TEXAS VIEW: How a team of scientists helped fill a gap in Texas’ natural history

THE POINT: Steve May and his colleagues are finalists for Texan of the Year.

It’s amazing how finding just a few fossilized bone fragments can add to our understanding of Texas’ natural history, and the scientists who work hard finding and studying them are just as amazing.

A 1938 paper about the Malone Mountains in West Texas contained a single line about large bone fragments in the area. It caught the eye of Steve May, a research associate at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences Museum of Earth History. “I thought, oh my gosh, you know, this is where we need to go.”

And from there, May helped form a team of scientists, all of them from UT and Southern Methodist University at the time, though some have since moved on. They came together to search for vertebrate fossils from the Jurassic period, the remains of a backbone-bearing animal from about 201 million to 145 million years ago.

For giving Texans a chance to gaze into the distant past, Steve May, Kenneth Bader, Lisa Boucher, Louis Jacobs, Joshua Lively, Timothy Myers and Michael Polcyn are 2023 finalists for The Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.

That an 85-year-old paper opened the past to present-day scientists is what drives researchers to build on the work of those who precede them. The connection represents a new chapter and a foundation for others to fill in gaps in our understanding of the natural world.

The scientists went on two expeditions between 2015 and 2016, culminating in a research paper published this year, but you could say the process started a long time before that. The team’s search was partly based on the work of the late Claude Albritton, a prominent SMU geologist who had explored the Malone Mountains decades earlier.

“For forever, really, you know, we’ve been teaching classes that said, well, we just don’t have any record of Jurassic vertebrates from Texas,” May said. Not anymore. The team found that Texas used to be home to plesiosaurs, an aquatic reptile that went extinct about 66 million years ago. Boucher found a vertebra that belonged to one.

There’s still more exploring to do in the Jurassic-age rocks of the Malone Mountains. The team only searched two or three of 13 square miles, but their work represents a major step in recording the history of life in Texas.

May and his six colleagues helped build on a long tradition. The collaboration is a testament to what scientists in our state can accomplish when they put their heads together, shining a light on what kind of plants and animals lived here millions of years before humans raised a flag over the Lone Star State.

The Dallas Morning News