Dallas' Big Thinkers:
Prof. Bonnie Jacobs and the 27-Million-Year-Old Pollen

SMU Paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs talks to D Magazine about her research into climate change some 22 - 27 million years ago and what it means for today.

Paleobotanist Bonnie JacobsBonnie Jacobs’ favorite place to go as a kid was the American Museum of Natural History. She also had a thing for Egyptian artifacts. During visits to the beach, she collected snails and shells, which her mother later discovered, usually by following the smell.

“Growing up, I didn’t know the difference between paleontology and archeology,” she says. “My parents, as wonderful as they are, didn’t know the difference either.”

She eventually became a noted paleobotanist. Earlier this year, she wrote for the New York Times’ Scientist at Work blog, chronicling her work in Ethiopia, where she studies plant fossils to learn about the history of our changing climate. Her work there began years ago, when her husband, Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at SMU, got a job in Kenya. At the time, Jacobs was near the beginning of her Ph.D. research. This was before email. She worried about how she was going to transport boxes of manuscripts from Arizona to Africa. She worried that she wouldn’t finish her Ph.D. She even worried she wouldn’t find a good microscope.

When she arrived, though, she connected with a friend who was starting a project to document human evolution 15 million to 16 million years ago. She went on a field trip and later connected with a paleoanthropologist from Tanzania who wanted to find pollens 46 million years old. The goal of the projects is to assemble a climate and ecosystem history of tropical Africa for the Cenozoic Era. Jacobs is working on two sites in Ethiopia, looking at 22-million-year-old pollen at one and 27-million-year-old pollen at another.

“There is a time in that interval, 27 to 22 million years, when some records indicate there was significant warming on the global level,” Jacobs says. “Some records estimate ancient CO2 was actually the same as it is in modern times, but other records say it was on the rise. We’re living in a world now where changes are happening very rapidly. If we can understand a little bit better what happened in the past regarding ecosystem changes and what caused those ecosystems to change, then we could get some information to use now.”

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