Jan. 25 - Scientists in Gosford near Sydney have taken the bull by the horns - or in this case, the alligator by the snout - in an effort to learn about the bite force and probable dining habits of prehistoric animals. Crocodiles and alligators have roamed the earth for millions of years so for scientists, the Australian Reptile Park was the ideal place to look into the distant past. Rob Muir reports.
Politely asking an alligator to hold still for a scientific experiment was never likely to work, so it was up to keepers at the Australian Reptile Park to ensure that no limbs were lost as Colin McHenry of Monash University, went about his risky business. Embedded in the bottle, is a sensor that measures bite force. McHenry is using alligators as models to learn more about the eating habits of their ancient relatives, the pilosaurs that roamed the oceans millions of years ago. SOUNDBITE) (English) LECTURER, DEPARTMENT OF ANATOMY, MONASH UNIVERSITY, COLIN MCHENRY, SAYING: "If our models are predicting how strong an alligator bite should be, then we can use those models to infer the bite force in a much bigger animal that's not alive any more." The animal he has in mind is kronosaurus, a sharp-toothed, large-headed marine animal that live 110 million years ago. The model is a useful teaching tool but the real thing was 30 feet long and weighed seven tons. McHenry sees similarities between the jaw structures of kronosaurus and the modern alligator. He says the differences between baby and adult alligator jaw structures can be projected to calculate the approximate power of the much larger kronosaurus' jaw. SOUNDBITE) (English) LECTURER, DEPARTMENT OF ANATOMY, MONASH UNIVERSITY, COLIN MCHENRY, SAYING: "Dinosaurs and those other reptiles were alive over 180 million years, and one of the questions that we're always asked is, what did they eat? What did they do? How did they live? People always try to imagine these amazing animals as actual living, breathing, functional creatures. So, it's a fascinating question for us, is to actually try to understand the biology of these animals. And of course, we have to do a bit of detective work, because we can't go out and observe them directly. We have to use what clues we have, and the living animals like crocodiles are a really important line of evidence for us." Bite force is measured in newtons, a calculation that takes into account the pressure exerted relative to the surface area of the tooth. McHenry says when the alligator data is complete it should be relatively easy to apply it to the pilosaur and make reasonable conclusions about what the creature ate more than a hundred million years ago. But his work isn't limited to reptiles. Struggling inside the bag is another carnivore known for its powerful jaws and ferocious bite - the Tasmanian devil. (SOUNDBITE) (English) LECTURER, DEPARTMENT OF ANATOMY, MONASH UNIVERSITY, COLIN MCHENRY, SAYING: "The work that we did a few years ago suggested that for their size, pound for pound, Tasmanian devils bite harder than any other animal that's alive today." And noone was going to argue with that. McHenry says he plans to make CT scans of both the alligator and the Tasmanian devil skulls, and compare them to a 3D model of the kronosaurus. He won't be doing the same with the the park's largest alligator however. It's bite was so powerful, it broke the equipment. Rob Muir, Reuters.