Posts Tagged ‘buddies’

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 »

I had the privilege and pleasure of serving for the past 2 years as Chair of the Division of Vertebrate Morphology at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and that service just ended. So I had the showerthought to briefly post about the broader messages from that experience, with the hope that other scientists might benefit. But first, a little backstory.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10

I’d only done some minor service before this, in scientific societies. At the time I ran for Chair-Elect 5 years ago, I felt it was time to try something new; to give back to science, as one should do. And so I did. It was a challenging and thus rewarding experience of learning the ropes- the Chair position is fairly open-ended to allow one to contribute what new things and leadership one envisions and can manage. In a short 2 years I felt I gained just enough momentum that I could have run the role more smoothly if I’d had a 3rd year, but that’s hindsight. The details don’t matter here but they lead to the messages of this post.

wink-wink musical interlude 1

First, the simple message that service, like the Holy Ghost, is the oft-forgotten third component of the trinity of professional science/academia; teaching and research being the other two (and science communication, to me, bridging all of these). As one moves along in one’s career, service tends to become increasingly expected—and the wisdom accumulated aids its conduct.

Second, service should be done because:

  • It’s the right thing to do
  • You learn things about your professional society, discipline, colleagues, leadership and self (skills and limits)
  • It’s not necessarily just boring bureaucracy (more about that below)
  • It will aid your career (CV, promotion, connections, future service, etc.) and you can aid others along the way

I think a common misconception is that service is boring. Yes, hearing the minutes of prior meetings read to you, or a long screed about minutia of health-and-safety, can be boring at times. But pay attention and find things that interest you and new vistas can open. This depends on the position one serves in and how it fits you. In my case, I found it a fun challenge to run meetings (i.e. try to follow the standard protocol of devising an agenda, checking minutes, etc.; standard bureaucracy) – especially the key activity of raising and voting on issues to consider taking the division in new directions. That allowed some creativity and made for energetic discussions on issues that mattered.

Another contrast to “boring” is resolving crises that arise (in my case, quite a few arose that felt serious to me). Yes, they’re stressful, but they also teach you things about how to handle crises, and you learn about your own ability to do so; and how others interface with that dynamic process. As I tend to emphasize on this blog, doing science is HUGELY about human interactions and foibles, and in service, as everywhere, such things are especially prominent and complex.

wink-wink musical interlude 2

Service comes in many forms. Students and postdocs can and should take part—many societies such as SICB tend to allow or encourage early career researcher participation. At a minimum, scientists should vote on elections (participation tends to be low among student/postdoc members) and attend their societies’ business or other meetings to see how the machine of a professional society works inside. It may even learn to serendipitous outcomes! And lessons learned will serve you well in many forms of future career.

One can do many other forms of service. Minimally in research, one is expected to participate in peer review; and that experience can lead to editor roles at journals, which I’ve found very interesting. Certainly in academic and other departments, there are numerous committee and other roles analogous to those in professional societies that are opportunities to serve.

I’ve surely left out other important lessons learned from serving. I’m still processing my experiences, reflecting and thinking forward. Now I’ve moved on to new service at SICB as Chair of the Student-Postdoc Affairs Committee, so there’s lots more for me to learn and share in that role.

What have you learned from serving? Do you have questions about service in science? Please chime in below.

More links of interest:

DVM-DCB Twitter feed

DVM Facebook page (members+affiliates)

SPDAC Facebook page (anyone!)

SPDAC Twitter feed

Read Full Post »

As 2017 approaches its end, there have been a few papers I’ve been involved in that I thought I’d point out here while I have time. Our DAWNDINOS project has been taking up much of that time and you’ll see much more of that project’s work in 2018, but we just published our first paper from it! And since the other two recent papers involve a similar theme of muscles, appendages and computer models of biomechanics, they’ll feature here too.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10; computer models and other abstractions.

Mussaurus patagonicus was an early sauropodomorph dinosaur from Argentina, and is now widely accepted to be a very close relative of the true (giant, quadrupedal) sauropods. Here is John Conway’s great reconstruction of it:

We have been working with Alejandro Otero and Diego Pol on Mussaurus for many years now, starting with Royal Society International Exchange funds and now supported by my ERC grant “DAWNDINOS”. It features in our grant because it is a decent example of a large sauropodomorph that was probably still bipedal and lived near the Triassic-Jurassic transition (~215mya).

In our new study, we applied one of my team’s typical methods, 3D musculoskeletal modelling, to an adult Mussaurus’s forelimbs. This is a change of topic from the hindlimbs that I’ve myopically focused on before with Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor [in an obscure paper that I should never have published in a book! pdf link], among other critters my team has tackled (mouse, elephant [still to be finished…], ostrich, horse, Ichthyostega… dozens more to come!). But we also modelled the forelimbs of Crocodylus johnstoni (Australian “freshie”) for a key comparison with a living animal whose anatomy we actually knew, rather than reconstructed.

Mussaurus above; Crocodylus below; forelimb models in various views; muscles are red lines.

The methods for this biomechanical modelling are now standard (I learned them from their creator Prof. Scott Delp during my 2001-2003 postdoc at Stanford): scan bones, connect them with joints, add muscle paths around them, and then use the models to estimate joint ranges of motion and muscle moment arms (leverage) around joints. I have some mixed feelings about developing this approach in our 2005 paper that is now widely used by the few teams that study appendicular function in extinct animals. As a recent review paper noted and I’ve always cautioned, it has a lot of assumptions and problems and one must exercise extreme caution in its design and interpretation. Our new Mussaurus paper continues those ruminations, but I think we made some progress, too.

On to the nuts and bolts of the science (it’s a 60 page paper so this summary will omit a lot!): first, we wanted to know how the forelimb joint ranges of motion in Mussaurus compared with those in Crocodylus and whether our model of Mussaurus might be able to be placed in a quadrupedal pose, with the palms at least somewhat flat (“pronated”) on the ground. Even considering missing joint cartilage, this didn’t seem very plausible in Mussaurus unless one allowed the whole forearm to rotate around its long axis from the elbow joint, which is very speculative—but not impossible in Crocodylus, either. Furthermore, the model didn’t seem to have forelimbs fully adapted yet for a more graviportal, columnar posture. Here’s what the model’s mobility was like:

So Mussaurus, like other early sauropodomorphs such as Plateosaurus, probably wasn’t quadrupedal, and thus quadrupedalism must have evolved very close to in the Sauropoda common ancestor.

Second, we compared the muscle moment arms (individual 3D “muscle actions” for short) in different poses for all of the main forelimb muscles that extend (in various ways and extents) from the pectoral girdle to the thumb, for both animals, to see how muscle actions might differ in Crocodylus (which would be closer to the ancestral state) and Mussaurus. Did muscles transform their actions in relation to bipedalism (or reversal to quadrupedalism) in the latter? Well, it’s complicated but there are a lot of similarities and differences in how the muscles might have functioned; probably reflecting evolutionary ancestry and specialization. What I found most surprising about our results was that the forelimbs didn’t have muscles well-positioned to pronate the forearm/hand, and thus musculoskeletal modelling of those muscles reinforced the conclusions from the joints that quadrupedal locomotion was unlikely. I think that result is fairly robust to the uncertainties, but we’ll see in future work.

You like moment arms? We got moment arms! 15 figures of them, like this! And tables and explanatory text and comparisons with human data and, well, lots!

If you’re really a myology geek, you might find our other conclusions about individual muscle actions to be interesting—e.g. the scapulohumeralis seems to have been a shoulder pronator in Crocodylus vs. supinator in Mussaurus, owing to differences in humeral shape (specialization present in Mussaurus; which maybe originated in early dinosaurs?). Contrastingly, the deltoid muscles acted in the same basic way in both species; presumed to reflect evolutionary conservation. And muuuuuuch more!

Do you want to know more? You can play with our models (it takes some work in OpenSim free software but it’s do-able) by downloading them (Crocodylus; Mussaurus; also available: Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor!). And there will be MUCH more about Mussaurus coming soon. What is awesome about this dinosaur is that we have essentially complete skeletons from tiny hatchlings (the “mouse lizard” etymology) to ~1 year old juveniles to >1000kg adults. So we can do more than arm-wave about forelimbs!

But that’s not all. Last week we published our third paper on mouse hindlimb biomechanics, using musculoskeletal modelling as well. This one was a collaboration that arose from past PhD student James Charles’s thesis: his model has been in much demand from mouse researchers, and in this case we were invited by University of Virginia biomechanical engineers to join them in using this model to test how muscle fibres (the truly muscle-y, contractile parts of “muscle-tendon units”) change length in walking mice vs. humans. It was a pleasure to re-unite in coauthorship with Prof. Silvia Blemker, who was a coauthor on that 2005 T. rex hindlimb modelling paper which set me on my current dark path.

Mouse and human legs in right side view, going through walking cycles in simulations. Too small? Click to embiggen.

We found that, because mice move their hindlimb joints through smaller arcs than humans do during walking and because human muscles have large moment arms, the hindlimb muscles of humans change length more—mouse muscles change length only about 48% of the amount that typical leg muscles do in humans! This is cool not only from an evolutionary (mouse muscles are probably closer to the ancestral mammalian state) and scaling (smaller animals may use less muscle excursions, to a point, in comparable gaits?) perspective, but it also has clinical relevance.

Simulated stride for mouse and human; with muscles either almost inactive (Act=0.05) or fully active (Act=1). Red curve goes through much bigger excursions (along y-axis) than blue curve), so humans should use bigger % of their muscle fibre lengths in walking. Too small? Click to embiggen.

My coauthors study muscular dystrophy and similar diseases that can involve muscle stiffness and similar biomechanical or neural control problems. Mice are often used as “models” (both in the sense of analogues/study systems for animal trials in developing treatments, and in the sense of computational abstractions) for human diseases. But because mouse muscles don’t work the same as human muscles, especially in regards to length changes in walking, there are concerns that overreliance on mice as human models might cause erroneous conclusions about what treatments work best to reduce muscle stiffness (or response to muscle stretching that causes progressive damage), for example. Thus either mouse model studies need some rethinking sometimes, or other models such as canines might be more effective. Regardless, it was exciting to be involved in a study that seems to deliver the goods on translating basic science to clinical relevance.

Muscle-by-muscle data; most mouse muscles go through smaller excursions; a few go through greater; some are the same as humans’.

Finally, a third recent paper of ours was led by Julia Molnar and Stephanie Pierce (of prior RVC “Team Tetrapod” affiliation), with myself and Rui Diogo. This study tied together a bunch of disparate research strands of our different teams, including musculature and its homologies, the early tetrapod fossil record, muscle reconstruction in fossils, and biomechanics. And again the focus was on forelimbs, or front-appendages anyway; but turning back the clock to the very early history of fishes, especially lobe-finned forms, and trying to piece together how the few pectoral fin muscles of those fish evolved into the many forelimb muscles of true tetrapods from >400mya to much more recent times.

Humerus in ventral view, showing muscle attachments. Extent (green) is unknown in the fossil but the muscle position is clear (arrow).

We considered the homologies for those muscles in extant forms, hypothesized by Diogo, Molnar et al., in light of the fossil record that reveals where those muscles attach(ed), using that reciprocal illumination to reconstruct how forelimb musculature evolved. This parallels almost-as-ancient (well, year 2000) work that I’d done in my PhD on reconstructing hindlimb muscle evolution in early reptiles/archosaurs/dinosaurs/birds. Along the way, we could reconstruct estimates of pectoral muscles in various representative extinct tetrapod(omorph)s.

Disparity of skeletal pectoral appendages to work with from lobe-fins to tetrapods.

Again, it’s a lengthy, detailed study (31 pages) but designed as a review and meta-analysis that introduces readers to the data and ideas and then builds on them in new ways. I feel that this was a synthesis that was badly needed to tie together disparate observations and speculations on what the many, many obvious bumps, squiggles, crests and tuberosities on fossil tetrapods/cousins “mean” in terms of soft tissues. The figures here tell the basic story; Julia, as usual, rocked it with some lovely scientific illustration! Short message: the large number of pectoral limb muscles in living tetrapods probably didn’t evolve until limbs with digits evolved, but that number might go back to the common ancestor of all tetrapods, rather than more recently. BUT there are strong hints that earlier tetrapodomorph “fishapods” had some of those novel muscles already, so it was a more stepwise/gradual pattern of evolution than a simple punctuated event or two.

Colour maps of reconstructed right fin/limb muscles in tetrapodomorph sarcopterygian (~”fishapod”) and tetrapod most recent common ancestors. Some are less ambiguous than others.

That study opens the way to do proper biomechanical studies (like the Mussaurus study) of muscle actions, functions… even locomotor dynamics (like the mouse study)– and ooh, I’ve now tied all three studies together, tidily wrapped up with a scientific bow! There you have it. I’m looking forward to sharing more new science in 2018. We have some big, big plans!

Read Full Post »

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:


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


Read Full Post »

(Marcela with some furry friends; photo by Oliver Siddon)

(Marcela with some felid friends; photo by Oliver Siddon)

A guest post by Marcela Randau (m.randau@ucl.ac.uk)

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; just bones and data plots!

It is often said that all cats are very similar in terms of their skeletal morphology (“a cat is a cat is a cat”). But is this really the case? It may be if only gross, qualitative anatomy is taken into consideration, i.e., if you just eyeball the skeletons of tigers and lions you might find yourself not knowing which one is which. But with huge advances in technology that allows for extracting detailed shape information off a structure (e.g., a skull) and for analysing this information (‘Geometric Morphometrics’), it has become more and more possible to distinguish between relatively similar forms – which may be from distinct species, separate sexes, or even just different populations of the same taxon.

And it is reasonable to think that cat skeletons might be a lot more different than what meets the eye, as for a lineage of apparently similarly built animals, with not that much variation in diet  (all cats are hypercarnivores) there is substantial variation in body mass (over 300-fold just in living species!) and in ecology across cat species. From the cursorial cheetah to the arboreal clouded leopard, felids present a wide range of locomotory adaptations. Yes, all cats can climb, but some do it better than others: think lion versus margay (yes, they do descend trees head-first). As hypercarnivores, all cats are meat specialists, but they also change with regards to how big their prey is, with a general and sometimes-not-so-black-and-white three-tier classification into small, mixed and large prey specialists. The rule of thumb is ‘if you are lighter than ~20-25 kg, hunt small stuff. If you are heavier than that, hunt BIG BIG things; bigger than yourself. And if you are in the middle ground, hunt some small-ish things, some big-ish things, and things about your size. Well, -ish’ – their prey size preference has a lot to do with energetic constraints (have a look at Carbone et al. 1999; and Carbone et al. 2007, if you’re interested in this). But the fun bit here is that form sometimes correlates quite strongly with function, so we should be able to find differences in some of their bones that carry this ecological signal.

Indeed, for a while now, we have known that the shape of the skull and limbs of felids can tell us a lot about how they move and how big their prey is (Meachen-Samuels and Van Valkenburgh 2009, 2009), but a large proportion of their skeleton has been largely ignored: we don’t know half as much about ecomorphology and evolution of the vertebral column. Well, it was time we changed this a bit! As the PhD student in the Leverhulme-funded ‘Walking the cat back’ (or more informally, “Team Cat”) project, I’ve spend a big chunk of my first two years travelling around the world (well, ok, mainly to several locations in the USA) carrying a heavy pellet case containing my working tool, a Microscribe, to collect 3-D landmarks (Fig. 1) across the presacral vertebral column of several cat species. And some of first results are just out! Check them out by reading our latest paper, “Regional differentiation of felid vertebral column evolution: a study of 3D shape trajectories” in the Organisms Diversity and Evolution journal (Randau, Cuff, et al. 2016).


Fig. 1: Different vertebral morphologies and their respective three-dimensional landmarks. Vertebral images are from CT scans of Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah, USNM 520539)

Building from results based on our linear vertebral data from the beginning of the year (Randau, Goswami, et al. 2016), the 3-D vertebral coordinates carry a lot more information and we were able to describe how this complex shape-function relationship takes place throughout the axial skeleton (in cats at least) in much better detail than our prior study did. One of the difficulties in studying serial structures such as the vertebral column is that some clades present variation in vertebral count which makes it less straightforward to compare individual vertebrae or regions across species. However, mammals are relatively strongly constrained in vertebral count, and Felidae (cats; living and known fossils) show no variation at all, having 27 presacral vertebrae. So adaptation of the axial skeleton in mammals has been suggested to happen by modification of shape rather than changes in vertebral number.

Using a variety of geometric morphometric analyses, under a phylogenetically informative methodology, we have shown that there is clear shape and functional regionalisation across the vertebral column, with vertebrae forming clusters that share similar signal. Most interestingly, the big picture of these results is a neck region which is either very conservative in shape, or is under much stronger constraints preventing it from responding to direct evolutionary pressures, contrasting with the ‘posteriormost’ post-diaphragmatic tenth thoracic (T10) to last lumbar (L7) vertebral region, which show the strongest ecological correlations.

We were able to analyse shape change through functional vertebral regions, rather than individual vertebrae alone, by making a novel application of a technique called the ‘Phenotypic Trajectory Analysis’, and demonstrated that the direction of vertebral shape trajectories in the morphospace changes considerably between both prey size and locomotory ecomorphs in cats, but that the amount of change in each group was the same. It was again in this T10-L7 region that ecological groups differed the most in vertebral shape trajectories (Fig. 2).


Figure 2: Phenotypic trajectory analysis (PTA) of vertebrae in the T10 – L7 region grouped by prey size (A) and locomotory (B) categories.

So in the postcranial morphology of cats can be distinguished, changing its anatomy in order to accommodate the different lifestyles we see across species. But the distinct parts of this structure respond to selection differently. The next step is figuring out how that might happen and we are working on it.

While Team Cat continues to investigate other biomechanical and evolutionary aspects of postcranial morphology in this interesting family, we’ve been able to discuss some of these and other results in a recent outreach event organised by the University College of London Grant Museum of Zoology and The Royal Veterinary College. We called it “Wild Cats Uncovered: movement evolves”. Check how it went here: (https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2016/11/17/cheetah-post-mortem/) and here (http://www.rvc.ac.uk/research/research-centres-and-facilities/structure-and-motion/news/wild-cats-uncovered), with even more pics here (https://www.flickr.com/photos/144824896@N07/sets/72157676695634065/).

References used here:

Carbone, C., Mace, G. M., Roberts, S. C., and Macdonald, D. W. 1999. Energetic constaints on the diet of terrestrial carnivores. Nature 402:286-288.

Carbone, C., Teacher, A., and Rowcliffe, J. M. 2007. The costs of carnivory. PLoS biology 5 (2):e22.

Meachen-Samuels, J. and Van Valkenburgh, B. 2009. Craniodental indicators of prey size preference in the Felidae. Biol J Linn Soc 96 (4):784-799.

———. 2009. Forelimb indicators of prey-size preference in the Felidae. Journal of morphology 270 (6):729-744.

Randau, M., Cuff, A. R., Hutchinson, J. R., Pierce, S. E., and Goswami, A. 2016. Regional differentiation of felid vertebral column evolution: a study of 3D shape trajectories. Organisms Diversity and Evolution Online First.

Randau, M., Goswami, A., Hutchinson, J. R., Cuff, A. R., and Pierce, S. E. 2016. Cryptic complexity in felid vertebral evolution: shape differentiation and allometry of the axial skeleton. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 178 (1):183-202.

Read Full Post »

Seeking adaptations for running and swimming in the vertebral columns of ancient crocs

A guest post by Dr. Julia Molnar, Howard University, USA (this comes from Julia’s PhD research at RVC with John & colleagues)

Recently, John and I with colleagues Stephanie Pierce, Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, and Alan Turner described morphological and functional changes in the vertebral column with increasing aquatic adaptation in crocodylomorphs (Royal Society Open Science, doi 10.1098/rsos.150439). Our results shed light upon key aspects of the evolutionary history of these under-appreciated archosaurs.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10; a juicy croc torso in one small photo but that’s all.

Phylogenetic relationships of the three crocodylomorph groups in the study and our functional hypotheses about their vertebrae. * Image credits: Hesperosuchus by Smokeybjb, Suchodus by Dmitry Bogdanov (vectorized by T. Michael Keesey) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

Phylogenetic relationships of the three crocodylomorph groups in the study and our functional hypotheses about their vertebrae. * Image credits: Hesperosuchus by Smokeybjb, Suchodus by Dmitry Bogdanov (vectorized by T. Michael Keesey) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

As fascinating as modern crocodiles might be, in many ways they are overshadowed by their extinct, Mesozoic cousins and ancestors. The Triassic, Jurassic, and early Cretaceous periods saw the small, fast, hyper-carnivorous “sphenosuchians,” the giant, flippered marine thalattosuchians, and various oddballs like the duck-billed Anatosuchus and the aptly named Armadillosuchus. As palaeontologists/biomechanists, we looked at this wide variety of ecological specializations in those species, the Crocodylomorpha, and wanted to know, how did they do it?

Of course, we weren’t the first scientists to wonder about the locomotion of crocodylomorphs, but we did have some new tools in our toolbox; specifically, a couple of micro-CT scanners and some sophisticated imaging software. We took CT and micro-CT scans of five fossil crocodylomorphs: two presumably terrestrial early crocodylomorphs (Terrestrisuchus and Protosuchus), three aquatic thalattosuchians (Pelagosaurus, Steneosaurus, and Metriorhynchus) and a semi-aquatic modern crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Since we’re still stuck on vertebrae (see, e.g., here; and also here), we digitally separated out the vertebrae to make 3D models of individual joints and took measurements from each vertebra. Finally, we manipulated the virtual joint models to find out how far they could move before the bones bumped into each other or the joints came apart (osteological range of motion, or RoM).


Our methods: get fossil, scan fossil, make virtual fossil and play with it.

Our methods: get fossil (NHMUK), scan fossil, make virtual fossil and play with it.

Above: Video of a single virtual inter-vertebral joint from the trunk of Pelagosaurus typus (NHMUK) showing maximum osteological range of motion in the lateral direction (video). Note the very un-modern-croc-like flat surfaces of the vertebral bodies! (modern crocs have a ball-and-socket spinal joint with the socket on the front end)

While this was a lot of fun, what we really wanted to find out was whether, as crocodylomorphs became specialized for different types of locomotion, the shapes of their vertebrae changed similarly to those of mammalian lineages. For example, many terrestrial mammals have a lumbar region that is very flexible dorsoventrally to allow up-and-down movements during bounding and galloping. Did fast-running crocodylomorphs have similar dorsoventral flexibility? And did fast-swimming aquatic crocodylomorphs evolve a stiffer vertebral column like that of whales and dolphins?

Above: Video of how we modelled and took measurements from the early crocodylomorph Terrestrisuchus gracilis (NHMUK).

Our first results were puzzling. The Nile croc had greater RoM in side-to-side motions, which makes sense because crocodiles mostly use more sprawling postures and are semi-aquatic, using quite a bit of side-to-side motions in life. The part that didn’t make sense was that we found pretty much the same thing in all of the fossil crocodylomorphs, including the presumably very terrestrial Terrestrisuchus and Protosuchus. With their long limbs and hinge-like joints, these two are unlikely to have been sprawlers or swimmers!

So we started looking for other parts of the croc that might affect RoM. The obvious candidate was osteoderms, the bony scales that cover the back. We went back to John’s Freezer and got out a nice frozen crocodile to measure the stiffness of its trunk and found that, sure enough, it was a lot stiffer and less mobile without the osteoderms. If the fairly flexible arrangement of osteoderms in crocodiles had this effect on stiffness, it seemed likely that (as previous authors have suggested; Eberhard Frey and Steve Salisbury being foremost amongst them) the rigid, interlocking osteoderms running from head to tail in early crocodylomorphs would really have put the brakes on their ability to move their trunk in certain ways.

Testing stiffness of crocodile trunks to learn the effects of osteoderms, skin, muscles, and ribs. We hung metric weights from the middle of the trunk and measured how much it flexed (Ɵ), then removed bits and repeated.

Testing the stiffness of (Nile) crocodile trunks to learn the effects of osteoderms, skin, muscles, and ribs. We hung metric weights from the middle of the trunk and measured how much it flexed (Ɵ), then removed bits and repeated. Click to em-croccen.

Another cool thing we found was new evidence of convergent evolution to aquatic lifestyles in the spines of thalattosuchians. The more basal thalattosuchians, thought to have been near-shore predators, had stiffness and RoM patterns similar to Crocodylus. But Metriorhynchus, which probably was very good at chasing down fast fish in the open ocean, seems to have had greater stiffness. (The stiffness estimates come from morphometrics and are based on modern crocodiles; see here again, or just read the paper already!) A stiff vertebral column can be useful for a swimmer because it increases the body’s natural frequency of oscillation, and faster oscillation means faster swimming (think tuna, not eel). The same thing seems to have happened in other secondarily aquatic vertebrate lineages such as whales, ichthyosaurs, and mosasaurs.

So, our results were a mixed bag of adaptations particular to crocs and ones that seem like general vertebrate swimming specializations. Crocodylomorphs are important because they are the only group of large vertebrates other than mammals that has secondarily aquatic members and has living members with a reasonably similar body plan, allowing us to test hypotheses in ways that would arguably be impossible for, say, non-avian dinosaurs and birds. The take-home message: crocodylomorphs A) are awesome, and B) can teach us a lot about how vertebrates adapt to different modes of life.

Another take on this story is on our lab website here.

Read Full Post »

Goat morphology is cool! (from work with local artist)

I posted the above photo once before, but didn’t explain any of the fun details of artist-designer Thomas Thwaites‘s visit to the RVC to dissect a goat with us. Now his show has just finished in London, celebrating the end of his project and the near-completion of his book about his experience trying to live life as a goat. This week, I went to his east side gallery and had some time to chat with Thomas about his transhuman experiences. Because the project has a strong biomechanics, anatomy, art and science theme to it, I’m posting a photo-blog post about all of that. It’s goat to be seen to be believed! I for one wouldn’t mind being a goat right now; I could use a break from my decrepit body…

Stomach-Churning Rating: Too late, there’s the goat pic above and more like it below. I’d give those a 8/10; no kidding. The puns make it worse, too.

The context

The context. Thomas never did get to gallop (sorry, spoiler!) but he did manage a trot, and some other capricious behaviours. I forgot to ask him if he’d tried the Goat Simulator. I have; it’s good for an hour of fun hircosity.

Starting the dissection at the RVC.

Starting the dissection at the RVC, to get inside a goat.



Fore- and hindlimbs.

Fore- and hindlimbs; comparative design for inspiring prosthetics.


Dissections on display!

Prototype goat-suits. Their mobility was too limited.

Prototype goat-suits. Their mobility was too limited.

The prototype in the foreground could not move without falling down.

The prototype in the foreground could not move without falling down.

Goat-suit shots.

Inhabited-goat-suit shots.

The Goat-Suit: custom made prothetics, a helmet, and some form-fitting casts.

The final Goat-Suit: custom prosthetics, a helmet, and some form-fitting casts.

Thomas Thwaites with the goat-suit.

Thomas Thwaites with the goat-suit.

The forelimb prosthesis. I was worried it would hurt his wrists but apparently it transferred the loads mainly to the forearms.

The forelimb prosthesis. I was worried it would hurt his wrists but apparently it transferred the loads mainly to the forearms. It was made by a prosthetics clinic up in Salford.


Photos from rambling around the Swiss Alps in the goat-suit with goats.


Trip-trap-trip-trap… (but no trolls)

Goat-suit in action!

Goat-suit in action! With Goat-Pro camera, I see.



And the goat that we had dissected, skeletonized at RVC and re-articulated by Thomas:

Do goats wish they were human?

Do goats wish they were human?

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

Close-up of goat head.

Close-up of goat head and shoulders.

Goat hooves-on-hips

Goat hooves-on-hips; a gruff pose.

So like us.

So like us.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »