Archive for October, 2012


At the Structure and Motion Laboratory, we’re not boring scientists who robotically focus only on writing grants and publishing papers, much as senior management might want us to pretend. We’re human. We like fun. And we like Halloween. And brainssss! What follows is some good, jolly, Halloweenerly, spooky, sciencey fun that we came up with yesterday (in between writing grants and papers, ahem).

First, our surreal B-movie extravaganza: It Came From the Biomechanics Laboratory. See if you can piece together the plot:

(subtitle: Open John’s freezer… if you dare!!!)

And in case you want more of the ritual sacrifice of the pumpkin at beginning, here are two versions in glorious slo-mo, from our AOS high-speed digital video cameras:


Finally, an outtake from the film, in which Gary, the RHex robot from Andrew Spence’s Spencelab, takes his gory vengeance on a hapless cameraman, and then turns on his masters!

Thanks to our brave participants: Miguel Lamas (who compiled the first video), Luis “Demon Emu” Lamas and his squad of brave –but now devoured– emu-wranglers from the RVC, Andrew “Robo Arrigato” Spence, Jeff “Giraffe Leg” Rankin (nice acting, Jeff!), Olgascoob Panagiotopoulou-doo, Becky “Schrodinger’s Evil Cat” Fischer, Rich “Sit, Stand, KILL!” Ellis,  Hazel Halliday, and finally that unnamed plucky, cute little kitty-girl (lone survivor and heroine of our story)!

Happy Halloween… muhahahahaaaaaa!!!

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A short(ish) post, but to me an important one. As I’ve mentioned here before, and still mean to write a detailed post on, I’m on a 1-year Royal Society Leverhulme Trust senior research fellowship (pause to breathe… long phrase there!) to study the mechanics and evolution of the kneecap (patella) in birds. Knees are very cool, and the patella is one of the coolest parts of the knee. My fellowship is aimed at returning to my roots, i.e. my PhD research on theropod dinosaur hindlimb evolution (anatomical and functional), to focus in great detail on just the patella (this, not this).

The patella is a mysterious structure: a sesamoid bone like I’ve argued elephant predigits are, and probably the best known sesamoid, but still quite enigmatic– especially in non-humans and most particularly in non-mammals. Why did it evolve three different times, at least? What mechanical/developmental environment encourages it to form? Why don’t some species have them? Does the presence of a patella tell us anything about posture, gait, or anything else? Why did no giant dinosaurs evolve patellae?

Anyway, I now have a related PhD studentship that I need a great EU/UK-based student to apply for, and I’m casting a wide net. It’s a very, very freezer-based PhD: imagine cutting up the knees of the frozen zoo of critters that I’ve shown on this blog already, to your heart’s content! And studying fossils, and doing histology (cool imaging techniques with RVC faculty Michael Doube and Andy Pitsillides, along with bone uber-guru Alan Boyde), and conducting experiments with real animals, and computer modelling both experimental and fossil data… this PhD has it all.

Here are the details. If you know anyone in the EU/UK looking for a good PhD that seems to fit the bill very well, send them my way please!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled frozen organisms… and there is a fun post coming tomorrow!

The knee of an emu from my freezer, showing the many muscles and other tissues that connect to or surround the patella. It’s complicated, and that makes for fun science!

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A quick and easy Mystery Dissection post for you today– these objects are left over from a dissection we did awhile ago. What are they, and (for extra points) from what species (be as precise as possible)?

Speed round. Let’s see how many correct answers we can get in the next 24 hours!

Stomach-Churning Factor: 1. They won’t bite.

Difficulty: small image, oblique angle, object on the left side of the image is in the way (and not related to this post).

This will lead into a full-length blog post, hopefully to come sometime late this week, after Halloween. And there should be a Halloween bonus post this year!

Go for it!

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I stumbled across some old pics, which I thought I’d lost, from the filming/preparations of 4 episodes of Inside Nature’s Giants (Jan-Feb 2009) at the RVC. They form a nice accompaniment to my previous post reflecting on my experience with the show, and the timing is great because I’m about to head to Raleigh, NC to talk about this research at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology conference.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4 at first (just a dead animal; and a rather clean one at that), then about halfway through the dissections start and it edges up to a 7 or so.

These pictures are sadly some of the few I have of the whole, intact body of a gorgeous adult Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) that the Windfall Films team managed to get to the RVC from La Ferme Aux Crocodiles in Pierrelatte, France. (I have scores of pics of the dissected limbs, shown further below) As the title indicates, it was a nice big croc. And as you’d expect, CT scanning and then dissecting it was no tiny feat, and makes a fun story. Story time, then, after an introductory pic!

Dr Samuel Martin, vet from La Ferme Aux Crocodiles, brought the crocodile (and some smaller specimens) over to our Hawkshead campus in late January 2009, and we quickly moved to run the specimen through our CT scanner to preserve some details of its anatomy (example shown at the end of this post) and for potential usage in the show. As the photos below illustrate, this was hard work for several people.

And then, as we were finishing the last CT scans of the specimen, our ageing medical scanner stopped working. And could not be resuscitated. R.I.P., Picker PQ5000 (buy one or two here!). The crocodile, “WCROC” as my team came to designate it, had claimed its final victim. It took about a year for us to get a new one, and that year sucked. It made me appreciate how lucky we are to have a CT scanner just across the parking lot from my office!

Anyway, the day of filming I was hoping to make it in to watch my colleague and friend Dr Greg Erickson help lead the dissection team, but a wicked blizzard blew up, and as I was starting the 31 mile drive south from my home to the RVC I realized, from the queue of cars that seemed to be 31 miles long (and train lines shut down), that this was going to be a snow day. So I turned around and came home. Another victory for WCROC!

The filming proceeded despite heavy snow delaying many of the key players’ arrivals. I got filmed a day or two later for a little section of the show on the limbs and locomotion of crocodiles but sadly this got cut from the main ING show (but did air in the National Geographic version “Raw Anatomy“, in the USA at least).

The limbs had been left largely intact, although some of the dissectors who didn’t know croc anatomy very well had slashed through parts of the pelvis and, in eagerness to reach key parts to demonstrate in the show, some major muscles got shredded. This is no big surprise; crocodiles have a lot of bones all over the place: in their skin (scutes; bony armour), in their bellies (the belly ribs called gastralia), and almost everywhere else, so some brute force is required to get to the gooey bits. Apparently there had been 6 or so people dissecting at once and things got a little carried away. The curse of WCROC continues?

Oh well; that’s just how documentaries go sometimes, especially with a pioneering show like this and the intensely compressed timescales of filming (time is ££!). There can be pulses of chaos. And the show turned out GREAT! (alternative link if latter does not work outside UK)

Let’s have more photos tell the story of the scanning, which also shows off this beautiful animal’s external anatomy:

Anyway, things turned out fine overall for our research. A week or so later (maybe longer; I forget if the specimen was frozen and thawed out for us) we came in to start dissections. We were really excited to measure the limb muscles of such a big crocodile, for comparison to a growth series (babies to adults) of alligators that my former PhD student (now postdoc; Dr.) Vivian Allen had dissected back in 2008. Here he is with a masked co-dissector, displaying their joy for the task at hand:

And let’s not leave out the exhuberance of visiting research fellow Dr. Shin-Ichi Fujiwara! He wanted to inspect the forelimbs for his ongoing studies of limb posture, joint cartilages and locomotor mechanics.

The remaining images show progressive stages of dissection of WCROC, starting from the pectoral (fore-) limbs with a view of the belly (and the giant jaw-closing muscles visible on the left side of image):

Isolated right forelimb, with coracoid (part of shoulder girdle) sticking through:

Assorted forelimb/upper arm (brachial) muscles:

And the triceps (elbow-straightening) muscles; not that big in such a big animal:

…and on to the pelvic limbs and the huge tail:

With a closer look at the HUGE thigh muscle, the famed M. caudofemoralis longus:

And then an isolated right hindlimb:

Thigh muscles, with which I have a peculiar fascination that stems from my PhD research:

And last, the great, paddle-like hind foot!

What a great experience that was! We have fond memories of WCROC, a great documentary from Windfall Films, some nice data– and a lovely skeleton. Perhaps the curse of WCROC is not so bad. Nothing can go wrong now!

Soon Mieke Roth, scientific illustrator from the Netherlands, is coming here to do a similar dissection on more Nile crocodiles at the RVC. As with the octopus she wrote about in September, she will make a 3D model, but with much more detail and with an emphasis on accuracy and accessibility. The end products will be really cool; think of the visible body, 3d models that can be used in teaching, animations, a book and lots more but also a “how did she do that?” blog. To finance this project (that probably will take a year or more) she will use crowd funding. In several weeks there will be more info on how to participate in her fantastic endeavour. For now, see her video with the initial pitch for “Nile Crocodile 2.0“!

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Hi folks, as my birthday present to you, and big thanks for racking up 70,000 blog views in 7 months (and my 50th post!), here is a new installment of Mystery CT Slice!

This time with a pilot (or scout) scan of an odd object. A pilot/scout scan is a quick, low exposure scan used to plan a series of CT slices, which shows a a larger area that is then narrowed down to focus just on the object of interest and a bit of buffer room for those slices. It generally isn’t used for much else, but sometimes can make a neat picture. As you can see here, the pilot scan area was excessively massive relative to the object. The two odd objects below the primary object of interest are scanning phantoms, used to calibrate density from Hounsfield units to actual real-world density (one is water at 1 g/cm3; the other is “cortical bone” at 1.69 g/cm3). Ignore them.

But what is this object and from what taxon? Be as specific as you can, but pinning it down to genus/species level will be bloody hard!

Stomach Churning Rating: 1/10; it doesn’t get much tamer than a pilot scan.

Difficulty Level: small image, hazy, not a lot of diagnostic traits visible, 1 main element.

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