Establishing optic nerve positions in extinct animals could provide behavioral insights

September 12, 2012
Establishing optic nerve positions in extinct animals could provide behavioral insights
Eric Tobaben, Topeka, is a first-year graduate student in mechanical engineering at KU.

A student at the University of Kansas School of Engineering has taken the first steps that could unlock new details about how extinct animals lived and hunted on a daily basis.

Eric Tobaben, now a first-year graduate student in mechanical engineering at KU, conducted research as an undergraduate student in the biomechanics lab of Ken Fischer, associate professor of mechanical engineering. Tobaben, of Topeka, created dozens of digital models of animal skulls, from lions and tigers to bobcats and house cats. His efforts were aimed at identifying the typical head orientation for each animal.

"By determining the natural head angle, you define the posture the animal would have had in a relaxed condition," Tobaben said. "From there, you can pick up behavioral cues that can reveal how these animals lived."

The work digitizing skulls began with those already on hand at KU's . Tobaben and Fischer hope the initial research produces findings that show enough promise to expand their efforts.

"The real key is to establish a fundamental relationship between the optical nerve opening and the center of the eye socket. That would allow us to define a line of sight based on , and once you have that determined, you can make a link back to ," Fischer said. "The key hypothesis is that for most animals the natural line of sight will be in a horizontal plane. By studying modern animals we can work to verify that principle, and if it holds true, that's where the real power of this research lies."

Establishing position and line of sight details involves securing each within the reach of a digitizing device capable of recording three-dimensional positions. Tobaben, whose research earned him the nickname "Skully" from his lab partners, used the device stylus to record hundreds of points of the features and surface of each skull. Tobaben then used a computer program to visualize and analyze the three-dimensional skull data.

"It's fun to put all those points into a program and see the image materialize," Tobaben said. "You can wrap the points with skin and suddenly you have a whole skull, and you can get a good feel for how accurate it is by matching it up to pictures of existing animals."

Fischer and Tobaben are working to publish the results of the skull studies in hopes of obtaining funding to take the research into new areas.

"Once we get the publication submitted, we will send a grant application to the National Science Foundation. We hope to obtain funding to continue and expand the work into a more broad range of species and delve into extinct species as well,"

Fischer said. "It's exciting work with a lot of potential, and we're looking forward to what the future holds."

Explore further: Evolution of skull and mandible shape in cats

Related Stories

Evolution of skull and mandible shape in cats

July 30, 2008

In a new study published in the online-open access journal PLoS ONE, Per Christiansen at the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, reports the finding that the evolution of skull and mandible shape in sabercats and modern ...

Dinosaur skull changed shape during growth

March 31, 2010

The skull of a juvenile sauropod dinosaur, rediscovered in the collections of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History, illustrates that some sauropod species went through drastic changes in skull shape during normal ...

Mastodon skull discovered in Chile

May 18, 2011

A perfectly preserved skull of a mastodon -- a relative of today's elephant -- was found here during excavation work at a water treatment plant, one of the scientists involved in the discovery said Tuesday.

Skulls shed new light on the evolution of the cat

July 10, 2012

( -- Modern cats diverged in skull shape from their sabre-toothed ancestors early in their evolutionary history and then followed separate evolutionary trajectories, according to new research from the University ...

Study discovers eating habits of Diplodocus

July 30, 2012

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol, Natural History Museum of London, the University of Missouri and Ohio University has discovered the eating habits of Diplodocus using a three-dimensional model of the ...

Recommended for you

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

Search for Egypt's Nefertiti gains new momentum (Update)

September 29, 2015

The search for ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti in an alleged hidden chamber in King Tut's tomb gained new momentum as Egypt's Antiquities Minister said Tuesday he is now more convinced a queen's tomb may lay hidden behind ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.