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Alumnus helps rewrite N.C.’s paleontological record

mitchell_t.jpgBOONE—Jonathan Mitchell is helping rewrite the paleontological record.

Research conducted for an honors thesis when Mitchell was a senior at Appalachian State University expands on previous theories of how venomous fangs developed in an ancient reptile.

His research, written with co-author Assistant Professor Andy Heckert from Appalachian’s Department of Geology, has been published in the international journal “Naturwissenschaften” (Natural Sciences), a monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal, and is also the subject of a news brief in Nature.

Jonathan Mitchell.jpgJonathan Mitchell, shown wearing in the hat for which he was known while a student at Appalachian State University, has published research expanding North Carolina’s paleontological record. Now pursuing a PhD in the evolutionary biology degree program at the University of Chicago, Mitchell has had his research conducted while an undergraduate at Appalachian published in an international peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Mitchell, now a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, analyzed teeth from a small reptile-like creature from the Late Triassic period (228 to 200 million years ago) known as Uatchitodon that were recovered from a quarry site in central North Carolina.

By comparing the specimens with those recovered from sites in Virginia and Arizona, the 2010 Appalachian graduate makes the case that the grooved fangs from Uatchitodon folded over time to evolve into venom-injecting fangs. The fossils from North Carolina capture a transition between those from the other two sites indicating an evolutionary change.

“Jonathan began this work during his sophomore year at Appalachian,” Heckert said. “He really got into the project, collecting sediment from the research site, sieving it and recovering the fossils that remained.” Most of the thousands of fossil remains he examined were so small that he used tweezers to sort them and computer applications to measure the teeth of Uatchitodon.

Mitchell documented the minute details from the fossilized fangs using one of the university’s scanning electron microscopes. That close examination of the fangs’ canals and size indicated changes that could only be attributed to the canals folding over to form tubes.

“We argue that this is how tubes may have formed in modern venomous snakes and other reptiles,” Heckert said. “This is probably a case of natural selection favoring the adaptation of that most effectively injects the venom.”

Mitchell interned at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History during his sophomore year, which provided access to paleobiology expert Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, another co-author of the paper, and similar fossil specimens at the Smithsonian.

Mitchell, Heckert and Sues named the species of Uatchitodon found in North Carolina U. schneideri for Vince Schneider, curator with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in tribute to his contributions to  paleontology in the state, including the discovery and excavation of the site that yielded the fossils.

“Jonathan took information he learned in a variety of classes at Appalachian and found ways to describe these fossils in a way that makes quantitative sense,” Heckert said. “Jonathan is a really special student. We gave him a chance to do real research, present research at major scientific meetings and intern at the Smithsonian, and we provided him guidance and oversight. But he asked the right questions and worked phenomenally hard.”

Read more about Mitchell’s honors thesis research while an undergraduate at Appalachian at http://today.appstate.edu/honor-students/.

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