Archive for the ‘Freezermas’ Category

Today is the 210th anniversary of Charles R. Darwin’s birthday so I put together a quick post. I’d been meaning to blog about some of our latest scientific papers, so I chose those that had an explicit evolutionary theme, which I hope Chuck would like. Here they are, each with a purty picture and a short explainer blurb! Also please check out Anatomy To You’s post by Katrina van Grouw on Darwin’s fancy pigeons.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10 science!

First, Brandon Kilbourne at the Naturkunde Museum in Berlin kindly invited me to assist in a paper from his German fellowship studying mustelid mammals (otters, weasels, wolverines, badgers, etc.; stinky smaller carnivorous mammals). Here we (very much driven by Brandon; I was along for the ride) didn’t just look at how forelimb bone shape changes with body size in this ecologically diverse group. We already knew bigger mustelids would have more robust bones, although it was cool to see how swimming-adapted and digging-adapted mustelids evolved similarly robust bones; whereas climbing ones had the skinniest bones.

The really exciting and novel (yes I am using that much-abused word!) aspect of the paper is that Brandon conjured some sorcery with the latest methods for analysing evolutionary trends, to test how forelimb bone shapes evolved. Was their pattern of evolution mostly a leisurely “random walk” or were there early bursts of shape innovation in the mustelid tree of life, or did shape evolve toward one or more optimal shapes (e.g. suited to ecology/habitat)? We found that the most likely pattern involved multiple rates of evolution and/or optima, rather than a single regime. And it was fascinating to see that the patterns of internal shape change deviated from external shape change such as bone lengths: so perhaps selection sometimes works independently at many levels of bone morphology?

Various evolutionary models applied to the phylogeny of mustelids.

Then there, coincidentally, was another paper originating in part from the same museum group in Berlin. This one I’d been involved in as a co-investigator (author) on a Volkswagen (yes! They like science) grant back about 8 years ago and since. There is an amazing ~290 million year old fossil near-amniote (more terrestrial tetrapod) called Orobates pabsti, preserved with good skeletal material but also sets of footprints that match bones very well, allowing a rare match of the two down to this species level. John Nyakatura’s team had 3D modelled this animal before, so we set out to use digital techniques to test how it did, or did not, move—similar to what I’d tried before with Tyrannosaurus, Ichthyostega and so forth. The main question was whether Orobates moved in a more “ancestral” salamander-like way, a more “derived” lizard-like way (i.e. amniote-ish), or something else.

The approach was like a science sledgehammer: we combined experimental studies of 4 living tetrapods (to approximate “rules” of various sprawling gaits), a digital marionette of Orobates (to assess how well its skeleton stayed articulated in various motions), and two robotics analysis (led by robotics guru Auke Ijspeert and his amazing team): a physical robot version “OroBOT” (as a real-world test of our methods), and a biomechanical simulation of OroBOT (to estimate hard-to-measure things in the other analyses, and matches of motions to footprints). And, best of all, we made it all transparent: you can go play with our interactive website, which I still find very fun to explore, and test what motion patterns do or do not work best for Orobates. We concluded that a more amniote-like set of motions was most plausible, which means such motions might have first evolved outside of amniotes.

OroBOT in tha house!

You may remember Crassigyrinus, the early tetrapod, from a prior post on Anatomy To You. My PhD student Eva Herbst finished her anatomical study of the best fossils we could fit into a microCT-scanner and found some neat new details about the “tadpole from hell”. Buried in the rocky matrix were previously unrecognized bones: vertebrae (pleurocentra; the smaller nubbins of what may be “rhachitomous” bipartite classic tetrapod/omorph structure), ribs (from broad thoracic ones to thin rear ones), pelvic (pubis; lower front), and numerous limb bones. One interesting trait we noticed was that the metatarsals (“sole bones” of the foot) were not symmetrical from left-to-right across each bone, as shown below. Such asymmetry was previously used to infer that some early tetrapods were terrestrial, yet Crassigyrinus was uncontroversially aquatic, so what’s up with that? Maybe this asymmetry is a “hangover” from more terrestrial ancestry, or maybe these bones get asymmetrical for non-terrestrial reasons.

The oddly asymmetrical metatarsals of Crassigyrinus.

Finally, Dr. Peter Bishop finished his PhD at Griffith University in Australia and came to join us as a DAWNDINOS postdoc. He blasted out three of his thesis chapters (starting here) with me and many others as coauthors, all three papers building on a major theme: how does the inner bone structure (spongy or cancellous bone) relate to hindlimb function in theropod dinosaurs (including birds) and how did that evolve? Might it tell us something about how leg posture or even gait evolved? There are big theories in “mechanobiology” variously named Wolff’s Law or the Trajectorial Theory that explain why, at certain levels, bony struts tend to align themselves to help resist certain stresses, and thus their alignment can be “read” to indicate stresses. Sometimes. It’s complicated!

Undaunted, Peter measured a bunch of theropod limb bones’ inner geometry and found consistent differences in how the “tracts” of bony struts, mainly around joints, were oriented. He then built a biomechanical model of a chicken to test if the loads that muscles placed on the joints incurred stresses that matched the tracts’ orientations. Hmm, they did! Then, with renewed confidence that we can use this in the fossil record to infer approximate limb postures, Peter scanned and modelled a less birdlike Daspletosaurus (smaller tyrannosaur) and more birdlike “Troodon” (now Stenonychosaurus; long story). Nicely fitting many other studies’ conclusions, Peter found that the tyrannosaur had a more straightened hindlimb whereas the troodontid had a more crouched hindlimb; intermediate between the tyrannosaur and chicken. Voila! More evidence for a gradual evolution of leg posture across Mesozoic-theropods-into-modern-birds. That’s nice.

Three theropods, three best-supported postures based on cancellous bone architecture.

If you are still thirsty for more papers even if they are less evolutionary, here’s the quick scoop on ones I’ve neglected until now:

(1) Former PhD student Chris Basu published his thesis work w/us on measuring giraffe walking dynamics with force plates, finding that they move mostly like other quadrupeds and their wobbly necks might cost them a little.

(2) Oh, and Chris’s second paper just came out as I was writing this! We measured faster giraffe gaits in the wilds of South Africa, as zoo giraffes couldn’t safely do them. And we found they don’t normally go airborne, just using a rotary gallop (not trot, pace or canter); unlike some other mammals. Stay tuned: next we get evolutionary with this project!

(2) How do you safely anaesthetize a Nile crocodile? There’s now a rigorous protocol (from our DAWNDINOS work).

(3) Kickstarting my broad interest in how animals do “extreme” non-locomotor motions, we simulated how greyhounds stand up, finding that even without stretchy tendons they should, barely, be able to do it, which is neat. Expect much more about this from us in due time.

(4) Let’s simulate some more biomechanics! Ashley Heers, an NSF research fellow w/me for a year, simulated how growing chukar birds use their wing muscles to flap their way up steeper inclines (“WAIR” for devotees), and the results were very encouraging for simulating this behaviour in more detail (e.g. tendons seem to matter a lot) and even in fossil species; and finally…

(5) Hey did you ever think about how bone shape differs between hopping marsupials (macropods) and galloping artiodactyl (even-toed) mammals? We did, in long-the-making work from an old BBSRC grant with Michael Doube et al., and one cool thing is that they mostly don’t change shape with body size that differently, even though one is more bipedal at faster speeds—so maybe it is lower-intensity, slower behaviours that (sometimes?) influence bone shape more?

So there you have the skinny on what we’ve been up to lately, messing around with evolution, biomechanics and morphology.

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I’m a few months late on the six-year anniversary of this blog but finally found some time. (For year 5 go here) It was seemed to be another quiet year on the blog because it was not a quiet year for work or other aspects of life. The DAWNDINOS project got into full swing and there will be a lot more about that soon on that website and maybe here, too.

Freeezersaurus 2 has been mostly vacated now; and Freezersaurus 3 is in place, with the contents shifted– and a mad rush in action to get rid of (boil down + varnish bones of) as many specimens as I can! I have way too many… of course, mostly elephant bits. Here are the last big bits left in Freezersaurus 2; we are intimidated to move them…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10 until the opossum-digested-by-gator at the end, then 9/10, so hang tight!

Year 6 began with a post about a new paper! We published a big synthesis of data on what mammals turn their kneecaps into bone (or not), and how those states evolved. The story turned out pretty interesting and we are still pursuing some angles that it inspired, so stay tuned! Otherwise, the kneecap project (i.e. Leverhulme grant) has ended and staff/students have moved on (but published all their papers on it– well done, Sophie, Kyle and Viv!!), so it will fall quiet on that topic for a while.

Then we published another paper, and it happened to involve more sesamoid-y stuff! But with birds and their ankles, and some tantalizing evidence of soft tissue and organic biomolecular preservation. I’m still a bit amazed this paper happened and am pleased we got to collaborate on it.

Next, I got to ramble on a bit, about another serious topic related to science– this time, on blame.  I had forgotten about that post, and now on re-reading it it has fresh new relevance to me. All the more reason to keep blogging!

Smaller but better: Freezersaurus 3, part of a proud dynasty!

But then, what do you know, we published another kneecap paper! And on ostriches! With some simple but ambitious finite element analysis. We are meaning to get back to this approach… it just scratched the surface of some super cool “mechanobiology” that could shed light on “evo-devo”.

And next, BOOM! The dinosaurs dawned. By which I mean my current ERC grant “DAWNDINOS” began. Do take a look– the website now has some lovely NEW palaeo-art by Bob Nicholls, John Conway and Scott Hartman, with more to come! This project’s inception led to an inspection of caeca in tinamous; the following post.

I managed to have some summer holiday in the midst of the year, and that made an extremely memorable “pilgrimage” to a fossil site possible– “Experiencing the Irish Tetrapod Tracks” was the blog post that emerged from the waters. (That post needs a little revamp in light of some other literature; I will get around to that soon)

DAWNDINOS got a nice new 3D printer and we’re gradually printing up some archosaurs to show.

Holiday ended and back to the freezer I went, to post about how we thaw specimens (and how odd wallaby legs can be). Then we published three papers in quick succession and I played catchup posting about them (Mussaurus forelimbs; mouse vs. human hindlimb simulations; and tetrapod forelimb musculature).

Speaking of mouse hindlimb simulations, I didn’t blog about this related paper that we published earlier in 2018, but it’s very relevant. And GIF-worthy!

But I couldn’t stay away from bird legs for long, and so soon enough I posted “The Bird Knee Challenge“, which still stands.

Jumbo the elephant loomed into view at Christmas-time (plus a documentary about T. rex with Chris Packham, and another about Hannibal’s elephant excursion over the Alps– the latter also playing on PBS in USA); all featuring cameos with me, so I posted about the Jumbo/Attenborough one. That’s another life experience I will treasure.

Next, back to musing about science and humanity– and who’s a more big-name, very relatable human scientist than Darwin? Well, we could debate that endlessly but I posted about Darwin’s human nature for Darwin Day.

That takes me through to March 2017. I’ve posted a little more since then but that counts as Year 7 of this blog, so we’ll catch up with that then. Looking back on ~2017, I posted more blog posts than I thought I did! Maybe it’s just that 2018 feels very quiet to me blog-wise. We’ll see how it shapes up though.

Years ago, my team dissected an alligator (for Allen et al. 2010,2014 papers if you are keeping track) that had an opposum in its stomach, during winter when feeding wasn’t supposed to be happening much. So that came up again this year; and hopefully it does not make anything come up from your stomach. But this is real anatomy in action.


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‘Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.’

(Shakespeare’s The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2)

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10- this time, tame images.

Five years have passed on this blog now, and this year with them passed Freezersaurus (soon to leave RVC’s campus; sob!). Indeed, the blog has changed, via the tempests I’ve weathered in my own life, which I lamented in last year’s summary. Regardless, the blog has been visited this year more than in any prior year, with >101,000 visits– thanks!

This year I’ll keep my annual retrospective shorter than usual, as I’m feeling healthier and more energetic but less self-indulgent.

I still got to have fun, like this ComicCon in NOLA. So, some self-indulgence.

I still got to have fun, like this ComicCon in NOLA. So, some self-indulgence.

I began the past year by blogging about why I blog, and how I feel that in a way I (and others) have long been blogging even if it wasn’t called that, and how I don’t see science communication such as blogging or tweeting as something distinct from science itself. Reading back on that post, I find some themes there that emerge again and again throughout this year’s posts, such as valuing diversity (in its diverse forms) and curiosity.

Like this? So much more is here!

Like this you do? So much more here there is!

Never tired of elephant feet will I be!

Those introspective posts included one that is very close to my heart, about how I notice my own decline (some of it since reversed, but some still lingering) and feel grief. It wasn’t long after that post that I wrote more about my experience as an epileptic; what it’s like to have a seizure. Another, more science-focused (but still very human) one laid out my views on what my team’s principles are. Then I returned a few posts later with some reflection on how time passes (too quickly!) and with it come publications (I reviewed some of my team’s latest), among other changes as a person living as an academic. I wrote then that “I suspect I’ll look back on 2016 and see it as transformative, but it hasn’t been an easy year either, to say the least.” Yep. Spot on. I’ve started a big new grant which has been a huge challenge, and I’ve rediscovered my health and some of my old self with it, rekindling some passion and hope. Later, on USA’s Thanksgiving, I typed in some musings about my appreciation for diversity in the human world. Again, with thoughts of disturbing recent political/social trends weighing heavily on me, I celebrated how the Women’s March inspired me, and how that relates to the importance of curiosity and empathy.

He ain't goin' nowhere.

He ain’t goin’ nowhere.

But there was plenty of time here to talk about freezers and anatomy and research, too! We published a paper that I think I’ll long regard as one of our better ones, on using dynamic computer simulations to study how ostriches control their walking and running gaits with their muscles. Throughout 2016, we worked hard to get our anatomical research out there to the public in person. So I posted about our presentations at the Cheltenham Science Festival (including a public cheetah dissection, which was a huge hit!), and “Team Cat” did a dissection of another cheetah (all zoo mortalities) at the RVC for a well-attended joint event with UCL/Grant Museum on “Wild Cats Uncovered: movement evolves“. UCL’s PhD student (soon Dr.) Marcela Randau wrote a great guest post about our paper on how size and ecology relate to the shapes of backbones in cats, which tied in nicely with those big cat dissection presentations. I also ruminated about how scientists balance testing big questions vs. getting very accurate data, using the big question (in my and others’ research) about how much more slowly big animals can move relative to smaller ones as an example. As a final anatomical post this blog-year, I wrote about the biceps muscle, and people seemed to like that, so I will do more of those.

Whale humeral epiphysis (joint) turned into a sculpture with walrus ivory teeth, at Point Vicente Museum, LA.

Whale humeral epiphysis (joint) turned into a sculpture with walrus ivory teeth, at Point Vicente Museum, LA.

In addition to being open about my (and my team’s) thoughts, experiences, dissections and publications, we put a lot of effort this year into making our scientific and anatomical data public. My blog posts about our huuuuuge open datasets on crocodile and tuatara 3D scans exemplify a deluge of data that is going to keep coming out. We’re going to push very hard on this, including an effort to release old data from prior publications of mine. I’m thrilled that we can finally deliver on these things; it is a great feeling!

Yale Peabody Museum specimen YPM57100: ilium (hip bone) and vertebrae of the Triassic archosaur Poposaurus. More about this later!

Yale Peabody Museum specimen YPM57100: right ilium (hip bone) and vertebrae of the Triassic archosaur Poposaurus. More about this later!

We enter year 6 of this blog with a new (temporary, maybe) freezer, which we failed to reach a conclusion on naming. I’m sure you’re on tenterhooks awaiting the final decision. I have a bunch of ideas for some blog posts to come soon (really fun anatomical papers en route), and I always welcome guest posts so let me know if you want to do one! In the meantime, I sprinkled some images from my 2016-7 travels here in this post. With good health comes more ability to go do fun things that I’ve put off while recovering, so hopefully 2017-8 will provide some new images to share.

A sunny Sceloporus fence lizard seen in LA.

A sunny Sceloporus fence lizard seen in LA. Meanwhile, the UK awaits some sunshine…

I doth not protest too much, methinks– there have been some good times this past year, and ides of March be damned, I look forward to sharing more science here for year 6!

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And I post my blog and stare
Into x-rays of an ostrich
I’ve always known that radiographs never lie
People always say “that’s cool”
To see x-rays of an ostrich
So keen to know what
Lies behind the skin

(evolved from “Eyes of A Stranger” by Queensrÿche, from the epic masterpiece of Operation: Mindcrime (1988). One of my favourite albums of all time, and a fantastic concept album too. The band was operating at their peak. Tight! Drug addict Nikki gets brainwashed by the evil Dr. X and made to assassinate a nun, Sister Mary, who was a prostitute, and then there’s like a revolution or something, and things get all screwed up and no one ends up happy – or alive. All the while, Geoff Tate is singing his guts out. Anyway, I got to see them play the whole album live in 1990 in Madison, WI, for the filming of Operation: Livecrime, which was like a Mecca moment for me back then. Look for me (pre-bald years) in about the 6th row. )

What does that album have to do with the number 2 (two days left in Freezermas)? Hmm… Track 2 is the instrumental Anarchy-X, and today’s post is about X-rays as well as that funky ostrich (2 legs good! 2 toes good, too!) again, so I’m satisfied, and by this point you’re probably just oggling the mind-blowing images below anyway, so fuck it!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10; just X-rays.

Tech/MRes Kyle Chadwick, Renate Weller and the equine imaging team at the RVC took these x-rays of our birdie for us and for an artist who is doing a big x-ray animal art show (more news on this soon!)– thanks to all of them for some truly awesome images! I could stare at the intricate details in these images for hours– go ahead, do it. Click to emostrichinate them (this post needs to be viewed on nice big screen), and oggle away…

Head and neck.

Head and neck.

Another view of the same.

Another view of the same. The highly flexible esophagus and trachea can be seen going diagonally across the neck; twisting from ventral to dorsal. It’s floppy, so it can do that.

Neck near the head; tapering.

Neck near the head; tapering.

Middle of neck. Check out the rings of the trachea!

Middle of neck. Check out the rings of the trachea!

Base of neck and shoulder

Base of neck and shoulder.

Shoulder and chest. Hard to image; thick and dense (still was frozen).

Shoulder and chest. Hard to image; thick and dense (still was frozen), hence the whiteout toward the left side of the image.

Check out that wing!!

Check out that wing!!

Ankle- note the big calloused pad that ostriches rest on (right side of image).

Ankle- note the big calloused pad that ostriches rest on (right side of image).

That two-toed foot... but did you know that normally the missing 2nd toe is still there as a fibrous remnant on the 3rd toe?

That two-toed foot… but did you know that normally the missing 2nd toe is still there as a fibrous remnant on the 3rd toe?

Tomorrow: the final day of Freezermas. What will it be?

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Sick feet, pig feet, boo hoo, in pain you are
Not well heeled; fate sealed, oh no, inflamed they are
And when your trotter’s on the floor
You’re nearly a good boar
Almost a porker

(corrupted from Pink Floyd’s “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” track #3 from the Animals concept album (1977). A song with quite a history- check out some more about it.)

It could happen...

It could happen…

Concept albums often weave back and forth between themes in a non-linear story, returning to refrains and leitmotifs to create their narrative weft and warp. This Freezermas, I’ve already woven in two legs and four legs, cats and other beasts, x-rays and more. Today, I tie in another thread, which extends throughout the blog, but especially into yesterday’s post. This post is about feet and health again. But it is also solely about pigs, which are cool animals whose biomechanics are surprisingly little studied.

It’s a shorter post (in contrast to the 11-17 minute Pink Floyd cousin song); a drum solo if you will; with just three images representing three big pigs and their funky feats of footedness, and the three days left in Freezermas. One image is about ongoing research; the other two about bizarre cases that kinda freak me out (enough to want to know more about them).

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10, not for gore but for surreality; things that should not be. Especially the 2nd picture.

pig gif

Above: X-ray GIF (may take a while to load) from our 3D XROMM analyses of foot biomechanics, here showing a pig studied by Dr. Olga Panagiotopoulou (also RVC Fellow Jeff Rankin; and Prof. Steve Gatesy at Brown University). With data like these, we not only can measure how the tiny bones move, but also get better estimates of the loads on the soft tissues within those feet. Those loads should relate to the risks of musculoskeletal injury or disease. This GIF is just a teaser for some fantastic 3D images we’re producing. The pig’s feet were normal. The odd little spheres on them are skin-adhered markers that let us compare how external estimates of skeletal motion compare to actual motion; normally this is a big source of error.

I know little about this case, posted on Reddit (link here), except that the overgrown, grossly deformed toes/hooves of this pig are like nothing I've seen before! This almost gave me nightmares. Poor chicken-footed pig!

I know little about this case (seems to trace back to an original Brazilian news story), posted on Reddit (link here), except that the overgrown, grossly deformed toes/hooves of this pig are like nothing I’ve seen before! This almost gave me nightmares. Poor chicken-footed pig. Foot deformities of this kind in pigs don’t seem to be as much of a problem as in cattle or horses; from the limited literature I’ve seen on this, they seem to have more problems with the soft tissues of their feet, such as  abscesses or inflammation of the digital cushion (padding) of the trotter.

Another crazy case; but this one I was able to track down more about after reading the Reddit post here. The Getty images page says: This photo dated November 24, 2011 shows a Chinese farmer showing off his prize swine, which he named 'Strong Pig', as the disabled animal keeps its 30kgs of body suspended in midair, in Mengcheng, east China's Anhui province. The pig has become an internet sensation around China due to its ability to walk around balancing on its two front legs. TOPSHOTS CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Another crazy case; but this one I was able to track down more about after reading the Reddit post here. This news image page says:
“This photo dated November 24, 2011 shows a Chinese farmer showing off his prize swine, which he named ‘Strong Pig’, as the disabled animal keeps its 30kgs of body suspended in midair, in Mengcheng, east China’s Anhui province. The pig has become an internet sensation around China due to its ability to walk around balancing on its two front legs. TOPSHOTS CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)”

Bipedal pigs– two legs good again? I guess so. Well done, Strong Pig. Well done.

Bipedal ability in injured/deformed/spooked quadrupeds is not so unusual- in addition to trained macaques and rats that have been scientifically studied, there are plenty of examples out there on the internet of videos/GIFs of bipedal cats, dogs, and so on… Post your favourites below. Hooray for the marvelous plasticity of the locomotor system! As Pink Floyd famously wrote, “Any fool knows a dog needs a home, a shelter from bipedal pigs.” (or something like that)

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Why should you care
If you have to trim my hooves?
I’ve got to move with good feet
Or be put down fast.
I know I should trot
But my old vet she cares a lot.
And I’m still living on stone
Even though these feet won’t last.

(mutated from The Who, “Cut My Hair“, Quadrophenia… from the heyday of concept albums and grandiose rock!)

Talkin' bout my osteitis?

Talkin’ bout my osteitis

Day Four of Freezermas. Four posts to go. I can see through time… Hence the silly title for today’s concept album track. Quadrupedophilia did not have a good ring to it, anyway.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10. Reasonably tame; bones and hooves. Some pathologies of those, but not gory.

If Quadrophenia was the story of a man with four personalities (metaphor for the four band members), then quadrupedopheniaphilia is the story of how diverse forms of four-legged animals have lots of problems because of our exploitation of them, which leaves a crisis to resolve: Who are we? Are we caring enough to fix a bad situation we’ve created for our four-legged ungulate comrades?

Four legs good, two legs bad? Not really. I featured ostriches earlier this week and two legs are indeed pretty good. Four-legged cats are great, too. But four-footed big beasties with deformed hooves: those are bad all around. That leads to today’s topic…

But hey, happy 205th funkin’ birthday Charles freakin’ Robert Darwin!

Charles Darwin on his horse “Tommy” in 1868- from the Darwin Correspondence Project, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwins-photographic-portraits

Today’s post concerns a phenomenon that (Western) civilization has wrought with large hoofed mammals, and evolution is a big part of it (as well as biomechanics and anatomy) . Cynical perspective, with some truth to it: We’ve evolved larger and heavier animals to either do harder and harder work on tough surfaces like concrete floors and tarmac roads, or to stand around while we gawk at them or wait for them to get fat and tasty. Either way, the outcome should come as no surprise: their feet, the interface of that hard ground and their body, eventually start falling apart.

I’ve posted about this several times with respect to rhinos and elephants (here and here and here and here and here), but this post hits closer to home: what goes wrong with the humble hoof of our friend the horse, cow, sheep or other ungulate. It’s where the rubberkeratin hits the road. Ungulates have not evolved to live on dirty, wet concrete floors; to be obese and inactive; or to have hooves that don’t get worn down. So they suffer when they do encounter those modern conditions.

“No foot no horse,” they say, and it’s so true- once the feet start to go (due to hoof overgrowth or cracks, abscesses or other trouble), it’s hard to reverse the pathologies that ensue (arthritis, osteomyelitis, infections, fractures, etc.) and the animals start going lame, then other limbs (supporting greater loads than the affected limb) start to go, too, sometimes.

Jerry the obese, untrimmed-hoof-bearing horse.

Jerry the obese, untrimmed-hoof-bearing horse. “Turkish slippers” is an apt description. DM has more here.

We can do plenty about these problems, and the title track above explains one of them: trimming hooves. Hooves often get overgrown, and if animals are tame enough (requires training!) or are sedated (risky!), hoof care experts (farriers) can rasp/file/saw them down to a more acceptable conformation. If we don’t, and the animals don’t do the trimming themselves by digging or walking around or living on varied surfaces, then the feet can suffer. But there’s still not much evidence for most common species kept in captivity by humans that indicates what the best methods are for avoiding or fixing foot problems.

What we’ve been trying to do at the RVC is use our expertise in evolution, anatomy and biomechanics to find new ways to prevent, detect, monitor or reverse these foot problems. We had BBSRC grant funding from 2009-2012 to do this, and the work continues, as it behooves us to do… Past posts have described some of this research, which spun off into other benefits like re-discovering/illuminating the false sixth toes of elephants. We’re working with several zoos in the UK to apply some of the lessons we’re learning to their animals and management practices.

Above: Thunderous hoof impacts with nasty vibrations, and large forces concentrated on small areas, seem to contribute to foot problems in hoofed mammals. From our recent work published in PLOS ONE.

Foot health check on a white rhino at a UK zoo. Photo by Ann & Steve Toon, http://www.toonphoto.com/

Foot health check on a white rhino at a UK zoo; one of the animals we’ve worked with. Photo by Ann & Steve Toon, http://www.toonphoto.com/

If it works, it’s the most satisfying outcome my research will have ever had, and it will prevent my freezers from filling up with foot-influenced mortality victims.

Again, I’ll tell this tale mainly in photos. First, by showing some cool variations evolved in the feet of hoofed mammals (artiodactyls and perissodactyls; mostly even/odd-toed ungulates of the cow/sheep and horse lineages, respectively). Second, by showing some pretty amazing and shocking images of how “normal” hooves go all wonky.

Two ways to evolve a splayed hoof for crossing soft ground: 2 toes that are flexible and linked to big pads (camel), and 2 main toes that allow some extra support from 2 side toes when needed (elk). At Univ. Mus. Zoology- Cambridge.

Two ways to evolve a splayed hoof for crossing soft ground: 2 toes that are flexible and linked to big pads (camel), and 2 main toes that allow some extra support from 2 side toes when needed (elk). At Univ. Mus. Zoology- Cambridge.

Diversity of camelid foot forms: big clunky, soft Old World camel feet and dainty, sharp highland New World camelids.

Diversity of camelid foot forms: big clunky, soft Old World camel feet and dainty, sharp highland New World camelids. [Image source uncertain]

Moschus, Siberian musk deer with remarkable splayed hooves/claws; aiding it in crossing snowy or swampy ground. At Univ. Mus. Zoology- Cambridge.

Moschus, Siberian musk deer with remarkable splayed hooves/claws; aiding it in crossing snowy or swampy ground. At Univ. Mus. Zoology- Cambridge.

Tragulus, or mouse-deer, with freaky long "splint bones" (evolutionarily reduced sole bones or metatarsals) and dainty hooved feet. At Univ. Mus. Zoology- Cambridge.

Tragulus, or mouse-deer, with freaky long “splint bones” (evolutionarily reduced sole bones or metatarsals) and dainty hooved feet. At Univ. Mus. Zoology- Cambridge.

Overgrown giraffe hooves. An all-too-common problem, and one we're tacking with gusto lately, thanks to PhD student Chris Basu's NERC-funded giraffe project!

Overgrown giraffe hooves. An all-too-common problem, and one we’re tacking with gusto lately, thanks to PhD student Chris Basu’s NERC-funded giraffe project!

Wayyyyyyyyy overgrown hooves of a ?sheep, from the RVC's pathology collection.

Wayyyyyyyyy overgrown hooves of a ?sheep, from the RVC’s pathology collection.

Craaaaaaazy overgrown ?cow hooves, from the RVC's pathology collection.

Craaaaaaazy overgrown ?sheep hooves, from the RVC’s pathology collection.

If we understand how foot form, function and pathology relate in diverse living hoofed mammals, we can start to piece together how extinct ones lived and evolved- like this giant rhinoceros! At IVPP museum in Beijing.

If we understand how foot form, function and pathology relate in diverse living hoofed mammals, we can start to piece together how extinct ones lived and evolved- like this giant rhinoceros! At IVPP museum in Beijing.

So, what do we do now? If we love our diverse hoofed quadrupeds, we need to exert that quadrupedopheniaphilia and take better care of them. Finding out how to do that is where science comes in. I’d call that a bargain. The best hooves ever had?

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Freezermas continues with track 3 of our rockin’ anatomy concept album! The number of the beast today is 5 (five days to go in Freezermas!), and I will deviate from the rock/metal theme to embrace the other side of the tracks: hip hop and rap. The Beastie Boys and I go way back: their “Licensed to Ill” album was the second cassette tape I bought (I remember proudly showing it off in Geometry class, circa 1986/7), and still ranks as one of my favourite albums ever. Everyone should own a copy of that, and of this next album…

The Five Felids, featuring KC

If only MCA were still alive to do this follow-up album…

The Beastie Boys’ superb, old school rap NYC-style (and themed) “To The Five Boroughs” (2004) satisfies my search for a #5-themed concept album/song. No track has that title, so I’m going with this one, “Triple Trouble” (song 3; day 3 of Freezermas… c’mon this is all just an excuse for me to talk about music I like and celebrate the concept album/freezers anyway!), as an introduction to a collaborative cat (felid) project we’ve started; and to continue the felid theme from Sunday (also be sure to check out the Snow Leopard dissection I posted on earlier!):

If You If You 
Wanna Know Wanna Know 
The real deal about the cats
Well let me tell you 
We’re felid funded ya’ll 
We’re gonna bring you some mad facts

(yes, that’s painful, I know… be relieved, I tried working some rap jargon into this post’s text but it just looked wack)

Dodgy-looking bagged-up skinned jaguar (bag-uar?) after delivery from Scotland.

Dodgy-looking bagged-up skinned jaguar (bag-uar?) after delivery from Scotland.

Anjali Goswami at University College London, myself, and Stephanie Pierce have teamed up to join the former’s skills in mammalian evolution, morphometrics, evo-devo and more together with our RVC team’s talents in biomechanics, evolution and modelling, and to apply them to resolving some key questions in felid evolution. We’ve hired a great postdoc from Bristol’s PhD programme, soon-to-be-Dr. Andrew Cuff, to do a lot of the experimental/modelling work, and then we have the marvellous Marcela Randau as a PhD student to tackle more of the morphometrics/evo-devo questions, which we’ll then tie together, as our Leverhulme Trust grant’s abstract explains:

“In studying the evolution of vertebrate locomotion, the focus for centuries has been on limb evolution. Despite significant evolutionary and developmental correlations among the limbs, vertebrae, and girdles, no biomechanical studies have examined the entire postcranial skeleton or explicitly considered the genetic and developmental processes that underly morphological variation, which are captured in phenotypic correlations. We propose to conduct experimental and geometric morphometric analyses of living and fossil cats, including the only large, crouching mammals, to study the evolution of locomotion, the mechanical consequences of size-related morphological evolution, and the evolution of correlations (modularity) in the postcranial musculoskeletal system.”

Above: snow leopard (headless) reconstructed and taken for a spin

Our study will integrate some prior studies from Anjali’s group, on modularity for example, and from my group, on the apparent lack of postural change with increasing size in felids (most other birds and mammals get more straight-legged as size increases, to aid in support, cats don’t– paper forthcoming). How does the neglected vertebral column fit into these limb-focused ideas? We’ll find out!

And it’s all very freezer-based research, using a growing stock of specimens that we’ve collected from zoo/park mortalities, many of which are kindly being supplied by Dr. Andrew Kitchener from the National Museums Scotland. We’ll be scanning, dissecting, measuring and modelling them and then returning the skeletons to be curated as museum specimens. This page features five sets of felid specimens involved in the research. We’ll be presenting plenty more about this research on this blog and elsewhere as it continues!

Above: ocelot from Freezermas day 1, now in 3D!

The Bag-o-Cats: whole specimens of a black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), juvenile cheetah, and juvenile snow leopard. I think. Sometimes you get a bag-o-cats and are not sure.

The Bag-o-Cats: x-ray CT slice showing whole specimens of a black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), juvenile cheetah, and juvenile snow leopard. I think. Sometimes you get a bag-o-cats and are not sure.

Panthera atrox (large American lion) from the NHM in LA. Oh yes we'll be applying our insights to strange extinct cats, too!

Panthera atrox (large American lion; “Naegele’s giant jaguar”) from the NHM in LA. Oh yes we’ll be applying our insights to strange extinct cats, too!

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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.


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Seven dead old limbs
Seven science wins
Seven icy forms beheld
And our trip begins

Seven anat’my jokes
Seven bloody posts
Seven are our sci-comm fires
Seven frozen choirs…

(props to Iron Maiden’s “Moonchild” opening lyrics, from the iconic “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” concept album, of lofty, epic, frozen, anatomy-bearing motifs)

7th Son

So we come full circle to another Freezermas, another foolhardy attempt to honour Charles Darwin (his birthday is Weds 12th Feb) with seven blog posts in seven days!

There will be mysterious morphology! Expositions of new projects and a new paper! Detailed dissections showing amazing anatomy! Silly songs and other nonsense! So much more that I have no idea about at this writing but will surely come to me! (there is an amorphous plan)

Last year I invoked the 7 days of Freezermas song, but this year the songcraft has changed. Christmas is so 2013! Time for a 1970smodern approach! We’re doing hard rock/heavy metal concept album songs and motifs each day. I started off with one above. Future posts will try to stick to a theme of songs/albums featuring numbers, counting down from seven. Because we all know that Darwin loved to rock. But let’s get on with the real rockin’: the freezer-based anatomical science!

Today we’ll ease you in to Freezermas: The Concept Album, like the acoustic intro of Moonchild did, with some simple Mystery CT Anatomy…

(insert guitar solo here while you mentally prepare yourself)

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10; simple CT scan of a body.

Mystery Anatomy 2014: same rules as before; remember that the scoreboard has been reset.

Identify the animal in the CT scout/pilot image below, as specifically as you can. 

Today’s special rule: Your answer must be in the form of a lyric (at least 2 lines) from a song by Queen (Google some if you’re unfamiliar– but how?).

Why Queen? One should never question Queen; not a little or a lot.

Difficulty: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

You will probably want to click to emgiganticate the image below.

Mystery CT 11

Don’t let this one drive you Stone Cold Crazy! I know you’re feeling Under Pressure; just Tie Your Mother Down and play The Game.

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…a daily picture of anatomy! And today the pictures are a mysteryyyyyyy! ♫

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

This is the end. I’ve worked hard all week to bring you all-new content for Freezermas, and on the Seventh Day I get drunk rest— and make you do the work! Off into the hoary wilderness you go, seeking answers to eternal trivial mysteries.

Seven mystery photos of museum specimens today, each from a different museum (or other institution whose role it is to display critters, in 2/7 cases) and animal! I’ve visited all these facilities and taken these photos myself. Which specimens can you identify, and (ultra difficult) can you identify the institution it’s from?

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10. Super tame.

You had some impromptu practice on day 2. Very well, then. This session counts for points. If you want a recap of points, see last Mystery Dissection.

But because the pictures are small and numerous (refer to them by number 1-7, please), the points/correct answer are simplified: 2 pts for correct answer, and maybe 1 bonus pt for something clever but incorrect, 0 pts here just for shooting the breeze (“Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results.”–Ernest Shackleton), plus 1 pt extra credit if you correctly ID the museum/institution. Being first does not matter here. Just being correct. With 7 mysteries, you can freeze up a lot of points here! But…

Difficulty: Cropping. Lots of cropping. And therefore quite pixellated if you zoom in much; don’t even bother clicking to embigitate. However, there may or may not be themes between some pictures, or critical clues. They are identifiable.

Off you venture, brave Freezerinos! Wear multiple layers.

1) Freezermas7-1 2) Freezermas7-2

3) Freezermas7-3

4) Freezermas7-4 

5)Freezermas7-5 6)Freezermas7-6


But wait– there is a mystery eighth specimen, which even I am not completely sure what it is! No points for figuring it out, but mucho respect!



Happy Freezermas! One last time– sing it: “On the seventh day of Freezermas, this blo-og gave to me: one tibiotarsustwo silly Darwinsthree muscle layersfour gory heartsfive doggie models, six mangled pangl’ins a-aaaaaaand seven specimens that are mysteries!” ♪

I hope you enjoyed Freezermas. Let’s hope we’re all thawed out in time for the next one.

CLUES/ANSWERS: Click these thumbnails to embigrinate them if you need help–

snapperpareiasaurs frogfish  Sclerocephalus  Suedinosauroidaardvarks

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