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Understanding Environment and Anatomy

UI biology professor earns national award for research

The tiny kangaroo rat can teach scientists a great deal about the way bodies work.

For several years, UI researcher Craig McGowan has studied these hopping rodents native to the American Southwest and parts of Mexico, with funding from the BEACON Center for Evolution in Action. Kangaroo rats are useful subjects for understanding form and function because their bodies are dramatically specialized to meet the demands of their environment.

McGowan, an assistant professor of biology in the UI College of Science Department of Biological Sciences, was named among the 2015 National Science Foundation CAREER Award winners. He will receive $1.11 million over five years toward his research, which reveals not only how anatomy and function inform each other in any animal, but also connects to McGowan’s research into improving prosthetic devices for humans.

For the first phase of his project, McGowan will study kangaroo rats in their natural habitat in southern Nevada. The rats live in soft sand, which is tricky terrain for many animals. 

“They’re so small, they may experience the sand like a solid surface, but we don’t really know,” he says.

McGowan is exploring ways to put tiny technology on the rats to find out where they go, and how quickly. Paired with GPS or other mapping technology, this would allow McGowan to have a better understanding of how kangaroo rats move in real life.

A class of UI undergraduates will join McGowan for this phase of the work. The students will learn about kangaroo rats and form hypotheses in class, then join McGowan in Nevada over Spring Break to collect data.

McGowan plans for his students to present their results in local schools and at science centers.

“One of our main aims with that educational component is just to engage the community and get people excited about science — get kids excited about the cool things you can do,” he says.

For the second phase of the project, McGowan will use his and his students’ field data to design laboratory conditions that simulate kangaroo rats’ native habitat.

“Traditionally, laboratory studies on animal locomotion have been conducted on treadmills and trackways,” he says. “The reality is, animals don’t live on treadmills, they don’t live on trackways.”

The lab experiments will allow McGowan to study the detailed mechanisms involved in the complex muscle, tendon and skeletal systems. It also will provide insight into the underlying question of why animals like kangaroo rats have evolved to hop on two legs.

Finally, McGowan will use his field and lab data to refine a computer model of the rats’ musculoskeletal system, creating an unprecedented way to study the function of individual muscles and test evolutionary “what if” scenarios that would be impossible with live animals.

The knowledge gained from the project will tie into McGowan’s other research on animal movement, including improving the design of prosthetic devices for human amputee runners.

“Most running gaits are bouncing,” he says. “If we look at a kangaroo rat hopping or a human running, the only difference is a human only hops on one leg at a time.”

Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications & Marketing.

Xray of a Kangaroo Rat
An X-ray image of a kangaroo rat.


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