Synthesizing decades of discoveries, scientists have revealed links between changing environments and animal movements

karen carr, Louis Jacobs, Smithsonian, tetrapods, SMU

Smithsonian magazine online tapped the expertise of SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Science journalist Alicia Ault interviewed Jacobs on the subject of why land animals moved to the seas over the past 250 million years. The article, “Take a deep dive into the reasons land animals moved to the seas,” delves into a new scientific paper published by two Smithsonian scientists and appearing in the latest issue of the highly ranked prestigious journal Science.

Jacobs is a world-recognized vertebrate paleontologist and has served as president of the international Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. He leads SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

Currently his field research is focused on Angola in southwestern Africa. He co-leads Projecto PaleoAngola, a collaborative international scientific research program to understand the effect of the opening of the South Atlantic Ocean on ancient life. In the laboratory, Jacobs’ research utilizes advanced imaging and stable isotope techniques to investigate paleoenvironmental, biogeographic and phylogenetic issues of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.

Jacobs serves on the National Park Service Science Committee Advisory Board, which recommends National Natural Landmarks to the U.S. Department of the Interior. He has served as president of the international Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and in 1999 he was director ad interim of the Dallas Museum of Natural History. Before joining SMU, he served as head of the Division of Paleontology at the National Museum of Kenya. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, a Specially Appointed Professor at Hokkaido University, Japan, and a Visiting Professor at Richard Leakey’s Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya.

Jacobs is the author of “Quest for the African Dinosaurs: Ancient Roots of the Modern World” (Villard Books and Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000); “Lone Star Dinosaurs” (Texas A&M U. Press, 1999), which is the basis of the Texas dinosaur exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History; “Cretaceous Airport” (ISEM, 1993); and more than 100 scientific papers and edited volumes.

The Smithsonian article published April, 16, 2015.

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By Alicia Ault

The movement of animals from the land into the sea has happened several times over the last 250 million years, and it has been documented in many different and singular ways. But now, for the first time, a team of researchers has created an overview that not only provides insight into evolution, but may also help more accurately assess humans’ impact on the planet.

The oceans are teeming with tetrapods—“four-legged” birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians—that have repeatedly transitioned from the land to the sea, adapting their legs into fins. The transitions have often been correlated with mass extinctions, but the true reasons are only partly known based on fossils and through study of Earth’s climate, for instance.

Those transitions are considered to be “canonical illustrations” of the evolutionary process and thus ideal for study; living marine tetrapods—such as whales, seals, otters and sea lions—also have a big ecological impact, according to Neil P. Kelley and Nicholas D. Pyenson, the two Smithsonian scientists who compiled the new look at these tetrapods, appearing this week in the journal Science.

Instead of gathering evidence from a single field, the pair pulled together research from many disciplines, including paleontology, molecular biology and conservation ecology, to give a far larger picture of what was happening when animals transitioned from the land to the sea across millennia.

Almost by necessity, scientists tend to work in narrow silos, so this research will help broaden their views and potentially make for quicker progress in understanding evolution. Knowing how these creatures adapted over the last few hundred million years, and especially how they’ve changed in the era since humans appeared, could help us become better stewards of the planet.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind summation of all that’s known about those different groups that evolved to go back to the sea,” says Louis L. Jacobs, a professor of earth sciences and president of the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at Southern Methodist University. The paper lays it all out in a way that allows scientists to make comparisons across species, he adds.

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