Four outstanding SMU researchers have been named as the University's 2011 Ford Research Fellows. This year's recipients are Johan Elverskog, Religious Studies, Dedman College; Thomas Hagstrom, Mathematics, Dedman College; Neil Tabor, Earth Sciences, Dedman College; and Sze-kar Wan, New Testament, Perkins School of Theology.
Thirty million years ago, before Ethiopia's mountainous highlands split and the Great Rift Valley formed, the tropical zone had warmer soil temperatures, higher rainfall and different atmospheric circulation patterns than it does today, according to new research of fossil soils found in the central African nation.
Neil J. Tabor, associate professor of Earth Sciences at SMU and an expert in sedimentology and isotope geochemistry, calculated past climate using oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in minerals from fossil soils discovered in the highlands of northwest Ethiopia. The highlands represent the bulk of the mountains on the African continent.
For paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs standing atop a mountain in the highlands of northwest Ethiopia, it's as if she can see forever — or at least as far back as 30 million years ago.
Jacobs is part of an international team of researchers hunting scientific clues to Africa's prehistoric ecosystems.
The researchers are among the first to combine independent lines of evidence from various fossil and geochemical sources to reconstruct the prehistoric climate, landscape and ecosystems of Ethiopia in particular, and tropical Africa in general for the time interval from 65 million years ago — when dinosaurs went extinct, to about 8 million years ago — when apes split from humans.
A team of researchers led by paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs and sedimentologist Neil Tabor of Southern Methodist University returned to northwestern Ethiopia in late December 2007 to spend almost a month collecting additional plant fossils and gaining a more thorough understanding of their geological context.
In December 2006, the team collected more than 600 plant fossils, which are on loan for study in labs at SMU's Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College. All told, the team has documented more than 1,500 plant fossils, hundreds of vertebrate fossils and numerous examples of ancient soils. This year they widen their search to better understand the geology, landscape, plant and animal communities, and climate of Chilga, Ethiopia, 28 million years ago.