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Posts Tagged ‘heavy breathing’

Freezermas continues! Today we have a treat for you. Lots of detailed anatomy! This post comes from my team’s dissections of an ostrich last week (~3-7 February 2014), which I’ve been tweeting about as part of a larger project called the Open Ostrich.

However, before I go further, it’s as important as ever to note this:

Stomach-Churning Rating: 9/10: bloody pictures of a dissection of a large ostrich follow. Head to toes, it gets messy. Just be glad it wasn’t rotten; I was glad. Not Safe For Lunch!

If the introductory picture below gets the butterflies a-fluttering in your tummy, turn back now! It gets messier. There are tamer pics in my earlier Naked Ostriches post (still, a rating of 6/10 or so for stomach-churning-ness there).

All photo credits  (used with permission) on this post go to palaeoartist Bob Nicholls (please check out his website!), who got to attend and get hands-on experience in extant dinosaur anatomy with my team and Writtle College lecturer Nieky VanVeggel (more from Nieky soon)!

Research Fellow Jeff Rankin, myself and technician/MRes student Kyle Chadwick get to work.

Research Fellow Jeff Rankin, myself and technician/MRes student Kyle Chadwick get to work, removing a wing.

This is a male ostrich, 71.3 kg in body mass, that had gone lame in one foot last summer and, for welfare reasons, we had to put down for a local farmer, then we got the body to study. We took advantage of a bad situation; the animal was better off being humanely put down.

The number for today is 6; six posts left in Freezermas. But I had no idea I’d have a hard time finding a song involving 6, from a concept album. Yet 6 three times over is Slayer’s numerus operandi, and so… The concept album for today is Slayer’s  1986 thematic opus “Reign in Blood” (a pivotal album for speed/death metal). The most appropriate track here is the plodding, pounding, brooding, then savagely furious “Postmortem“, which leads (literally and figuratively, in thunderous fashion) to the madness of the title track, after Tom Araya barks the final verse:

“The waves of blood are rushing near, pounding at the walls of lies

Turning off my sanity, reaching back into my mind

Non-rising body from the grave showing new reality

What I am, what I want, I’m only after death”

I’m not going to try to reword those morbid lyrics into something humorous and fitting the ostrich theme of this post. I’ll stick with a serious tone for now. I like to take these opportunities to provoke thought about the duality of a situation like this. It’s grim stuff; dark and bloody and saturated with our own inner fears of mortality and our disgust at what normally is politely concealed behind the integumentary system’s viscoelastic walls of keratin and collagen.

But it’s also profoundly beautiful stuff– anatomy, even in a gory state like this, has a mesmerizing impact: how intricately the varied parts fit together with each other and with their roles in their environment, or even the richness of hues and multifarous patterns that pervade the dissected form, or the surprising variations within an individual that tell you stories about its life, health or growth. Every dissection is a new journey for an anatomist.

OK I’ve given you enough time to gird yourself; into the Open Ostrich we go! The remainder is a photo-blog exploration of ostrich gross anatomy, from our detailed postmortem.

(more…)

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At this writing (17 October, 2013), I am headed home after a 10-day trip to China as part of an RVC delegation participating in a London Universities International Partnership (LUIP) event (celebrating London innovations, especially those developed with Chinese input) as part of a broader UK/London-China trade mission. I am still processing what has been an astonishing, exhausting, exhilarating, chaotic, lavish, smog-ridden, and inspiring visit. As a simple scientist, I’ve found myself in the midst of major global politics, business and science policy, with little time to assimilate what has happened but still learning plenty about how the bigger world, way beyond my lab, operates. I thought I’d share that experience, by way of pictures illustrating key – or just unusual or interesting – events and places from my journey. It was surreal, in so many ways…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 except for a couple of odd statues. No squat-toilets; I will spare you those.

Odd sight above entrace to the art gallery building that housed the LUIP event.

Odd decoration above entrance to the art gallery building that housed the LUIP event.

Several months ago the RVC selected me to help RVC Access director Nina Davies and colleagues set up an exhibit, as part of the LUIP event, featuring the work that my team has done, and is still doing, with Chinese collaborators at the IVPP in Beijing (exemplified by this past post). Dinosaurs and 3D computer modelling were thought to be a good potential draw for the public (ya think?) as opposed to more controversial subjects such as avian flu, with which the RVC also has research strengths and Chinese collaborations. I saw it as a great chance to go spend time at the IVPP’s spectacular fossil collection and develop ongoing collaborations with scientists there like Drs. Zhou Zhonghe and Xu Xing. Subsequently, I learned that it was a small enough event that I’d probably be meeting Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) there as well, possibly even presenting our research to him.

Hallway lined with art galleries, one of which is the Yang Gallery.

Hallway lined with art galleries, one of which is the Yang Gallery, which the event was held in.

The preparations for the exhibit were full of surprises, as you might expect a long-distance interaction between UK and Chinese people to be, especially if you’ve spent time in China and know some of the broad-brush cultural differences (e.g. “Yes” can mean no, and “maybe” usually means no). There were many cooks involved! Artists, policymakers, scientists, universities… and then the Mayor’s office got thrown into the action, and then it snowballed, with UK Higher Education and Science minister Rt Hon MP David Willetts coming to the LUIP event, and UK Foreign Chancellor George Osborne then scheduling a related trip to China at the same time. Meanwhile, I just supplied some images (courtesy of Luis Rey) and a video (by Vivian Allen and Julia Molnar) from our past paper to illustrate what we’re doing with Chinese collaborators.

There wasn’t time to prepare a fancy exhibit with lots of bells and whistles, but I was pleasantly surprised by what the LUIP organizers cooked up from what we provided, as photos below show. The addition of four great casts of fossils on loan from the IVPP was crucial and made us stand out from all the other exhibits in a big way! The event was held in the trendy 798 Art District in eastern Beijing, which is an old industrial area converted to a surprisingly bohemian, touristy area that still sports its rusting old industrial infrastructure, but bedecked with modern art! That really worked for me as a setting. This was my third visit to Beijing/China but my first time in this gritty area of the city, which I recommend spending an afternoon in sometime if you visit– the streets are lined with cafes and art galleries.

Boris bike and nice design of exhibits (placed on/around the giant letters LONDON) .

Boris bike and nice design of exhibits (placed on/around the giant letters LONDON). The back wall sports a Communist slogan, partly painted over, exhorting the workers to give their full effort for the glory of Chairman Mao or something (seriously). The building was once a weapons factory, I was told.

All the work we put into this event was a big deal to me, but as the event developed, and the schedule for my 10 day visit shifted almost daily as various political factions shuffled the LUIP and UK trade mission plans, I became aware of the vastly broader issues at play, and humbled by their scope. Sure, studying the 3D changes of dinosaur body shape across >225 million years is truly awesome to conduct, but the socio-political issues around the LUIP event boggled and baffled me. Issues like “How do we get more Chinese students to come study at London universities?”, “How do Chinese parents feel about their students studying to become veterinarians?” and “What are the key obstacles limiting UK-Chinese collaborations and how can they be resolved?” gradually eclipsed the technical, scientific issues in my mind, and I started to feel lost. I learned a lot from this eye-opening experience.

These two news stories here (with video; me speaking at ~01:15) and here (with pic of me w/exhibit) give a good idea of the scale and potential importance of the events.

The rest of his post is mostly a photo blog to illustrate the goings-on, but I consider some psychological/philosophical matters toward the end.

The London innovation event lighting gets tested out-- and looks sweet.

The London innovation event lighting gets tested out– and looks sweet.

Boris arrives, and proceeds to tour the exhibits rather than give his speech as planned. But it worked out OK in the end; he had 2 exhibit tours and a speech in the middle.

Boris arrives, and proceeds to tour the exhibits rather than give his speech as planned. But it worked out OK in the end; he had two exhibit tours and a speech in the middle.

Minister Willetts arrives and prepares to speak about UK higher education for Chinese students.

Minister Willetts arrives and prepares to speak about UK higher education for Chinese students.

I give Minister Willetts a tour of our fabulous fossil casts.

I give Minister Willetts a tour of our fabulous fossil casts.

Left to right = back in time through avian evolution, represented by Yixianornis, Pengornis, Jeholornis and Microraptor casts courtesy of the IVPP.

Left to right = back in time through avian evolution, represented by Yixianornis, Pengornis, Jeholornis and Microraptor casts, courtesy of the IVPP.

Arguably one of the most important fossil finds, the "four-winged" dinosaur Microraptor.

Arguably one of the most important fossil finds (ever?), the “four-winged” dinosaur Microraptor.

Added benefit of thaw in UK-Chinese relations: Microraptors for everyone!!! Well, for me anyway. And a cast, not a real one. But still pretty damn cool, and now it’s in my office for comparative research and teaching. See?

Darwin greets Microraptor in my office.

Darwin greets Microraptor in my office.

Like I said at the start, I don’t have a profound insight from this trip, not yet if ever. But it has obviously made a strong impression on me. It has reinforced some thoughts about Big Life Stuff. With the jetlag, the big geopolitical issues, the foreign country, the opulence, and my research thrown into that heady brew (ahem, along with some Tsingtao beer), I became lost. And I liked it, even though I was totally clueless at times, just looking around wide-eyed at the events unfolding and hearing about the political manoeuvring behind the scenes (e.g. how would big figures like Boris and Willetts share the limelight? And the news media was playing up the question of whether Boris’s or Osborne’s contingents were “winning” in some sense of some struggle, even though ostensibly they are on the same Tory team).

But we’re all clueless; we’re all lost. In some ways that’s a good thing. We have work to do; broad landscapes to explore whether evolutionary or socioeconomic or whatnot. There are big questions left, and no easy answers sometimes. That’s a bad thing, too; if we were less lost in major issues like climate change or habitat destruction or gross imbalance in wealth/power, the world would be a better place.

Quite apropos! Rockin' artwork found in the 798 art district surrounding the Yang Gallery.

Quite apropos! Rockin’ artwork found in the 798 art district surrounding the Yang Gallery.

I find it helpful at times to ground myself in the knowledge that I am lost just like everyone else. There are different ways we can get lost: such as in pondering how dinosaur anatomy and physiology transformed over the Mesozoic era, or in throwing ourselves into weighty issues of business and diplomacy in the real world. To pretend we’re not lost risks becoming foolhardy.

It might be helpful for others to remind themselves of this sense of being lost, and that we all feel it or at least should at times. Students may sometimes look to their professors and think they have some monopoly on wisdom, but they’re lost too, and surely in some ways more lost than any of their students.

Smaller scale dino art.

Smaller scale dino art in a local shop.

Boris got a bit lost, too, when he came to my exhibit – pondering the dinosaur-bird fossils, he pondered out loud “There’s some bone that birds and reptiles both have that shows they’re related… the, umm, the ischium?” Not understanding what he meant by this (all tetrapods have an ischium), I redirected him, along with a reassuring comment that he’d done his homework. I did this a bit clumsily as the multitude of news cameras and lights and boom-mikes hovered around us in eager anticipation of Something Interesting Happening, and as his minders began to urge him to move onward through the LUIP exhibit. I noted the wrist of a dinosaur like Microraptor and how it already had the unusual wing-folding mechanism that modern birds now use during flapping flight or to keep their feathers off the ground when standing. He seemed to sort of like that, then shook my hand and said something like “very impressive, well done” and moved on to the next exhibit. (Willetts fared a bit better and stayed longer, but science is his business)

funky statue (4)

Random artwork from the Yang Gallery and around the 798 Art District follows… I liked the style. My kind of funky art. The statue above combines childlike toy aspects with sinister jingoistic imagery. And the next one, well… see for yourself.

In that brief, frantic conversation, we were both lost, and I think none the less of Mayor Johnson for it. He’d come off the plane, rushed to hotel and to the LUIP event, gave an impassioned speech about London and China, and then was whisked around between a dozen or so exhibits, pursued all the while by a throng of media and minders and gawkers- was he expected to know all the sundry details of maniraptoran evolution at that point? No. But we had some fun and smiled for the cameras and then it was all over as we spun off, reeling into our different orbits. I wouldn’t be surprised if, from time to time, a politician like Boris pinches himself and thinks privately, “Wow, these issues I am embroiled in are so convoluted. I am totally, utterly lost.” I think that’s a healthy thing, and I enjoyed repeated doses of that feeling during my trip. funky statue (2) In science, we often deal with a sense of awe or wonder—that is the sunny side of being lost. The other side, which can coexist sometimes in duality with awe/wonder, is the more fearful/anxious side, like when you’re stuck in a foreign city far from your hotel; surrounded by alien, fantastic scenery; and night is falling but no taxis are around to take you back, and the locals are starting to watch you to see if you’ll do something stupid (this was me, briefly, after doing some evening mall-shopping in Shanghai). How we react to that duality is, in some way, our choice. I point to a scientist studying evolution and a creationist freaking out about the subject as a good example of two polar opposites in how an awesome topic in science can evoke very different reactions within that duality. A seasoned traveller who likes to throw themselves into a city and experience blissful, unpredictable immersion, and a worrisome tourist who can’t stray far from their tour group provide analogous examples. But I digress; this post is in danger of becoming lost… Enjoy some cool statues as the denouement. funky statue (3) Get lost in the comments—what makes you have that sense of awe, or being lost, and how do you deal with it? funky statue (1)

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Yesterday I encountered the question that, as a scientist who has studied a certain chunky Cretaceous carnivore a lot, most deflates me and makes me want to go study cancer therapeutic methods or energy sources that are alternatives to fossil fuels (but I’d be useless at either). I will explain why this is at the end of the post.

The question stems from a new discovery, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and thus expected to be one of the more important or exciting studies this year (no, I’m not going to get into the issue here of whether these “high impact” journals include the best scientific research or the most superficial or hyped “tabloid” science; they publish both, and not in mutual exclusivity). It’s a broken Tyrannosaurus rex tooth embedded in a duckbill dinosaur’s tail bone, which healed after the injury, showing that the animal survived the attack.

If you’re with me so far, you might be making the logical leap that this fossil find is then linked to the hotbed of furious controversy that still leaves palaeontology in crisis almost 100 years after Lambe suggested it for the tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus. If the hadrosaur survived an attack from a T. rex, then T. rex was a habitual predator and OMG JACK HORNER AND OTHERS BEFORE HIM WERE WRONG!

And you’d be right.

My encounter with the question stemmed from an email from a science journalist (Matt Kaplan) that, as is normal practice, shared a copy of the unpublished paper and asked for comments from me to potentially use in an article he was writing for the science journal Nature’s news site. Here, then, was my off-the-cuff response:


“Ooh. I do have a pretty strong opinion on this. Not sure if you’d want to use it but here goes. I may regret it, but this hits my hot buttons for One of the Worst Questions in All of Palaeobiology!

The T. rex “predator vs. scavenger” so-called controversy has sadly distracted the public from vastly more important, real controversies in palaeontology since it was most strongly voiced by Dr Jack Horner in the 1990s. I find this very unfortunate. It is not like scientists sit around scratching their heads in befuddlement over the question, or debate it endlessly in scientific meetings. Virtually any palaeontologist who knows about the biology of extant meat-eaters and the fossil evidence of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs accepts that T. rex was both a predator and scavenger; it was a carnivore like virtually any other kind that has ever been known to exist.

While the discovery is nice evidence, it is not particularly exciting in a scientific sense and is only one isolated element from species that lived for hundreds of thousands of years, which to me changes nothing and allows no generalizations about the biology of any species, only the statement that at one point in time a Tyrannosaurus bit a hadrosaur that survived the encounter. There is no real substance to the controversy that T. rex was “either” a predator or scavenger. It is just something that scientists drum up now and then to get media attention. I hope that soon we can move on to more pressing questions about the biology of extinct animals, but the media needs to recognize that this is just hype and they are being played in a rather foolish way; likewise scientists that still feel this is an exciting question need to move on. Maybe this specimen will allow that. But somehow my cynical side leads me to suspect that this “controversy” will just persist because people want it to, regardless of logic or evidence. (bold font added; see below)

Great galloping lizards, I am so tired of this nonsense. Maybe there is educational value in showing how science deals with provocative half-baked ideas about celebrity species, but scientists in the community need to speak up and say what the real science is about. It’s not about this “controversy”. Modern palaeontology is so much better than this.

Sorry for the rant. Maybe it’s too extreme but I’m just fed up with this non-issue! I suspect a huge proportion of our field feels similarly, however.”


(I later redacted a bit of it where I got a little too excited and used the word “curmudgeon”; a mistake, as that could be seen as ad hominem rather than a term of endearment, and this issue is about the science and not the people, per se. That bit is redacted here, too. I’ve also redacted a sentence in which I made an opinion on whether the paper should have been published in PNAS; that is mostly irrelevant here. I was not a reviewer, and authors/reviewers/editors have to make that decision. This would be a massive tangent away from what this blog post is intended to be about! I know some of the authors and don’t want to offend them, but this is about the science and how it is represented to the world, not about these particular authors or even this paper itself.)

Importantly, Kaplan’s story did include my skeptical quote at the end. I am curious to see how many other news stories covering this paper go that far.

Would a T. rex prey on, or just scavenge, a giant chicken? (art by Luis Rey)

Would a T. rex prey on, or just scavenge — or have a great time racing — a giant chicken? (art by Luis Rey)

I will stop right here and acknowledge that I’ve published a lot on a somewhat related topic: how fast a T. rex could run or if it could run at all. To me, that’s a great scientific question that has consequences not only for the predator/scavenger false dichotomy, but also for general theories of locomotor biomechanics (can an animal the size of a large elephant run as well as or better than said elephant? What are the thresholds of size and maximal running/jumping/other athletic abilities and how do they vary in different evolutionary lineages? And so on.). I’ll defend the validity of that question to the bitter end, even if it’s a question I’ve grown a little (but only a little) tired of and generally feel is about as well settled as these things can be in palaeontology (see my review here). I’ll also defend that it has been a real controversy (I have plenty of old emails, formal rebuttals submitted by colleagues, and other discourse as evidence of this) since I tackled it starting in 2002 and sort of finishing by 2011. I am sensitive about the issue of hyping my research up– this is something I’ve been careful about. I set a reasonable bar of how much is too much, check myself continuously with reflective thought, and I do not feel I have ever really crossed that bar, away from science-promotion into darker realms. This is partly why I’ve stopped addressing this issue in my current work. I feel like the science we’ve done on this is enough for now, and to keep beating the same drum would be excessive, unless we discovered a surprising new way to address the questions better, or a very different and more compelling answer to them.

T. rex: scavenger or predator?” was controversial back  in 1994 when Horner published “The Complete T. rex”, where he laid out his arguments. Brian Switek covered this quite well in his post on it, so I will not review that history. There was a big Museum of the Rockies exhibit about it that toured the USA, and other media attention surrounding it, so Horner’s name became attached to the idea as a result. Other such as Lambe and Colinvaux had addressed it before, but their ideas never seemed to gain as much currency as Horner’s did. But this post is not about that.

What this post is about is a consideration of why this is still an issue that the media report on (and scientists publish on; the two are synergistic of course), if most scientists aware of past debates are in good agreement that a T. rex was like most other carnivores and was opportunistic as a switch-hitting scavenger-predator, not a remarkably stupid animal that would turn down a proper meal that was dead/alive. Indeed, the Nature news piece has a juicy quote from Horner that implies (although I do not know if it was edited or if important context is missing) that he has been in favour of the opportunistic predator-scavenger conclusion for some time. Thus, as Switek’s article notes, even the strongest advocates of the obligate scavenger hypothesis(?) have changed their minds; indeed, that 2011 blog post intimates that this had already happened at least 2 years ago.

For many years, nothing has been published in the main peer-reviewed literature that favours that extreme “obligate scavenger” hypothesis. If I am wrong and there is a scientific debate, where are the recent papers (say within the past 5 years) that are strong, respectable arguments in favour of it? I contend that it is a dead issue. And if it is just about the middle ground; i.e. what percent of its time did a T. rex spend hunting vs. scavenging; we have no clue and may never know, and it’s not a very interesting question.

But who then is feeding off of this moribund equine; this defunct tyranno-parrot?

In thinking about my reply to the journalist over the past 2 days, I am reminded again of my general feeling that this is no longer a question of scientific evidence; the important bit in bold font above. Maybe we just like this “hypothesis” or the “controversy”, or maybe we’re lazy and don’t want to have to hunt for real debates in science.

But who are “the people?” I do not feel that The Public should be blamed; they are the people that The Scientists and The Media ostensibly are seeking to inform about what the state of modern knowledge and uncertainty is in science. So when I get asked about the controversy after a public lecture, I always try to go into detail about it. I don’t sigh and say “go Google it”. Nor do I do this to a journalist. Indeed, I’ve generally headed this issue off at the pass and added a blurb to press releases/webpages explaining my T. rex research to explain how it relates to the non-controversy; example here.

I have to begin turning my finger of accusation away from scientists and toward some of the media, because they must play a huge role in the shennanigans. Yes, scientists should know better then to play this up as a valid, heated, modern controversy. That is true. Yet I have a feeling that the balance of blame should also fall heavily on the side of media (general and science news) that continue to report on this issue uncritically as a real controversy. Thus the general public thinks it still is, and scientists/journals keep issuing papers/press releases that it is, leading to more reporting on this “controversy”, and the beast refuses to die. Switek’s article is a good counter-example of balanced coverage with clear application of critical thinking.

This is trivially different from other non-controversies in palaeontology such as whether birds evolved from a subgroup of theropod dinosaurs and hence are dinosaurs by virtue of descent (consensus = yes). So it is reflective of a broader problem of not calling a spade a spade.

And it’s embarassing, to a scientist, as my quote above expressed, to see dead controversies trotted out again and again, feeding the public perception that they are not dead.

That’s what leaves me frustrated. When do the shennanigans end?

I am reminded of a quote from a Seinfeld episode:

“Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.”- Jerry, from the episode “The Voice”.

But this predator/scavenger relationship-from-hell leaves me, as a specialist working in this general area, feeling like I am trapped under that fridge. Help!

That’s why I started off this long post talking about feeling deflated, or disappointed, when asked this question. I do feel that way. I have to admit, I sometimes even feel that way when a sweet young kid asks me that question. Deep inside, I wish they wondered about something else. I wish that science had reached them with a deeper, more contemporary question. But when a journalist asks me how I feel about a new paper that revisits the “controversy”, I feel embarassed for palaeontology. Can’t we get past this? It makes us look so petty, mired in trivial questions for decades. But we’re not like that. This is a dynamic, exciting, modern field, but every news story about non-issues in palaeontology just perpetuate bad elements of palaeontology’s image.

To the scientists– why don’t we put our foot down more and say enough is enough, this is a dead issue? We have a role not only in peer review, but also in communicating our views about published work to the media when asked (AND when not asked, as in this blog post). But if you call them on it, do they listen? Which brings me to…

To the media (science/general journalists etc; I know this is a huge category and please don’t think I am blaming 100% of journalists or assuming they are all the same; they are not!)– if scientists tell you that a “controversy” is not such, at what point do you accept their judgement and kill the story, or at least use that quote? Does that ever happen? In what way are you at the mercy of senior editors/others in such issues? What power do you have? Is a shift in the balance of editorial power needed, or even achievable, in your case or in good exemplar cases? I’d really like to hear your experiences/thoughts. I am sure there is a lot I am not understanding, and I know many journalists are in a tough situation.

To the public– You’re often being misinformed; you are the losers in this issue. How do you feel about all it? (While this post focuses on a very tiny issue, the T. rex scavenger/predator unending drama, it is also about a broader issue of how the media perpetuates controversies in science after they have already gone extinct.)

What did this post have to do with freezers? Nothing. I’m just (H)ornery. Although I was once filmed for a planned Discovery Channel film about scientists who find a frozen tyrannosaur in polar regions and have to decide what to do with it before it slips into a chasm and is lost forever. Probably better that this never aired; it was cancelled. Segue to this post.

The Berkeley cast of the Wankel (MOR555) specimen of T. rex. Will we ever see the end of the predator/scavenger non-issue?

The Berkeley cast of the Wankel (MOR555) specimen of T. rex. Will we ever see the end of the predator/scavenger non-issue?

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Chilly 1st Birthday to You, WIJF Blog!

It has indeed been a year of blogging now! And it has been a very fun year at that. Here is my look back at past events on this blog.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10- some heavy-hitters in here, but to regular Freezerinos they will mostly be familiar.

giraffe-leg-CT

This blog’s first image and subject: giraffe legs and modelling.

NUMB WITH NUMBERS:

First, the usual consideration of statistics: wow! I never expected the blog to be this successful! I’d sort of hoped as much, but for such a niche blog it was far from guaranteed in my mind. However, the initial response was overwhelming: 4210 hits in its first month, many of them on the first day!

Since then, although the usual number of blog views are around 100-200/day, there are now 76 blog followers,  and a total of ~111,000 views! According to ImpactStory and Topsy, the blog has had 48 tweets (7 of them “Influential”), 111 Facebook likes, 105 Facebook comments, and 53 Facebook shares. Nice!

The biggest day was April 27, 2012: 10,564 views– ZOWIE! That was fun. More about that below. I’m amused that my very first post only has 85 views even to this date, but it didn’t really contain much.

Visitors tended to come from browser searches (23,243 hits!), in particular hunting for images of the feet/limbs of elephants, rhinos, giraffes and other megafauna (looks like my intended purpose worked– vets and other anatomists want this rare information!). Oddly, from a few of my tweets that got listed on my blog, “deepstaria enigmatica” (remember that craze?) became one of the most common terms (214 to date!) that brings people here via the intertubez. Giraffe anatomy and patella are also major sources of search strikes. Interesting!

But don’t dismiss the power of Facebook (4,399 oggles on WIJF total) versus the somewhat surprisingly smaller impact of Twitter (2,036 pings). I say surprising because I push the blog much harder on Twitter than anywhere else, but Facebook pages like Perez’s Veterinary Anatomy (>33,000 members/likes!) have done far more than my mere ~1,300 Twitter followers can. Other blogs like the Chinleana palaeo blog (1,008 palaeo-hits here) and the ubiquitous Pharyngula (791 athe-hits) have helped a lot, too– thanks to all those bloggers and science writers who have linked to my humble little blog!!!

Who are YOU? You mostly come from the USA and UK, of course, but Japan is 3rd on my visitors ranking, followed by Canada, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands. Russia: we want more of you, too. Monaco, Nauru, Tuvalu and Liechtenstein- you as well, please! North Korea, keep trying.

So this is all great; really great. I’m rather amazed.

Definitely the blog has succeeded in what I aimed: to present the fun, awesome, curious side of anatomy in all its raw glory, using the freezer as a common theme (although I’ve felt free to deviate from purely freezer-based science when it pleases me). And it has crystallized for me just how important and powerful a single picture of anatomy can be.

That is what this post emphasizes- the pictures of the year from this blog. Enjoy the walk down morphology lane.

MOST POPULAR POSTS AND PERIODS:

Certainly the post; indeed the single photograph; that stands out for this blog is that of the elephant with its guts spilling out, from my Inside Nature’s Giants post on 13 April (so it took 2 weeks to gather momentum before the views spilled out like so many bowels). In a single day I had thousands of visitors from Boing Boing, Metafilter, Reddit, Gizmodo, io9, pinterest (which still sends me a lot of hits daily), and more! So here once again is that beastly image:

Stunning emergence of The Guts

Stunning emergence of The Guts

The post even got re-discovered by Reddit (the dreaded repost), leading to another surge. 24,330 views of the blog post so far!

A distant second to the elephant guts in terms of broad popularity was the “how thick is a rhino’s skin?” image; another Reddit favourite; with 4,719 views of the post from World Rhino Day 2012:

Skinning a White rhino forelimb

But also the “Animal: Inside Out” review did very well here (2,338 views to date), which was quite gratifying because I did a lot of detailed but enjoyable research for that one. It continues to bring people here, long after the NHM exhibit closed (it is now at Chicago’s excellent Museum of Science & Industry), which is quite cool.

Thanks to the poll results from last week, I’ll be doing more exhibition reviews like this– see below. My favourite image from that post is this: the bull (but don’t forget the camel, either):

Great exhibit. No bullshit.

Great exhibit. No bullshit.

Once we’re past those top 3 pages, things settle down to numerous posts with ~1000 or less views to date– highlights include the big rhinos and giant rhinos post: Rhino humeri

And the post on WCROC the big Nile crocodile got a fair amount of attention, as well as my posts on our Ichthyostega research and vertebral evolution discoveries, naked dinosaurian ostriches, chicken meat, giraffe anatomy (many pages, but this one is relatively most popular), and then the series I did on the RVC’s Anatomy Museum (first post here).

Here are a few thumbnails of the greatest hits from those posts and some others– which do you remember and why?

DSC_0203 Mystery Dissection 3  DSC_0963a  Whole 2 Gratuitious Melanosuchus (black caiman) shot. chicken-viscera-myopathy Gratuitious rhinoceros leg.  Kitty Hedz it is defunct rhino_front  hippo_L_knee Wolpertingers Jenny Hanniver- "face" windfall-croc (4) The nuchal ligament, which runs along the spine and helps hold up that long neck.  The left cheek's teeth-- and check out the spines on the inside of the cheek! Keratinous growths to aid in chewing, food movement, digestion etc. These extend into the stomach, too! Amazed me first time I saw them, in an okapi (giraffe cousin). my-brain2 If this post bummed you out, just focus on these contented cats. An offering to The Master

…and we’ll never speak of the freezer-penis again…

Of course, there were the puzzles and mysteries, too. When I think of those, the image I think of most is this one; one of the first. Remember what it is? DSCN0880

I’ll be defrosting some new ways to puzzle you this year.

Personally, my post about my brain means a lot to me (and any zombies out there) of course, but also I’m rather keen on my entry on elephant biomechanical models (cheeseburger units!), and the posts about elephant foot pathologies and the rhino crisis also carried a strong, semi-personal urgency.

I also featured a lot of movies here- if you want to peruse them, they’re always on my Youtube account here– >22,000 views so far; not bad. One of my favourites is this one, of a pumpkin being smashed in slow motion:

Furthermore, in terms of effort writing and researching, my very detailed post on chimeras and Jenny Hannivers and such is very memorable for me, and more recently the Freezermas series was a huge undertaking– which gave me needed breaks but also soaked up a lot of time during some intensive grant-writing!

I predict that the pangolin post, in particular, will proceed to provoke a promiscuous proportion of people to pass by this blog.

But the WIJF blog has always been about including you too, my loyal Freezerinos– what about you? Please thaw out your memories of past posts and comment below on what sticks out as your favourites and why. I’d love to hear about it!

Eggs: full of bountiful promise and symbolism for the future.

Eggs: full of bountiful promise and symbolism for the future.

THE FROZEN TUNDRA OF THE FUTURE:

A final duty for this post, heralded by my poll earlier, is for me to peer into my frosty crystal ball and report on the future of this blog:

As promised, it will continue for a year or more; as long as I feel I have something new to say and someone to tell it to.

The poll convinced me, as I’d hoped, to venture into more reviews of museum/other exhibits that I visit locally or abroad. Now and then I’ll also tackle a new or classic paper, good or bad, that tickles my anatomical fancy, and give my perspective on it. The mysteries and puzzles will continue; I was checking in that poll to see what the enjoyment level was, and it is clearly still reasonably high. I’ll continue presenting my own research here, especially when it’s quite anatomical (stay tuned for something new and VERY exciting in a few weeks!). As I’d hoped, hardly anyone found the self-promotional aspect of this blog (presenting my own research) to need downplaying, but I think over the coming year you’ll see more diversity of what is presented in terms of current research by anyone. I welcome suggestions of cool anatomical science to cover. I will try to cover mostly postcranial anatomy, since other blogs/Facebook pages already do such a good job with cranial morphology, and postcranial is much more my expertise.

But generally I will just keep on keepin’ on with what I’ve been doing!

Examples of what’s yet to come: some close encounters with my collection of specimens– the cast of characters that populate my freezers. What exactly is there, and what are the odd things I haven’t yet even mentioned here? I’ll also just grab some specimens and thaw and dissect them for the purpose of blogging it (live-tweeting too?), and going through some of the anatomical talking points for each. And much more! You may even see Cryogenics, Yetis, or Snowball Earth come up in features touching on the theme of freezerness, general science and critical thinking.

But– IMPRESSIVE IMAGERY, again, is what WIJF is truly about. It’s what I’m about, too- I became an anatomist partly because the visually arresting nature of anatomy grabbed me and won’t let go.

Here are some NEW images to ponder. One is… unpleasant; one is more abstractly technical; but both are about the bewitching power of anatomy. The coming year will run the gamut between these extremes:

PigsHeads
PURPLE EMU WHOLE 1 _Se1_Im002

Thanks, everyone here, for helping to make blogging fun for me and for others, and for enduring my self-indulgence – especially in this post – but I hope you enjoyed a ramble through this past year in my freezers.

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A vignette from research I’m engaged in with a couple of different projects follows. Below is a photo I took of two humeri (upper arm bones; humerus is singular).

One is from a Black Rhinoceros; Diceros bicornis (modern; specimen #H.6481 from the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge), which was collected in 1873 in Bogos, Abyssinia by zoologist ?Edward? Gerrard.

The other, larger one is from a giant long-necked and (presumably) hornless rhinocerotoid; Paraceratherium [AKA Indricotherium, Baluchitherium] (extinct of course; specimen #NHMUK PV M 12251 from The Natural History Museum, London); which was collected in 1911 in the Siwalik Hills of India by palaeontologist Forster Cooper. My photo is shown with kind permission of the Natural History Museum, London.

For an idea of scale, the smaller one is 39 cm (just over a foot) long, so about the same length as your humerus, give or take a bit. It comes from an animal that probably weighed around one tonne (1000 kg; 2200 lbs) or so. Look back at the picture, and pause to reflect on the scale. This is one of the largest living land animals right here, and despite that size it is quite an athlete (watch the classic John Wayne chasing-animals-around-Africa film Hatari! if you want elegant proof, or browse Youtube videos of boisterous rhinos).

But any living rhino pales in comparison to the giant Oligocene form, whose humerus is twice the length (~80 cm; almost as long as your entire leg, probably) and quite a bit more robust. The best estimates of mass for such an animal are up to 15-20 tonnes, on a par with the largest mammoths and other elephant relatives. That’s like a ten-rhino rhino! Sure, they all pale somewhat in scale against the largest sauropods (or whales, which cheat by living in water). Yet for my money (warning: subjective value judgement ahead!) a rhinoceros is cooler than any sauropod at the same size, and sauropods are extinct so we have less left to study. (I’m being deliberately provocative for my sauropod researcher friends, but in a loving way)

The scale, and often cramped conditions, make it hard getting a good photo of a Paraceratherium skeleton or reconstruction, but here’s one I took at Tokyo’s Museum of Nature and Science.

Now, of course if you know me, you know I am thinking about how such giant land animals moved. Authors such as Gregory Paul and Per Christiansen have made arguments based on real data, both qualitative anatomy and quantitative bone dimension measurements, that even giant rhinos like Paraceratherium could trot and gallop much like living rhinos do, despite their giant size. They have inferred from the limb joint structure that these giant rhinos were more crouched, were less columnar (vertical-limbed) than living elephants are (although I’ve shown with my team that this characterization of elephants is quite misleading; they get quite un-columnar, rather crouched, as they attain faster speeds). If Paul and Christiansen were correct, it would be remarkable. I can’t definitively show either way, just yet. But I want to see how well this argument holds up with other data and methods, so I’ve been planning to test this idea for a long time. We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, that was my brief tale of two scales. On one hand we have living “giants” in the form of the five currently remaining species of rhinoceroses, which are quite extraordinary in many ways, albeit in big trouble. On the other hand we have amazing, mysterious uber-giants like Paraceratherium, two or more times the size in linear dimensions and an order of magnitude greater in weight. Both are certainly giants by any measure of size in land animals.

But was the bigger rhino living in a rather different world, even more dominated by gravity than its smaller relative is today? (No, gravity was no different! It was only 30 or so million years ago; relatively recent!) Or did they live in relatively similar worlds of just being “bloody huge and devastatingly powerful, thank you very much”? I find that question really exciting and wondrous to ponder. What do you think?

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Boo!

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

Happy Halloween… muhahahahaaaaaa!!!

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Here is a little vignette for you; a taster of the BBSRC-funded chicken biomechanics project my team has underway in collaboration with Jonathan Codd’s team at Uni Manchester. I did not know about the following situation until a couple of years ago during my former PhD student (now postdoc) Heather Paxton‘s research on chicken mechanics.

Regard this chicken, slit open along the midline to show the viscera. The huge pectoralis muscles (breast meat) have been pushed aside; the right side’s are clumsily outlined (I blame caffeine?) in blue.

Then consider the heart, within the jagged, shamefully and ineptly drawn green circle. I’ll come back to that.

So this broiler chicken took 6 weeks to reach this size, of about 3 kilograms (6.6 lbs). Fifty years ago, before artificial selection was imposed on a MASSIVE scale (many billions of chickens per year worldwide, bred in a complex pyramid scheme of crossed strains), that same chicken strain would have taken 15 weeks to reach a normal slaughter mass of roughly 2 kg (4.4 lbs). The major selection, of course, has been for edible meat, especially that lovely breast muscle’s white meat.

If we look at red junglefowl, to a large degree the “wild type” ancestors of domestic chickens that are native to southeast Asia, the leg muscles take up about 7.7% body mass per leg vs. about 6.3% in the broiler. Just a small decrease, but probably an important one, and something our research focuses a lot on (walking ability, lameness, activity levels etc). But that’s a subject for a future post. In stark contrast, the breast muscles (back to the blue ellipse above)  have gone from 7% to up to 11.6% body mass per wing; a huge change!

Now let’s return to another large muscle, the one within the green circle above; the heart. Not only must the heart, which has become relatively larger by perhaps 25%, pump blood to a body that has enlarged by >50%, but it also must perfuse the giant pectoral muscles, which have enlarged by >65%.

Herein lies the problem… You probably can predict what happens.

Several syndromes may develop, but the one I want to cover here is called deep pectoral myopathy (AKA “Oregon disease” or better yet “green muscle disease”, a very appropriate term as you’ll see below). Basically, the giant pectoralis muscles receive inadequate blood flow from the smallish heart, because the muscles are so big and under so much pressure, creating resistance to flow, and so the muscles begin dying from within. A picture tells the story:

While surely uncomfortable for the birds and hence a welfare problem, it is usually not found until the animals are slaughtered, and then of course the meat is destroyed rather than delivered for human consumption. Because of the welfare problems and loss of meat (i.e. financial loss), the poultry industry is trying to remedy this problem. W’e’re working on aspects of this as well, as part of our study of how the locomotor and ventilatory systems of chickens develop and have evolved.

I am blogging this as a great example of how anatomy can go haywire and become imbalanced when evolutionary selection pressures are intense and highly specific (e.g. almost single-minded human selection for large breast muscle). It is also a conundrum that human society faces: while chicken meat seems more efficient and more ecologically sound than some other meats, and there is growing demand for meat as the human population grows, how do we balance welfare concerns with food security, economics and other factors? And how do we judge when artificial selection has gone too far? I do not present an answer because the answer is not easy, and because my team is still learning about how to answer it.

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