UB Researchers' Expertise in Big Cats Lands Them on Discovery Channel's New "Animal Face-Off" Series

Release Date: March 24, 2004

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The Discovery Channel's "Animal Face-Off" series on March 24 will feature biomechanical research on big cats conducted by a UB team that included Frank Mendel.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Two members of a University at Buffalo research team that is developing the first interactive, computational tool kit designed to model the behavior of ancient beasts have had a chance to explore the entertainment value of their work for the Discovery Channel's new "Animal Face-Off" series.

On the show, animal experts build and test elaborate biomechanical models of large vertebrates that conceivably could encounter each other in the wild.

The UB researchers will be featured on-camera in the "Lion vs. Tiger" episode of the series that will air March 28 on the Discovery Channel.

Frank Mendel, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in UB's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and Scott H. Woodward, director of engineering design services for the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, were "discovered" when the "Animal Face-Off" production crew surfed the World Wide Web for researchers studying how large vertebrates behave.

Mendel and Woodward are part of a team based at UB's New York State Center for Engineering Design and Industrial Innovation (NYSCEDII) that is developing a computational tool kit called The Vertebrate Analyzer (VA).

The VA will allow other scientists to create virtual models of any vertebrate species, modern or extinct, simulate behaviors and determine whether these behaviors were biomechanically possible.

As part of their research, they plan to build mechanical models of Smilodon, a saber-tooth cat, as well as modern-day tiger skulls, complete with hydraulic jaws and fangs in order to choreograph attacks on horse, bison or cow carcasses purchased from butchers.

These experiments will provide the UB team with the minimum forces that Smilodon would have had to generate to overcome the resistance offered by the tissues of the prey's neck.

"What intrigued us about the NYSCEDII Web site on The Vertebrate Analyzer was how extraordinarily similar the UB team's research was to the premise and treatment for the Discovery series,"said Andrew Waterworth, executive producer at Natural History New Zealand, the production company contracted to produce the Animal Face-Off series.

Waterworth noted that Mendel's insight and intimate knowledge of the heads and necks of large vertebrates, such as saber-tooth tigers and other "big cats," helped guide the crew as they worked on the simulations.

"Mendel's skills as a pathologist also enabled us to perform clinically detailed analyses of the biomechanical tests that led to some revelations about the bite force of big cats," said Waterworth.

Woodward's expertise with computers and measurement techniques turned out to be critical to the episode and his knowledge of sensors and motion analysis helped the crew insure that the hydraulic models demonstrated biomechanically realistic forces and motions.

During their stint at the Animal Face-Off Laboratory in New Zealand, Mendel and Woodward assisted the show's human "stars" by demonstrating and explaining both on- and off-camera how the tests and simulations squared with what they knew about the anatomy and biomechanics of large vertebrates.

"I used load cells to verify that the bite force produced by the hydraulic models did not exceed that which Frank and other researchers believe to be typical of large cats, about 1,000 pounds," said UB's Woodward.

"In addition, a multi-camera video capture system was employed to perform motion analysis of the paw strikes in the lab and to correlate them with natural history footage of actual lion and tiger paw swipes."

Each group says it was a fascinating learning experience.

"Both the UB team and the Animal Face-Off crew were fascinated by the biomechanics of large vertebrates and both were exploring innovative technologies to produce new information about animal physiology, anatomy and behavior," Waterworth said. "The parallels between the two projects were quite remarkable, since both teams were using virtual animals to demonstrate biomechanically derived data."

For their part, Mendel and Woodward plan to stick to science.

"I'm certainly no entertainer, but the enthusiasm and excitement generated in my 'Introduction to Computers and Instrumentation' class when I engaged the students with this unusual instrumentation problem was a real eye-opener," Woodward added.

In addition to Mendel and Woodward, the UB team developing the Vertebrate Analyzer includes Kevin Chugh, Ph.D., NYSCEDII research associate for visualization; Kevin Hulme, Ph.D., NYSCEDII's research associate for engineering design; Venkat Krovi, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; David R. Pendergast, Ph.D., professor of physiology and biophysics, and Abani Patra, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

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