Wombat-like animals the size of a rhinoceros. Dire wolves. Sabertooth cats. Giant kangaroos. These were just some of the marvelous megafauna Larisa DeSantis, a vertebrate paleontologist at Vanderbilt University, discussed as part of a recent NCSE and National Association of Biology Teachers online event entitled “Chewing on Change: The Tales Teeth Tell Us.”
Held in honor of Darwin Day 2023, which commemorates the birth of naturalist Charles Darwin, the event was a reprise, and then some, of a face-to-face talk given by DeSantis at the NABT conference in November 2022 as part of the annual NCSE-sponsored Evolution Symposium.
DeSantis, who leads the DREAM Lab at Vanderbilt University, uses paleontology to investigate how mammalian communities have evolved over time in response to climate change throughout the world. Her talk featured information about how modern methods can yield a better understanding of the dietary behavior of dire wolves, American lions, and sabertooth cats, and also of why these animals went extinct. She also spoke about the evolution of marsupial predators, suggesting that understanding how these organisms lived and died can help us to better conserve extant predator species.
Accompanying both the conference symposium and online event was an education session facilitated by NCSE Teacher Ambassador Jennifer Broo and NCSE Director of Teacher Support Lin Andrews.
In their session, Broo and Andrews shared the lesson set Broo developed for NCSE: Good is Good Enough?. The lesson set uses a technique called NGSS storylining to help students explore the evolutionary history of the horse, using the variation between modern and extinct species of horses as an anchoring phenomenon. Broo explained the lesson set helps students to realize that populations, not individuals, change over time, helping to overturn the misconception of evolution as proceeding in a linear fashion.
As for the past three years, the Darwin Day event had its roots in the NABT face-to-face conference. In November 2022, as DeSantis and Broo presented their Evolution Symposium talks in person, teachers had the opportunity to engage in the different hands-on activities included in the Good is Good Enough? lesson set. Whether teachers attended the symposium in person or virtually, they learned not only about ongoing research in the field of evolution but also about connected resources for teachers.
NCSE is committed to the continuing education of science teachers, and participating in events such as the annual Darwin Day webinar is a key part of that commitment.