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

Louis Jacobs

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|

For the Record: Feb. 26, 2013

Jodi Cooley, Physics, Dedman College, was named by the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women Physicists as its December 2012 CSWP Woman Physicist of the Month. She was nominated by students as “a physicist who has had an impact on [their] life or career, both past and present.” The award is open to students, teachers or any woman doing physics-related work.

Donna Dover, Office of the Provost, received a 2012 Award of Merit in a competition sponsored by the North Texas Lone Star Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. She was honored for her work on the print edition of SMU’s 2012-13 General Information Undergraduate Catalog. 

Louis Jacobs, Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College, received the 2012 Skoog Cup from the Science Teachers Association of Texas for his “significant contributions to advancing quality science education.” The teacher association presents the Skoog Cup annually to a deserving faculty or staff member at a Texas college or university for a sustained record of leadership in science education, advocacy for quality K-12 science education for all students, contributions to science, and development of effective programs for pre-service and in-service teachers of science. Jacobs received the award at the Annual Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching, which took place in Corpus Christi in November.

K. Shelette Stewart, Executive Education, Cox School of Business, has received the 2012 Christian Literary Award in the Christian Living category for her book, Revelations in Business: Connecting Your Business Plan with God’s Purpose and Plan for Your Life (Tate Publishing and Enterprises). The award was presented in a ceremony that took place in November.

Michael McLendon, Higher Education Policy and Leadership, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, delivered a keynote address to the 2012 College of Education Dean’s Symposium at Florida State University in Tallahassee in October. The symposium’s theme, “Shared Dreams, Separate Interests: Higher Education Finance & Accountability,” focused on higher education performance, accountability and finance in an era of intense scrutiny of higher education in the United States and internationally.

Azfar Moin, History, Dedman College, presented a paper at the 2012 South Asia Research and Information Institute (SARII) conference at SMU in September. The SARII conference brings together leading historians of South Asia and specialists of Indo-Muslim cultures. Its 2012 theme of “Cities, Courts, and Saints” gathered new research on the way Islam spread across and became part of the Indian subcontinent.

Wes Abel and Jon Haghayeghi, Master’s degree candidates in the Department of Economics, Dedman College, were among three U.S. students chosen to participate in the ISEO Institute’s “Learn Economics from Nobel Prize Laureates” summer program June 23-30, 2012 in Iseo, Italy. Among the Summer 2012 participating Nobel laureates were Peter Diamond and Michael Spence.

February 26, 2013|For the Record|

SMU fossils, expertise to be an ongoing part of new Perot Museum

Malawisaurus in the Perot Museum

A 35-foot skeletal cast of the Early Cretaceous sauropod dinosaur Malawisaurus stands sentry in the spacious glass lobby of the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. SMU paleontologist Louis Jacobs, who discovered the dinosaur in Africa, provided the cast to the museum. (Image: Dallas Morning News)

SMU faculty and students, the University’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology, and the SMU Innovation Gymnasium have teamed with the nation’s new premier museum of nature and science to provide everything from dinosaurs and sea turtles to technical assistance and advice.

Fossils on loan by SMU to Dallas’s new Perot Museum of Nature and Science include those of animals from an ancient sea that once covered Dallas.

The fossils represent a slice of SMU’s scientific collaboration with the Perot Museum and its predecessor, the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Items from SMU’s scientists include a 35-foot skeletal cast of the African dinosaur Malawisaurus (pictured above) standing sentry in the spacious glass lobby of the Perot, which opened Dec. 1 near downtown Dallas.

“The new museum building itself is an icon, but it’s also a statement by the city about taking the advances of science to the public,” said vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs, an SMU earth sciences professor, who serves on the Perot Museum’s advisory board and Collections Committee.

Jacobs, who was ad interim director of the Dallas Museum of Natural History in 1999, led the team that discovered Malawisaurus in Africa. He provided the cast to the museum.

“Here at SMU we train students and create new knowledge. The museum’s mission is to take the stories of science out to the general public so they can be used,” said Jacobs. “Anthony Fiorillo, Perot Museum Curator of Earth Sciences, is a world-class scientist with whom we work. We have a junction between the mission, training and knowledge we have here, infused into and enhanced by what the museum does. That’s why the museum is important to SMU and that’s why SMU is important to the museum.”

Fossils on loan are from the Shuler Museum collection in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences. SMU scientists provided technical expertise for exhibits and serve on the Perot Museum’s advisory committees.

Also on exhibit from SMU is a miniature unmanned autonomous helicopter designed for fighting fires that was built by students in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering.

Shuler Museum fossils can be viewed in the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall. They include an unnamed 113 million-year-old herbivorous dinosaur discovered in 1985 at Proctor Lake southwest of Stephenville, Texas.

For perspective on that exhibit’s paleoenvironment in Texas at the time, SMU paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs provided fossil wood, fossil cones, fossil leaves and images of microscopic pollen grains from the Shuler Museum. The fossils provided information used to create a model of an extinct tree to accompany the exhibit.

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

December 6, 2012|News, Research|

Research: New insight into a 19th-century fossil feud

In the late 1800s, a flurry of fossil speculation across the American West escalated into a high-profile national feud called the Bone Wars. Drawn into the spectacle were two scientists from the Lone Star State: geologist Robert T. Hill, now acclaimed as the Father of Texas Geology, and naturalist Jacob Boll, who made many of the state’s earliest fossil discoveries.

Hill and Boll had supporting roles in the Bone Wars through their work for one of the feud’s antagonists, Edward Drinker Cope, according to a new study by SMU’s Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College.

The study by Jacobs expands knowledge about Cope’s work with Hill and Boll. It also unveils new details about the Bone Wars in Texas that Jacobs deciphered from 13 letters written by Cope to Hill. Jacobs discovered the letters in an archive of Hill’s papers at SMU’s DeGolyer Library. The letters span seven years, from 1887 to 1894.

Hill, who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, not only provided Cope with fossils of interest but also shared geological information about fossil locales.

Boll, who was a paid collector for Cope — as was the practice at the time — supplied the well-known paleontologist with many fossils from Texas. More than 30 of the taxa ultimately named by Cope were fossils collected by Boll.

“Fossils collected by Boll and studied by Cope have become some of the most significant icons in paleontology,” said Jacobs, president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man. His study, “Jacob Boll, Robert T. Hill, and the Early History of Vertebrate Paleontology in Texas,” is published in the journal Historical Biology as part of the conference volume of the 12th International Symposium on Early Vertebrates/Lower Vertebrates.

Jacobs describes the late 1800s as a period of intense fossil collecting. The Bone Wars were financed and driven by Cope and his archenemy, Othniel Charles Marsh. The two were giants of paleontology whose public feud brought the discovery of dinosaur fossils to the forefront of the American psyche.

Over the course of nearly three decades, however, their competition evolved into a costly, self-destructive, vicious all-out war to see who could outdo the other. Despite their aggressive and sometimes unethical tactics to outwit one another and steal each other’s hired collectors, Cope and Marsh made major contributions to the field of paleontology, Jacobs said.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

September 11, 2012|Research|

For the Record: Sept. 7, 2012

Versatile Link logoAnnie Xiang, Physics, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has received the U.S. Department of Energy Generic R&D award, a 3-year program (2012 to 2015) with a total funding of $202,500 to develop small-form-factor, high-reliability optical transmitters at the 120 Gbps range for high-bandwidth data transmission in future particle physics experiments. At SMU, she also leads the Versatile Link project, a collaboration with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Oxford University, funded through U.S. ATLAS.

SMU’s Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention has received the 2012 TIPS Award of Excellence for its anti-alcohol abuse training program. The award is presented by Health Communications, Inc., the providers of the Training for Intervention ProcedureS (TIPS) Program. SMU began implementing TIPS in early 2007 to train students in how to make sound choices when faced with challenging decisions regarding alcohol use. The Award of Excellence winner is chosen based on both volume of students certified and feedback from TIPS Trainers and student participants.

Brian Zoltowski, Chemistry, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has received a $250,000 grant from the Herman Frasch Foundation for Chemical Research for his research focusing on the photoreceptor protein, one of the many proteins involved in an organism’s circadian clock. The photoreceptor protein enables plants to know when the spring and fall occur and to produce flowers or fruit at the appropriate time of year. The Frasch Foundation awards grants to nonprofit incorporated institutions to support research in the field of agricultural chemistry that will be of practical benefit to U.S. agricultural development. Grants are awarded for a period of five years, subject to annual review and approval on evidence of satisfactory progress.

Rick Halperin, Embrey Human Rights Program, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has written the foreword to Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a graphic novel by James Disco about the Sudanese genocide and an international incident in which more than 20,000 children – mostly boys – ranging in age from 7 to 17 were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). Read more from the Huffington Post. (Right, an image from the book.)

Lori Ann Stephens, English, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has written The Lingerer – a libretto based on the story The Sweeper of Dreams by Neil Gaiman – which has been chosen as a finalist in the 2012 English National Opera Minioperas competition. More than 500 librettos were entered, and 10 were selected as finalists; Stephens is the only finalist from the USA. During the next two phases of the competition, composers create music based on one of the 10 librettos, and filmmakers create videos to accompany them. Stephens has been invited to London for the final presentations in October. Listen to the music written for Stephens’ libretto by composer Julian Chou-Lambert. audio

Louis Jacobs, Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has been named the winner of the 2012 Skoog Cup presented by the Science Teachers Association of Texas (STAT) as part of its STAT Awards program. The Skoog Cup is awarded to a faculty or staff member at a Texas college or university who “has demonstrated significant contributions and leadership in the development of quality science education.” Jacobs and the other STAT Award winners will be honored at the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching (CAST) Nov. 8-10 in Corpus Christi.

Michael Corris, Art, Meadows School of the Arts, has been named reviews editor of the Art Journal, a publication of the College Art Association (CAA). CAA states its mission as “[promoting] the visual arts and their understanding through committed practice and intellectual engagement.”

Bezalel (Ben) Gavish, Information Technology and Operations Management, Cox School of Business, has been elected a Fellow of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). Only 12 members of the Institute were elected Fellows in 2012. They will be honored on Oct. 15 at the 2012 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Phoenix.

Ed Biehl, Chemistry, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has received the 2012 Kametani Award for achievements in the field of heterocyclic chemistry. The $3,000 award was created in 1999 and is presented annually in memory of the founder of Heterocycles, the official journal of The Japan Institute of Heterocyclic Chemistry. The award is sponsored by the Institute and the journal’s publisher, Elsevier.

Anita Ingram, Risk Management, has been voted 2012-13 president-elect of the University Risk Management and Insurance Association (URMIA). She and the other new URMIA officers will be inducted Oct. 2 at the organization’s 43rd Annual Conference in Providence, Rhode Island. URMIA is an international nonprofit educational association promoting “the advancement and application of effective risk management principles and practices in institutions of higher education.” It represents more than 545 institutions of higher education and 100 companies.

September 7, 2012|For the Record|
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