Snakes on the Brain

3dvertsBy Sean Moran.

After studying the evolution of horses, Megalodon, and natural selection in peppered moths (just to name a few topics) since last August, we arrived at our last major case study at Delta High School…Titanoboa! Back in the beginning of the year, Claudia and I traveled to Duke University to CT scan several dozen fossil specimens for study sets, including three vertebrae and two ribs of Titanoboa, the giant Paleocene snake from Colombia. On the first day of class, we spent time measuring and plotting (after converting to the natural log and back again!) the length of Titanoboa’s vertebral centrum to arrive at an estimate for body size. Hint: most estimates were longer than the 39 foot classroom! But we did not stop there. Using the established relationship of the length of the largest snake in a given environment and the mean annual temperature of that area, we were able to calculate what the climate may have been like in the Paleocene (using Titanoboa) compared to Colombia today (using measurements of a modern anaconda vertebra). The students showed that it must have been much hotter ~58 Ma to support such a large cold-blooded serpent.

On the second day of class, we watched the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary “Titanoboa: Monster Snake.” The idea here was that it would put the discovery and research behind Titanoboa in context and expand on some of the conclusions drawn by the activities of the first class. I think this really hit home with the students when an anaconda was dissected and the students realized how small the vertebra can be in the cross-section of even a very large snake. When they compared this to the vertebra they measured the class before, they really came to understand the enormity of this reptile. They also seemed to enjoy some of the inside information I was able to provide while watching the film.

Lastly, I must finish with a huge “Thank You!” to Delta. I don’t think I will ever be able to express in words how much working with Delta High School over the past school year has meant to me. Not only have I grown close to the students, faculty, and staff at Delta, but the immensely rewarding experience is the primary reason a career in education is even on my radar. The fact that several students are actively looking for a summer internship and thinking of an eventual career in geology and paleontology and others sincerely asked if I would teach science at Delta next year is just a large dollop of icing on the cake. Thanks guys for being so welcoming and such a great class!

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