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Posts Tagged ‘vertebrae’

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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(John: here’s a guest post from my former PhD student, soon to be 100% legit PhD, Dr., and all that jazz, Julia Molnar!)

This is my first guest post, but I have been avidly following what’s in John’s freezer (and the blog too) for quite a while. I joined the lab in 2009 and left a month ago on the bittersweet occasion of surviving my PhD viva (oral exam/defense), so I’d like to take a moment here to thank John and the Structure & Motion Lab for a great 4 years!

Moving on to freezer-related matters; specifically, a bunch of frozen crocodile spines. It was late 2011, and the reason for the spines in John’s freezer was that John, Stephanie Pierce, and I were trying to find out more about crocodile locomotion. This was anticipated to become my first major, first-author research publication (but see my Palaeontologia Electronica paper on a related subject), and I was about to find out that these things seldom go as planned; for example, the article would not be published for more than three years (the research took a long time!). Before telling the story of how it lurched and stumbled toward eventual publication, I’ll give you some background on the project.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10; x-ray of dead bits and nothing much worse.


A stumbly sort-of-bounding crocodile. They can do better.

First of all, why crocodiles? For one thing, they’re large, semi-terrestrial animals, but they use more sprawling postures than typical mammals. Along with alligators and gharials, they are the only living representatives of Crocodylomorpha, a 200+ million year-old lineage that includes wolf-like terrestrial carnivores, fish-like giants with flippers and a tail fin, even armored armadillo-like burrowers. Finally, crocodiles are interesting in their own right because they use a wide variety of gaits, including bounding and galloping, which are otherwise known only in mammals.

Nile croc

Nile crocodile skeletal anatomy

OK, so why spines? Understanding how the vertebral column works is crucial to understanding locomotion and body support on land, and inter-vertebral joint stiffness (how much the joints of the backbone resist forces that would move them in certain directions) in particular has been linked to trunk movements in other animals. For this reason, vertebral morphology is often used to infer functional information about extinct animals, including dinosaurs. However, vertebral form-function relationships have seldom been experimentally tested, and tests on non-mammals are particularly scarce. So we thought the crocodile spines might be able to tell us more about the relationship between vertebral morphology, mechanics, and locomotion in a broader sample of vertebrate animals. If crocodile spine morphology could be used to predict joint stiffness, then morphological measurements of extinct crocodile relatives would have some more empirical heft to them. Several skeletal features seem to play roles such as levers to mechanically stiffen crocodile spines (click to emcroc’en):

Croc vertebra-01

Anatomy of a crocodile vertebra

We decided to use a very simple technique that could be replicated in any lab to measure passive stiffness in crocodile cadavers. We dissected out individual joints were and loaded with known weights. From the movement of the vertebrae and the distance from the joint, we calculated how much force takes to move the joint a certain number of degrees (i.e. stiffness).

Julia w vertebra (480x640)

Me with crocodile vertebra and G-clamp

Xray

X-ray of two crocodile vertebrae loaded with a metric weight to calculate their joint’s stiffness

Afterwards, we boiled the joints to remove the soft tissues – the smell was indescribable! We took 14 measurements from each vertebra. All of these measurements had been associated with stiffness or range of motion in other studies, so we thought they might be correlated with stiffness in crocodiles also.

morphometrics

Some of the vertebral measurements that were related to stiffness

Despite my efforts to keep it simple, the process of data collection and analysis was anything but. I recall and exchange with Stephanie Pierce that went something like this:

Stephanie: “How’s it going?”

Me: “Well, the data are messy, I’m not seeing the trends I expected, and everything’s taking twice as long as it was supposed to.”

Stephanie: “Yes, that sounds like science.”

That was the biggest lesson for me: going into the project, I had been unprepared for the amount of bumbling around and re-thinking of methods when the results were coming up implausible or surprising. In this case there were a couple of cool surprises: for one thing, crocodiles turn out to have a very different pattern of inter-vertebral joint stiffness than typical mammals: while mammals have stiff thoracic joints and mobile lumbar joints, crocodiles have stiffer lumbar joints. Many mammals use large lumbar movements during bounding and galloping, so crocodiles must use different axial mechanics than mammals, even during similar gaits. While that’s not shocking (they did evolve their galloping and bounding gaits, and associated anatomy, totally independently), it is neat that this result came out so clearly. Another unexpected result was that, although several of our vertebral measurements were correlated with stiffness, some of the best predictors of stiffness in mammals from previous studies were not correlated with stiffness in crocodiles. The study tells a cautionary tale about making assumptions about extinct animals using data from only a subset of their living relatives or intuitive ideas about form and function.

Finally, the experience of doing the experiments and writing the paper got me interested in other aspects of crocodilian functional anatomy. For instance, how does joint stiffness interact with other factors, such as muscle activity and properties of the ribs, skin, and armor in living crocodiles? Previous studies by Frey and Salisbury had commented on this, but the influence of those factors is less tractable to experiment on or model than just naked backbones with passively stiff joints. In the future, I’d like to study vertebral movements during locomotion in crocodiles – especially during bounding and galloping – to find out how these patterns of stiffness relate to movement. In the meantime, our study shows that, to a degree, crocodile backbone dimensions do give some clues about joint stiffness and locomotor function.

To find out more, read the paper! It was just featured in Inside JEB.

Julia Molnar, Stephanie Pierce, John Hutchinson (2014). An experimental and morphometric test of the relationship between vertebral morphology and joint stiffness in Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus). The Journal of Experimental Biology 217, 757-768 link here and journal’s “Inside JEB” story

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