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Posts Tagged ‘elephants’

…a daily picture of anatomy! And today it is four pictures; da-da-dee! ♫

Welcome back again, again to Freezermas! 

Today I’m shimmying down your interwebz with a late delivery. I’ve promised before to show how we clean up our nasty gooey skeletons to preserve them for future research to use. This is the intended final destination of all critters that are tenants of my freezers– the freezer is just a lovely holiday home, but bony heaven is the end result. I’ve accumulated a little museum of the bones of exotic animals I’ve studied, using these cleaned specimens. Here is how I do that preservation– there are four basic steps, and I’ll show them in four photos.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10; first just dry bones, but then some gooey bones and by the end we ratchet it up to bloody organs.

Step 1) We get the deceased animal from various zoos and other EU sources, CT/MRI scan it, and dissect it. That’s what most of this blog focuses on, so I won’t show that. But I will show the end result, and then how I get to that:

ele-rhino-bones

Those are some elephant and rhino bones, some of which you saw on the 2nd day of Freezermas. Elephant bones are super greasy; it’s almost impossible to get rid of that brown grease visible in this photo (upper LH side) without making the bones brittle and over-bleached. The bones of the whiter white rhino on the right show what I’m usually aiming for. How do I get this done? Well, here’s an example for an elephant shank:

Cookin' up elephant shank

I take the elephant shank and make soup.  (above) An Asian elephant’s patella, tibia and fibula were dissected, frozen for many years (queued up for cleaning; much freezer burn occurred on this specimen— it was jerky-fied), and then thawed. I put large specimens in this Rose cooker unit, which is a big ham cooker with a heater unit at the bottom. My baby, a Rapidaire MKV 5-ham unit is shown; oooh, ahhh!

The Rose cooker is filled up with tap water and been set it at around 60-90C. Then I let it cook away! A brothy soup develops, and sometimes it smells rather nice (my favourite aroma is giraffe leg). Sometimes… it’s not so nice. We check it every few hours to top up the water and remove stray tissue, and then change the water every day or so.

An elephant shank like this will take 2-3 days of cooking, longer if only switched on during work hours. The key thing is not to let it cook dry, which happened once with a faulty Rose cooker that did not do its normal auto-shutoff when the water ran low… showing up to work to encounter some fire trucks and unhappy college Health & Safety rep is not a good way to start your day, trust me!

This step is only slightly different for smaller (<30cm) specimens. Rather than the Rose cooker, we use the lovingly named “Croc Crock”, which isn’t visually impressive but you can see it here. As the name indicates, we’ve mainly used it for small crocodiles, and it is a crock pot. (a helpful thing is to add some detergent to the water for these small specimens; then bleaching isn’t so necessary)

Step 2) Then I empty out the water through the bottom spout, do the very nasty job of cleaning out the fat and other tissue that has accumulated (think 20 gallons of goo), hose off the bone, and set it in a ~10% bleach solution for at least a day, or up to a week or so for an elephant bone. Once it’s cleared up, I leave it out to dry (for big elephant bones, copious amounts of grease may be emerging for a few weeks). And then…

Elephant shank bones

Step 3) I varnish the dry bones with a clear varnish, and let them dry. Here is how that elephant shank turned out. Pretty good! Finally, they get to join their friends:

The bone shelves

Step 4) The prepared bones are labelled, given a number/name that I file in a world class comprehensive electronic database (cough, get on that John, cough!), and they become part of my humble mini-museum, shown above. Voila! The chef’s job is finished. Let science be served!

Happy Freezermas! Sing it: “On the fourth day of Freezermas, this blo-og gave to me: one tibiotarsus, two Darwin pictures, three muscle layers, a-a-and four steps of bone cookery!” ♪

Oh it’s Valentine’s day, so, err, have a heart today. Have four, actually!

giraffe heart - 1 white-rhino-heart-Perez Windfall-ele 054

chicken-heart

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Welcome to the first of a series of image galleries with highlights from the RVC‘s Anatomy Museum! Our veterinary school dates back to the 1789 epic dissection of the unbeaten racehorse Eclipse by surgeon Mr Charles Vial de Saint Bels, which led to the college’s founding in 1791 (incidentally, the RVC retains Eclipse’s skeleton to this day, and 80% of living racehorses come from Eclipse’s lineage!).

What, you didn’t know we have an anatomy museum? Well this is another of London’s many hidden museum treasures. It is based at our Camden campus, just a 10min jaunt from King’s Cross or St Pancras stations (or Mornington Crescent tube), in the colourful Camden Town neighborhood. It doesn’t have its own website, yet, and my posts are not intended to play that role, but I want to informally and unofficially celebrate its glory because I think we have a great museum full of wonderful features and people deserve to see them.

For example, when I first interviewed for (what became) my job at the RVC in 2003, one of the first sights at the Camden campus was the original, classic ~Victorian style (dark and gloomy, stained wooden cabinets, room chock full of skeletons) anatomy museum which presented the entrant with a lovely view of this:

Which sadly is my only photo of the skeleton of an Asian elephant that shows it in its original position, crowded next to the skeletons of a white rhino, common hippo, horse and other animals. If you know me and my penchant for giant critters, that was like being shown the Promised Land! Since then, modernity has required us to clear out the dusty Victorian room and rehouse the specimens in more airy, spacious surroundings. Which has worked out pretty well in our case, I think. Here is the elephant now, in the midst of our cafe next to our Anatomy Museum (sadly, the rhino and hippo are mostly now tucked away in storage, and no, there is no rhino horn here for people to steal. Sheesh!):

Much easier to walk around, drink coffee with, etc., and it has gained a second skull (with the skull of a baby also on display nearby). So you might immediately be able to see why I like our museum– any museum with a mounted elephant skeleton rocks, in my opinion. But also, I’m gradually cleaning up my freezer specimens, building a little museum of “my” own that will eventually become an official part of the RVC museum’s collection, so there is a connection to this blog too.

Anyway, here is what a visitor gets as a first impression upon entering our museum:

Namely, a horse who is less famous than Eclipse but still no slouch in his day, Foxhunter the show jumping horse, who won Britain its only gold medal at the Olympics 70 years ago (nice timing)! Then, looking around the museum, you will see:

A cow skeleton to your left, which is no shock at a vet school, but then look more closely, to the right:

A nice tiger skeleton is mounted there, with a pig skeleton atop it, and a hippo skull hanging out nearby (closer view of that in a later post). Through the green doors to the right is our lovely cafe, with the elephant and a few more specimens including a splendid mount of a sitting polar bear (to be shown later). And then, meandering around back to the left through the museum hall you will find:

A nice replica chimp skeleton next to a cast of “Lucy”, the famed Australopithecus early hominin! So there’s some decent evolutionary context in the exhibit, too; not just your standard domestic critters with little broader conceptual unification. But I think some of the museum’s greatest treasures  are the preserved specimens of lovingly dissected animal anatomy demonstrations, such as toward the back of the room:

These were done over past decades, many winning awards for the skill displayed in making them, and it is sad that this skill is becoming more and more rare, with shifts toward less hands-on, more computerized education and training. At least BodyWorlds and Animal Inside Out bucks this trend! It’s fortunate we have museums to show off the skill of preparators and dissectors so the beauty of such specimens can continue to be appreciated. I’ll show some closeups later.

There are plenty of surprises in the RVC’s Anatomy Museum, so if you get a chance and expect to be near our Camden Campus, come take a look sometime. Casual, unheralded visitors are not normally welcome, as the museum is more of an in-house educational resource than a public one. But I am told that scientists could easily get entry to study specimens on prior request, and with plenty of advance notice other members of the general public probably could, too. Mr Andrew Crook (recently awarded an MBE for his efforts using our museum and other facilities to educate local students) is the main contact person but please don’t swamp him with requests. It would be best to contact me first for advice and contact details.

So there’s a little introduction to our Anatomy Museum, and coming posts will show you more of the cool specimens within– stay tuned!

I’ll have our friend the ostrich skull show you the way out–

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Title is so meta?

OK Londoners, and Olympics visitors, and anatomy (or just science/biology) buffs, and those not lucky enough to see other versions of the animal Body Worlds show. You have a mission. And that mission is to go see “Animal Inside Out”, a special (£9 for adults is well worth it!) exhbit at the Natural History Museum, open until September 16. This blog will self destruct, very messily, by turning itself inside out in 5 seconds… Boom.

Hippopotamus attempting to outdo elephant guts.

Anatomy to me is beautiful even when it’s “ugly” (messy, wet, mucosal, intestinal, asymmetrical, unlike human, whatever), and that’s a major theme of this blog. Hence I am embarrassed that I hadn’t yet gone to see this Body Worlds spinoff exhibit until now, but can begin to shake off that shame by means of an almost exclusively effusive gushing of blood love for said exhibit. Wow, wow, wow! I went in with no particular expectations, having seen some pictures and knowing some of what to expect, and having other things on my mind. I came out very pleased; the NHM exhibits folks and von Hagens’s crew have created an inspirational spectacle that could do wonders for anatomical sciences and natural history. More about that at the end.

(Warning: possibility of spoilers, but the exhibit is so visual that I don’t think my descriptions can spoil it)

The entrance

No photos are allowed as usual, so all I have to show you is the entrance and some anatomy pics I’ve interspersed from my team’s research to lighten up the text. I suppose I could have asked for special permission to take photos for review usage but this was a very impromptu visit, and with ~4 months of showing left I may well be back again.

Weighing a hippo; spot on at 1600 kg!

There is a brief panel on homology and why it is the major concept underlying comparative anatomy (and a key part of evolution, co-opted from the not-so-evolutionary ideas of Sir Richard Owen, whom the NHM rightly mentions here). Another panel rightly brings up the issue of ethics, which has plagued Body Worlds before. It comforts the visitors that animals were not slaughtered just for this display and that the NHM applied its strict collections criteria to them. Convincing enough for me, and absolutely necessary to bring up early on.

The entry hall then presents you with about five cephalopods (labelled “squid” and “octopus”—a gripe is that species names/details are not given for most specimens on show) prominently occupying the view. The cephalopods, like basically everything else, are plastinated (by a now US-patented set of procedures, I learned from the exhibit book detailed later). They are stunningly frozen in lifelike poses or with gaping cuts to show their interior anatomy, although there was very little explanation here about cephalopod biology and anatomy (about 1 smallish panel). No mention of Cthulhu. Damn. He’d approve of the Grand Guignol scenery.

Toward the back of the first corridor of specimens and cases, there is a stunning scarlet haze outlining the body of a “shark” (species not given) with its huge liver lying below it. The haze, a technique used repeatedly throughout the exhibit, is some kind of corrosion cast of the circulatory system, I gather. A bunch of cross/longitudinal sections of cephalopods, crocodiles, fish, horse hooves and other animals decorate blank spaces on the walls, some with labels showing basic features and some just hung like paintings. Fair enough, but a missed opportunity for a bit more educational content here.

Gratuitious Melanosuchus (black caiman) shot.

A smallish whole shark confronts you as you turn the corner from the crimson chondrichthyan; again of unknown classification. One would think a museum exhibit would care about classification beyond “shark,” but oh well, I am banging the same drum here too much and missing the point, that the exhibit is really a visual, visceral expose rather than a deep prose-driven intellectual dissection. On one of the shark panels it is noted that sharks have red and white kinds of muscle used for slower and faster swimming, but not clarified that this is a very widespread vertebrate (chordate?) feature. This forms my second gripe, that a truly evolutionary approach, such as that taken by dozens of the museum’s research staff as their major paradigm of phylogenetic systematics, could have helped the public grasp the evolutionary, hierarchical nature of homology and depart with accurate information about what features characterize groups at which levels. I’m not asking for cladograms laid out on the floor as at the American Museum of Natural History, although maybe that could work, but the exhibit tended to fall back on an outmoded “this animal has this feature, and that animal has that feature, and these are cool adaptations” shopping list approach rather than a modern comparative approach. Granted, almost all museum exhibits fall into this trap, for various reasons and some of them justified. But with a spare word or phrase here or there, this could have been done better without drowning the visitors in that dreaded sea of bloodprose.

Passing the sharks, we come to one of several thematic sections about body systems, this first one on the skeleton (later, brain/nerves, circulation, muscles, etc.). A few small skeletal specimens of the type that are seen throughout the museum are presented, with a scallop reminding us that skeletons can come in many types among multicellular organisms. There is a horse skull and a stark white whole skeleton of a young-ish ostrich, which was very nicely mounted. However, I was caught off guard by the pelvis, which lacked the curved, ventral “boot” like connection of the pubic bones that ostriches have—presumably explained by its juvenile status although I wasn’t 100% sure it was even an ostrich pelvis. OK, I am having a serious pelvis-nerd moment here; forgive me as my PhD was on this stuff.

Ostrich in the midst of disassembling.

BUT, once again the small interpretive panel had a moment of Fail. The ostrich was explained to have two toes, in contrast to normal birds which have “five”.  HUH? Birds have three main toes and variably also a fourth, inner (first) toe called the hallux, used for perching and other activities including walking. None have a fifth toe; indeed their dinosaurian forebears lost that feature some 230ish million years ago. Just an embryonic vestige of the base of the fifth toe is visible in bird embryos today. Furthermore, the panel said that two toes in ostriches can grip the ground more strongly than more toes in other birds. I know of no evidence that shows this, and suspect that the contrary might be true. The standard explanation for toe reduction in ostriches is that it is a lightening feature characteristic of “cursorial” (long-legged, sometimes fleet/efficient) animals, to make swinging the long legs easier. These errors really should have been caught by involving experts in polishing the scientific content of the exhibit.

But I don’t want this post to grumble too much; wrong message. There was so much to celebrate in this exhibit, which was felt impressively spacious and full of cool specimens! Visitors pass some plastinated whole sheep and goats, with panels nicely explaining that goats and sheep look quite similar on the inside and are evolutionary relatives. Having “four stomachs” (technically, a four-chambered stomach; not four distinct organs that were duplicated) is attributed as a sheep trait, then being a ruminant is said to be a goat trait; this might get a little confusing for non—anatomists (both are ruminants and have similar stomachs).

I learned that goats have an extra tail muscle that allows them to swing up/down as well as side-to-side. Hey, I teach veterinary anatomy and I don’t know that!? I must tuck my tail between my legs in shame, but I am no goat so I do not think I can (do satyrs count?). But I wasn’t so sure that goats, as described, were the first animals to be domesticated—I thought that was dogs? Ahh, Wikipedia says dogs, then sheep, then pigs, then goats? I’m outside my expertise here, I admit, and resorting to Wikipedia out of ignorant desperation. Anyway, here, another instance of coulda-been-more-phylogenetically-specific presented itself: the forelimb of goats was said to be connected to the thorax by muscles and ligaments, not a joint, but this is a feature common to most Mammalia. Although audience attentions might be wandering at this point, waiting for the next big spectacle (goats and sheep are not a big crowd draw, even plastinated), some more care as to what was written would be good. Some reindeer and horses and other animals join in the fun later on. Good, but mostly ‘filler’ (wise to put these in the middle of the exhibit, after sharks/cephalopods and before climax) unless you’re a big fan of fairly familiar ungulates with fairly homogeneous postcrania. OK, my bias is showing…

Gratuitious image of emu curled up for CT scan.

Next along the path, a longitudinal section of a whole ostrich caught my attention. Wow again! I had no idea that one could make a section like this of such a large animal, all in one plastic sheet like a giant microscope slide! I stared at this for a while, wondering how both legs could be fit in a ~1cm thick panel, and gave up trying to understand the technology. Von Hagens, you got me there; I’m stumped. Were multiple sections glued together somehow to produce a pseudo-2D slice from many thin 3D sections? I could not tell, and felt humbled and deeply impressed by the technical skill shown in the exhibits so far…

And then the punches kept coming, one-two-three! The exhibit approaches its climax with a crescendo of great specimens in the final hall. First, another maroon marvel. A whole ostrich, standing with wings askew, showing off its entire circulatory system (plus a few wing plumes for aesthetics) from head to toes! Gorgeous, technically brilliant, and well worth at least a 5 minute walk around (you can stroll around many of the displays in 360 degrees- very good move!). A plastinated whole ostrich stands next to it, and for a muscular anatomy geek like me, it was nirvana. However, in a churlish moment I had to look away from a panel explaining that an ostrich is “too heavy to fly” (I admit some younger visitors may need reminding of this). But then I looked into the big open space of this main hall, and the climax was before me. I think I’d had my climax a few times since this, but wow this was enormous in so many ways. All the ways. Mind-blowingly, vastly, geektastically kewl.

Gratuitious rhinoceros leg.

Across from the two posed ostriches and flanked by numerous smaller specimens, the elephant and giraffe stand frozen in vigil. There is also a lovingly detailed dissection of a huge male gorilla by the back wall and exit, with a panel reminding us that gorillas are (among) “our closest relatives.” The giraffe is precariously poised on one front toe-tip, in mid-gallop. What a great pose! There is the requisite explanation of how they solve the blood pressure problem in their neck (e.g. arterial valves), but also the statement, news to me, that they are the only animals able to ruminate while running. Who figured that out and how? I really want to know! Must be hard to check. (or was walking intended? Are my notes wrong?) Across from the full-fleshed plastinated giraffe (which I could see with my eyes closed after all our dissections from a month ago), there was another visually arresting and technically monumental giraffe on exhibit: one represented completely by small, reddish cross-sectional slices, from head to toes in a standing pose. That took me a while to absorb, it was so lovely, almost like a hanging mobile of morphological splendour.

There is a panel about genes and variation and inheritance. It is brief. (and it belongs there) Thank you. Let’s celebrate anatomy for anatomy’s sake for once!

“But John,” you might say, “What about the elephant? No love for the elephant? The star of the show?”

Zoinks! I want one! Stoic and triumphant (except against death and plastination), the Asian elephant is the centrepiece of the collection. (The book explains it was “Samba” from Neunkirchen Zoo, Germany, dead of some circulatory problem in 2005 and the first one plastinated, plus the inspiration for the animal show). I was speechless and paralyzed for a moment. I didn’t even know how to start looking at the partly-exploded-to-show-its-insides elephant. I actually avoided it for a while, looking closely at the other specimens, and building up anticipation, before stepping up and taking a long, intense look at this tall drink of water.

Go see the elephant. If you know basic anatomy, look at its leg muscles. Check out the huge triceps, still attached to the elbow; I like to say it is the size of a graduate student. Same for the analogous superficial gluteal and somewhat-fused biceps femoris muscles on the rear end, around the thigh/knee joint. Huge! I’ve never been able to view a standing dissected elephant, so this really impressed me more than a table full of giant muscle slabs like I normally deal with. And best of all, for me, the “false sixth toes”; the prepollex and prehallux; are visible in all four feet (but not noted anywhere, even in the book; too bad, these things were widely known by anatomists before my work on them). So much to marvel at here. It is an anatomical treasure. I wish I had a 3D image of it to use for anatomical studies- it was so easy to identify every single muscle group (except for a few missing around the shoulder/neck), even in the distal limbs. Hmm, photogrammetry might be possible (nugget of idea begins to crawl around John’s brain like a Zimmerian parasite)…

Behold, the triceps muscle of an elephant!

Behind that gorgeous elephant, don’t miss the wall mountings of two cross-sectional slices: through the head/neck of a moderate-sized elephant (How!?!?) and distal leg (no predigits but good features). And definitely don’t miss the stool (non-fecal, furniture form). I almost did. A wooden stool is shaped like a newborn elephant and a cross-section of the body is adhered on top of it. I assume you cannot sit there, and I am very glad that it was not, as I first imagined, an actual plastinated baby elephant turned into a stool. That would be bad taste.

The exhibit is in very good taste, without exception, and although I am gore-desensitized to say the least, it is not gory in my view. The plastination process preserves the reality and even some of the colour faithfully, but renders it just unreal enough (past uncanny valley territory?) that it should not be very disturbing to most viewers.

You can’t leave with your own photographs, but you can be schnookered into buying the exhibit book (£12.99) and a couple of packages of nice colour postcards (£4 for six; excellent quality images and cardstock IMO). The book and postcards show many of the exhibit specimens but not all, and include some others that are not on exhibit. I was saddened that the bear was left out—very cool image of that in the book. I’ve only skimmed the book a bit. I was annoyed by a few mistruths about elephants (25mph running speed, “have no ankle joints, which is one of the reasons why elephants cannot jump”, the bones “do not contain any marrow”—wrong, 15mph and there are ankles, they just are not very flexible (but not immobile either); also the bones do contain marrow (how could a large vertebrate survive entirely without it???) but just not as much of it per unit volume, due to lots of spongy bone). But I am still very happy with the 139 pages chock fulla pretty images, which is all I really wanted. Indeed, the book is a great pictorial anatomical reference- some of the species such as elephants and giraffe lack a really good anatomical resource in the modern, or any, literature! The exhibit shop also sells some good anatomy texts, mostly on humans but I recommend “Animal Anatomy for Artists” very strongly; I use that regularly in my own work.

So, £29.99 of schnookering later (haha, poor victimized me!), I emerged and reflected more on what I’d seen. I’m still a bit giddy about it all. I like the minimalism in most aspects- black backgrounds, minimal signage (but just enough to make it educational—when they got the facts right), focus kept on the specimens. Well done there. The spectacle of the specimens I’ve raved plenty about- it is not at all disappointing. It is AWESOME in every sense. I feel I easily got £9 of value from the ticket, and would (probably will!) pay it again. It is a profound experience to see the rich anatomical detail exposed, and be able to circumnavigate the specimens to absorb multiple perspectives. If you know some anatomy, you’ll be doubly rewarded at least, and if you bring your own phylogenetic perspective that can be trebled.

Baby white rhinoceros. Sad infant mortality.

What makes me happiest after my visit is realizing that we are in an anatomical renaissance for science and public interest therein. Exhibits like this and documentaries like “Inside Nature’s Giants” have tapped a public interest and curiosity in the wonders of basic anatomy. Anatomy is at the core of so many biological sciences and is so immediately accessible to people, because we all have anatomy. Anatomy is at the crossroads of art and science; it is visual, variable and complex, yet concrete, objective and easy to relate to. “Animal Inside Out” is a spectacular blend of art and science. They nail the artistic aspect, and the science is done reasonably well (despite my few gripes)—the exhibit’s science speaks for itself, in a way, although many visitors will need a nudge to grasp that.

I’d like to make a call for a permanent exhibit of the likes of “Animal Inside Out” in the UK. We deserve this! Museum exhibits could use something new, other than lame, quickly broken digital pushbuttons and bland skeletons devoid of soft tissue context (although the latter can be sufficient, e.g. at the Paris NMNH). That’s what makes “Animal Inside Out” (and Body Worlds) such a hit- as Hagens is quoted on the book dustcover, animal anatomy that goes beyond digitized abstractions and dusty bones is able “to sharpen our sense of the extraordinary by looking at the self-evident.” I could not say it better myself. This exhibit is extraordinary; that is self-evident after even a peek. It is a loving tribute to how fantastic the totality of animal structure is. Go! Enjoy. Absorb. Gape. Stare. Thrill. Revel. Think. Question. IT’S BEAUTIFUL.

Impressive hippo mouth says “Farewell for now.”

Edit: @samjamespearson on Twitter has kindly posted some photos (for free NHM/AIO publicity) of the exhibits and here are the links, now that they’re out there– SPOILERS! And thanks, Sam! I don’t think these really spoil the intense visual experience of actually being there and walking around the specimens, not at all.

octopus, whelk, squid, needlefish, scarlet haze of shark, hare brain, cat nerves,  bactrian camel, another camel,  bull (I forgot to mention it; this one was pretty great!)

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Like I said, oh hai! Wow, I wasn’t expecting all of you here! Enjoy a random photo of some awesome anatomy, Boing Boing universe, and thanks for the nice story!!

Note that an elephant’s heart does not end in the stereotypical single apex (point) at the left ventricle. Elephants have a 2-pointed heart, with two large ventricles used to pump blood to the body AND lungs… who else has this feature? Ahh yes, their closest living relatives: seacows (manatees, dungongs; the Sirenia)! Probably a leftover swimming adaptation. Big, muscular ventricles (the darker purplish tissue to the left and right of the yellow-pinkish line of tissue running from top to bottom along the middle) are useful for pumping blood against resistance, such as when using the trunk as a snorkel while swimming.

The bottom of the heart is at the bottom of the screen; you’re looking straight at the front of the heart.

Human heart for comparison, from Wikipedia; scale relative to pic above is not too far off (elephant relatively a bit undersized):

For more info on elephant hearts, see here and here, and for the hardcore anatomists, here and here.

And more about elephants from Inside Nature’s Giants, too!

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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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Well, it’s time for the Grand Reveal of what the picture in the previous post is (reproduced below). The guesses ranged from bird to wallaby/kangaroo to the stuff of nightmares. And indeed Nick Gardner got it right first, it is a wallaby. Specifically, it is a Bennett’s Wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus), which is the Tasmanian island form related to the Red-necked Wallaby, and an animal that has gone feral (along with mara and other cool critters) in Whipsnade Zoo near the RVC. You can tell it is a wallaby and not a bird, because there is an “Achilles tendon” attaching to a calcaneal tuber (“heel bone”) on the back side of the limb (shown with asterisk below) that birds lack, and if you look closely the toes are hairy, lack bird-like claws, and a few other details like the profile of the musculature are very different; more mammalian than avian. The stump of the muscular tail (cut off) is also a clue. Although the avian similarity in the case of wallabies is still striking, which is one reason I chose this image. Well done, Nick!

I found this picture in my archives and remembered when it was taken back in ~2005- some lab members received some frozen wallaby legs and thawed them out to use in experiments. They tried to compress the legs in an Instron machine (mechanical testing system; partly visible at the top of the pic) to see what the passive, springlike properties of the legs are like in a wallaby, vs. the properties they could measure in a living animal. (The shiny white reflective areas in the pic are for tracking joint motions) And I thought it was a freaky cool pic, so I shared it.

I also posted that pic because my team has done some in vivo analysis of the leg properties in such animals (previous news story here; paper in preparation), and because we use this technique of loading cadaveric legs in such machines quite routinely. We did this for elephant feet to study how the “sixth toe” of elephants works, and we’re analyzing data (as I write) for how elephant feet and rhino feet deform or move when loaded similarly. This method has a long history; we didn’t invent it; perhaps most famously used for studying horse limb mechanics [pdf example], which have a lot of passive properties (almost everything below the elbow/knee is non-muscular). Many animals’ limbs are tendinous/elastic toward their distal end (toes), so the limbs tend to become less actively controlled by the nervous system and become more of a mechanical control system (sometimes involving a non-neural “preflex“) in that region; although it’s all a matter of relative degree of passive:active control in different situations, species, and limbs.

The picture below shows an x-ray of an elephant’s whole hind foot, in which you should be able to see the bones (brighter white) of the foot surrounded by a lot of soft tissue, mostly more passive kinds like fat, skin, fascial sheets, ligaments and tendon.

Here (further below) is a preliminary image from our elephant foot studies in progress, intended to reveal the passive properties/motions of the feet so we can figure out how those properties are combined with more active control, and how actively elephants control their feet vs. other, possibly more ‘passive-footed’ animals like horses. This is interesting from anatomical and evolutionary perspectives, and for helping with foot health problems that are serious concerns for such animals– more about that later. The arrow in the picture below shows where a lot of the motion is: at the knuckle (metatarsophalangeal) joints of the toes; the rest of the foot tends to rotate around these mobile joints. We can’t peer inside living elephant feet to see if they actually do this, but we can compare the external motions, pressure patterns, and other data from living and dead elephant feet to see how they match up, which is what we’re doing now — and we’re doing the same thing with rhinos, which have cool 3-toed, more “hoof-like” feet, as opposed to the 5-toed, fatter feet of elephants. To get this image, we’ve had to put the foot inside a custom-made device using a car jack to apply a constant load, and a wooden framework to hold the specimen still, and then run it through a CT machine in unloaded and then loaded states to see how the bones move. Here is what the crazy apparatus looks like, with enthusiastic undergrad for scale:

This, below, is a right hind foot (pes) of an Asian elephant, shown from the inside of the foot (toes are numbered 1-4 from the big toe/hallux toward the outside of the foot; 5th toe is not visible). The yellow image is the relaxed, unloaded foot; the green is after applying a large load equivalent to the animal standing on one foot (or running quickly). Notice how the third metatarsal (the long bone that the arrowhead is touching) for the unloaded state is in front of that for the loaded state, whereas yellow and green images of the bones toward the tip of the toes are overlapping more, indicating they did not move much/at all. That tells us that the motion is occuring at the joint indicated (“knuckle”), which makes sense anatomically, because that joint looks like it has a lot of mobility.

Image

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In case you missed the story about this paper released just before Xmas, here are some links to stories about “From flat foot to fat foot: Structure, ontogeny, function and evolution of elephant “sixth toes,” in Science, 2011:

1. The paper (free download from my publications list; nice policy, Science!)

2. Our website about the paper (more imagery goodness!)

3. Ed Yong’s first (Nature News) and second (more detailed blog) article

4. BBC News’s story

5. Reuters TV‘s excellent video

6. Science Now/Wired’s story

7. Daily Mail‘s story (not a daily fail, in this case)

Clarification: it’s not a real sixth toe in elephants; it’s a false, toe-like structure (“predigit”) made from other tissue. That confusion seeped into some media stories. But this whole story ties into the thorny question of what a digit (finger/toe) is and how we can tell (e.g., notions of homology). Regardless, the elephant predigits are present in all four feet, and are super duper cool!

Most importantly for this blog, that research relied, and still relies, on our fabulous freezers to keep the elephant “toes” in snuggly cold conditions until we wanted to study them.

The research is continuing- I’ll post more about that later. We’ve been doing lots more histology to explore the complex ways that these predigits are formed, and also studying how they function (ex vivo) in more 3D detail than before (with new comparisons to rhino feet). Also, a new paper of ours will come out in J Experimental Biology very soon. It elaborates on how whole elephant feet function, across ontogeny, using in vivo pressure patterns.

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