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Archive for the ‘Shiverin’ Sesamoids!’ Category

A Confuciusornis fossil; not the one from our study but prettier (more complete).

Today almost three years of collaboration come together in a publication that is a fun departure from my normal research, but also makes sense in light of it. Professor Baoyu Jiang from Nanjing University in China has been being working on the taphonomy of the Early Cretaceous Jehol biota from northeastern China (Manchuria) for a while, and he found a lovely Confuciusornis (early bird) fossil; one of thousands of them; from the volcanic pyroclastic flow-based lake deposits there.

Although at first glance the skeletal remains of that fossil are not fabulous compared with some other Confuciusornis, what makes this one lovely is that, on peering at it with multiple microscopic and other imaging techniques, he (and me, and a China-UK collaboration that grew over the years) found striking evidence of very well-preserved fossil soft tissues. Our paper reporting on these findings has gone live in Nature Communications so I can blog about it now.

Reference: Jiang, B., Zhao, T., Regnault, S., Edwards, N.P., Kohn, S.C., Li, Z., Wogelius, R.A., Benton, M., Hutchinson, J.R. 2017. Cellular preservation of musculoskeletal specializations in the Cretaceous bird Confuciusornis. Nature Communications 8:14779. doi: 10.1038/NCOMMS14779

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10; gooey, but fossil gooey, except for some colourful, gastrically-tolerable histology of bird tissue.

Front view of the ankle/foot of our specimen.

Back view of the ankle/foot of our specimen.

What has been fun about this collaboration is that, for one, it fits in perfectly with my prior work. Ever since my PhD thesis I’d been wondering about odd bones in the legs of birds, including a very puzzling and very, very neglected bit of bone called the tarsal sesamoid, on the outside of the upper end of the ankle joint. Furthermore, a tunnel of tissue called the tibial cartilage sits next to that sesamoid bone, and then across the ankle joint there is a bony prominence with grooves and tunnels that vary highly among bird species; that is called the hypotarsus. These structures are all known in living birds and, to a degree, in extinct fossil cousins. Our specimen seems to reveal an earlier stage in how these little features of bird ankles originated, which we concluded to be a step along the transition to the more crouched legs that modern birds have.

This study has also challenged me to broaden my horizons as a scientist. Although this was a big collaboration and thus we had several specialists to apply supercharged technological techniques to our fossil, I had to learn something about what all that meant. My kind colleagues helped me learn more about tissue histology, scanning electron microscopy, synchrotron mapping, FTIR and mass spectrometry and more. I won’t go through all of these techniques but there are some pretty pictures sprinkled here and in the paper, and a lot more detail in the paper for those who want the gory techno-detail. Basically we threw the kitchen sink of science at the fossil to crack open some of its secrets, and what we found inside was nifty.

Scanning electron micrograph image of probable tendon or ligament fibres (arrow) in cross-section, from near the ankle joint.

We found preserved cells and other parts of connective tissues including tendons and/or ligaments, fibrocartilage (the tougher kind) and articular cartilage (the softer joint-padding kind). That’s great, although not unique, but the kitchen sink also flushed out even more reductionist data: those tissues included some organic residues, including what appear to be bits of proteins (amino acids); particularly the collagen that makes up tendons.

Fibrocartilage (“fc”) from the ankle joint region.

Hopefully we’re right, and we included as much of the data as we could manage so that others can look at our findings. The specimen is crushed into nearly two dimensions, like all Jehol biota organisms, so its anatomy was hard to interpret but we think we got it right. All of the other kitchen-sinky tools have their own nuances and pitfalls but we did our best with a superb team of experts. We’ve had to wait 125 million years to uncover this specimen and a few more years to find out if we’ve looked at the right way is no greater test of patience.

I thank my coauthors, especially Baoyu Jiang for the kind invitation to participate and the very fun experience of collaborating. I think I’ll remember this study for a long time because, for me, it takes a step beyond just describing Another Case of Jaw-Dropping Fossilization (can you hear the hipsters recounting the excitement and cynicism of the 1990s when this all was dawning? I was there and maybe now I’m one of them). By combining all of those methods we learned new things about the palaeobiology of birds and the evolution of traits within birds. Confuciusornis, not shockingly, had ankles that should have functioned in ways intermediate between those of bog-standard non-avian theropods and modern birds.

Same anatomical regions in an extant bird as in the main fossil specimen. Left distal tibiotarsus (TT; below) and proximal tarsometatarsus (TMT; above) from an adult helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris) after formalin fixation. (from our paper’s Supp Info)

I’m hopeful that more synthesis of molecular/cellular, imaging, biomechanical and other tools (not to mention good old palaeontology and anatomy!) can wash away some more of this mystery. And it was fun to be a part of a study that adds to overwhelming evidence that was heretical ~25 years ago: some hardy biomolecules such as collagen and keratin can survive hundreds of millions of years, not just thousands. Pioneers such as Prof. Mary Schweitzer led the original charge that made reporting on discoveries like ours much easier today.

I know how the birds fly, how the fishes swim, how animals run. But there is the Dragon. I cannot tell how it mounts on the winds through the clouds and flies through heaven. Today I have seen the Dragon.“– Confucius, ca. 500 BCE.

Let’s finish with some images of a living bird’s ankle region, by co-author and PhD student Sophie Regnault. We considered these for inclusion in the paper but they didn’t fit quite right. I love them anyway so here they are:

Patchwork of histology slide images, from a guineafowl’s ankle (as per photo above). The numbered squares correspond to zoomed-in images below. The tibiotarsus is on the proximal end (bottom left); the tarsometatarsus is on the distal end (right side); and the enigmatic tarsal sesamoid is at the top. Magnification: 20x overall.

Region 1. nice (fibro)cartilage-bone inferface at ligament insertion.

Region 2: longitudinal slice through ligaments connecting the tibiotarsus to the tarsometatarsus across the ankle joint.

Region 3: front (bottom) of the tibiotarsus/upper ankle.

Region 4: tendon fibres in longitudinal section; on the back of the tibiotarsus. Some show mineralization into ossified tendons (“metaplasia”); another curious feature of modern birds.

Region 5: muscle attachment to the back of the upper tarsometatarsus bone. Small sesamoid fragment visible.

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The early, hippo-like mammal Coryphodon. I didn’t know it had a patella but it does. From Yale Peabody Museum.

I’m not shy about my fondness for the patella (kneecap) of tetrapod vertebrates, and neither are the other members of RVC’s “Team Patella”. We’ve had a fun 3+ years studying these neglected bones, and today we’ve published a new study of them. Our attention has turned from our prior studies of bird and lepidosaur kneecaps to mammalian ones. Again, we’ve laid the groundwork for a lot of future work by focusing on (1) basic anatomy and (2) evolutionary history of these sesamoid bones, with a lot of synthesis of existing knowledge from the literature; including development and genetics. This particular paper is a sizeable monograph of the state of play in the perusal of patellae in placental and other synapsids. Here’s what we did and found, focusing mostly on bony (ossified) patellae because that allowed us to bring the fossil record better to bear on the problem.

Reference: Samuels, M., Regnault, S., Hutchinson, J.R. 2016. Evolution of the patellar sesamoid bone in mammals. PeerJ 5:e3103 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3103

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; bones and more bones.

The short version of the story is that mammals evolved bony kneecaps about five times, with marsupials gaining and losing them (maybe multiple times) whereas monotremes (platypus and echidna) and placentals (us and other mammals) didn’t do much once they gained them, and a couple of other fossil groups evolved patellae in apparent isolation.

Evolution of the patella in mammals: broad overview from our paper. Click to zoom in.

The marsupial case is the most fascinating one because they may have started with a fibrocartilaginous “patelloid” and then ossified that, then reduced it to a “patelloid” again and again or maybe even regained it. There needs to be a lot more study of this group to see if the standard tale that “just bandicoots and a few other oddballs have a bony patella” is true for the Metatheria (marsupials + extinct kin). And more study of the development of patellae in this group could help establish whether they truly do “regress” into fibrocartilage when they are “lost” in evolution, or if other, more flexible patterns exist, or even if some of the cases of apparent “loss” of a bony patella are actually instances of delayed ossification that only becomes evident in older adults. Our paper largely punts on these issues because of an absence of sufficient data, but we hope that it is inspiration for others to help carry the flag forward for this mystery.

The higgledy-piggledy evolution of a patella in Metatheria, including marsupials. Click to zoom in.

Some bats, too, do funky things with their kneecaps, analogous to the marsupial “patelloid” pattern, and that chiropteran pattern also is not well understood. Why do some bats such as Pteropus fruit bats “lose” their kneecaps whereas others don’t, and why do some bats and other species (e.g. various primates) seem to have an extra thing near their kneecaps often called a “suprapatella”? Kneecap geeks need to know.

The short-nosed bandicoot (marsupial) Isoodon, showing a nice bony patella as typifies this group. From Yale Peabody Museum.

Otherwise, once mammals evolved kneecaps they tended to keep them unless they lost their hindlimbs entirely (or nearly so). Witness the chunky patellae of early whales such as Pakicetus and join us in wondering why those chunks persisted. The evolutionary persistence of blocky bits of bone in the knees of various aquatic animals, especially foot-propelled diving birds, may help answer why, as the hindlimbs surely still played roles in swimming early in cetacean evolution. Ditto for sea cows (Sirenia) and other groups.

Early whale Ambulocetus, showing hefty kneecaps.

But I’m still left wondering why so many groups of land vertebrates (and aquatic ones, too) never turned parts of their knee extensor tendons into bone. We know a bit about the benefits of doing that, to add leverage to those joints that enables the knee muscles to act with dynamic gearing (becoming more forceful “low gear” or more speedy “high gear” in function). Non-avian (and most early avian/avialan) dinosaurs, crocodiles, turtles, amphibians, early mammal relatives, and almost all other known extinct lineages except for those noted above got by just fine without kneecaps, it seems, even in cases where a naïve biomechanist would expect them to be very handy, such as in giant dinosaurs.

A quoll, Dasyurus, with what is probably a fibrocartilaginous “patelloid”. From Yale Peabody Museum.

However, tendons don’t turn to bone unless the right stresses and strains are placed upon them, so maybe kneecaps are a “spandrel” or “exaptation” of sorts, to abuse Gould’s ghost, whose adaptive importance is overemphasized. Maybe that adaptive myopia overshadows a deeper ontogenetic story, of how tissues respond to their history of mechanical loading environment. It has been speculated that maybe (non-marsupial) mammals have broadly “genetically assimilated” their kneecaps, fixing them into semi-permanence in their genetic-developmental programmes, whereas in contrast the few studies of birds indicate more responsiveness and thus less assimilation/fixation. That “evo-devo-mechanics” story is what now fascinates me most and we’ve poked at this question a bit now, with some updates to come- watch this space! Regardless, whether an animal has a bony vs. more squishy soft tissue patella must have consequences for how the knee joint and muscles are loaded, so this kind of question is important.

Giant marsupial Diprotodon (at NHM London); to my knowledge, not known to have had kneecaps- why?

In the meantime, enjoy our latest contribution if it interests you. This paper came about when first author Dr. Mark Samuels emailed me in 2012, saying he’d read some of my old papers on the avian musculoskeletal system and was curious about the evolution of patellae in various lineages. Unlike many doctors and vets I’ve run into, he was deeply fascinated by the evolutionary and fossil components of patellae and how those relate to development, genetics and disorders of patellae. We got talking, found that we were kindred kneecap-spirits, and a collaboration serendipitously spun off from that, soon adding in Sophie. It was a blast!

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A quick heads-up that we just posted on our sister blog Anatomy To You, about a new open-access paper we’ve published on the skeletal anatomy of the tuatara Sphenodon. Lots of cool images you can’t see anywhere else are there!

In focus: The big picture of little bones in tuatara

I give it a Stomach-Churning Rating of 3/10- some picked specimens of tuatara but they’re still cute, not nasty, I’d say.

AND, like the Cool-Whip or vanilla ice cream atop your leftover pumpkin pie, there’s an added delicious bonus: a huge dataset of microCT scans from 19 tuatara specimens, free to access here:

https://osf.io/bds35/

We are VERY pumped up about getting this paper and dataset released, so we are spreading the word as wide as we can!

Sayonara.

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Here, I give you a long-planned post on the patella (“kneecap bone”) of birds, which was my Royal Society Senior Research Fellowship sabbatical project for 2012-13. This is only a brief introduction to the anatomical issues at hand, err, I mean at knee…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 6/10; mostly skeletons/fossils, but there are a few images of the dissection of a guineafowl, which is fresh and meaty.

Archaeopteryx, the Berlin specimen. Helluva fossil, but nary a patella!

Archaeopteryx, the Berlin specimen. Helluva fossil, but nary a patella!

The question I am exploring, first of all, is simply how the patella evolved, because it seems to be present in almost all living birds. However, it is absent in all non-avian dinosaurs, and indeed most Mesozoic birds, too. There is barely a hint of any precursor structure (a “patelloid”) in other reptiles, but lizards evolved their own patella that is quite different (a flattened lozenge, not a rectangular structure lying tightly confined in a “patellar groove” on the femur as it is in birds). Mammals evolved the knobbly, hemispherical kind of kneecap that we’re familiar with, possibly on several occasions (a different story!). So the patella evolved at least three times in the lizard, mammal and bird lineages– and possibly more than once in each of these groups. And that’s about it for almost 400 million years of tetrapod evolution, except for a few very rare instances in fossils and sort-of-patella-like things in some frogs or other weirdos.

Fossil birds exhibit no clear presence of a patella until we come very close to modern birds on the avian stem of the tree of life (see below). And then, suddenly in modern birds, there is a lot of variation and not much good documentation of what kind of patella exists. This makes it challenging to figure out if the patella is ancient for modern birds or if it evolved multiple times, or how it changed after it first evolved– let alone bigger questions of what the patella was “for” (performance benefits, functional consequences, etc.; and developmental constraints) in the birds that first evolved it.

Considering that the patella is such an obvious bone in some birds, and certainly affects the mechanics of the knee joint (forming a lever for the muscles that cross it; homologous to our quadriceps muscles) and hence locomotion, it is a compelling research topic for me.

What follows is a pictorial guide to the patella of some birds, in sort of an evolutionary/temporal sequence (see my earlier post for a recap of some major groups), with a focus on animals I’ve studied more intensively so far (with >10,000 species, there is a lot that could be done):

Gansus, IVPP V15080
The early Cretaceous bird Gansus (from the IVPP in Beijing), represented by many beautifully preserved specimens, all of which lack a patella. This absence is characteristic of other stunningly preserved fossil Chinese birds, indicating that this is almost certainly an ancestral absence of a patella, until…

The famed Cretaceous diving (flightless) bird Hesperornis, from Wikipedia/Smithsonian.  Note the massive, conical/crested patella in front of the  knee (jutting up and overlapping the ribs/vertebrae close to the pelvis; see also below). That elongate patella is characteristic of many diving birds that use foot-propelled swimming; it has evolved many times in this fashion. Other hesperornithiform birds show some transformational states in their anatomy toward this extreme one.
Hesp-patella

Check this out! More Hesperornis (cast), with the femur on the left and the patella on the right. The bloody patella is almost as long as the femur! That’s nuts. With kind permission from the Natural History Museum, London.

Exhibited ostrich skeleton in left side view showing the patella (white arrow).
Exhibited ostrich (Struthio camelus) skeleton in left side view showing the patella (white arrow), on exhibit atThe Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, UK. Ostriches are remarkable in that they have this elongate patella (actually a double patella; there is a smaller, often-overlooked second piece of bone) and yet are rather basal (closer to the root of the modern avian family tree)– however, they obviously are specialized in ways other than this double patella, most notably their very large size, flightlessness, and elongate legs. So the unusual patella is more likely linked to their odd lifestyle than a truly primitive trait, at least to some degree (but stay tuned: what happened with the patella in other members of their lineage, the ratites/palaeognaths, is much less well understood!).
Note that ostriches and Hesperornis together hint that the presence of a patella might have been an ancestral trait for living birds, but their patellae are so different that the ancestral state from which they evolved must have been different, too; perhaps simpler and smaller. Hence we need to look at other birds…
Skinned right leg of guineafowl, Numida meleagris.
Skinned right leg of a Helmeted Guineafowl, Numida meleagris, above. That whitish band of tissue in the middle of the screen, on the front of  the knee, is part of what is concealing the patella. That is an aponeurosis (connective tissue sheet, like a thin tendon) of the muscles corresponding to our “quads” or our tensor fascia latae, detailed more below. Guineafowl are fairly basal and well-studied in terms of their bipedal locomotion, so they are an important reference point for avian form and function.
Right guinefowl leg, with patella semi-exposed.
Right guineafowl leg, with patella exposed. Here I’ve peeled away that white band of tissue  and associated muscles, which have been reflected toward the bottom of the screen (AIL and PIL labels corresponding to the anterior and posterior parts of the Iliotibialis lateralis muscle). The tip of the scalpel is contacting the patella. It’s not much to see, but lies atop the bright yellow fat pad that cushions it against the femur. You should be able to see a groove in the end of the femur just above that fat pad, which is where the patella sits and slides up and down as the knee moves/muscles contract. This is called the patellar groove, or sulcus patellaris.
Left leg of a guineafowl (with right tibiotarsus behind it) showing both patellae in articulation; in medial (inside) view. The  patella is the little rectangular bit of bone in the top middle of the screen, interposed between femur and tibiotarsus.
Left leg of another guineafowl (with right tibiotarsus behind it, on the left) showing the patellae in articulation; in medial (inside) and cranial (front) views, respectively. The patella is the little rectangular bit of bone in the top middle of the screen, interposed between femur (thigh) and tibiotarsus (shank). With kind permission from the Natural History Museum, London.  
Penguin-patella
Right leg of a Cape Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, showing the big lumpy patella in this wing-propelled diver. They still walk long distances on land, so presumably a patella plays some role in their gait, helping to explain its large size, which like the ostrich and Hesperornis seems to be a novel trait. Notice the groove across the patella, made by the tendon of the ambiens (like our sartorius/”tailor’s muscle”), which crosses from the inside to the outside of the leg via this route. This groove is often considered a useful phylogenetic character in modern birds, as its contact with the patella (sometimes via a hole, or foramen) varies a lot among species.
Buceros skeleton UMZC
A hornbill, Buceros sp., from the UMZ Cambridge museum as well. This displays the possibly-more-typical, little rounded patellar nubbin that many birds have. See below for more.

Buceros knee closeupCloseup of the knee/patella of the hornbill, Buceros sp., from above. Not much to squawk about, patella-wise, but it’s there.

And so we complete our quick tour of the avian patella, in its grand variation and humble beginnings.

Why does an ostrich have a patella and a Tyrannosaurus, Edmontosaurus or Triceratops did not? Why were birds the only bipedal lineage to evolve a patella (mammals and lizards gained a patella as small quadrupeds), and why did some bipeds like kangaroos “lose” (reduce to fibrous tissue, apparently) their patella?

These are the kinds of mysteries my group will now be tackling, thanks to a generous Leverhulme Trust grant on sesamoid bone ontogeny, mechanics and evolution.  My group is now Dr. Vivian Allen as the postdoc, Sophie Regnault as the PhD student, and Kyle Chadwick as the technician and MRes student, along with numerous collaborators and spin-off projects. We’re looking forward to sharing more! But for now, I hope that I’ve engendered some appreciation for the avian patella, as the silly title indicates (“fella” used in the general sense of anyone!). This work is all unpublished, but some of this should be out in not too long, in much more lavish detail! Much as the patella is the “forgotten lever “of the avian hindlimb, it is the fulcrum about which a substantial part of my research group’s activity now pivots.

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A short(ish) post, but to me an important one. As I’ve mentioned here before, and still mean to write a detailed post on, I’m on a 1-year Royal Society Leverhulme Trust senior research fellowship (pause to breathe… long phrase there!) to study the mechanics and evolution of the kneecap (patella) in birds. Knees are very cool, and the patella is one of the coolest parts of the knee. My fellowship is aimed at returning to my roots, i.e. my PhD research on theropod dinosaur hindlimb evolution (anatomical and functional), to focus in great detail on just the patella (this, not this).

The patella is a mysterious structure: a sesamoid bone like I’ve argued elephant predigits are, and probably the best known sesamoid, but still quite enigmatic– especially in non-humans and most particularly in non-mammals. Why did it evolve three different times, at least? What mechanical/developmental environment encourages it to form? Why don’t some species have them? Does the presence of a patella tell us anything about posture, gait, or anything else? Why did no giant dinosaurs evolve patellae?

Anyway, I now have a related PhD studentship that I need a great EU/UK-based student to apply for, and I’m casting a wide net. It’s a very, very freezer-based PhD: imagine cutting up the knees of the frozen zoo of critters that I’ve shown on this blog already, to your heart’s content! And studying fossils, and doing histology (cool imaging techniques with RVC faculty Michael Doube and Andy Pitsillides, along with bone uber-guru Alan Boyde), and conducting experiments with real animals, and computer modelling both experimental and fossil data… this PhD has it all.

Here are the details. If you know anyone in the EU/UK looking for a good PhD that seems to fit the bill very well, send them my way please!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled frozen organisms… and there is a fun post coming tomorrow!

The knee of an emu from my freezer, showing the many muscles and other tissues that connect to or surround the patella. It’s complicated, and that makes for fun science!

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