Evolution of Animal Functions

In nature, it is said that form follows function. But what happens when two functions for an organism have opposing demands? The Creative Inquiry Comparative Vertebrate Musculoskeletal Biomechanics, led by Dr. Richard Blob and Christopher Mayerl in the Department of Biological Sciences, serves to study the evolution of animal functions. “The specific systems we pick relate to how animals are able to live in multiple habitats and what specializations are necessary to live there as well as how these adaptations help or hurt animals in each habitat,” Blob said.

Evolution of animal functions related to differences in environment produces diversity among species via the specializations that animals develop. The team studies evolutionary biomechanics, or the analysis of structure and function in organisms throughout their evolution. In order to study how these structures perform, the team uses high-speed video cameras to capture footage of animals and measure their movements frame by frame.

One project that the Creative Inquiry is currently working on is the waterfall climbing ability of Hawaiian stream gobies. This species of fish swim upstream and climb up waterfalls using their mouths and suckers on their bellies in order to reach predator-free habitats where adults live and reproduce. However, the ability of gobies to escape predators and their specializations for climbing waterfalls are at odds with one another because tall bodies help fish to avoid predators, but lower, streamlined bodies can help them climb. The team recently traveled to Hawai'i to collect locomotor performance data from goby populations, and then determine which mix of physical characteristics are most advantageous for populations living on islands with different habitats.

The other team’s project focuses on the maneuverability and stability of turtles. The rigid shells of turtles make them an interesting model for studying potential designs of small aquatic robots or vehicles. With help from Clemson’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the team had several designs of keels 3D-printed, and then attached these to the shells of the turtles to test their effect on mobility. For example, a large keel improves stability but reduces maneuverability. In a collaborative effort with the College of Charleston, a “robotic lure” was created to trace a consistent path for the turtles to follow while recorded on the high-speed camera.

In order to expand their knowledge of the field, the students hold weekly meetings during which students rotate choosing an article from an academic journal and then leading a discussion. The students in the Creative Inquiry have received attention from NPR and have also presented at scientific conferences like the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. “The ability or opportunity to present research you designed, implemented and conducted gives you so much confidence in yourself you wouldn’t get in any other way,” Alex Rubin, senior biological sciences major, said.

While students in the Creative Inquiry examine specific projects on functional diversity and organism-environment interactions, they also aim to recognize how their work relates to the big picture of evolutionary biology. “There really is a feeling that has evolved over the years to make this Creative Inquiry about the field overall rather than just one specific experiment or project,” Blob said. As the lab continues to conduct research in evolutionary biomechanics, they will continue to be able to provide insight into evolutionary models.


Created with images by peteoshea - "Turtle" • FromSandToGlass - "Fire Goby"

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