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Posts Tagged ‘elephants’

Tonight is the debut of the ballyhooed BBC1 programme “Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur“, featuring Sir David and The Titanosaur-With-No-Name, at 6:30pm. Furthermore, this week I presided over a showing of “T. rex Autopsy” to our RVC undergrad Zoological Society, with a very enjoyable Q&A afterwards. So it seemed timely for me to do a post about a theme that links these two documentaries that I helped with, my own research, and science communication and palaeontological research more generally. But first let’s get this out of the way:

It was great.

It was great. I could gush more but that’s not what this post is about.

Stomach-Churning Rating: ~7/10; mainly the elephant leg dissection that’s not far below, which is a bit messy.

For the titanosaur documentary with Sir David, and the incomparable Ben Garrod as well, we had an old elephant “friend” of mine (subject of many biomechanics studies we’d done) walk across a pressure pad to demonstrate how the elephant locomotion works and some of the basic similarities with how a giant sauropod dinosaur might walk:

A broader feature of that documentary, which elephants are linked into, is how we can use the skeleton to reconstruct some general aspects of the soft tissue anatomy, and thereby the physiology or even behaviour, of a giant titanosaur. Which brings me to this post’s subject: We dig up dinosaurs all the time, but what about digging into dinosaurs and using what’s preserved to reconstruct what isn’t? 

The "G-suit" compressive stocking that the fascia wrapped around elephant, and other large mammals, creates, and the underlying, interwoven muscles and tendons (hindlimb of a young Asian elephant).

Some of the “G-suit” compressive stocking that the fascia wrapped around elephant, and other large mammals, creates, and the underlying, interwoven muscles and tendons (hindlimb of a young Asian elephant that sadly died in captivity). Did some larger dinosaurs have something like this? I’d expect so.

Another view, more superficially, of that G-suit/stocking under the thick, tight skin of an elephant's leg.

Another view, more superficially, of that G-suit/stocking under the thick, tight skin of an elephant’s leg. You’ll hear more about this in the Attenborough show…

Once the documentary airs, I may be able to share some more images from it showing what they did for the titanosaur, but this BBC photo gives a good idea.

Once the documentary airs, I may be able to share some more images from it showing what they did for the titanosaur, but this BBC photo gives a good idea. Here, blood vessels and other tissues surrounding the skeleton. How would a titanosaur pump blood around its body? A good question.

I’ve covered the science behind these reconstructions before, along with the art (in numerous posts, actually). Here I want to inspect how it’s communicated through the media: what are good (and not so good?) ways to cover it, especially now that displaying raw anatomy is more tolerable on TV and other media? I’m not writing about Thanksgiving dinner dinosaur dissections; not really; or in technical terms how we build a dinosaur to dissect/depict internally (digitally or physically).

I wanted to focus more on the end product; the imagery or even physical object; and how it conveys what we think we know about dinosaur anatomy. I’ll do that via examples, using photos of dinosaur anatomy that I’ve collected over the years from museums or other media. There won’t be any profound points or long musings; it’s mainly a photo blog:

What your (inner?) child most needs is a dinosaur to dissect yourself! Why not a T. rex toy like this?

What your (inner?) child most needs is a dinosaur to dissect yourself! Why not a T. rex toy like this?

I could quibble, but for the price they did a good job.

For the price (~$30 in USA), the 4D Vision dinosaurs deliver a pretty good bargain, and the anatomy is satisfactory. I’ve been collecting this series. I could quibble, but hey: it’s a dinosaur you get to build/dissect yourself, and with many major organs in reasonable positions! Not so easy to put/keep together, but it’s fine. I would not pay a ton for it, though.

Poster of Velociraptor's anatomy I've had since grad school, adorning my office. For ~1996, it's damn good, mostly... (placeholder photos until I get to the office tomorrow and take better ones!)

Poster of Velociraptor’s anatomy I’ve had since grad school, adorning my office. For ~1996 (no feathers; “zombie hands“), it’s damn good, mostly… Closer views below (sorry, photo quality is crap– taking photos of wall poster turned out to be harder than I expected! Bad lighting.) :

Closeup of the leg muscles- hey, not bad!

Closeup of the leg muscles- hey, not bad! Pretty much the right muscles in the right places more or less, and plausible proportions. No air sacs in the torso, but again, this is mid-1990’s science shown. BUT…

I was happy with this poster until I got it home and read this final bit of text... Oh, America! You silly place.

I was happy with this poster until I got it home from the western-USA museum I bought it at and read this final bit of text… Oh, America! You silly place. (And unfortunately, these dinosaurs are not from the very end of the Cretaceous anyway, so “global catastrophe” is not implicated.)

Ornithomimid in Barcelona natural history museum. This was unexpected and got me excited when I first saw it.

Ornithomimid in Barcelona natural history museum. This was unexpected and got me excited when I first saw it.

Looking down onto the opened torso of the Barcelona ornithomimid. Strikingly realistic!

Looking down onto the opened torso of the Barcelona ornithomimid. Strikingly realistic! Breastbone, heart, liver, intestines; not unreasonable positions and sizes. No feathers, but again hey– this was made in the earlier days.

Skinned Albertosaurus from the Drexel Academy of Sciences. I forget where I got this pic but I like the display.

Albertosaurus from the Drexel Academy of Sciences. I forget where I got this pic but I like the display– this is an impressive full-scale physical model. The transition from skeleton-only on the left to skinned in the middle to fully-fleshed and popping out atcha on the right is clever.

?T. rex? leg, photo that I took ages ago as a PhD student, if memory serves. Can anyone remind me where this was? California Academy of Sciences?

?T. rex? leg, photo that I took ages ago as a PhD student, if memory serves. Can anyone remind me where this was? California Academy of Sciences? I am embarrassed that I cannot recall. I remember geeking out about it. It has a toy-ish look, but I reckon they had to build this to withstand kids touching it.

Perhaps the best example I've seen in a museum: the AMNH's sauropod with internal organs and their functions projected onto it. Bravo!

Perhaps the best dino-dissection example I’ve seen in a museum: the AMNH’s sauropod Mamenchisaurus with internal organs and their functions projected onto it, in the “World’s Largest Dinosaurs” exhibit. Bravo! I stood and watched it for quite a while.

This is far from comprehensive– just several kinds of imagery that I mostly like. There’s the tension between showing too much realism, which science simply can’t back up, and being too cartoonish, losing the viewer’s immersion in the time-travelling fantasy. I do, however, like other kinds of more abstract, schematic depictions of dinosaur anatomy that simplify the details to focus on the basics of what organs should have been where and how they may have worked, such as this depiction from T. rex Autopsy, which also took the other extreme favouring ultra-realism (but with physical models, not so much with the CGI):

AIr flow through a T. rex: simplified but clear.

Air flow through a T. rex: simplified but clear. CGI used to explain, not abused. The real air sac anatomy would be too complex to show. You may see something similar with the titanosaur show.

That’s enough for now. I’ve stuck with relatively recent examples; of course in my particular field I also think back to Romer’s wonderful 1920’s drawings, which I covered in this post.

So, blog readers, help me out here: what examples of dinosaur internal, squishy anatomy from museums, documentaries or other not-entirely-done-by-nitpicky-scientists venues do you like, or not like so much? What works for you, or at least is memorable in some way?

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I was recently featured on Daily Planet, a great Canadian science show on TV that lamentably is not broadcast more globally. It is always high quality science communication, aided by the superb hosts Ziya Tong and Dan Riskin (and a talented crew!). What were we doing? Dissecting an elephant’s foot, of course!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 9/10; no-holds-barred dismantling of elephant feet, from the video onwards, and this post is heavy on moist, goopy photos afterwards, with some nasty pathologies. Not nice at all. I’ll give you a chance to turn around while contemplating the cart that we use to carry elephant feet around campus (each foot is 20-30kg; up to 70lbs; so we need the help!), before the video.

no_poo

Here is a snippet of the full segment from Daily Planet:

And here is more of some of my recent dissections. I’ll walk you through two dissections, via photos. This goes back to the roots of this blog: unflinching, gritty examinations of real anatomy! Of course, no elephants were harmed for this work. They died at EU zoos/parks and were sent to me for postmortem examination and research, so we hope that this benefits the future care of elephants. We’re currently finishing up a grand overview paper that describes all of the odd pathologies we’ve observed in elephant feet, for the benefit of zoo keepers and vets who are trying to detect, diagnose and monitor any foot problems.

As the post’s title alludes, elephant feet (and more proximal parts of the limbs) are no stranger to this blog. If you’ve forgotten or are unfamiliar, here are some of my past proboscidean-posts: on elephant foot pathologies (a close sister post to this one), our “six-toed” elephants paper, how to make a computer simulation of an elephant’s limb (umm, paper yet to come!), how we boil and bleach bones to clean them up, and a few others. Last but not least, there was the post that went viral in the early #JohnsFreezer/WIJF days: dissecting an elephant with the “Inside Nature’s Giants” show.

There are two feet in this post, both front right feet (manus is the technical term; singular and plural). The first one is the messier (unhealthy and bloodier, less fresh and clean) one, from the show/video. It is an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). I kick off with photos I took after the filming, so the foot is already deconstructed:

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view.

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view. The wrist is on the right side of the photo; the toes on the left.

Sole ("slipper"), with a hole on the fourth toe showing where the abscess is that let infection in/pus drain out.

Sole (“slipper”), with a hole on the fourth toe showing where the abscess is that let infection in/pus drain out. The slipper here is upside-down.

Top-down view of the sole of the foot, once the slipper is removed.

Top-down view of the sole of the foot, once the slipper is removed; flipped over and rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the above photo. Some of the fat pad of the foot is on the right side of the image; it’s very hard to separate from the keratinous sole of the foot.

Looking down into the fourth toe's abscess on the other side of the above view.

Looking down into the fourth toe’s (ring finger) abscess on the other side of the above view.

Looking down into the third (middle) toe, same view as above. Some redness and greyness where this toe had some of its own pathological issues.

Looking down into the second toe (index finger), same view as above. Some redness and greyness where this toe had some of its own pathological issues like infection and a smaller abscess.

Looking up from the slipper at the fat pad and toes of the foot, where they interface with the sole/slipper. The fat pad is toward the bottom and left side; the five toes are on the upper/right side (knobby subcircular regions on the perimeter of the foot).

Looking up from the slipper (removed) at the fat pad and toes of the foot, where they interface with the sole/slipper. The fat pad is toward the bottom and left side; the five toes are on the upper/right side (knobby subcircular regions on the perimeter of the foot). The very bad infection on the fourth toe is visible on the bottom right.

The sproingy fat pad is worth a video!

And one good wiggle deserves another!

A view down onto the wrist joint. The carpal (wrist) bones are visible at the bottom of the image, whereas the flexor (palmar) tendons and muscles on the back of the "hand" are at the top. There is a LOT of musculotendinous tissue on the back side of an elephant's foot.

A view down onto the wrist joint. The carpal (wrist) bones are visible at the bottom of the image, whereas the flexor (palmar) tendons and muscles on the back of the “hand” are at the top. There is a LOT of musculotendinous tissue on the back side of an elephant’s foot. As you will see in my dissection of the second foot, further below!

Looking down onto the medial (inner/"thumb") border of the foot, where I've exposed the prepollex, or false "sixth finger" by removing the first metacarpal (knuckle) bone.

Looking down onto the medial (inner/”thumb”) border of the foot, where I’ve exposed the prepollex, or false “sixth finger”, by removing the first metacarpal (knuckle) bone.

Removed the prepollex from the foot. The white oval structure is the top of the prepollex; white is cartilage, whereas the red "islands" are blood vessels that have invaded the cartilage and are starting to turn it into patches of bone. So this prepollex is at a very early stage of bone formation, still almost entirely cartilaginous, whereas some older elephants have the prepollex largely formed of bone.

I’ve removed the prepollex from the foot. The white oval structure (bottom right) is the top of the conical prepollex, where it connected to the rest of the foot. White is cartilage, whereas the red “islands” are blood vessels that have invaded the cartilage and are starting to turn it into patches of bone. So this prepollex is at a very early stage of bone formation, still almost entirely cartilaginous, whereas some older elephants have the prepollex largely formed of bone. The fleshy pink tissue adhering to the surface of the prepollex here is a remnant of “abductor” muscle that connects it to the thumb and thus could allow some active control of the prepollex’s mobility.

Well, that was one very pathological elephant’s foot; one of the worst I have ever seen. Every foot I dissect is different and tells me a unique story about that animal’s development, history and health. This one told a very sad tale. What does a somewhat normal elephant’s foot look like? I thawed one out for comparison, and to thin out my overstuffed freezer stock. This one starts off from an intact (if severed) foot so you can witness the stages of dissection:

Whole foot. African elephant (Loxodonta africana).

Whole foot. African elephant (Loxodonta africana). You may spot in later photos that the second and fourth toes’ nails are cracked longitudinally. This happens sometimes in elephants without any obvious health problems such as infection, but if it lasts long enough and conditions are bad enough (e.g. unsanitary conditions getting bacteria into the crack; spreading the crack to let them into the foot tissue), it could worsen.

Nice clean sole.

Nice clean sole. No abscesses or other problems. You can faintly see the cracked toenails here.

Gorgeous white cartilage surfaces of the wrist joints. Nice and healthy-looking. A young animal, in this case.

Gorgeous white cartilage surfaces of the wrist joints. Nice and healthy-looking. A young animal, in this case.

Removing the skin; nice soft whitish connective tissue underneath.

Removing the skin; nice soft whitish connective tissue underneath.

Skinned foot; rear view. The yellowish fat pad is wonderfully visible through the connective tissue sheath.

Skinned foot; rear view. The yellowish fat pad is wonderfully visible through the connective tissue sheath.

Skinned foot; front view. The thin, broad extensor tendons that would draw the fingers forward in life are visible here as longitudinal lines along the foot's surface, running to the toes.

Skinned foot; front view. The thin, broad extensor tendons that would draw the fingers forward in life are visible here as longitudinal lines along the foot’s surface, running to the toes.

Ahh, my favourite thing! I've cut around the prepollex and am pointing at it. It's almost impossible otherwise to see through all the fatty tissue of the fat pad that surrounds it.

Ahh, my favourite thing! I’ve cut around the prepollex and am pointing at it. It’s almost impossible otherwise to see through all the fatty tissue of the fat pad that surrounds it.

Removing the prepollex. It's tiny and enmeshed in connective tissue; harder to see than in the first elephant (photos above).

Removing the prepollex. It’s tiny and enmeshed in connective tissue; harder to see than in the first elephant (photos above).

There is the prepollex! Maybe 12cm long. A little bit of cartilage (white) visible where it connected to the foot. These "sesamoid bones" vary tremendously in elephants I've inspected. I am still getting my head around that, after >10 years of staring at them in >75 feet!

There is the prepollex! Maybe 12cm long. A little bit of cartilage (white) visible where it connected to the foot. These “sesamoid bones” vary tremendously in elephants I’ve inspected. I am still getting my head around that, after >10 years of staring at them in >75 feet!

Gap left by removal of the prepollex, on the median border of the foot; thumb region. Imagine having a little extra thumb growing off the base of your thumb and sticking toward your palm. That's what elephants have.

Gap left by removal of the prepollex, on the median border of the foot; thumb region. Imagine having a little extra thumb growing off the base of your thumb and sticking toward your palm. That’s what elephants have.

Here, removing the slipper/sole of the foot, from the back side forwards. Hard work!

Here, removing the slipper/sole of the foot, from the back side forwards. Hard work!

The slipper. Compare with the image above (same orientation). Nothing wrong here that I could see.

The slipper. Compare with the image above (same orientation). Nothing wrong here that I could see.

Front view of the toes, where they connect to the toenails. This specimen was so fresh that they were surprisingly easy to cut through and remove the foot from the sole.

Front view of the toes, where they connect to the toenails. This specimen was so fresh that they were surprisingly easy to cut through and remove the foot from the sole.

Looking up at the palm. You can see the bulbous fat pad (yellower tissue) bulging out in the centre of the palm, and segments of it extending between each finger, separated by fibrous tracts. I love this anatomy. I can stare at it for hours and still be fascinated after all these years. So complex!

Looking up at the palm. You can see the bulbous fat pad (yellower tissue) bulging out in the centre of the palm, and segments of it extending between each finger, separated by fibrous tracts. I love this anatomy. I can stare at it for hours and still be fascinated after all these years. So complex!

Looking down onto the inside of the toenails, toes 3 and 4. Healthy, relatively intact tissue; no swelling or bleeding or other pathology.

Looking down onto the inside of the toenails, toes 3 and 4. Healthy, relatively intact tissue; no swelling or bleeding or other pathology.

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view again, as above.

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view again, as above.

Fat pad removed, looking up through where it was at the palm of the "hands", where the tendons and ligaments connect to the five toes. Each arc-like structure is a toe; the "thumb" (first toe) is on the upper left.

Fat pad removed, looking up through where it was at the palm of the “hands”, where the tendons and ligaments connect to the five toes. Each arc-like structure is a toe; the “thumb” (first toe) is on the upper left.

Elephant's-eye-view looking down onto the fat pad, where the palm of the foot in the image below would be placed in life.

Elephant’s-eye-view looking down onto the fat pad, where the palm of the foot in the image below would be placed in life (i.e. the limb would be coming down vertically, perpendicular to the plane of the image). The fat pad of the foot is visibly thicker toward the back of the foot (bottom of the image), as you’d expect, because the toes occupy most of the front parts.

Palmar tendons and muscles; the common digital extensor muscle group. Clenches the toes. Not a small muscle, either!

Palmar tendons and muscles; the common digital extensor muscle group, which clenches the toes. Not a small muscle, either!

Tendons of the digital flexor muscle exposed.

Tendons of the digital flexor muscle exposed.

Removed the digital flexor muscle so the three major tendons can be seen (the two short side branches to the first and fifth toes have been cut off).

I removed the digital flexor muscle so the three major tendons can be seen (the two short side branches to the first and fifth toes have been cut off).

Forefoot with flexor tendons removed, revealing the channels that they coursed through.

Forefoot with flexor tendons removed, revealing the channels that they coursed through.

Closeup of the glistening channels for the flexor tendons. They are lined with lubricative tissue to help the tendons glide through them. And the tendons do need to be able to glide- although elephant feet look very solid from the outside, and are to an extent, but we've done studies showing that they do move if you apply even a moderate load to them in a cadaver, and thus would move in life, too.

Closeup of the glistening channels for the flexor tendons. They are lined with lubricative tissue to help the tendons glide through them. And the tendons do need to be able to glide- although elephant feet look very solid from the outside, and are to an extent, but we’ve done studies showing that they do move if you apply even a moderate load to them in a cadaver, and thus would move in life, too.

Let’s finish off with some osteology, shall we? First the unhealthy Asian elephant, then the healthy African elephant; same front right feet, just the bones (from my CT scans):

Ouch, indeed!

Much better. And that’s the end!

Wow, that was an elephantine post! I wanted to take yet another opportunity to share the amazing anatomy of elephant feet with you. You’re all now qualified experts if you made it this far!

Any questions?

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This is the mammoth image I remember, from a 1971 book, with no artist credited. It's actually not as good as I remember, by modern standards at least.

This is the mammoth image I remember, from a 1971 book, with no artist credited. It’s actually not as good as I remember, by modern standards at least.

Mammoths and I go way back, not quite to the Ice Age but at least to the late 1970s with my family’s visits to the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, and Milwaukee Public Museum, to name two prominent places that inspired me. And one of my favourite science books had a colourful mammoth painting on the cover (above), an image that has stayed with me as awesomely evocative.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10. But there’s a butt below, but that’s too late for you now. And there’s poo and other scatological (attempts at) humour. Otherwise, bones and a baby mammothsicle.

Fast forward to the 2000’s and I’m studying mammoths, along with their other kin amongst the Proboscidea (elephants and relatives). I even bumped into a frozen mammoth in Sapporo, Japan, nine years ago–

Yep. That's what it looks like. Nope, not the front end. That orifice is not the mouth. This is the XXXXX mammoth.

Yep. That’s what it looks like. Nope, not the front end. That dark orifice is not the mouth. This is a mammoth that was found on Bolshoi Lyakhovsky island, in the east Siberian arctic (New Siberian Islands archipelago), in 2003. Just think of finding this and being all excited then realizing, “Jackpot! Wait… Oh man, I just found the ass. I’ve discovered a mammoth bunghole, dammit.” Still, it’s pretty damn amazing, as frozen Ice Age buttocks go. I’d love to find one. I would not be bummed.

found on Bolshoi Lyakhovskiy island in 2003

What I know now that I didn’t realize as a kid, is that a mammoth is an elephant in all but name. Mammoths are more closely related to Asian elephants than either is to African elephants, and all of these elephants are members of the group Elephantidae. If we saw a smallish Columbian mammoth, we’d probably mostly look upon it as similar to a slightly hairy Asian elephant (but a scientist would be able to spot the distinctive traits that each has). Only woolly mammoths adopted the uber-hirsute state that we tend to think of as a “mammoth” trait. Think about it: a big animal would benefit most from a thick hairy insulation in an extremely cold habitat, and Columbian mammoths ranged further south than Woolly ones. No mammoths were radically different from living elephants, unless you count the dwarf ones. But as a kid, like most people do, I saw them as something else: an exotic monster of the past, eerily unlike anything today, and bigger too. And mammoths have the added mystique of the extinct.

Now I see mammoths as neither exotic nor that far in the past. Giant ground sloths, now those are still alien and exotic to me. I don’t get them. I know elephants pretty well, and I can understand mammoths in their light and in light of mammoth fossils. Various mammoth species persisted as late as maybe 10,000 (for the Woolly and Columbian species; the latter seeming to vanish earlier) to <4000 (for isolated Siberian forms) years ago, into quasi-historic times. And only some mammoths got larger than African elephants (Loxodonta) do, such as Columbian mammoths (~10,000 kg or more maximal body mass; Loxodonta is closer to 7-10 tonnes at best).

Lately, coincidence has brought me new knowledge of – and even greater interest in – mammoths.

First, a fortunate last-minute visit to Waco, Texas’s “Mammoth Site” (see my Flickr photo tour here) two weeks ago during a short visit to give a talk in that fine central Texan city.

Second, the subject of today’s post: the Natural History Museum’s new special exhibit “Mammoths: Ice Age Giants“, which is open until 7 September. The exhibit was created by the Field Museum in Chicago, but the NHM has given it a special upgrade under the expert guidance of mammoth guru Prof. Adrian Lister of the NHM, who was very kind to give me a tour of the exhibit.

What follows is primarily a photo-blog post and review of the exhibit, but with some thoughts and facts and anecdotes woven through it. Dark setting, glass cases, caffeination, crowds, and mobile phone camera rather than nice SLR in hand means that the quality isn’t great in my images– but all the more reason to go see the exhibit yourself! All images can be clicked to em-mammoth them.

On entry, one views a mammoth skeleton with a timelapse video backdrop that shows how the landscape (somewhere in USA) has changed since ~10,000 BCE.

On entry, one views a mammoth skeleton with a timelapse video backdrop that shows how the landscape (somewhere in USA) has changed since ~10,000 BCE.

The first part of the exhibit does a nice job of introducing key species of Proboscidea (elephants and their closest extinct relatives), with a phylogeny and timescale to put them into context, starting with the earliest forms:

The first part of the exhibit does a nice job of introducing key species of Proboscidea: from early species like Moeritherium...

from species like the tapir-sized Moeritherium

Skull of Moeritherium, reconstructed. Not that different from an early sirenian (seacow) in some ways, and general shape.

Skull of Moeritherium, reconstructed. Not that different from an early sirenian (seacow) in some ways, and general shape, whereas still quite a long way from a modern elephant in form– but the hints of tusks and trunk are already there.

...To the early elephantiform Phiomia, here shown as a small animal but I'm told it actually got quite large. And continuing with giant terrestrial taxa...

…To the early elephantiform Phiomia, here shown as a smallish animal but I’m told it actually got quite large. And continuing with giant terrestrial taxa…

I was awed by this reconstruction of the giant early elephantiform relative Deinotherium, with the short, swollen trunk and downturned tusks-- so bizarre!

I was awed by this reconstruction of the huge early elephantiform-relative Deinotherium, with the short, swollen trunk and downturned tusks– so bizarre!

Looking down onto the roof of the mouth of a NHM specimen of Deinotherium.

Looking down onto the roof of the mouth of an NHM specimen of Deinotherium. Big, sharper-edged, almost rhino-like teeth; far from the single mega-molars of modern elephants.

The lower jaw (top) and fairly straight tusk (bottom) of the widespread, early elephantiform Gomphotherium.

The lower jaw (top) and fairly straight tusk (bottom) of the widespread, early elephantiform Gomphotherium.

The big "shovel-tusker" elephantiform Amebelodon. This was one of the earliest stem elephants I learned of as a kid; the odd tusks still give me a sense of wonder.

The big “shovel-tusked” elephantiform Amebelodon. This was one of the earliest stem elephants I learned of as a kid; the odd tusks still stir wonder in me.

Amebelodon lower jaw, sans shovel tusks.

Amebelodon lower jaw, sans shovel tusks. Extended chin looks like some sort of childrens’ fun-slide. To me, anyway.

Next, there are some fun interactive displays of elephant biomechanics!

How would a mammoth hold up its head? This lever demonstration shows how a nuchal ligament helps.

How would a mammoth hold up its head? This lever demonstration shows how a nuchal ligament helps. Tension on the nuchal ligament is a force that acts with a large lever (represented by the big neural spines on the vertebrae around the shoulders, forming the mammoths’ “hump” there), creating a large moment (i.e. torque; rotational force) that holds the head aloft.

I love this robotic elephant trunk demonstration. It captures some of the weirdness of having a muscular hydrostat attached to your lip.

I love this robotic elephant trunk demonstration. It captures some of the weirdness of having a muscular hydrostat attached to your lip and nostrils. Not so easy for a human to control!

But forget the myths about elephants having 40,000 to 150,000 muscles in their trunk. They have three muscle layers: a circumferential one, an oblique one and a longitudinal one. Like any muscles, especially ones this large, the layers each consist of many muscle fibres. That’s where the 40-150k myth comes from, but muscle fibres (cells) are at a more microscopic level than whole muscles (organs). Elephants do have excellent control of their trunks, but it’s not magical. It’s just different.

Then we come to the centrepiece of the exhibit, the ~42,000 year old Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) baby “Lyuba“, which the NHM added to the original exhibit in this new version, as a star attraction — and a big win. Adrian Lister related to me how he’d never seen Lyuba in person before (access to it was tightly guarded for years). So when the NHM received the crate and held a press event to open it and reveal Lyuba, a journalist asked Adrian to act excited, to which he responded something like, “I don’t need to act! I’m very excited!” I would be, too! Full story on Lyuba’s arrival, by NHM site here. A key paper on Lyuba by Fisher et al. is here.

Studies of tooth growth in Lyuba reveal her gestation period (like living elephants, around 22 months), season of birth (early spring), and age at death (1 month), among other information.

Studies of tooth growth in Lyuba reveal her gestation period (like living elephants, ~22 months), season of birth (early spring), and age at death (~1 month), among other information.

Here we can see the right ear, which was gnawed off along with the tail by dogs of the reindeer herders that found and retrieved Lyuba. Regardless, there's loads of anatomy preserved! A hump of juvenile "brown fat" atop the head, very strange flanges on the trunk (also visible in 1 other frozen mammoth specimen, but here preserved very clearly!), and more visible postcranially...

Here we can see the right ear, which was gnawed off along with the tail by dogs of the reindeer herders that found and retrieved Lyuba in 2006. Regardless, there’s loads of anatomy preserved!

A hump of juvenile “brown fat” sits atop the head and neck of Lyuba. This probably was  metabolized during growth to warm the baby; brown fat is packed with mitochondria and thereby conducts what is called “non-shivering thermogenesis”. Furthermore, Lyuba has very strange flanges on the trunk (also visible in 1 other frozen mammoth specimen, but here preserved very clearly! What were they used for?). More details are visible postcranially…

The body was naturally “freeze-dried”, with the addition of later rounds of soaking in formalin and ethanol, leaving the body dessicated and stiff, permanently stuck in a lifelike pose as seen below:

Whole view from an exhibit panel (you cannot photograph the specimen but these are fair game!). Here we see hair on the right forearm and remnant of the ear, and the labia and nipples showing it is a female mammoth are also preserved. The head-hump is lost during growth, and the shoulder changes to change the Asian elephant-like convex curvature of the back into the characteristic humped-shoulder form of a mammoth. But ontogeny still reveals the evolutionary connection of Elephas and Mammuthus.

Whole view from an exhibit panel (you cannot photograph the specimen but these are fair game!). Here we see hair on the right forearm and remnant of the ear, and the labia and nipples showing it is a female mammoth are also preserved. The head-hump is lost during growth, and the shoulder changes to change the Asian elephant-like convex curvature of the back into the characteristic humped-shoulder form of a mammoth. But ontogeny still reveals the evolutionary connection of Elephas and Mammuthus.

Lyuba and scientists studying her, which also shows how rigid the carcass is.

Lyuba and scientists studying her, which also shows how rigid the carcass is; one can almost stand it up. Inside the digestive tract, researchers found chewed up plant material that was probably dung eaten by the baby to gain vital bacterial digestive flora, and Lyuba had plenty of body fat and ingested milk, indicating that she did not starve to death. Rather, vivianite in the respiratory tract indicates drowning as the cause of her demise. Perfusion of the body by these vivianites may have helped to preserve the body.

Answering an question the public may be wondering about: is the hype about cloning a mammoth very soon true? Nope. Well addressed, including what to me is the urgent question: would cloning a mammoth be ethical?

Answering a question the public may be wondering about: is the hype about cloning a mammoth very soon true? Nope. Well addressed, including what to me is the urgent question: would cloning a mammoth be ethical?

The fourth part of the exhibit takes on a largely North American focus to first illustrate what mammoths were like biologically, and second to wow the visitor with some huge beasts in full body, full scale glory, as we shall see!

Mammoth hair! These samples and recent molecular studies show that mammoths were not ginger-coloured as we long thought, but rather the ginger color comes as the dark grey-brown-black colour fades postmortem, as a preservational artefact. I didn't know that; cool.

Mammoth hair! These samples and recent molecular studies show that mammoths were not ginger-coloured as we long thought, but rather the ginger color comes as the dark grey-brown-black colour fades postmortem, as a preservational artefact (story here). I didn’t know that; cool.

Mammoth chow!

Mammoth chow! I liked this addition to the exhibit. This brought mammoth ecology closer to home for me.

Mammoth poop!

Mammoth poop!

After the biology explanations, let there be megafauna!

Mammoth skull! A nice one, too.

Mammoth skull! A nice one, too.

Top predators of Ice Age North America: Arctodus (short-faced bear) and Homotherium (sabre-toothed cat).

Top predators of Ice Age North America: Arctodus (short-faced bear– does the short face mean they were happy, unlike a long face? Sorry but they never are shown as very happy, unless it is the joy of whupass) and Homotherium (the other sabre-toothed cat; not the longer-toothed Smilodon).

Skulls of North American megafauna: left to right, top to bottom: horse, short-faced bear, giant sloth, then camel, sabretooth,  rabbit, direwolf (viva Ned Stark!), and pronghorn antelope.

Skulls of North American (mega)fauna: left to right, top to bottom: horse, short-faced bear, giant ground sloth, then camel, sabretooth cat, rabbit, direwolf (viva Ned Stark!), and pronghorn antelope.

Mastodon skeleton!

Mastodon (Mammut americanum) skeleton!

Mammoths seem to have been wiped out by a combination of climate change and habitat fragmentation, combined with what this item symbolizes: human hunting. This beautiful piece is the main part of an atlatl, or javelin-hurling lever. It would give Ice Age hunters the extra power they'd need to penetrate mammoth hide and cause mortal injuries.

Mammoths (and perhaps mastodons, etc.) seem to have been wiped out by a combination of climate change and habitat fragmentation, combined with what this item symbolizes: human hunting. This beautiful piece is the main part of an atlatl, or javelin-hurling lever. It would have given Ice Age hunters the extra power they’d need to penetrate mammoth hide and cause mortal injuries. It is also a great tie-in to my recent post on the British Museum’s odd-animals-in-art.

Finally, the exhibit surveys the kinds of mammoths that existed- there is a huge reconstruction of a Columbian mammoth near the mastodon (above), then smaller kinds and discussions of dwarfism, which is another strength of NHM mammoth research:

Woolly mammoth lower jaw (right) and its likely descendant, the pygmy mammoth of the Californian coastline, Mammuthus exilis.

Woolly mammoth lower jaw (right) and its likely descendant, the pygmy mammoth of the Californian coastline, Mammuthus exilis.

The world's smallest mammoth (left), molar tooth compared with that of its much larger ancestor Palaeoloxodon. The status of Mammuthus creticus as a dwarf mammoth from Crete was cemented by Victoria Herridge and colleagues, including Adrian Lister at the NHM.

The world’s smallest mammoth (left), molar tooth compared with that of its much larger ancestor Palaeoloxodon. The status of Mammuthus creticus as a dwarf mammoth from Crete was cemented by Victoria Herridge and colleagues, including Adrian Lister at the NHM.

Pygmy mammoth reconstruction. Shorter than me. I want one!

Pygmy mammoth reconstruction. Shorter than me. I want one!

In the end, from all that proboscidean diversity we were left with just 2 or 3 species (depending on your species concepts; it's probably worth calling the African forest elephant its own species, Loxodonta cyclotis). The exhibit closes with a consideration of their conservation and fate. Ironically, this elephant skull could not be mounted with its tusks on display, because that would be commercializing ivory usage-- even though the whole point of the exhibit's denouement is to explain why elephants need protection!

In the end, from all that glorious proboscidean diversity we were left with just 2 or 3 species of elephantids today (depending on your species concepts; it’s probably worth calling the African forest elephant its own species, Loxodonta cyclotis). The exhibit closes with a consideration of their conservation and fate. Ironically, this elephant skull could not be mounted with its tusks on display, because that would be commercializing ivory usage– even though the whole point of the exhibit’s denouement is to explain why elephants need protection!

Reactions to the exhibit: the photos tell the tale. It’s undeniably great, in terms of showing off the coolness of mammoths, other proboscideans and Ice Age beasties, to the general public. I felt like the factual content and learning potential was good. It didn’t feel at all like pandering to the lowest common denominator like some other exhibits I’ve seen (cough, Dino Jaws, cough). I loved the reconstructions, which were top quality in my opinion. I could have done with some more real skeletons, yet more realistically the exhibit hall was already large and full of cool stuff. But give me a break: Lyuba. This trumps everything. Going to see a real friggin’ frozen mammoth baby buries the needle of the awesomeness meter on the far right. That’s pretty much all I need to say. The spectacle was a spectacle.

This exhibit shows a lot of work, a lot of thought, and a personalized NHM touch that reflects the actual research (even very recent work!) that NHM staff like Prof. Lister are doing with collaborators around the globe. What more could we want, a herd of cloned mammoth babies frolicking around and tickling guests with their flanged trunks? Don’t hold your breath.

You’ve got just over 2 months to see the exhibit. Don’t come complaining on September 8 “BBBBBbbbut I didn’t know, I didn’t think it would be that cool! I just thought there’d be a guy in a Snuffleupagus suit signing autographs!” You have a duty as a Freezerino to go bask in the frozen glory of these Ice Age critters. There may be an exam at the end.:)

Is the exhibit kid-friendly? More or less. The text is more targeted at teenager-level or so, but the visual impact is powerful without it. I’d warn a sensitive child about the withered baby mammoth body before showing it to them, so they aren’t caught off guard and scarred by the experience. I saw plenty of kids in the exhibit and they all seemed happy. Parents may want to linger longer and absorb all the interesting information, whereas kids may blitz through or goof around, so plan accordingly if you’re inbound with sprogs.

You know what I was eyeing up in the gift shop...

You know what I was eyeing up in the gift shop…

Aside: The frozen mammoths get me wondering- what else does the Siberian (or extreme northern Canadian/Scandinavian) permafrost conceal? There are a lot of awesome Ice Age megafauna I’d cut my left XXXXX off to study quasi-intact… think about how amazing it would be to find a giant ground sloth (not bloody likely), sabretooth cat, or other species. There’s a lot of north up north. A lot of space and ice. A lot could happen. And climate change will make discoveries like this more likely, while the melting (and humanity) lasts…

Wool we ever find the Lyuba of woolly rhinos? It could happen.

Wool we ever find the Lyuba of woolly rhinos (Coelodonta)? Cast of a mummified woolly rhino from the NHM’s entry hall. More of these finds are likely, I’d say.

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A very short post here to plug BBC Radio 4’s excellent second series of “Just So Science”. These are 15 minute stories involving a reading of parts of Rudyard Kipling’s great British/natural history stories, and then examining how the science of today informs us about the real lives of animals, without resorting to just-so stories a la Kipling (co-opted as a term in evolutionary biology, too!). I was featured last year on rhinos.

I’m featured this year on kangaroos (now available online) and elephants (also available online now). I just listened to the kangaroo episode and it was good fun. I’ve studied the biomechanics of kangaroos a bit, in as-yet unpublished work featured here in a BBC News story (video from that work is below), and we’ve done other work on their bone morphology and how it relates to body size that is sure to come out in not too long.

Don’t blink! Or, for your enjoyment, a looping GIF:

kangaroo hop

My freezers feature heavily in one bit, in which you can hear me vent my frustrations about an unlabelled bag and stacks of specimens– where is the wallaby? And what’s that crinkling noise?

Best beloved, it is the sound of science. Just so. Enjoy!

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Welcome back to my two-part British Museum series; I covered crocodiles before. Here, I celebrate the less common creatures depicted in human art, design and culture. And we begin back in Egypt, with a bit of crocodile to provide a nice segue:

With the head and torso of a hippo, the legs of a lion and the tail of a crocodile, the Egyptian goddess Taweret just rocks. More info here- https://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/b/breccia_statue_of_taweret.aspx

With the head and torso of a hippo, the legs of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (not easily visible here), the Egyptian goddess Taweret just rocks. More info here.

Anatomy in art is best when the anatomy is actually used as a substrate for art, as in this later piece from Egypt, and another piece that follows it:

Scapula (shoulder blade) from an ox, from Roman Egypt. Click to embovine for closer examination and explantion.

Scapula (shoulder blade) from an ox, with Roman enscriptions. Click to embovine for closer examination and explanation.

~8000 BC red deer antler headdress from England (click to enstaggen for closer examination and text details).

~8000 BC red deer antler headdress from England (click to enstaggen for closer examination and text details in upper left). Picturing an Ice Age shaman wearing this gives me a sense of awe.

Human anatomy in our artwork, to my mind, reaches its pinnacle in Aztec religious masks like this, which was too cool to omit:

Use of a human skull to make a stunning mask decorated with obsidian, representing Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror and master of creation/destruction; slayer of Quetzalcoatl. Badass dial turned to 11!

Use of a human skull to make a stunning mask decorated with obsidian, representing Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror and master of creation/destruction; slayer of Quetzalcoatl. Badass dial turned to 11! He is also sometimes represented as a jaguar.

Continuing the mask theme, the following masks show off sawfish, sharks and other species from the region:

Awesome diversity of ceremonial fish masks from Africa.

Awesome diversity of ceremonial fish masks from Africa.

Lions find their way into plenty of artwork such as European royal heraldry. Yet the huge depictions of an Assyrian lion hunt in the British Museum are not only anatomically impressive but also evocative of a time long past, when Asian lions ranged far across human territories. In viewers today, however, they may inspire more sympathy for the fleeing lions than awe for the lordly charioteers, horsemen and archers that pursue them.

Assyrian lion hunt Royal Lion Hunt

I finish with some statues and other depictions of animals that are more globally uncommon than lions:

You don't see tapirs much in art but here seems to be one, as a bronze statuette from ~400s AD in China.

You don’t see tapirs much in art but here seems to be one, as a bronze statuette from ~400s AD in China.

Statue of the Indian elephant diety Ganesha from ~750 AD. As the placard explains, Ganesha got his elephant's head when Shiva freaked out and cut off the human one, then promised to make amends by substituting the head of the next animal he saw.

I love Indian artwork for its plethora of proboscideans. Here, a statue of the Indian elephant diety Ganesha from ~750 AD, engaged in a dance. As the placard explains, Ganesha got his elephant’s head when Shiva freaked out and cut off the human one, then promised to make amends by substituting the head of the next animal he saw.

North Chinese (~11-12th century) ceramic plate depicting a funky, vaguely humanoid dancing bear tied to a pole.

More dancing! North Chinese (~11-12th century) ceramic plate depicting a funky, vaguely humanoid dancing bear tied to a pole. The anatomical exaggerations here make the piece more memorable and vaguely demonic, but not so much as the next item.

The dance is over, thanks to ass demons. That’s right, ass demons. Many Burmese were surely frightened or inspired by these terracota warriors from 1400s AD. These warriors represented king Mara’s forces that attempted to disrupt the Buddha’s meditation. As ass demons would tend to do. (I hate it when that happens)

I hope you enjoyed this brisk dance through atypical animals and their anatomy in artwork! Coming next, a look at one of the greatest anatomists ever.

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…a daily picture of anatomy! And today it is four pictures; da-da-dee! ♫

Welcome back again, again to Freezermas! 

Today I’m shimmying down your interwebz with a late delivery. I’ve promised before to show how we clean up our nasty gooey skeletons to preserve them for future research to use. This is the intended final destination of all critters that are tenants of my freezers– the freezer is just a lovely holiday home, but bony heaven is the end result. I’ve accumulated a little museum of the bones of exotic animals I’ve studied, using these cleaned specimens. Here is how I do that preservation– there are four basic steps, and I’ll show them in four photos.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10; first just dry bones, but then some gooey bones and by the end we ratchet it up to bloody organs.

Step 1) We get the deceased animal from various zoos and other EU sources, CT/MRI scan it, and dissect it. That’s what most of this blog focuses on, so I won’t show that. But I will show the end result, and then how I get to that:

ele-rhino-bones

Those are some elephant and rhino bones, some of which you saw on the 2nd day of Freezermas. Elephant bones are super greasy; it’s almost impossible to get rid of that brown grease visible in this photo (upper LH side) without making the bones brittle and over-bleached. The bones of the whiter white rhino on the right show what I’m usually aiming for. How do I get this done? Well, here’s an example for an elephant shank:

Cookin' up elephant shank

I take the elephant shank and make soup.  (above) An Asian elephant’s patella, tibia and fibula were dissected, frozen for many years (queued up for cleaning; much freezer burn occurred on this specimen— it was jerky-fied), and then thawed. I put large specimens in this Rose cooker unit, which is a big ham cooker with a heater unit at the bottom. My baby, a Rapidaire MKV 5-ham unit is shown; oooh, ahhh!

The Rose cooker is filled up with tap water and been set it at around 60-90C. Then I let it cook away! A brothy soup develops, and sometimes it smells rather nice (my favourite aroma is giraffe leg). Sometimes… it’s not so nice. We check it every few hours to top up the water and remove stray tissue, and then change the water every day or so.

An elephant shank like this will take 2-3 days of cooking, longer if only switched on during work hours. The key thing is not to let it cook dry, which happened once with a faulty Rose cooker that did not do its normal auto-shutoff when the water ran low… showing up to work to encounter some fire trucks and unhappy college Health & Safety rep is not a good way to start your day, trust me!

This step is only slightly different for smaller (<30cm) specimens. Rather than the Rose cooker, we use the lovingly named “Croc Crock”, which isn’t visually impressive but you can see it here. As the name indicates, we’ve mainly used it for small crocodiles, and it is a crock pot. (a helpful thing is to add some detergent to the water for these small specimens; then bleaching isn’t so necessary)

Step 2) Then I empty out the water through the bottom spout, do the very nasty job of cleaning out the fat and other tissue that has accumulated (think 20 gallons of goo), hose off the bone, and set it in a ~10% bleach solution for at least a day, or up to a week or so for an elephant bone. Once it’s cleared up, I leave it out to dry (for big elephant bones, copious amounts of grease may be emerging for a few weeks). And then…

Elephant shank bones

Step 3) I varnish the dry bones with a clear varnish, and let them dry. Here is how that elephant shank turned out. Pretty good! Finally, they get to join their friends:

The bone shelves

Step 4) The prepared bones are labelled, given a number/name that I file in a world class comprehensive electronic database (cough, get on that John, cough!), and they become part of my humble mini-museum, shown above. Voila! The chef’s job is finished. Let science be served!

Happy Freezermas! Sing it: “On the fourth day of Freezermas, this blo-og gave to me: one tibiotarsus, two Darwin pictures, three muscle layers, a-a-and four steps of bone cookery!” ♪

Oh it’s Valentine’s day, so, err, have a heart today. Have four, actually!

giraffe heart - 1 white-rhino-heart-Perez Windfall-ele 054

chicken-heart

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Welcome to the first of a series of image galleries with highlights from the RVC‘s Anatomy Museum! Our veterinary school dates back to the 1789 epic dissection of the unbeaten racehorse Eclipse by surgeon Mr Charles Vial de Saint Bels, which led to the college’s founding in 1791 (incidentally, the RVC retains Eclipse’s skeleton to this day, and 80% of living racehorses come from Eclipse’s lineage!).

What, you didn’t know we have an anatomy museum? Well this is another of London’s many hidden museum treasures. It is based at our Camden campus, just a 10min jaunt from King’s Cross or St Pancras stations (or Mornington Crescent tube), in the colourful Camden Town neighborhood. It doesn’t have its own website, yet, and my posts are not intended to play that role, but I want to informally and unofficially celebrate its glory because I think we have a great museum full of wonderful features and people deserve to see them.

For example, when I first interviewed for (what became) my job at the RVC in 2003, one of the first sights at the Camden campus was the original, classic ~Victorian style (dark and gloomy, stained wooden cabinets, room chock full of skeletons) anatomy museum which presented the entrant with a lovely view of this:

Which sadly is my only photo of the skeleton of an Asian elephant that shows it in its original position, crowded next to the skeletons of a white rhino, common hippo, horse and other animals. If you know me and my penchant for giant critters, that was like being shown the Promised Land! Since then, modernity has required us to clear out the dusty Victorian room and rehouse the specimens in more airy, spacious surroundings. Which has worked out pretty well in our case, I think. Here is the elephant now, in the midst of our cafe next to our Anatomy Museum (sadly, the rhino and hippo are mostly now tucked away in storage, and no, there is no rhino horn here for people to steal. Sheesh!):

Much easier to walk around, drink coffee with, etc., and it has gained a second skull (with the skull of a baby also on display nearby). So you might immediately be able to see why I like our museum– any museum with a mounted elephant skeleton rocks, in my opinion. But also, I’m gradually cleaning up my freezer specimens, building a little museum of “my” own that will eventually become an official part of the RVC museum’s collection, so there is a connection to this blog too.

Anyway, here is what a visitor gets as a first impression upon entering our museum:

Namely, a horse who is less famous than Eclipse but still no slouch in his day, Foxhunter the show jumping horse, who won Britain its only gold medal at the Olympics 70 years ago (nice timing)! Then, looking around the museum, you will see:

A cow skeleton to your left, which is no shock at a vet school, but then look more closely, to the right:

A nice tiger skeleton is mounted there, with a pig skeleton atop it, and a hippo skull hanging out nearby (closer view of that in a later post). Through the green doors to the right is our lovely cafe, with the elephant and a few more specimens including a splendid mount of a sitting polar bear (to be shown later). And then, meandering around back to the left through the museum hall you will find:

A nice replica chimp skeleton next to a cast of “Lucy”, the famed Australopithecus early hominin! So there’s some decent evolutionary context in the exhibit, too; not just your standard domestic critters with little broader conceptual unification. But I think some of the museum’s greatest treasures  are the preserved specimens of lovingly dissected animal anatomy demonstrations, such as toward the back of the room:

These were done over past decades, many winning awards for the skill displayed in making them, and it is sad that this skill is becoming more and more rare, with shifts toward less hands-on, more computerized education and training. At least BodyWorlds and Animal Inside Out bucks this trend! It’s fortunate we have museums to show off the skill of preparators and dissectors so the beauty of such specimens can continue to be appreciated. I’ll show some closeups later.

There are plenty of surprises in the RVC’s Anatomy Museum, so if you get a chance and expect to be near our Camden Campus, come take a look sometime. Casual, unheralded visitors are not normally welcome, as the museum is more of an in-house educational resource than a public one. But I am told that scientists could easily get entry to study specimens on prior request, and with plenty of advance notice other members of the general public probably could, too. Mr Andrew Crook (recently awarded an MBE for his efforts using our museum and other facilities to educate local students) is the main contact person but please don’t swamp him with requests. It would be best to contact me first for advice and contact details.

So there’s a little introduction to our Anatomy Museum, and coming posts will show you more of the cool specimens within– stay tuned!

I’ll have our friend the ostrich skull show you the way out–

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