Posts Tagged ‘anatomy’

In early 2011, I got a fun email from a producer at National Geographic TV about a new project they were planning, which involved dissecting a full-scale model of a Tyrannosaurus rex in a documentary to be called “T. rex Autopsy.” Things fell silent for some months, then I got another email saying they were moving forward, then things fell silent again. Three and a half years later I got another email, this time from a producer at Impossible Factual films (working with NatGeo), saying that the show was finally moving forward for real. (This sort of thing is normal for documentaries; time scales can be long and unpredictable, or very fast-paced) This email invited me to be a primary scientific consultant in the design of the creature and show. Of course, anatomical dissection and T. rex are what I’m about as a scientist; two of my major research areas; so bringing them together was like a dream come true and I leapt into that dream with enthusiasm.

(Meanwhile, circa 2010-11, another TV channel filmed me for a different programme in which a whole, fresh-ish T. rex was found weathering out of an Alaskan cliffside and scientists had ~2 days to study it before it fell into an abyss– it’s probably best that that show never happened… there were fundamental flaws.)

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10. Merciful. No images here, just text descriptions, for various reasons. The TV show is not for small children, though. I am guessing that the final programme will be about a 7/10 SCR because of gooey, seemingly rancid, but rubbery (so it doesn’t look overly real, but still looks great) dinosaur vital organs. For pictures, see the links to tweets, trailers and news stories below.

I introduced T. rex Autopsy to you in the previous post, I’ve been tweeting and retweeting extensively since then, and one of my later posts will be a “postmortem” of the show, which airs June 7 worldwide. My feeling is that, if what I’ve seen so far is indicative of the whole show, it will be a landmark moment in palaeontological documentary history. T. rex Autopsy fuses the best aspects of “Inside Nature’s Giants” with “Walking With Dinosaurs”, and without “Alien Autopsy” pseudoscience. Indeed, it seems to be a very science-based documentary (once you get past the requisite conceit that scientists could actually find a very fresh T. rex body– that’s the only sci-fi bit of the show, quickly dispensed with!). T. rex Autopsy is packed with evidence-based palaeobiology, and has consistently been so since I first spoke to producers, which was a great comfort to me.

This post is about my role in the show, my perspective on it, and an attempt at a spoiler-free prelude. I’m willing to go out on a limb a bit and urge people to watch it, because I’m already proud of what was attempted in the show– it was a bold vision by NatGeo and laborious execution by everyone involved. I especially want to give a big shout of respect out to creature designers Crawley Creatures (led by Jez Crawley, who helped create Jabba the Hutt and the Dark Crystal beings, among others). Around 14 people on Jez’s team worked full time for ~4 months to make the T. rex. The designers based the proportions on the Field Museum’s scans of “Sue”, which I helped them get access to (I’d used them for our PLOS ONE paper in 2011). That, and numerous comments on their draft dinosaur’s body proportions and limb positions (e.g. avoiding “bunny hands“), was some of my first major involvement in the programme.

Over 200 emails (I was curious; I counted them!) and a bunch of phone calls and 7 months later, my input on the T. rex Autopsy film shoot and production was finishing. Just last week, I sent what supposedly was my last email of input on the show, about predatory habits (NOT the dumb scavenger debate we’re all tired of; more about ambush vs. pursuit habits). I’d spent many hours going over drafts of T. rex‘s anatomy and function and behaviour from head to tail with the superb Impossible Factual film production team (mainly Assistant Producer Cressida Kinnear). Very often, to their credit, they’d already done a lot of literature searching and speaking with key experts on dinosaur jaws or brains or breathing, so I just had to check the fine details, but in some cases I had to recommend experts to speak to and/or do my own sleuthing and educate myself about aspects of T. rex biology I’d never pondered much.

For example, how big was T. rex‘s heart? I’d been asked the same question about sauropods lately for another show so I had references and an Excel spreadsheet ready to go, and plugged in some values, but the estimates I got seemed too small relative to the thoracic cavity (mediastinum if you must). I had some interesting back-and-forth discussions with the producers and we settled on one size that seemed “right”. No one that I knew of had tried to scientifically estimate the size of a T. rex‘s heart, probably because there hadn’t been a good reason to try. Sauropods get all the dino-love in regards to blood pressure issues and heart size, for good reasons- for them, it should have been a serious biomechanical challenge to pump blood up the long neck to the brain. For an elephant-sized T. rex, it doesn’t boggle the scientific mind so much that blood pressure wasn’t such a major evolutionary design constraint. See the show and find out more about what the intrepid team of dissectors found…

Did T. rex have feathers? This was important to get right, I felt, and not just show T. rex as a leathery or scaly beast, which is outdated. As I put it, it’s more speculative to show T. rex without any feathery thingies than to show it with some. We passed around draft images and thoughts and agreed on a slightly fuzzy, bristly body, especially in some regions of the head/neck, arms and tail tip. I encouraged the design team to go for more colour (I wrote to the designers “Skin colouring: go nuts! Feathery things should be colourful. Big animals tend to be more drab in colour but that doesn’t mean a boring grey/green, and certainly there should be some regional patterning. I like the idea of there being brightly coloured areas on the face”). We can be confident that dinosaurs could see colour like most land animals (except many mammals!) can. All of this is pretty familiar to palaeo-artists and fans of modern dinosaur reconstructions, so I won’t belabour it more. I’m glad that much of this made it into the final design. It’s not your overly familiar Jurassic Park T. rex.

Cheeks, eye pupils, brain/senses, how big a mouthful of meat it could swallow, furcula (wishbone), gastralia (belly ribs- I gave a lot of detailed criticism here), reproductive anatomy and biology, eggs, body fat, growth, air sacs, stomach, and excretory system, among other things: we covered them all in discussing the dino’s design, and I learned a lot along the way.

A memorable part of my discussions with the designers, in early March, was about the intestines and cloaca (rear-end opening): they initially put the cloaca too far forward on the body, I got them to move it backward, then I later realized in a panic that, making a neophyte error, I’d missed a key anatomical feature in the hips that clearly would put the “vent” even further backward, so I send them a hasty email apologizing that I’d missed this and urging that they fix their graphics and animations. I felt bad about this as it was late in the design phase and I’m sure I stressed out the team to make this change, but I thought it would be embarrassing to get the position of that hole wrong. Yet it was also funny to me to be scrutinizing where the “poop hole” of a dinosaur should go, and worrying so much about getting it right… my scatological sense of humour was in overdrive. By the middle of March they had this detail right. Phew!

There is another dinosaur that makes an appearance in the documentary but I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that one dinosaur from another time period and continent was initially chosen, and I (echoed by Dave Hone, I know) urged them not to do that, choosing a more appropriate Hell Creek Formation dinosaur. Phew! Perhaps more about that later.

Finally, of course we talked about legs and muscles and locomotion. I was filmed at the RVC discussing this, and it looks like it will be a cool segment, including an explanation of how the bones reveal the anatomy of the soft tissues of limbs and other parts of the body (i.e. bread-and-butter from my PhD thesis work). I hope that makes the final cut! (Edit: I’m told it has; yay!) There may even be footage of me dissecting a chicken and talking about enlarged and reduced leg muscles in birds, in any “making of” side-programme.

But I was not one of the four people doing the T. rex dissections in the show. That arduous job (2 looooooong days of filming!) fell to vet Luke Gamble and palaeontologists Tori Herridge, Steve Brusatte and Matthew Mossbrucker, with a crew of assistants including some from Crawley Creatures. The clever idea the producers had, as they explained it to me, was to keep my and others’ scientific input on the show’s design separate from the dissectors’ knowledge, so that when the dissection team arrived and cut into the dinosaur, they’d be discovering things without much advance inside knowledge of what to expect to find. We’ll see how that worked when the programme airs– I’ve only seen the trailer and behind-the-scences footage, as well as the first day of filming. Scientists like me aren’t Shakespearean actors so it’s hard to act surprised when you sort of know what’s coming and have to redo takes of that same surprise. But if you come to T. rex Autopsy expecting Oscar-worthy theatrics, you’ve missed the point. :-)

A taxi drove me to Pinewood Studios (west of London; site of filming many blockbusters) on a Sunday morning in late April. I walked into the giant studio where a 12+ meter long T. rex carcass lay in dramatic lighting. Cue the freezing of my giant grin in place and my eyes wide open. I was stunned! It was gorgeous, and the scale of the carcass left me gobsmacked. I’d only seen various incarnations of it during the design phase, from wire mesh scale models to clay sculptures to full-on foam casts and CGI representations; and all of these just as digital files emailed to me. But to see “Edwina,” as she was called, in the pseudo-flesh, was a moment I may never forget. Emailed JPGs definitely didn’t prepare me for that visual splendour. Crawley’s team were still inserting some of the last ~20,000 goose feathers as bristles into the hide, one by one…

I was at Pinewood to spend a day hobnobbing with VIPs and international press visitors as a “tour guide” to the Edwina autopsy event, and then for a day to watch the initial half of filming with the press in a room overlooking the studio. I got excellent hospitality, was called the “on-screen talent” in documents, which felt really weird to me (I’d never been called that in >10 shows before), and I spent a lot of time explaining the show and dinosaur science to that receptive, inquisitive audience. And gawking at the unfolding spectacle before and during filming. And cracking jokes with journalists during long breaks between actual filming of the documentary. It was a surreal, awesome experience and I loved it. (And, as I’ve insisted scientists in documentaries are, I got paid for it.)

This documentary was a blast to be involved in and challenged all my skills as a dinosaur expert and biologist as well as a fan of documentaries, monster movies and anatomical artistry! I give a big hat-tip to NatGeo for taking the plunge on this adventure in the first place, to the amazing creature creators, to the film and production crew, to the many jovial journalists I met, and to the four faux-bloodied, surely exhausted dissectors starring in the show– and to Edwina. This was an impressive collaboration drawing together the best that the media, monster-makers and an international team of scientists (aside from the ones I’ve mentioned already, many others too!) can do together. I feel lucky to have been involved, and I think I’ll be looking back on this event as a highlight of my career, especially as a science communicator; much like consulting on Inside Nature’s Giants is a highlight.

I’m as excited as anyone to see how it turns out. Just 2.5 weeks to go — are you excited too? What would you want to see in a T. rex dissection? Where would your first cut be if you did the dissection? “Jurassic World”, what’s that?

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This week was a great week for me and giant dinosaurs in many ways, so I’m sharing that experience via photos and a bit of backstory. I hope you like it.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10. Big birds and bones but no barfing.

First, I attended the filming of a new documentary, “T. rex Autopsy” (due for release on 7 June on NatGeo TV, just in time to steal the thunder of get you excited for Jurassic World), on the edge of London. I’m allowed to post these two photos of it. Expect much, much more information later– and I think you will like that information when it comes! Not quite a 50′ tall bird, but… So. Damn. Cool.



Second, my team and I dissected a big animal I’ve mentioned here before. For various reasons, I won’t/can’t post images or details of it right now, but I hope to soon. It’s not a dinosaur, but it was giant as its kind goes, so I’m wedging it in here.

Third, and this is the main impetus for my post, I finally got to see the giant chicken! No, not this one that I recall from my childhood…


But this one! A 50’/13m tall chicken made by teacher Ben Frimet’s team of students and teachers at the City of London Academy!

Shortly after my first encounter.

Shortly after my first encounter. I’m still in a state of awed shock. And shadow.

The megachicken was unveiled at a “Chickenfest” event celebrating the sculpture’s completion. Chickenfest also prominently involved members of the “Chicken Coop” team who have drawn together scientists, humanities scholars, artists and more to investigate “Cultural & Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions” — more details here. Their theme helped unite the event’s various displays and lectures as well as some of the City of London Academy’s teaching topics, which inspired students to look at chickens from many angles. The event was so fun and truly integrative that it had me clucking with joy, but the anatomically accurate giant chicken art piece stole the show (as intended). Enjoy the photo tour below.

Giant Chicken 5

Pelvic/thigh region! (no patella, but hey)

Giant Chicken 6

Great views from up to 3 storeys around it.

Giant Chicken 3 Giant Chicken 4 Giant Chicken 7 Giant Chicken 8 Giant Chicken 9

Little chickens made of fast-food forks and stuff.

Little chickens made of fast-food forks and stuff. Very clever.

Chicken bones

One of our research chickens, a 30-day-old broiler, skeletonized by the Chicken Coop team and brought to the event. Chunky and funky!

Our RVC chicken research team (postdocs/fellows Drs. Heather Paxton, Jeffery Rankin, Diego Pereira-Neves) presented a stall with motion capture and chicken bones, like this fun identification display.

Our RVC chicken research team (postdocs/fellows Drs. Heather Paxton, Jeffery Rankin, Diego Pereira Neves) presented a stall with motion capture demos and chicken bones, like this fun identification display.

What will happen to that giant chicken art piece? This is yet to be determined, and was the question asked of the lecture panel (including me, who gave a lame answer involving King’s Cross’s birdcage). It was unanimous that it must not be destroyed– as long as it does not go on a destructive rampage through London…

One of my favourite films of my teenage years, Beastmaster, lends me a phrase I’ll throw out here like a razor-edged boomerang-thing: “Life is a circle. We will meet again.” And so, at the Chickenfest event, past and present worlds collided. I happened to be there presenting a talk just before Luis Rey. Almost exactly 13 years ago, Luis had done this classic T. rex vs. giant chicken race for my “T. rex was not a fast runner” paper in Nature. He likewise has blogged about the Chickenfest event, so check that out!

T. rex vs. chicken race, by Luis Rey

Coincidentally, there was ANOTHER 50′ tall bird placed not far from that giant chicken in southeast London this week, for a very different reason- a huge Norwegian Blue parrot in celebration of the Monty Python reunion! And I’ve been a Monty Python fan since age ~11, so that rocks my world two times over.



Two giant birds in London in one week. It doesn’t get any better than that– unless there were three such birds– if I missed one, chime in in the Comments!

(Edit: British friends tell me I must refer to an Alan Partridge skit here, so I am doing so. I know when to do as I’m told.)

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Coddling Caudals

Think of a region of general mammalian anatomy. You’re probably not thinking of the tail. We’re mammals and yet have reduced ours to a puny coccyx embedded in muscle and fat. It’s an alien organ to us. Let’s face it, the tail gets the short shrift when it comes to morphological, functional and evolutionary studies in tetrapod vertebrates. There are notable exceptions such as in studies of prehensile tails or the role of the tail in cetacean locomotion, but broadly we know far less about the caudal vertebrae of mammals than we do about heads or limbs or some other bits. It is timely to coddle caudals: to talk about tails, not turn tail and run rostrally. This post wags its tail affectionately at the topic.

No blog post on tails is complete without a photo of the business end of Euoplocephalus's (Ankylosauria) caudals.

No blog post on tails is complete without a photo of the business end of Euoplocephalus’s (Ankylosauria) caudals.


Thagomizer of Stegosaurus. But of course!

Stomach-Churning Rating: well, there are some rancid emu butts, so I’m giving a 7/10; but otherwise mostly just line drawings.

My team has done a bit of work trying to better appreciate the tail as part of our expanded emphasis on the evolutionary morphology and biomechanics of the vertebral column; not just limbs as I was used to. Former PhD student Michael Pittman did his whole thesis on the evolution of tail form and function in dinosaurs, publishing a nice PLOS paper on theropod tail evolution, with other cool stuff in the pipeline. Pittman visited our lab recently with collaborator Heinrich Mallison to gather new data on the tails of archosaurs, focusing on Nile crocodiles and emus as an initial phylogenetic bracket. In my team’s prior work, we’d dabbled with theropod tails, focusing on the caudofemoralis muscle of theropod dinosaurs like T. rex, and on the size of the tail and its effects on the body’s centre of mass, following up on super-duper classic work by my mentor Steve Gatesy. So we have some caudal street cred, but we don’t have the tiger by the tail. (Hang in there, I’m going to milk the tail puns here!)

Don’t be afraid to touch the tail pics- they lead to bigger versions.

Mallison and Pittman know how to coddle caudals!

Mallison and Pittman know how to coddle caudals!

"Emu butt"- the tail is hidden in the smelly bulb of fat on the left side.

“Emu butt”- the tail is hidden in the smelly bulb of fat on the left side.

Bending an emu tail to measure its stiffness.

Bending an emu tail to measure its mobility.

Emu tail bones: our collection

Emu tail bones: our collection

I was inspired to write this post because of Michael’s visit, which gave me the opportunity to shoot some deliriously disgusting images of “emu butts” during the dissections and CT scans, but also got me thinking more about tails. And as usual, I poked around the literature looking for tall tales of tails.

I ran across one of those great review papers that is fodder for a hundred or more research projects: “The mammalian tail: a review of functions” (1979) by Graham C. Hickman (Mammal Review 9(4): 143-157. The rest of this post reviews his review.

Hickman, like I do here, starts off by reminding us of the tail’s neglect in science; e.g. “modifications of caudal vertebrae such as lengthened zygapophyses and neural spines are not as striking as the flexibility shown in the changing length and fusing of limb bones.” True that, but Hickman adds the great turn of phrase “A rodent chewing off its leg to escape a trap seems much more of an extreme than chewing off the tail, though it has four legs and but one tail.” Then he runs through a general overview of the diversity of tail forms and functions in mammals, with plenty of citations of older literature (there’s bound to be much to find in the tailings from the goldmine of 1800s German morphology papers, too).

What would a giant anteater look like without its tail? Odd indeed.


Mammalian tails range from four caudals in us freakish humans (does no mammal naturally have fewer, or have truly lost the tail? I wonder if anything has been missed) to fifty in pangolins (huzzah!). Breeds of dogs seem not to vary as much in terms of tail bone count as I’d expect: 20-23. But Hickman’s mention of Thorington’s (1970) study showing that mouse embryos raised at higher temperatures develop longer tails grabbed me… and reminded me of groundbreaking work that RVC PhD student Andrea Pollard is doing with temperature effects on bird and crocodile limbs (stay tuned).

Figure 2 in Hickman (1979) was what grabbed me most, depicting tail disparity in mammals. It’s a figure that gets your tail thumping. Check it out:


Anatomical disparity of mammalian tails! A, Black Rat; B, 9-banded Armadillo; C, Grey Squirrel; D, Horse; E, Fallow Deer; F, Wooly Spider Monkey; G, Coatimundi; H, Beaver; I, Bottle-nosed Whale; J, Manatee; K, Flying Squirrel; L, Fat-tailed Gerbil; M, Scaly-tailed Squirrel, N, Plains Pocket Gopher; O, Porcupine; P, Grey Kangaroo; Q, Naked Sand-rat; R, Big Brown Bat; S, Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat; T, anonymous Glyptodont; U, Ceylon Shrew.


Hickman continues on to consider tail functions and behaviours, commenting that most bipedal mammals have long tails whereas humans buck the trend. Pangolins and anteaters get due mention here, but I really liked the factoid that “Beavers occasionally walk bipedally with an armload of mud” (p.145).

Mammals, like other vertebrates, that have substantial tails tend to use them for locomotor support at least when moving slowly, and Hickman lists kangaroos+kin, anteaters, pangolins and beavers as examples of mammals that thus use their tails as “fifth limbs”. But there are stranger tail functions in mammals than this ancestral tail-prop role. The bat Nycteris has a singular tail that ends in a “T”, bracing the uropatagium (tail-leg membrane).

Lovely kangaroo sculpt/skeleton from the incomparable comparative anatomy museum in Paris.

Lovely kangaroo sculpt/skeleton from the incomparable comparative anatomy museum in Paris.

However, some mammals also don’t use their tails the way we might expect- the platypus (Ornithorhynchus) doesn’t power its swimming with its tail so much as it uses it for stabilization, according to Hickman; paddling with the limbs seems more important (but this could use some modern scientific study using proper hydrodynamic testing). Yet they do use their tails to tamp the earth of their burrows and, curling them up to their belly, to bring in vegetation and such to provision their nests, as well as using their tails as energy stores (like many animals do). In contrast, beavers don’t transport much with their flat tails, whereas the more prehensile tails of pangolins may be used for carrying their babies.


Hickman notes how few mammals use their tails as weapons to harm others, although he properly brings up glyptodonts as a counter-example.  And then comes the striking description of how, by a “grinding motion of the tail against the body” a pangolin “almost severed the fore paw of a dog.” (p.148) And then, other mammals do the opposite of tail weaponry: Hickman cites that some 15 species of rodents can shed their tails (autotomy) as a defense, and like salamanders or lizards, regenerate them. Autophagy (self tail-cannibalism), however, Hickman rightly infers is a pathological, desperate condition, not a normal adaptation in mammals.

Big glyptodont tail club!

Big Glyptodon tail club!

More glyptodont tail clubs!

More glyptodont tail clubs! Neosclerocalyptus

Giant armadillo, showing glyptodont-lite version of the tail.

Giant armadillo Priodontes, showing glyptodont-lite version of the tail.

Need to motivate a rat to solve a maze puzzle or eat food? Pinching the tail had been shown to help, Hickman explains. This fits with the more obvious role of the tail in mammalian communication, including scent-marking. Here, Hickman notes that rather than using scent glands, hippos take the feces way out and just whip their tails around while pooping to spread their perfume. Which the internet knows well…

And then, finally, Hickman gets to the Rat Kings, which had me incredulous at first… but there are a bunch of references, so… What’s a Rat King? A “ball” of rats (from 3 to 32 of them!) with their tails tangled together for “group cohesion”, fabled in European stories for centuries but possibly “a frequent phenomenon” (p.152). An explanation for this phenomenon, Hickman explains, is confinement of rat in enclosed spaces where their tails do get entangled, only to be “found during a cold part of year, usually as a result of loud squealing noises which drew attention to the hide-away.”(p.153) In surveying the amusing range of explanations through history for Rat Kings (“itchy tails”?), Hickman relents and concludes “perhaps the tails of Rat Kings function best as cocktail discussion.” I concur—and append blogging discussion to that!


Tails you win, pre-caudals you lose, but Hickman’s review article is full of win! There’s plenty more of interest in there. I hope you enjoyed the look back at this classic paper, and at the tales that tails tell. This is the tale end.

I’ll let Ray get your caudals shakin’ as we depart:

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Owing Owen

It’s Darwin Day 2015 (or will be shortly), and also on this blog it’s Freezermas, a time of contemplative dissection of morphology and its history. This year I won’t be doing the crazy 7 posts in 7 days that I’ve done before (see 14 past ones here), and I won’t be doing a customary homage to Darwin. Instead, I’m dedicating today’s post to Richard Owen, oft characterized as Darwin’s greatest nemesis. Blasphemy? Nah. I’m a Darwin fan, sure, but today Owen gets his due from me. This post is like a “Top ten things you didn’t know about Richard Owen” post, but without the list, and some of them might be things you know, and I’m not even sure if there are ten of them, but they tend to be about Richard Owen. I feature a bunch of Owen’s papers’ coolest artwork, with links to the free versions of those papers, too. Bone up!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10 for woodcuts that would otherwise be graphic. 7+/10 for rabid Darwin fans.

Owen was one of greatest (vertebrate) anatomists ever, if not the greatest (Alfred Romer gives him a run for his money in my opinion, but was less of a conceptual revolutionary). He was a key player in the divorce of the Natural History Museum from the British Museum and thus its move to its current South Kensington home in London as well as its autonomy and rise to scientific and cultural prominence. Hence, like today’s post’s title indicates, we owe Owen a lot as morphologists and as fans of biology (i.e. natural history). Indeed, his contributions are often undersold in deference to Darwin’s, and in service to a conventional narrative (written by the victorious Darwinians) in which he plays a villainous role. Even if one cannot admire the man as a touchy-feely kind of dude, his work demands respect and historiographic justice.


I was inspired to write this post after reading a biography of Richard Owen some months ago: “Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin, a revised edition”. It’s a fascinating read, and makes some points that challenged my naïve views of the history of biology, especially evolution and Victorian science. Author Nicolaas Rupke hammers home that pro-Darwin propaganda relegated Owen to a more minor and infamous position in the history of science than he deserved, defaming him as a cold-hearted, scheming, inconsistent jerk. This biography admits truth to Owen lacking some social graces and playing tough politics sometimes, but reminds us of his eminence in British science, which reverberated globally and was in no small part due to his determined drive and strategic rigour. I recommend the book to any fans of natural history and science, especially morphology. Indeed, Rupke’s 2009 edition was released in paperback for the Darwinian centennial, as an abridgement of his 1994 book. If you want to know more about Rupke’s 2009 book, there are informative reviews by Switek here and Lynch here. This biography humanizes Owen and casts away some of the demonizing. Scandalous snippets of Darwinians politicking against Owen are memorable– e.g. Owen’s “contest against the surrounding agencies” was a predecessor to Darwin’s “struggle for existence” and natural selection, which Darwin downplayed (Rupke, pp.157,169-171).

As Rupke’s work emphasizes, Owen was a pre-Darwininan evolutionary biologist, not a creationist. He devised an “axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things” that qualifies as evolutionist, but not transmutationist. He had ideas about evolution that just seem odd to a post-Darwinian mind, especially an “internalist” driving mechanism for evolution (something about the embryo that causes evolution to proceed; not a primarily external, environmental impetus as Darwin favoured), leading to orderly patterns of evolution, not the higgledy-piggledy bushy evolution of Darwin and his successors (e.g. Gould). To a modern evolutionary morphologist, Owen’s “transcendental morphology” echoes of earlier continental European work by Oken (& fellow Germanics), Cuvier (& fellow French) and others, and as such often feels strange – even mystically religious (pantheistic) or unscientific. And, like many Victorians, the idea of apes including, and a subset being ancestral to, humans repulsed Owen. That revulsion seems to have clouded his judgement on the scientific matters involved, which he famously sparred over with Thomas Huxley.

Forelimbs of Archaeopteryx compared with falcon, Pterodactylus, and humerus of a raven (left to right). From: Owen, R. (1863). On the Archéoptéryx of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 33-47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/108788 FREE!

Forelimbs of Archaeopteryx compared with falcon, Pterodactylus, and humerus of a raven (left to right). Owen classifed the former as a bird, with potential relationships to pterosaurs (Rupke, pp.175-6); Darwinians like Huxley instead saw the dinosaurian, reptilian ancestry.
Owen, R. (1863). On the Archéoptéryx of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 33-47.

However, we can credit Owen- like Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hiliare in France- as an early “evo-devo” scientist trying to link transformation across lineages with developmental mechanisms. We can also celebrate Owen as one of the foremost early champions of the study of osteology as a worthy scientific pursuit in and of itself. Much of Rupke’s biography is structured to focus on the institutional structures that Owen played such a pivotal role in creating, especially the curated collections of the Natural History Museum (which Owen spent ~1856-1881 fighting to establish as its own facility!). Owen’s vast monographs on Cretaceous Reptilia, the flightless moa (e.g. Dinornis; with papers covering 40 years of research that continued almost up until Owen’s demise) and odd Gondwanan mammals of the Australian colonies (many of these specimens having been shipped to the museum by Darwin for Owen’s own studies) cement his status as an integrative collections-based researcher who did not eschew palaeontological research “because biologists don’t do that”, or some such divisive nonsense that we still encounter today.

Skull of a crocodile, exploded to show homologies of the bones; and a forelimb for added context. From: Richard Owen, Report on the archetype and homologies of the vertebrate skeleton. BAAS. https://archive.org/details/reportonarchetyp00owen FREE!

Skull of a crocodile, exploded to show homologies of the bones; and a forelimb for added context.
Richard Owen, Report on the archetype and homologies of the vertebrate skeleton. BAAS.

Foetal skeleton of a human, with skull exploded for comparison of homologies. From Owen 1847 as above.

Foetal skeleton of a human, with skull exploded for comparison of homologies.
From Owen 1847 as above.

Speaking of palaeontology, and science communication, 1841 was when Owen coined the “Dinosauria”, tying together disparate forms such as Hylaeosaurus, Megalosaurus and Iguanodon by the recognition that they were not “typical reptiles” but rather advanced in many distinct ways (e.g. locomotor adaptations) that united them as a group. We owe a lot to that early recognition, which was no facile achievement considering how fragmentary most of the early (pre-“Bone Wars”) dinosaur fossil discoveries were. Like Darwin, Owen realized that the giant ground sloths that he described (and Darwin found many of during his Beagle voyage), such as Megatherium, were related animals, too, and in this case having extant relatives.

Most broadly, within comparative biology, Owen searched for the principles of and codified the concept he called homology, which was part of his very French/Germanic quest for “unity of type” as an fairly essentialist (but not always Platonic, as Rupke cautions- pp. 126-7,130), typological (even teleological?) principle underlying common themes in comparative anatomy. His tome on the “archetype” and vertebral components of the skull (see pics above) is lavishly detailed and a challenging but rewarding read, with fascinating (even if sometimes quite wrong) ideas about homologous parts of vertebrate heads. Again, Owen’s work in comparative anatomy easily became an integral part of evolutionary theory– homology as a consequence of (and reciprocally, evidence for) common ancestry featured prominently. As Rupke notes (p.179), “With little more than a flick of the fingers, Owen’s archetype could be turned into an ancestor.”

Tail sheath/club of Meiolania! from Owen, R. (1888). On parts of the skeleton of Meiolania platyceps (Ow.). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B, 181-191. http://www.jstor.org/stable/91676 FREE!

Tail sheath/club of Meiolania! Reminiscent of this…
Owen, R. (1888). On parts of the skeleton of Meiolania platyceps (Ow.). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B, 181-191.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/91676 FREE!

Jawsome! Thylacoleo, marsupial lion. From: Richard Owen, Additional Evidence of the Affinities of the Extinct Marsupial Quadruped Thylacoleo carnifex (Owen). Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B: 1887; 178: 1-3 http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/178/1 FREE!

Thylacoleo, marsupial lion.
From: Richard Owen,
Additional Evidence of the Affinities of the Extinct Marsupial Quadruped Thylacoleo carnifex (Owen).
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B: 1887; 178: 1-3
http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/178/1 FREE!

This year (2015) is the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, in which Owen published key studies of exotic Gondwanan animals such as the giant, tail-clubbed early turtle Meiolania and the “marsupial lion” Thylacoleo (see pics above). Some of Owen’s most outstanding and earliest work, likewise published in Phil. Trans., concerned seemingly aberrant mammals like the platypus (Ornithorhynchus), whose egg-laying and milk-excreting organs he detailed in 1832-1834 (see pics below). Like so many of his discoveries, these detailed descriptions and gorgeous commissioned woodcut illustrations often were sound, groundbreaking work, and are still cited and comprehensible today. Yet Owen’s interpretations sometimes became re-evaluated in a Darwinian rather than transcendentalist light, ironically building the case for Darwinian-style evolution (transmutation). Was the platypus a mammal, reptile or bird? Owen correctly assigned it to the Mammalia and recognized its relationship with the spiny anteaters (echidnas), but today we understand it better as a member of an early branch off the mammalian stem that includes a broad diversity of other species such as the multituberculates. Brian Hall wrote a review of the history of the “platypus paradox” here— it’s a fascinating story.

"Areola" of the female platypus in the abdominal region, with embiggened version below. From: Richard Owen, On the Mammary Glands of the Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Vol. 122 (1832), pp. 517-538 http://www.jstor.org/stable/107974 FREE!

“Areola” of the female platypus in the abdominal region, with embiggened version below.
Richard Owen, On the Mammary Glands of the Ornithorhynchus paradoxus.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London
Vol. 122 (1832), pp. 517-538
http://www.jstor.org/stable/107974 FREE!

Dissection of a female platypus, showing the egg-laying apparatus. From: On the Ova of the Ornithorhynchus paradoxus Richard Owen Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Vol. 124 (1834), pp. 555-566. http://www.jstor.org/stable/108077 FREE!

Dissection of a female platypus, showing the egg-laying apparatus.
On the Ova of the Ornithorhynchus paradoxus
Richard Owen
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London
Vol. 124 (1834), pp. 555-566.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/108077 FREE!

As a PhD student of Prof. Kevin Padian, a Richard Owen afficionado and historian, I couldn’t escape awareness of Owen. His visage decorated many parts of Padian’s office and we were often reminded of Owen’s prodigious prowess (and his sly politics- e.g., his “Parthian shot” letter that Padian described). But I didn’t go back and read much Owen until recently, while researching the evolution of the avian patella with my own PhD student Sophie Regnault. Owen described a patella in the moa Dinornis, but we re-interpreted this as an ankle sesamoid bone (common in moa)– although the described fossil “patella” itself seems to have been lost. Then Owen’s patella research came up in a later, often vitriolic, debate (featuring the eminent bird anatomist Shufeldt as well as other scientists Jeffries and Gill) in Science magazine over what bones cormorants and other birds have in their knees– read more about it here. In perusing Owen’s moa and other anatomical work, I gained a deep appreciation for it and now I’m a fan. I even feel a special kinship with Owen– like me, various zoos sent him their specimens for scientific study via dissection, and he was an active science communicator. I’m sure he’d have appreciated my freezers. Not so sure about this blog…

Find the "patella"! From Professor Owen C.B., F.R.S., F.Z.S., &c. (1883), On Dinornis (Part XXIV.): containing a Description of the Head and Feet, with their dried Integuments, of an Individual of the species Dinornis didinus, Owen. The Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, 11: 257–261. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1096-3642.1883.tb00360.x/abstract FREE!

Find the “patella”!
From Professor Owen C.B., F.R.S., F.Z.S., &c. (1883), On Dinornis (Part XXIV.): containing a Description of the Head and Feet, with their dried Integuments, of an Individual of the species Dinornis didinus, Owen. The Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, 11: 257–261.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1096-3642.1883.tb00360.x/abstract FREE!

So that’s my ode to Owen, which lightly touches on highlights of his storied career. Opinions vary on how fun he would have been to quaff pints of ale with (what do you think?), but as fabled (if flawed) heroes of science go, he deserves the label, and morphologists should continue to imbibe and savour his scholarly works, seeking draughts of inspiration within their contents as gourmands of Owen-ia. With some 600 papers published by Owen, there’s surely more for us all to discover.

Morphologists and friends, what’s your favourite Owen paper and why? Speak up!

[If you remain silent, at least do that while reading some Owen today!]

And happy Darwin Day!

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Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10 for ambiguous sacks.

I mainly post here about my team’s research and interests, but today I felt like sharing something special and concrete: the contents of our freezers. They are not just John’s and there’s more than one freezer; thus there is room to share, within reason. So if you’re a researcher, especially in the UK/EU, needing unusual research specimens/tissue, you might want to contact me to use them. This blog’s posts summarize most of what I have available, and for security/other reasons I don’t want to get into deep detail here, but we sport a respectable collection of limbs/bodies of animals like:

Birds: ostriches, emus, broiler chickens, guineafowl, assortment of others.

Crocodiles: Nile, Osteolaemus, Morelet’s and some others (1 Melanosuchus, 1 normal Caiman).

Squamates: a monitor lizard or two and some other random lizards.

Amphibians: a few fire salamanders and such.

Mammals: of course, plenty of elephant bits (no ivory!), rhinos too (no horns!), giraffes, a dwarf forest buffalo, alpacas, deer, pieces of camels and zebras (feet etc.), wild cat species (no penises!) and a few other things. And then the usual assortment of veterinary species like cows and horses. A heavy focus on limb material– very few if any heads, torsos, etc.

This is in addition to a nice little comparative skeletal collection, focused on cleaned members of the above groups and a smattering of others. Nothing on the scale of RVC’s marvellous Anatomy Museum, but we’re young.

And two African land snail shells (inhabited) I was reminded of during a recent inventory… Here are some of my helpful helpers in that inventory extravaganza!


Especially if you’re searching for CT scan data (sooner or later these data will appear online; I want it to happen!), tissue samples for genetics or cell biology (if frozen is OK!), comparative anatomical specimens to inspect, or other uses of frozen anatomy (photography? other art? We’ve helped artists before!), the freezers might be able to help you! The less destructive, the better, but even some destructive analysis might be OK. We regularly accommodate visitors, either independent ones or collaborators, and I aim to provide good hospitality when I can accommodate them!

Get in touch with me if the above description is you. It’s not an open invitation to everyone, but for valid research purposes I can and should try to help. But I don’t run a museum-style collection (yet), I’m limited by time and other human factors, so I can’t do everything and help everyone. The primary purpose of all the hard work we’ve done accumulating these specimens remains to support our research, but there’s room to help others too, and we want to maximize the impact of our research collection, including potentially on teaching and public engagement with science where feasible. So I’ve put it out there, and that ends this post.

Is there something in the "Non-Elephant Freezer" for you?

Is there something in the “Non-Elephant Freezer” for you?

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In the Name of Morphology

Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10 don’t look at the gooooaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!! Too late.

Goat morphology is cool! (from work with local artist)

Goat morphology is cool! (from work with local artist)

Morphology in biology, to me, is about the science of the relationship of anatomical form to function (including biomechanics), evolution, development and other areas of organismal biology. It thus encompasses the more descriptive, form-focused area of anatomy. But in common parlance I use the two terms interchangeably, because many scientists and the general public do know what anatomy is but get confused by the word “morphology”. Not wishing to wage a semantic skirmish or get into what linguistic or other morphology is, I shall move on. But as the title betrays, this post is about morphology and how we should be proud of it as scientists who study it. This is a companion post to my earlier post on Anatomy, which was aimed at a more general audience than at my colleagues. Yet general audience, stick around. You might find this interesting.

I’m a morphologist at heart. What interests me most about organisms is how their form is not only beautiful and amazing itself but tells us profound things about other aspects of biology, as I stated in the first sentence above. I tend to call myself an evolutionary biomechanist, but morphology is in there too, at the heart of what I do, and biomechanical evolutionary morphologist — while more accurate — just does not roll off the lingual apparatus. I’ll dodge that semantic minefield of branding issues now. I’ll instead move on to my more important point that many (but not all) morphologists go through a phase in their career in which they have some strong feelings of being looked down on by other biologists/scientists as doing outmoded or inferior science. I explained in my Anatomy post that this “inferiority” is not the case today, moreso than ever; that the field is in a dynamic renaissance; so if you want some talking points go there. Regardless, these feelings of being almost stigmatized can exacerbate Imposter Syndrome, especially early in a scientific career.

Lizard morphology is cool! And museums exist to house morphological specimens like these.

Lizard morphology is cool! And museums exist to house morphological specimens like these.

I can think of one such case of bad feelings in my not-too-distant memory: at a conference dinner, one colleague sitting to my right said to my colleague to my left “What do you think about anatomy? Should students even do any research on it?” and went on with a bit of diatribe about the why-bother-ness of anatomy relative to other areas such as biomechanics. They both knew of my interests in this area, I’m quite sure, so it was as if I was not there sitting in between them. I was so appalled I was stunned into silence, but seething, and the colleague to my left didn’t defend the field either, even though they did a fair amount of research in it. It took a long time for me to cool down, and I still feel a bit offended and shocked that my colleague would say something so awkward and obliquely confrontational. Similar situations occurred during my PhD work at Berkeley, where biomechanics was having a heyday and anatomy was just beginning to rise from the ashes. It’s odd to me when biomechanists devalue morphology, because so much of mechanics depends on and relates to it, but to each their own. In many biological fields there are reductionist schisms that think they can divorce organisms from other aspects of their biology without losing something, so I’m not surprised, but maybe I am falling into my own trap of condescension here…

Anyway, I had those feelings of being on the receiving end of collegial condescension for a long time myself, and maybe that’s part of why I settled on calling my speciality something other than morphology. Shame on me, and double shame for getting back to that branding issue. But maybe not– maybe it IS important to talk about branding. I’ve been thinking a lot about my career and morphology in recent years, and keep returning to the thought that I need to embrace morphology in an even tighter love-hug. This blog has long been intended as a step in that direction (my Pinterest “Mucho Morphology” page is another step), but I could do more. Speaking of morphologists generally, perhaps we all could. Morphology still has some PR issues, most of us would probably agree, despite its arguable renaissance.

Fetal whale morphology is cool! (at Queen Mary UofL)

Fetal whale morphology is cool! (at Queen Mary UofL)

Thus my point of this post is simple: let’s try using the words morphology or anatomy more often in our scientific communications. Put those words out there and say them with pride. Let’s keep name-dropping morphology everywhere we can, within reason, and defending its value if challenged. To do this, we’ll need to know how we individually feel about morphology, and ensure we’re well informed to defend it. So think about those things, too, if you join this cause. By waging a PR battle against the forces of anti-morphology condescension, be they waxing or waning, we can get others to give our field its due credit. Fly that flayed banner of morphology high.

See a cool picture of an animal and want to post it on social media? Emphasize that it doesn’t just look cool but has amazing anatomy. Publish a cool new paper showing how a novel adaptation evolved? Remind readers of the morphological (or at least phenotypic) basis of that adaptation and how it interacts with the environment. Summarizing your research interests and discipline to a colleague or on a website/CV? Put morphology in there. Stand up straight when you do, too. Morphology, morphology, morphology. Learn to love that word and it will serve us all well. Branding and PR are only part of the struggle that needs to happen, but much as they may be to our distaste they can help. Doing great morphology-based science is the most important thing, but as social human beings the PR issue cannot be ignored.

Cat shoulder morphology is cool! (RVC teaching collection)

Cat shoulder morphology is cool! (RVC teaching collection)

This was a shortish post for me but it’s something I feel strongly about. My feelings have been magnified by taking on the role of Chair-Elect of the Division of Vertebrate Morphology at SICB, assisting the awesome current Chair Dr. Callum Ross and wise past-Chair Alice Gibb in addition the the rest of the committee and division, and as an Executive Committee member in the International Society of Vertebrate Morphology. I now have some extra responsibility to do something. Complaining about the state of affairs doesn’t help much– doing something can. If you’re a vertebrate morphologist, you should join these professional societies/divisions, attend their superb meetings and join their increasing presence on social media like Facebook (and soon Twitter?). Speak up and join in, please, these societies exist to help you and morphology!

Did you notice I didn’t use the title of the post as a lead-in to altered lyrics from a certain hit U2 song? Well I did. Maybe you’ll appreciate me resisting the temptation here. My Xmas song about our three new morphology papers didn’t exactly evoke angelic choruses.

What do you think, morphologists and non-morphologists? I am sure there are analogous situations in other fields. I’m curious how other morphologists or fields deal with or have struggled with this kind of image problem before. Especially under situations where the science itself is vigorous and rigorous, but the perception may be otherwise.

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I hinted at another post in last round, and here I deliver. (The “amazeballs” in the title is a running joke with our Xmas guests here in England, but it applies to the subject of these images, too… which will be the subject of a future blog post involving a dissection of the subject!)

This will end the 2014 round of Mystery Anatomy. What 2015 will bring, I am not sure, but here we have 15 images for my 15th mystery CT post and 2015 around the corner.

I do have a new, fun regular anatomy post idea planned for 2015 but I’ll explain that later.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10; digital images; the cadaver is gutted but I am chuffed.

Mystery Anatomy 2014same rules as before.

Identify (1) the animal shown in the 15 slices, to species level (max. 5 pts), and then the major features (anatomical regions) evident in as many of the 15 slices as you can; details help (max. 5 pts for thoroughness and accuracy). 

Difficulty: No scale, sort of. Otherwise, pretty easy.

Answers will come on New Year’s Day, to ease your hangovers (or encourage vomiting).
































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