Gauging the force of the bite

Marine scientists are getting closer to understanding the evolution of sharks and other marine invertebrates with the help of a USF graduate student in the department of marine biology.

The graduate student, Dan Huber, is involved in research dealing with the mechanics of shark feeding and the function and behavior of shark and ray feeding at USF. Much of Huber’s work includes examining the morphology, or physical structure, of sharks as well as feeding habits.

“His work is crucial in understanding the design of the skull and feeding mechanisms of sharks. He is modeling the forces throughout the head and skull of sharks which will lead us into a better understanding of the evolution and diversity of feeding mechanisms,” said Phillip Motta, a professor in marine biology.

In addition to understanding how the structures of sharks have evolved in order to adapt to its environment, Huber said that understanding how these animals bite has implications for future technology. One possible application could be protecting transatlantic cables from sharks, Huber said.

Huber’s research at USF involves measuring the bite force of sharks and then comparing it to the electrical activity that occurs in the head at the time of feeding. This specific research helped Huber land a spot on a Discovery Channel special Animal Face-Off.

“They (Discovery Channel) called me out of the blue one morning and said they found my research on the lab Web site. They said, ‘your doing some really interesting work and we think you’d be good for a show we are doing,'” Huber said.

In the Discovery Channel special, researchers use machines, based on Huber’s research, to determine the bite force of certain types of sharks. Discovery Channel wanted to use Huber’s research in order to get their machines to recreate the sharks movements more accurately. Although there have been previous Discovery specials dealing with the bite force of sharks, Huber said they used poor science.

“Discovery recognized that and wanted to do one that was more mechanically accurate,” Huber said.

Huber said he began doing bite-force research after becoming interested in performance testing. Performance testing uses things like suction or force transducers, which measure tension, to measure mechanical measurements related to the behavior of animals. Huber said he uses this as a way to look at the ecology and evolution of sharks.

“I think it is a very interesting way to compare how animals rank up at performing some kind of ecological task,” Huber said. “You put the same thing in front of them based on morphology, the way the jaws are designed and the way muscles work and their behavior. Certain sharks or animals are going to be better at performing at a given task then others are.”

Huber became interested in sharks at the age of nine when his second cousin was attacked while surfing. After the attack, his family was apprehensive about the ocean, except for him. He said he wanted to learn what was behind the fear.

“For some reason it just intrigued me. I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Huber said.

After graduating from Duke University in North Carolina with a degree in general biology, Huber came to USF to work with Motta, whom he said is an internationally respected shark biologist.