Fleshing-out a dinosaur-eating snake

In the March 2010 issue of the open-access journal, PLoS Biology, palaeontologist Jeff Wilson and colleagues give an account of a truly unique and amazing fossil discovery. In their article entitled Predation upon Hatchling Dinosaurs by a New Snake from the Late Cretaceous of India, the snake Sanajeh indicus is described, based upon multiple specimens. In particular, one snake fossil was found in a nest of sauropod eggs, looped around a crushed egg, with hatchling sauropod bones next to the broken egg. The very moment of predation seems to have been preserved in rock, as a sudden plug of sand from a flash flood smothered the animals, preserving them for millions of years.

Small-scale maquette to help visualise and plan reconstructing the scene at full scale. The sediment analysis hadn’t been completed at this stage, so vegetation tentatively filled the nest in early mock-ups.

Jeff contacted me about creating a reconstruction of this fossilised scene ‘in the flesh’ as a display. I had previously collaborated with him while he and Paul Sereno were studying the bizarre African sauropod, Nigersaurus taqueti, at the University of Chicago’s Fossil Laboratory. For that project, I created a restored skull model of the dinosaur for its unveiling, as well as a life-sized flesh model of the head and neck. These models are an extremely effective, visual means of conveying new discoveries to the public. The value of a model is underscored when a fossil isn’t very photogenic or might otherwise not make much of an impact with a lay audience on its own. This was true of the Sanajeh fossil – remarkable scientifically, yet hard to decipher at a glance for the general public. Jeff saw the value of a life-sized model to illustrate the dramatic scene and make the unveiling that much more exciting.

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