle,” Jacobs said. “As that part of the continent rose up, that caused the climate to become drier and drier. So over millions of years, forest gave way to grasslands. Primates evolved to adapt to grasslands and dry country. And that’s when – in human evolution – the primates started to walk upright.”

Identified as a Turkana ziphiid, the whale would have lived in the open ocean, like its modern beaked cousins. Ziphiids, still one of the ocean’s top predators, are the deepest diving air-breathing mammals alive, plunging to nearly 10,000 feet to feed, primarily on squid.

In contrast to most whale fossils, which have been discovered in marine rocks, Kenya’s beached whale was found in river deposits, known as fluvial sediments, said Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

The whale, probably disoriented, swam into the river and could not change its course, continuing well inland.

“You don’t usually find whales so far inland,” Jacobs said. “Many of the known beaked whale fossils are dredged by fishermen from the bottom of the sea.”

The beaked whale fossil was discovered in 1964 by J.G. Mead in what is now the Turkana region of northwest Kenya. Mead, an undergraduate student at Yale University at the time, made a career at the Smithsonian Institution, from which he recently retired. Over the years, the Kenya whale fossil went missing in storage.

Jacobs, who was at one time head of the Division of Paleontology for the National Museums of Kenya, spent 30 years trying to locate the fossil. His effort paid off in 2011, when he rediscovered it at Harvard University and returned it to the National Museums of Kenya.

The fossil is only a small portion of the whale, which Mead originally estimated was 7 meters long during its life. Mead unearthed the beak portion of the skull, 2.6 feet long and 1.8 feet wide, specifically the maxillae and premaxillae, the bones that form the upper jaw and palate.

The researchers reported their findings in “A 17-My-old whale constrains onset of uplift and climate change in east Africa” online at the PNAS web site. Besides Jacobs, other authors from SMU are Andrew Lin, Michael Polcyn, Dale Winkler and Matthew Clemens.

From other institutions, authors are Henry Wichura and Manfred R. Strecker, University of Potsdam, and Fredrick K. Manthi, National Museums of Kenya.

Funding for the research came from SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man and the SMU Engaged Learning program.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

March 19, 2015|For the Record, News, Research|

Lewis Binford’s legacy of change and innovation

Lewis BinfordLewis R. Binford, SMU Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, died April 11, 2011 in Kirksville, Missouri. During his 40-year career as an archaeologist, Binford transformed scientists’ approach to archaeology, earning a legacy as the “most influential archaeologist of his generation,” according to Scientific American.

Binford first gained attention in 1962 as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago when he wrote a path-breaking article in American Antiquity proposing that archaeologists abandon their emphasis on cataloguing artifacts and instead study what the artifacts revealed about prehistoric cultures. The proposition launched what is now known as “New Archaeology.”

“Lewis Binford led the charge that pushed, pulled and otherwise cajoled archaeology into becoming a more scientific enterprise,” says David Meltzer, Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in SMU’s Dedman College. “The impact of his work was felt not only here in America, but around the world. Much of how we conceptualize and carry out archaeology in the 21st century is owed to Lew’s substantial legacy.”

From Alaska to Australia, Binford conducted research throughout the world, focusing much of his attention on the archaeology of hunting and gathering. He spent 20 years in remote areas of Africa, Alaska and Australia conducting research on cultural patterns of contemporary hunter-gatherers and reviving the practice of ethnoarchaeology – the study of living societies to better understand societies of the past.

Cover of Lewis Binford's 'Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets'He wrote 18 books and more than 130 articles, book chapters and reviews. His most recent book, Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets (University of California Press, 2001), is considered a landmark in the study of hunter-gatherer populations.

His honors included membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Huxley Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the Montelius Medal from the Swedish Archaeological Society and the Centennial Medal from the Portuguese Archaeological Society. He received in 2006 the Society for American Archaeology‘s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The International Astronomical Union named an asteroid for Binford in 2010 in honor of his contributions to the improvement of the study of archaeology. Read more from the SMU Forum, Aug. 27, 2010.

Binford earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1957 from the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree in 1958 and Ph.D. in 1964 from the University of Michigan. He served on the faculties of the University of Chicago, the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of California at Los Angeles before joining the faculty at the University of New Mexico. He remained a member of the faculty there from 1968 through 1991 when he joined SMU.

“Any time a university can add a National Academy of Science-quality person to its faculty is a major gain for the university and the region,” says James Brooks, who played an important role in bringing Binford to SMU. Brooks is SMU provost emeritus and chair of SMU’s Institute for Study of Earth and Man. “Binford brought distinction to SMU, to Dallas and the Southwest.”

Binford is survived by his wife, Amber Johnson, and his daughter, Martha Binford. Funeral arrangements are pending.

April 13, 2011|News|

Research Spotlight: Digital dino track a roadmap for saving at-risk natural history resources

Portable laser scanning technology allows researchers to tote their latest fossil discovery from the field to the lab in the form of lightweight digital data stored on a laptop. But sharing that data as a 3D model with others requires standard formats that are currently lacking, say SMU paleontologists.

University researchers used portable laser scanning technology to capture field data of a huge 110 million-year-old Texas dinosaur track and then create to scale an exact 3D facsimile. They share their protocol and findings with the public – as well as their downloadable 145-megabyte model – in the online scientific journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

The model duplicates an actual dinosaur footprint fossil that is slowly being destroyed by weathering because it’s on permanent outdoor display, says SMU paleontologist Thomas L. Adams, lead author of the scientific article. The researchers describe in the paper how they created the digital model and discuss the implications for digital archiving and preservation. Click here for the download link.

“This paper demonstrates the feasibility of using portable 3D laser scanners to capture field data and create high-resolution, interactive 3D models of at-risk natural history resources,” write the authors.

“3D digitizing technology provides a high-fidelity, low-cost means of producing facsimiles that can be used in a variety of ways,” they say, adding that the data can be stored in online museums for distribution to researchers, educators and the public.

SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs is one of the coauthors on the article. “The protocol for distance scanning presented in this paper is a roadmap for establishing a virtual museum of fossil specimens from inaccessible corners across the globe,” Jacobs said.

The full-resolution, three-dimensional digital model of the 24-by-16-inch Texas footprint is one of the first to archive an at-risk fossil, the SMU paleontologists say. They propose the term “digitype” for such facsimiles, writing in their article “High Resolution Three-Dimensional Laser-scanning of the type specimen of Eubrontes (?) Glenrosensis Shuler, 1935, from the Comanchean (Lower Cretaeous) of Texas: Implications for digital archiving and preservation.”

Laser scanning is superior to other methods commonly used to create a model because the procedure is noninvasive and doesn’t harm the original fossil, the authors say. Traditional molding and casting procedures, such as rubber or silicon molds, can damage specimens.

But the paleontologists call for development of standard formats to help ensure data accessibility. “Currently there is no single 3D format that is universally portable and accepted by all software manufacturers and researchers,” the authors write.

SMU’s digital model archives a fossil that is significant within the scientific world as a type specimen – one in which the original fossil description is used to identify future specimens. The fossil also has cultural importance in Texas. The track is a favorite from well-known, fossil-rich Dinosaur Valley State Park, where the iconic footprint draws tourists.

The footprint was left by a large three-toed, bipedal, meat-eating dinosaur, most likely the theropod Acrocanthosaurus. The dinosaur probably left the footprint as it walked the shoreline of an ancient shallow sea that once immersed Texas, Adams said. The track was described and named in 1935 as Eubrontes (?) glenrosensis. Tracks are named separately from the dinosaur thought to have made them, he explained.

“Since we can’t say with absolute certainty they were made by a specific dinosaur, footprints are considered unique fossils and given their own scientific name,” Adams said.

The fossilized footprint, preserved in limestone, was dug up in the 1930s from the bed of the Paluxy River in north central Texas about an hour’s drive southwest of Dallas. In 1933 it was put on prominent permanent display in Glen Rose, Texas, embedded in the stone base of a community bandstand on the courthouse square.

The footprint already shows visible damage from erosion, and eventually it will be destroyed by gravity and exposure to the elements, Adams said. The 3D model provides a baseline from which to measure future deterioration, he said.

Besides Adams and Jacobs, other co-authors on the article are paleontologists Christopher Strganac and Michael J. Polcyn in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU.

The research was funded by the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at SMU. – Margaret Allen

> Find more information, photos and links at the SMU Research blog

February 15, 2011|Research|

Tune In: Green power

Geothermal IcelandAs Earth Day 2008 approaches, the search for alternative and renewable energy has taken on new and urgent importance. SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man, in association with Shade Tree Studios, has put together a video showing how a small nation has gotten a big boost from geothermal power. “Iceland: A Crucible of Power” features experts including SMU’s David Blackwell, James Brooks and Louis Jacobs. Watch it online at SMU News’ Video Library. video

April 17, 2008|Tune In|
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