Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘in all seriousness’

Vulnerability, Strength and Success

I’ve been doing a series of career guidance sessions with my research team, and this past week we talked about how to structure a successful career path as a scientist. As part of that, I gave my thoughts on how to maximize chances of that “success” (traditional definition; getting a decent permanent job as a researcher, and doing a good job at it); without knowingly being a jerk or insincere. This process led me to re-inspect my own career for insights — not that I’ve been on perfect behaviour, but I do routinely reflect on choices I make.

I asked myself, “What does success mean to me?” to see what my answer was today. That led to me writing up this story of my career path, as an example of the twists and turns that can happen in the life of a scientist. I originally intended to share this story just with my team, but then I decided to turn into a full-on blog post, in my ongoing personal quest to open up and share my thoughts and experiences with others. For those who have read my advice to PhD students, there are some commonalities, but plenty of this is new.

Where my last post was partly about publicly exposing vulnerabilities in other scientists, this one is about privately finding one’s own vulnerabilities along with the strengths, and sharing them publicly. The story is about me, but the key points are more about how “success” can evolve in science (N=1 plus anecdotal observations of others).

 

Growing Up in Grad School

As an undergraduate student, I was clueless about my career until I applied to graduate school a second time. The first time I tried applying, I didn’t even know how to really go about it, or what I wanted to do beyond some sort of biology. Yet to my credit I was curious, creative, a swift learner with a great memory for science, and broadly educated in biology and other fields (thanks, parents and past teachers!). I read and watched “Jurassic Park” and lots of Stephen Jay Gould and Darwin or palaeontology books, and I just tried to actively learn all I could, reading compulsively. I even resolved to quit non-science reading for a few years, and stuck to that. I realized that a research career combining evolution and biomechanics was of interest to me, involving vertebrates and maybe fossils.

I got into grad school in 1995 and had a great project to study how dinosaurs moved, but I felt inadequate compared to my peers. So I dedicated myself even harder to reading and learning. I didn’t pass my first orals (qualifying exam; appraisal/defense) but that helped me to refocus even more resolutely on deep learning, especially to fill gaps in my knowledge of biomechanics methods that I’d later use. During this time I also learned website design and HTML code (mid-90s; early WWW!), working with several others on Berkeley’s UCMP website in my free time. I intensively networked with colleagues via email lists (the long-lived Dinosaur listproc) and at a lot of conferences, trying to figure out how science worked and how to go about my project. That was a powerful initial formative period.

It was a gruelling struggle and I’d had serious health problems (a narrow escape from cancer) around the same time, too. I frequently, throughout the 1990’s, doubted if I could make it in the field. I looked around me and could not see how I could become successful in what I wanted to do (marry biomechanics and evolutionary biology in stronger ways). I was so scared, so uncertain of my own work, that I didn’t know what to do—I had a project but had no clue how to really implement it. So two years passed in semi-paralysis, with little concrete science to show for it, and I gave a lot of *bad* internal seminars in Berkeley’s Friday biomechanics group. However, those bad seminars helped me to become a better speaker. I had a terrible fear of public speaking; on top of having little data, this experience was brutal for me. But I used it as practice, bent to the task of bettering myself.

A change in my career trajectory happened as my research slowly took root. I wrote some book chapters for a dinosaur encyclopedia in 1997, a simple paper describing a little dinosaur in 1998, then another paper on taxonomy published in 1999. [For those wanting to find out what any of these papers I mention are, they are on my Publications page, often with pdfs] These papers at least showed I could finish a research task; when I was younger I’d had some bad habits of not finishing work I started.

I visited a lot of museums and hung out with people there, socializing while learning about diverse fossils and their evolutionary anatomy, implementing what I’d learned from my own dissections and literature studies of living animals. This led to a poster (actually two big posters stacked atop each other; plotting the evolution of the reptilian pelvis and muscles) at a palaeontology meeting (SVP). This poster turned a few heads and I suppose convinced some that I knew something about bone and soft tissue anatomy.

Then in 1998, I did a 4-month visiting scholarship at Brown University with Steve Gatesy that had a big impact on my career: Steve helped me consolidate ideas about how anatomy related to function in dinosaurs, and how to interpret data from living animals (I did my first gait experiments, with guineafowl, which went sort of OK), and I loved Brown University’s EEB department environment. For once, I felt like a grown-up, as people started to listen to what I had to say. In retrospect, I was still just a kid in many other ways. I didn’t really achieve a lot of what Steve asked me to do; I was unfocused, but changing steadily.

In 1999, I gave a talk at SVP that was well received, based on that research with Gatesy, and then I gave it again at SICB. I had a few prominent scientists encouraging me to apply for faculty jobs (e.g., Beth Brainerd was very supportive)– this gave me a new charge of excitement and confidence. I finally began to feel like a real expert in my little area of science. That talk became our 2000 “Abductors, adductors…” paper in Paleobiology, which I still love for its integrative nature and broad, bold (but incompletely answered) questions. Yet when a respected professor at Berkeley told me before my University of Chicago faculty job interview “You act like a deer in the headlights too often,” I knew I had a long journey of self-improvement left. And a lot of that improvement just came with time– and plenty of mistakes.

Momentum continued to build for my career in 2000 as I took my anatomical work into more biomechanical directions and passed my orals. I gave an SVP Romer Prize (best student talk) presentation on my new T. rex biomechanical modelling work, and I won! I felt truly appreciated, not just as an expert but as an emerging young leader in my research area. I’ll never forget the standing ovation at the award announcement in Mexico City—seeing people I saw as famous and amazing get up and cheer for me was such a rush! Then I published two lengthy anatomical papers in Zool J Linn Soc in 2001, which still are my most cited works – even more than some of my subsequent Nature papers.

 

Evolution: Postdoc to Faculty

Also in 2001, I was awarded a NSF postdoc at Stanford to do exactly what I’d long wanted to do: build detailed biomechanical models of dinosaurs, using the anatomical work I’d done before. That was it: I saw evidence that I had “made it”. But that took about six years; toward the end of my PhD; to truly feel this way most of the time, and in some ways this feeling led to youthful overconfidence and brashness that I had to later try to shed. I feel fortunate that the rest of my career went more smoothly. I doubt I could have endured another six years of struggling as I did during my PhD. But it wasn’t easy, either. During my postdoc I had to force my brain to think like a mechanical engineer’s and that was a difficult mental struggle.

The year 2002 became a wild ride for me.

First, my T. rex “not a fast runner” paper got published in Nature, and I was thrown into the limelight of the news media for two weeks or so. Luckily I was ready for the onslaught — one of my mentors, Bob Full, warned me, “This will be huge. Prepare!” I handled it well and I learned a lot about science communication in the process.

Shortly after that publication, just before my wedding’s bachelor party, I developed terrible leg blood clots and had to cancel my party—but I recovered in time for the wedding, which was a fantastic event on a California clifftop. I enjoyed a good life and seemed healthy again. I kept working hard, I got my second paper accepted at Nature on bouncy-running elephants, and then…

Then I had a stroke, just before that Nature paper got published.

Everything came crashing to a halt and I had to think about what it all meant—these were gigantic life-and-death questions to face at age 31! Luckily, I recovered without much deficit at all, and I regained my momentum with renewed stubborn dedication and grit, although my recover took many months, and took its toll on my psyche. I’ve told this story before in this post about my brain.

I started seeing therapists to talk about my struggles, which was a mixed blessing: I became more aware of my personality flaws, but also more aware of how many of those flaws wouldn’t change. I’m still not sure if that was a good thing but it taught me a lot of humility, which I still revisit today. I also learned to find humour and wonder in the dark times, which colours even this blog.

In winter of 2003 I went to a biomechanics symposium in Calgary, invited by British colleague Alan Wilson. Later that spring, Alan encouraged me to apply for an RVC faculty job (“you’ll at least get an interview and a free trip to London”), which I said no to (vet school and England move didn’t seem right to me), but later changed my mind after thinking it over.

I got the RVC job offer the day before my actual job talk (luckily colleague David Polly warned me that things like this happened fast in the UK, unlike the months of negotiation in the USA!). I made the move in November 2003 and the rest was hard work, despite plenty of mistakes and lessons learned, that paid off a lot career-wise. If I hadn’t taken that job I’d have been unemployed, and I had postdoc fellowships and faculty job applications that got rejected in 2002-2003, so I was no stranger to rejection. It all could have gone so differently…

But it wasn’t a smooth odyssey either—there were family and financial struggles, and I was thousands of miles away while my mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s and my father swiftly fell victim to cancer, and I never was 100% healthy and strong after my troubles in 2002. Even in the late 2000’s, I felt inadequate and once confided to a colleague something like “I still feel like a postdoc here. I’m a faculty member and I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded.”

Since then, I’ve achieved some security that has at last washed that feeling away. That was a gradual process,  but I think the key moment I realized that “I’ll be OK now”  was in 2010 when I got the call, while on holiday in Wales (at the time touring Caernarfon Castle), informing me that my promotion to full Professor was being approved. It was an anticlimactic moment because that promotion process took 1 year, but it still felt great. It felt like success. I’ll never earn the “best scientist ever” award, so I am content. I don’t feel I have something big left to prove to myself in my career, so I can focus on other things now. It “only” took 15 or so years…

 

Ten Lessons Learned

When I look back on this experience and try to glean general lessons, my thoughts are:

1)     Socializing matters so much for a scientific career. “Networking” isn’t a smarmy or supercilious approach, either; in fact, that insincerity can backfire and really hurt one’s reputation. I made a lot of friends early on — some of my best friends today are scientist colleagues. Many of these have turned into collaborators. Making friends in science is a win-win situation. Interacting with fellow scientists is one of the things I have always enjoyed most about science. Never has it been clearer to me how important the human element of science is. Diplomacy is a skill I never expected to use much in science, but I learned it through a lot of experience, and now I treasure it.

2)     Developing a thicker skin is essential, but being vulnerable helps, too. Acting impervious just makes you seem inhuman and isolates you. Struggling is natural and helped me endure the tough times that came along with the good times, often in sharp transition. Science is freaking hard as a career. Even with all the hard work, nothing is guaranteed. Whether you’re weathering peer review critiques, politics, or health or other “life problems”, you need strength, whether it comes from inside you or from those around you. Embrace that you won’t be perfect but strive to do your best despite that. Regret failures briefly (be real with yourself), learn from them and then move on.

3)     Reading the literature can be extremely valuable. So many of my ideas came from obsessive reading in diverse fields, and tying together diverse ideas or finding overlooked/unsolved questions and new ways to investigate them. I can’t understand why some scientists intentionally don’t try to read the literature (and encourage their students to follow this practice!), even though it is inevitable to fall behind the literature; you will always miss relevant stuff. I think it can only help to try to keep up that scholarly habit, and it is our debt to past scientists as well as our expectation of future ones—otherwise why publish?

4)     I wish I learned even more skills when I was younger. It is so hard to find time and energy now to learn new approaches. This inevitably leads to a researcher becoming steadily less of a master of research methods and data to more of a manager of research. So I am thankful for having the wisdom accumulated via trial and error experiences to keep me relevant and useful to my awesome team. That sharing of wisdom and experience is becoming more and more enjoyable to me now.

5)     Did I “succeed” via hard work or coincidence? Well, both—and more! I wouldn’t have gotten here without the hard work, but I look back and I see a lot of chance events that seemed innocent at the time, but some turned out to be deeply formative. Some decisions I made look good in retrospect, but they could have turned out badly, and I made some bad decisions, too; those are easy to overlook given that the net result has been progress. Nothing came easily, overall. And I had a lot of help from mentors, too; Kevin Padian and Scott Delp in particular. Even today, I would not say that my career is easy, by any stretch. I still can find it very draining, but it’s so fun, too!

6)     Take care of yourself. I’ve learned the hard way that the saying “At least you have your health” is profoundly wise. I try to find plenty of time now to stop, breathe and observe my life, reflecting on the adventures I’ve had so far. The feelings evoked by this are rich and complex.

7)     If I could go back, I’d change a lot of decisions I made. We all would. But I’m glad I’ve lived the life I’ve lived so far. At last, after almost 20 years of a career in science, I feel mostly comfortable in my own skin, more able to act rather than be frozen in the headlights of adversity. I know who I am and what I cannot be, and things I need to work on about myself. In some ways I feel more free than I’ve felt since childhood, because the success (as I’ve defined it in my life) has given me that freedom to try new things and take new risks, and I feel fortunate for that. I think I finally understand the phrase “academic freedom” and why it (and tenure) are so valuable in science today, because I have a good amount of academic freedom. I still try to fight my own limits and push myself to improve my world—the freedom I have allows this.

8)     When I revisit the question of “what does success mean to me?” today I find that the answer is to be able to laugh, half-darkly, at myself—at my faults, my strengths, and the profound and the idiotic experiences of my life. I’ve found ways to both take my life seriously and to laugh at myself adrift in it. To see these crisply and then to embrace the whole as “this is me, I can deal with that” brings me a fresh and satisfying feeling.

9)     Share your struggles —  and successes — with those you trust. It helps. But even just a few years ago, the thought of sharing my career’s story online would have scared me.

10)     As scientists we hope for success in our careers to give us some immortality of sorts. What immortality we win is but echoes of our real lives and selves. So I seek to inject some laughter into those echoes while revelling in the amazing moments that make up almost every day. I think it’s funny that I became a scientist and it worked out OK, and I’m grateful to the many that helped; no scientist succeeds on their own.

A major aspect of a traditional career in science is to test the hypothesis that you can succeed in a career as a scientist, which is a voyage of self-discovery, uncovering personal vulnerabilities and strengths. I feel that I am transitioning into whatever the next part of my science career will be; in part, to play a psychopomp role for others taking that voyage.

That’s my story so far. Thanks for sticking with it until the end. Please share your thoughts below.

Read Full Post »

This post is solely my opinion; not reflecting any views of my coauthors, my university, etc, and was written in my free time at home. I am just putting my current thoughts in writing, with the hope of stimulating some discussion. My post is based on some ruminations I’ve had over recent years, in which I’ve seen a lot of change happening in how science’s self-correcting process works, and the levels of openness in science, which are trends that seem likely to only get more intense.

That’s what this post ponders- where are we headed and what does it mean for scientists and science? Please stay to the end. It’s a long read, but I hope it is worth it. I raise some points at the end that I feel strongly about, and many people (not just scientists) might also agree with or be stimulated to think about more.

I’ve always tried to be proactive about correcting my (“my” including coauthors where relevant) papers, whether it was a publisher error I spotted or my/our own; I’ve done at least 5 such published corrections. Some of my later papers have “corrected” (by modifying and improving the methods and data) my older ones, to the degree that the older ones are almost obsolete. A key example is my 2002 Nature paper on “Tyrannosaurus rex was not a fast runner“- a well-cited paper that I am still proud of. I’ve published (with coauthors aplenty) about 10 papers since then that explore various strongly related themes, the accuracy of assumptions and estimates involved, and new ways to approach the 2002 paper’s main question. The message of that paper remains largely the same after all those studies, but the data have changed to the extent that it would no longer be viable to use them. Not that this paper was wrong; it’s just we found better ways to do the science in the 12 years since we wrote it.

I think that is the way that most of science works; we add new increments to old ones, and sooner or later the old ones become more historical milestones for the evolution of ideas than methods and data that we rely on anymore. And I think that is just fine. I cannot imagine it being any other way.

If you paid close attention over the past five months, you may have noticed a kerfuffle (to put it mildly) raised by former Microsoft guru/patent afficionado/chef/paleontologist Nathan Myhrvold over published estimates of dinosaur growth rates since the early 2000′s. The paper coincided with some emails to authors of papers in question, and some press attention, especially in the New York Times and the Economist. I’m not going to dwell on the details of what was right or wrong about this process, especially the scientific nuances behind the argument of Myhrvold vs. papers in question. What happened happened. And similar things are likely to happen again to others, if the current climate in science is any clue. More about that later.

But one outcome of this kerfuffle was that my coauthors and I went through (very willingly; indeed, by my own instigation) some formal procedures at our universities for examining allegations of flaws in publications. And now, as a result of those procedures, we issued a correction to this paper:

Hutchinson, J.R., Bates, K.T., Molnar, J., Allen, V., Makovicky, P.J. 2011. A computational analysis of limb and body dimensions in Tyrannosaurus rex with implications for locomotion, ontogeny, and growth. PLoS One 6(10): e26037. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026037  (see explanatory webpage at: http://www.rvc.ac.uk/SML/Projects/3DTrexGrowth.cfm)

The paper correction is here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi/10.1371/journal.pone.0097055. Our investigations found that the growth rate estimates for Tyrannosaurus were not good enough to base any firm conclusions are, so we retracted all aspects of growth rates from that paper. The majority of the paper, about estimating body mass and segment dimensions (masses, centres of mass, inertia) and muscle sizes as well as their changes through growth and implications for locomotor ontogeny, still stands; it was not in question.

For those (most of you!) who have never gone through such a formal university procedure checking a paper, my description of it is that it is a big freakin’ deal! Outside experts may be called in to check the allegations and paper, you have to share all your data with them and go through the paper in great detail, retracing your steps, and this takes weeks or months. Those experts may need to get paid for their time. It is embarassing even if you didn’t make any errors yourself and even if you come out squeaky clean. And it takes a huge amount of your time and energy! My experience started on 16 December, reached a peak right around Xmas eve (yep…), and finally we submitted our correction to PLoS and got editorial approval on 20 March. So it involved three months of part-time but gruelling dissection of the science, and long discussions of how to best correct the problems. Many cooks! I have to admit that personally I found the process very stressful and draining.

Next time you wonder why science can be so slow at self-correction, this is the reason. The formal processes and busy people involved mean it MUST be slow– by the increasingly speedy standards of  modern e-science, anyway. Much as doing science can be slow and cautious, re-checking it will be. Should be?

My message from that experience is to get out in front of problems like this, as an author. Don’t wait for someone else to point it out. If you find mistakes, correct them ASAP. Especially if they (1) involve inaccurate data in the paper (in text, figures, tables, whatever), (2) would lead others to be unable to reproduce your work in any way, even if they had all your original methods and data, or (3) alter your conclusions. It is far less excruciating to do it this way then to have someone else force you to do it, which will almost inevitably involve more formality, deeper probing, exhaustion and embarassment. And there is really no excuse that you don’t have time to do it. Especially if a formal process starts. I can’t even talk about another situation I’ve observed, which is ongoing after ~3 years and is MUCH worse, but I’ve learned more strongly than ever that you must demonstrate you are serious and proactive about correcting your work.

I’ve watched other scientists from diverse fields experience similar things– I’m far from alone. Skim Retraction Watch and you’ll get the picture. What I observe both excites me and frightens me. I have a few thoughts.

1) The drive to correct past science is a very good development and it’s what science is meant to be about. This is the most important thing!

2) The digital era, especially trends for open access and open data for papers, makes corrections much easier to discover and do. That is essentially good, and important, and it is changing everything about how we do science. Just watch… “we live in interesting times” encapsulates the many layers of feelings one should react with if you are an active researcher. I would not dare to guess what science will be like in 20 years, presumably when I’ll be near my retirement and looking back on it all!

3) The challenge comes in once humans get involved. We could all agree on the same lofty principles of science and digital data but even then, as complex human beings, we will have a wide spectrum of views on how to handle cases in general, or specific cases.

This leads to a corollary question– what are scientists? And that question is at the heart of almost everything controversial about scientific peer review, publishing and post-publication review/correction today, in my opinion. To answer this, we need to answer at least two sub-questions:

1–Are we mere cogs in something greater, meant to hunker down and work for the greater glory of the machine of science?

(Should scientists be another kind of public servant? Ascetic monks?)

2–Are we people meant to enjoy and live our own lives, making our own choices and value judgements even if they end up being not truly optimal for the greater glory of science?

(Why do we endure ~5-10 years of training, increasingly poor job prospects/security, dwindling research funds, mounting burdens of expectations [e.g., administrative work, extra teaching loads, all leading to reduced freedoms] and exponentially growing bureaucracies? How does our experience as scientists give meaning to our own lives, as recompense?)

The answer is, to some degree, yes to both of the main questions above, but how we reconcile these two answers is where the real action is. And this brew is made all the spicier by the addition of another global trend in academia: the corporatization of universities (“the business model”) and the concomitant, increasing concern of universities about public image/PR and marketing values. I will not go any further with that; I am just putting it out there; it exists.

The answer any person gives will determine how they handle a specific situation in science. You’ve reminded your colleague about possible errors in their work and they haven’t corrected it. Do you tell their university/boss or do you blog and tweet about it, to raise pressure and awareness and force their hand? Or do you continue the conversation and try to resolve it privately at any cost? Is your motive truly the greater glory of science, or are you a competitive (or worse yet, vindictive or bitter) person trying to climb up in the world by dragging others down? How should mentors counsel early career researchers to handle situations like this? Does/should any scientist truly act alone in such a regard? There may be no easy, or even mutually exclusive, answers to these questions.

We’re all in an increasingly complex new world of science. Change is coming, and what that change will be like or when, no one truly knows. But ponder this:

Open data, open science, open review and post-publication review, in regards to correcting/retracting past publications: how far down the rabbit hole do we go?

The dinosaur growth rates paper kerfuffle concerned numerous papers that date back to earlier days of science, when traditions and expectations differed from today’s. Do we judge all past work by today’s standards, and enforce corrections on past work regardless of the standards of its time? If we answer some degree of “yes” to this, we’re in trouble. We approach a reductio ad absurdum: we might logic ourselves into a corner where that great machine of science is directed to churn up great scientific works of their time. Should Darwin’s or Einstein’s errors be corrected or retracted by a formal process like those we use today? Who would do such an insane thing? No one (I hope), but my point is this: there is a risk that is carried in the vigorous winds of the rush to make science look, or act, perfect, that we dispose of the neonate in conjunction with the abstergent solution.

OK I used 1 image...

There is always another way. Science’s incremental, self-correcting process can be carried out quite effectively by publishing new papers that correct and improve on old ones, rather than dismantling the older papers themselves. I’m not arguing for getting rid of retractions and corrections. But, where simple corrections don’t suffice, and where there is no evidence of misconduct or other terrible aspects of humanity’s role in science, perhaps publishing a new paper is a better way than demolishing the old. Perhaps it should be the preferred or default approach. I hope that this is the direction that the Myhrvold kerfuffle leans more toward, because the issues at stake are so many, so academic in nature, and so complex (little black/white and right/wrong) that openly addressing them in substantial papers by many researchers seems the best way forward. That’s all I’ll say about that.

I still feel we did the right thing with our T. rex growth paper’s correction. There is plenty of scope for researchers to re-investigate the growth question in later papers.  But I can imagine situations in which we hastily tear down our or others’ hard work in order to show how serious we are about science’s great machine, brandishing lofty ideals with zeal– and leaving unfairly maligned scientists as casualties in our wake. I am reminded of outbursts over extreme implementations of security procedures at airports in the USA, which were labelled “security theatre” for their extreme cost, showiness and inconvenience, with negligible evidence of security improvements.

The last thing we want in science is an analogous monstrosity that we might call “scientific theatre.” We need corrective procedures for and by scientists, that serve both science and scientists best. Everyone needs to be a part of this, and we can all probably do better, but how we do it… that is an interesting adventure we are on. I am not wise enough to say how it should happen, beyond what I’ve written here. But…

A symptom of scientific theatre might be a tendency to rely on public shaming of scientists as punishment for their wrongs, or as encouragement for them to come clean. I know why it’s done. Maybe it’s the easy way out; point at someone, yell at them in a passionate tone backed up with those lofty ideals, and the mob mentality will back you up, and they will be duly shamed. You can probably think of good examples. If you’re on social media you probably see a lot of it. There are naughty scientists out there, much as there are naughty humans of any career, and their exploits make a good story for us to gawk at, and often after a good dose of shaming they seem to go away.

But Jon Ronson‘s ponderings of the phenomenon of public shaming got me thinking (e.g., from this WTF podcast episode; go to about 1 hr 9 min): does public shaming belong in science? As Ronson said, targets of severe public shaming have described it as “the worst pain ever”, and sometimes “there’s no recourse” for them. Is this the best way to live together in this world? Is it really worth it, for scientists to do to others or to risk having done to them? What actually are its costs? We all do it in our lives sometimes, but it deserves introspection. I think there are lessons from the dinosaur growth rates kerfuffle to be learned about public shaming, and this is emblematic of problems that science needs to work out for how it does its own policing. I think this is a very, very important issue for us all to consider, in the global-audience age of the internet as well as in context of the intense pressures on scientists today. I have no easy answers. I am as lost as anyone.

What do you think?

 

EDIT: I am reminded by comments below that 2 other blog posts helped inspire/coagulate my thoughts via the alchemy of my brain, so here they are:

http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/post-publication-review-signs-of-the-times/ Which considers the early days of the Myhrvold kerfuffle.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2014/01/27/post-publication-cyber-bullying/ Which considers how professional and personal selves may get wounded in scientific exchanges.

Read Full Post »

It’s World Penguin Day! Watch your back though… these penguins aren’t as nice as they seem. But they need us to be nice to them!

Hahaha?Whether you watch a classic GIF like the one above, or a kid-friendly TV/film documentary, you might get the impression that penguins lead carefree, or at least silly or slapstick, lives– happy feet and all that. It works for Hollywood: a Charlie Chaplin comedy relief role to play.  And that’s the vision of penguins I grew up with: they were living cartoons to me.

But what’s the reality? Plenty of documentaries, most notably to my mind the recent Attenborough’s “Frozen Earth” episodes or “March of the Penguins” film, have dealt with the darker side to these two-toned, tuxedo-toting antipodeans. And anyone who has experienced penguins in the wild has probably seen those not-so-light facets of penguinity firsthand. On realiizing just how compulsively horny young “hooligan cock” male penguins were, Natural History Museum ornithologist Douglas Russell wrote: ““just the frozen head of the penguin, with self-adhesive white O’s for eye rings, propped upright on wire with a large rock for a body, was sufficient stimulus for males to copulate and deposit sperm on the rock.”

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10; some tears may be shed over cute baby penguins and you might choke if you’re a rhea trying to swallow one, but the anatomy shown is mostly skeletal or dessicated. No penguin juices. Except those just mentioned above.

I’m quick to admit, I didn’t know much about penguins until recently. I couldn’t name many species or say much about their behaviour, anatomy or evolutionary history. When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I was enthused by a now-classic, elegantly simple study (published in 2000) that fellow PhD student Tim Griffin and biomechanist Dr. Rodger Kram conducted on penguin waddling. They found that the waddling gait of penguins isn’t mechanically disadvantageous, as it appears, but rather is a way that they conserve energy while walking. It’s the short legs, instead, that make their gait metabolically expensive, because shorter legs mean that more frequent, costly steps need to be taken, incurring high costs due to rapid firing of leg muscles to support the body. My vicarious enjoyment of Griffin’s & Kram’s research began my scientific introduction to penguins. Fast forward to 2014: I get a crash course in penguinology.

Punta Tombo (4)

Mostly-fledged Magellanic penguin

That’s what this post is about, and how it brought me in touch with The Existentialist Penguin– the haggard, storm-tossed, predator-harried, starved and bullied wanderer of wastelands.

My personal introduction to penguins over the past year has been initiated by a collaboration with PhD student James Proffitt and long-time colleague Dr. Julia Clarke, both at the University of Texas in Austin. They kindly invited me to collaborate on applying modern biomechanics to the surprisingly excellent fossil record of penguins (Sphenisciformes), among other extant water birds. Before diving into it all, I happened to go to Argentina.

Punta Tombo (2)

Penguin tries to keep cool in the shade, opening its mouth to shed heat in the autumn sun.

Just before I travelled to Patagonia on unrelated business (to study sauropodomorph dinosaurs!), I did a little googling and came across Punta Tombo reserve, near the city of Trelew that I was visiting (more about that in a future post!). It’s where some 1+ million Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) gather every southern summer to breed and fledge before making a long ~5 month swim up to Brazil. I asked my host, Dr. Alejandro Otero, if we might take a day off to visit this spot, where guanacos, rheas and other wildlife were also said to be common, and he basically said “Hell yes!” as he’d never been there. My Flickr photostream gives a big set of my favourite photos from that trip, but here are some others below, to show some of my experiences. We rented a car and took a lovely 90-minute drive south across the Patagonian plains, observing wildlife like tinamous (yes! So exciting for me) as we went. You could get within 1.5m of the penguins according to park rules, and the penguins were very permissive of that!

This jaunty chap was staying put in his burrow while people walked by. We came closer and he kept rotating his head around, staring at us. I first took it as cute juvenile behaviour, but on later observations of penguins realized it was a threat- "My beak is sharp! Stay back, bro, or I'll glock ya!"

This jaunty chap was staying put in his burrow while people walked by. We came closer and he kept rotating his head around, staring at us. I first took it as cute juvenile behaviour, but on later observations of penguins realized it was a threat- “My beak is sharp! Stay back, bro, or I’ll glock ya!”

The video below shows a penguin encounter that left me with no doubts that these animals don’t mess around. The smaller penguin escaped, losing its cool burrow and some of its tough hide, too. Indeed, penguins can be remarkable assholes to each other.

With battles like this erupting all around us, where the penguins struggled to find shade in the desert-like inland parts of the park, often hundreds of meters away from the cool ocean, it came as no surprise to find casualties. The juveniles (and some remaining adults; most having left by now while the ~1 year-old juveniles fledge) not only battled, but also fasted, and roasted in the heat as they shed their insulatory fluff for waterproofed streamlining. This poor little flat Spheniscus had been trodden a bit past streamlined:Punta Tombo (3)

Near the end of our visit, just after I saw an informative sign about the lesser rhea or “choique” (Pterocnemia/Rhea pennata), we managed to get very close to a rhea and follow it for a while, as penguins stood around in apparent disinterest. I’ll never forget that meeting: two flightless birds, yet adapted to such different lifestyles and habitats. The penguins were in the rhea’s domain; a hot, wind-blown, scree-scoured scrubland on the edge of the fertile ocean.rhea-penguin

The choique soon found a dry old hatchling penguin carcass, no meatier than the surrounding thickets, and tried to swallow it. The loss of teeth by its distant ornithurine ancestors proved to be a bad move, because it struggled to get the jerky-like mass through its beak:

That Punta Tombo visit was an experience I’ll never forget. I returned to the UK, abuzz with excitement about penguins. I “got” them now, I felt, at least in a very unscientific, anthropomorphic way. It took the face-to-beak experience to drive that home, more than any emotive film treatment could. Whether enduring Antarctic wintery blasts or unforgivingly hot and dry, burrow-speckled coastal badlands, penguins are buggers with true grit. Survivors, as their >60 million year fossil record attests to. On my return, I delved through my photos of museum specimens to get a better appreciation for penguin anatomy, preparing to also get familiar with that fossil record; all as part of that ongoing work with Proffitt and Clarke. Here’s some of that anatomy:

My first encounter with a penguin in the wild is probably this specimen washed up on a beach in Uruguay. I'm going with the tentative ID of a juvenile penguin skeleton; probably Magellanic.

My first encounter with a penguin in the wild (but not a live one) is probably this specimen washed up on a beach in Uruguay. I’m going with the tentative ID of a juvenile penguin skeleton (short foot; flat wing bones); probably Magellanic. The bevy of vertebrate morphologists investigating dead penguins on this beach during our conference in 2010 will not soon be forgotten!

Magellanic penguin skeleton, "flying" through the Punta Tombo visitor centre.

Magellanic penguin skeleton, “flying” through the Punta Tombo visitor centre.

University Museum of Zoology Cambridge skeleton of one of the "great penguin" (do not confuse with the great pumpkin!) species; either King (patagonicus) or Emperor (forsteri).

University Museum of Zoology Cambridge skeleton of a “great penguin” (do not confuse with the great pumpkin!) species of Aptenodytes; either King (patagonicus) or Emperor (forsteri). Characteristic features, in addition to the robust, dense skeleton, include the short neck, flattened but robust wings and scapulae, robust furcula (wishbone), stubby legs (with a big blocky patella) and thin but longish tail (supposedly used to balance with while walking/standing).

I’ll visit some more penguin anatomy in coming images- those photos are just teasers. And they set the stage for me to go back to my one-stop-shopping for awesome ornithological specimens, the Natural History Museum at Tring (images below presented with kind permission from the Natural History Museum, London; but I took the photos), to pick up an assortment of 11 frozen penguins from helpful curator Hein van Grouw! Such as this “gagged” King penguin:
NHMUK penguin

And this handsome Emperor penguin, going through the Equine Imaging Centre’s CT scanner as I do my usual routine of (1) get cool critters, (2) barrage them with radiation to peek inside:penguin CT (3)

CT scanner monitors as I scan a penguin; mid-torso x-ray slice shown on the right.

CT scanner monitors as I scan a penguin; mid-torso x-ray slice shown on the right.

Awwwwww... baby Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua). Unhappy feet, I'm afraid.

Awwwwww… baby Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua— EDIT: Probably Aptenodytes; see comments below). Unhappy feet, I’m afraid… Happy CT scanning, however– specimens like this are NOT easy to come by in these northern nether regions!

Because I love the CT scan images of these penguins so much (their skeletons are awesome and bizarre!), I’ll share the pilot scans of the best ones now:

Calling all penguin experts! What's up with this? Is that really how much gastrolith volume a penguin carries, or did a museum curator stick rocks up its bum? Seems very caudal in position. I'm fascinated.

Calling all penguin experts! What’s up with this? Is that really how much gastrolith (stomach stone; near bottom of image) volume a penguin carries (answer after some literature reading: maybe yes!), or did a museum curator stick rocks up its bum? It seems very caudal in position, and this is consistent with other animals I’ve seen (some below). A paper on this phenomenon and potential role in ballast is here. Another here.

Side view.

Side view. Nice view of the head at least.

The fluffy baby shown in the photo above. Nice pose, and lots of anatomy shown. And check it out- gastroliths?!? In such a young animal-- is it even feeding yet?

Young juvenile. Nice pose, and lots of anatomy is shown. And check it out- gastroliths?!? In such a young animal– is it even feeding yet? (presumably straight after hatching) And they are relatively big pebbles, too! If I noticed this 5 years ago, it would have been a nice paper to report- first recognition of gastroliths in penguin chicks seems to have been then. Indeed, that study observed some chicks intentionally swallowing stones.

Another youngun.

Another youngun; the fluffy one from the photo above. More rocks up its wazoo.

Three wee little chicks.

Three wee little chicks, all with stomach stones.

CT reconstruction of adult skeleton. This specimen was gutted and flattened, so the gastroliths are few and scattered. Check out the long tail:

From recent skeletons to fossil ones, penguins have wacky anatomy; they break most of the “rules” of being a proper bird, putting other oddballs like rheas to shame. I can’t ably review the many penguin species we know of, but the ancient Palaeocene penguin Waimanu features prominently in recent scientific discussions of penguin evolution, such as the superb research and blog of Dan Ksepka  as well as many workers in the southern hemisphere. I haven’t had a chance to inspect that creature’s bones, but while in Trelew, Argentina, I was very pleased to run into some excellent specimens of a later animal:

Part of the rather nice skeleton of Palaeospheniscus patagonicus, an Oligocene/Miocene largish penguin; from the MFN collections in Trelew, Argentina and collected nearby.

Part of the nice skeleton of Palaeospheniscus patagonicus, an Oligocene/Miocene largish penguin; from the MEF collections in Trelew, Argentina and collected nearby. The genus has been known since Ameghino’s description in 1891, and is closely related to living penguins, especially Aptenodytes. It was not a large penguin, but at about 5kg body mass was no slouch as birds go (roughly similar in size to a Magellanic penguin). I also got to see  Madrynornis mirandus, a Miocene form.

For me, the diagnostic trait of a penguin skeleton: the very short, tobust tarsometatarsus. From Palaeospheniscus, as above.

For me, the diagnostic trait of a penguin skeleton: the very short, tobust tarsometatarsus. From Palaeospheniscus, as above. The great palaeontologist GG Simpson wrote of it: “Despite the innumerable variations in details, the tarsometatarsi, on which all species but P. robustus are based, are quite stereotyped in general structure and leave little doubt that the forms placed here by Ameghino do all belong to a natural group.” A ratio of length to proximal width of >2 is typical of most penguins.  Synapomorphy FTW!

From beach skeletons, to mass suffering of landbound birds, to 3D imaging and fossil skeletons, I’ve had quite the immersion in penguinness lately. And through that experience, I’ve been drawn closer to penguins in more ways than one. I’ve been impressed by their adaptability and durability. In some ways, penguins’ adaptations to harsh freezing winters in wastelands also aid them to survive harsh baking summers in dry badlands.

Yes, those badlands are still coastal, and penguins can still drink the saltwater and excrete salt via their supraorbital glands, but those penguins in Punta Tombo were not having a keg party. They were clearly enduring some serious discomfort, and not all making it through the ordeal. I watched silently along with other penguins as one penguin lay prone in an awkward pose on a bleached-white stretch of hardpan soil, while one flipper meekly raised, then flopped down. It was not long for this world, and there was a host of large scavengers around ready to make the most of that, while penguin-eating giant petrels (a sister group to penguins) wheeled overhead.

penguin-waddle

Waddlers of the wastes

While penguins still spend most of their lives at sea, they retain a sometimes astonishing array of behaviours they use on land: burrowing, hopping/jumping, costly short-legged (but efficiently waddling) walking, and perhaps more that we haven’t yet discovered! Their unique anatomy reflects a compromise between all these factors, and we’re fortunate to have knowledge of their fossil record that shows a lot of detail on how they evolved it all. While penguins are a highly aquatic species, they show how aquatic and terrestrial adaptations can coexist in harmony; it’s not just a black-or-white issue. But with climate change in progress, the ~18 species of penguins have some rapidly altering challenges to adapt to, or go the way of Waimanu. This is a critical Kierkegaardian moment for The Existentialist Penguin.

I raise a glass in toast to that versatile, resilient, gravel-gizzarded Existentialist Penguin! May it persevere all the troubles our ever-changing world throws at it, as it has done since the Palaeocene. And may we draw inspiration from its tenacity, to face our own troubles, together on this crazy spinning globe!

Cheers!

by animalloz, on deviantart

Read Full Post »

This post was just published yesterday in a shorter, edited form in The Conversation UK, with the addition of some of my latest thoughts and the application of the editor’s keen scalpel. Check that out, but check this out too if you really like the topic and want the raw original version! I’ve changed some images, just for fun. The text here is about 2/3 longer.

Recently, the anatomy of animals comes up a lot, at least implicitly, in science news stories or internet blogs. Anatomy, if you look for it, is everywhere in organismal and evolutionary biology. The study of anatomy has undergone a renaissance lately, in a dynamic phase energized by new technologies that enable new discoveries and spark renewed interest. It is the zombie science, risen from what some had assumed was its eternal grave!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10; there’s a dead elephant but no gore.

My own team has re-discovered how elephants have a false “sixth toe” that has been a mystery since it was first mentioned in 1710, and we’ve illuminated how that odd bit of bone evolved in the elephant lineage. This “sixth toe” is a modified sesamoid kind of bone; a small, tendon-anchoring lever. Typical mammals just have a little nubbin of sesamoid bone around their ankles and wrists that is easily overlooked by anatomists, but evolution sometimes co-opts as raw material to turn into false fingers or toes. In several groups of mammals, these sesamoids lost their role as a tendon’s lever and gained a new function, more like that of a finger, by becoming drastically enlarged and elongated during evolution. Giant pandas use similar structures to grasp bamboo, and moles use them to dig. We’ve shown that elephants evolved these giant toe-like structures as they became larger and more terrestrial, starting to stand up on tip-toe, supported by “high-heels” made of fat. Those fatty heels benefit from a stiff, toe-like structure that helps control and support them, while the fatty pads spread out elephants’ ponderous weight.

Crocodile lung anatomy and air flow, by Emma Schachner.

Crocodile lung anatomy and air flow, by Emma Schachner.

I’ve also helped colleagues at the University of Utah (Drs. Emma Schachner and Colleen Farmer) reveal, to much astonishment, that crocodiles have remarkably “bird-like” lungs in which air flows in a one-way loop rather than tidally back and forth as in mammalian lungs. They originally discovered this by questioning what the real anatomy of crocodile lungs was like- was it just a simple sac-like structure, perhaps more like the fractal pattern in mammalian lungs, and how did it work? This question bears directly on how birds evolved their remarkable system of lungs and air sacs that in many ways move air around more effectively than mammalian lungs do. Crocodile lungs indicate that “avian” hallmarks of lung form and function, including one-way air flow, were already present in the distant ancestors of dinosaurs; these traits were thus inherited by birds and crocodiles. Those same colleagues have gone on to show that this feature also exists in monitor lizards, raising the question (almost unthinkable 10-20 years ago) of whether those bird-like lungs are actually a very ancient and common feature for land animals.

Speaking of monitor lizards, anatomy has revealed how they (and some other lizards) all have venom glands that make their bites even nastier, and these organs probably were inherited by snakes. For decades, scientists had thought that some monitor lizards, especially the huge Komodo dragons, drooled bacteria-laden saliva that killed their victims with septic shock. Detailed anatomical and molecular investigations showed instead that modified salivary glands produced highly effective venom, and in many species of lizards, not just the big Komodos. So the victims of numerous toothy lizard species die not only from vicious wounds, but also from worsened bleeding and other circulatory problems promoted by the venomous saliva. And furthermore, this would mean that venom did not evolve separately in the two known venomous lizards (Gila monster and beaded lizard) and snakes, but was inherited from their common ancestor and became more enhanced in those more venomous species—an inference that general lizard anatomy supports, but which came as a big surprise when revealed by Bryan Fry and colleagues in 2005.

There’s so much more. Anatomy has recently uncovered how lunge-feeding whales have a special sense organ in their chin that helps them detect how expansive their gape is, aiding them to engulf vast amounts of food. Scientists have discovered tiny gears in the legs of leafhoppers that help them make astounding and precise leaps. Who knew that crocodilians have tiny sense organs in the outer skin of their jaws (and other parts of their bodies) that help them detect vibrations in the water, probably aiding in communication and feeding? Science knows, thanks to anatomy.

Just two decades or so ago, when I was starting my PhD studies at the University of California in Berkeley, there was talk about the death of anatomy as a research subject; both among scientists and the general public. What happened? Why did anatomy “die” and what has resuscitated it?

 

TH Huxley, anatomist extraordinaire

TH Huxley, anatomist extraordinaire, caricatured in a lecture about “bones and stones, and such-like things” (source)

Anatomy’s Legacy

In the 16th through 19th centuries, the field of gross anatomy as applied to humans or other organisms was one of the premier sciences. Doctor-anatomist Jean Francois Fernel, who invented the word “physiology”, wrote in 1542 that (translation) “Anatomy is to physiology as geography is to history; it describes the theatre of events.” This theatric analogy justified the study of anatomy for many early scientists, some of whom also sought to understand it to bring them closer to understanding the nature of God. Anatomy gained impetus, even catapulting scientists like Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) into celebrity status, from the realisation that organisms had a common evolutionary history and thus their anatomy did too. Thus comparative anatomy became a central focus of evolutionary biology.

But then something happened to anatomical research that can be hard to put a finger on. Gradually, anatomy became a field that was scoffed at as outmoded, irrelevant, or just “solved”; nothing important being left to discover. As a graduate student in the 1990s, I remember encountering this attitude. This apparent eclipse of anatomy accelerated with the ascent of genetics, with anatomy reaching its nadir in the 1950s-1970s as techniques to study molecular and cellular biology (especially DNA) flourished.

One could argue that molecular and cellular biology are anatomy to some degree, especially for single-celled organisms and viruses. Yet today anatomy at the whole organ, organism or lineage level revels in a renaissance that deserves inspection and reflection on its own terms.

 

Anatomy’s Rise

Surely, we now know the anatomy of humans and some other species quite well, but even with these species scientists continue to learn new things and rediscover old aspects of anatomy that laid forgotten in classic studies. For example, last year Belgian scientists re-discovered the anterolateral ligament of the human knee, overlooked since 1879. They described it, and its importance for how our knees function, in novel detail, and a lot of media attention was drawn to this realisation that there are some things we still don’t understand about our own bodies.

A huge part of this resurgence of anatomical science is technology, especially imaging techniques- we are no longer simply limited to the dissecting knife and light microscope as tools, but armed with digital technology such as 3-D computer graphics, computed tomography (series of x-rays) and other imaging modalities. Do you have a spare particle accelerator? Well then you can do amazing synchrotron imaging studies of micro-anatomy, even in fairly large specimens. Last year, my co-worker Stephanie Pierce and colleagues (including myself) used this synchrotron approach to substantially rewrite our understanding of how the backbone evolved in early land animals (tetrapods). We found that the four individual bones that made up the vertebrae of Devonian tetrapods (such as the iconic Ichthyostega) had been misunderstood by the previous 100+ years of anatomical research. Parts that were thought to lie at the front of the vertebra actually lay at the rear, and vice versa. We also discovered that, hidden inside the ribcage of one gorgeous specimen of Ichthyostega, there was the first evidence of a sternum, or breastbone; a structure that would have been important for supporting the chest of the first land vertebrates when they ventured out of water.

Recently, anatomists have become very excited by the realization that a standard tissue staining solution, “Lugol’s” or potassium iodide iodine, can be used to reveal soft tissue details in CT scans. Prior to this recognition, CT scans were mainly used in anatomical research to study bone morphology, because the density contrast within calcified tissues and between them and soft tissues gives clearer images. To study soft tissue anatomy, you typically needed an MRI scanner, which is less commonly accessible, often slower and more expensive, and sometimes lower resolution than a CT scanner. But now we can turn our CT scanners into soft tissue scanners by soaking our specimens in this contrast solution, allowing highly detailed studies of muscles and bones, completely intact and in 3D. Colleagues at Bristol just published a gorgeous study of the head of a common buzzard, sharing 3D pdf files of the gross anatomy of this raptorial bird and promoting a new way to study and illustrate anatomy via digital dissections- you can view their beautiful results here. Or below (by Stephan Lautenschlager et al.)!

Buzzard-head

These examples show how anatomy has been transformed as a field because we now can peer inside the bodies of organisms in unprecedented detail, sharing and preserve those data in high-resolution digital formats. We can do this without the concern that a unique new species from Brazilian rainforests or exciting fossil discovery from the Cambrian period would be destroyed if we probed certain questions about its anatomy that are not visible from the outside– a perspective in which science had often remained trapped for centuries. These tools became rapidly more diverse and accessible from the 1990s onward, so as a young scientist I got to see some of the “before” and “after” influences on anatomical research—these have been very exciting times!

When I started my PhD in 1995, it was an amazing luxury to first get a digital camera to use to take photographs for research, and then a small laser scanner for making 3D digital models of fossils, with intermittent access to a CT scanner in 2001 and now full-time access to one since 2003. These stepwise improvements in technology have totally transformed the way I study anatomy. In the 1990s, you dissected a specimen and it was reduced to little scraps; at best you might have some decent two-dimensional photographs of the dissection and some beetle-cleaned bones as a museum specimen. Now, we CT or MRI scan specimens as routine practice, preserving many mega- or gigabytes of data on its internal and external, three-dimensional anatomy in lush detail, before scalpel ever touches skin. Computational power, too, has grown to the point where incredibly detailed 3D digital models produced from imaging real specimens can be manipulated with ease, so science can better address what anatomy means for animal physiology, behaviour, biomechanics and evolution. We’re at the point now where anatomical research seems no longer impeded by technology– the kinds of questions we can ask are more limited by access to good anatomical data (such as rare specimens) than by the ways we acquire and use those data.

My experience mirrors my colleagues’. Larry Witmer at Ohio University in the USA, past president of the International Society for Vertebrate Morphologists, has gone from dissecting bird heads in the 1990s to becoming a master of digital head anatomy, having collected 3D digital scans of hundreds of specimens, fossil and otherwise. His team has used these data to great success, for example revealing how dinosaurs’ fleshy nostrils were located in the front of their snouts (not high up on the skull, as some anatomists had speculated based on external bony anatomy alone). They have also contributed new, gorgeous data on the 3D anatomy of living animals such as opossums, ostriches, iguanas and us, freely available on their “Visible Interactive Animal” anatomy website. Witmer comments on the changes of anatomical techniques and practice: “For extinct animals like dinosaurs, these approaches are finally putting the exploration of the evolution of function and behavior on a sound scientific footing.

I write an anatomy-based blog called “What’s in John’s Freezer?” (haha, so meta!), in which I recount the studies of animal form and function that my research team and others conduct, often using valuable specimens stored in our lab’s many freezers. I started this blog almost two years ago because I noticed a keen interest, or even hunger for, stories about anatomy amongst the general public; and yet few blogs explicitly were about anatomy for its own sake. This interest became very clear to me when I was a consultant for the BAFTA award-winning documentary series “Inside Nature’s Giants” in 2009, and I was noticing more documentaries and other programmes presenting anatomy in explicit detail that would have been considered too risky 10 years earlier. So not only is anatomy a vigorous, rigorous science today, but people want to hear about it. Just in recent weeks, the UK has had “Dissected” as two 1-hour documentaries and “Secrets of Bones” as back-to-back six 30-minute episodes, all very explicitly about anatomy, and on PRIME TIME television! And PBS in the USA has had “Your Inner Fish,” chock full of anatomy. I. Love. This.

Before the scalpel: the elephant from Inside Nature's Giants

Before the scalpel: the elephant from Inside Nature’s Giants

There are many ways to hear about anatomy on the internet these days, reinforcing the notion that it enjoys strong public engagement. Anatomical illustrators play a vital role now much as they did in the dawn of anatomical sciences– conveying anatomy clearly requires good artistic sensibilities, so it is foolish to undervalue these skills. The internet age has made disseminating such imagery routine and high-resolution, but we can all be better about giving due credit (and payment) to artists who create the images that make our work so much more accessible. Social media groups on the internet have sprung up to celebrate new discoveries- watch the Facebook or Twitter feeds of “I F@*%$ing Love Science” or “The Featured Creature,” to name but two popular venues, and you’ll see a lot of fascinating comparative animal anatomy there, even if the word “anatomy” isn’t necessarily used. I’d be remiss not to cite Emily Graslie’s popular, unflinchingly fun social media-based explorations of gooey animal anatomy in “The Brain Scoop”. I’d like to celebrate that these three highly successful disseminators of (at least partly) anatomical outreach are all run by women—anatomical science can (and should!) defy the hackneyed stereotype that only boys like messy stuff like dissections. There are many more such examples. Anatomy is for everyone! It is easy to relate to, because we all live in fleshy anatomical bodies that rouse our curiosity from an early age, and everywhere in nature there are surprising parallels with — as well as bizarre differences from — our anatomical body-plans.

 

Anatomy’s Relevance

What good is anatomical knowledge? A great example comes from gecko toes, but I could pick many others. Millions of fine filaments, modified toe scales called setae, use micro-molecular forces called van der Waals interactions to help geckos cling to seemingly un-clingable surfaces like smooth glass. Gecko setae have been studied in such detail that we can now create their anatomy in sufficient detail to make revolutionary super-adhesives, such as the product “Geckskin”, 16 square inches of which can currently suspend 700 pounds aloft. This is perhaps the most famous example from recent applications of anatomy, but Robert Full’s Poly-Pedal laboratory at Berkeley, among many other research groups excelling at bio-inspired innovation in robotics and other fields of engineering and design, regularly spins off new ideas from the principle that “diversity enables discovery”, as applied to the sundry forms and functions found in organisms. By studying the humble cockroach, they have created new ways of building legged robots that can scour earthquake wreckage for survivors or explore faraway planets. By asking “how does a lizard use its big tail during leaping?” they have discovered principles that they then use to construct robots that can jump over or between obstacles. Much of this research relates to how anatomical traits determine the behaviours that a whole, living, dynamic organism is capable of performing.

Whereas when I was a graduate student, anatomists and molecular biologists butted heads more often than was healthy for either of them, competing for importance (and funding!), today the scene is changing. With the rise of “evo devo”, evolutionary developmental biology, and the ubiquity of genomic data as well as epigenetic perspectives, scientists want to explain “the phenotype”—what the genome helps to produce via seemingly endless developmental and genetic mechanisms. Phenotypes often are simply anatomy, and so anatomists now have new relevance, often collaborating with those skilled in molecular techniques or other methods such as computational biology. One example of a hot topic in this field is, “how do turtles build their shells and how did that shell evolve?” To resolve this still controversial issue, we need to know what a shell is made of, what features in fossils could have been precursors to a modern shell, how turtles are related to other living and extinct animals, how a living turtle makes its shell, and how the molecular signals involved are composed and used in animals that have or lack shells. The first three questions require a lot of anatomical data, and the others involve their fair share, too.

Questions like these draw scientists from disparate disciplines closer together, and thanks to that proximity we’re inching closer to an answer to this longstanding question in evolutionary biology and anatomy, illustrated above in the video.  As a consequence, the lines between anatomists and molecular/cellular biologists increasingly are becoming blurred, and that synthesis of people, techniques and perspectives seems to be a healthy (and inevitable?) trend for science. But there’s still a long way to go in finding a happy marriage between anatomists and the molecular/cellular biologists whose work eclipsed theirs in past decades. Old controversies like “should we use molecules or morphology to figure out how animals are related to each other?” are slowly dying out, as the answer becomes evident to be “Yes. Both.” (especially when fossils can be included!) Such dwindling controversies contribute to the healing of disciplinary rifts and the unruffling of parochial feathers.

Yet many anatomists would point to lingering obstacles that give them concern for their future; funding is but one of them (few would argue that gross anatomical research is as well off in provision of funding as genetics is, for example). There are clear mismatches between the hefty importance, vitality, popularity and rigour of anatomical science and its perception or its role in academia.

Romane 1892, covering Haeckel's classic, early evo-devo work (probably partly faked, but still hugely influential)

Romane 1892, covering Haeckel’s classic, early evo-devo work (probably partly faked, but still hugely influential) (source)

 

Anatomy’s Future

One worry the trend that anatomy as a scientific discipline is clearly flourishing in research while it dwindles in teaching. Fewer and fewer universities seem to be teaching the basics of comparative anatomy that were a mainstay of biology programmes a century ago. Yet anatomy is everywhere now in biology, and in the public eye. It inspires us with its beauty and wonder—when you marvel at the glory of beholding a newly discovered species, you are captivated by its phenotypic pulchritude. Anatomy is still the theatre in which function and physiology are enacted, and the physical encapsulation of the phenotype that evolution moulds through interactions with the environment. But there is cause for concern that biology students are not learning much about that theatre, or that medical schools increasingly seem to eschew hands-on anatomical dissection in favour of digital learning. Would you want a doctor to treat you if they mainly knew human anatomy from a CGI version on an LCD screen in medical school, and hence were less aware of all the complexity and variation that a real body can house?

Anatomy has an identity problem, too, stemming from decades of (Western?) cultural attitudes (e.g. the “dead science” meme) and from its own success—by being so integral to so many aspects of biology, anatomy seems to have integrated itself toward academic oblivion, feeding the perception of its own obsolescence.  I myself struggled with what label to apply to myself as an early career researcher- I was afraid that calling myself an “anatomist” would render me quaint or unambitious in the eyes of faculty job interview panels, and I know that many of my peers felt the same. I resolved that inner crisis years ago and came to love identifying myself at least partly as an anatomist. I settled on the label “evolutionary biomechanist” as the best term for my speciality. In order to reconstruct evolution or how animals work (biomechanics), we first often need to describe key aspects of anatomy, and we still discover new, awesome things about anatomy in the process. I still openly cheer on anatomy as a discipline because its importance is so fundamental to what I do, and I am far from alone in that attitude. Other colleagues that do anatomical research use other labels for themselves like “biomechanist”, “physiologist,” or “palaeontologist”, because those words better capture the wide range of research and teaching that they do, but I bet also because some of them likely still fear the perceived stigma of the word “anatomy” among judgemental scientists, or even the public. At the same time, many of us get hired at medical, veterinary or biology schools/departments because we can teach anatomy-based courses, so there is still hope.

Few would now agree with Honoré de Balzac’s 19th century opinion that “No man should marry until he has studied anatomy and dissected at least one woman”, but we should hearken back to what classical scientists knew well: it is to the benefit of science, humanity and the world to treasure the anatomy that is all around us. We inherit that treasure through teaching; to abscond this duty is to abandon this trove. With millions of species around today and countless more in the past, there should always be a wealth of anatomy for everyone to learn from, teach about, and rejoice.

X-ray technology has revolutionized anatomical studies; what's next? Ponder that as this ostrich wing x-ray waves goodbye.

X-ray technology has revolutionized anatomical studies; what’s next? Ponder that as this ostrich wing x-ray waves goodbye.

Like this post? You might also find my Slideshare talk on the popularity of anatomy interesting- see my old post here for info!

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

Hey, a short post here to say go check this new blog out! I love it. The first main post-introductory post is a dissection of a snow leopard, documenting a real vet case attempting to figure out why it died. The “Veterinary Forensics blog” is going cool places, and it is a kindred spirit to this blog. You might, as I do sometimes when walking into a veterinary pathology/postmortem facility, see surprising and rare stuff– like in this photo of urban foxes:

troop of foxes

 

Read Full Post »

We are coming up on the 1 year anniversary of this blog. I’ll discuss that anniversary and do a retrospective when the time comes; I have plans…

But first: Frosty feedback time! I want to involve current blog readers in guiding where this blog goes in the future. I renewed the URL for another year, so there will at least be that much more, and probably more than 1 year, since I have plenty of ideas and energy left and am enjoying this.

Let’s let the poll do the talking – and you, too! I hope for some discussion- please, your constructive criticism and suggestions! What do you honestly want more/less of, or totally new, within reason? Maybe I haven’t thought of everything I could do. In fact, I’m sure I haven’t.

3 choices at most per user (you don’t have to use all 3), please. And I think the poll will allow new entries (“Other”) to be added (EDIT: Hmm, doesn’t work the way I thought it did. If you do click “Other”, please add a comment below explaining it. Otherwise I don’t know what “other” means… EDIT EDIT– OK, if you’ve read this far, I will find out what you put in the “Other” box (it shows up in my WordPress admin stuff) but it isn’t made publically visible- see here if curious).

If there’s something you feel strongly about, such that 1 vote just doesn’t cut the mustard, speak out in the comments below. (Sorry, no, the bad jokes and terrible puns are here to stay :) )

Go for it! I’ll let the poll run for a week or so. Blog lurkers, please de-lurk! I want to hear from you, too.

Thanks,

John of the Freezers

Read Full Post »

…a daily picture of anatomy! And today it is six picture-facts; doo-raa-dee! ♫

Welcome back againagain, and again (gasp, pant)– and again (exhausted howl) to Freezermas

And Happy World Pangolin Day!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10; pretty tame images of anatomy today– but 9/10 if you consider how vile a practice it is to eat pangolins.

Much like rhinoceroses are, pangolins (“scaly anteaters”) are threatened with extinction across Africa and Asia largely because tradition holds that they have magical skin. It comes down to that. It’s simply pathetic.

Pangolin in Borneo

Sunda pangolin, Manis javanica; from Wikipedia. It’s not a pig in a convenient artichoke-like wrapper. It’s a precious, rare creature.

To make matters worse, pangolins are smaller than rhinos and covered in the tough armour that makes them so desirable, and hence they are more portable and easy to hide. They also are thought to taste delicious — or just have the social cachet that it is a sign of affluence to be able to afford to eat them — to some people, especially from some southeast Asian cultures. Habitat loss/growing populations/deforestation/climate change aren’t helping, either.

Around 60,000 pangolins were illegally smuggled or otherwise slaughtered for human uses in 2012 worldwide; contrasting with 668 rhinos in South Africa that year (perhaps 2,000 worldwide?); so the scale of the problem is immense. Smaller-bodied pangolins will be more numerous in the wild than large, wide-roaming rhinos, but the drain on those numbers is obviously not sustainable. Sometimes pangolins are smuggled alive, a cruel practice that delivers them fresh but in a poor welfare state at the point of sale, compounding the urgency to turn the tide of exploitation.

Please take the time today to lend your hand to a good conservation group. Learn about the crisis facing pangolins (e.g. this recent article; and this video) and speak out about it. Of course, don’t eat pangolins, either.

Let’s not let humanity fail in its moral imperative of stewardship.

Pangolin body and skeleton

My photo of a pangolin body and skeleton, from the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology’s exhibits.

In celebration of World Pangolin Day, for today’s Freezermas we have six impressive facts about pangolin anatomy. Much like rhinos, these are animals we don’t know as well as we should. I’ve never had one in my freezers, and would feel a bit weird if I did, since I find them so adorable, but they do have fascinating anatomy, natural history and evolutionary heritage. All the more reason to preserve them as they should be: alive and with the freedom they deserve.


Pangolin Fact 1: Pangolins have highly modified skulls with myrmecophagous adaptations-- these are specializations for eating arthropods (especially ants/termites): toothless, tubular snout, reduced mandibles, and more– shown below.

Pangolin skull x-ray

X-ray of Malayan pangolin (Manis javanica) skull in side(1) and top(2) views, modified from Endo et al., 1998. The small arrow denotes the V-shaped, splint-like mandible, and the large arrow is directed at the jaw joint (zygomatic process on the temporal bone). The zygomatic arch, crossing from the jaw joint toward the front of the upper jaw (maxilla), is incomplete, so there is no bony bridge across the cheek as in many mammals. The large masseter and temporalis muscles run across this region, forming a more flexible, muscular cheek involved in feeding. Some nice labelled skull photos are here.

EDIT: Aaagh! Of course I should have checked Digimorph, which has a kickass CT scan/movie of the skull. Play with that; hours of anatomy-tainment!


Pangolin Fact 2: Pangolins have long tongues whose attachment extends way across the breastbone.

Pangolin tongue dissection

Tongue anatomy of a Malayan pangolin, from Prapong et al., 2009. This shows the chest region in ventral view (head is to the right side), with the main body of the sternum removed. A indicates muscles forming a sac around the tongue base; B is where the tongue finally inserts on the sternum/xiphoid processes; C is the ribcage; D is the xiphisternal joint (middle of the sternum parts).

Your tongue, even Gene Simmons‘s, just extends a little ways down your chin. It is, however,  a common misconception that a pangolin’s tongue is longer than the animal. It can’t be longer than the distance between its sternal origin and the tip of the snout, so it might extend up to 40cm out of the mouth when fully extended in a large pangolin. Around 1988, there was the scientific misconception that the tongue extended way back to the pelvis (hips) or stomach. This is not true according to the latest literature I’ve read (e.g. in caption above), but is widespread in pangolin information on the internet. If someone has secondary confirmation of this either way, I’d love to see some concrete evidence.

EDIT: This image of a dissected pangolin fetus indicates a quite long tongue, maybe even long enough to attach near the pelvis, although that site agrees that there is no pelvic attachment. The latter site also depicts a fascinating cartilaginous sheath for the tongue. The misinformation about pangolin tongues does make me wonder: perhaps there is a lot of diversity in tongue attachments/lengths among the 8 pangolin species? Who knows.


Pangolin Fact 3: Pangolins have toughened, keratinized stomach linings.

Pangolin stomach histology

Click to embigitate. Histology of the stomach lining in Manis tricuspis (modified from Ofusori et al., 2008), showing layers of keratinized stratified squamous epithelium (thick stomach lining). These layers seems to act as a protective coating against the rasping, chitinous exoskeletons of the ants and termites that are consumed, helping to reduce the risk of ulcers while reportedly eating up to 200,000 ants/per night. There is also an increased preponderance of elastic and collagenous fibers in layers of the stomach, helping it to expand to enclose many ants from one feeding.


Pangolin Fact(ish) 4: Pangolins are not closely related to other ant-eating living mammals, but to carnivores.

Eurotamandua fossil

Eurotamandua; a possible fossil relative of pangolins from the early Eocene (Messel, Germany); image from Wikipedia.

Together, the eight living pangolin species are remnants of the group Pholidota, which has a respectable fossil record– particularly considering that they lack teeth, which are often such a diagnostic feature for mammalian fossils. Controversy persisted for many years about whether they were related to anteaters, sloths and armadillos (Xenarthra) within the group Edentata, along with possibly aardvarks (Tubulidentata) and other digging and/or myrmecophagous animals. There has also been controversy about some fossil mammals and their relationships, including Eurotamandua (above) and the Palaeonodonta– the latter seems to be approaching a consensus, though, as an extinct sister group to Pholidota.

Nonetheless, the main features that were once thought to unite ant-eating mammals as close relatives now seem to be a prime example of convergent evolution. Xenarthans are definitely closely related to each other, but aardvarks are afrotherians (closer related to hyraxes and elephants), and pangolins seem not to be closely related to either of those groups.

More conclusively, with the addition of genetic data, it has emerged that Pholidota is most closely related to Carnivora (mongooses, dogs, cats, bears, pinnipeds, etc.) among living mammals. A good example of this conclusion is the very recent paper by O’Leary et al. in Science. Furthermore, this image shows a nice example of such a phylogenetic result. This relationship with Carnivora raises fascinating questions about the tempo and mode of the evolution of all their digging/ant-eating specializations- when, where and how did they become so much like other ant-eating mammals?


Pangolin Fact 5: Pangolins have many digging (fossorial) and climbing (scansorial) adaptations, especially in their forelimbs.

Pangolin hindfeet Feet of anteating mammals

Click to embignify. Above (modified from Gaudin et al., 2006): stippled drawings of hind feet of (left) the Eocene fossil pangolin Cryptomanis and (right) Manis; Below: line drawings of front feet (from Humphrey, 1869) showing the convergent evolution of digging/climbing hands in (left to right) pangolins, an anteater (2-toed; Myrmecophaga), Ai (3-toed sloth; Bradypus) and Unau (2-toed sloth; Choloepus).

A striking feature of pangolin claw bones (unguals); evident above; is their characteristic fissured anatomy (split ends), which even the fossils have. This probably is how they develop strong, keratinous digging claws that remain anchored to those bony claw cores. If you look really closely, you may be able to see the fused scaphoid and lunar (scapholunar) bones of the wrist in the manus of Manis. Cryptomanis (above left) had more climbing specializations than living pangolins; is this how pangolins first evolved, and then later added more ant-eating features? This makes sense in terms of their phylogeny (above), as they are related to primitively climbing carnivores.

Other possibly digging/climbing-related features characteristic of pangolins include the loss of a coracoid process on the pectoral girdle, and curious enrolled zygapophyses (joints) on the lumbar (lower back) vertebrae — the functional significance of the latter feature is almost unstudied, but is reminscent of the complex xenarthrous vertebrae that gave Xenarthra their name (see above and this past post). A nice photo of a pangolin ribcage/vertebrae is here. There is an exceptional page on pangolins and their once-thought-to-be-close relatives among Xenarthra here, with lots of anatomical detail.

A feature that first got me scientifically curious about pangolins in my research is the presence of “predigits“- prepollex and prehallux- in their hands and feet (“prh” in upper left two figures). Many mammals have these, and some have expanded them into larger structures like the “sixth toes of elephants” (hence my interest), but precious little is known about their evolution or function in many other groups.


Pangolin Fact 6: Pangolin skin armour, like rhinoceros horns, is just modified skin (hair/epidermis) keratin; shaped into imbricating scales.

Pangolin scales closeup Coat of pangolin scales

That apocryphally “magic skin”. Images from Wikipedia: closeup above, and below it a suit of armour made from those scales–  coated in gold and given to King George III in 1820.

These scales, the double-edge sword of pangolins (both protecting them in nature and making them desirable in part of the human world for silly reasons), form as pangolins grow. In the fetus they are still soft, making fetuses more of a delicacy in some Asian cultures. Much like the stomach lining described above, the skin is formed from keratinized, stratified squamous epithelium– much more densely formed than in our skin, but more like in our fingernails. Asian pangolins, unlike African species, may have some more normal hairs beneath the scales, too.

There is no convincing evidence that the scales are any more healthy to eat, in any form, than your own fingernails, dead skin, or hair. Given the ready availability of the latter to any humans, we’re all wearing, and growing, our own goldmine…

I’ve barely dug into the fascinating biology of pangolins. I haven’t talked about their bipedal locomotion, much as it fascinates me, because we know next to nothing about that. I’m not aware of good scientific studies on their prehensile tail, either. A great page on pangolin biology, with a focus on reproduction and anatomy, is here. A lovely illustration and discussion of the convergent evolution between anteaters and pangolins is here. Awesome photos and facts are here. More about pangolins’ plight here, and very thoroughly here.

If you have favourite links to more material, or want to provide more information or especially questions, don’t hold back and experience painful pang(olin)s of remorse– chime in in the comments below!

Happy World Pangolin Day! Visit these great pages, please! Here, here and hereAnd…

Happy Freezermas! Sing it: “On the sixth day of Freezermas, this blo-og gave to me: one tibiotarsus, two silly Darwins, three muscle layers, four gory heartsfive doggie models a-and six facts of pangolin anatomy!” ♪

Read Full Post »

Good day, everyone. Maybe by the end of this post if you don’t agree that it is a good day, you will at least see why I think it is.

Ten years ago today, something Really Bad happened to my brain. I don’t need to go into details, but it is very fair to say that I almost died. And that was the second close call in my adult life; there was another, years earlier, with a different vital organ system. So I celebrate December 16th each year as “Not Dead Yet Day“. As this is this blog’s first NDYD, I figure you can all join in the celebration, for any reason you might have to celebrate life. It can be hard to love some aspects of life sometimes, especially in pretty depressing times like the 21st century can be (so far). This can especially feel true in light of recent events in Connecticut, or ongoing nightmares in Syria and many other lands, with vanishing innocents, vanishing wildlife and vanishing habitats, the inexorable heat death of the universe… shit I’d better stop now or I’ll lose it!

This day helps to remind me to stay focused, as much as I can, on what matters in my life, and what I can control in my life to make things better for the little bubble of the world that I exist in. Some things are far beyond even our hope, let alone our means, to control. And sometimes we get broadsided by Really Bad Shit. But in between any of that powerlessness or inauspicious shit, there can be joy from many sources– for me (like many others), it comes from family and friends, science and the natural world’s wonders, delicious food and amazing travel, and much more. It comes from experiencing reality with all its facets.

Here is my brain. You can’t see much. Feel free to make jokes about that, I’ve set myself up nicely with that last sentence!

my-brain1

These are MRI scan images from a routine checkup I had about 3 years ago. I suppose you can consider it a game of “Mystery MRI slices”, but one in which I give you the answer (my brain). You can see lots of cool anatomy here; if you know your anatomy feel free to mention what’s visible (or not) in the Comments, and make jokes– I will probably enjoy any of them. I like self-deprecatory humour. And happily, I checked out fine in that scan, and continue to be fine… relatively. I’m not the same person I was >10 years ago— in 2002 I got married (but missed my bachelor party because I was hospitalized for another problem), got an important paper (“Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner”) published in Nature that changed my career (and arguably got me my job today), had this Really Bad thing happen, and plenty more. It was an eventful year.

my-brain2

At the time the Really Bad thing happened, I was feeling poorly but working very hard on final revisions/re-analysis of elephant gait data for a paper that ended up being published in Nature in 2003; so things ended up looking even better for my career. But I made a decision that day that, in a fortunate way, ended up having a greater impact than any mere publication. Rather than sit in my house with our cats and feel poorly, I made the choice to drive in to work and process more elephant video data. Just as I was parking my car on the Berkeley campus (illegally; I was feeling very poorly by that point) to go in to do the work… I woke up in an ambulance.

I was lucky. I was somewhere public where I was spotted having trouble, not alone in my house for >8 hours until my newlywed-wife came home to discover me. So I got help, and medical science saved my ass — and my brain, and thus other regions of my anatomy and my mortal existence. If I’d adopted the other choice, and stayed home alone, our cats probably would have witnessed something terrible and been unable to help, awesome as kitties can be.

I’ve never felt the same after that day. I’m certainly a case of “scarred but smarter.” I can say smarter mainly because my brain survived the trauma OK and I learned from the experience. I can say scarred because I still feel repercussions of all sorts from that Really Bad day. Although I’ve always had a dark sense of humour, strongly connected with my eccentric passions in science (e.g. this blog! Go figure.), I think it’s fair to say that my humour darkened. I’m not as bubbling with joy as I used to be. I used to almost always grin and exclaim “Excellent!” when someone asked me “how’s it going?”. I can still burble with frabjous joy, but not quite as often.

That day brought me closer in touch with the darker side of life, and the brighter side too. I think I’d been overlooking both. Closer in touch with reality, and with the serendipity and calamity that accompany it. There have been other, terrible events in my life since then, too, that have brought new existentialist focus to my mind, but that’s a part of most people’s middle age period (e.g. losing many loved ones).  I’ve had a great career so far, too, thanks in part to good things that happened 10 years ago, and to good things that have happened since thanks to hard work and some good fortune. But that doesn’t mean life has been a nonstop joyride, or even easy.

So today I take some special time to think about what life is about, what is real and must be faced wide awake vs. what is self-deceitful slumber, and why life is still worth loving– which I do love, with all my brain. And every day I think about the big changes that 2002 wrought on my life, and how so many other seemingly important things that happen in my life don’t matter one fucking bit– hence I try to just have fun, be a good human and not worry so much.

Have the best day you can have, everyone. I’m off to have some fun family time, but wanted to share my brain’s thoughts with you today. Maybe you have a similar story to share, too, or maybe my brain’s thoughts inspire some in your own brain. It’s wonderful how that glistening anatomy can do such things, and it’s wonderful how resilient that anatomy is, much as we need to be… because we are one and the same, our brains and our selves that dwell inside them, and the love of life that they can conjure.

If this post bummed you out, just focus on these contented cats.

If this post bummed you out, just focus on these contented cats.

Read Full Post »

In case you haven’t heard, Saturday, September 22nd, 2012 (today, at this writing) is World Rhino Day! The main websites include here and here.  Ivan Kwan has also posted a fantastic blog entry “Rhinos are not prehistoric survivors” for WRD2012- check it out! And if you haven’t seen the WitmerLab’s AWESOME Visible Interactive Rhino site, you really really need to (in fact, quit reading this and go there first; it is soooooo good!).

I’ve written about the global rhino crisis before, and about rhino foot pathologies. The title of today’s post may be “cute”, or at least goofy, but the real situation is as grim as the images I’ll share. I won’t repeat the explanation, but all five living species of rhinoceroses are in serious trouble. There’s a good chance that most or all of them will go extinct quite soon– see the previous links for more information on this. Javan and Sumatran rhinos are dangling the most precariously over the precipice of extinction. My goal in this post is to share the beautiful, complex and exotic anatomy of rhinoceros anatomy and movement, and the joy of contributing new scientific information about poorly understood species.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 7/10– dissections, and there are a couple of pics where the specimens are not so fresh, and there’s big skin, and a huge heart.

Baby white rhinoceros. Will frozen specimens like this be all we have of rhinos someday?

The purpose of today’s rhino post is to share a bit more; especially images; of the work my team has done on rhinoceros gait and limb anatomy; all of it unpublished but hopefully coming soon. We’ve steadily been collecting data since ~2005. Because my previous post went through some of this, I’ll keep it brief and image-focused.

First, a video of one of our amusing encounters with a white rhinoceros, at Woburn Safari Park. In this study, we wanted to measure, for the first time really, the gaits (footfall patterns) that a white rhinoceros uses at different speeds, and how often it uses those different gaits. We attached a GPS unit on a horse surcingle around the rhino’s torso, which measured the animal’s speed once a second. We then observed 5 individuals (1 at a time over various days), following them in my station wagon (estate car) across the safari park. We filmed them with a conventional camcorder to document their gaits, and concentrated on the two periods of the day that they’d normally be active: when released from their overnight barn, and when coming in for the night back to that barn. They got rather excited and frisky some of those times. The GPS belt then kept recording speeds for the rest of the day; unsurprisingly, the rhinos generally did not do much. I have to thank Nick Whiting, rhino handler, for his help making this research happen. I’ve been meaning  for too long to finish the final paper… soon, I hope! Enjoy this tense scene of a rhino investigating my car (driven by me and with an undergraduate student filming) then having a nice canter/gallop across the field (accompanied by my jubilant narration).

Like our foot pressure research, we aim that this work provides baseline data useful to caretakers of rhinos; for example, to test if a particular animal is lame. This follows what we’ve successfully done with elephant gaits and feet, translating basic research into more clinical application. But my major scientific interest is in understanding more about what makes any rhinoceros, even a 2-tonne White rhino, so much more athletic than any elephant (even a baby or 2-tonne small adult Asian elephant). As the video shows, they can use a variety of gaits including cantering and galloping, and trotting at slower running speeds. No elephant ever does that, and no one knows precisely why. The leg bones are more robust, but the muscles aren’t that dramatically larger in rhinos.

An Indian rhinoceros forelimb- note the characteristic knobbly hide, unlike the smoother, more elephant-like hide of a White rhinoceros.

Similarly, the anatomical work we do with rhinos is intended to not only be useful science for comparative biologists like me, showing how rhino limbs work and how they differ from those of other animals, but also to aid clinicians in comparing normal vs. pathological anatomy. For conveying that anatomical work, I’m lucky to have been granted permission to use a professional photographer’s pictures of some of my freezers’ rhino specimens– big thanks to James King-Holmes and the Science Photo Library. The watermarked images below belong to them. I ask that you do not use them elsewhere, honouring their license to me for personal usage on this website (and I will only use them here). I’m in all the images, which makes me feel weird putting them up here, but it’s about the rhinos (and freezers), not me. First: the infamous “rhino foot freezer”, featuring some of its denizens:

Second, a re-introduction to multifarious contents of Freezersaurus, but this time featuring rhino feet (here, a skinned white rhino foot that we had already studied):

…and inside we go (and I begin to get frosty and numb-fingered from holding a foot; my smile soon fades):

Taking a rest with the skinned white rhinoceros foot:

And now warming up at the “digital freezer”, our CT scanner, and preparing to scan another rhinoceros foot, which segues nicely out of this image sequence:

Now over to some 3D anatomy– segmented reconstructions of rhinoceros fore (top) and hind (bottom) feet, from CT scans; if you’ve frequented this blog you know the drill. Here, the longest bones are the metacarpals/metatarsals and the upper bones are the carpals/tarsals, then the bones near the botttom are the phalanges, which connect to the hooves (visible in the bottom image):

I’ll wrap up with a series of images of basic limb muscle anatomy from dissections we’ve done of baby and adult Indian and White rhinoceroses. First, here’s what a rhino looks like underneath the skin:

But ahh that skin, that fabled “pachyderm” skin! A rhino’s greatest defense is also a real chore to get through in a dissection.  Here, we enlist the help of a crane and hook, hurrying to get down to the muscles of this forelimb before rotting takes over too much (as with other big animals, this is a tough race against time even in chilly England!):

Here is a closer look at that amazing armoured skin; sometimes 10cm or so thick:

Back to the forelimb muscles– stocky and well-defined for this athletic animal:

(late addition) Here are the massive shoulder muscles, such as the serratus and latissimus dorsi (this is a left limb in side view; head is toward the left):

And now a close look at the forearm muscles:

And then over to the hindlimb, here from an adult Indian rhino, whose thigh bone (femur) shows the characteristic giant “third trochanter” (toward the bottom centre of the image), which is an expanded bony attachment for the giant “gluteobiceps” muscle complex that retracts the femur for the power stroke in locomotion. Also, this specimen showed fascinating anatomy that I’d never seen before: the third trochanter has a thin bar of bone that extends up (toward the bottom left in the image) to fuse with the greater trochanter, opposite the head of the femur (upper left corner):

Damn my photography skills, cutting off the edge of that image and instead giving a view of my boots! Anyway, another interesting feature of that femur: the medial (inner) condyle of the femur (knee joint surface) has a pink stripe of worn cartilage. This is indicative of at least a moderate stage of arthritis, shown here (look for the pinkness amidst the shiny, healthy white cartilage on the upper right side). It is an exemplar of serious welfare problems that some captive, and probably some wild as well, rhinos face:

(late addition) Back up the limb, this baby White rhino shows the massive thigh muscles, especially that “gluteobiceps” that attaches to the third trochanter, noted above, and also showing the hamstrings:

Moving down the limb, we encounter the glorious three-toed perissodactyl foot of rhinos, and the robust hooves/nails, which are reasonably healthy in this animal– unlike others I’ve seen:

And the sole of that foot, showing a fairly healthy pad, below. Toward the rear (away from the nails), it culminates in a modest-sized fat pad, or digital cushion, akin to that in elephants but far less well developed and lacking the false “sixth toe” (predigit) (see also CT scan movie of the hindfoot above):

Here’s a view inside that marvelous foot, showing the HUGE digital flexor tendons. These help support the toes against gravity and, in theory, can act to curl them up– although in a rhino’s foot, as in an elephant’s, the toes are more like a single functional hoof, with reduced independence compared to a carnivore or primate:

And that ends our tour of rhinoceros limb anatomy and function. Help spread the word of how precious and threated rhinos are; educate yourself and others! And if you overhear someone talking about using rhino horn for medicine, try to politely educate them on the utter fallacy of this tradition. It is this cruel, greedy, ignorant practice that needs to die; not rhinos. I don’t enjoy receiving dead rhinos, on a personal level, even though the science excites me. I’d rather have many more alive and living good, healthy lives. And my team is trying to do what we can to help others on the “front lines” of rhino conservation make that happen.

For example, Will Fowlds, vet and co-owner of Amakhala Game Reserve, South Africa, recently sent us some images of a white rhino that had been caught in a poacher’s foot snare some years ago. The poor rhino still was having problems healing– we inspected x-ray images and external photos and helped to make an initial diagnosis of osteomyelitis, a nasty infectious, inflammatory foot bone/joint disease. We are following this case to hope that the rhino recovers and contribute help where we can, but the tough job belongs to the keepers/vets on the ground, not to mention the rhinos…

Furthermore, we’ve done foot pressure research covered here, and here is an example of the data we’ve collected (image credit: Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou), showing high pressures on the toes and low pressures on the foot pads:

Big thanks to people on my team that have helped with this and related research: Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou (and Dr Todd Pataky at Shinshu University, Japan), Dr Renate Weller in the VCS Dept at the RVC, Liz Ferrer at Berkeley, and former undergraduate student researchers Sophie Regnault, Richard Harvey, Hinnah Rehman, Richard Sheehan, Kate Jones, Bryony Armson and Suzannah Williams.

A White rhino’s heart, with more images below, all courtesy of William Perez’s Veterinary Anatomy Facebook pages. A mass of around 10kg (22 lbs weight) is not unusual! (Compare with even larger elephant heart)

White rhino closeup: coronary arteries

White rhino: branches of left coronary artery

White rhino heart: right atrium

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 209 other followers