In case you haven’t heard, Saturday, September 22nd, 2012 (today, at this writing) is World Rhino Day! The main websites include here and here. Ivan Kwan has also posted a fantastic blog entry “Rhinos are not prehistoric survivors” for WRD2012- check it out! And if you haven’t seen the WitmerLab’s AWESOME Visible Interactive Rhino site, you really really need to (in fact, quit reading this and go there first; it is soooooo good!).
I’ve written about the global rhino crisis before, and about rhino foot pathologies. The title of today’s post may be “cute”, or at least goofy, but the real situation is as grim as the images I’ll share. I won’t repeat the explanation, but all five living species of rhinoceroses are in serious trouble. There’s a good chance that most or all of them will go extinct quite soon– see the previous links for more information on this. Javan and Sumatran rhinos are dangling the most precariously over the precipice of extinction. My goal in this post is to share the beautiful, complex and exotic anatomy of rhinoceros anatomy and movement, and the joy of contributing new scientific information about poorly understood species.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 7/10— dissections, and there are a couple of pics where the specimens are not so fresh, and there’s big skin, and a huge heart.
The purpose of today’s rhino post is to share a bit more; especially images; of the work my team has done on rhinoceros gait and limb anatomy; all of it unpublished but hopefully coming soon. We’ve steadily been collecting data since ~2005. Because my previous post went through some of this, I’ll keep it brief and image-focused.
First, a video of one of our amusing encounters with a white rhinoceros, at Woburn Safari Park. In this study, we wanted to measure, for the first time really, the gaits (footfall patterns) that a white rhinoceros uses at different speeds, and how often it uses those different gaits. We attached a GPS unit on a horse surcingle around the rhino’s torso, which measured the animal’s speed once a second. We then observed 5 individuals (1 at a time over various days), following them in my station wagon (estate car) across the safari park. We filmed them with a conventional camcorder to document their gaits, and concentrated on the two periods of the day that they’d normally be active: when released from their overnight barn, and when coming in for the night back to that barn. They got rather excited and frisky some of those times. The GPS belt then kept recording speeds for the rest of the day; unsurprisingly, the rhinos generally did not do much. I have to thank Nick Whiting, rhino handler, for his help making this research happen. I’ve been meaning for too long to finish the final paper… soon, I hope! Enjoy this tense scene of a rhino investigating my car (driven by me and with an undergraduate student filming) then having a nice canter/gallop across the field (accompanied by my jubilant narration).
Like our foot pressure research, we aim that this work provides baseline data useful to caretakers of rhinos; for example, to test if a particular animal is lame. This follows what we’ve successfully done with elephant gaits and feet, translating basic research into more clinical application. But my major scientific interest is in understanding more about what makes any rhinoceros, even a 2-tonne White rhino, so much more athletic than any elephant (even a baby or 2-tonne small adult Asian elephant). As the video shows, they can use a variety of gaits including cantering and galloping, and trotting at slower running speeds. No elephant ever does that, and no one knows precisely why. The leg bones are more robust, but the muscles aren’t that dramatically larger in rhinos.
Similarly, the anatomical work we do with rhinos is intended to not only be useful science for comparative biologists like me, showing how rhino limbs work and how they differ from those of other animals, but also to aid clinicians in comparing normal vs. pathological anatomy. For conveying that anatomical work, I’m lucky to have been granted permission to use a professional photographer’s pictures of some of my freezers’ rhino specimens– big thanks to James King-Holmes and the Science Photo Library. The watermarked images below belong to them. I ask that you do not use them elsewhere, honouring their license to me for personal usage on this website (and I will only use them here). I’m in all the images, which makes me feel weird putting them up here, but it’s about the rhinos (and freezers), not me. First: the infamous “rhino foot freezer”, featuring some of its denizens:
Second, a re-introduction to multifarious contents of Freezersaurus, but this time featuring rhino feet (here, a skinned white rhino foot that we had already studied):
…and inside we go (and I begin to get frosty and numb-fingered from holding a foot; my smile soon fades):
Taking a rest with the skinned white rhinoceros foot:
Now over to some 3D anatomy– segmented reconstructions of rhinoceros fore (top) and hind (bottom) feet, from CT scans; if you’ve frequented this blog you know the drill. Here, the longest bones are the metacarpals/metatarsals and the upper bones are the carpals/tarsals, then the bones near the botttom are the phalanges, which connect to the hooves (visible in the bottom image):
I’ll wrap up with a series of images of basic limb muscle anatomy from dissections we’ve done of baby and adult Indian and White rhinoceroses. First, here’s what a rhino looks like underneath the skin:
But ahh that skin, that fabled “pachyderm” skin! A rhino’s greatest defense is also a real chore to get through in a dissection. Here, we enlist the help of a crane and hook, hurrying to get down to the muscles of this forelimb before rotting takes over too much (as with other big animals, this is a tough race against time even in chilly England!):
Here is a closer look at that amazing armoured skin; sometimes 10cm or so thick:
Back to the forelimb muscles– stocky and well-defined for this athletic animal:
(late addition) Here are the massive shoulder muscles, such as the serratus and latissimus dorsi (this is a left limb in side view; head is toward the left):
And now a close look at the forearm muscles:
And then over to the hindlimb, here from an adult Indian rhino, whose thigh bone (femur) shows the characteristic giant “third trochanter” (toward the bottom centre of the image), which is an expanded bony attachment for the giant “gluteobiceps” muscle complex that retracts the femur for the power stroke in locomotion. Also, this specimen showed fascinating anatomy that I’d never seen before: the third trochanter has a thin bar of bone that extends up (toward the bottom left in the image) to fuse with the greater trochanter, opposite the head of the femur (upper left corner):
Damn my photography skills, cutting off the edge of that image and instead giving a view of my boots! Anyway, another interesting feature of that femur: the medial (inner) condyle of the femur (knee joint surface) has a pink stripe of worn cartilage. This is indicative of at least a moderate stage of arthritis, shown here (look for the pinkness amidst the shiny, healthy white cartilage on the upper right side). It is an exemplar of serious welfare problems that some captive, and probably some wild as well, rhinos face:
(late addition) Back up the limb, this baby White rhino shows the massive thigh muscles, especially that “gluteobiceps” that attaches to the third trochanter, noted above, and also showing the hamstrings:
And the sole of that foot, showing a fairly healthy pad, below. Toward the rear (away from the nails), it culminates in a modest-sized fat pad, or digital cushion, akin to that in elephants but far less well developed and lacking the false “sixth toe” (predigit) (see also CT scan movie of the hindfoot above):
Here’s a view inside that marvelous foot, showing the HUGE digital flexor tendons. These help support the toes against gravity and, in theory, can act to curl them up– although in a rhino’s foot, as in an elephant’s, the toes are more like a single functional hoof, with reduced independence compared to a carnivore or primate:
And that ends our tour of rhinoceros limb anatomy and function. Help spread the word of how precious and threated rhinos are; educate yourself and others! And if you overhear someone talking about using rhino horn for medicine, try to politely educate them on the utter fallacy of this tradition. It is this cruel, greedy, ignorant practice that needs to die; not rhinos. I don’t enjoy receiving dead rhinos, on a personal level, even though the science excites me. I’d rather have many more alive and living good, healthy lives. And my team is trying to do what we can to help others on the “front lines” of rhino conservation make that happen.
For example, Will Fowlds, vet and co-owner of Amakhala Game Reserve, South Africa, recently sent us some images of a white rhino that had been caught in a poacher’s foot snare some years ago. The poor rhino still was having problems healing– we inspected x-ray images and external photos and helped to make an initial diagnosis of osteomyelitis, a nasty infectious, inflammatory foot bone/joint disease. We are following this case to hope that the rhino recovers and contribute help where we can, but the tough job belongs to the keepers/vets on the ground, not to mention the rhinos…
Furthermore, we’ve done foot pressure research covered here, and here is an example of the data we’ve collected (image credit: Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou), showing high pressures on the toes and low pressures on the foot pads:
Big thanks to people on my team that have helped with this and related research: Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou (and Dr Todd Pataky at Shinshu University, Japan), Dr Renate Weller in the VCS Dept at the RVC, Liz Ferrer at Berkeley, and former undergraduate student researchers Sophie Regnault, Richard Harvey, Hinnah Rehman, Richard Sheehan, Kate Jones, Bryony Armson and Suzannah Williams.