Multidisciplinary Research of Ancient Sea Scorpions Yields Surprising Results

1/11/2011

What does Mechanical Engineering have in common with the study of sea scorpion fossils? Combining the scientific study of fossils with mechanical engineering, a team of researchers could rewrite history with a paper that undermines the theory that these huge creatures were active predators. Their findings were recently published in the Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences (Volume 39). “The Cheliceral Claw of Acutiramus (Arthropoda: Eurypterida): Functional Analysis Based on Morphology and Engineering Principles,” was authored by a team including Dr. Richard S. Berkof, a Distinguished Industry Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology; Dr. Richard Laub, the Curator of Geology at the Buffalo Museum of Science, and Dr. Victor P. Tollerton, Jr., a Research Associate at the New York State Museum.

Collaboration between scientists and an engineer coalesced in the study of ancient pterygotid eurypterids, or “sea scorpions,” which roamed Earth’s Paleozoic oceans 470 to 370 million years ago. Initially thought to be a high-level predator, sea scorpions reached 2.5 meters in length and were armed with two spiny serrated claws. But the team’s research into those claws reveals that these arthropods - the largest on record - might have been mere scavengers or vegetarians. Applying engineering principles to the study of fossils of the Acutiramus sea scorpion, the team was able to calculate the amount of force that a sea scorpion would be able to exert with its chelicerae (claws) to crack the shell of its supposed prey, modeled by the horseshoe crab. They found that the most force the creature would have been able to exert was 5 Newtons, far less than the 8 to 17 Newtons required to penetrate a horseshoe crab’s armor. However, they found that the claw could slice or tear objects. If Acutiramus was an active predator, its prey would have been soft-bodied.

In addition, the team noted that the absence of a joint between the claws and the body of Acutiramus limited claw movement, making them more effective in grasping prey on the sea floor than capturing swimming animals. The combination of mechanical weakness and limited claw movement indicate that sea scorpions probably were not predators.

“We combined engineering principles with science-based discoveries to come up with new ideas,” Dr. Berkof says. “Just because in our imagination something looks huge and horrendous, doesn’t mean that’s the way it really was.”

Science Daily and Sciencely.com have featured articles about the research.

Multidisciplinary Research in the Stevens Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Program
In addition to his role as Distinguished Industry Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Berkof is also the Director of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Program at Stevens. The multidisciplinary Pharmaceutical Manufacturing program combines Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Chemical Biology to address the needs of the massive Pharmaceutical industry.

Multidisciplinary research is essential to all scientific study today, Dr. Berkof says. This is especially evident in the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Program at Stevens, The Innovation University™. “My observation is that in many of the traditional disciplines, there have been a lot of people who have done a lot of brilliant work and have really taken these areas pretty far or have exhausted all the obvious things to work on. What is left are things that are truly multidisciplinary, crossovers, areas of interest to multiple communities that might not be initially apparent,” Dr. Berkof says. For example, Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Chemical Biology all come together in the field of biopharmaceuticals, in which pharmaceutical products are produced by living creatures such as microorganisms or animal cells.

“We are trying to cross some of these boundaries to put together very interesting projects and new ways of looking at things,” Dr. Berkof says. “Interdisciplinary areas are the frontiers of technology.”

Visit Dr. Berkof’s profile or the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Program Web site for more information.