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Even nine years later, I still keep thinking back to a day, early in my career as an academic faculty member based in England, that traumatized me. Today I’m going to share my story of that day. I feel ready to share it.

Stomach-Churning Rating: hmm that’s a tough call, but I’ll say 1/10 because it’s just photos of live crocs and such.

This day was part of a research trip that lasted a couple of weeks, and it was in Florida, not England, and little of that trip went well at first. It transpired almost exactly 9 years ago today; around 20 August 2005. I took two 2nd/3rd year undergraduate students and our lab technician with me to Florida, meeting up with Dr. Kent Vliet, an experienced crocodile specialist, to study the biomechanics of crocodile locomotion, a subject I’ve been slowwwwwwly working on since my PhD days (see recent related blog post here). We were funded by an internal grant from my university that was supposed to be seed money to get data to lay groundwork for a future large UK research grant.

Cuban crocodile adult relaxing in a nearby enclosure. Pound-for-pound, a scary croc, but these acted like puppies with their trainers.

Cuban crocodile adult relaxing in a nearby enclosure. Pound-for-pound, a scary croc, but these acted like puppies with their trainers.

I’m interested in why only some crocodylian species, of some sizes and age classes, will do certain kinds of gaits, especially mammal-like gaits such as bounding and galloping. This strongly hints at some kind of size-related biomechanical mechanism that dissuades or prevents larger crocs from getting all jiggy with it. And at large size, with few potential predators to worry about and a largely aquatic ambush predator’s ecology, why would they need to? Crocodiles should undergo major biomechanical changes in tune with their ecological shifts as they grow up. I want to know how the anatomy of crocodiles relates to these changes, and what mechanism underlies their reduction of athletic abilities like bounding. That’s the scientific motivation for working with animals that can detach limbs from your body. (The crocodiles we worked with initially on this trip were small (about 1 meter long) and not very dangerous, but they still would have done some damage if they’d chosen to bite us, and I’ve worked with a few really nasty crocs before.)

Me putting motion capture markers onto an uncooperative young Siamese crocodile.

Me putting motion capture markers onto an uncooperative young Siamese crocodile.

We worked at Gatorland (near Orlando) with some wonderfully trained crocodiles that would even sit in your lap or under your chair, and listened to vocal commands. The cuteness didn’t wear off, but our patience soon did. First, the force platform we’d borrowed (from mentor Rodger Kram’s lab; a ~$10,000 piece of useful gear) and its digital data acquisition system wouldn’t work to let us collect our data. That was very frustrating and even a very helpful local LabView software representative couldn’t solve all our problems. But at least we were able to start trying to collect data after four painstaking days of debugging while curious crocodiles and busy animal handlers waited around for us to get our act together. The stress level of our group was already mounting, and we had limited time plus plenty of real-life bugs (the bitey, itchy kind; including fire ants) and relentless heat to motivate us to get the research done.

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

Then the wonderfully trained crocodiles, as crocodiles will sometimes do, decided that they did not feel like doing more than a slow belly crawl over our force platform, at best. This was not a big surprise and so we patiently tried coaxing them for a couple of sweltering August days. We were working in their caged paddock, which contained a sloping grassy area, a small wooden roofed area, and then at the bottom of the slope was the crocodiles’ pond, where they sat and chilled out when they weren’t being called upon to strut their stuff for science. We didn’t get anything very useful from them, and then the weather forecast started looking ugly.

Hybrid Siamese crocodile in its pond in our enclosure, waiting to be studied.

Hybrid Siamese crocodile in its pond in our enclosure, waiting to be studied.

We’d been watching reports of a tropical storm developing off the southeastern coast of Florida, and crossing our fingers that it would miss us. But it didn’t.

When the storm hit, we were hoping to weather the edge of the storm while we packed up, because we decided we’d done our best but our time had run out and we should move to our next site, the Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in St Augustine, where I’d worked a lot before with other Crocodylia. But the storm caught us off guard, too soon, and too violently.

To give some context to the situation, for the previous several days the local croc handlers had told us stories of how lightning routinely struck this area during storms, and was particularly prone to hitting the fences on the park perimeter, which we were close to. There was a blasted old tree nearby that vultures hung out in, and they related how that blasting had been done by lightning. One trainer had been hit twice by (luckily glancing) blows from lightning hitting the fences and such.

Ominous onlooker.

Ominous onlooker.

The storm came with pounding rain and a lot of lightning, much of it clearly striking nearby- with almost no delay between flashes and thunder, and visible sky-to-ground bolts. We debated taking our forceplate out of the ground near the crocodile pond, because sensitive electrical equipment and rain don’t go well together, but this would take precious time. The forceplate was covered with a tarp to keep the rain off. I decided that, in the interest of safety, we needed to all seek shelter and let the forceplate be.

I’ll never forget the memory of leaving that crocodile enclosure and seeing a terrible sight. The crocodile pond had swiftly flooded and engulfed our forceplate. This flooding also released all the (small) crocodiles which were now happily wandering their enclosure where we’d been sitting and working before.

Another subject awaits science.

Another subject awaits science.

At that point I figured there was no going back. Lightning + deepening floodwater + electrical equipment + crocodiles = not good, so I wagered my team’s safety against our loaned equipment’s, favouring the former.

We sprinted for cars and keepers’ huts, and got split up in the rain and commotion. As the rain calmed down, I ventured out to find the rest of the team. It turned out that amidst the havoc, our intrepid lab technician had marshalled people to go fetch the forceplate out from the flooded paddock, storm notwithstanding. We quickly set to drying it out, and during some tense time over the next day we did several rounds of testing its electronics to see if it would still work. Nope, it was dead. And we still had over a week of time left to do research, but without our most useful device. (A forceplate tells you how hard animals are pushing against the ground, and with other data such as those from our motion analysis cameras, how their limbs and joints function to support them)

We went on to St Augustine and got some decent data using just our cameras, for a wide variety of crocodiles, so the trip wasn’t a total loss. I got trapped by remnants of the storm while in Washington, DC and had to sleep on chairs in Dulles Airport overnight, but I got home, totally wrecked and frazzled from the experience.

That poorly-timed storm was part of a series of powerful storms that would produce Hurricane Katrina several days later, after we’d all left Florida. So we had it relatively easy.

I’m still shaken by the experience- as a tall person who grew up in an area with a lot of dangerous storms, I was already uneasy about lightning, feeling like I had a target on my back. But running from the lightning in that storm, after all the warnings we’d had about its bad history in this area, and how shockingly close the lightning was, leaves me almost phobic about lightning strikes. I’m in awe of lightning and enjoy thunderstorms, which I’ve seen few of since I left Wisconsin in 1995, but I now hate getting caught out in them.

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

Moreover, the damage to the forceplate- which we managed to pay to repair and return to my colleague, and the failure of the Gatorland experiments, truly mortified me. I felt horrible and still feel ashamed. I don’t think I could have handled the situation much differently. It was just a shitty situation. That, and I wanted to show our undergrads a good time with research, yet what they ended up seeing was a debacle. I still have the emails I sent back to my research dean to describe what happened in the event, and they bring back the pain and stress now that I re-read them. But then… there’s a special stupid part to this story.

I tried to lighten the mood one night shortly after the storm by taking the team out to dinner, having a few drinks and then getting up to sing karaoke in front of the restaurant. I sang one of my favourite J Geil’s Band tunes- I have a nostalgic weakness for them- the song “Centerfold“. I not only didn’t sing it well (my heart was not in it and my body was shattered), and tried lamely to get the crowd involved (I think no one clapped or sang along), but also in retrospect it was a bad choice of song to be singing with two female undergrads there– I hadn’t thought about the song’s meanings when I chose to sing it, I just enjoyed it as a fun, goofy song that brought me back to innocent days of my youth in the early 1980’s. But it is not an innocent song.

So ironically, today what I feel the most embarrassed about, thinking about that whole trip and the failed experiment, is that karaoke performance. It was incredibly graceless and ill-timed and I don’t think anyone enjoyed it. I needed to unwind; the stress was crushing me; but oh… it was so damn awkward. I think I wanted to show to the team “I’m OK, I can still sing joyfully and have a good time even though we had a disastrous experiment and maybe nearly got electrified or bitten by submerged crocodiles or what-not, so you can relax too; we can move on and enjoy the rest of the trip” but in reality I proved to myself, at least, that I was not OK. And I’m still not OK about that experience. It still makes me cringe. Haunted, it took me many years to feel comfortable singing karaoke again.

It should have been a fun trip. I love working with crocodiles, but Florida is a treacherous place for field work (and many other things). I can’t say I grew stronger from this experience. There is no silver lining. It sucked, and I continually revisit it in my memory trying to find a lesson beyond “choose better times and better songs to sing karaoke with” or “stay away from floods, electricity and deadly beasts.”

So that wins, out of several good options, as the worst day(s) of my career that I can recall. I’ve had worse days in my life, but for uncomfortable science escapades this edges out some other contenders. Whenever I leave the lab to do research, I think of this experience and hope that I don’t see anything worse. It could have been much worse field work.

(Epilogue: the grants we’ve tried to fund for this crocodile gait project all got shot down, so it has lingered and we’ve done research on it gradually since, when we find time and students… And one of the students on this trip went on to do well in research and is finishing a PhD in the Structure & Motion Lab now, so we didn’t entirely scare them off science!)

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I visited the British Museum a while ago with my daughter and was struck by some of the animal imagery in the loot on display– particularly, as an archosaurophile, the crocodiles (Crocodylia, crocodylians, etc.; no alligatoroids to show in this post). So I decided to go back and photograph some of them for a blog post about the more obscure and rare animals that sometimes appear in human art and design.

It’s easy to think of horses, lions, dogs, eagles and other familiar, domestic or prized beasts in human decorations. Yet what roles do less common animals play? This post is the first of two on the unsung beasties of human artwork, as represented in the British Museum.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10. Tame art and a dried crocodile skin.

Wherever humans and crocodiles coexist, the primeval appearance and dangerous potential of crocodiles are sure to impress themselves upon our psyche. Hence they will manifest themselves in art. This should especially apply in the early days of a civilization, before we extirpate local crocodiles or exclude them to the hinterlands, or in cases in which crocodylians become revered and protected.

Much of Western culture lacks such an emphasis, because it developed in more temperate climes where crocodiles were long since absent. It’s fun to think about what our culture would be like if it had developed with crocodiles as a prominent aspect, as in Egypt, which is the natural place to begin our tour, featuring mummies of course!

All images can be clicked to emcroccen them.

Small Nile crocodile mummy from >30 B.C, El Hiba, Egypt

Small Nile crocodile mummy from >30 B.C, El Hiba, Egypt

Second small Nile crocodile mummy from >30 B.C, El Hiba, Egypt

Second small Nile crocodile mummy from >30 B.C, El Hiba, Egypt

Those mummies remind me of a recent scientific study that used such mummies to reveal the history of the “cryptic” species Crocodylus suchus, a close relative of the Nile croc C. niloticus, and one that seems to be more threatened.

We proceed on our tour with a box showing an example of shabti, or doll-like funeral offerings of “enchanted” mummified figurines:

This shabti box was for a noble daughter, Neskshons, in Thebes, from around 650 B.C.

This shabti box was for a noble daughter, Neskshons, in Thebes, from around 650 B.C.

A crocodile deity receives the shabti from the departed soul, accompanied by  serpent god as well as a more human, ankh-bearing divinity.

A crocodile deity receives the shabti from the departed soul, accompanied by serpent god as well as a more human, ankh-bearing divinity.

Next, some amazingly preserved papyrus scrolls:

This papyrus is from around 900 B.C., with short blurbs about the woman Tentosorkon, part of a new style of funeral provisions in the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt.

This papyrus is from around 900 B.C., with short blurbs about the woman Tentosorkon, part of a new style of funeral provisions in the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt.

Crocodile featured in the story of Tentosorkon.

Crocodile featured in the story of Tentosorkon. What’s it doing? Why is a feathered snake-thing touching its butt? I wish I knew.

The "Litany of Ra", from around 1000 B.C., which is a style like that of the previous 22nd Dynasty papyrus and would have decorated a tomb's wall, dedicated to the lady Mutemwia. Ra, the sun god, is shown in his different manifestations, including a crocodile form, called Sobek-ra: http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Sobek.html

The “Litany of Ra”, from around 1000 B.C., which is a style like that of the previous 22nd Dynasty papyrus and would have decorated a tomb’s wall, dedicated to the lady Mutemwia. Ra, the sun god, is shown in his different manifestations, including a crocodile form, called Sobek-ra (AKA Sebek); a protector and comforter of the dead:

egypt croc 1But crocodiles also feature prominently in other cultures around the world– I was hoping to find some in Thai, South American, or other cultures’ art (especially east/western Africa). However, the museum didn’t exhibit any I could find. I did find these, though, starting with this fantastic Roman armour with a great backstory (and hard to take photos of; argh!):

croc armour caption croc armour 1 croc armour 2 croc armour 3

Roman soldiers in a Sobek cult, running around Egypt while wearing badass armour and getting into all kinds of Bronze Age trouble: I DEMAND TO SEE A SWORD-AND-SANDALS MOVIE FEATURING THIS!

I searched for this next one but did not see it:

A crocodile mask from Mabuiag island near Australia- for some cool details, see this page where the image comes from (I didn’t get to see the original).

There were more tenuous links to crocodiles– surely some dragon images throughout the world relate at least partly to crocodiles, such as this one which seems very crocodylian to me:

A water spirit figure called a belum, from Sarawak, Malaysia, 18/1900s. Belief among  the Melanau people  was that these dragons would wrap their tails around someone's body to protect or drown them. Possibly inspired by saltwater or Phillipine crocs that they lived near.

A water spirit figure called a belum, from Sarawak, Malaysia, 18/1900s. Belief among the Melanau people was that these dragons would wrap their tails around someone’s body to protect or drown them. Possibly inspired by saltwater or Phillipine crocs that they lived near.

And that’s it- all I managed to find, but not a bad haul from this huge museum.  I looked for the Aztec croc-god Cipactli to no avail. If you have £850 to spare you might like to walk away with this one from the museum. I gladly accept donations of such things to my, err, research.

That’s just one museum’s view of crocodylians’ role in our culture. What crocodile imagery from human art around the world do you fancy?

 

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I love doing sciencey road trips with my team when I can. Last week, we got a treat: four of us got a behind-the-scenes tour of the fairly new Crocodiles of the World facility near Oxford; just over 90 minutes west of our lab, nestled in the pictureseque Cotswolds region. We were not disappointed, so you get to share in the joy! In photo-blog format. Pics can be clicked to emcrocken.

In the midst of an unpreposessing industrial estate lies: AWESOME!

In the midst of an unpreposessing industrial estate lies: AWESOME!

If you want to bone up on your croc species, go here and here. I won’t go into details. This is an eye candy post!

Reasonably accurate description that caught my eye.

Reasonably accurate description that caught my eye. My scientific interest in crocodiles starts here, and with their anatomy/relationship with dinosaurs, but I’ve loved crocs since I was an infant (one of my first words, as I may have written here before, was “dock-a-dile”, for my favourite stuffed animal at the time [R.I.P.]).

Siamese crocodiles. They were apart when we entered, then got snuggly later, as I've often seen this species do.

Siamese crocodiles. The large male is “Hugo.” They were apart when we entered, then got snuggly later, as I’ve often seen this species do. Heavily endangered (<300 in the wild?), so any breeding is a good thing!

The above photo brings me to one of my general points. Crocodiles of the World seems genuinely to be a centre that is breeding crocodiles for conservation purposes (and for education, entertainment and other zoo-like stuff). Essentially every crocodile enclosure had a mated pair, and several were breeding. Such as…

Yes, that is a Dwarf African crocodile, Osteolaemus, and it is a female on her nest-mound. Which means...

Yes, that is a Dwarf African crocodile, Osteolaemus, and indeed it is a female on her nest-mound. Which means…

Eggs of said Osteolaemus.

Eggs of said Osteolaemus.

And babies of said Osteolaemus!

And babies of said Osteolaemus! As if the adults aren’t cute enough with their short snouts and doglike size/appearance! These guys have striking yellow colouration, too. I’d never seen it in person before.

That’s not all!

Male American Alligator warming up. Smaller female partner lives in same enclosure.

Male American Alligator “Albert” warming up. Smaller female partner “Daisy” lives in same enclosure. Plenty of babies from these guys, too! Daisy comes when called by name, and Albert is learning to do so.

~1 meter long juvenile Nile crocodiles, bred at the facility.

~1 meter long juvenile Nile crocodiles, bred at the facility.

But then crocodile morphological diversity (colours, textures) and behaviour is just too cool not to focus on a bit, so here are some highlights from our visit!

Endearing shot of a crocodylian I seldom get to see anywhere: Paleosuchus trigonatus, the Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman. Spiny armoured hide and quite terrestrial; poorly known in many ways. Some more info is here- http://crocodilian.com/paleosuchus/description.html (note its tortured taxonomy)

Endearing shot of a crocodylian I seldom get to see anywhere: Paleosuchus trigonatus, the Schneider’s Dwarf Caiman. Spiny armoured hide and quite terrestrial; poorly known in many ways. Some more info is here (note its tortured taxonomy)

Black caiman, Melanosuchus niger, showing some interest in us.

Black caiman, Melanosuchus niger, showing some interest in us.

Cuban crocodiles cooling off by exposing their mouths.

Cuban crocodiles (Crocodylus rhombifer; pound for pound the most badass croc in my experience; badassitude that this photo captures nicely) cooling off by exposing the well-vascularized soft tissues of the mouth region.

But it’s not just crocs there, either, and some of the highlights were non-croc surprises and memorable encounters:

A surprisingly friendly and tame Water monitor (14 yrs old; does kids parties). Note person for scale.

A surprisingly friendly and tame Water monitor (14 yrs old; does kids parties). Note person for scale. Was about 2 meters long, 20 kg or so.

Business end of nice Water monitor, with tongue engaged.

Business end of nice Water monitor, with tongue engaged.

And we got a nice farewell from an African spur-thigh tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) with an oral fixation (action sequence thereof):

tortoise-nom (1)
tortoise-nom (2)

tortoise-nom (3)
tortoise-nom (4)

tortoise-nom (5)

Chowmp!

If someone visits this facility and leaves without being converted to a croc-lover, they must be from a different planet than me. It is a celebration of crocodiles; the owner, Shaun Foggett, is the real deal. He sold his home and quit his job as a carpenter to care for crocodiles, and it seems to be a great success– about to get greater, as they have plans to move to a new, bigger, proper site! They are seeking funding, so if you can contribute go here.

Right then… UK residents and visitors: you need to go here! Badly! Get off the blog and go now. If it is a Saturday/Sunday (the cramped industrial estate location only allows the public then).

Otherwise just stew and imagine how much fun you could be having checking out crocodiles. I cruelly posted this on a Tuesday to ensure thorough marination of any croc-geeks.

Muhaha!  ;-)

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Today I’m doing something a bit unusual for this blog, but which very comfortably fits within its theme. Enough talking about my papers and media appearances and such. Too much self-indulgence, I feel. I want to talk about someone else. And then I will get back to the usual business of this blog: sharing the joy of cool anatomy, with a Mystery Dissection/Image post that is long overdue. Yet first, I wish to share the joy of knowing a cool anatomist– and artist.

One of my great shames as a scientist is that I never cultivated some decent artistic skills that I had as a young boy. And now as an anatomist I feel that my work often suffers from a lack of artistic talent (e.g. the image below, which still makes me hang my head in shame). In addition to scientific know-how, anatomy, when done best, demands the eyes and the hands of an artist. I might have the eyes but I definitely lack the hands. I envy people that have both; Julia Molnar from my team is but one example. And for me, encountering them is always a special delight. What follows is my personal perspective on one of the shining stars in the field.

Right ischium (hip bone) of an adult ostrich in side view, showing some muscle origins and stuff, with a 1cm scale bar. Cringe. My amateurish line drawing. I hate it and wish I'd done better.

Right ischium (hip bone; pelvis/synsacrum) of an adult ostrich in side view, showing some muscle origins and stuff, with a 1cm scale bar. Cringe. My boring, amateurish, pixelly line drawing from a paper on pelvic evolution. I hate it and wish I’d done better.

Mieke Roth is a scientific illustrator from the Netherlands, with a Masters degree from the prestigious and hallowed halls of Wageningen University Her homepage has the tagline “Complex processes beautifully revealed”. This is a wonderfully succinct and eloquent way to describe the magic that she is able to conjure with her skills in scientific illustration. Her “Ultimate Croc Anatomy” project will be the greatest weaving of that sorcery yet. That project is described and will be documented on this page, and has an Indiegogo crowdfunding page here. Mieke describes its goals best:

“I will meticulously dissect a Nile crocodile and document it. I will share the dissection in text, illustrations and video via my website. I will process the data I gathered and each time build a new part of the digital crocodile. From there I will adapt the model for illustrations, books, animations and apps.”

I first became a happy victim of the artistic spells that Mieke casts when I saw her blog entry “How to make an octopus,” which you absolutely must read if you have not already or else you’ll be firmly spanked and sent away from this blog with only lumps of coal in your freezer for Freezermas (what’s Freezermas? Find out soon, and in the meantime be nice– or else!). In her post, Mieke didn’t just look up a picture of an octopus somewhere and redraw it in an abstract, schematic, flat and deceptively simplified way. She went and did her own hands-on research by dissecting an octopus, and then described the steps in converting those observations into a brilliantly novel set of digital illustrations that really brought octopus anatomy to life.

Octopus image by Mieke Roth

Octopus image by Mieke Roth

Part of what first mesmerized me is that this whole investigative and creative process was lovingly documented on her blog. In doing this, Mieke played the roles of both scientist and artist, by displaying the mundane-but-wonderful labour she did to come up with her final, gorgeous results, and the passion, dedication, scholarship and originality that make her stand head and shoulders above so many gifted scientific or medical illustrators. This thrilled me at both visceral and intellectual levels. It literally gave me chills to witness how good the final product was. As I write this and look back on that blog again, months later, I still feel the magic.

So then I started browsing around her homepage and became punch-drunk from repeated blows of amazement—again and again and again the quality and novelty and thoroughness leaped off the computer screen. Images of nature that I thought I knew well, such as the growth of a chick into a chicken (really great blog here documenting this with sketches), were conveyed in a way that made me see them as if for the first time, with joy and wonder. In the space of a day, I became a huge Mieke Roth fan.

little_chicken

Young chicken sketched by Mieke Roth

And now Mieke is taking it not just a notch, but a huge step, to spend a year documenting the anatomy of the Nile crocodile—how cool is that!?! As an expert in the postcranial anatomy of the Crocodylia, I can confidently state that the available scientific literature on the subject is patchy in coverage and often poor in quality by modern standards. There are big flashes of excellence here and there, such as Larry Witmer’s and Chris Brochu’s teams’ very thorough work on head and neck anatomy, or Colleen Farmer’s and Emma Schachner’s studies of lung morphology. But then I glance at some scholarly books (to avoid offending, I will not cite them here) that are supposed to be key references on the complete anatomy of Crocodylia and I frankly am left cold. While there is some superb work from the 1800s (Gadow, Fürbringer and others come immediately to mind), it is in the flat, often colourless style which the printing technology of that age imposed upon those great masters of anatomy. And while there is superb work by Romer, a tome on the Chinese alligator and a few others, again they tend to be limited to line drawings or spotty coverage of various anatomical systems. We need a visionary with both the scientific and artistic skill to make a subject that could seem dry or arcane become miraculous and accessible. I think you can guess whom I have in mind.

I can think of no one better suited to the ambitious goals and demands of the Ultimate Croc Anatomy project than Mieke Roth. She combines the attention to anatomical detail of a classical 19th century anatomist with the technical wizardry of a modern digital artist. She will have a supportive team of experts to ensure the content is exceptional and up-to-date. I’ll be one of them (and the crocs will come from my freezer), because of my enthusiasm for  the project, and I’ve been helping to recruit others. So I urge you not just to join in her crowdfunding effort to carry out a very worthy and exciting project that the world can share, but also to share the joy I had in discovering her work by browsing her online collection of awesomeness. I predict that many of you will feel the power of her spell and become Mieke Roth fans, too, if you are not fortunate enough to be one yet.

sq-monkey

Squirrel monkey drawing by Mieke Roth

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A quick report on an exciting event for my team, from this week: We got a box! A big one! With 10 frozen crocodiles.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5 out of 10. Just 1 picture with some blood.

 

These come from a breeding centre in southern France, and died of natural causes. Here is a little, icy box of five Crocodylus moreletii, a species that has featured here before:

And five young Nile crocodiles (remember WCROC?), one of which seems to have had an uncomfortable encounter with a larger relative:

Science shall blossom from their demise.

The end.

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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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There’s no better way to kick things off after a holiday than with a celebration of the Inside Nature’s Giants series, which I had a small part in early on, including these shots I took during the time they spent filming at the RVC >3 years ago (!?!?); most of these animals spent multiple holidays inside The Freezers:

Elephant arriving…

Elephant revealed

Private moment with elephant

Stunning emergence of The Guts

So you are impressed by the guts too, ehh? It was pretty amazing to watch it happen. The tension was intense- the animal had been dead for a while and was rather bloated. So cutting it open was a task gingerly taken…

Bloated elephant

RVC dissector Richard Prior stuck a scalpel in the upper abdomen when the time was right… the piercing whistle and the sulphuric odour silenced the crowd watching… and then quickly out came the guts.

Everyone was pretty amazed by the scale.

The guts just went on and on…

Not a 1-person job by any means.

Spreading them out to see the whole GI tract.

I waited patiently and watched the show filming; what a great, professional crew. Then I got to take the legs away for our research.

But not just elephants, no sirree! The Windfall Films/ING team filmed giraffe, crocodile and big cats episodes (4 total) at the RVC too; a crazy period of a few weeks (including a major blizzard that hit us during the croc filming) in 2009. Some of the stars follow:

Frozen lion waiting for CT scan, shot 1

Frozen lion waiting for CT scan, leg shot

Frozen lion waiting for CT scan, shot 2; eerily contorted pose

Frozen tiger waiting for CT scan, shot 1

Frozen tiger waiting for CT scan, shot 2

Frozen tiger waiting for CT scan, shot 3

…and here is the tiger’s head after scanning

…and I’m rather fond of that tiger’s neck– check out the hyoids (roaring/tongue apparatus in throat; bottom of movie)!

…and here is the adult Nile crocodile’s head after scanning

…and another view of that big Nile croc, just because I like how this reconstruction turned out

…and here’s one of the small (~1m long, 10kg) juvenile Nile crocodiles from the show, with a pilot CT scan showing the skeleton nicely- and possibly a last meal or stomach stone on the left side of the abdomen (bright white blob; I need to check this now that we’ve dissected it)

Foetal giraffe; stillborn; from the show, in process of dissection in our lab to measure its limb anatomy. Trust me, it looked –and smelled– better on the inside than it did from the outside. Eew.

How most of the specimens from the first 4 episodes ended up after all dissection was done (part of my/RVC’s collection of skeletons). Sadly, I did not get great photos of the 3.7m Nile crocodile or the two giraffes before they were reduced to bits, but I do have the skeletons and CT scans.

Giving a tour (including The Freezers) to A Certain Esteemed Visitor.

(Another) Gratuitous shot with one of the sweet old Red Kangaroos at Alma Park Zoo near Brisbane, Australia. Experiments on hopping we did there will be briefly featured in the new Inside Nature’s Giants show on Channel 4, 16 April @2000- details at http://t.co/SkjsMeVC.

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