Senior’s paleontology presentation derailed by virus but back-on-track for online conference

Senior’s paleontology presentation derailed by virus but back-on-track for online conference

C olin Calvert, a senior environmental science major researching the length of ancient sea snakes, was unable to present his findings at the Georgia Academy of Science at Valdosta State University in March due to the virus that causes COVID-19.

But Calvert quickly switched gears at home in Roswell, where he’s finishing a presentation poster for next week’s annual undergraduate research conference at Georgia College—which will be streamed online this year.

“I was going to do an oral presentation at the Georgia Academy of Science,” Calvert said. “I was very disappointed to hear I wouldn’t get to present there, since it would’ve been a good experience.”

Senior Colin Calvert in the palenotology lab at Georgia College.
Senior Colin Calvert in the palenotology lab at Georgia College.
It was in the paleontology lab at Georgia College the past two years that Calvert helped perfect a mathematical ‘regression equation’ to determine the length of Georgian sea snakes that lived 30 million years ago.

Calvert used 400 bones from modern snakes to make the math equation. He then used the formula to calculate the length of ancient sea snakes, using 40 vertebrae fossils—some as large as an inch—that he chiseled out of a kaolin mine in Wilkinson County with paleontologist and professor Dr. Al Mead.

He discovered the 30 million-year-old bones were from snakes as long as 16-feet.

There’s never been a good, solid estimate of how long ancient sea snakes were in this area—so, that’s new. A 16-footer is unusual. That’s a big snake. Probably the biggest rattle snake today’s going to be 6 feet. So, these were massive snakes.
– Dr. Al Mead, palenotologoist and professor of biology
“There’s never been a good, solid estimate of how long ancient sea snakes were in this area—so, that’s new,” Mead said. “A 16-footer is unusual. That’s a big snake. Probably the biggest rattle snake today’s going to be 6 feet. So, these were massive snakes.”

“We have a lot of confidence we can take any snake vertebrae and determine the length of the snake, using this equation,” he said.

Dr. Al Mead and senior Colin Calvert.
Dr. Al Mead and senior Colin Calvert.
The study also confirmed the existence of two species of sea snakes in this area in prehistoric times: Palaeophis and Pterosphenus. They were the marine version of modern-day boas.

“We’re trying to understand the diversity of past life,” Mead said. “We see major changes occurring today. We know that we’re losing enormous numbers of species in a very short amount of time. Until we have a handle on what has been the diversity, we can’t really understand the significance of the loss of diversity that we’re seeing today.”

Calvert started his research activity at Georgia College with a focus on compost. Since switching to the study of fossils, however, he’s now considering a master’s in paleontology. He likes the methodical, careful work of scraping fossils clean of debris.

Colin Calvert.
Colin Calvert.

Calvert was a sophomore, when Mead had him categorize hundreds of teeth from sharks, sting rays and barracuda. They were discovered along with a whale bone and giant oyster in Central Georgia, more than 100 miles from the nearest beach.

Millions of years ago, all the continents were together. As North America and Africa rifted apart, the Atlantic Ocean formed, and the Georgia coastline wasn’t where it is today. Sediment erosion continually dumped over the fall line—which stretches from Augusta, Milledgeville, Macon and Columbus—to where the modern coastline now sits.

It’s very exciting, really cool, to find evidence of ancient sea snakes in Middle Georgia. These snake vertebrae are really rare, and it’s unusual we found so many in that locality.
– Dr. Al Mead
“It’s very exciting, really cool, to find evidence of ancient sea snakes in Middle Georgia. These snake vertebrae are really rare,” Mead said, “and it’s unusual we found so many in that locality.”

The teeth and snake vertebrae were found in the same kaolin mine. Rain washes away clay, continuously exposing new material. When workers see something unusual sticking out of the clay, they call Mead.

He and Calvert have spent a lot of time scraping off limestone and digging fossil nodules from the mine. They get covered head-to-toe in mud in the process.

In the lab, Calvert spends 20 hours cleaning one small fossil. He stabilizes them by cleaning off hardened sediment with hydrochloric acid, metal picks, toothpicks—even porcupine quills. He uses a nasal aspirator ball to blow off the last fragments and then lets the bones dry.

Calvert measures a 30-million-year-old snake vertebrae.
Calvert measures a 30-million-year-old snake vertebrae.
“It’s just slow. You have to take it slow,” Calvert said. “It took all semester just to clean five or six.”

“But that’s what I enjoy the most, getting to interact with all the fossils on a weekly basis. It’s really cool,” he said. “In the beginning, I was so scared of breaking one. I’ve broken a couple, but I was able to glue them back together.”

Next, Calvert will extend his research to see if the mathematical regression equation works on a different family of modern snakes. Then, he’ll compare groups of modern snakes to the ancient sea snake. This will be a first-of-its-kind research, Mead said. Calvert hopes to publish a paper before he graduates in spring 2021.

He’d also like to determine how big the 30-million-year-old snakes were in girth. Were they thick and round or long and skinny?

The odds of finding answers at a small, liberal arts college, where there’s one-on-one attention and the opportunity to do undergraduate research, are good. Calvert appreciates the close-knit learning atmosphere, which includes visits to the professor’s home for homemade pizza, Frisbee and dominoes.

This has been a great experience. There’s definitely a really good interaction with your professors at Georgia College that you wouldn’t get at a larger school.
– Colin Calvert