I’m gearing up for a major post with lots of striking pictures from The Freezers, but to tide you over, here’s a simple movie from one of my CT scans of a Hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis; with a supportive rod down its GI tract; this was a museum specimen that apparently needed the rod to keep its body straight). We’ve scanned loads of salamanders and other cool critters for our NERC-funded project on the evolution of terrestrial locomotion in the earliest tetrapods (more about that coming up in a future post, as we have some Big News from that study!); this is just one of them.
The huge gaps between limb joints indicate extensive articular cartilage (typical of many aquatic animals, especially some amphibians) and would make a sauropod jealous. The relatively homogenous vertebral column, without much differentiation from head to tail, is also striking, contrasting even with that observed in animals with vaguely similar locomotor styles such as lizards; not to mention mammals, which take that regionalization to an extreme. Also, like most (all?) salamanders, this one has almost no ribs — this is a secondary reduction during their evolution; early fossil tetrapods had nice big ribs. But those ribs aren’t useless (they play a role in moving and breathing), and at least one caudate (member of the broader salamander group) has evolved a very cool use for them!