You may think that most interns spend their days filing and fetching coffee, but Catalina Suarez Gomez, an intern with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, spent her summer internship investigating the kind of once-in-a-career scientific discovery most scientists can only dream about. In 2010, Suarez Gomez was part of a team collecting fossils and geological information along the Panama Canal and in Colombia, including specimens of Titanoboa. Titanoboa is the largest-known prehistoric snake that scientists estimate slithered around the earth 60 million years ago. Paleontologists had found vertebrae and ribs from Titanoboa on previous excavations, which allowed them to estimate the snake’s massive size and infer the climate conditions during which it lived. But in order to get additional information about this animal, they needed more.
While on a field trip with five paleontologists in the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia, geologist Gersom Garcia alerted Suarez Gomez and biologist Jorge Moreno to additional Titanoboa bones. As Suarez Gomez recalls, “We took a closer look and there were some different fragments, neither ribs nor vertebrae. My heart started beating so fast. I could not believe what I was seeing. I looked at Jorge’s face and he looked at me. ‘You know what this is, right?,’ he asked. ‘YES!,’ I told him excitedly. ‘These are skull fragments of a snake!,’ he said. ‘Yes! A huge snake!,’ I said. His smile was huge and he said: ‘Catalina, we found it. Finally…This is the skull of Titanoboa!’”
“Finding the skull of a snake is like looking for needle in a haystack as the bones are very small and do not hold together as a human skull does,” said Carlos Jaramillo, a research biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who oversaw Suarez Gomez’s work. “You have to have an acute observation skill. I was very impressed that Catalina was able to find it. The skull provides an unparalleled source of information to understand the anatomy and function ofTitanoboa.”
Finding Titanoboa’s skull fragments allowed scientists to confirm the size and weight of the massive snake – 42 feet long and one ton – and better understand its feeding mechanisms, behavior and the environment in which it lived. With this information, the Smithsonian, in association with its research partners, the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska, was able to create a life-size model of the snake and send it around the country as part of its traveling exhibition series.
Now in her second year of doctoral studies at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Argentina, Suarez Gomez considers the Smithsonian a game-changer. “My time at the Smithsonian was one of the best chapters of my life,” she said. “I was not only working on paleontology, but I also met kind and smart people from many cultures and countries. I had everything I needed: many academic and physical resources, support from the best scientists and kind people around.
“I think the Smithsonian was a turning point in my life,” she continued. “Now, my life is divided into two parts: BS (Before Smithsonian) and AS (After Smithsonian). And I think the ‘AS’ part could be pretty much the best part. Being a former Smithsonian intern has opened many doors for me.”
To learn more about internship and fellowship opportunities at the Smithsonian, visit http://www.smithsonianofi.com/.
Posted: 30 May 2014