Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
February 26, 2001
Cutting-edge technology answers questions from past
For the first time, researchers – including a University of Guelph biomedical scientist – have used technology normally used in designing cars, bridges and airplanes to uncover answers about how dinosaurs ate and hunted that have been buried in the fossil record.
The study, which appears in the latest issue of Nature magazine, was authored in part by Guelph professor Jeffrey Thomason from the Ontario Veterinary College.
The scientists took the skull of the allosaurus dinosaur and generated the most geometrically complete and complex model of any extinct or extant organism using finite element analysis (FEA). By creating a 3-D model of the allosaurus’ skull, they were able to uncover clues about the dinosaur’s hunting and eating habits, such as learning that it attacked its prey head-on at a high velocity, like a person swinging a hatchet.
“This is definitely the most ambitious study to date dealing with the fossil record,” Thomason said, adding the findings demonstrate the potential of using the technique to test mechanical behaviour of fossils in ways that until now have been impossible.
Thomason, who has used FEA in his research at the Ontario Veterinary College, provided software consultation to lead author Emily Rayfield of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. The project also involved researchers from the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University. The researchers discovered that the allosaurus had a weak muscle-driven bite force, so it relied on high-velocity impact of the skull to kill its prey and ate its victims using a “slice and tear” method, similar to the eating technique seen today in a giant lizard, the Komodo dragon. Through FEA, it was also discovered that despite its lack of a bone-crushing bite, the allosaurus could withstand a great deal of stress to its metre-long skull.
FEA is commonly used to estimate performance in structures such as bridges, airplanes and cars, Thomason said. “Engineers use it when they want to test the effect of a particular force or action on an object to see what it is strong enough to withstand. But it has had little application in paleontology, mainly because the researchers typically come at their subject from a biology rather than an engineering focus.
“This was really just a test to show that this technology can be used for this type of research.”
Thomason, whose studies using FEA have included examining the strain horses’ hooves experience during different activities and specific measurements of horses’ strides, added that research such as the that reported in the Nature article will gradually increase FEA’s popularity in non-traditional fields. “But it is going to require collaboration among all sorts of disciplines – engineers, biologists, paleontologists – and in the past, these types of collaborations have been few and far between.”
Contact: Prof. Jeffrey Thomason, Department of Biomedical Sciences (519) 824-4120, Ext. 4934/4973 firstname.lastname@example.org
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