This article is part of a series featuring Centre College’s 2020 John C. Young (JCY) Scholars. Centre’s JCY program, now in its 30th year, is designed to serve highly motivated seniors, allowing them to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing.
Lincoln Scholar Jake Potter ’20 (Evansville, Indiana) aimed his JCY project on determining whether Sharovipteryx mirabilis, a strange reptile from the Triassic with a hindlimb wing, could have glided. He tested various hindlimb wing configurations other paleontologists have suggested with physical glide models of Sharovipteryx mirabilis to assess its gliding ability.
“Sharovipteryx has intrigued paleontologists since it was discovered in the late 60s due to this unique hindlimb wing,” Potter said. “It has been assumed that the membrane seen between the legs of the only existing fossil was used for gliding, but it has never been tested. Other paleontologists have created paper and mathematical models of Sharovipteryx mirabilis, but no one has created a physical glide model based solely on fossil evidence.”
After creating life models of Sharovipteryx mirabilis, where he approximated what the soft tissues around the bones of Sharovipteryx would have looked like based on modern reptiles, Potter said he found that the center of gravity of the model was farther forward than he expected based on previous studies. This suggests that Sharovipteryx mirabilis might have been able to maintain a stable glide.
As a biology and French double major, Potter said the idea for his project came out of Assistant Professor of Biology Amanda Falk’s first-year studies course on “Big History,” where they discussed strange and complex organisms of past eras.
“Sharovipteryx mirabilis came up during that discussion and immediately captured my attention,” Potter said. “During the discussion, Dr. Falk mentioned that no one had made a physical glide model of Sharovipteryx yet, so we really were not sure whether this organism could have glided or how it lived in the strange Triassic environment.”
Since taking the course, Potter said he remained interested in this Triassic reptile. He also developed a passion for paleontology after helping Falk with research over the summer after his sophomore year.
“Shortly afterward, I had decided I wanted to pursue a doctorate in paleontology, and I became more interested in the Triassic period,” he added. “We see so many strange and understudied organisms, like Sharovipteryx mirabilis, in the Triassic. Even though they were under-studied, these Triassic organisms seemed to capture the imaginations of people who knew of them. I specifically started noticing that Sharovipteryx would often appear in documentaries on the Triassic, gliding through the trees even though we were not sure whether it could have glided. I wanted to help answer that question.”
Throughout this study, Potter was surprised by how interdisciplinary paleontology and science really is.
“Most of this study was like an art class for me, as I try to create accurate life models and glide models to experiment on,” he said. “The model-building process also involves quite a bit of engineering to ensure that the models can withstand impacts, can mirror the aerodynamic properties of Sharovipteryx mirabilis, and be easily repairable when something inevitably breaks. I have also had to engineer a catapult launch system for the glide model by modifying an RC model aircraft launcher.”
Falk served as Potter’s faculty mentor during his project, and he says working with her has been an amazing experience.
“I’d worked with Jake as a research student before, so I knew he was a great student researcher,” Falk said. “But the JCY project really gave him some room to stretch his research muscles and tackle a project he personally developed and designed. He was really dedicated to the project, diving right in during the summer with literature searches and background reading. I’ve worked with many amazing research students while I’ve been at Centre, and Jake is easily among the best, just in terms of natural curiosity, determination and innovation.”
Potter said that Falk allowed him to work independently, but she was still a resource for ideas when things didn’t work out the way he originally planned.
“All of her suggestions have made this study stronger,” he added. “Small suggestions and tweaks, like making sure the legs of the glide model have more depth, have brought the glide model prototypes as close as possible to Sharovipteryx mirabilis.
“Throughout all of the iterations of glide models and life models of Sharovipteryx mirabilis, Dr. Falk has shown me that there is always a different way to look at the same problem,” Potter continued. “Often, I would get bogged-down in trying to make the models one way or with one material, and she would recommend trying again with a different technique or material. This whole process has been trial and error, especially since I don’t have a template to follow. Dr. Falk has also taught me that failure is expected within science. The majority of my ideas during this project have not worked the way I planned, but it has made the end result stronger.”
Potter said he is extremely honored to be a John C. Young Scholar.
“When I was applying, I never thought my project would be chosen,” he shared. “This whole process has been such an amazing experience and has made me feel more prepared for graduate school. In paleontology, it is almost unheard of for an undergraduate to create and implement a unique and independent study, so this experience has helped me compete with other graduate school applicants who have geology-focused backgrounds. This really has been an invaluable experience.”
Potter will be attending the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in geosciences. He then plans to complete a Ph.D. in paleontology with a focus on astrobiology.
View Jake Potter’s project here.
by Kerry Steinhofer
June 19, 2020
Header image: Jake Potter ’20 stands with a mosasaur on display in Centre’s Young Hall.