Louis Jacobs is proudly showing visitors through the "Texas Dinosaurs" exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Natural History.
"That's an SMU fossil," he says, pointing to the skeleton of a small, still-unnamed dinosaur found near Proctor Lake, about 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
"That's an SMU fossil," he says, pointing to a bathtub-sized dinosaur footprint from Glen Rose, Texas.
And on he continues. Perhaps no one has contributed as much to our knowledge of Texas dinosaurs as Lou Jacobs, professor of geological sciences in SMU's Dedman College and an internationally known vertebrate paleontologist.
But Jacobs' research goes far beyond dinosaurs. For him, fossils of dinosaurs and other mammals are a means to help us learn more about Earth and life on it.
"It's not only the fossils that are interesting, it is the questions they can answer," he says.
Jacobs joined the SMU faculty in 1983 after earning his Ph.D. at the University of
Arizona and working for world-renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey as head of paleontology for the National Museums of Kenya.
His earliest research, which Jacobs believes may be his most significant, documented changes in fossil mammals in Pakistan and helped relate the history of that country to the history of the rest of the world. The research enabled scholars to document when animals moved from Africa to Asia and to correlate climatic changes with evolutionary changes seen in animals.
"This was a widely recognized study," says Richard Cifelli, professor of geology at the University of Oklahoma and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
His 1993 book, Quest for the African Dinosaurs: Ancient Roots of the Modern World, recounts Jacobs' search for dinosaur fossils in Kenya, Malawi, and Cameroon. His diaries of the digs introduce nonscientists to the world of paleontology and describe Africa today and as it existed 100 million years ago. The book was reviewed favorably in several publications, including the Wall Street Journal.
"Lou broke a lot of new ground in Africa, particularly with his dinosaur work," says Kay Behrensmeyer, an eminent scientist from the Smithsonian Museum who worked with Jacobs in Africa.
Jacobs is particularly known for his discovery of what is now called Malawisaurus -- a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in Malawi 100 million years ago. The elephant-sized Malawisaurus belonged to a family of long-necked sauropod dinosaurs known as titanosaurs that made their way from East Africa to Texas via South America, reaching Big Bend about 70 million years ago. His study of Malawisaurus and its counterparts in Texas have helped trace the roots of some of Texas' largest dinosaurs.
Jacobs published his first book on Texas dinosaurs, Cretaceous Airport, in 1993. The book describes fossils of dinosaurs and other mammals found on the site of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Cretaceous Airport led to Jacobs' 1995 book, Lone Star Dinosaurs, which details some major dinosaur finds by Texas residents. Lone Star Dinosaurs was the basis for a museum exhibit that toured the state in 1996. To this day, a week never goes by that Jacobs doesn't get several calls from people who have found dinosaur fossils in Texas. He remains involved with several digs described in the book, including the biggest dinosaur project ever undertaken in Central Texas -- an excavation on a ranch in Hood County that produced the bones of several brontosaurs known as Pleurocoelus. These fossils will be included in a new exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Texas is a great place to study dinosaurs, Jacobs explains, because dinosaurs from three time periods have been found in three separate areas: the Panhandle, Central Texas, and Big Bend. "Texas was sort of a free-trade zone for the Age of Reptiles," he says.
Most recently, Jacobs has turned his attention to a limestone quarry north of Jerusalem that has yielded fossils of sharks, turtles, primitive mosasaurs, and plants. In March 2000 he and several international co-authors published details of an intriguing new species of fossil snake with legs found in the quarry. Fossil snake skeletons are rare finds because their bones usually scatter after the snakes die. This snake is only the third known find of a fossil snake with legs.
Analysis of the fossil snake, which Jacobs estimates lived 95 million years ago, has added to the debate over whether snakes originated on land or in the sea. His snake lived in the sea, and Jacobs believes it may represent the first invasion of the sea by snakes.
His work in Israel will add to developmental and genetic models of how limbs are formed, Jacobs says. His current work -- combined with his earlier research in Africa and Texas -- also is providing geologic models of how the continents have moved over time. The site north of Jerusalem is similar to areas in Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia, as well as the area around Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Jacobs plans to expand his research in Israel to other areas of the Middle East, as well as Bosnia and Slovenia.
Jacobs' contributions to paleontology extend far beyond his own published research. From 1987 through 1999, he served as director of the Shuler Museum of Paleontology, a research collection of fossils located in the basement of Heroy Hall. The collection houses from 20,000 to 30,000 specimens, of which about 15,000 are catalogued. Jacobs secured grant money to help organize and update the collection. His research and international profile have brought considerable attention to the collection, visited by dozens of scholars each year. Specimens from the collection are on loan to the Dallas Museum of Natural History and other museums around the world.
Jacobs also is known for the quality of graduate students he trains.
"Lou's students become distinguished scientists almost immediately," says Lee McAlester, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at SMU.
His current graduate students include top paleontologists from Africa, Japan, Mexico, and Israel. "What makes us unique is our international perspective and our international network," Jacobs says. "By the time they finish they have a global network of colleagues and professionals that allows them to continue with international work."
Elizabeth Gomani ('99) from Malawi had an experience typical of Jacobs' students. While working on her Ph.D. at SMU, Gomani shared an office with students from Japan, Korea, and China. She is now senior paleontologist for the Department of Antiquities in Malawi and is raising funds for science exhibits at a new national cultural center. Gomani is believed to be the only black African woman paleontologist.
Fellow paleontologists also praise Jacobs for his leadership in their profession. Jacobs served as president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology from 1996 to 1998 when the organization became embroiled in controversies over the commercialization and sale of fossils.
Jacobs also served as director ad interim of the Dallas Museum of Natural History in 1999 when he helped organize its current "Texas Dinosaurs" exhibit. A copy of the Malawisaurus skeleton that Jacobs found greets visitors as they enter the museum. In January 2000, Jacobs added another responsibility to his already-extensive résumé: president of the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man (see story above).
Jacobs' knowledge of the fossil record makes him a popular speaker on the subject of evolution and creationism. To help put the issue in context, Jacobs teaches a class on "Evolution vs. Creationism as a Public School Issue." The class is full every time he teaches it.
For Jacobs, the issue isn't one of religion versus science. "Science is guided by peers," he says. "Religion is personal. It is wrong to judge the religion of others. It is not wrong to test science."
Jacobs' next project is Galloping Through Time, a children's book about horses that he is working on with his longtime illustrator, Karen Carr. Like he did with dinosaurs in Cretaceous Airport, Jacobs plans to use horses as a way to teach children lessons about concepts such as evolution, climate change, genetics, and how bodies function.
"There definitely is a need for books like this," Carr says. "It is so hard to keep up with modern science. Lou is able to put difficult concepts into language anyone can understand. His books appeal to children and adults alike. He's a real Renaissance man."