American alligator

Virtual alligator allows researchers to study deadly bites in safety

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have used imaging and computational tools to build a 3D model of an American alligator, providing a safer approach to studying bite forces with accurate simulations.

Crocodilians – such as alligators, caimans and gharials – have existed since the late Cretaceous period, and are noted for the extraordinary bite strength in their jaws. This quality allows them to feed on armoured turtles and bulky wildebeest.

“Collecting bite data from live animals like alligators can be pretty dangerous and potentially deadly, so accurate 3D models are the best way for biomechanists, veterinarians, and palaeontologists interested in the function and evolution of these amazing animals to study them,” said Professor Casey Holliday, associate professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at Missouri University.

“It is impossible to analyse the bite forces in extinct hard-biting species like the giant Cretaceous crocodile Deinosuchus, or the famous bone-crunching dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex, so precise models are imperative when studying extinct species.”

The team of researchers, led by Professor Holliday, set out to develop 3D models of the skull of the American alligator, the largest extant alligator species.

3D model of an American alligator

University of Missouri

Image credit: University of Missouri

They created naturalistic, 3D computational models of the alligator’s jaw muscles by combining dissection, cutting edge imaging, and computational techniques. Using this model, they were able to study how the alligator’s bite force develops through the animal’s maturation.

“Because alligators and crocodilians have had such extreme feeding performance for millions of years, they have been a popular topic of study for palaeontologists and biologists,” said Kaleb Sellers, a PhD student.

“Our models stand out because we’re the first to distribute loads of their huge muscles across their attachment surfaces on the alligator skull. This lets us better understand how muscle forces and bite forces impact the skull.”

Finally, the team compared their simulations to previously collected bite force data, and found that their model was highly accurate.

According to Professor Holliday, these new methods and the findings made using them “pave the way” to a better understanding of the biomechanical properties of vertebrate skulls. The models could also assist scientists from a range of disciplines in studying the origins and motions of extinct and extant species.

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