A dinosaur hunter’s epic quest leads to the Smithsonian

SMU Professor Emeritus of Earth Sciences Louis Jacobs has spent a lifetime playing in the dirt – sifting through layers of sediment and combing through rocks for fossils to help solve the great mysteries of evolution on a changing Earth. In short, he’s a dinosaur hunter, traveling the world to search for remnants of the great beasts that once populated our planet.

Other than being a really cool thing to do, why has Jacobs spent so much time digging up the past?

“When you study fossils, you are looking backward. But by looking backward, you see forward. When you look at the situation of life on Earth, millions of years ago, you’re actually looking at ingenious experiments that the Earth has run,” says Jacobs, who recently retired from teaching after 35 years at SMU. “Changes in environment, changes in the arrangements of continents, changes in the paths of ocean currents – those are all things that you can see in the past.”

A world-renowned vertebrate paleontologist, he has unearthed all kinds of fossils from Malawi to Mongolia, Alaska to Antarctica, and even from SMU’s own backyard in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“Fossils have the same magic in every country of the world” – Louis Jacobs, PhD

“Fossils have the same magic in every country of the world,” he says. “Everywhere they’re found, people like them. When people find out there’s something in their backyard that they didn’t know about, they are proud.”

His fieldwork currently focuses on the puzzle-like fit of Africa and South America, as viewed through the rocks and fossils of coastal Angola in southwestern Africa. Since 2005, he and SMU research associate and paleontologist Michael Polcyn have participated in the international collaboration Projecto PaleoAngola of Angolan, American, Portuguese and Dutch researchers excavating and studying Cretaceous marine reptile fossils from Angola.

Beginning in 2010, the ancient remains were shipped to SMU’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology lab. Over the years, more than 100 undergraduate students painstakingly cleaned and preserved the fossils, and three SMU students have earned their Ph.D. degrees based on Projecto PaleoAngola research. The result of this epic research project will be on exhibit in Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas, opening November 9 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

“The work of all these students is a big reason this project has a place at the Smithsonian,” says Jacobs. “What this means for SMU is that we’re doing our jobs as educators by providing students with unique opportunities for engaging in scientific research that has global results.”

Sea Monsters Unearthed tells the story of how Angola’s rich fossil history evolved in its coastal waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. Over 134 million years ago, the basin as we know it today didn’t exist, and Africa and South America were one continuous landmass. As the two continents began to drift apart, a new marine environment emerged in the vast space – the South Atlantic – that was created between them.

The exhibit will mark the first time Angolan fossils of colossal Cretaceous marine reptiles will be on public display. Scientists did not have access to the fossils for decades because of Angola’s war of independence that began in 1961 and ended (after civil war) in 2002, nearly 40 years after continental drift and plate tectonics became accepted scientific theory. Jacobs, Polcyn and their colleagues approached officials at Agostinho Neto University, Angola’s national university, to start a project to excavate the fossils, and Projecto PaleoAngola was born.

Helping to install the Sea Monsters Unearthed exhibit in September at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History: (From left) Louis Jacobs, SMU professor emeritus of Earth Sciences and president, ISEM; Diana Vineyard, ISEM; Myria Perez ’18; Yasmin Jackson ’19; Wayne Furstenwerth, Shuler Museum volunteer; Tyler Nelson ’14; Mike Polcyn, SMU Digital Imaging Lab and ISEM Senior Fellow; and Bill Johnson, Shuler Museum volunteer.

After two years on display at the Smithsonian, the fossils will be returned to Angola.

“If we display these fossils in a Smithsonian exhibit, and 14 million people see them, then we will have something known and appreciated the world over, specifically prepared for the Angolans to build on when the fossils are returned.”

Jacobs says the hope is that the fossils and the research will be used in the educational system of Angola for decades to come.

“They belong to the people of Angola,” Jacobs says. “They’ll be a source of pride for the country.”

Although he is stepping away from the classroom, Jacobs will continue his role as president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and his search for fossils.

“Research, learning and education go on forever; as soon as one question is tied up to satisfaction at the time, you have to move on to another. We were at the right place at the right time for Angola because we were looking for a new, different, impactful place to go,” he says.

Reflecting on his latest project as he retires: “It takes a decade to get a project like this going. I’m just glad I have this one to go out on.”

– Susan White  ’05

By Cresencio Cantu