Grant Helps Student Researchers Gain Skills Studying Skulls of Ancient Animals

Zoology major Meghan Gillen ’15 ’18

Zoology major Meghan Gillen ’15 ’18 (right) studied—in hand and on the computer screen—the skull shape and structure of burrowing snakes, with biological sciences faculty member Dr. Jennifer Olori. Photo: Jim Russell ’83

Professor Jennifer Olori of the biological sciences faculty recently won a National Science Foundation grant for a project designed to provide undergraduates—particularly women, who remain underrepresented in sciences and math—with research experiences focused on head-first burrowing animals from as long ago as 300 million years.

Thanks to the $73,165 grant from the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, the project promises to provide students with training and skillsets applicable to such disciplines as paleobiology, comparative anatomy, computer science, computational analysis and even robotics.

Titled “Repeated evolution of limblessness and head-first burrowing in tetrapods: Testing predictions from the fossil record,” SUNY Oswego’s grant is part of a collaborative project spanning universities, research specialties, and student assistants in graduate and undergraduate programs.

“Tetrapod” means “four feet,” not only referring to the four-footed animals of today, but also to those that science has shown descended from the last common ancestor of amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Snakes, for example, are classified as tetrapods.

Olori specializes in extinct tetrapods from as long as 300 million years ago, some of which evolved a different form of locomotion. Her project aims to test fossilized animals for skull shape and other characteristics that point to environmental pressures leading to the evolution of limblessness and head-first burrowing. CT scans of skulls from a group of snakes that still exists in India and Sri Lanka will help provide anatomical comparisons.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for student work,” said Olori, who recently began training one of several women undergraduates who is assisting this spring. “The cool thing about this project is not only that it intersects with different biological ideas, but it combines computational skills—a bit of math skills, a bit of computer science along with biology—so it very rapidly helps them expand their STEM skills in general. That will help them be more marketable for getting into grad schools and getting jobs.”

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