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USF researcher visits museum for shell study

By Staff | Aug 25, 2009

Lisa Whitenack came to Sanibel last week with an impressive list of scientific studies to her credit.

A postdoctoral fellow at the University of South Florida, she has published reports on functional morphology of the feeding apparatus, feeding constraint and suction performance in the nurse shark, a case study in paleoecology with a focus on chondrichthyan teeth and a three-dimensional finite element analysis of shark teeth.

But after arriving at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum’s second floor research facility, Whitenack was impressed enough to utter, “Wow!”

On Friday morning, Whitenack and her student assistant, Stacy Villanueva, began the arduous task of meticulously photographing more than 200 examples of Strombus alatus, commonly known as the Florida fighting conch. Her current research project involves looking at the interspecific and intraspecific variations of the Strombus shell shape utilizing geometric morphometrics, the study of form in two- and three-dimensional objects.

“It’s a way of looking at the shape of shells without consideration of their overall size,” Whitenack said. “We’re looking at the relationship of the tip of the shell to the lip and the whorl.”

Shells, however, aren’t Whitenack’s preferred area of study. During her career as student, teaching aide, adjunct faculty and postdoctoral fellow, she has studied modern sharks as well as their prehistoric ancestors.

“My general research interest is the biomechanics of invertebrates and vertebrates, with a focus on predator-prey systems in the fossil record,” she explains on her Web site. “The exploration of the form-function relationship can be used to infer biological role and adaptive patterns, which becomes a springboard for evolutionary questions such as the origin and evolutionary consequences of the features in question.”

It was her research on fossil remains of sharks dating back some 350 million years that led to her coming to the shell museum.

“There was evidence of small, smashed shells in the area where these sharks were found,” she said. “What I’m doing research on is how those shells may be related to the sharks.”

Previously, Whitenack photographed more than 450 shell samples in the collection of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her research on the Florida fighting conch, however, pointed her in the direction of Sanibel.

“The fighting conch has a great record over the past two million years as they relate to predators,” she added, noting that stone crabs, calicos, puffer fish, spiny lobsters, turtles and stingrays were among the current species who feed upon the mollusk.

Whitenack said that she is hoping to complete her research within a year – “Taking pictures is the easy part,” she said with a laugh – and that perhaps her work may be able to provide some valuable answers. However, she also remarked that she was happy to be able to visit the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum as part of her field work.

“I’ve got a great job. I get to play around in museums all day and see stuff others don’t get a chance to see,” said Whitenack. “When we got here and walked around and saw the amount of shells they have here, I was like, ‘Wow!’ I never saw anything like this before.”