It happens in less than a blink of the eye. The high-speed camera captures a female praying mantis, motionless and silent, watching a katydid sitting below and to the right of the camera shot. The katydid senses danger and moves just a bit. The mantis opens its front legs and strikes.

The mantis strike is the first UVA-Wise students Jesse Harris, a senior math major, and Dustin Smith, a recent biology graduate, captured after many attempts making a video. The footage is played at six percent real time.

The students want to map a mantis’ muscular system to see exactly how strong the insect’s strike is and to learn more about the mathematics as well.

“We want to see how this could apply to optimization of robots,” Harris said. “We’d like to explore real world applications.”

Smith believes they have blended the fields of science on many aspects of the project.

“We have analyzed the strike and estimate that the average acceleration is 24.8 m/s^2 or 2.5 G,” Smith calculates. “We are currently doing the image processing and working on the velocity and acceleration vectors.”

The students started the project last spring when Professor James Vance suggested Harris think of ways to use the high-speed camera the mathematics department acquired as part of a previous project involving a local company. The camera captures 900,000 frames per second.

“Over the summer, Jesse and Dustin got together and thought up a few projects,” Vance said. “Since I’m in the math department, I didn’t have the lab space or equipment to house insects.”

Vance called on biology colleagues for lab space and equipment, and the students began work on the interdisciplinary (mathematics, biology and technology) research project.

“Jesse and Dustin have done most of the work of housing, feeding, and photographing the mantises,” Vance said. “I have my Numerical Methods students learning to analyze the photo sequences and track the mantis strike movements in Matlab so we can accurately estimate strike velocities of each segment of the mantis’ front legs.”

The students and Vance are interested in velocities, acceleration, and forces, which may vary by mantis species and prey animals.

“Down the road we might find an application of our biomechanics study to engineering,” Vance said. “In the meantime, it’s pretty cool learning about the amazing abilities of the praying mantis, getting younger kids interested in science, getting college students excited about analyzing real data, and implementing technology into the learning experience.”

Harris hopes to enter graduate school to study physics when he graduates. Smith plans to finish his teaching certification soon.