Archive for the ‘Mad Science’ Category

This week we conducted wallaby leg dissections for a study of the kneecaps of marsupials (pouched mammals). Placental (non-pouched) mammals like us almost all have bony kneecaps but many marsupials do not. Kneecaps do important things, acting like gears around the knee joints (e.g. this old post), and yet it is unclear why some marsupials have lost, kept or even re-evolved them as bones. So we’re investigating that and already noticed that one of our wallabies has bony kneecap(s) whereas the other doesn’t, so we’re checking out why and taking tissue samples to do histology (sectioning for microscopic imaging of tissue composition and structure) on so we can see what the knee tendon/kneecap tissues are made of. Some marsupials turn their kneecaps into fibrocartilage rather than bone or tendon and that can be impossible to identify without histology.

The wallabies are small, about 20lbs or so and just take a day or so. Like a turkey. And it’s Thanksgiving today, so here I am with a post about thawing specimens for science, rather than for food. Maybe the title will make sense now.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 7/10; thawed wallaby bits from the get-go.

Thawed lower leg and foot of wallaby. The stickers are for an old study that would take too long to explain…

This post was directly inspired by journalist Jason Bittel’s inquiry to me about my tweet on the wallaby thawing; he wondered if there might be a fun story linking thawing-for-science with thawing-for-Thanksgiving. Some highfalutin editors didn’t agree, so no printed/online story came of this, but I am not so highfalutin, hence this blog post.

Thawed wallaby forelimbs. I’m also looking into the “false thumbs” that some marsupials have (“sixth fingers”), much as elephants and other mammals may have.

Thawing is second nature for our lab’s team; we do it all the time. Avid readers will be unsurprised to learn that just about everything I’ve worked on has been frozen at some time, and thus has been thawed out at some time(s). Normally we don’t freeze if we need live tissue or undistorted tissue, e.g. to measure physiology or very fine microstructure– freezing disrupts all of that. We would instead use physiological saline solution or else a preservative like formalin. And you can only freeze and then thaw a specimen for two times or so before it becomes too useless even for anatomical study.

A small specimen like this salamander can be thawed out simply by running it under warm water for a little while or leaving it out for an hour.

We just leave specimens in a cart, or on a table or sometimes in a cold-room shelving area, for slower thawing. Space heaters tend to overdo things. We don’t do any rough calculation from some sort of thermodynamic first principles of time-to-thaw vs. specimen size (I wish we were that smart!); just seat-of-pants guessing and checking (yes, poking specimens to check their thawedness is a method of choice). Cutting things in half along the way, or skinning them, may be used to accelerate the thawing process. But it’s about as unscientific a method as we use.

The hardest specimens to thaw of course have been the largest specimens. Elephant legs can be >2 metres long and hundreds of kilograms (especially when frozen). A week at room temperature tends to work OK for getting them to a dissectable state. One has to balance the outer deterioration with the inner frigidness. We’re not so concerned about microbe growth in most cases, as one would be with a thawing turkey, and not at all about consumption. We just want to be able to dissect it and make observations, mostly via eyeballing the specimens as we dissect them,

Left hindfoot of an Asian elephant. Still frozen; this was bandthawed- I mean bandsawed- to see its internal anatomy nice and clearly. You may see this specimen again somewhere else– stay tuned! 🙂

Moisture and fluids can be a challenge: generally the rooms we thaw in are low humidity so moisture may not be an issue once the ice melts away, and we have drains nearby. We try to remove ice first or have towels to wipe/soak fluids up as thawing progresses. But if a specimen is sitting in a cart or storage bag with too much ice early on, that can thaw first and then turn the specimen into a nasty slurry of the stuff you’re interested in and the less desirable muck. So we try to avoid that.

De-thawing too early is bad. The smell gets progressively worse– and once the interior of the specimen is thawed enough, then bacteria get in there and the interior becomes a brewing ground for heat production (rather than remaining a cooler region), which accelerates decay, so we don’t want that. We have to check on thawing specimens regularly and move them to cooler storage areas, or begin dissection earlier, if the decay process is noticeably getting excessive.

Any insulation affects thawing time- so scales, feathers, thick skin, shells, fat (for a short while until it decays), and other layers will slow thawing—and may keep heat inside, if there begins to be thawing of the core. So sometimes you open up a specimen that seems dry and clean on the outside and the inside is unpleasant. But with experience that is not hard to avoid.

Thawed wallaby patella prepared for histology.

The foulest specimen I’ve thawed by far was a monitor lizard… it was shipped to me in California from Arizona when I was a PhD student. This was in August’s heat and the box of the big lizard sat thawing at the post office for 2 weeks before they contacted me and asked why a smelly box was bleeding. I came and got it and brought it back to our department but the smell was so bad it set off our building health & safety person’s alarm bells (sorry, David!) and they emailed around a “toxic alert” warning, until I bashfully made it clear that my lizard was the cause, not some toxic chemical. I got in some trouble and was very ashamed. But we put the specimen into a big tank of brine solution and the smell was reduced—the specimen may well still be preserved there 20 years later; I do wonder! Anyway, that experience was so horrendous – and I have a strong stomach—that I regularly recall it and seek to avoid a repeat. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever experienced. I do not recommend it.

What we tend to want to get from thawed specimens is: (1) descriptive anatomy (what connects where), and maybe (2) quantitative measurements (laborious metrics of “muscle architecture”– how much does each muscle weigh, how long is it, etc; over and over again for many muscles…). These data not only serve to tell us what makes animals different (and how this evolved) but also the data are used to test questions such as how animals work. In the case of things like wallabies, ultimately we’d love to know what their kneecaps do if they are bony or not; what difference does it make and why might there be differences? We’d spotted one wallaby already that seemed to have a bony kneecap on one leg, and a non-bony one on the other leg, so that asymmetry got us excited.

What’s surprising to learn about thawing animals for science? Well, my first thought is that it’s beautiful. I don’t tend to think of it as gross. I’ve rhapsodized about this before. Animals are wonderful inside and out, and I regularly pause during a dissection to marvel at how amazing the anatomical specializations of animals are. Simple details- shapes, colours, configurations- can be gorgeous. (Often the blood is minimal, drained out early, so that doesn’t detract from or hide the detailed imagery) The gentle yet complex path of a tendon around a joint can yield profound visual enchantment in its elegance. This is all the more true once one ponders how these complex structures evolved, and how much diversity of form and function is out there to study—and how little we know about it! We still don’t know well how to fix many problems humans have with their anatomy, and that’s orders of magnitude worst for most animals, because we don’t understand how anatomy works, or even what the anatomy is like in some cases. So that keeps me busy discovering things. Every specimen is different with surprising little variations, or big ones—sometimes there is one muscle, sometimes it is clearly divided into two muscles, in the same species or even the left vs. right legs. I love seeing those intricacies and wondering about them.

Thawed wallaby shank sliced open to show lovely digital flexors and gastrocnemius muscles. So many questions are raised by this!

If you’re thawing for Thanksgiving, or thawing for science, or thawing out family relations during a gathering, or thawing yourself out from the winter’s cold– my best wishes to you! May we all enjoy what we thaw.


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Even nine years later, I still keep thinking back to a day, early in my career as an academic faculty member based in England, that traumatized me. Today I’m going to share my story of that day. I feel ready to share it.

Stomach-Churning Rating: hmm that’s a tough call, but I’ll say 1/10 because it’s just photos of live crocs and such.

This day was part of a research trip that lasted a couple of weeks, and it was in Florida, not England, and little of that trip went well at first. It transpired almost exactly 9 years ago today; around 20 August 2005. I took two 2nd/3rd year undergraduate students and our lab technician with me to Florida, meeting up with Dr. Kent Vliet, an experienced crocodile specialist, to study the biomechanics of crocodile locomotion, a subject I’ve been slowwwwwwly working on since my PhD days (see recent related blog post here). We were funded by an internal grant from my university that was supposed to be seed money to get data to lay groundwork for a future large UK research grant.

Cuban crocodile adult relaxing in a nearby enclosure. Pound-for-pound, a scary croc, but these acted like puppies with their trainers.

Cuban crocodile adult relaxing in a nearby enclosure. Pound-for-pound, a scary croc, but these acted like puppies with their trainers.

I’m interested in why only some crocodylian species, of some sizes and age classes, will do certain kinds of gaits, especially mammal-like gaits such as bounding and galloping. This strongly hints at some kind of size-related biomechanical mechanism that dissuades or prevents larger crocs from getting all jiggy with it. And at large size, with few potential predators to worry about and a largely aquatic ambush predator’s ecology, why would they need to? Crocodiles should undergo major biomechanical changes in tune with their ecological shifts as they grow up. I want to know how the anatomy of crocodiles relates to these changes, and what mechanism underlies their reduction of athletic abilities like bounding. That’s the scientific motivation for working with animals that can detach limbs from your body. (The crocodiles we worked with initially on this trip were small (about 1 meter long) and not very dangerous, but they still would have done some damage if they’d chosen to bite us, and I’ve worked with a few really nasty crocs before.)

Me putting motion capture markers onto an uncooperative young Siamese crocodile.

Me putting motion capture markers onto an uncooperative young Siamese crocodile.

We worked at Gatorland (near Orlando) with some wonderfully trained crocodiles that would even sit in your lap or under your chair, and listened to vocal commands. The cuteness didn’t wear off, but our patience soon did. First, the force platform we’d borrowed (from mentor Rodger Kram’s lab; a ~$10,000 piece of useful gear) and its digital data acquisition system wouldn’t work to let us collect our data. That was very frustrating and even a very helpful local LabView software representative couldn’t solve all our problems. But at least we were able to start trying to collect data after four painstaking days of debugging while curious crocodiles and busy animal handlers waited around for us to get our act together. The stress level of our group was already mounting, and we had limited time plus plenty of real-life bugs (the bitey, itchy kind; including fire ants) and relentless heat to motivate us to get the research done.

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

Then the wonderfully trained crocodiles, as crocodiles will sometimes do, decided that they did not feel like doing more than a slow belly crawl over our force platform, at best. This was not a big surprise and so we patiently tried coaxing them for a couple of sweltering August days. We were working in their caged paddock, which contained a sloping grassy area, a small wooden roofed area, and then at the bottom of the slope was the crocodiles’ pond, where they sat and chilled out when they weren’t being called upon to strut their stuff for science. We didn’t get anything very useful from them, and then the weather forecast started looking ugly.

Hybrid Siamese crocodile in its pond in our enclosure, waiting to be studied.

Hybrid Siamese crocodile in its pond in our enclosure, waiting to be studied.

We’d been watching reports of a tropical storm developing off the southeastern coast of Florida, and crossing our fingers that it would miss us. But it didn’t.

When the storm hit, we were hoping to weather the edge of the storm while we packed up, because we decided we’d done our best but our time had run out and we should move to our next site, the Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in St Augustine, where I’d worked a lot before with other Crocodylia. But the storm caught us off guard, too soon, and too violently.

To give some context to the situation, for the previous several days the local croc handlers had told us stories of how lightning routinely struck this area during storms, and was particularly prone to hitting the fences on the park perimeter, which we were close to. There was a blasted old tree nearby that vultures hung out in, and they related how that blasting had been done by lightning. One trainer had been hit twice by (luckily glancing) blows from lightning hitting the fences and such.

Ominous onlooker.

Ominous onlooker.

The storm came with pounding rain and a lot of lightning, much of it clearly striking nearby- with almost no delay between flashes and thunder, and visible sky-to-ground bolts. We debated taking our forceplate out of the ground near the crocodile pond, because sensitive electrical equipment and rain don’t go well together, but this would take precious time. The forceplate was covered with a tarp to keep the rain off. I decided that, in the interest of safety, we needed to all seek shelter and let the forceplate be.

I’ll never forget the memory of leaving that crocodile enclosure and seeing a terrible sight. The crocodile pond had swiftly flooded and engulfed our forceplate. This flooding also released all the (small) crocodiles which were now happily wandering their enclosure where we’d been sitting and working before.

Another subject awaits science.

Another subject awaits science.

At that point I figured there was no going back. Lightning + deepening floodwater + electrical equipment + crocodiles = not good, so I wagered my team’s safety against our loaned equipment’s, favouring the former.

We sprinted for cars and keepers’ huts, and got split up in the rain and commotion. As the rain calmed down, I ventured out to find the rest of the team. It turned out that amidst the havoc, our intrepid lab technician had marshalled people to go fetch the forceplate out from the flooded paddock, storm notwithstanding. We quickly set to drying it out, and during some tense time over the next day we did several rounds of testing its electronics to see if it would still work. Nope, it was dead. And we still had over a week of time left to do research, but without our most useful device. (A forceplate tells you how hard animals are pushing against the ground, and with other data such as those from our motion analysis cameras, how their limbs and joints function to support them)

We went on to St Augustine and got some decent data using just our cameras, for a wide variety of crocodiles, so the trip wasn’t a total loss. I got trapped by remnants of the storm while in Washington, DC and had to sleep on chairs in Dulles Airport overnight, but I got home, totally wrecked and frazzled from the experience.

That poorly-timed storm was part of a series of powerful storms that would produce Hurricane Katrina several days later, after we’d all left Florida. So we had it relatively easy.

I’m still shaken by the experience- as a tall person who grew up in an area with a lot of dangerous storms, I was already uneasy about lightning, feeling like I had a target on my back. But running from the lightning in that storm, after all the warnings we’d had about its bad history in this area, and how shockingly close the lightning was, leaves me almost phobic about lightning strikes. I’m in awe of lightning and enjoy thunderstorms, which I’ve seen few of since I left Wisconsin in 1995, but I now hate getting caught out in them.

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

Moreover, the damage to the forceplate- which we managed to pay to repair and return to my colleague, and the failure of the Gatorland experiments, truly mortified me. I felt horrible and still feel ashamed. I don’t think I could have handled the situation much differently. It was just a shitty situation. That, and I wanted to show our undergrads a good time with research, yet what they ended up seeing was a debacle. I still have the emails I sent back to my research dean to describe what happened in the event, and they bring back the pain and stress now that I re-read them. But then… there’s a special stupid part to this story.

I tried to lighten the mood one night shortly after the storm by taking the team out to dinner, having a few drinks and then getting up to sing karaoke in front of the restaurant. I sang one of my favourite J Geil’s Band tunes– I have a nostalgic weakness for them- the song “Centerfold“. I not only didn’t sing it well (my heart was not in it and my body was shattered), and tried lamely to get the crowd involved (I think no one clapped or sang along), but also in retrospect it was a bad choice of song to be singing with two female undergrads there– I hadn’t thought about the song’s meanings when I chose to sing it, I just enjoyed it as a fun, goofy song that brought me back to innocent days of my youth in the early 1980’s. But it is not an innocent song.

So ironically, today what I feel the most embarrassed about, thinking about that whole trip and the failed experiment, is that karaoke performance. It was incredibly graceless and ill-timed and I don’t think anyone enjoyed it. I needed to unwind; the stress was crushing me; but oh… it was so damn awkward. I think I wanted to show to the team “I’m OK, I can still sing joyfully and have a good time even though we had a disastrous experiment and maybe nearly got electrified or bitten by submerged crocodiles or what-not, so you can relax too; we can move on and enjoy the rest of the trip” but in reality I proved to myself, at least, that I was not OK. And I’m still not OK about that experience. It still makes me cringe. Haunted, it took me many years to feel comfortable singing karaoke again.

It should have been a fun trip. I love working with crocodiles, but Florida is a treacherous place for field work (and many other things). I can’t say I grew stronger from this experience. There is no silver lining. It sucked, and I continually revisit it in my memory trying to find a lesson beyond “choose better times and better songs to sing karaoke with” or “stay away from floods, electricity and deadly beasts.”

So that wins, out of several good options, as the worst day(s) of my career that I can recall. I’ve had worse days in my life, but for uncomfortable science escapades this edges out some other contenders. Whenever I leave the lab to do research, I think of this experience and hope that I don’t see anything worse. It could have been much worse field work.

(Epilogue: the grants we’ve tried to fund for this crocodile gait project all got shot down, so it has lingered and we’ve done research on it gradually since, when we find time and students… And one of the students on this trip went on to do well in research and is finishing a PhD in the Structure & Motion Lab now, so we didn’t entirely scare them off science!)

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SupraHoloNet Transmission

Year 277 ABY, Fourth Imperial Age

Hoth System (location classified)

From: Dr. Zhonav Diphyryzas, Imperial Corps for Yesterday’s Misplaced Information; Knowledge Harvesters Unit; New Imperial Science Department

To: Dr. John of the Freezers, Unaligned World Contact #1314, Terran system

Subject: Functional Anatomy of Tatooine Megafauna


Dear Terran Science-Invigilator Dr. Freezers,

I write to you with the detailed correspondence I promised for your “blog carnival, whatever that is, and in honour of our Fourth Empire’s glorious leader Empress Syrrhosyx—may her inestimably wise and orderly rulership soon grace your distant world as it has our not-so-far-away galaxy. I hope that my Galactic translator continues to function properly with your crude technology. Our Empire’s embrace would grant your culture midi-chlorian-powered devices that would make our dialogue far simpler via intermental transmission, with minimal apparent side effects for you. You need not worry about the apocryphal stories that your people told about our first Imperial Age. That Skywalker kid was a terrorist, pure and simple. However, our inside sources reveal that the “documentary” in progress by the Terran named Jjabrams includes a rather accurate portrayal of the perfidious giant muromorph race from planet Dis’snai. “Baby steps”, as you say.

Our communications continue to be crippled by the mynock infestation that has plagued my orbital facility, and moreso by your own barbarian apparati. Thus the resolution of my images included here is a pale reflection of what our holo-imaging can achieve. But your readers can click the images to enhance their magnitude.

As the subject indicates, the transmission concerns my recent visit to the desert world of Tatooine, stimulated by investigations I conducted in the Corellian Science Museum. In that museum I found rare skeletal remains of the little-studied, reportedly extinct arthroreptile the Krayt Dragon (Tyrannodraconis tatooinensis by your archaic nomenclature). I’ll revisit this further below, because a subsequent discovery changed everything for me. I just wanted to whet your appetite, and this image of museum specimens of krayt dragons may do so:

Two fragmentary skeletons of small Krayt Dragons, from the Corellian Science Museum. (Image source here)

Two fragmentary skeletons of small Krayt Dragons, from the Corellian Science Museum. (Image source here) Note their short necks and quadrupedal limbs.

With growing fascination for the large land vertebratomorphs that are so startlingly diverse on Tatooine, I secured Imperial funding for an expedition to Tatooine, to survey the exotic megafauna and search for fossils of Tyrannodraconis that might further illuminate their evolution. My ensuing report summarizes my trilogy of investigations and discoveries from this “holiday in the suns”:


Stormtrooper on a Dewback in the Eastern Dune Sea (image source here).

Stormtrooper on a Dewback in the Eastern Dune Sea (image source here). Note how gracile the limbs are below the elbows/knees.

Investigation 1. Dissection of a Dewback, Mos Eisley

My ample funding (I’m sure you’re jealous) secured and stocked a laboratory for me in the colourful Mos Eisley spaceport, which has seen unprecedented commercial influx in recent years and now largely serves as an adventure park for hyperspace tourists (funded in part by the muromorphs of planet Dis’snai). With coliseum seating for a gathered host of some 1.6 million curiously slavering punters and drunken local yokels, I completed a full dissection of a fresh adult dewback (Iguanomorphus homoplasticus) specimen, illustrated below at its climax: exposure of the great fat body of the tail and the large caudofemoral muscle in the left thigh.  (curse this infernal Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid’s malfunctions!)

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a common dewback, showing the caudofemoral muscle and tendon, tail fat body, and fibrous pads used while resting on the sand.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a common dewback, showing (ventral view) the caudofemoral muscle and tendon, tail fat body (obscured by the nearby muscle), and fibrous pads used while resting on the sand.

My main observations support those of prior scholars, even from the Rebel Alliance era (bucking the trend of having to correct all their mistakes!): dewbacks have earned their moniker well by the characteristic water-condensing tissues on their dorsal surfaces. Microdroid explorations of these tissues, which lie within a dimpled midline ridge, house a high density of capillaries in a countercurrent network that surrounds a large number of specialised pores, or stomata, which smooth muscular rings contract to pull open when humidity, temperature and shade are best suited to cooling the surrounding air (via air currents encouraged by the stomata, and by local cooling via the capillary rete).

Previous scholars overlooked this mechanism, which conducts excessive warmth to the heat-emanative fat bodies in the bulky tail and the neck hump (my dissections nicely revealed these; similar tissues are concentrated in the foot pads and sternal pad). The mechanism also allows the body to be up to 20% cooler than the ambient air; an analogous adaptation to that seen in the banthas (below). My peers also failed to realize that the social nature of the dewback is key to its water conservation: while the stomatal rete can draw in some condensed water, it is far more effectively ingested by licking the backs of fellow dewbacks. Lone dewbacks thus are more prone to dehydration. The night-time group-huddling habits of dewbacks to conserve heat that they would otherwise too easily shed in the cool night air is yet another testament to the benefits of their sociality.

As ectotherms, dewbacks are slaves to the hot-cool cycles of the Tatooine wastes, but their sociality liberates them. Further escape comes from their large size (>800 kilograms of Terran mass units), which renders them mostly homeothermic, but never endothermic like some of your otherwise unimpressive Terran reptiles of past or present.

A laser-histology trek by microdroids showed the “scaled” hide around the rest of the body to be composed of siliceous material embedded in the thickly fibrous connective tissue of the skin, forming stereotyped arrowhead-shaped “siliceoderms”, as I term them, shown below.

Curious microstructure of the small "siliceoderms" from dewback skin that I have described-- single 'derm on the left, multiple 'derms surrounding a stomata on the right.

Curious microstructure of the small “siliceoderms” from dewback skin that I have described– single ‘derm on the left, multiple ‘derms surrounding a stoma on the right. To see these structures, one must view the “scales” at high magnification, ideally with microdroids.

I surmise that: (1) these siliceoderms are formed of fused Tatooine sand grains; (2) the grains become embedded into the soft, pliable skin as dewbacks grow, giving them insulation and physical protection; (3) young dewbacks display a previously mysterious behaviour of “sand-rolling” that encourages this embedding during the maturation of a dewback; and (4) the high strength and stiffness of this composite skin not only armours dewbacks but also pressurizes them, ensuring that blood can circulate through their large bodies without backflow or clotting issues, particularly in their gracile lower limbs, which are themselves passively supported by their skin tissues.

With your interest in animal locomotion, you may be curious about tales of how dewbacks can outrun landspeeders, especially in poor weather or terrain conditions. The skin-stiffening agents noted above surely play an important role in this. Indeed, much like your terrestrial varanid lizards, dewbacks do not follow the usual trend of straightening their limbs to support their body more effectively at larger body sizes (improving “effective mechanical advantage” as your field terms it), but they do draw them more closely under the body rather than remain sprawling. I revisit the matter of limb posture toward the end of my transmission.

Furthermore, the huge caudofemoral muscle shown above is able to transmit force from the tail to the thigh, and then its thick tendon transmits the force down the limb to the feet, acting as one strong limb extensor that powers and supports locomotion. No Terran animal does it so well. Banish any thoughts of how the dewback’s wrists and ankles seem implausibly thin– they are pressurized cylinders of dense tendon and bone, more like a Terran horse’s distal limbs than any lizard’s, and linked to far larger tail-to-thigh muscles. The expansive foot pads and reversed first toe (hallux; as in your Terran birds but with no association to arboreality) likewise give dewbacks a stable base of support and spread out their weight over the treacherous desert sands, reducing the work otherwise lost to deforming the sand’s surface and also keeping pressures on their feet at safe levels. Thus dewbacks have many features that explain their reputation for bursts of fast speed (~14 Terran meters/second or 50 kph/30 mph).

Yet whilst during the daytime and over short distances dewbacks can outpace banthas or humanoids on foot, their ectothermic nature causes them to accumulate fatigue too quickly, and thus they must rest. So sans cybernetic enhancements, dewbacks will never be winning any podraces. Nonetheless, I am sure you are awed by how Tatooine’s native reptiliforms, the dewbacks, exceed any living Terran reptile in their size and extreme adaptations to aridity. I have not even described the variations seen in feral, grizzled, cannibal or mountain dewback species, which can surpass the common desert dewback’s. Toward the end of my transmission I will show you animals that exceed even the greatest dinosaurs in sheer glory and ferocity.

Unlike the durable Tauntauns of my home system’s ice planet Hoth, however, dewbacks are ill-suited to cold climates because they are adapted to shed heat, not gain it. But the insulation of the next animal shows a more versatile performance…


Convincing image of a Bantha being ridden by a Sand-Person, from your world's fake documentary "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope", from Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox.

Convincing image of a Bantha being ridden by a Tusken Raider/Sand-Person, from your world’s Rebel propaganda film “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”, by Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox.

Investigation 2. Field Dissection of a Bantha Bull

My anatomical study of a large male bantha (Megalingua feteoclunis) was hastened by not only the merciless heat but also by the imminent arrival of a horde of ravenous womp rats. Some quick incisions with my relict lightsaber sped my work. I focused my attention on three issues of scholarly interest: its marvellous tongue and glossopharyngeal adaptations (how does such a tall animal eat in a world that is far below it?), its hirsute integumentary system (what lies under that thick fur and how do banthas cope with the heat while wearing many wookies worth of wooly warmth?) and its peculiar, pillar-like limbs. The spiralling horns that add rings as the bantha grows, the nuchal ligament that supports the heavy head and neck, and the convoluted, multi-partitioned digestive tract that wrenches every last bit of nutrition from the lichens and other flora hidden beneath Tatooine sands are better understood. And with this bull I had no opportunity to study where the famous blue bantha milk comes from, but I have heard stories and no Terran mammal-esque udders are involved, let me tell you that much…

Anatomy of the oral apparatus of the Bantha, which I correct in my report although it is largely right (but how, Terran?). (source)

Anatomy of the oral apparatus of the Bantha, which I correct in my report although it is largely right (but how, Terran authors Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau?). (source)

I don’t know how your Terran science-invigilators managed to get accurate information on bantha tongue anatomy (above) but I have to credit them, they almost got it right. With your can-do attitudes combined with your bungling mistakes, you’d make good Fourth Rebel Alliance members, but don’t get any new hopes. However, as the illustration below shows (and I had to leave the guts in the picture for their sheer impressiveness!), the tongue-projection mechanism extends not around the rear of the skull (occiput) and into the eyes or sinuses, but far back along the giant, spar-like breastbone (sternum) to the hips (pelvis, or propubis).

That mechanism’s powerful projection can extend the tongue as far as 3 Terran meters (10 feet). The tongue is expelled by stretching and then releasing (slowly for precise control, or quickly for a catapult action) a fibrous sac that surrounds the base of the tongue, and this sac then recoils elastically when released to withdraw the tongue. I’ve studied your Terran elephant and chameleon and it combines aspects of both of these, with the tongue having several layers of fine muscle fibres as in the former animal, and the “power amplifier” catch mechanism of the latter, thus providing a superior combination of control and speed. All of these are rightly called muscular hydrostats, but the bantha’s is the best.  You might mention your Terran pangolin as a counter-example, but does that little creature have the spiracle-bearing, ultrasensitive chemosensory tongue and majestic size of the bantha? No. I rest my case.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a bantha, showing the tongue attachments (note the distal bifurcation), digestive tract and foot structure. The colour variations in the digestive tract seem to be produced by commensal arthroreptiles.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a bantha, showing the tongue attachments (note the distal bifurcation), digestive tract and foot structure. The colour variations in the digestive tract seem to be produced by commensal arthroreptiles.

A naïve Terran like yourself might wonder why, of all things, a giant desert mammal such as the bantha would evolve to be clothed in thick fur. Here you would reveal your feeble way of grasping about the diversity of pangalactic Nature. First of all, banthas are not mammals as you know them; a Terran word like pseudomammal would suffice. They lack the diagnostic traits of mammary glands, true hair, and inner ear bones that diagnose the Mammalia of your homeworld, but evolution at a giant size in a hot, dry clime has chastened them to become at least superficially similar to a Terran mammal such as an elephant or mammoth. One might be so naïve, even, to think that a bantha is merely a proboscidean in hairy disguise, but drive such thoughts from your rickety cerebral-implant-deprived mind.

Behold, the true nature of bantha fur, as I have seen with microdroid holo-imaging: it is a second, external circulatory system of sorts. Simply put, the hairs have a thermo-conductive submolecular structure that deflects heat (and even, to a degree, the energy of a blaster) and traps cooler air near the body with an intricate network of cross-linking of barbed fibers more like a Terran bird’s feathers than mammalian hair. In this cooler locale, tracts of spongy skin tissue collect condensed water and direct it to absorbent epithelial beds on the chin and lips, belly, and toes, where the bantha imbibes it, or simply sheds it off to carry further heat away. Thus here we have a fascinating case of convergent evolution with the reptiliform dewbacks, but surpassing even that animal’s adaptation and evolving what you would likely call an air-conditioning system. Banthas cool themselves by circulating a slick of cool water around their body inside a heat-resistant fluffy outer mesh. Whether their horn tissues or tails contribute to this system is yet to be investigated.

Lastly, I have conducted holo-viewings of the biomechanics of bantha gaits from numerous remote studies of wild and Sand People-ridden animals, in light of my own dissections of this bull. What strikes me is the phenomenal convergence with giant quadrupeds on your homeworld: like sauropods, elephants and other species, banthas have evolved “graviportal” or weight-bearing adaptations: (1) limbs that are proportionately longest above the elbow and knee, not distally elongated as in “cursorial” animals; (2) heavy, robust bones that lack much of a marrow space; (3) short, thickly padded feet ending in bulky claws or hooves (three toes in the case of banthas); (4) an emphasis on lateral sequence (left hind-left front-right hind-right front) footfalls when walking, extended to a slightly bouncing, rolling “amble” at faster speeds; (5) strongly vertical limbs when walking, using the limbs more like pillars to support the weight more effectively; and (6) slow maximal speeds, limited to ~7 Terran meters/second (24 kph/15mph) at best.

At around 4000 kg of typical body mass, banthas overlap with the masses of your planet’s erstwhile giants that have such features. I did not uncover any “predigits” supporting the feet of banthas as you had in elephants; rather, their “heels” involve dense fibro-elastic cartilage, which works analogously to give shock-absorbing and resilient properties to the feet. This suite of graviportal features reinforces an idea that is now recognized pan-galactically: At huge sizes, land animals must act relatively more constrained by gravity, becoming forced to adapt more aspects of their biology to resist its pull, lest they strain muscles, break bones, snap tendons, or fall and injure themselves. Thus the convergent evolution of banthas and elephants is no surprise. But is there another way to be an imposing giant? Perhaps…


Investigation 3. On some remains of the “extinct” Krayt Dragon

Ever since I left my home system, thoughts kept tumbling through my mind like rocks in an asteroid field, concerning the krayt dragon bones I had viewed in the museum on Corellia. With the krayt (Tyrannodraconis sp.) lineage reported extinct since at least the year 22 ABY, following much publicity of its awesome nature, its menace seemed now but a phantom. Consequently I could only fantasize of deeper study. That is, until a rumour came to me while resupplying in the well-preserved city of Bestine: not far off on the edge of the Jundland Wastes, a stormtrooper patrol had taken down a strange, enormous, multi-legged arthroreptile that had gone after their dewback mounts. A quick skyhopper flight and I was there, giddy with the adrenaline of impending discovery.

Another Terran artist renders a compelling illustration, of a Greater Krayt Dragon in life. Where indeed do they get their information from? Bothan spies, I suspect. (Source)

Another Terran artist (one of Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau) renders a compelling illustration, of a Greater Krayt Dragon in life. Where indeed do they get their information from? Bothan spies, I suspect. (Source)

It was a magnificent carcass. Sandworms and scurriers were already attempting to scavenge it, but with little luck and easily driven off with a few shots from my carbine. No stormtroopers remained (alive, anyway), so I didn’t get any details of the fracas that led to this well-timed demise, but the blast points on its body were too precise for sandpeople, and characteristic dewback tracks were everywhere. Even my antique lightsaber seemed poorly up to the task of dissecting this titan: it was over 30 meters (100 feet) long and surely 100 tons of Terran mass if not more; on the scale of your sauropods, but so vastly different in other ways. Right away, from its tracks I could see it had a peculiar mode of movement in life: it had slid up to some rocky cover in these badlands, dragging its belly and bulk along with ten limbs that were slender in comparison to its body, but still each as big as a large bantha’s. I took a deep breath and cut into what was the first Greater Krayt Dragon seen in some 255 years.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of the Greater Krayt Dragon, to extract the Dragon Pearl. The stormtrooper shown forgot the tale that Krayts take 1 hour to die, and so got too close too soon.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of the Greater Krayt Dragon, to extract the Dragon Pearl. The stormtrooper shown forgot the tale that Krayts take 1 hour to die, and so got too close too soon.

If the bantha dissection was a rush job, this one was a sprint. Pockets of gas were forming and erupting while I sliced my way toward the bones and other organs of most interest, with the forces of decomposition slowly winning a race against my science. Oh, if only I’d had a Jawa sandcrawler to repurpose as a mobile freezer! And the sandworms and scurriers were still lurking about, with far nastier things surely soon to be drawn by the carnage out in these remote wastes. Those two days blurred exhaustion and inquiry and disgust and elation into a mire in my mind more pernicious than any on Dagobah. I’m no longer sure of what I saw– you’re probably wondering if I found the fabled krayt dragon pearl in the gizzard, and yes, there was one but I lost it somehow. Same with the venom sacs. Maybe I sipped from one of those; that would explain a lot. I made a sketch that I reproduce here, but then in a crazed, diaphonic state of dehydration and euphoria and frustration I am pretty sure I cut my sketching droid to pieces too, so this is all that remains to bolster my frazzled memories.

Now that I’ve recovered and ruminated, I have come to some conclusions. First, I am left doubting all the little we know about krayt dragons. It is said that they existed in canyon, normal and greater species, and the immense variation of curved horns, clawed limbs and flanged tails lent this taxonomy much credibility in the past. But, call it chronic heatstroke or inspiration as you may, what if all krayt “species” are just stages of a long and repeatedly metamorphic developmental sequence? As my graph below shows, and this is admittedly pieced together from what few museum specimens and documents I have since marshalled to test my hypothesis, krayt traits change uniformly with their body size. As they get bigger, krayt dragons get more multi-legged and longer-necked, diverging from the form of their relatives (in the evolutionary sense of your sciences, sister group or outgroup) from Ruutan, the Kell dragons. The genus Tyrannodraconis, more so than the Kell, betrays its arthroreptile ancestry with their spines, exoskeletal plates, and tendency for polypedality. Their sternum also elongates to support their chest as they change from lumbering, bantha-chasing quadrupeds to slithering, sarlacc-snatching octa- or decapedal behemoths.

Although based on little concrete data, my analysis of known Krayt and related specimens suggests that they change continuously during ontogeny, although leg number may shift more suddenly (I predict this happens during their first metamorphosis at sexual maturity). Strong allometric scaling of neck and total length is evident- if the two lengths scaled as mass^0.33 they would be maintaining shape across the proposed growth series. But they don't.

Although based on little concrete data, my analysis of known Krayt and related specimens suggests that they change continuously during ontogeny, although leg number may shift more suddenly (I predict this happens during their first metamorphosis at sexual maturity). Strong allometric scaling of neck and total length is evident- if the two lengths scaled as body mass0.33 they would be maintaining shape across the proposed growth series. But they don’t.

I return to the best-documented krayt dragon remains: those that even Terrans have seen in the Rebel propaganda film you call “Episode IV”. Dr. Freezers, even your fellow blog-invigilators at SV-POW! discussed it. Witness the large size and long neck of the typical Krayt; whether horns existed or not in that form from the film is uncertain, and I note that these could even be a sexually dimorphic feature, but this is beside the point. Remnants of the body and limbs were never found. But this specimen fits well with my idea that all krayts are one species, or two at most—and how many top predatory megafaunal species could coexist on a desolate arid planet like Tatooine anyway?

What still strikes me is the phenotypic variation in krayts: some large or small varieties have from two to four toes, and different scythe-like horns on their tail tips. This leads me to heap speculation atop my precarious pile of hypotheses: what if krayts are simply phenotypically labile, varying their traits almost stochastically between individuals due to relatively flexible ontogenetic programming, but still following strong overall trends as size increase, like those I have plotted above? Those stronger trends might be more tightly regulated by homeobox-like genes similar to those that have shaped so much of your Terran metazoan diversity, influencing features along the body axis like those I have mentioned (neck, limbs) across growth? I like this idea too much for it to be true, I admit. But if one krayt dragon existed just a short time ago, it is not simply fodder for the cryptoxenozoologists. And so, sooner or later, someone will answer my scientific salvo. I predict that burrows where the krayt dragons metamorphose between life stages, growing new legs and longer bodies, will be found in due time.

However, I have a stronger inference that I present to you as part of our common interest. On Terra and Tatooine alike, larger animals tend to adopt more straight-legged limb poses to improve their leverage, as I outlined with the dewbacks above. I plot existing data for Terran animals with my best estimates (for dewbacks and banthas, quite reliable; for krayts, my guesses) for this “effective mechanical advantage” below. What this shows is that dewbacks and Banthas both fall below the “normal” curve for Terran land mammals, as I explain:

In the case of dewbacks, this decrease of limb leverage seems offset by passive support from their pressurized scaly legs and enlarged whole-limb extensor muscles of their hindlegs, so they are overall about as well adapted to bursts of speed as large mammals from your world, such as buffalo or large antelope, even if their endurance suffers (a tradeoff, perhaps, for their reptile-like adaptations to desert life).

In the case of banthas, they do no better or worse than elephants; all are slow due to their size and “graviportal” focus of adaptations. Like elephants, but unlike dewbacks, banthas do not “invest” more body mass into supportive leg muscle, and so they are slower than they might otherwise be.

Effective mechanical advantage of the limbs, with Terran data for mammals (red+blue) (source 1 and source 2), and my new data for Tatooine megafauna. Past a moderate size, EMA either declines or remains constant. Once the limbs are fairly straight (near the size of a Terran horse), EMA cannot be much improved.

Effective mechanical advantage (EMA) of the limbs, with Terran data for mammals (red+blue) (source 1 and source 2), and my new data for Tatooine megafauna (green). Past a moderate size, EMA either declines or remains constant. Once the limbs are fairly straight (near the size of a Terran horse, or Tatooine eopie; vertical dashed line), EMA cannot be much improved.

But the krayts (young or smaller species aside) suffer more from their size than other Tatooine megafauna, as they do not increase their limbs’ mechanical advantage any more than the others do, and so they must become slower as they grow. This explains, however, why their ecology shifts from being a mobile predator when smaller (feeding on dewback, then bantha-sized prey) to being more of an ambush predator or specialist on slow/immobile prey like sarlaccs as they attain titanic sizes. Their limbs, despite becoming more numerous, must become less able to support them as size increases, as in other Terran and Tatooine megafauna, and thus they are destined to benefit from giant size (in many ways, including near-invulnerability and capacity to take the largest prey) at a cost of athleticism (but with prey like sarlaccs, who needs it?). In the greater, or fully mature, krayt dragons, I suggest that the limbs each become less supportive and more of a stabilizer to prevent their slug-like bulk from rolling over, or a set of “oars” to help them navigate through sandy environments like the Dune Seas. They support their weight not so much with limbs and levers, but with a larger, cuirass-like breastbone system, rings of muscles and fibrous tissue, and their whole elongate body.

The ultimate implications of my biomechanical research are summarized below—I am sure you will agree with my reasoning.

Maximal speed vs. body mass data from (black) Terran animals (source), and (green) Tatooine megafauna (plus non-native Kell dragons for comparison). As size increases past ~100 kg mass, speed inevitably declines.

Maximal speed vs. body mass data from (black) Terran animals (source), and (green) Tatooine megafauna (plus non-native Kell dragons for comparison). As size increases past ~100 kg mass (when EMA in the other graph above is already maximal), speed inevitably declines.

As for those that have said that Greater Krayt Dragons and such are thereby confined to a life as scavengers and nothing more, I would welcome them to explore the Jundland Wastes locales armoured by all the security that this foolish notion provides. I, for one, would enjoy viewing such a visit, but only remotely via a probe droid’s holo-feed.

One of your Terran artists (jeddbub on deviantart) produced a provocative imagining of a Greater Krayt Dragon facing a Jedi. I'd wager for the former.

One of your Terran artists (jeddibub on deviantart) produced a provocative imagining of a Greater Krayt Dragon facing a Jedi. I’d wager for the former.

I submit this report in honour of Empress Syrrhosyx and the Fourth Empire– may you find the contents enlightening and may her rule grace your benighted homeworld before you, too, have nothing left of your megafauna but stories of dragons.

I welcome your comments, and perhaps some of your lauded “freezerinos” would care to comment below—but they must behave themselves, lest I find cause to deposit them in carbonite for hyperspace shipping to a lonely suffering on a lonely planet!

I shall shortly return this “blog” to your control, when the mood strikes me. That is the deal for this correspondence. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

Enjoy your little blog carnival, Terrans…


Dr. Zhonav Diphyryzas

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

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

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

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


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

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

Happy Halloween… muhahahahaaaaaa!!!

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(The following post has a Stomach-Churning Rating of 3/10; the dried fish may not get you, but the bad jokes could. A respite before I slap some freezer-spawned Grand Guignolishness on you in future posts.)

Continuing this crazy summer’s theme of anatomy exhibits in museums, here’s a different twist: using cadavers, or mockups of animal bodies, to create chimeras — fusions of the bodies of multiple species to create new, fanciful organisms. This post was inspired, and will be illustrated, by my visit to Salzburg, Austria’s Haus der Natur, which is well worth a visit for its eclectic cornucopia of exhibits. I’ve also read that the Field Museum’s Mythic Creatures is worth a peek. The post is particularly timely as true chimeras are more and more a thing of scientific reality these days (unsettling testimonial here), although lion-(dragon/snake)-goat hybrids are not coming anytime soon–we can all hope. Enjoy the links! I’ve added a lot of external links to more content if you want to further explore this post’s subjects.

Anyway, my favourite Salzburg escape (from Mozart overdoses that are an all too real- and lethal- threat) was the “Fabel und Mythos” exhibit in the “Mensch und Natur” section of Haus der Natur, which is about just what it sounds like: how natural history and mythology/fantasy intersect. That theme is a passion of mine, as a sci fi/B-movie monster/horror/fantasy film and book fan and as a scientist. It is a big part of why I became a scientist (especially evolutionary biologist/anatomist/palaeontologist) — the junctures of art and science, imagination and reason, fantasy and reality, fascinate me, and if teamed up with the grotesque, monstrous, whimsical and nightmarish, I’m helpless to resist, much as I suspect many of this blog’s readers are. So sit back and enjoy.

Chimeras (in the broader sense of mixed-up animals) have a long history of cultural significance, from Greek myth (and an atrocious recent film featuring The Worthington) even to the godfather of taxonomy, Carl von Linne, and his Animalia Paradoxa. The chimeras (and basilisks, cockatrices, etc.) have featured prominently in the art of the past as well as of the present. People today remain fascinated by the role chimeras and other anatomical tomfooleries have played in hucksterism and hoaxes, as evidenced by many online exhibits such as the Museum of Hoaxes, 15 Craziest Biological Hoaxes, April Fool’s hoaxes, kickass artworklamest hoaxesposts by The Bloggess, sightings of real (i.e. freakish) unicorns in real life, and taxidermy-gone-berserk sites like here and here and here and this cautionary tale; this also overlaps with cryptozoology and WTF-is-that internet fetishes. And let’s not forget the man-bear-pig. No, we shan’t forget that… Nor shall palaeontologists soon forget some famous chimeras in our field, particularly the infamous Piltdown man and Archaeoraptor. These hoaxes incidentally, ended up being not just a temporary embarrassment for science, but also an exemplar of how science is a self-correcting process, so frauds inevitably get unmasked– and in some cases (e.g. Archaeoraptor consisting of two very important legitimate fossils!), science makes new discoveries and advances in that process of corrective peer review.

First up in this blog post: the Bavarian Wolpertingers (leaking into native Austrian culture as the Raurackl; AKA Rasselbock, Dilldapp, Skvader and other names; and leaking into video games too)! The wolpertinger is a small and not-so-scary chimera, but often with fairy powers, and is very much akin to that folkloristic mainstay of Americana, the jackrabbit-pronghorn lovechild called the Jackalope. In contrast, however, the jackalope mainly has powers of being a lame souvenir, although fable has it they are prone to ventriloquism, pugnaciousness and whiskey– a fearsome combination (don’t try this at home). This panel from the museum illustrates the diversity and anatomical disparity of Wolpertingers:

And the museum did a great job making some physical chimeras using the wonders of taxidermy… aww, do you want one of your own now?

With closeups below–e.g. the jackalope from hell:

A flight of fancy?

Some quizzical quackery:

Echt toll, meine Freunde! A bit more about wolpertingers and their kin is here. Pokemonologists, take notes. People laughing at the alternative name for wolpertingers, “poontingers,” behave…

One can hardly discuss chimeras and fake animals/taxidermy hoaxes without getting into mermaids (no, I won’t discuss THAT recent TV debacle) and then into Jenny Hanivers; “devil fish”, seabishops or sea fairies. The hanivers go back to at least the 16th century, even being used by sailors to prove they’d had an exotic adventure after their voyages, or sold to supplement their meager salaries. There is plenty written on this phenomenon and how numerous people were skate punk’d (AHEM) by a simple dried fish. But then, skates (not to be confused with an altogether different, but related, kind of chimera) do look odd, and many people don’t know their anatomy or are just credulous, prone to self-deception and confirmation bias.

Stuart Pond was so kind as to send pics of a J.H. that he has in his shed (spinoff potential: What’s in Stu’s Shed???) for me to share— thanks again man! Note the apparent “legs” (probably organs used in mating’; claspers; but sometimes just snipped bits of the tail, which is also evident here):

Obviously the typical Jenny Haniver is a skate that has been messed with a bit to emphasize the humanoid features, but then there’s a sucker born every minute, and PT Barnum famously took advantage of that rhythmic nativity in the 1842 hoax he called the Fiji (Feejee) mermaid, which was a monkey’s head/torso with fish body and papier maché coating. Below, a wolpertinger-like “horn” is visible; this is the remnants of a nasal process of the chondrocranium of the ray; the flanges to either side of it are parts of the front of the head that have been cut apart to make the haniver’s head look more humanoid:

With a “face” only a mermother- or chondrichthyologist- could love– note that the “eyes” are actually nasal openings:

And thanks to Sven Sachs for some extra photos of a Jenny Haniver at the Zoological Museum Liege in Belgium– thanks Sven!:


But, in the world of academic science, there is perhaps no greater you-fools-I-invented-a-fanciful-critter hoax/joke than the Rhinogradentia (snouters, or rhinogrades), rumoured in 1905 but first described in Gerolf Steiner/Harald Stümpke’s (latter= pseudonym; AKA Karl D.S. Geeste, Hararuto Shutyunpuke) wonderfully over-the-top, tongue-in-cheekish 1957 faux-scientific monographic book Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia. Darren Naish‘s blog Tetrapod Zoology (along with others, in 4 parts) has done far better justice to the snouters than I could ever hope to, and others have contributed to the legend. But at least I can share some pics of the first reconstructed (or were they, hmm…?) rhinogrades I’ve ever seen in physical form (again from the Haus der Natur):

Here are the closeups; first Orchidiopsis rapax:

And next Otopteryx volitans:

Last but not beast, an infamous nasobeme, Nasobema lyricum!

Whether this post was hit or myth, please contribute more thoughts, stories and pictures in the Comments below. What’s your favourite hoax story, conglomerated creature, misidentified monstrous mushwee little false beastie or taxidermy horror/beauty? Why do you enjoy fanciful creations like these?

And watch out- those chimeras can pack a whallop!

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Well, it’s time for the Grand Reveal of what the picture in the previous post is (reproduced below). The guesses ranged from bird to wallaby/kangaroo to the stuff of nightmares. And indeed Nick Gardner got it right first, it is a wallaby. Specifically, it is a Bennett’s Wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus), which is the Tasmanian island form related to the Red-necked Wallaby, and an animal that has gone feral (along with mara and other cool critters) in Whipsnade Zoo near the RVC. You can tell it is a wallaby and not a bird, because there is an “Achilles tendon” attaching to a calcaneal tuber (“heel bone”) on the back side of the limb (shown with asterisk below) that birds lack, and if you look closely the toes are hairy, lack bird-like claws, and a few other details like the profile of the musculature are very different; more mammalian than avian. The stump of the muscular tail (cut off) is also a clue. Although the avian similarity in the case of wallabies is still striking, which is one reason I chose this image. Well done, Nick!

I found this picture in my archives and remembered when it was taken back in ~2005- some lab members received some frozen wallaby legs and thawed them out to use in experiments. They tried to compress the legs in an Instron machine (mechanical testing system; partly visible at the top of the pic) to see what the passive, springlike properties of the legs are like in a wallaby, vs. the properties they could measure in a living animal. (The shiny white reflective areas in the pic are for tracking joint motions) And I thought it was a freaky cool pic, so I shared it.

I also posted that pic because my team has done some in vivo analysis of the leg properties in such animals (previous news story here; paper in preparation), and because we use this technique of loading cadaveric legs in such machines quite routinely. We did this for elephant feet to study how the “sixth toe” of elephants works, and we’re analyzing data (as I write) for how elephant feet and rhino feet deform or move when loaded similarly. This method has a long history; we didn’t invent it; perhaps most famously used for studying horse limb mechanics [pdf example], which have a lot of passive properties (almost everything below the elbow/knee is non-muscular). Many animals’ limbs are tendinous/elastic toward their distal end (toes), so the limbs tend to become less actively controlled by the nervous system and become more of a mechanical control system (sometimes involving a non-neural “preflex“) in that region; although it’s all a matter of relative degree of passive:active control in different situations, species, and limbs.

The picture below shows an x-ray of an elephant’s whole hind foot, in which you should be able to see the bones (brighter white) of the foot surrounded by a lot of soft tissue, mostly more passive kinds like fat, skin, fascial sheets, ligaments and tendon.

Here (further below) is a preliminary image from our elephant foot studies in progress, intended to reveal the passive properties/motions of the feet so we can figure out how those properties are combined with more active control, and how actively elephants control their feet vs. other, possibly more ‘passive-footed’ animals like horses. This is interesting from anatomical and evolutionary perspectives, and for helping with foot health problems that are serious concerns for such animals– more about that later. The arrow in the picture below shows where a lot of the motion is: at the knuckle (metatarsophalangeal) joints of the toes; the rest of the foot tends to rotate around these mobile joints. We can’t peer inside living elephant feet to see if they actually do this, but we can compare the external motions, pressure patterns, and other data from living and dead elephant feet to see how they match up, which is what we’re doing now — and we’re doing the same thing with rhinos, which have cool 3-toed, more “hoof-like” feet, as opposed to the 5-toed, fatter feet of elephants. To get this image, we’ve had to put the foot inside a custom-made device using a car jack to apply a constant load, and a wooden framework to hold the specimen still, and then run it through a CT machine in unloaded and then loaded states to see how the bones move. Here is what the crazy apparatus looks like, with enthusiastic undergrad for scale:

This, below, is a right hind foot (pes) of an Asian elephant, shown from the inside of the foot (toes are numbered 1-4 from the big toe/hallux toward the outside of the foot; 5th toe is not visible). The yellow image is the relaxed, unloaded foot; the green is after applying a large load equivalent to the animal standing on one foot (or running quickly). Notice how the third metatarsal (the long bone that the arrowhead is touching) for the unloaded state is in front of that for the loaded state, whereas yellow and green images of the bones toward the tip of the toes are overlapping more, indicating they did not move much/at all. That tells us that the motion is occuring at the joint indicated (“knuckle”), which makes sense anatomically, because that joint looks like it has a lot of mobility.


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