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Schwenk's expertise tapped
for nature documentary
October 19, 1998

A chameleon shoots out its tongue, nailing an unsuspecting butterfly. A magnified ant foot makes sticky contact with a smooth surface. A buffalo pushes snow aside with its massive head.

These are a few of the animals in a documentary "Body by Nature," aired on the Discovery Channel on October 5.

The scientific consultant to the film was Kurt Schwenk, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a leading authority on the function, structure and evolution of vertebrate animals.

Designed for a general audience, the film is about how animal bodies have evolved. The program examines large vertebrates, insects, and other invertebrates. "This fit in very nicely with my own research program, which addresses those same questions: how animal bodies work and how they evolve - why animals look the way they look," Schwenk says.

As scientific consultant, Schwenk decided what would be included in the film, edited the writing, and did all the fact-checking for scientific accuracy. He also relied on his UConn colleagues in ecology and evolutionary biology for their expertise in certain areas. Professors Charles Henry and Carl Schaefer and associate professor David Wagner are listed in the film's credits as additional consultants.

"This kind of work is another way to educate the general public about science," Schwenk says. "I think it's valuable for professional scientists to get involved."

Schwenk says when he showed an advance copy of the film last spring to his introductory biology class for non-majors, the students were enthusiastic. "It is entertaining and the photography is high quality. There are beautiful close-ups and slow motion sequences of all kinds of animals," he says.

"What made this film special, and what I'm particularly proud of, is the way we were able to interweave scientific footage of actual research, such as x-ray movies, with footage of the animals in nature," he says.

Schwenk says the project, which took about a year, "was a lot of work but also fun. Professional scientists don't often get to work with a filmmaker to communicate very complex scientific ideas to a general audience."

Schwenk joined the UConn faculty in 1989. An expert on the function, structure and evolution of vertebrate animals, especially reptiles, he teaches courses in comparative vertebrate anatomy, a graduate course in mammalogy, and a course in introductory biology for non-majors. He is editing a book, Feeding in Tetrapod Vertebrates: Form, Function, Phylogeny, which is scheduled for publication next year.

A home video version is available for purchase through the Discovery Channel. Schwenk will screen the film this week in the Torrey Life Sciences Building. Call him at (860) 486-0351 for the room number and time.

Sherry Fisher