Dr. Kurt Schwenk, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut is a researcher who has embraced the unexpected turns of a career shaped by his intellectual environments; a journey that moved from purely empirical research to a more theoretical approach to evolutionary patterns based on his comparative studies of feeding systems. His upcoming appearance as the Plenary Speaker at Anatomy Connected ‘24, from March 22-25, 2024, in Toronto, promises to be a dynamic discussion into visualizing anatomy in motion.
Dr. Schwenk's academic journey took unexpected turns due to influential colleagues. His experience teaching gross anatomy in a dental department offered a visceral understanding of humans as fundamentally similar to other mammals, an experience he found both comforting and awe inspiring. Further postdoctoral work at Harvard introduced him to groundbreaking studies using cineradiography, and high-speed film in functional morphology. Transitioning to the University of Connecticut marked a significant shift toward evolutionary biology, strongly influencing his studies of form and function.
Schwenk’s fascination with the anatomically diverse and multifunctional tongues of lizards and snakes spurred an exploration of the evolutionary tensions shaping their morphology. His work showcases the evolutionary trade-offs between feeding optimization and chemosensory function evident in the diverse solutions observed across different lineages of these reptiles. It also served as a platform for his theoretical work on the concept of evolutionary constraint.
A Return to Descriptive Anatomy
One of the cornerstones of Dr. Schwenk's research involves a comprehensive histological examination of vertebrate tongues, seeking to unravel the nuances and variations across species. His emphasis on painstakingly describing every fiber system underscores the critical importance of descriptive anatomy—an endeavor often underappreciated in academic circles. He advocates for a shift in perspective, urging a greater emphasis on observation and descriptive anatomy, as it forms the bedrock of scientific knowledge, transcending time and theoretical paradigms. Schwenk's dedication to detailed observation and description to unlock fundamental questions in anatomy is being applied to his current efforts to characterize tongue diversity across various mammalian species.
His work not only delves into the structural intricacies of anatomical systems but also highlights the interconnectedness of form and function in living organisms. By combining traditional static anatomy with high-speed videography, Dr. Schwenk has pioneered an approach using close-up, high-speed videography to understand the dynamics of movement and anatomical changes during motion.
Moments of Discovery
Moments of epiphany, like deciphering the purpose of forked tongues in snakes and unraveling the intricacies of their tongue-flicking behavior, underscored Schwenk’s appreciation for the marvels of natural selection and its meticulous crafting of biological systems.
“A lot of creativity comes from the fact that one is assimilating information and it's swirling around in your head consciously and unconsciously”. Schwenk reflected on one chance encounter that led to one such epiphany “I remember one day, I guess I'd been working on snakes, and while talking to a colleague in the mail room, he said, hey, why do snakes have fork tongues anyway? I just said, oh, and in that moment, all the information I had, it just kind of went poof. All the blocks tumbled into place and instantly, I knew why snakes have forked tongues. I literally ran back to my office and started writing a paper called Why Snakes Have Forked Tongues.”
Another moment led to a particularly exciting experiment involving the visualization of the airflow around snake tongues using a low-cost PIV system developed by a graduate student. This innovative approach revealed an astonishing patterned convection system, illustrating how snakes potentially optimize the collection of odor molecules through their intricate tongue movements.
Dynamic Anatomy at Anatomy Connected ‘24
In anticipation of his talk at Anatomy Connected ‘24, Dr. Schwenk talked about the dynamic nature of anatomy. He plans to discuss the reciprocal illumination provided by static anatomy and high-speed videography, emphasizing how combining these methodologies can unveil a deeper understanding of animal form and function. His expertise in observing super-slow motion coupled with traditional anatomical methods promises to provide unique insights into the dynamic aspects of anatomy.
Central to his discussion will be examples from his extensive work, particularly focusing on the intricate movements of muscular hydrostats like tongues. He aims to illustrate how the three-dimensional reorientation of internal anatomy during movement influences functionality, highlighting the importance of comprehending motion in anatomical systems. Dr. Schwenk's talk at Anatomy Connected ‘24 offers an exciting opportunity for members to explore the interplay between anatomy and motion, emphasizing that in life, anatomy is a moving target, changing from moment to moment. His approach, emphasizing the integration of traditional anatomical studies and kinematic analyses, promises to enrich the understanding of animal form and function.
Dr. Kurt Schwenk's journey from empirical research to a more evolutionary-oriented perspective exemplifies the immense potential for discoveries when anatomy and evolutionary biology converge. His upcoming appearance as the Plenary Speaker Anatomy Connected ’24 should offer a thought-provoking discourse on visualizing anatomy in motion and the intricate relationships among form, function, and evolutionary adaptation.
If you’d like a peek at Dr. Schwenk’s videography before the conference, some of his work has recently been featured online, including an episode in one of Ze Frank’s popular ‘True Facts’ series and in an interview with Science Magazine.