(John: here’s a guest post from my former PhD student, soon to be 100% legit PhD, Dr., and all that jazz, Julia Molnar!)
This is my first guest post, but I have been avidly following what’s in John’s freezer (and the blog too) for quite a while. I joined the lab in 2009 and left a month ago on the bittersweet occasion of surviving my PhD viva (oral exam/defense), so I’d like to take a moment here to thank John and the Structure & Motion Lab for a great 4 years!
Moving on to freezer-related matters; specifically, a bunch of frozen crocodile spines. It was late 2011, and the reason for the spines in John’s freezer was that John, Stephanie Pierce, and I were trying to find out more about crocodile locomotion. This was anticipated to become my first major, first-author research publication (but see my Palaeontologia Electronica paper on a related subject), and I was about to find out that these things seldom go as planned; for example, the article would not be published for more than three years (the research took a long time!). Before telling the story of how it lurched and stumbled toward eventual publication, I’ll give you some background on the project.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10; x-ray of dead bits and nothing much worse.
A stumbly sort-of-bounding crocodile. They can do better.
First of all, why crocodiles? For one thing, they’re large, semi-terrestrial animals, but they use more sprawling postures than typical mammals. Along with alligators and gharials, they are the only living representatives of Crocodylomorpha, a 200+ million year-old lineage that includes wolf-like terrestrial carnivores, fish-like giants with flippers and a tail fin, even armored armadillo-like burrowers. Finally, crocodiles are interesting in their own right because they use a wide variety of gaits, including bounding and galloping, which are otherwise known only in mammals.
Nile crocodile skeletal anatomy
OK, so why spines? Understanding how the vertebral column works is crucial to understanding locomotion and body support on land, and inter-vertebral joint stiffness (how much the joints of the backbone resist forces that would move them in certain directions) in particular has been linked to trunk movements in other animals. For this reason, vertebral morphology is often used to infer functional information about extinct animals, including dinosaurs. However, vertebral form-function relationships have seldom been experimentally tested, and tests on non-mammals are particularly scarce. So we thought the crocodile spines might be able to tell us more about the relationship between vertebral morphology, mechanics, and locomotion in a broader sample of vertebrate animals. If crocodile spine morphology could be used to predict joint stiffness, then morphological measurements of extinct crocodile relatives would have some more empirical heft to them. Several skeletal features seem to play roles such as levers to mechanically stiffen crocodile spines (click to emcroc’en):
Anatomy of a crocodile vertebra
We decided to use a very simple technique that could be replicated in any lab to measure passive stiffness in crocodile cadavers. We dissected out individual joints were and loaded with known weights. From the movement of the vertebrae and the distance from the joint, we calculated how much force takes to move the joint a certain number of degrees (i.e. stiffness).
Me with crocodile vertebra and G-clamp
X-ray of two crocodile vertebrae loaded with a metric weight to calculate their joint’s stiffness
Afterwards, we boiled the joints to remove the soft tissues – the smell was indescribable! We took 14 measurements from each vertebra. All of these measurements had been associated with stiffness or range of motion in other studies, so we thought they might be correlated with stiffness in crocodiles also.
Some of the vertebral measurements that were related to stiffness
Despite my efforts to keep it simple, the process of data collection and analysis was anything but. I recall and exchange with Stephanie Pierce that went something like this:
Stephanie: “How’s it going?”
Me: “Well, the data are messy, I’m not seeing the trends I expected, and everything’s taking twice as long as it was supposed to.”
Stephanie: “Yes, that sounds like science.”
That was the biggest lesson for me: going into the project, I had been unprepared for the amount of bumbling around and re-thinking of methods when the results were coming up implausible or surprising. In this case there were a couple of cool surprises: for one thing, crocodiles turn out to have a very different pattern of inter-vertebral joint stiffness than typical mammals: while mammals have stiff thoracic joints and mobile lumbar joints, crocodiles have stiffer lumbar joints. Many mammals use large lumbar movements during bounding and galloping, so crocodiles must use different axial mechanics than mammals, even during similar gaits. While that’s not shocking (they did evolve their galloping and bounding gaits, and associated anatomy, totally independently), it is neat that this result came out so clearly. Another unexpected result was that, although several of our vertebral measurements were correlated with stiffness, some of the best predictors of stiffness in mammals from previous studies were not correlated with stiffness in crocodiles. The study tells a cautionary tale about making assumptions about extinct animals using data from only a subset of their living relatives or intuitive ideas about form and function.
Finally, the experience of doing the experiments and writing the paper got me interested in other aspects of crocodilian functional anatomy. For instance, how does joint stiffness interact with other factors, such as muscle activity and properties of the ribs, skin, and armor in living crocodiles? Previous studies by Frey and Salisbury had commented on this, but the influence of those factors is less tractable to experiment on or model than just naked backbones with passively stiff joints. In the future, I’d like to study vertebral movements during locomotion in crocodiles – especially during bounding and galloping – to find out how these patterns of stiffness relate to movement. In the meantime, our study shows that, to a degree, crocodile backbone dimensions do give some clues about joint stiffness and locomotor function.
To find out more, read the paper! It was just featured in Inside JEB.
Julia Molnar, Stephanie Pierce, John Hutchinson (2014). An experimental and morphometric test of the relationship between vertebral morphology and joint stiffness in Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus). The Journal of Experimental Biology 217, 757-768 link here and journal’s “Inside JEB” story