Posts Tagged ‘fossilicious’

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

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

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

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

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

Front view of the ankle/foot of our specimen.

Back view of the ankle/foot of our specimen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early whale Ambulocetus, showing hefty kneecaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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It has been almost three months since my last post here, and things have fallen quiet on our sister blog Anatomy to You, too. I thought it was time for an update, which is mostly a summary of stuff we’ve been doing on my team, but also featuring some interesting images if you stick around. The relative silence here has partly been due to me giving myself some nice holiday time w/family in L.A., then having surgery to fix my right shoulder, then recovering from that and some complications (still underway, but the fact that I am doing this post is itself evidence of recovery).

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10; semi-gruesome x-rays of me and hippo bits at the end, but just bones really.

X-ray of my right shoulder from frontal view, unlabelled

X-ray of my right shoulder from frontal view, unlabelled

Labelled x-ray

Labelled x-ray

So my priorities shifted to those things and to what work priorities most badly needed my limited energy and time. I’ve also felt that, especially since my health has had its two-year rough patch, this blog has been quieter and less interactive than it used to be, but that is the nature of things and maybe part of a broader trend in blogs, too. My creative juices in terms of social media just haven’t been at their ~2011-2014 levels but much is out of my control, and I am hopeful that time will reverse that trend. Enough about all this. I want to talk about science for the rest of this post.

My team, and collaborators as well, have published six recent studies that are very relevant to this blog’s theme- how about we run through them quickly? OK then.

  1. Panagiotopoulou, O., Pataky, T.C., Day, M., Hensman, M.C., Hensman, S., Hutchinson, J.R., Clemente, C.J. 2016. Foot pressure distributions during walking in African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Royal Society Open Science 3: 160203.

Our Australian collaborators got five African elephants together in Limpopo, South Africa and walked them over pressure-measuring mats, mimicking our 2012 study of Asian elephants. While sample sizes were too limited to say much statistically, in qualitatively descriptive terms we didn’t find striking differences between the two species’ foot pressure patterns. I particularly like how the centre of pressure of each foot (i.e. abstracting all regional pressures down to one mean point over time) followed essentially the same pattern in our African and Asian elephants, with a variable heelstrike concentration that then moved forward throughout the step, and finally moved toward the outer (3rd-5th; especially 3rd) toes as the foot pushed off the ground, as below.

African elephant foot COP traces vs. time in red; Asian elephant in orange. Left and right forefeet above; hindfeet below.

African elephant foot COP traces vs. time in red; Asian elephant in orange-yellow. Left and right forefeet above; hindfeet below.

Gradually, this work is moving the field toward better ability to use similar techniques to compare elephant foot mechanics among species, individuals, or over time– especially with the potential of using this method (popular in human clinical gait labs) to monitor foot (and broader musculoskeletal) health in elephants. I am hopeful that a difference can be made, and the basic science we’ve done to date will be a foundation for that.

  1. Panagiotopoulou, O., Rankin, J.W., Gatesy, S.M., Hutchinson, J.R. 2016. A preliminary case study of the effect of shoe-wearing on the biomechanics of a horse’s foot. PeerJ 4: e2164.

Finally, about six years after we collected some very challenging experimental data in our lab, we’ve published our first study on them. It’s a methodological study of one horse, not something one can hang any hats on statistically, but we threw the “kitchen sink” of biomechanics at that horse (harmlessly!) by combining standard in vivo forceplate analysis with “XROMM” (scientific rotoscopy with biplanar fluoroscopy or “x-ray video”) to conduct dynamic analysis of forefoot joint motions and forces (with and without horseshoes on the horse), and then to use these data as input values for finite element analysis (FEA) of estimated skeletal stresses and strains. This method sets the stage for some even more ambitious comparative studies that we’re finishing up now. And it is not in short supply of cool biomechanical, anatomical images so here ya go:


Above: The toe bones (phalanges) of our horse’s forefoot in dorsal (cranial/front) view, from our FEA results, with hot colours showing higher relative stresses- in this case, hinting (but not demonstrating statistically) that wearing horseshoes might increase stresses in some regions on the feet. But more convincingly, showing that we have a scientific workflow set up to do these kinds of biomechanical calculations from experiments to computer models and simulations, which was not trivial.

And a cool XROMM video of our horse’s foot motions:

  1. Bates, K.T., Mannion, P.D., Falkingham, P.L., Brusatte, S.L., Hutchinson, J.R., Otero, A., Sellers, W.I., Sullivan, C., Stevens, K.A., Allen, V. 2016. Temporal and phylogenetic evolution of the sauropod dinosaur body plan. Royal Society Open Science 3: 150636.

I had the good fortune of joining a big international team of sauropod experts to look at how the shapes and sizes of body segments in sauropods evolved and how those influenced the position of the body’s centre of mass, similar to what we did earlier with theropod dinosaurs. My role was minor but I enjoyed the study (despite a rough ride with some early reviews) and the final product is one cool paper in my opinion. Here’s an example:


The (embiggenable-by-clicking) plot shows that early dinosaurs shifted their centre of mass (COM) backwards (maybe related to becoming bipedal?) and then sauropods shifted the COM forwards again (i.e. toward their forelimbs and heads) throughout much of their evolution. This was related to quadrupedalism and giant size as well as to evolving a longer neck; which makes sense (and I’m glad the data broadly supported it). But it is also a reminder that not all sauropods moved in the same ways- the change of COM would have required changes in how they moved. There was also plenty of methodological nuance here to cover all the uncertainties but for that, see the 17 page paper and 86 pages of supplementary material…

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

Back in 2011, Stephanie Pierce, Jenny Clack and I tried some simple linear morphometrics (shape analysis) to see how pinniped (seal, walrus, etc) mammals changed their vertebral morphology with size and regionally across their backbones. Now in this new study, with “Team Cat” assembled, PhD student Marcela Randau collected her own big dataset for felid (cat) backbones and applied some even fancier techniques to see how cat spines change their shape and size. We found that overall the vertebrae tended to get relatively more robust in larger cats, helping to resist gravity and other forces, and that cats with different ecologies across the arboreal-to-terrestrial spectrum also changed their (lumbar) vertebral shape differently. Now Marcela’s work is diving even deeper into these issues; stay tuned…


Example measurements taken on felid vertebrae, from the neck (A-F) to the lumbar region (G-J), using a cheetah skeleton.

  1. Charles, J.P., Cappellari, O., Spence, A.J., Hutchinson, J.R., Wells, D.J. 2016. Musculoskeletal geometry, muscle architecture and functional specialisations of the mouse hindlimb. PLOS One 11(4): e0147669.

RVC PhD student James Charles measured the heck out of some normal mice, dissecting their hindlimb muscle anatomy, and using microCT scans produced some gorgeous images of that anatomy too. In the process, he also quantified how each muscle is differently specialized for the ability to produce large forces, rapid contractions or fine control. Those data were essential for the next study, where we got more computational!


  1. Charles, J.P., Cappellari, O., Spence, A.J., Wells, D.J., Hutchinson, J.R. 2016. Muscle moment arms and sensitivity analysis of a mouse hindlimb musculoskeletal model. Journal of Anatomy 229:514–535.

James wrangled together a lovely musculoskeletal model of our representative mouse subject’s hindlimb in the SIMM software that my team uses for these kinds of biomechanical analyses. As we normally do as a first step, we used the model to estimate things that are hard to measure directly, such as the leverages (moment arms) of each individual muscle and how those change with limb posture (which can produce variable gearing of muscles around joints). James has his PhD viva (defense) next week so good luck James!


The horse and mouse papers are exemplars of what my team now does routinely. For about 15 years now, I’ve been building my team toward doing these kinds of fusion of data from anatomy, experimental biomechanics, musculoskeletal and other models, and simulation (i.e. estimating unmeasurable parameters by telling a model to execute a behaviour with a given set of criteria to try to perform well). Big thanks go to collaborator Jeff Rankin for helping us move that along lately. Our ostrich study from earlier this year shows the best example we’ve done yet with this, but there’s plenty more to come.

I am incredibly excited that, now that my team has the tools and expertise built up to do what I’ve long wanted to do, we can finally deliver the goods on the aspirations I had back when I was a postdoc, and which we have put enormous effort into pushing forward since then. In addition to new analyses of horses and mice and other animals, we’ll be trying to push the envelope more with how well we can apply similar methods to extinct animals, which brings new challenges– and evolutionary questions that get me very, very fired up.

Here we are, then; time has brought some changes to my life and work and it will continue to as we pass this juncture. I suspect I’ll look back on 2016 and see it as transformative, but it hasn’t been an easy year either, to say the least. “Draining” is the word that leaps to mind right now—but also “Focused” applies, because I had to try to be that, and sometimes succeeded. I’ve certainly benefited a lot at work from having some talented staff, students and other collaborators cranking out cool papers with me.

I still have time to do other things, too. Once in a while, a cool critter manifests in The Freezers. Check out a hippo foot from a CT scan! It’s not my best scan ever (noisy data) but it shows the anatomy fairly well, and some odd pathologies such as tiny floating lumps of mineralized soft tissue here and there. Lots to puzzle over.

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Who needs “Ice Road Truckers” when you have the “John’s Freezer” team on the road with fossils, amphibians, felids and 3D phenotype fun? No one, that’s who. We’re rocking the Cheltenham Science Festival for our first time (as a group), and pulling out all the stops by presenting two events! Here’s the skinny on them, with updates as the week proceeds.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10 for now (just bones), but it could change once the cheetah dissection is under way… 8/10 bloody cheetah bits but only at the end (updated)

Right now, Lauren Sumner-Rooney (of “Anatomy To You” and other fame) is on-site with a rotating team of others from our lab, in the “Free Activity Tents” area of the Imperial Gardens/Square, inside a marquee where we’ll be showing off our NERC-funded tetrapod research all week. This “First Steps” event features not only our past and present work with Jenny Clack, Stephanie Pierce, Julia Molnar and others on Ichthyostega & its “fishapod” mates, but also our “scampering salamanders” research in Spain, Germany and England. I’ve blogged a lot about all that, and won’t repeat it here, but you can see a 3D-printed Ichthyostega skeleton, view the skeleton in a virtual reality 3D environment, see related specimens and engage in kid-friendly activities, and talk to our team about this and other related research.

Ichthyostega 3D printed backbone is born!

Ichthyostega 3D printed backbone is born!

The central themes of that event are how bone structure relates to function and how we can use such information, along with experimental measurements and computer models of real salamanders, to reconstruct how extinct animals might have behaved as well as how swimming animals became walking ones. How did fins transform into limbs and what did that mean for how vertebrates made the evolutionary transition onto land? If you know my team’s work, that encapsulates our general approach to many other problems in evolutionary biomechanics (e.g. how did avian bipedalism evolve?). Added benefits are that you too can explore this theme in a hands-on way, and you can talk with us about it in person. That continues all week (i.e. until Saturday evening); I’ll be around from Thursday afternoon onwards, too. Kids of all ages are welcome!

Ichthyostega 3D print taking shape!

Ichthyostega 3D print taking shape!

Then, on Saturday for our second free event we join forces with Ben Garrod (master of primate evolution, the secrets of bones, and “Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur”) and RVC’s forensic pathologist Alexander Stoll as well as Sophie Regnault (“sesamoid street” PhD student w/me). As the “Large Animal Dissection” title hints, it’s not the right kind of gig to bring small kids to. There will be blood and stuff— we’ll be dissecting a cheetah together from 10am-4pm. This will involve walking through all the major organ systems, giving evolutionary anecdotes, and plenty more, with an aim to understand how the magnificent adaptations of cheetahs evolved—but also to investigate what problem(s) this animal faced that led to its sad demise. By the day’s end, there will just be a skeleton left. Get a front row seat early for this event, which serendipitously ties into “Team Cat”’s Leverhulme Trust-funded research project (we wanted a big animal and it just happened to be a cheetah; I had hoped for a giant croc or a shark or something but can’t complain!).

Ichthyostega 3D print is ready!

Ichthyostega 3D print is ready!

If you miss these events, please do cry bitter tears of regret. But don’t despair, there will be another “big cat dissection” in the London area in ~November (watch here for details), and plenty more fossil tetrapod stuff to come, plus a LOT more dinosaurs on the horizon!

Guess the bones! (photo by Zoe Self)

Guess the bones! (photo by Zoe Self)

And please come back to this blog post for more pics and stories as the week carries on… For hashtag afficionados, you can follow the fun on Twitter etc. at #firststepsCSF16. What a world we live in!

Update 1: While you’re here, check out our Youtube playlists of tetrapod-related videos:

Lobe-finned fishes

Ichthyostega‘s awesome anatomy

Tetrapod evolution: Tiktaalik to salamanders!

Update 2: Photos of our main stand (about tetrapod evolution)


Our poster/banner display looks nice.


Our tent brings in some punters.


Our bones excite people young and old, sighted and blind.


Fun with stickers and lab t-shirts.


Update 3: Cheetah meat & greet
Ben, Alex, Sophie and I tackled the cheetah dissection today and it went GREAT! Much better than I’d optimistically expected. Rain didn’t scare the crowds off and neither did the gore, which there was some of (gelatinous spinal cords, lumpy tumors and at least one flying tiny bit of cheetah flesh that landed on a good-natured audience member!). Photos will tell the tale:




Sophie and Alex help us get set up in our tent.


Our initial rough schedule- although we ended up improvising more after lunch.


Dissectors assemble!


The beast revealed. It was skinned by the museum that loaned it to us.


Alex showing his talent: removing the viscera in one piece from end to end, starting with the tongue.


Impressive finding of a surgical fixture (plate and wires) on the tibia, which had been used to hold the shattered bone back together long enough for it to heal. Added to the kidney disease and liver-spleen-lung cancer, this cheetah was in the sorriest shape of any cadaver I’ve seen yet.


Cheetah coming to pieces: (from bottom) lumbar/pelvic region, hindlimb, thorax, forelimb and other bits.


Dr Adam Rutherford, an eye expert, did a nice dissection of the cheetah’s eye, here showing the tapetum lucidum (reflective membrane), which shows up as light blue colour. Its small size befits the not-very-nocturnal habits of cheetahs.


The lens of the cheetah’s eye. Now cloudy because of dehydration and crystalization, but still fascinating to see.

Want to see more images and the enthusiastic responses from the audience (we got some great feedback)? Check out Twitter’s #cheltscifest feed, or more simply my Storify condensation of the cheetah-related tweets here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Well, that was an eventful week for me, although today’s post will focus on one event: the debut of the film Jurassic World. Briefly though, the awesome “T. rex Autopsy” documentary debuted (I was going to post more about it but all I’d have left to say is that I was very pleased with the result), I also showed up briefly in “Top 10 Biggest Beasts Ever” talking about the giant rhinocerotoid Paraceratherium and the stresses on its feet, our paper on ostrich musculoskeletal modelling was published (more in a future post) after ~12 years of me diddling around with it, and much more happened. Then to cap it all off, very shortly after I hit the “publish” button on my last post, I had four tonic clonic seizures in a row and spent a hazy night in the hospital, then the past week recovering from the damage. Nothing like another near-death (no exaggeration there, I’m afraid) experience to cap off an exciting week. But strangely, what I feel more interested in talking about is, like I said, Jurassic World, but this is not a review, as you will see here.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10; just SPOILERS if you haven’t seen the film yet!

I guess I have to give a brief review of the film and say that I was entertained, to a degree, but it was not a great piece of film-making. It was a far cry from the original but then so were the sequels, and maybe it was better than them. The mosa-star was the most novel, memorable bit. I didn’t care for the Indominus villain, but then when you bring genetic engineering into a film like this, you’ve basically thrown out the rulebook and can make your dinosaurs as magical as you want; we’re already in “X-Men” territory here and almost in “Pacific Rim”-land.

Chris Pratt has signed on for at least another sequel to Jurassic World and the ending of the film already started that ball rolling. So I find it fun to speculate wildly, and certainly incorrectly, on what the sequel might do. What does the Jurassic future have in store?

First of all, who survived to re-appear in the next film? We’re left with the Bryce Dallas Howard character, who probably will return with Pratt to further develop their rather uninteresting social/romantic dynamic, rather than start afresh with someone else. The kids of course survived, as always, and as always they won’t return, as that’s not interesting and they didn’t have much to do except scream and (highly implausibly) hotwire an old car. Much as I’d like the parents from my hometown of Madison, WI to return, they won’t either for the same reasons. But we really only need Pratt and his high-heeled sweetie for the next film. Everyone else memorable(?) seems to have died, although it would be wonderful to bring Goldblum back for some smarmy wit (please!).

Second of all, the next film can’t be set in Jurassic World. There’s not much left to do there (JW already spent much of its time hearkening back to JP), and there’s no way the park would re-open. We need something new. I think by now we’re (very) tired of characters running around islands full of dinosaurs and the Blackfish parallel was milked dry in the latest movie. We need to spend a film with the dinosaurs amongst humanity (as Lost World briefly did), and much as I’d love to see the crazy drug lord/kidnapping plot happen, it won’t. But JW did set one thing up that has to happen now in its sequel: the paramilitary role of engineered, trained dinosaurs. We now know they can sort of train their dinosaurs and they can forge them to be anything they want to in terms of geno/phenotypes. They’ll learn from some mistakes of JW and engineer (or already did by the end of JW, at some remote site) some more compliant, deadlier animals, having largely given up on the public exhibition angle. The naked raptors and T. rex probably have to re-appear (sigh), but enough already of the giant uber-theropods like Spinosaurus and Indominus. The latter was already enough of a reprise of the former (plus psychic talents and chameleon powers etc.). Something truly novel is needed.

Unless they engineer a hyper-aggressive, intelligent sauropod or ceratopsian, which would admittedly be neat, I have this prediction (which is probably wrong but hey!): they have shown they can hybridize anything. There must be fewer and fewer “normal” (1990s…) dinosaurs now in the JW universe. So the next big step, which someone in the JW universe surely would do, is to hybridize dinosaurs and humans. Maybe some raptor-human hybrids, maybe also saving a tyranno-human hybrid for a surprise late appearance. But this is the sensible next step because it allows them to play with the (tired) Frankenstein monster trope but also touch on the hot topic of human cloning and human GM.

Abandoned concept art from JP4; from here

Abandoned concept art from JP4; from here

And by unleashing dino-human hybrids, or at least some freaky clicker-trained and engineered super-dinos, they could also explore the military theme, which the JW universe still hasn’t delved into much. What if those hyper-smart, deadly hybrid dinos, led by Pratt and Howard’s expert training, were used to combat an ISIS-analogue terrorist threat? Dino-Avengers in the badlands of Afghanistan or Iraq? Too predictable perhaps, but that’s a film that the public will want to see. Yeah there’s plenty of stupid there, but there’s no turning back– each film ups the ante, as JW ironically reminds us several times. We’re already in firmly in stupid-land, and the science has largely advanced to the point of magic. My idea is too uncomfortably close to the abandoned John Sayles plot, true. Darn. And (groan) kids have to be involved in some way to make it a family film so it rakes in the $$$ again, so either they get caught in the middle of the paramilitary mess or they are the ones that have to be saved… or the hybrid dinos are cute-ish kids themselves that Pratt and Howard must manage… (shades of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Kick-Ass?) I’ve found that more fun to think about than dwelling on the flaws of the movie, which is frankly too easy.

(Another good theme that Vivian Allen suggested to me would be climate change and invasive species—i.e. planet warms, dinos are already loose and go feral in waterlogged Central America, ecological disaster is looming and something must be done to round up the dinos… could work in some other bits like ecotourists or drug runners?)

That’s as far as my wildly speculative ruminating has taken me, but I wanted to turn it over to you, Freezerinos. If you were to make the next film (will it be “Jurassic World 2”? “Jurassic Army”? or as I’ve proffered in the post’s title, “Jurassic Future”?), what would it be (A) in your ideal world where you call all the shots (yes, lots of colourful feathery dinos, I know), vs. (B) in a more likely (less daring, more Hollywood) reality, along the lines of what I’ve tried to do here? (but I surely will be wrong, although we’ll see in 2-5 years!)


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[This is the original, unedited text of my shorter, tighter (and I think actually better) News & Views piece for Nature, on the paper described below)

Ambitious experimental and morphological studies of a modern fish show how a flexible phenotype may have helped early “fishapods” to make the long transition from finned aquatic animals into tetrapods able to walk on land.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10. Cute fish. Good science. Happy stomachs!

Photo by Antoine Morin, showing Polypterus on land.

Photo by Antoine Morin, showing Polypterus on land.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s military excursions into Egypt in 1798-1799 led a young French naturalist, Ètienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, to cross paths with a strange fish that had paired lungs and could “walk” across land on its stubby, lobelike fins. In 1802, he dubbed this fish “Polyptère bichir”1, today known as the Nile bichir, Polypterus bichir La Cepède 1803. The bichir’s mélange of primitive and advanced traits helped to catapult Geoffroy into scholarly conflict with the reigning naturalist Georges Cuvier back in France and to establish Ètienne as a leading anatomist, embryologist and early evolutionary researcher of repute even today2. Now, on their own excursion under the very “evo-devo” flag that the discoverer of Polypterus helped raise, Canadian scientists Standen et al.3 suggest how the remarkable plasticity of the skeleton of Polypterus (the smaller west African relative of P. bichir, P. senegalus or “Cuvier’s bichir”) reveals a key part of the mechanism that might have facilitated the gradual transition from water to land and thus from “fishapods” to tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrates).

In a bold experiment, the authors raised 149 young bichirs on land and in water for eight months, then studied how they moved on land vs. in water, and also how the ultimate shape of the skeletal elements of the paired front fin bases differed between the land- and water-raised bichirs. Standen et al.3 discovered that both the form and function of the fins’ foundations transformed to better satisfy the constraints of moving on land. Land-acclimated bichirs took faster steps on land, their fins slipped across the substrate less, they held their fins closer to their body, their noses stayed more aloft and their tails undulated less, with less variable motions overall—behaviours that the authors had predicted should appear to enhance walking abilities on land. In turn, the bones of the neck and shoulder region altered their shape to produce a more mobile fin base with greater independence of fin from neck motion, along with improved bracing of the ventral “collarbone” region. These environmentally-induced traits should have fostered the locomotor changes observed in “terrestrialized” fish and aided the animals in resisting gravity, and they represent a common biological phenomenon termed developmental plasticity4,5. Interestingly, the land-reared fish could still swim about as well as the wholly aquatic cohort, so there was not a clear trade-off between being a good swimmer and a good walker, which is surprising.

Considered alone, the developmental plasticity of bichir form and function shows how impressive these amphibious fish are. But Standen et al.’s study3  ventured further, to apply the lessons learned from bichir ontogeny to a phylogenetic context and macroevolutionary question. The phenotypic plasticity during bichir development, they infer, could have been harnessed during the evolutionary transformation of fins for swimming into limbs for walking, in the “fishapod” ancestors of tetrapods. Indeed, bichirs are close to the base of the family tree of fishes6, and other living relatives of tetrapods have reduced or lost their fins (lungfishes) or adapted to strange deep-sea swimming lifestyles, never walking on land (coelacanths). Thus perhaps bichirs and the “fishapod” lineage share what Geoffroy would have called “unity of type”, today termed homology, of their developmental plasticity in response to a land environment. Surveying the fossil record of early “fishapods” and tetrapods, Standen et al.3 found that the macroevolutionary changes of neck and shoulder anatomy in these gradually more land-adapted animals parallel those they observed in terrestrialized Polypterus, providing ancillary support for their hypothesis.

A further test of the application of Polypterus’s plasticity to fossil tetrapods is naturally difficult. However, the “fishapod” lineage has some exceptional examples of fossil preservation. With sufficient sample sizes (e.g. fossil beds that reveal growth series, such as the Late Devonian Miguasha site in Canada7) and palaeoenvironmental gradients in fish or tetrapods, one could imagine performing a rigorous indirect test. Even small samples could be helpful– for example, the early tetrapod Ichthyostega exhibits some developmental changes in its forelimb suggesting that it became more terrestrial as it grew, whereas the related Acanthostega does not evidence such changes8— this hints at some developmental plasticity in the former animal.

During the Devonian period (~360-420 million years ago), were the “fishapod” ancestors of tetrapods floundering about on land now and then, gradually shifting from anatomy and behaviours that were more developmentally plastic (as in bichirs) to ones that were more canalized into the terrestrialized forms and functions that more land-adapted tetrapods retained? An attractive possibility is that the developmental plasticity could have led to fixation (reduction of plasticity), an evolutionary phenomenon called genetic assimilation, which another intellectual descendant of Geoffroy, Conrad Hal Waddington, promoted from the 1950s onwards9, a concept that now enjoys numerous cases of empirical support10 that this one may eventually join.

The nature of the genetic and developmental mechanism that bichirs use to achieve the observed developmental plasticity is still unclear. If it has a high enough degree of heritability, then it could be selected for in cross-generational experiments with bichirs. With sufficient time and luck raising these unusual fish, the hypothesis that their plastic response to a terrestrial environment can become genetically assimilated could be directly tested. This study could thus become an epic exemplar of how genetic assimilation can contribute not only to microevolutionary change but also to major macroevolutionary events, as was presciently suggested in a seminal review of developmental plasticity4.

This genetic assimilation is the Polypterus study’s reasonable speculation, and one that Geoffroy likely would have applauded, all the more for involving his beloved bichirs. Much as Napoleon’s landfall in Egypt was not a lasting success, bichirs never left wholly terrestrial descendants despite their malleable locomotor system. But the same type of plastic developmental mechanism that bichirs use today to make tentative, floppy incursions of the terrestrial realm might have been harnessed by our own “fishapod” forebears, leaving a far more revolutionary dynasty upon the Earth.



  1.  Geoffroy, E. (1802). Histoire naturelle et description anatomique d’un nouveau genre de poisson du Nil, nommé polyptère. Annales du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle 1:57-68.
  2. Le Guyader, H., & Grene, M. (2004) Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: A Visionary Naturalist. Univ. Chicago Press.
  3. Standen, E. M., Du, T. Y., & Larsson, H. C. E. (2014). Developmental plasticity and the origin of tetrapods. Nature, published online.
  4. West-Eberhard, M. J. (1989). Phenotypic plasticity and the origins of diversity. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 20:249-278.
  5. Pigliucci, M., Murren, C. J., & Schlichting, C. D. (2006). Phenotypic plasticity and evolution by genetic assimilation. Journal of Experimental Biology 209(12):2362-2367.
  6. Near, T. J., Dornburg, A., Tokita, M., Suzuki, D., Brandley, M. C., & Friedman, M. (2014). Boom and bust: ancient and recent diversification in bichirs (Polypteridae: Actinopterygii), a relictual lineage of ray‐finned fishes. Evolution 68:1014-1026.
  7. Cloutier, R. (2013). Great Canadian Lagerstätten 4. The Devonian Miguasha Biota (Québec): UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Time Capsule in the Early History of Vertebrates.Geoscience Canada40:149-163.
  8. Callier, V., Clack, J. A., & Ahlberg, P. E. (2009). Contrasting developmental trajectories in the earliest known tetrapod forelimbs.Science324:364-367.
  9. Waddington, C. H. (1953). Genetic assimilation of an acquired character. Evolution 7:118-126.
  10. Crispo, E. (2007). The Baldwin effect and genetic assimilation: revisiting two mechanisms of evolutionary change mediated by phenotypic plasticity. Evolution 61:2469-2479.

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