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Philip J. Motta

Philip J. Motta

Philip J. Motta


Office: SCA 304
Phone: 813-974-2878
Lab: SCA 301, SCA 305
Fax: 974-3263


Personal Bio



Ph.D., University of Hawaii, 1980.


Ecological and Functional Morphology
Ecomorphology, functional morphology, feeding, fishes, behavior, biomechanics.

My research interests are in functional and ecological morphology, and behavior of fishes, particularly as it pertains to feeding. My graduate students work on ecomorphological, anatomical, functional morphological, biomechanical, or behavioral projects involving feeding in bony fishes, sharks, and rays. Most of my past research has been on tropical reef fishes and sharks. Some of this research has focused on the interaction between functional morphology, behavior and ecology. In addition, past and present research has investigated the anatomy and mechanics of feeding, feeding behavior, and the evolution of feeding mechanisms in fishes.

The goal of my current research is an understanding of the comparative functional morphology of the feeding mechanisms in elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays), the relationship of functional morphology to their feeding behavior, and the evolution of feeding mechanisms in sharks and rays. Sharks and rays present a unique opportunity to investigate the function and evolution of feeding systems in fishes and aquatic vertebrates. Sharks share a common ancestor with early bony fishes. From the early piscine feeding mechanism the amphibians and later amniote vertebrates evolved and modified their feeding mechanisms. The unquestionable evolutionary success of the elasmobranchs is in part due to a diversity of feeding mechanisms within this group of vertebrates, a group which dates back over 400 million years.

Compared to the many morphological, physiological and behavioral studies of feeding in bony fishes, however, relatively little is known about the function and evolution of feeding mechanisms in elasmobranchs. Together with my graduate students, I utilize a variety of techniques to understand feeding mechanisms in sharks and rays. These techniques include: anatomical dissection, CT scanning, mechanical modeling, electromyography, high speed digital video photography of captive animals, pressure and bite force measurement, underwater video photography, and evolutionary analyses to unravel historical changes.

To date my graduate students and I have and are investigating feeding in the lemon shark, nurse shark, bull shark, whale shark, sevengill shark, bonnethead shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, great hammerhead shark, winghead shark, spiny and smooth dogfish, horn shark, whitespotted bamboo shark, leopard shark, blacktip shark, sand tiger shark, cownose ray, guitarfish, lesser electric ray, yellow stingray, and Atlantic stingray. We have helped to elucidate the anatomy and functional morphology of the feeding mechanism in these sharks and rays, the behavior and kinematics (movement patterns) of prey capture, related bite force to jaw morphology, tested some of the functions of jaw protrusion, studied the evolution and function of jaw suspension types in sharks and rays, tested for modulatory abilities during prey capture (the ability to change or modify feeding patterns with different prey types), investigated ontogenetic patterns in prey capture kinematics and morphology, studied tooth structure and cutting biomechanics, and discussed the evolution of their jaw mechanisms. Complementing this work on sharks and rays, former graduate and undergraduate students have investigated ray movement patterns and feeding, ontogeny of prey capture in largemouth bass, prey capture kinematics and bite force in barracuda, gar and needlefish, the functional morphology of suction generation in remora, and the ecomorphology of feeding in cichlid fishes.

Our current research investigates a variety of ancestral and derived shark species encompassing many feeding types. In these diverse species, we are investigating the relationship of feeding mechanisms and bite force to jaw suspension types, functional specialization for suction feeding, the evolution and biomechanics of shark teeth, and the evolution and functional morphology of the hammerhead cephalofoil. The anatomy and functional morphology of whale shark feeding mechanisms is underway with both laboratory and field research.

Two of my six graduate students are also investigating the functional anatomy and bite force in barracuda, and habitat utilization of goliath grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. Past applied research involved an analysis of bite patterns of sharks and bony fishes on submarine towed arrays and material testing of underwater hoses and their ability to resist puncture by bony fishes and sharks. Supporting this research our lab has embarked on a project to analyze bite force production in large carcharhinid sharks.

Specialty Area


Functional Morphology

Current Courses

RefCourseSecCourse TitleCRDayTimeLocation
90680ZOO 3407002Bio of Sharks and Rays
CHE 100
89176ZOO 3407L001Bio of Sharks and Rays Lab
Must be taken w/ZOO 3407 flyer
ISA 3069
90530ZOO 4454001Fish Biology
EDU 258
86898BSC 4905002Independent Study

87265BSC 4910016Undergraduate Research

81782BSC 4910018Undergraduate Research

92141BSC 6932062Fish Biology
Non bio Majors CI Required
EDU 258

Recent Journal Articles


Honors and Award






Recent Publications


Lang, A., Habegger, M., and P. Motta. 2015. Shark skin drag reduction, In: Bhushan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Nanotechnology. Springer Science, Dordrecht. DOI 10.1007/978-94-007-6178-0_266-2.

Collins, A., Barbieri, L., McBride, R.S., McCoy, E.D., and P.J. Motta. 2015. Reef relief and volume are predictors of Atlantic goliath grouper presence and abundance in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Bulletin of Marine Science 91(4):000-000.

Tyminski, J.P., Gelsleichter, J.J., and P.J. Motta. 2015. Androgen receptors in the bonnethead, Sphyrna tiburo: cDNA cloning and tissue-specific expression in the male reproductive tract. General and Comparative Endocrinology. 224: 235-246. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2015.08.018.

Kolmann, M.A., Huber, D.R., Motta, P.J., and R.D. Grubbs. 2015. Feeding biomechanics of the cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, over ontogeny. Journal of Anatomy. Doi 10.1111/joa 12342.

Ferguson, A.R., Huber, D.R., and P.J. Motta. 2015. Feeding performance of king mackerel, Scomberomorus cavalla. J. Exp. Zool. Part A. 323A:399-413.

Habegger, M.L., Dean, M.N., Dunlop, J.W.C., Mullins, G., Stokes, M., Huber, D. R., Winters, D., and P.J. Motta. 2015. Feeding in billfishes: Inferring the role of the rostrum from a biomechanical standpoint. J. Exp. Biol. 218: 824-836.

Mara, K.R., Motta, P.J., Martin, A.P., and R.E. Hueter. 2015. Constructional morphology within the head of hammerhead sharks (Sphyrnidae). Journal of Morphology. DOI 10.1002/jmor.20362.

Lang, A.W., Bradshaw, M.T., Smith, J.A., Wheelus, J.N., Motta, P.J, Habegger, M.L., and R.E. Hueter. 2014. Movable shark scales act as a passive dynamic micro-roughness to control flow separation. Bioinspiration and Biomimetics 9. Doi:10.1088/1748-3182/9/3/036017.

Atkins, A., Dean, M.N., Habegger, M.L., Motta, P.J., Ofer, L., Repp, F., Shipov, A., Weiner, S., Currey, J.D., and R. Shahar. 2014. Remodeling in bone without osteocytes: Billfish challenge bone structure-function paradigms. PNAS 111(45): 16047-16052.

Mulvany, S. and P. J. Motta. 2014. Prey capture kinematics in batoids using different prey types: Investigating the role of the cephalic lobes. J. Exp. Zoology 321A:515-530. DOI: 10.1002/jez.1883.

R. W. Mckenzie, P. J. Motta, and J. R. Rohr. 2014. Comparative squamation of the lateral line canal pores in sharks. Journal of Fish Biology 84: 1300-1311.

J. M. Gardiner, J. Atema, R. E. Hueter, and P. J. Motta. 2014. Multisensory integration and behavioral plasticity in sharks from different ecological niches. PLOS One 9(4):e93036.

Mulvany, S., and Motta, P. J. 2013. The morphology of the cephalic lobes and anterior pectoral fins in six species of batoids. J. Morphology 274:1070–1083.

Habegger, M.L., Dean, M.., Huber, D.R. and P.J. Motta. 2012. Feeding biomechanics and theoretical calculations of bite force in bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) during ontogeny. Zoology 115(6):354-364.

Lang, A., Habegger, M., Motta P., R. Hueter. 2012. Shark skin boundary layer control, In: Childress S (ed.) Natural Locomotion in Fluids and on Surfaces: Swimming, Flying, and Sliding, IMA Volumes in Mathematics and its Applications, Springer, New York, 155:139-150.

Lang, A., Habegger, M. and P. Motta. 2012. Shark Skin Drag Reduction. Encyclopedia of Nanotechnology. B. Bhushan (editor). Berlin: Springer. Part 19: 2394-2400.

Motta, P., Habegger, M.L., Lang, A., Hueter, R., and J. Davis. 2012. Scale morphology and flexibility in the shortfin mako Isurus oxyrinchus and the blacktip shark Carcharhinus limbatus. J. Morphology. 273: 1096-1110.

Gardiner, J.M. and P.J. Motta. 2012. Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) switch feeding modalities in response to sensory deprivation. Zoology. 115:78-83.

Motta, P.J., and D.R. Huber. 2012. Prey capture behavior and feeding mechanics of elasmobranchs. In: Carrier JC, Musick JA, Heithaus MR (eds) Biology of sharks and their relatives, Second Edition. Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, Boca Raton.

Lambert, E.P., Motta, P.J., and D. Lowry. 2011. Modulation in the strike kinematics of the ant-lion larvae, Myrmeleon crudelis. Journal of Experimental Zoology 315A: 602-609.

Lang, A., Motta, P., Habegger M.L., Hueter, R. and F. Afroz. 2011. Shark Skin separation control mechanisms. Marine Technology Society Journal 45: 208-215.

Pfeiffenberger, J.A. and P.J. Motta. 2011. The effects of intraspecific competition on the prey capture behavior and kinematics of the bluegill sunfish, Lepomis macrochirus. Environmental Biology of Fishes. 93: 13-21.

Brunnschweiler, J.M., Nielsen, F., and P. Motta. 2011. In-situ observation of stomach eversion in a line-caught Shortfin Mako (Isurus oxyrinchus). Fisheries Research 109:212-216.

Whitenack, L.B., Simkins, D.C., Jr., and P.J. Motta. 2011. Biology meets engineering: The structural mechanics of fossil and extant shark teeth. Journal of Morphology. 272:169-179.

Habegger, M.L., Motta, P.J., Huber, D.R., and S.M. Deban. 2010. Feeding biomechanics in the Great Barracuda during ontogeny. Journal of Zoology. 283: 63-72.

Motta, P.J., Maslanka, M., Hueter, R.E., Davis, R.L., De la Parra, R., Mulvany, S.L., Habegger, M.L., Strother, J.A., Tyminski, J., Mara, K.R., and J. Gardiner. 2010. Feeding anatomy, filter-feeding rate, and diet of whale sharks Rhincodon typus during surface ram filter feeding off the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Zoology. 113: 199-212.

Whitenack, L.B. and P.J. Motta. 2010. Performance of shark teeth during puncture and draw: Implications for the mechanics of cutting. Biol. J Linnean Soc. 100:271-286.

Lim, D.D., Motta, P., Mara, K., and A.P. Martin. 2010. Phylogeny of hammerhead sharks (Family Sphyrnidae) inferred from mitochondrial and nuclear genes. Mol. Phylog. Evol. 55:572-579.

Whitenack, L.B., Simkins, D.C., Jr., Motta, P.J., Makoto, H., and A. Kumar. 2010. Young’s modulus and hardness of shark tooth biomaterials. Archives of Oral Biology. 55: 203-209.

Mara, K.R., Motta, P.J. and D.R. Huber. 2009. Bite force and performance in the durophagous bonnethead shark, Sphyrna tiburo. Journal of Experimental Zoology. 311A: 95-105.

Lowry, D., Castro, A. L., Mara, K., Whitenack, L.B., Delius, B. Burgess, G.H. and P. Motta. 2009. Determining shark size from forensic analysis of bite damage. Marine Biology 156: 2483-2492.

Ortega, L.A., Heupel, M.R., Van Beynen, P. and P.J. Motta. 2009. Home range, movement patterns, and water quality preferences of juvenile bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) in a Florida nursery habitat. Environmental Biology of Fishes 84: 361-373.

Lang, A.W., Hidalgo,P., Motta, P. and M Westcott. 2008. Bristled shark skin: a microgeometry for boundary layer control? Bioinspiration and Biomimetics 3 (2008).

Motta, P.J., Hueter, R.E., Tricas, T.C., Summers, A.P., Huber, D.R., Lowry, D., Mara, K.R., Matott, M.P. Whitenack, L.B., and A.P. Wintzer. 2008. Functional morphology of the feeding apparatus, feeding constraint and suction performance in the nurse shark, Ginglymostoma cirratum. J. Morphology 269:1041-1055.

Whitney, N.M. and P.J. Motta. 2008. Cleaner host posting behavior of whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) in a swarm of hyperiid amphipods. Coral Reefs preprint:1.

Lowry, D. and P.J. Motta. 2008. Relative importance of growth and behavior to elasmobranch suction feeding performance over early ontogeny. Journal Royal Society Interface 5:641-652.

Wilga, C.D., Motta, P.J., and C.P. Sanford. 2007. Evolution and ecology of feeding in elasmobranchs. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 47: 55-69.

Sasko, D.E., Dean, M.N., Motta, P.J., and R.E. Hueter. 2006. Prey capture behavior and kinematics of the Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus. Zoology 109: 171-181.

Huber, D.R., Eason, T.G., Hueter, R.E., and P.J. Motta. 2005. Analysis of bite force and mechanical design of the feeding mechanism of the durophagous shark Heterodontus francisci. J. Exp. Biol. 208: 3553-3571.

Motta, P.J. 2004. Prey capture behavior and feeding mechanics of elasmobranchs. Pp: 165-202. In: Carrier, J., Musick, J., and M. Heithaus (eds.), Sharks, Skates and Rays. CRC Press LLC, Boca Raton.