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“!