Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘anatomy’

Ho ho ho! The vagaries of the scientific publication system today brings forth TWO open access papers on crocodylian functional anatomy, evolution and biomechanics, from my team with others’; including our DAWNDINOS project in part. Get ready to bite down on the science! I’ve loved crocodylians throughout my life– “dacadile” was among my first words, for a beloved stuffed croc toy, and “Alligators All Around” was an early favourite song (it’s still GREAT).

One of the many large adult alligators in St. Augustine, Florida.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; bones and movies of awesome behaviours.

First, I am so relieved and pleased to finally publish an experimental study I began over 17 years ago. This is my most-delayed paper ever, due to my own perfectionism, overcommitment and failures at funding it more broadly. But published is published and I’m glad to see it out. We collected a large experimental dataset from 15 species of Crocodylia at the St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park (a conservation/education centre) in Florida. (No matter how you species-ify them, that’s a good chunk of diversity; roughly half or more.) This was a non-invasive study of 42 individuals ranging from 0.5 to 43 kg in body mass (hatchlings to adults). Larger adults were too dangerous or too slow to work with. It took 3 years (2002, 2004, 2005) of data collection to assemble this, with some twists and turns (including a close brush with Hurricane Katrina), and then a lot of analysis and reanalysis; and I’d do it all very differently if I did it today but that’s a moot point. So what’s the paper about?

Adorable Siamese crocodile family “cuddling”. Crocs are great parents! IIRC, that is the father shown.

Some Crocodylia (the inclusive modern name for all crocs, caimans, gharials, gators) are known to use what we call asymmetrical gaits: “mammal-like” footfall patterns in which the left and right limbs do not move as mirror images of each other. In particular, these gaits include galloping (rotary or transverse; either way a “4-beat” pattern with left-right hind- followed by right/left forefoot contacts) and bounding or half-bounding (the former being the most extreme, with left-right hind- and then forefoot contacts as synchronous pairs). Often people just say that crocs can “gallop” but this confuses/conflates the issue and omits that they can use these faster bounding gaits. Regardless, we’ve known about these gaits at least since HB Cott’s 1961 photographic documentation of them in Nile crocodiles; and more detailed studies of Australian freshwater and saltwater crocodiles in the 1970s-2000s. But very often, scientists and popular natural history accounts ascribe the asymmetrical gaits to only a few species or young individuals.

“Freshie” croc bounding in the wilds of Australia; credit Kent Vliet.

Osteolaemus dwarf African crocodile getting marked up for study.

That’s where we came in. We had access to a huge collection of captive Crocodylia and a very supportive institution (with coauthors from there as a result). I wanted to know which Crocodylia do use asymmetrical gaits, having a very strong suspicion from the literature that Alligatoroidea, the alligator and caiman lineage, don’t use them, whereas their cousins the “true crocodiles” in Crocodyloidea do. And I wanted to test how body size interacted with this ability, as prior accounts hinted that asymmetrical gaits got lost with increasing size or in adults. Finally, I was interested in what the benefits of asymmetrical gaits were– did they give those that used them marked boosts in performance, especially maximal speed? Answering that would help understand why these gaits are used.

Cuban crocodile Crocodylus rhombifer in preparation. A gorgeous but aggressive species that we handled carefully.

So we walked and ran our subjects across some platforms past video cameras and collected about 184 useful trials or strides of gait across level ground at a wide range of speeds; and a LOT of not-so-useful data (mostly subjects just sitting and pouting). We found that, yes, most Crocodyloidea we studied could bound or gallop; and no Alligatoroidea did. In the latter case, we didn’t use as large a sample of subjects as we could have, partly because it already seemed evident that alligators did not use asymmetrical gaits, and partly because those alligatoroids we did try to coax to move quickly either only used symmetrical gaits (e.g. trotting) or would only sit and fight or hiss. And we found that bigger animals moved at least relatively more slowly and less athletically, and perhaps even more slowly in absolute terms (metres/second).

Most intriguingly to me, it didn’t matter what gait alligatoroids or crocodyloids used. They all could move at roughly similar top speeds if they wanted to; less than 5 m/s or 11 mph. It’s just that crocodyloids tended to use asymmetrical gaits, especially bounding, at top speeds– but not always: some even chose to trot at their top speeds. We don’t know why, and we still don’t know why asymmetrical gaits are chosen but they likely have other benefits such as acceleration and manoeuvrability.

It’s a thrill to finally be able to share the huge dataset, including a gigantic file of videos (with some highlights shown here), with the paper, closing this study at last. It should be very useful to anyone studying Crocodylia or wanting to educate people about locomotion. I’m a bit tired of hearing that galloping is a mammalian behaviour when we know so well that many species of animals do it, or something like it. And it was absolutely thrilling to see five species of Crocodylia bound or gallop when they hadn’t been properly documented to do it before– enough anecdotes, here’s cold hard facts from video on what happens. What remains is a mystery: did Crocodylia have this ability to use asymmetrical gaits as an ancestral trait, as almost everyone assumes (and thus alligators and caimans have lost or essentially never express the ability), or did crocodiles uniquely evolve this ability more recently? I would join most scientists in wagering on the former; and there are good reasons to suspect the ability goes deeper into extinct Crocodylomorpha.

(my favourite video is below!)

Want more cool videos? Try my Youtube channel— or if you want ALL of the videos, go here!


Next, Torsten Scheyer was kind enough to invite me to join his team in studying a fossil I’ve long been fascinated by: the “giant caiman” Purussaurus mirandai, from the Miocene (~6 million years ago?) of Venezuela, in the Urumaco Formation‘s very weird biota. Purussaurus has been known of for >125 years but Torsten’s team noticed that Purussaurus (mirandai) specimens tended to add one of their trunk vertebrae to their hip girdles (sacrum; normally only two vertebrae in Crocodylia but here three), and that the shoulder and hip girdles had unusual bone morphology (straighter, more vertical relative to the body). So they asked me to help interpret these features. And here’s the paper!

Infographic by Torsten Scheyer’s team– click to emcroccen!

Three-vertebra sacrum and other traits of Purussaurus; with living caiman bones for comparison. E (bottom): inwards-facing femur head. (see paper for more info)

It became evident that, together, those odd traits conveyed a signal that the skeleton was transformed to aid in supporting the huge body against gravity. For example, I found it quite interesting how the head of the femur (thigh bone) was oriented more directly into the hip socket in multiple specimens, more like a dinosaur’s hip, and specialised for support and fore-aft motions. I used Haley O’Brien et al’s data to estimate just how big P. mirandai might have been and it came out as perhaps 3000 kg and 8 metres total length; as we’d thought, among the largest Crocodylia (and there are larger Purussaurus known, too).

Reconstruction of Purussaurus and morphology of the girdles. (see paper for more info)

The team also put a cool “evo-devo-biomechanics” spin on the study. It is well known that the regional identities of vertebrae (e.g. neck, trunk, sacrum, tail) are largely determined by Hox (homeobox) regulatory genes, early in development. So changes of vertebral identity intimate changes of genetic controls. Crocodylia don’t normally add a trunk vertebra to their sacrum, and only a few fossil crocodyliforms (extinct cousins) ever did either, but we noticed that some specimens of Crocodylia would at least partially make this transformation in pathological states (below). Hence the controls to make these changes exist and sometimes manifest in living crocs, but it’s probably not an “easy” transformation to achieve. One could speculate that under intense selection, such as that imposed by giant body size and some degree of activity on land, that transformation could more easily get permanently “fixed” in a species.

Palaeosuchus palpebrosus (Cuvier’s dwarf caiman) with pathological partial-three-vertebra-sacrum; and lots more morphology. (see paper for more info)

As a nice tie-in to the asymmetrical gait study above, we can safely infer that the giant Purussaurus wasn’t a fast animal on land, by any means. But its skeleton is consistent with it having found novel ways to maintain the ability to stand and move on land, even if slowly.

Happy holidays! Santa Jaws is watching you– be good!

Read Full Post »

I heard that the UMZC has some new exhibits open, so back I went! For the prior posts see here (mammals/basement) and here (everything else). Another photo tour! There’s a special (art) exhibit, too, so stick around to the end.

All images can be clicked to mu-zoom in on them.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10 mainly skeletons, some preserved critters in jars.

The first new section is an elaborated display on reptiles.

Clevosaurus, a Triassic relative of the living tuatara reptile, Sphenodon. Nice fossil hindlimbs!

Tuataras (Sphenodon), skeletal and preserved.

Tuatara embryos!

Nice chameleon mount w/tongue extended.

Thorny devil (Moloch), de-thorned and in the flesh.

Skull (cast) of Ninjemys, the giant turtle.

Pipe snakes! Snakes with vestigial hindlegs.

Istiodactylus pterosaur snout-tip (real fossil) from the Isle of Wight, UK. Nice 3D fossil.

The gharial (Gavialis), male with protuberance on snout (mating-related).

I dub thee Dinosaur Corner! For dinosaurs, the Sedgwick Museum across the street (also free; also classic and awesome) is the place to go but this corner does a good job fighting for the scientific conclusion that birds are dinosaurs.

And now a change of pace. On to the special exhibit!

A nice surprise to see naturalist superstar Jonathan Kingdon‘s scientific illustrations and nature-inspired artwork displayed here. I’ve added photos of ones I liked the most.

As the caption explains, Kingdon used art to explain the value of nature; via realistic images of life, dissections, and creative abstractions drawn from them.

Hammerhead bats: even freakier when skinned.

Begone if ye find not joy in aardvarks!

White-toothed shrew looking extra-ghoulish with flensed face.

Skinned sengis in action.

More sengis (elephant shrews); with a note explaining that they are not rodents/insectivores but afrotheres, cousins of aardvarks, elephants and kin.

Bronze Jackson’s chameleon bust.

Asian barbet faces: this was fascinating. Kingdon used the paintings to explain how barbet faces vary across species as recognition devices to aid in territorial defense, especially of their nest-holes in trees, in which they face outwards to display their coloured faces. The middle image shows one lone species that has no such territorial competitors and has evolved back into brown colour, perhaps due to relaxed selective pressure for colour. Neat!

Oh my, this took my breath away! Mixed media depicting the varied forms of facial ornaments in vultures; soft tissues used in communcation. And here mounted on a butcher’s rack. Do vulture bits mimic their grisly food?

Read Full Post »

To me, there is no question that the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée of Paris’s Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN) is the mecca of organismal anatomy, as their homepage describes. Georges Cuvier got the morphological ball rolling there and numerous luminaries were in various ways associated with it too; Buffon and Lamarck and St Hiliaire to name but a few early ones. It is easy to think of other contenders such as the NHMUK in London (i.e., Owen), Jena in Germany, the MCZ at Harvard (e.g. Romer) and so forth. But they don’t quite cut the dijon.

As today is John’s Freezer’s 7th blogoversary, and I was just at the MNHN in Paris snapping photos of their mecca, it’s time for an overdue homage to the magnificent mustard of that maison du morphologie. The exhibits have little signage and are an eclectic mix of specimens, but this adds to its appeal and eccentricity for me. I’ve chosen some of my favourite things I saw on exhibit on this visit, with a focus on things that get less attention (NO MESOZOIC DINOSAURS! sorry), are just odd, or otherwise caught my fancy. It’s a photo blog post, so I shall shut up now, much as I could gush about this place. I could live here.

Need plus-grand images? Clic!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 7/10 for some potentially disturbing anatomical images such as viscera, preserved bits, models of naughty bits etc.

Greetings. Note the stomach-churning rating above, please.

Right. We’ll get the amazing first view as one steps into the gallery done first. Mucho mecca. Anatomy fans simply must go here at least once in their life to experience it, and one cannot ever truly absorb all the history and profound, abundant details of morphology on exhibit.

Less-often-seen views from the balcony; one more below.

Indian Rhinoceros from Versailles’s royal menagerie; came to the MNHN in 1792.

Brown bear hindlimb bones.

Brown bear forelimb bones and pelvis.

Two baby polar bears; part of the extensive display of ontogeny (too often missing in other museums’ exhibits).

Asian elephant from Sri Lanka.

Lamb birth defect. Like ontogeny, pathology was a major research interest in the original MNHN days.

Wild boar birth defect.

Fabulous large Indian gharial skull + skeleton.

“Exploded” Nile crocodile skull to show major bones.

Let’s play name-all-the-fish-skull-bones, shall we?

Rare sight of a well-prepared Mola mola ocean sunfish skeleton.

Diversity of large bird eggs.

Asian musk deer (male), with tooth roots exposed.

Freaky gorilla is here to say that now the really odd specimens begin, including the squishy bits.

Freaky tamandua, to keep freaky gorilla company. Displaying salivary glands associated with the tongue/pharynx. These are examples of anatomical preparations using older analogues of plastination, such as papier-mâché modelling. I’m not completely sure how the preservation was done here.

Tamandua preserved head, showing palate/tongue/pharynx mechanism.

Chimp ears. Because.

Why not add another chimp ear?

Many-chambered ruminant stomach of a sheep.

Simpler stomach of a wolf. Not much room for Little Red Riding Hood, I’m afraid.

Expansive surface area of a hippo’s stomach; but not a multi-chambered ruminant gut.

Cervical air sacs of a Turquoise-fronted Amazon parrot.

Heart and rather complex pulmonary system of a varanid lizard.

It’s pharynx time: Keratinous spines of a sea turtle’s throat. All the better to grip squids or jellies!

Pharynx convergent evolution in a giraffe: keratinous spines to help grip food and protect the pharynx from spiny acacia thorns while it passes down the long throat.

Tongue/hyoid region of the pharynx of a varanid, showing the forked tongue mechanism.

Palaeontological awesomeness on the upper floor (the 2nd part of the gallery’s name). Here, the only Siberian woolly mammoth, I’m told, to have left Russia for permanent display like this. Frozen left side of face, here, and 2 more parts below.

Mammuthus primigenius freeze-dried lower ?left forelimb.

Skeleton that goes with the above 2 parts. It’s big.

But “big” is only relative- my large hand for scale here vs. a simply ginormous Mammuthus meridionalis; full skeleton below.

Four-tusked, moderate-sized Amebelodon elephantiform.

Naked woolly rhinoceros Coelodonta.

Extinct rhino Diaceratherium, with a pathological ankle (degenerative joint disease). I love spotting pathologies in specimens- it makes them stand out more as individuals that lived a unique life.

Glyptodont butt and thagomizer, to begin our tour of this business-end weaponry.

Eutatus leg bones, from a large fossil armadillo; Argentina. Really odd morphology; Xenarthrans are so cool.

Giant ground sloth (Megatherium) foot; ridiculously weird.

Giant ground sloth hand is full of WTF.

Metriorhynchus sea-crocodile from the Cretaceous: hind end.

Odobenocetops one-tusked whale that I still cannot get my head around, how it converged so closely on the morphology of a walrus.

Thalassocnus, the large marine sloth… few fossils are so strange to me as this one. But modern sloths swim well enough so why not, evolution says!

Rear end of the sea-sloth.

Megaladapis, the giant friggin’ lemur! Not cuddly.

A basilosaurid whale Cynthiacetus, one of the stars of the show, as the denouement of this post. Plan your visit now!

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

A heads-up: dead people are in this blog post. Yes, I visited a Bodyworlds exhibition again (second link: human exhibit on Flickr) and here is some of what I saw. But first:

Stomach-Churning Rating: 10/10 may be too high (it’s all plastinated anatomy; not gooey bloody stuff) but I’m being wary. There are graphic images of humanity and opinions will vary on the tastefulness; I think they are beautiful. (And to me, Bodyworlds plastination leaves specimens looking more like puppets or statues than disturbing undead) There are images of reproductive anatomy that are not appropriate for children unless parental guidance is along for a “birds and the bees” chat. Got it? OK.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Our special guest post this week comes from Dr. Liz Clark of Yale University (you may have heard of it?) in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. She is bringing some biomechanics-fu to echinoderms– the weird marine critters like seastars and sea urchins. Did you see her 9-awesome-things-about-echinoderms blog post on Anatomy to You? You should. And you should check this out– and check out our new paper on this topic, which just came out! Remember: all images below can be clicked to zoom in. That’s so fun!

Eversible Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10; no Uni sushi here.

I remember the first time I saw one. I was at the Duke Marine Lab staring at a chunk of dredged-up oyster shells in a glass dish, when all of a sudden a mass of big, black spines obscured my view. I looked up from the microscope to see a creature with a round body the size of a nickel and a flurry of long, skinny, spiny arms skulking hurriedly across the dish. It wasn’t quite a spider- the five-fold symmetry gave its echinoderm affinity away- but it wasn’t quite a starfish, either. Starfish appear graceful as their tiny tube-feet make hurried and unseen movements underneath them to transport them slowly across the sand- appearing nearly motionless to the naked eye. This animal, on the other hand, was making rapid, whip-like strikes with its arms so that it clambered forward, rapidly and fearlessly scaling the uneven terrain of the shells in a bold attempt to escape the dish. I was hooked. I had to know who this monster was, and learn as much about it as I could.

Brittle star arm set up to study its ossicle-joint mobility with CT scanning (below).

That was the day I was introduced to the brittle star. The name “brittle star” is a bit of a misnomer, since they are really anything but. Brittleness implies rigidity and stiffness, suggesting they have a delicate nature with the impossibility of repair or to adapt, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Their long arms are incredibly flexible, each made of around 100 tiny segments that allow them to bend in any direction or loop them around in circles. I bet that their name comes from the ease at which they can cast off their arms, which they do intentionally to escape predators or pesky researchers trying to grab them, which deceitfully suggests fragility when in fact their arms are incredibly sturdy and packed with powerful muscles. They can flawlessly regenerate their arms, and, in the meantime, even after they lose several of them, they adjust their strategy for locomotion so that they keep prowling across the seafloor unphased. Their physical flexibility and ability to repair and adapt in the face of damage makes them anything but brittle. The Japanese name for brittle star roughly translates to “spider-human-hand,” which I think much more accurately captures the ethos of this group.

Brittle stars have internal skeletons, and each segment of their arms are made of a cluster of small skeletal elements (ossicles). Researchers in the past have made the assumption that differences in the shape of these ossicles between species change how they move, but I wasn’t so sure. So, John and I decided to work together to figure it out.

We didn’t dive into the freezer for this one- sorry to disappoint all of the diehard fans of John’s freezer out there (but in my defense can you imagine how tough it would have been to even find them in the sea of rhinos, giraffes, and crocs?!). [JOHN: awwwwwww!! It’s more of a wall keeping in the wildlings, than a sea right now though!] Instead we ordered some brittle stars off the internet! The first thing we did was make some measurements of how flexible the arms of brittle stars are when they’re alive. Then we digitized their skeletons by micro-CT scanning them so we could see the articulations between the ossicles and the segments in 3D. We scanned them in a few different positions so we could see the articulations between the ossicles as their arms bend. Then we incorporated all of that data into a 3D model that allowed us to visualize what’s going on in the inside of brittle star arms as they move them around.

We made several different models using this strategy to see if different ossicle shapes change how their arms move. We looked at the differences between arm ossicles in two different speciesOphioderma brevispina and Ophiothrix angulata, which represent two of the three different major morphologies of brittle star arms.  We also looked at the difference in the movement mechanics at the tip and base of the arms in O. brevispina, since the ossicles at the tip are thin and elongated compared to wide and flat at the base.

We found that the tip of the arm of Ophioderma brevispina was more flexible than the base due, at least in part, to the shape of the ossicles. We also found several major differences between the two species, including the location of their joint center and the degree to which they could laterally flex. However, none of these differences were easily attributable to any specific morphological feature that set Ophiothrix angulata and O. brevispina apart, which cautions against making assumptions of brittle star functional capabilities by only looking at the shape of the ossicles. We also found that some of the smaller ossicles within each segment shift their position to accommodate arm flexion, when they were originally thought to limit the motion of the arm! We only looked at a few individuals of two species, but the methods for model-building we developed provide a framework to incorporate a broad sample of brittle star species in the future. We’re curious if the results we found stand when more brittle stars are brought into the mix!

It was incredible to take the journey from initially being surprised and captivated by the movement of these animals to eventually building 3D digital models to discover how they are able to do so. It made me realize that opportunities to be inspired by the natural world are around every corner, and that there are so many interesting questions out there that are still unanswered. Thanks to John and our other team members Derek Briggs, Simon Darroch, Nicolás Mongiardino Koch, Travis Brady, and Sloane Smith for making this project happen!

Read Full Post »

I had a spare hour in Cambridge this weekend so I dared the crowds in the revamped UMZC’s upper floor. In my prior visit and post I’d experienced and described the lower floor, which is almost exclusively mammals. This “new” floor has everything else that is zoological (animal/Metazoa) and again is organized in an evolutionary context. And here is my photo tour as promised!

Inviting, soft lighting perfuses the exhibits from the entryway onwards.

All images can be clicked to mu-zoom in on them.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10 for spirit animals, by which I mean dissected/ghostly pale whole specimens of animals in preservative fluids.

The exhibits are on a square balcony overlooking the lower floor, so you can get some nice views. It does make the balcony crowded when the museum is busy, so take that in mind if visiting. Strollers on this upper floor could be really difficult. But the ceiling is very tall so it is not cramped in a 3D sense. The lower floor is more spacious.

Like phylogenies? You got em! Tucked away at the beginning of each major group; not occupying huge valuable space or glaringly obvious like AMNH in NYC but still noticeable and useful. To me, it strikes a good balance; gives the necessary evolutionary context for the displayed specimens/taxa.

Introductory panels explain how names are given to specimens, how specimens are preserved and more.

The exhibits give due focus to research that the UMZC is doing or has been famous for. Hey I recognize that 3D tetrapod image in the lower left! 🙂

There is ample coverage of diversity throughout Metazoa but my camera tended to be drawn to the Vertebrata. Except in some instances like these.

Some larger chelicerates.

Some smaller, shadowy sea scorpion (eurypterid) fossils.

Watch here for more about ophiuroids (brittlestars) in not too long!

A BIG fish brain! Interesting!
Before I go through specimens in evolutionary “sequence”, I will feature another thing i really liked: lots of dissected spirit-specimens that show off cool anatomy/evolution/adaptation (and technical skills in anatomical preparation). Mostly heads; mostly fish.

Salps and other tunicates! Our closest non-vertebrate relatives- and some insight into how our head and gut came to be.

Salp-reflection.

Lamprey head: not hard to spot the commonalities with the salps; but now into Vertebrata.

Hagfish head: as a fellow cyclostome/agnathan, much like a lamprey but never forget the slime glands!

Shark head. Big fat jaws; all the better to bite prey with!

Lungfish (Protopterus) head showing the big crushing tooth plates (above).

Sturgeon vertebrae: tweak some agnathan/shark bits and here you are.

Worm (annelid) anatomy model, displaying some differences from/similarities to Vertebrata. (e.g. ventral vs. dorsal nerve cord; segmentation)

Dissected flipper from a small whale/other cetacean. Still five fingers, but other specializations make it work underwater.

Wonderful diversity of tooth and jaw forms in sharks, rays and relatives. I like this display a lot.

More of the above, but disparate fossil forms!

On with the evolutionary context! Woven throughout the displays of modern animals are numerous fossils, like these lovely placoderms (lineage interposed between agnathans, sharks and other jawed fish).

Goblin shark head.

I seem to always forget what ray-finned fish this is (I want to say wolffish? Quick Googling suggests maybe I am right), but see it often and like its impressive bitey-ness.

Bichir and snakefish; early ray-finned fish radiations.

Armoured and similar fish today.

Armoured fish of the past; some convergent evolution within ray-fins.

Convergence- and homology- of amphibious nature in fish is another evolutionary pattern exemplified here.

Gorgeous fossils of ray-finned fish lineages that arose after the Permian extinctions, then went extinct later in the Triassic.

Note the loooooong snout on this cornetfish but the actual jaws are just at the tip.

Flying fish– those ray-fins are versatile.

Diversity of unusual ray-finned fish, including deep-water and bottom-dwelling forms.

Can you find the low-slung jaws of a dory?

Recent and fossil perch lineage fish.

It’s hard to get far into talking about evolution without bringing up the adaptive radiation of east African cichlid fish, and UMZC researchers are keen on this topic too.

Lobe-fins! Everybody dance!

Rhizodonts & kin: reasons to get out of Devonian-Carboniferous waters.

A Cretaceous fossil coelacanth (skull); not extremely different from living ones’.

Let’s admire some fossil and modern lungfish skulls, shall we? Big platey things  (here, mainly looking at the palate) with lots of fusions of tiny bones on the skull roof.

Eusthenopteron fossils aren’t that uncommon but they are still great to see; and very important, because…

OK let’s stop messing around. The UMZC has one of the best displays of fossil stem-tetrapods in the world! And it should.

Another look at the pretty Acanthostega models.

Acanthostega vs. primate forelimb: so like us.

Ichthyostega parts keep Acanthostega company.

A closer look at the “Mr. Magic” Ichthyostega specimen, which takes some unpacking but is incredibly informative and was a mainstay of our 2012 model. Back of skull, left forelimb, and thorax (from left to right here).

Eucritta, another stem-tetrapod.

Closer look at Eucritta‘s skull.

Weird stem-tetrapod Crassigyrinus, which we’re still trying to figure out. It’s a fabulous specimen in terms of completeness, but messy “roadkill” with too many damn bones.

The large skull of Crassigyrinus, in right side view.

Early temnospondyl (true amphibian-line) skulls and neck.

Nectrideans or the boomerangs of the Palaeozoic.

Cool fossil frogs.

Giant Japanese salamander!

Fire salamanders: not as colourful as the real thing, but here revealing their reproductive cycle in beautiful detail.

Closeup of oviduct in above.

Sexual dimorphism in Leptodactylus frogs: the males have bulging upper arms to (I am assuming) help them hold onto females during amplexus (grasping in mating competitions).

Did I forget that Leptodactylus has big flanges on the humerus in males, to support those muscles? Seems so.

An early stem-amniote, Limnoscelis (close to mammals/reptiles divergence); cast.

Grand sea turtle skeleton.

One of my faves on display: a real pareiasaurian reptile skeleton, and you can get a good 3D look around it.

Details on above pareiasaurian.

Mammals are downstairs, but we’re reminded that they fit into tetrapod/amniote evolution nonetheless.

Let there be reptiles! And it was good.

Herps so good.  (slow worm, Gila monster, glass lizard)

A curator is Dr Jason Head so you bet Titanoboa is featured!

Crocodylia: impressive specimens chosen here.

It ain’t a museum without a statuesque ratite skeleton. (There are ~no non-avian dinosaurs here– for those, go to the Sedgwick Museum across the street, which has no shortage!)

Avian diversity takes off.

Glad to see a tinamou make an appearance. They get neglected too often in museums- uncommon and often seemingly unimpressive, but I’m a fan.

I still do not understand hoatzins; the “cuckoo” gone cuckoo.

Dodo parts (and Great Auk) near the entrance.

Wow. What an oilbird taxidermy display! :-O

There we have it. Phew! That’s a lot! And I left out a lot of inverts. This upper floor is stuffed with specimens; easier there because the specimens are smaller on average than on the lower floor. Little text-heavy signage is around. I give a thumbs-up to that– let people revel in the natural glory of what their eyes show them, and give them nuggets of info to leave them wanting more so they go find out.

Now it’s in your hands– go find out yourself how lovely this museum is! I’ve just given a taste.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »