Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

A personal story here for Darwin Day 2018. I knew about as much about Charles Robert Darwin as any typical science-interested student when I was growing up. But eventually I had the good fortune of taking a history of science class at the University of Wisconsin as an undergrad, and it inspired me with the story of Darwin as a human being, not just some clever scientist with a long argument that changed the world.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 unless you have Darwin’s gut-wrenching problems.

I devoured Desmond & Moore’s amazing biography of Darwin “the tormented evolutionist”, which was the transformative event for me. At the time I was experiencing the beginnings of some health problems that didn’t seem that far from problems Darwin suffered for much of his life, and then, as I read more about his life, I saw more features of this man that brought him vividly to life. I still think about those traits and how some parallel my life in certain ways (not that I am in any way a giant of science like him!!). And so this blog post was born, thusly:

I’m writing this post early on Darwin Day and entirely from memory, rather than doing my usual research into the post while I go; to keep the post more personal and less academic (e.g. just quick Wikipedia links below). I feel connected to Darwin’s life experience because, like him, I wandered about as a student, unsure about my direction in life and causing my parents some consternation early on. He tried medical school (Edinburgh; too bloody) and theology (Cambridge; faith just was not his thing) but found hunting for beetles on the heaths more exciting. In high school I played with ideas such as Hollywood screen-writing (too risky), radio DJ (I had no skills) and truant or criminal (I hung out with some shady characters even though I still had some morals; despite transgressions and convictions).

I then took a standardized “what is your best career fit?” test in biology class which conclusively told me that biology was best for me as a career; and that rang true. I’d always loved nature and so that was the idea I had when I went to undergrad. I signed up for the wrong college (Agriculture & Life Sciences, not Letters & Science; confusing divisions!) at the UW. I got some early research experience in that first college: I tried my hand at raising colonies of Indian mealmoths (Plodia interpunctella; I can still identify them!) and their parasitoid wasps. At that same agricultural lab I got to do my own experiments in a basement wind tunnel over my summer holiday, in which I released those pesky moths to fly down the tunnel toward various kinds of pheromone-based lures, finding that one kind seemed to work best. But I didn’t like that and frankly found agricultural science boring, for me. We didn’t connect, nor did some other lab experiences I had. But I grew from them and still value them (and respect the science and people involved) very much.

I took Evolution and also Functional Morphology courses, didn’t do great (I was young for the classes), and then finally took that history class—boom! Aha, scientists can be human! Not just hypothesis-robots! Darwin was a man of great privilege, having his estate and wealth handed down from his funky grandpa Erasmus and stern father Robert. But, in addition to his meanderings that eventually forced him (via his father’s impatient urgings) to become the Beagle’s naturalist for a five year voyage, he suffered in quite human ways throughout much of his life. The greater trials commenced during that voyage, with still-mysterious health problems and the fractious relationship with eccentric Captain Fitzroy. They continued with his marriage to cousin Emma Wedgwood (yes, of that pottery-famed lineage) in which they lost four of ten children at young ages (most critically, beloved Annie at 10 years old) and in which they struggled with Darwin’s diminishing faith and Emma’s stalwart beliefs.

Finally, Darwin struggled famously with his “big book” for >20 years, afraid of its impact and its reception, and of its need to have a watertight, evidence-based argument from many perspectives, with his hand forced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s converging ideas. Along the way, with his health and family problems, he had to contend with his mentors’ and peers’ reactions to his ideas—although one could call the acceptance of much of his main arguments to be a “happy ending” (the post-mortem eclipse of Darwinism, and its eventual resurrection + syntheses, aside). These trials that Darwin faced as a human are all relatable, and the more one learns about him the more complex, flawed, emotional and yes, tormented he becomes. He can be both a hero and a tragic figure or a cautionary tale.

When I get the chance, I like to teach students about this human side of Darwin. It is a way into the heart of the science, to show a person’s journey along with the wonder of discovery, and how such a journey is not necessarily a simple or even joyful one. I can feel the many facets of Darwin in my own life—the intensely curious, peripatetic, enthusiastic young man who loved experiencing nature in all its raw forms, the chronically suffering disabled person who sometimes could not enjoy the work or other aspects of life that he treasured, the family man who loved time at home, the explorer who treasured roaming the local heath or far-flung foreign terrain, the meticulous scientist who exhaustively gathered tiny bits of data in isolated studies to slowly build toward grander ideas, and much more.

But Darwin is a different human, too. We live in such different times, when there the world of science is far larger but the world feels far smaller, more interconnected. Naturalists today are not simply landed noblemen who can play with science in their luxurious spare time, nor do they work alone at their pursuits. Anyone can be a scientist, and a career scientist can, if they are fortunate and skilled enough, assemble their own laboratory in which they lead a team to tackle their big questions that captivate them. The individual questions in science tend to be smaller (more incremental and specialized) today, yet can overall (across career(s)) be bigger because we can tackle -and have tackled- some of the bigger ones; Darwin’s big questions being among the giant ideas we are now poised upon.

It’s not all about science, though. Darwin’s story, which I think about so often, reminds me of how we all struggle in our lives and amidst the joy of discovery in everyday life there can be considerable suffering and regret. It is a bittersweet story; an ever-so-human story. And today is a good day to reflect on that, and to celebrate life while we lament what has been lost.


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An epiphysean Sispyhean task today: solve this mystery that has been bothering me for >15 years. It’s about bird knees. Read on.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10- bones and brief words. Nothing to worry about.

Here is an ostrich. I was interviewing undergrads the other day and looked up to see it, then thought something like: “Oh yeah, that little bit of bone really bothers me. I cannot figure it out.” What little bit of bone?

Right leg, side view, ostrich…

This little bit of bone. Zooming in on that ostrich’s knee:

Who am I? (femur above; tibiotarsus below; “PTE” is the crest of bone with the white arrow on it)

The little bit of bone is not talked about much in the scientific literature on bird knees. But we know it’s there and it is part of the composite bone called the tibiotarsus (ancestral tibia, this bit of bone, and the proximal tarsal [ankle] bones on the other end; the astragalus and calcaneum of earlier dinosaurs).

What is it? We call it something like the proximal tibial epiphysis (PTE for short, here). An epiphysis is an end of a bone that fuses up with the shaft during growth, around the time of skeletal maturity; ultimately ending longitudinal (length-wise) growth of that bone. Mammals almost ubiquitously have them. So do lizards and tuataras. And some fossil relatives. Not much else– except birds, in this particular region (the two ends of the tibiotarsus; also in the foot region; the tarsometatarsus; which also has its share of mysteries such as the hypotarsus; I won’t go there today). You can see the PTE in mostly cartilaginous form if you take apart a chicken drumstick.

This PTE, like other well-behaving epiphyses, fuses with the tibiotarsus in mature birds, forming one bone. But the young ostrich’s knee above shows the PTE nicely; and other living birds show more or less the same thing.

It begs for explanations. I’ve talked about it in a few of my papers. But I’ve always punted on what it really means– does it have anything to do with the patella (they appear at similar times in evolution; we know that much, roughly)? Where does it come from, developmentally? (we sort of know that but more work is needed in different species and in high resolution) When did it evolve? What does it tell us? Why is it there in living birds and almost no other extinct birds/other dinosaurs? Does it have anything to do with why birds, during their evolution, seem to gradually increase the fusion of skeletal elements or ossify new ones (tendons, kneecaps, etc)? Why here and not in the femur or several other long bones of birds? How much do these PTEs vary between (or within) bird species?

This is the challenge in the post’s title. I present to you: solve this puzzle. Developmentally, biomechanically, evolutionarily, genetically, whatever– why does this PTE happen? There are hints– e.g. this paper proposes why growth rates of long bones favour the formation of “secondary centres of ossification” like this. But I’m unable to satisfy myself with any solutions I can find. Maybe you can complete The Bird Knee Challenge?

Have a go at it in the Comments below! There are plenty of papers or even a grant or something involved in sorting out this single mystery; one of the many basic mysteries about animal anatomy.

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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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early whale Ambulocetus, showing hefty kneecaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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(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.

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Short post here– I have 4 jobs now opened on my team, 1 short-term one (~4 months or less) and 3 long-term ones (5 years; negotiable down to 2-3 minimum) as follows:

Stomach-Churning Rating: -10/10 Let’s do some SCIENCE!

  1. Research Technician in Vertebrate Anatomical Imaging; until ~1 December 2016 (some flexibility), on our Leverhulme Trust sesamoid bone grant. Lots of flexibility here and on a super fun, established project! Deadline to apply: 11 August (interviews will be 22 August)
  2. Part-time (50%) Research Administrator, on our ERC dinosaur evolution/locomotion grant until 2021. I’m hunting for someone that’s super organized and enthusiastic and not afraid of paperwork (it is EU funding, after all), but there is sure to be some involvement in science communication, too. Deadline to apply: 11 August  (interviews will be 31 August)
  3. Research Technician in Biomechanics; until 2021 as above. This post will not “just” be technical support but hands-on doing science. Some vital experience in biomechanics will be needed as the research will begin very quickly after starting. If the right person applies, we could agree for them to do a part-time PhD or MRes related to the grant research (but that’s not guaranteed in advance). Deadline to apply: 26 August (interviews will be 7/8 September)
  4. Postdoctoral Researcher in Biomechanics; until 2021 as above. This second postdoc on the project will join Dr. Vivian Allen and the rest of my team to push this project forward! I am keenest on finding someone who is good at biomechanical computer simulation, i.e., has already published on work in that general area. But the right person with XROMM (digital biplanar fluoroscopy), other digital imaging and biomechanics experience might fit. Deadline to apply: 23 August (interviews will be 7/8 September)

Update: all jobs have closed for applications.

Update 2: BUT not all the jobs are 5-year contracts. Some may open up again for new people in the future (but not very soon). Stay tuned…

Note that on the bottom of each page linked above, there are Person Specification and Job Description documents that explain more what the jobs are about and what skills we’re looking for in applicants. I strongly encourage any applicants to read these before applying. If those documents don’t describe you reasonably well, it is probably best not to apply, but you can always contact me if you’re not sure.

The project for jobs 2-4 is about testing the “locomotor superiority hypothesis”, an old idea that dinosaurs gained dominance in the Triassic-Jurassic transition because something about their locomotion was better in some way than other archosaurs’. That idea has been dismissed, embraced, ignored and otherwise considered by various studies over the past 40+ years but never really well tested. So in we go, with a lot of biomechanical and anatomical tools and ideas to try to (indirectly) test it! As usual for projects that I do, there is a healthy mix of empirical (e.g. experiments) and theoretical (e.g. models/simulations) research to be done.

Please spread the word if you know of someone right for any of these roles. I am casting a broad net. The next year (and beyond) is going to be a very exciting time on my team, with this big ~£1.9M ERC Horizon 2020 grant starting and lots of modelling, simulation, experiments, imaging and more. Non-EU/EEA/UK people are very welcome to apply– “Brexit” is not expected to affect this project. If you’re not familiar with my team, check out my “mission statement” for what we stand for professionally and as a team. Join us!

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Happy Darwin Day from the frozen tundra sunny but muddy, frosty lands of England! I bring you limb muscles as peace offerings on this auspicious day. Lots of limb muscles. And a new theme for future blog posts to follow up on: starting off my “Better Know A Muscle” (nod to Stephen Colbert; alternative link) series. My BKAM series intends to walk through the evolutionary history of the coolest (skeletal/striated) muscles. Chuck Darwin would not enjoy the inevitable blood in this photo-tour, but hopefully he’d like the evolution. Off we go, in search of better knowledge via an evolutionary perspective!

There is, inarguably, no cooler muscle than M. caudofemoralis longus, or CFL for short. It includes the largest limb muscles of any land animal, and it’s a strange muscle that confused anatomists for many years– was it a muscle of the body (an axial or “extrinsic” limb muscle, directly related to the segmented vertebral column) or of the limbs (an “abaxial” muscle, developing with the other limb muscles from specific regions of the paraxial mesoderm/myotome, not branching off from the axial muscles)? Developmental biologists and anatomists answered that conclusively over the past century: the CFL is a limb muscle, not some muscle that lost its way from the vertebral column and ended up stranded on the hindlimb.

The CFL is also a muscle that we know a fair amount about in terms of its fossil record and function, as you may know if you’re a dinosaur fan, and as I will quickly review later. We know enough about it that we can even dare to speculate if organisms on other planets would have it. Well, sort of…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10. Lots of meaty, bloody, gooey goodness, on and on, for numerous species. This is an anatomy post for those with an appetite for raw morphology.

Let’s start from a strong (and non-gooey) vantage point, to which we shall return. The CFL in crocodiles and most other groups is (and long was) a large muscle extending from much of the front half or so of the tail to the back of the femur (thigh bone), as shown here:

Julia Molnar's fabulous illustration of Alligator's limb muscles, from our 2014 paper in Journal of Anatomy.

Julia Molnar’s fabulous illustration of Alligator‘s limb muscles, from our 2014 paper in Journal of Anatomy. Note the CFL in blue at the bottom right.

As the drawing shows, the CFL has a friend: the CFB. The CFB is a shorter, stumpier version of the CFL restricted to the tail’s base, near the hip. The “B” in its name means “brevis”, or runty. It gets much less respect than its friend the CFL. Pity the poor CFB.

But look closer at the CFL in the drawing above and you’ll see a thin blue tendon extending past the knee to the outer side of the lower leg. This is the famed(?) “tendon of Sutton“, or secondary tendon of the CFL. So the CFL has two insertions, one on the femur and one (indirectly) onto the shank. More about that later.

Together, we can talk about these two muscles (CFL and CFB) as the caudofemoralis (CF) group, and the name is nice because it describes how they run from the tail (“caudo”) to the femur (“femoralis”). Mammal anatomists were late to this party and gave mammal muscles stupidly unhelpful names like “gluteus” or “vastus” or “babalooey”. Thanks.

But enough abstract drawings, even if they rock, and enough nomenclature. Here is the whopping big CFL muscle of a real crocodile:

Huge Nile crocodile, but a relatively small CFL.

Huge Nile crocodile, but a relatively small CFL.

Bigger crocs have smaller legs and muscles.

Bigger crocs have smaller legs and thus smaller leg muscles, relatively speaking. CFL at the top, curving to the left.

The giant Nile croc's CFL muscle removed for measurements.

The giant Nile croc’s CFL muscle removed for measurements. 2.35 kg of muscle! Not shabby for a 278 kg animal.

However, maybe crocodile and other archosaur CFL muscles are not “average” for leggy vertebrates? We can’t tell unless we take an evolutionary tack to the question.

Where did the CFL come from, you may ask? Ahh, that is shrouded in the fin-limb transition‘s mysteries. Living amphibians such as salamanders have at least one CF muscle, so a clear predecessor to the CFL (and maybe CFB) was present before reptiles scampered onto the scene.

But going further back through the CF muscles’ history, into lobe-finned fish, becomes very hard because those fish (today) have so few fin muscles that, in our distant fishy ancestors, would have given rise eventually to the CF and other muscle groups. With many land animals having 30+ hindlimb muscles, and fish having 2-8 or so, there obviously was an increase in the number of muscles as limbs evolved from fins. And because a limb has to do lots of difficult three-dimensional things on land while coping with gravity, more muscles to enable that complex control surely were needed.

OK, so there were CF muscles early in tetrapod history, presumably, anchored on that big, round fleshy tail that they evolved from their thin, finned fishy one — but what happened next? Lizards give us some clues, and their CFL muscles aren’t all that different from crocodiles, so the CFL’s massive size and secondary “tendon of Sutton” seems to be a reptile thing, at least.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, a large varanid lizard's very freshly preserved CFL and other hindlimb muscles.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, a large varanid lizard’s very freshly preserved CFL and other hindlimb muscles.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, zoomed in on the tendons and insertions of the CFL muscle and others.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, zoomed in on the tendons and insertions of the CFL muscle and others. Beautiful anatomy there!

Looking up at the belly of a basilisk lizard and its dissected right leg, with the end of the CFL labelled.

Looking up at the belly of a basilisk lizard and its dissected right leg, with the end of the CFL labelled. It’s not ideally dissected here, but it is present.

An unspecified iguanid(?) lizard, probably a juvenile Iguana iguana, dissected and showing its CFL muscle at its end. The muscle would extemd about halfway down the tail, though.

An unspecified iguanid(?) lizard, probably a juvenile Iguana iguana, dissected to reveal its CFL muscle near its attachment to the femur. The muscle would extend further, about halfway down the tail, though.

Let’s return to crocodiles, for one because they are so flippin’ cool, and for another because they give a segue into archosaurs, especially dinosaurs, and thence birds:

A moderate-sized (45kg) Nile crocodile with its CFL muscle proudly displayed.

A moderate-sized (45kg) Nile crocodile with its CFL muscle proudly displayed. Note the healthy sheath of fat (cut here) around the CFL.

American alligator's CFL dominates the photo. Photo by Vivian Allen.

American alligator’s CFL dominates the photo [by Vivian Allen].

Black caiman, Melanosuchus, showing off its CFL muscle (pink "steak" in the middle of the tail near the leg).

Black caiman, Melanosuchus, showing off its CFL muscle (pink “steak” in the middle of the tail near the leg), underneath all that dark armour and fatty superficial musculature.

A closer look at the black caiman's thigh and CFL muscle.

A closer look at the black caiman’s thigh and CFL muscle.

Like I hinted above, crocodiles (and the anatomy of the CFL they share with lizards and some other tetrapods) open a window into the evolution of unusual tail-to-thigh muscles and locomotor behaviours in tetrapod vertebrates.

Thanks in large part to Steve Gatesy’s groundbreaking work in the 1990s on the CFL muscle, we understand now how it works in living reptiles like crocodiles. It mainly serves to retract the femur (extend the hip joint), drawing the leg backwards. This also helps support the weight of the animal while the foot is on the ground, and power the animal forwards. So we call the CFL a “stance phase muscle”, referring to how it mainly plays a role during ground contact and resisting gravity, rather than swinging the leg forwards (protracting the limb; i.e. as a “swing phase muscle”).

The “tendon of Sutton” probably helps to begin retracting the shank once the thigh has moved forward enough, facilitating the switch from stance to swing phase, but someone really needs to study that question more someday.

And thanks again to that same body of work by Gatesy (and some others too), we also understand how the CFL’s anatomy relates to the underlying anatomy of the skeleton. There is a large space for the CFL to originate from on the bottom of the tail vertebrae, and a honking big crest (the fourth trochanter) on the femur in most reptiles that serves as the major attachment point, from which the thin “tendon of Sutton” extends down past the knee.

Femur bones (left side) from an adult ostrich (Left) and Nile crocodile (Right).

Femur bones (left side; rear view) from an adult ostrich (left) and Nile crocodile (right). Appropriate scale bar is appropriate. The fourth trochanter for the CFL is visible in the crocodile almost midway down the femur. Little is left of it in the ostrich but there is a bumpy little muscle scar in almost the same region as the fourth trochanter, and this is where the same muscle (often called the CFC; but it is basically just a small CFL) attaches.

That relationship of the CFL’s muscular anatomy and the underlying skeleton’s anatomy helps us a lot! Now we can begin to look at extinct relatives of crocodiles; members of the archosaur group that includes dinosaurs (which today we consider to include birds, too), and things get even more interesting! The “tendon of Sutton”, hinted at by a “pendant” part of the fourth trochanter that points down toward the knee, seems to go away multiple times within dinosaurs. Bye bye! Then plenty more happens:

A large duckbill dinosaur's left leg, with a red line drawn in showing roughly where the CFL would be running, to end up at the fourth trochanter. Many Mesozoic dinosaurs have skeletal anatomy that indicates a similar CFL muscle.

A large duckbill dinosaur’s left leg, with a red line drawn in showing roughly where the CFL would be running, to end up at the fourth trochanter. Many Mesozoic dinosaurs have skeletal anatomy that indicates a similar CFL muscle.

We can even go so far as to reconstruct the 3D anatomy of the CFL in a dinosaur such as T. rex ("Sue" specimen here; from Julia Molnar's awesome illustration in our 2011 paper), with a fair degree of confidence.

We can even go so far as to reconstruct the 3D anatomy of the CFL in a dinosaur such as T. rex (“Sue” specimen here; from Julia Molnar’s awesome illustration as part of our 2011 paper), with a fair degree of confidence. >180kg steak, anyone?

As we approach birds along the dinosaur lineage, the tail gets smaller and so does the fourth trochanter and thus so must the CFL muscle, until we’re left with just a little flap of muscle, at best. In concert, the hindlimbs get more crouched, the forelimbs get larger, flight evolves and voila! An explosion of modern bird species!

Ozburt (72)

Left femur of an ostrich in side view (hip is toward the right side) showing many muscles that attach around the knee (on the left), then the thin strap of CF muscle (barely visible; 2nd from the right) clinging near the midshaft of the femur.

Another adult ostrich's CF muscle complex, removed for study.

Another adult ostrich’s CF muscle complex, removed for study. Not enough ostrich myology for you yet? Plenty more in this old post! Or this one! Or this one… hey maybe I need to write less about ostriches? The CF muscle complex looks beefy but it’s no bigger than any other of the main hindlimb muscles, unlike the CFL in a crocodile or lizard, which puts everything else to shame!

STILL not enough ostrich for you yet? Take a tour of the major hindlimb muscles in this video:

And check out the limited mobility of the hip joint/femur here. No need for much femur motion when you’re not using your hip muscles as much to drive you forwards:

But I must move on… to the remainder of avian diversity! In just a few photos… Although the CF muscles are lost in numerous bird species, they tend to hang around and just remain a long, thin, unprepossessing muscle:

Chicken's right leg in side view. CFC (equivalent of CFL) muscle outlined and labelled.

Chicken’s right leg in side view. CFC muscle (equivalent of CFL; the ancestral CFB is confusingly called the CFP in birds, as it entirely resides on the pelvis) outlined and labelled.

A jay (species?) dissected to show some of the major leg muscles, including the CF. Photo by Vivian Allen.

A jay (species? I forget) dissected to show some of the major leg muscles, including the CFL-equivalent muscle; again, smallish. [Photo by Vivian Allen]

Finally, what’s up with mammals‘ tail-to-thigh CF-y muscles? Not much. Again, as in birds: smaller tail and/or femur, smaller CF muscles. Mammals instead depend more on their hamstring and gluteal muscles to support and propel themselves forward.

But many mammals do still have something that is either called the M. caudofemoralis or is likely the same thing, albeit almost always fairly modest in size. This evolutionary reduction of the CF muscle along the mammal (synapsid) lineage hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as that given to the dinosaur/bird lineage’s CFL. Somebody should give it a thoroughly modern phylogenetic what-for! Science the shit outta that caudofemoralis…

Yet, oddly, to give one apparent counter-example, cats (felids) have, probably secondarily, beefed up their CF muscle a bit:

Cats have a pretty large CF muscle in general, and this jaguar is no exception! But mammals still tend to have fairly wimpy tails and thus CF muscles, or they even lose them (e.g. us?).

Cats have a pretty large CF muscle in general, and this jaguar is no exception! But mammals still tend to have fairly wimpy tails and thus CF muscles, or they even lose them (e.g. us?). [photo by Andrew Cuff, I think]

In summary, here’s what happened (click to embeefen):

Better Know A Muscle: The Evolution of M. caudofemoralis (longus)

Better Know A Muscle: the evolution of M. caudofemoralis (longus).

I hope you enjoyed the first BKAM episode!
I am willing to hear requests for future ones… M. pectoralis (major/profundus) is a serious contender.

P.S. It was Freezermas this week! I forgot to mention that. But this post counts as my Freezermas post for 2016; it’s all I can manage. Old Freezermas posts are here.

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