Archive for June, 2012

Welcome to the first of a series of image galleries with highlights from the RVC‘s Anatomy Museum! Our veterinary school dates back to the 1789 epic dissection of the unbeaten racehorse Eclipse by surgeon Mr Charles Vial de Saint Bels, which led to the college’s founding in 1791 (incidentally, the RVC retains Eclipse’s skeleton to this day, and 80% of living racehorses come from Eclipse’s lineage!).

What, you didn’t know we have an anatomy museum? Well this is another of London’s many hidden museum treasures. It is based at our Camden campus, just a 10min jaunt from King’s Cross or St Pancras stations (or Mornington Crescent tube), in the colourful Camden Town neighborhood. It doesn’t have its own website, yet, and my posts are not intended to play that role, but I want to informally and unofficially celebrate its glory because I think we have a great museum full of wonderful features and people deserve to see them.

For example, when I first interviewed for (what became) my job at the RVC in 2003, one of the first sights at the Camden campus was the original, classic ~Victorian style (dark and gloomy, stained wooden cabinets, room chock full of skeletons) anatomy museum which presented the entrant with a lovely view of this:

Which sadly is my only photo of the skeleton of an Asian elephant that shows it in its original position, crowded next to the skeletons of a white rhino, common hippo, horse and other animals. If you know me and my penchant for giant critters, that was like being shown the Promised Land! Since then, modernity has required us to clear out the dusty Victorian room and rehouse the specimens in more airy, spacious surroundings. Which has worked out pretty well in our case, I think. Here is the elephant now, in the midst of our cafe next to our Anatomy Museum (sadly, the rhino and hippo are mostly now tucked away in storage, and no, there is no rhino horn here for people to steal. Sheesh!):

Much easier to walk around, drink coffee with, etc., and it has gained a second skull (with the skull of a baby also on display nearby). So you might immediately be able to see why I like our museum– any museum with a mounted elephant skeleton rocks, in my opinion. But also, I’m gradually cleaning up my freezer specimens, building a little museum of “my” own that will eventually become an official part of the RVC museum’s collection, so there is a connection to this blog too.

Anyway, here is what a visitor gets as a first impression upon entering our museum:

Namely, a horse who is less famous than Eclipse but still no slouch in his day, Foxhunter the show jumping horse, who won Britain its only gold medal at the Olympics 70 years ago (nice timing)! Then, looking around the museum, you will see:

A cow skeleton to your left, which is no shock at a vet school, but then look more closely, to the right:

A nice tiger skeleton is mounted there, with a pig skeleton atop it, and a hippo skull hanging out nearby (closer view of that in a later post). Through the green doors to the right is our lovely cafe, with the elephant and a few more specimens including a splendid mount of a sitting polar bear (to be shown later). And then, meandering around back to the left through the museum hall you will find:

A nice replica chimp skeleton next to a cast of “Lucy”, the famed Australopithecus early hominin! So there’s some decent evolutionary context in the exhibit, too; not just your standard domestic critters with little broader conceptual unification. But I think some of the museum’s greatest treasures  are the preserved specimens of lovingly dissected animal anatomy demonstrations, such as toward the back of the room:

These were done over past decades, many winning awards for the skill displayed in making them, and it is sad that this skill is becoming more and more rare, with shifts toward less hands-on, more computerized education and training. At least BodyWorlds and Animal Inside Out bucks this trend! It’s fortunate we have museums to show off the skill of preparators and dissectors so the beauty of such specimens can continue to be appreciated. I’ll show some closeups later.

There are plenty of surprises in the RVC’s Anatomy Museum, so if you get a chance and expect to be near our Camden Campus, come take a look sometime. Casual, unheralded visitors are not normally welcome, as the museum is more of an in-house educational resource than a public one. But I am told that scientists could easily get entry to study specimens on prior request, and with plenty of advance notice other members of the general public probably could, too. Mr Andrew Crook (recently awarded an MBE for his efforts using our museum and other facilities to educate local students) is the main contact person but please don’t swamp him with requests. It would be best to contact me first for advice and contact details.

So there’s a little introduction to our Anatomy Museum, and coming posts will show you more of the cool specimens within– stay tuned!

I’ll have our friend the ostrich skull show you the way out–

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Here is a little vignette for you; a taster of the BBSRC-funded chicken biomechanics project my team has underway in collaboration with Jonathan Codd’s team at Uni Manchester. I did not know about the following situation until a couple of years ago during my former PhD student (now postdoc) Heather Paxton‘s research on chicken mechanics.

Regard this chicken, slit open along the midline to show the viscera. The huge pectoralis muscles (breast meat) have been pushed aside; the right side’s are clumsily outlined (I blame caffeine?) in blue.

Then consider the heart, within the jagged, shamefully and ineptly drawn green circle. I’ll come back to that.

So this broiler chicken took 6 weeks to reach this size, of about 3 kilograms (6.6 lbs). Fifty years ago, before artificial selection was imposed on a MASSIVE scale (many billions of chickens per year worldwide, bred in a complex pyramid scheme of crossed strains), that same chicken strain would have taken 15 weeks to reach a normal slaughter mass of roughly 2 kg (4.4 lbs). The major selection, of course, has been for edible meat, especially that lovely breast muscle’s white meat.

If we look at red junglefowl, to a large degree the “wild type” ancestors of domestic chickens that are native to southeast Asia, the leg muscles take up about 7.7% body mass per leg vs. about 6.3% in the broiler. Just a small decrease, but probably an important one, and something our research focuses a lot on (walking ability, lameness, activity levels etc). But that’s a subject for a future post. In stark contrast, the breast muscles (back to the blue ellipse above)  have gone from 7% to up to 11.6% body mass per wing; a huge change!

Now let’s return to another large muscle, the one within the green circle above; the heart. Not only must the heart, which has become relatively larger by perhaps 25%, pump blood to a body that has enlarged by >50%, but it also must perfuse the giant pectoral muscles, which have enlarged by >65%.

Herein lies the problem… You probably can predict what happens.

Several syndromes may develop, but the one I want to cover here is called deep pectoral myopathy (AKA “Oregon disease” or better yet “green muscle disease”, a very appropriate term as you’ll see below). Basically, the giant pectoralis muscles receive inadequate blood flow from the smallish heart, because the muscles are so big and under so much pressure, creating resistance to flow, and so the muscles begin dying from within. A picture tells the story:

While surely uncomfortable for the birds and hence a welfare problem, it is usually not found until the animals are slaughtered, and then of course the meat is destroyed rather than delivered for human consumption. Because of the welfare problems and loss of meat (i.e. financial loss), the poultry industry is trying to remedy this problem. W’e’re working on aspects of this as well, as part of our study of how the locomotor and ventilatory systems of chickens develop and have evolved.

I am blogging this as a great example of how anatomy can go haywire and become imbalanced when evolutionary selection pressures are intense and highly specific (e.g. almost single-minded human selection for large breast muscle). It is also a conundrum that human society faces: while chicken meat seems more efficient and more ecologically sound than some other meats, and there is growing demand for meat as the human population grows, how do we balance welfare concerns with food security, economics and other factors? And how do we judge when artificial selection has gone too far? I do not present an answer because the answer is not easy, and because my team is still learning about how to answer it.

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As promised, another CT slice to ponder! Mystery Dissection images will be back; I want to collect some more cool photos though. Otherwise it will turn into too much “mystery hindlimb muscle of the week”. I welcome “guest posts” of Mystery Dissections if someone wants to try to stump the audience! Anyway, on with the show… This one is not so easy, but not impossible by any means, either. Tell me what you can about this mysterious object!


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Here’s something a bit different from my usual Mystery Dissection images: a Mystery CT Slice with an indicated structure for you to identify. I can definitely do this quite regularly. And I’ll try to always draw the arrow on using MS Paint, quite shakily to indicate my frenetic mental state. Bonus points for identifying the organism. It’s not super hard but let’s see how you do with this one. Go for it!

EDIT: OK, you’ve had a good go at it, definitely. Almost everyone was more or less right in some way, so here, have a treat! We’re looking at a cross section of a ~6 month old emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) from the RVC Structure and Motion Lab’s aviary. And indeed the structure is the ventriculus; the technical term for the gizzard; the muscular organ that acts like teeth for birds, grinding up food. The proventriculus is the more enzyme-producing, non-grinding compartment connected to the ventriculus. This emu had just eaten a bit of grit (the bright spots in the scan) whereas its comrade had eaten relatively huge pebbles, which surprised me when I scanned it and certainly was not accidental ingestion. Here are some labels to help orient you in this cross-sectional x-ray CT image; we’re in the cranial (anterior) region of the thorax, just a bit behind the heart and in front of the guts:

For the less anatomically-jargon-loving, the synsacrum is the hip region (fused pelvis, backbone in birds), the femur is the thigh bone, tibia and fibula are shank bones, and the tarsometatarsus is an elongate “sole bone” of the foot; actually 3 fused metatarsals and tarsal bones integrated into one unit in birds as a likely strength:weight maximizing adaptation. The air sacs of course are outpockets of the lungs, much famed among dinosaur workers of late. Of course, Dr. Oliver Wings of the Humboldt Museum in Germany is the reigning authority on dinosaur gizzards, gastric mills and the lack thereof in many dinosaurs (most notably sauropods), so look his stuff up if you’re interested in this!

Well done and thanks for playing! Another session will come soon enough, plus I have some big posts planned for later this summer once work calms down!

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Well, I’ve been pretty busy with grant-writing and other stuff lately, so I’ve been neglecting my beloved blog. Here is a little sequel to my Animal Inside Out exhibit review, from my 2nd visit there, yesterday. I had previously missed the “3-headed camel” that is in one corner of the great hall (the Diplodocus one overlooked by Darwin). Because that is outside the special exhibit, there are no issues with taking photos, although I must apologize that as usual I just had my mobile phone’s camera. So here you go– a camel anatomy extravaganza. Too bad I didn’t do this on Hump Day

(beefy reward at end for those who view all the pics)

Front view.

Side view.

Back right view. Naughty boy trying to grab the guts. It’s not a petting zoo, kid!

Back view. Kid nearly has snatched some precious entrails.

Front right view.

Cranial view of forelimb. Now I’m starting to get pretty interested in documenting the muscle anatomy for my own records. These AIO displays really do clearly show the myology.

Nice view of right triceps, latisssimus, carpal extensors/flexors, etc.

Guts, glorious guts! Beautifully sectioned stomach, showing “pseudoruminant” three-chambered structure and smaller compartments within.

Right hindlimb, rear/side view. Great view of semimembranosus/tendinosus, biceps femoris, superficial gluteal, tensor fasciae latae?

Left distal hindlimb, side view, emphasizing (toward bottom right) calcaneal “Achilles” tendon, and possibly a slip of the very reduced plantaris muscle? Also distal tendon of hamstrings prominently visible, with belly toward top of image (dark).

Left forelimb, showing elbow region with triceps/anconeus, more carpal flexors/extensors.

Great exhibit. No bullshit.

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