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Posts Tagged ‘life/death’

I awoke on the floor in the aisle of my United Airlines flight to Los Angeles, with three unfamiliar men crouched around me, bearing serious expressions as they looked down on my prone body.

I was next to my seat. My daughter was crying inconsolably in her seat next to mine, and my wife was calling to me with an urgent tone from the next seat over.

Gradually, as my confusion faded and the men let go of me (I’d been cursing them out, in mangled words because I had bitten my tongue), I became aware that I was in intense pain, I could not move much, and my wife’s words became clearer:

I’d had a seizure. And so our relaxing family holiday, which had only just begun, ended. And so my waking nightmare began.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10; lots of Anatomy Fail CT/x-ray images and gruesome descriptions, and a photo of some bruising.

I was helped back into my seat as I regained my senses, I noticed blood on me from my tongue, and I learned that we were 2 hours away from L.A. As I was acting more normal, and we were 5/6 of our journey along, there was no need to prematurely land the flight. I had fallen asleep while watching “22 Jump Street”, about 1.5 hrs in, and that’s when my seizure struck– much like the previous two seizures I’d had. Jonah Hill could be ruled out as a culprit, but going to sleep was an enabling factor. I got some over-the-counter painkillers and sat in a daze as time ticked by, we landed, and paramedics boarded the plane to whisk me off to the hospital with my family.

Two gruelling days and nights in a California hospital later, with my first night spent in a haze of clinical tests, begging for painkillers, yelling in pain every time I moved, and otherwise keeping my hospital roommate awake, the story became clearer: my seizure was so intense that I’d dislocated my right shoulder (unfortunately I’d not had much pain relief when the emergency room staff popped it back into my glenoid), probably dislocated my left shoulder too but then relocated it myself admist my thrashing, and done this (cue Anatomy Fail images):

Left shoulder, with the offending greater tubercle/tuberosity of the humerus showing fracture(s).

Left shoulder, with the offending greater tubercle/tuberosity of the humerus showing fracture(s).

Right shoulder x-ray, showing dislocation of the head of the humerus from the glenoid. Compare with above image- humerus has been shifted down. BUT no fractures, yay!

Right shoulder x-ray, showing dislocation of the head of the humerus from the glenoid. Compare with above image- humerus has been shifted down, the shoulder joint is facing you. BUT no fractures, yay!

CT scan axial slice showing my neck (on left), then scapula with fractured coracoid process ("bad") and displaced, fractured greater tubercle of humerus on right side.

CT scan axial slice showing my spine (on left), then scapula with fractured coracoid process (“Bad”) and displaced, fractured greater tubercle of humerus on right side (“V bad”).

So, that explains most of the pain I was in.

What’s amazing is that the fractures most likely occurred purely via my own uncontrolled muscle contractions. All the karate and weight-training I’d been doing certainly had made me stronger in my rotator cuff muscles, which attach to the greater tubercle of the humerus. And with inhibition of my motoneurons turned off during my seizure, and both agonist and antagonist muscles near-maximally turned on, rapid motions of my shoulders by my spasming muscles would have dislocated my shoulders and then wrenched apart some of the bony attachments of those same muscles. I’m glad I don’t remember this happening.

I had also complained of pain in my neck, so they did a CT scan and x-ray there too:

X-ray: No broken neck. This is good.

X-ray: No broken neck. This is good. Just muscle strain, which soon faded.

The left shoulder injuries created a hematoma, or mass of blood beneath my skin, and soon that surfaced and began draining down my arm (via the lymphatic system under gravity’s pull), creating fascinating patterns:

Bruises migrating; no pain associated with these, just superficial drainage of old blood.

Bruises migrating; no pain associated with these, just superficial drainage of old blood. This is tame, tame, tame compared to what my left ribcage looked like. I’ve spared you that.

But then more fundamentally there was the question of, why a seizure? With no clear warning? As I’ve explained before, I’d had a stroke ~12 yrs ago that caused a similar seizure but with no injuries to my postcranial body. So a series of MRI and CT scans ensued (the radiation I’ve had from the latter is good fodder for a superhero/villain origin tale? Marvel, I’ll await your call), and there was no clear damage or bleeding, and hence no stroke evident. Good news.

There are, however, at least two sizeable calcifications in my brain that are likely to be hardened scar tissue from my stroke. These may or may not have an identifiable affect on me or linkage with the seizure. Brain calcifications can happen for a variety of reasons, sometimes without clear ill effects.

Calcification in ?ventricle? of my cerebrum.

Calcification in parietal lobe of my cerebrum, from axial CT scan slice. But no bleeding (zone of altered density/contrast).

That is the state of the evidence. I’ve since had what semblance of a L.A. family holiday I could manage, benefitting from a touching surge of support from my family, friends and colleagues that has kept me from sinking entirely into despair and has brought quite a few smiles.

The plane flight home was tense. We were in the same seats again and one of the flight attendants recognized us and came to chat, eager to learn what had happened after we left the plane a week ago. He was very nice and the doctors had given me an “OK to fly” letter. But it was an evening flight. I needed to sleep, yet it was clear to me that sleep was no longer the fortress of regenerative sanctity that I was used to it being. Sleep had taken on a certain menace, because it was a state in which I’d now had three seizures. Warily, I drifted off to sleep after having some hearty chuckles at the ending to “22 Jump Street”. And while it was not very restful slumber, it was the friendly kind of slumber that held no convulsive violence within its embrace. We returned home safely.

In a rush, I cancelled my attendance at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference this week, turning over the symposium I’d convened to honour one of my scientific heroes, biomechanist R. McNeill Alexander (who also could not attend due to ill health), to my co-convenors Eric Snively and Andreas Christian (by accounts I heard, all went well). I missed out on a lot of fun and the joy of watching 2 of my PhD students present posters on preliminary results of their research. Thanks to social media and email, however, I’ve been able to catch a lot of the highlights and excitement from that conference in Berlin.That has helped distract me somewhat from other goings-on.

Meanwhile, I’ve been resting, doing a minimal amount of catching up with work, having a lot of meetings with doctors to arrange treatment, and pondering my situation– a lot.

I know this much: I’ve had two violent seizures in a month (the previous one was milder but still bad, and not a story I need to tell here), and so I’m now an epileptic, technically. When and if I’ll have another seizure is totally uncertain, but to boost the odds in my favour I’m on anti-convulsant drugs for a long time now.

In about half of seizure cases, it’s never clear what caused the seizures. What caused my 2002 stroke is somewhat clear, but the mechanism behind that remains a mystery, and my other health problems likewise have a lot of question marks regarding their genesis and mutually causative relationships, if any. The outcome of this new development in my medical history is likely to be: “maybe your brain calcifications and scar tissue helped stimulate your new seizures, but we can’t be sure. The treatment is the same regardless: stay on anti-convulsants for a while, try going off them later, and see if seizures manifest themselves again or not.” Brains are freaking complicated; when they go haywire it can be perplexing why.

As a scientist, I thrill at finding uncertainty in my research topics because that always means there is work left to be done. But in my own life outside of science, stubborn, independent, strong-willed control freak that I can certainly be at times, I am not such a fan of uncertainty. In both cases the goal is to minimize that uncertainty by gathering more information, but in our lives we often encounter unscalable walls of uncertainty that persist because of lack of knowledge regarding a problem that vexes us, especially a medical problem. We then can feel in a helpless state, adrift on the horizon of science, waiting for explorers to push that horizon further and with it advance our treatment or at least our insight into ourselves.

When the subject of that uncertainty is not some detached, objective, unthreatening, exciting research topic but rather ourselves and our own future constitution and mortality, it thus becomes deeply personal and disconcerting. I’m grateful that I don’t have brain cancer or some other clear and present threat to my immediate vitality. Things could be a lot worse; I am here writing this blog after all. I’ll never forget now being in the ambulance and thinking “this may be the end of it all; I might not last much longer”, and choking out a farewell to my wife just in case things took a bad turn. I’m grateful for the amazing things that modern medicine and imaging techniques can do– these have saved my life so many times over, I cannot fathom how to quantify it. And I’m grateful for the people that have helped me through this so far. Fiercely independent as I may be, I can’t face everything alone.

I am reminded of words I read recently by Baruch Spinoza, “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.” To further paraphrase him, we love truth because it is knowledge that enables us to stay alive- without it, we are flying blind and soon will crash. With the freedom it brings, we know the landscape of our own life and where the frontiers of uncertainty lie (“here be dragons”).

here_be_dragons

The past two weeks have been horrendous for me. I’d been feeling healthy and stronger than ever in many ways, and my life as of my birthday a month ago felt pretty damn good. But now everything has come crashing down in disaster, and I have been suffering from the realization, once again, of how vulnerable I am and how little I can control, and the darkness that ushers in as the odds begin to stack up against our future lives. I am acutely aware now of where the “dragons” are.

I am taking one important step forward, though, in wresting life back onto the rails again- this week I undergo surgery to put my left shoulder back together. While that’s scary, to be sliced open and have my rotator cuff and bones carpentered back where they should be, I know I’m in good hands with a top UK shoulder surgeon and methods that are tried-and-true. The risks are small, although the recovery time will be long. There won’t be any hefting of big frozen elephant feet in my research soon, not for me, and so my enjoyable anatomy studies are going to have to change their track for coming months while I regain my strength and rely on others’ help.

(do you know the movie reference?)

(do you know the movie reference? I have a new empathy for Ash.)

Then we’re on to the frightening task of tackling the spasmodic-gorilla-in-the-room with neurologists. We’ll see where that journey leads.

One thing is certain: I’m still me and there’s still a lot of fight left in me, because I have a lot left to fight for, and people and knowledge to aid me in that fight. I can shoulder the burden of uncertainty in my life because I have all that. Off I go…

20 November UPDATE:

I’ve had surgery to put my greater tuberosity back where it belongs. Thanks to a skilled surgeon’s team, some sutures and nickel-titanium staples, I am back closer to my normal morphology and can begin recovering my (currently negligible) shoulder joint’s range of motion via some physiotherapy. Surgery went very well; I was just in hospital for ~30 hours; but the 9 days of recovery since have been brutally hard due to problems switching medications around. Today I got my stitches out and a beautiful x-ray showing plentiful healing; yay!

This is a slightly oblique anterior (front) view of my left shoulder/chest. Fracture callus means healing is working well!  Four surgical staples (bright white thingies on upper RH side of image): forever now a part of my anatomy.

This is a slightly oblique anterior (front) view of my left shoulder/chest. Fracture callus means healing is working well!
Four surgical staples (bright white thingies on upper RH side of image): forever now a part of my anatomy.

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Vulnerability, Strength and Success

I’ve been doing a series of career guidance sessions with my research team, and this past week we talked about how to structure a successful career path as a scientist. As part of that, I gave my thoughts on how to maximize chances of that “success” (traditional definition; getting a decent permanent job as a researcher, and doing a good job at it); without knowingly being a jerk or insincere. This process led me to re-inspect my own career for insights — not that I’ve been on perfect behaviour, but I do routinely reflect on choices I make.

I asked myself, “What does success mean to me?” to see what my answer was today. That led to me writing up this story of my career path, as an example of the twists and turns that can happen in the life of a scientist. I originally intended to share this story just with my team, but then I decided to turn into a full-on blog post, in my ongoing personal quest to open up and share my thoughts and experiences with others. For those who have read my advice to PhD students, there are some commonalities, but plenty of this is new.

Where my last post was partly about publicly exposing vulnerabilities in other scientists, this one is about privately finding one’s own vulnerabilities along with the strengths, and sharing them publicly. The story is about me, but the key points are more about how “success” can evolve in science (N=1 plus anecdotal observations of others).

 

Growing Up in Grad School

As an undergraduate student, I was clueless about my career until I applied to graduate school a second time. The first time I tried applying, I didn’t even know how to really go about it, or what I wanted to do beyond some sort of biology. Yet to my credit I was curious, creative, a swift learner with a great memory for science, and broadly educated in biology and other fields (thanks, parents and past teachers!). I read and watched “Jurassic Park” and lots of Stephen Jay Gould and Darwin or palaeontology books, and I just tried to actively learn all I could, reading compulsively. I even resolved to quit non-science reading for a few years, and stuck to that. I realized that a research career combining evolution and biomechanics was of interest to me, involving vertebrates and maybe fossils.

I got into grad school in 1995 and had a great project to study how dinosaurs moved, but I felt inadequate compared to my peers. So I dedicated myself even harder to reading and learning. I didn’t pass my first orals (qualifying exam; appraisal/defense) but that helped me to refocus even more resolutely on deep learning, especially to fill gaps in my knowledge of biomechanics methods that I’d later use. During this time I also learned website design and HTML code (mid-90s; early WWW!), working with several others on Berkeley’s UCMP website in my free time. I intensively networked with colleagues via email lists (the long-lived Dinosaur listproc) and at a lot of conferences, trying to figure out how science worked and how to go about my project. That was a powerful initial formative period.

It was a gruelling struggle and I’d had serious health problems (a narrow escape from cancer) around the same time, too. I frequently, throughout the 1990’s, doubted if I could make it in the field. I looked around me and could not see how I could become successful in what I wanted to do (marry biomechanics and evolutionary biology in stronger ways). I was so scared, so uncertain of my own work, that I didn’t know what to do—I had a project but had no clue how to really implement it. So two years passed in semi-paralysis, with little concrete science to show for it, and I gave a lot of *bad* internal seminars in Berkeley’s Friday biomechanics group. However, those bad seminars helped me to become a better speaker. I had a terrible fear of public speaking; on top of having little data, this experience was brutal for me. But I used it as practice, bent to the task of bettering myself.

A change in my career trajectory happened as my research slowly took root. I wrote some book chapters for a dinosaur encyclopedia in 1997, a simple paper describing a little dinosaur in 1998, then another paper on taxonomy published in 1999. [For those wanting to find out what any of these papers I mention are, they are on my Publications page, often with pdfs] These papers at least showed I could finish a research task; when I was younger I’d had some bad habits of not finishing work I started.

I visited a lot of museums and hung out with people there, socializing while learning about diverse fossils and their evolutionary anatomy, implementing what I’d learned from my own dissections and literature studies of living animals. This led to a poster (actually two big posters stacked atop each other; plotting the evolution of the reptilian pelvis and muscles) at a palaeontology meeting (SVP). This poster turned a few heads and I suppose convinced some that I knew something about bone and soft tissue anatomy.

Then in 1998, I did a 4-month visiting scholarship at Brown University with Steve Gatesy that had a big impact on my career: Steve helped me consolidate ideas about how anatomy related to function in dinosaurs, and how to interpret data from living animals (I did my first gait experiments, with guineafowl, which went sort of OK), and I loved Brown University’s EEB department environment. For once, I felt like a grown-up, as people started to listen to what I had to say. In retrospect, I was still just a kid in many other ways. I didn’t really achieve a lot of what Steve asked me to do; I was unfocused, but changing steadily.

In 1999, I gave a talk at SVP that was well received, based on that research with Gatesy, and then I gave it again at SICB. I had a few prominent scientists encouraging me to apply for faculty jobs (e.g., Beth Brainerd was very supportive)– this gave me a new charge of excitement and confidence. I finally began to feel like a real expert in my little area of science. That talk became our 2000 “Abductors, adductors…” paper in Paleobiology, which I still love for its integrative nature and broad, bold (but incompletely answered) questions. Yet when a respected professor at Berkeley told me before my University of Chicago faculty job interview “You act like a deer in the headlights too often,” I knew I had a long journey of self-improvement left. And a lot of that improvement just came with time– and plenty of mistakes.

Momentum continued to build for my career in 2000 as I took my anatomical work into more biomechanical directions and passed my orals. I gave an SVP Romer Prize (best student talk) presentation on my new T. rex biomechanical modelling work, and I won! I felt truly appreciated, not just as an expert but as an emerging young leader in my research area. I’ll never forget the standing ovation at the award announcement in Mexico City—seeing people I saw as famous and amazing get up and cheer for me was such a rush! Then I published two lengthy anatomical papers in Zool J Linn Soc in 2001, which still are my most cited works — even more than some of my subsequent Nature papers.

 

Evolution: Postdoc to Faculty

Also in 2001, I was awarded a NSF postdoc at Stanford to do exactly what I’d long wanted to do: build detailed biomechanical models of dinosaurs, using the anatomical work I’d done before. That was it: I saw evidence that I had “made it”. But that took about six years; toward the end of my PhD; to truly feel this way most of the time, and in some ways this feeling led to youthful overconfidence and brashness that I had to later try to shed. I feel fortunate that the rest of my career went more smoothly. I doubt I could have endured another six years of struggling as I did during my PhD. But it wasn’t easy, either. During my postdoc I had to force my brain to think like a mechanical engineer’s and that was a difficult mental struggle.

The year 2002 became a wild ride for me.

First, my T. rex “not a fast runner” paper got published in Nature, and I was thrown into the limelight of the news media for two weeks or so. Luckily I was ready for the onslaught — one of my mentors, Bob Full, warned me, “This will be huge. Prepare!” I handled it well and I learned a lot about science communication in the process.

Shortly after that publication, just before my wedding’s bachelor party, I developed terrible leg blood clots and had to cancel my party—but I recovered in time for the wedding, which was a fantastic event on a California clifftop. I enjoyed a good life and seemed healthy again. I kept working hard, I got my second paper accepted at Nature on bouncy-running elephants, and then…

Then I had a stroke, just before that Nature paper got published.

Everything came crashing to a halt and I had to think about what it all meant—these were gigantic life-and-death questions to face at age 31! Luckily, I recovered without much deficit at all, and I regained my momentum with renewed stubborn dedication and grit, although my recover took many months, and took its toll on my psyche. I’ve told this story before in this post about my brain.

I started seeing therapists to talk about my struggles, which was a mixed blessing: I became more aware of my personality flaws, but also more aware of how many of those flaws wouldn’t change. I’m still not sure if that was a good thing but it taught me a lot of humility, which I still revisit today. I also learned to find humour and wonder in the dark times, which colours even this blog.

In winter of 2003 I went to a biomechanics symposium in Calgary, invited by British colleague Alan Wilson. Later that spring, Alan encouraged me to apply for an RVC faculty job (“you’ll at least get an interview and a free trip to London”), which I said no to (vet school and England move didn’t seem right to me), but later changed my mind after thinking it over.

I got the RVC job offer the day before my actual job talk (luckily colleague David Polly warned me that things like this happened fast in the UK, unlike the months of negotiation in the USA!). I made the move in November 2003 and the rest was hard work, despite plenty of mistakes and lessons learned, that paid off a lot career-wise. If I hadn’t taken that job I’d have been unemployed, and I had postdoc fellowships and faculty job applications that got rejected in 2002-2003, so I was no stranger to rejection. It all could have gone so differently…

But it wasn’t a smooth odyssey either—there were family and financial struggles, and I was thousands of miles away while my mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s and my father swiftly fell victim to cancer, and I never was 100% healthy and strong after my troubles in 2002. Even in the late 2000’s, I felt inadequate and once confided to a colleague something like “I still feel like a postdoc here. I’m a faculty member and I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded.”

Since then, I’ve achieved some security that has at last washed that feeling away. That was a gradual process,  but I think the key moment I realized that “I’ll be OK now”  was in 2010 when I got the call, while on holiday in Wales (at the time touring Caernarfon Castle), informing me that my promotion to full Professor was being approved. It was an anticlimactic moment because that promotion process took 1 year, but it still felt great. It felt like success. I’ll never earn the “best scientist ever” award, so I am content. I don’t feel I have something big left to prove to myself in my career, so I can focus on other things now. It “only” took 15 or so years…

 

Ten Lessons Learned

When I look back on this experience and try to glean general lessons, my thoughts are:

1)     Socializing matters so much for a scientific career. “Networking” isn’t a smarmy or supercilious approach, either; in fact, that insincerity can backfire and really hurt one’s reputation. I made a lot of friends early on — some of my best friends today are scientist colleagues. Many of these have turned into collaborators. Making friends in science is a win-win situation. Interacting with fellow scientists is one of the things I have always enjoyed most about science. Never has it been clearer to me how important the human element of science is. Diplomacy is a skill I never expected to use much in science, but I learned it through a lot of experience, and now I treasure it.

2)     Developing a thicker skin is essential, but being vulnerable helps, too. Acting impervious just makes you seem inhuman and isolates you. Struggling is natural and helped me endure the tough times that came along with the good times, often in sharp transition. Science is freaking hard as a career. Even with all the hard work, nothing is guaranteed. Whether you’re weathering peer review critiques, politics, or health or other “life problems”, you need strength, whether it comes from inside you or from those around you. Embrace that you won’t be perfect but strive to do your best despite that. Regret failures briefly (be real with yourself), learn from them and then move on.

3)     Reading the literature can be extremely valuable. So many of my ideas came from obsessive reading in diverse fields, and tying together diverse ideas or finding overlooked/unsolved questions and new ways to investigate them. I can’t understand why some scientists intentionally don’t try to read the literature (and encourage their students to follow this practice!), even though it is inevitable to fall behind the literature; you will always miss relevant stuff. I think it can only help to try to keep up that scholarly habit, and it is our debt to past scientists as well as our expectation of future ones—otherwise why publish?

4)     I wish I learned even more skills when I was younger. It is so hard to find time and energy now to learn new approaches. This inevitably leads to a researcher becoming steadily less of a master of research methods and data to more of a manager of research. So I am thankful for having the wisdom accumulated via trial and error experiences to keep me relevant and useful to my awesome team. That sharing of wisdom and experience is becoming more and more enjoyable to me now.

5)     Did I “succeed” via hard work or coincidence? Well, both—and more! I wouldn’t have gotten here without the hard work, but I look back and I see a lot of chance events that seemed innocent at the time, but some turned out to be deeply formative. Some decisions I made look good in retrospect, but they could have turned out badly, and I made some bad decisions, too; those are easy to overlook given that the net result has been progress. Nothing came easily, overall. And I had a lot of help from mentors, too; Kevin Padian and Scott Delp in particular. Even today, I would not say that my career is easy, by any stretch. I still can find it very draining, but it’s so fun, too!

6)     Take care of yourself. I’ve learned the hard way that the saying “At least you have your health” is profoundly wise. I try to find plenty of time now to stop, breathe and observe my life, reflecting on the adventures I’ve had so far. The feelings evoked by this are rich and complex.

7)     If I could go back, I’d change a lot of decisions I made. We all would. But I’m glad I’ve lived the life I’ve lived so far. At last, after almost 20 years of a career in science, I feel mostly comfortable in my own skin, more able to act rather than be frozen in the headlights of adversity. I know who I am and what I cannot be, and things I need to work on about myself. In some ways I feel more free than I’ve felt since childhood, because the success (as I’ve defined it in my life) has given me that freedom to try new things and take new risks, and I feel fortunate for that. I think I finally understand the phrase “academic freedom” and why it (and tenure) are so valuable in science today, because I have a good amount of academic freedom. I still try to fight my own limits and push myself to improve my world—the freedom I have allows this.

8)     When I revisit the question of “what does success mean to me?” today I find that the answer is to be able to laugh, half-darkly, at myself—at my faults, my strengths, and the profound and the idiotic experiences of my life. I’ve found ways to both take my life seriously and to laugh at myself adrift in it. To see these crisply and then to embrace the whole as “this is me, I can deal with that” brings me a fresh and satisfying feeling.

9)     Share your struggles —  and successes — with those you trust. It helps. But even just a few years ago, the thought of sharing my career’s story online would have scared me.

10)     As scientists we hope for success in our careers to give us some immortality of sorts. What immortality we win is but echoes of our real lives and selves. So I seek to inject some laughter into those echoes while revelling in the amazing moments that make up almost every day. I think it’s funny that I became a scientist and it worked out OK, and I’m grateful to the many that helped; no scientist succeeds on their own.

A major aspect of a traditional career in science is to test the hypothesis that you can succeed in a career as a scientist, which is a voyage of self-discovery, uncovering personal vulnerabilities and strengths. I feel that I am transitioning into whatever the next part of my science career will be; in part, to play a psychopomp role for others taking that voyage.

That’s my story so far. Thanks for sticking with it until the end. Please share your thoughts below.

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It’s World Penguin Day! Watch your back though… these penguins aren’t as nice as they seem. But they need us to be nice to them!

Hahaha?Whether you watch a classic GIF like the one above, or a kid-friendly TV/film documentary, you might get the impression that penguins lead carefree, or at least silly or slapstick, lives– happy feet and all that. It works for Hollywood: a Charlie Chaplin comedy relief role to play.  And that’s the vision of penguins I grew up with: they were living cartoons to me.

But what’s the reality? Plenty of documentaries, most notably to my mind the recent Attenborough’s “Frozen Earth” episodes or “March of the Penguins” film, have dealt with the darker side to these two-toned, tuxedo-toting antipodeans. And anyone who has experienced penguins in the wild has probably seen those not-so-light facets of penguinity firsthand. On realiizing just how compulsively horny young “hooligan cock” male penguins were, Natural History Museum ornithologist Douglas Russell wrote: ““just the frozen head of the penguin, with self-adhesive white O’s for eye rings, propped upright on wire with a large rock for a body, was sufficient stimulus for males to copulate and deposit sperm on the rock.”

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10; some tears may be shed over cute baby penguins and you might choke if you’re a rhea trying to swallow one, but the anatomy shown is mostly skeletal or dessicated. No penguin juices. Except those just mentioned above.

I’m quick to admit, I didn’t know much about penguins until recently. I couldn’t name many species or say much about their behaviour, anatomy or evolutionary history. When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I was enthused by a now-classic, elegantly simple study (published in 2000) that fellow PhD student Tim Griffin and biomechanist Dr. Rodger Kram conducted on penguin waddling. They found that the waddling gait of penguins isn’t mechanically disadvantageous, as it appears, but rather is a way that they conserve energy while walking. It’s the short legs, instead, that make their gait metabolically expensive, because shorter legs mean that more frequent, costly steps need to be taken, incurring high costs due to rapid firing of leg muscles to support the body. My vicarious enjoyment of Griffin’s & Kram’s research began my scientific introduction to penguins. Fast forward to 2014: I get a crash course in penguinology.

Punta Tombo (4)

Mostly-fledged Magellanic penguin

That’s what this post is about, and how it brought me in touch with The Existentialist Penguin— the haggard, storm-tossed, predator-harried, starved and bullied wanderer of wastelands.

My personal introduction to penguins over the past year has been initiated by a collaboration with PhD student James Proffitt and long-time colleague Dr. Julia Clarke, both at the University of Texas in Austin. They kindly invited me to collaborate on applying modern biomechanics to the surprisingly excellent fossil record of penguins (Sphenisciformes), among other extant water birds. Before diving into it all, I happened to go to Argentina.

Punta Tombo (2)

Penguin tries to keep cool in the shade, opening its mouth to shed heat in the autumn sun.

Just before I travelled to Patagonia on unrelated business (to study sauropodomorph dinosaurs!), I did a little googling and came across Punta Tombo reserve, near the city of Trelew that I was visiting (more about that in a future post!). It’s where some 1+ million Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) gather every southern summer to breed and fledge before making a long ~5 month swim up to Brazil. I asked my host, Dr. Alejandro Otero, if we might take a day off to visit this spot, where guanacos, rheas and other wildlife were also said to be common, and he basically said “Hell yes!” as he’d never been there. My Flickr photostream gives a big set of my favourite photos from that trip, but here are some others below, to show some of my experiences. We rented a car and took a lovely 90-minute drive south across the Patagonian plains, observing wildlife like tinamous (yes! So exciting for me) as we went. You could get within 1.5m of the penguins according to park rules, and the penguins were very permissive of that!

This jaunty chap was staying put in his burrow while people walked by. We came closer and he kept rotating his head around, staring at us. I first took it as cute juvenile behaviour, but on later observations of penguins realized it was a threat- "My beak is sharp! Stay back, bro, or I'll glock ya!"

This jaunty chap was staying put in his burrow while people walked by. We came closer and he kept rotating his head around, staring at us. I first took it as cute juvenile behaviour, but on later observations of penguins realized it was a threat- “My beak is sharp! Stay back, bro, or I’ll glock ya!”

The video below shows a penguin encounter that left me with no doubts that these animals don’t mess around. The smaller penguin escaped, losing its cool burrow and some of its tough hide, too. Indeed, penguins can be remarkable assholes to each other.

With battles like this erupting all around us, where the penguins struggled to find shade in the desert-like inland parts of the park, often hundreds of meters away from the cool ocean, it came as no surprise to find casualties. The juveniles (and some remaining adults; most having left by now while the ~1 year-old juveniles fledge) not only battled, but also fasted, and roasted in the heat as they shed their insulatory fluff for waterproofed streamlining. This poor little flat Spheniscus had been trodden a bit past streamlined:Punta Tombo (3)

Near the end of our visit, just after I saw an informative sign about the lesser rhea or “choique” (Pterocnemia/Rhea pennata), we managed to get very close to a rhea and follow it for a while, as penguins stood around in apparent disinterest. I’ll never forget that meeting: two flightless birds, yet adapted to such different lifestyles and habitats. The penguins were in the rhea’s domain; a hot, wind-blown, scree-scoured scrubland on the edge of the fertile ocean.rhea-penguin

The choique soon found a dry old hatchling penguin carcass, no meatier than the surrounding thickets, and tried to swallow it. The loss of teeth by its distant ornithurine ancestors proved to be a bad move, because it struggled to get the jerky-like mass through its beak:

That Punta Tombo visit was an experience I’ll never forget. I returned to the UK, abuzz with excitement about penguins. I “got” them now, I felt, at least in a very unscientific, anthropomorphic way. It took the face-to-beak experience to drive that home, more than any emotive film treatment could. Whether enduring Antarctic wintery blasts or unforgivingly hot and dry, burrow-speckled coastal badlands, penguins are buggers with true grit. Survivors, as their >60 million year fossil record attests to. On my return, I delved through my photos of museum specimens to get a better appreciation for penguin anatomy, preparing to also get familiar with that fossil record; all as part of that ongoing work with Proffitt and Clarke. Here’s some of that anatomy:

My first encounter with a penguin in the wild is probably this specimen washed up on a beach in Uruguay. I'm going with the tentative ID of a juvenile penguin skeleton; probably Magellanic.

My first encounter with a penguin in the wild (but not a live one) is probably this specimen washed up on a beach in Uruguay. I’m going with the tentative ID of a juvenile penguin skeleton (short foot; flat wing bones); probably Magellanic. The bevy of vertebrate morphologists investigating dead penguins on this beach during our conference in 2010 will not soon be forgotten!

Magellanic penguin skeleton, "flying" through the Punta Tombo visitor centre.

Magellanic penguin skeleton, “flying” through the Punta Tombo visitor centre.

University Museum of Zoology Cambridge skeleton of one of the "great penguin" (do not confuse with the great pumpkin!) species; either King (patagonicus) or Emperor (forsteri).

University Museum of Zoology Cambridge skeleton of a “great penguin” (do not confuse with the great pumpkin!) species of Aptenodytes; either King (patagonicus) or Emperor (forsteri). Characteristic features, in addition to the robust, dense skeleton, include the short neck, flattened but robust wings and scapulae, robust furcula (wishbone), stubby legs (with a big blocky patella) and thin but longish tail (supposedly used to balance with while walking/standing).

I’ll visit some more penguin anatomy in coming images- those photos are just teasers. And they set the stage for me to go back to my one-stop-shopping for awesome ornithological specimens, the Natural History Museum at Tring (images below presented with kind permission from the Natural History Museum, London; but I took the photos), to pick up an assortment of 11 frozen penguins from helpful curator Hein van Grouw! Such as this “gagged” King penguin:
NHMUK penguin

And this handsome Emperor penguin, going through the Equine Imaging Centre’s CT scanner as I do my usual routine of (1) get cool critters, (2) barrage them with radiation to peek inside:penguin CT (3)

CT scanner monitors as I scan a penguin; mid-torso x-ray slice shown on the right.

CT scanner monitors as I scan a penguin; mid-torso x-ray slice shown on the right.

Awwwwww... baby Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua). Unhappy feet, I'm afraid.

Awwwwww… baby Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua— EDIT: Probably Aptenodytes; see comments below). Unhappy feet, I’m afraid… Happy CT scanning, however– specimens like this are NOT easy to come by in these northern nether regions!

Because I love the CT scan images of these penguins so much (their skeletons are awesome and bizarre!), I’ll share the pilot scans of the best ones now:

Calling all penguin experts! What's up with this? Is that really how much gastrolith volume a penguin carries, or did a museum curator stick rocks up its bum? Seems very caudal in position. I'm fascinated.

Calling all penguin experts! What’s up with this? Is that really how much gastrolith (stomach stone; near bottom of image) volume a penguin carries (answer after some literature reading: maybe yes!), or did a museum curator stick rocks up its bum? It seems very caudal in position, and this is consistent with other animals I’ve seen (some below). A paper on this phenomenon and potential role in ballast is here. Another here.

Side view.

Side view. Nice view of the head at least.

The fluffy baby shown in the photo above. Nice pose, and lots of anatomy shown. And check it out- gastroliths?!? In such a young animal-- is it even feeding yet?

Young juvenile. Nice pose, and lots of anatomy is shown. And check it out- gastroliths?!? In such a young animal– is it even feeding yet? (presumably straight after hatching) And they are relatively big pebbles, too! If I noticed this 5 years ago, it would have been a nice paper to report- first recognition of gastroliths in penguin chicks seems to have been then. Indeed, that study observed some chicks intentionally swallowing stones.

Another youngun.

Another youngun; the fluffy one from the photo above. More rocks up its wazoo.

Three wee little chicks.

Three wee little chicks, all with stomach stones.

CT reconstruction of adult skeleton. This specimen was gutted and flattened, so the gastroliths are few and scattered. Check out the long tail:

From recent skeletons to fossil ones, penguins have wacky anatomy; they break most of the “rules” of being a proper bird, putting other oddballs like rheas to shame. I can’t ably review the many penguin species we know of, but the ancient Palaeocene penguin Waimanu features prominently in recent scientific discussions of penguin evolution, such as the superb research and blog of Dan Ksepka  as well as many workers in the southern hemisphere. I haven’t had a chance to inspect that creature’s bones, but while in Trelew, Argentina, I was very pleased to run into some excellent specimens of a later animal:

Part of the rather nice skeleton of Palaeospheniscus patagonicus, an Oligocene/Miocene largish penguin; from the MFN collections in Trelew, Argentina and collected nearby.

Part of the nice skeleton of Palaeospheniscus patagonicus, an Oligocene/Miocene largish penguin; from the MEF collections in Trelew, Argentina and collected nearby. The genus has been known since Ameghino’s description in 1891, and is closely related to living penguins, especially Aptenodytes. It was not a large penguin, but at about 5kg body mass was no slouch as birds go (roughly similar in size to a Magellanic penguin). I also got to see  Madrynornis mirandus, a Miocene form.

For me, the diagnostic trait of a penguin skeleton: the very short, tobust tarsometatarsus. From Palaeospheniscus, as above.

For me, the diagnostic trait of a penguin skeleton: the very short, tobust tarsometatarsus. From Palaeospheniscus, as above. The great palaeontologist GG Simpson wrote of it: “Despite the innumerable variations in details, the tarsometatarsi, on which all species but P. robustus are based, are quite stereotyped in general structure and leave little doubt that the forms placed here by Ameghino do all belong to a natural group.” A ratio of length to proximal width of >2 is typical of most penguins.  Synapomorphy FTW!

From beach skeletons, to mass suffering of landbound birds, to 3D imaging and fossil skeletons, I’ve had quite the immersion in penguinness lately. And through that experience, I’ve been drawn closer to penguins in more ways than one. I’ve been impressed by their adaptability and durability. In some ways, penguins’ adaptations to harsh freezing winters in wastelands also aid them to survive harsh baking summers in dry badlands.

Yes, those badlands are still coastal, and penguins can still drink the saltwater and excrete salt via their supraorbital glands, but those penguins in Punta Tombo were not having a keg party. They were clearly enduring some serious discomfort, and not all making it through the ordeal. I watched silently along with other penguins as one penguin lay prone in an awkward pose on a bleached-white stretch of hardpan soil, while one flipper meekly raised, then flopped down. It was not long for this world, and there was a host of large scavengers around ready to make the most of that, while penguin-eating giant petrels (a sister group to penguins) wheeled overhead.

penguin-waddle

Waddlers of the wastes

While penguins still spend most of their lives at sea, they retain a sometimes astonishing array of behaviours they use on land: burrowing, hopping/jumping, costly short-legged (but efficiently waddling) walking, and perhaps more that we haven’t yet discovered! Their unique anatomy reflects a compromise between all these factors, and we’re fortunate to have knowledge of their fossil record that shows a lot of detail on how they evolved it all. While penguins are a highly aquatic species, they show how aquatic and terrestrial adaptations can coexist in harmony; it’s not just a black-or-white issue. But with climate change in progress, the ~18 species of penguins have some rapidly altering challenges to adapt to, or go the way of Waimanu. This is a critical Kierkegaardian moment for The Existentialist Penguin.

I raise a glass in toast to that versatile, resilient, gravel-gizzarded Existentialist Penguin! May it persevere all the troubles our ever-changing world throws at it, as it has done since the Palaeocene. And may we draw inspiration from its tenacity, to face our own troubles, together on this crazy spinning globe!

Cheers!

by animalloz, on deviantart

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Good day, everyone. Maybe by the end of this post if you don’t agree that it is a good day, you will at least see why I think it is.

Ten years ago today, something Really Bad happened to my brain. I don’t need to go into details, but it is very fair to say that I almost died. And that was the second close call in my adult life; there was another, years earlier, with a different vital organ system. So I celebrate December 16th each year as “Not Dead Yet Day“. As this is this blog’s first NDYD, I figure you can all join in the celebration, for any reason you might have to celebrate life. It can be hard to love some aspects of life sometimes, especially in pretty depressing times like the 21st century can be (so far). This can especially feel true in light of recent events in Connecticut, or ongoing nightmares in Syria and many other lands, with vanishing innocents, vanishing wildlife and vanishing habitats, the inexorable heat death of the universe… shit I’d better stop now or I’ll lose it!

This day helps to remind me to stay focused, as much as I can, on what matters in my life, and what I can control in my life to make things better for the little bubble of the world that I exist in. Some things are far beyond even our hope, let alone our means, to control. And sometimes we get broadsided by Really Bad Shit. But in between any of that powerlessness or inauspicious shit, there can be joy from many sources– for me (like many others), it comes from family and friends, science and the natural world’s wonders, delicious food and amazing travel, and much more. It comes from experiencing reality with all its facets.

Here is my brain. You can’t see much. Feel free to make jokes about that, I’ve set myself up nicely with that last sentence!

my-brain1

These are MRI scan images from a routine checkup I had about 3 years ago. I suppose you can consider it a game of “Mystery MRI slices”, but one in which I give you the answer (my brain). You can see lots of cool anatomy here; if you know your anatomy feel free to mention what’s visible (or not) in the Comments, and make jokes– I will probably enjoy any of them. I like self-deprecatory humour. And happily, I checked out fine in that scan, and continue to be fine… relatively. I’m not the same person I was >10 years ago— in 2002 I got married (but missed my bachelor party because I was hospitalized for another problem), got an important paper (“Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner”) published in Nature that changed my career (and arguably got me my job today), had this Really Bad thing happen, and plenty more. It was an eventful year.

my-brain2

At the time the Really Bad thing happened, I was feeling poorly but working very hard on final revisions/re-analysis of elephant gait data for a paper that ended up being published in Nature in 2003; so things ended up looking even better for my career. But I made a decision that day that, in a fortunate way, ended up having a greater impact than any mere publication. Rather than sit in my house with our cats and feel poorly, I made the choice to drive in to work and process more elephant video data. Just as I was parking my car on the Berkeley campus (illegally; I was feeling very poorly by that point) to go in to do the work… I woke up in an ambulance.

I was lucky. I was somewhere public where I was spotted having trouble, not alone in my house for >8 hours until my newlywed-wife came home to discover me. So I got help, and medical science saved my ass — and my brain, and thus other regions of my anatomy and my mortal existence. If I’d adopted the other choice, and stayed home alone, our cats probably would have witnessed something terrible and been unable to help, awesome as kitties can be.

I’ve never felt the same after that day. I’m certainly a case of “scarred but smarter.” I can say smarter mainly because my brain survived the trauma OK and I learned from the experience. I can say scarred because I still feel repercussions of all sorts from that Really Bad day. Although I’ve always had a dark sense of humour, strongly connected with my eccentric passions in science (e.g. this blog! Go figure.), I think it’s fair to say that my humour darkened. I’m not as bubbling with joy as I used to be. I used to almost always grin and exclaim “Excellent!” when someone asked me “how’s it going?”. I can still burble with frabjous joy, but not quite as often.

That day brought me closer in touch with the darker side of life, and the brighter side too. I think I’d been overlooking both. Closer in touch with reality, and with the serendipity and calamity that accompany it. There have been other, terrible events in my life since then, too, that have brought new existentialist focus to my mind, but that’s a part of most people’s middle age period (e.g. losing many loved ones).  I’ve had a great career so far, too, thanks in part to good things that happened 10 years ago, and to good things that have happened since thanks to hard work and some good fortune. But that doesn’t mean life has been a nonstop joyride, or even easy.

So today I take some special time to think about what life is about, what is real and must be faced wide awake vs. what is self-deceitful slumber, and why life is still worth loving– which I do love, with all my brain. And every day I think about the big changes that 2002 wrought on my life, and how so many other seemingly important things that happen in my life don’t matter one fucking bit– hence I try to just have fun, be a good human and not worry so much.

Have the best day you can have, everyone. I’m off to have some fun family time, but wanted to share my brain’s thoughts with you today. Maybe you have a similar story to share, too, or maybe my brain’s thoughts inspire some in your own brain. It’s wonderful how that glistening anatomy can do such things, and it’s wonderful how resilient that anatomy is, much as we need to be… because we are one and the same, our brains and our selves that dwell inside them, and the love of life that they can conjure.

If this post bummed you out, just focus on these contented cats.

If this post bummed you out, just focus on these contented cats.

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