Breaking news: sauropod pneumaticity on TV
November 8, 2008
I just got word from the History Channel that their documentary “Evolve: Size” will air Saturday, Nov. 8. Kent Sanders, Brooks Britt, and I filmed a long segment for this back in May, covering pneumaticity in sauropods. Hopefully it didn’t all go to the cutting room floor! With any luck, you’ll see the results of this:
Check local listings for showtimes.
UPDATE: IMMEDIATE REACTION
Hey, not bad. Good stuff:
- I especially liked that they ascribed the evolution of large size in sauropods to several factors–high plant productivity, efficient food gathering (just biting, no chewing), and, yes, pneumaticity. But pneumaticity was at best an accessory adaptation for large size, and not a prime mover. I was worried that its importance would be overstated–“AIR-FILLED bones made these GIANTS into the HUGEST creatures EVAR!!1!” That’s some impressive restraint for a documentary these days.
- The bit about pneumatic bones being light but also strong is great. I’m glad they worked in the pneumatic horns of bighorn sheep.
- I’m really happy that they showed the process of CT scanning the vertebra, partly because It’s never been shown before on TV (to my knowledge), and partly for purely selfish reasons: it’s just cool. Too bad they didn’t have time to show Kent Sanders discussing the results of the scan.
- Brooks Britt is not a grad student now, he’s an Associate Professor of geology at BYU. He pioneered the use of CT to study pneumaticity in dinosaurs when he was a grad student at the University of Calgary (Britt 1993). I am glad that they got the bit in about Brooks first suggesting to me that I should CT scan sauropod vertebrae. He got me into this, and it’s nice to have that recognized.
- At one point the narrator says, “Wedel suspects that the bones were not only light and easy to lift, they also helped get oxygen directly to the muscles, fed by a system of air sacs throughout the neck, similar to birds today.” Woof–I didn’t say that! They got the ventilatory air sacs in the thorax and abdomen–the ones that blow air through the lungs–confused with the pneumatic diverticula up in the neck. There is no evidence that diverticula play any role in gas exchange for the tissues they are adjacent to, and there is strong contrary evidence. Physiologists have measured how much gas exchange goes on in the avian respiratory system, and where that gas exchange occurs. Ninety-five percent of the gas exchange happens in the lungs, and almost all of the remainder happens in the abdominal air sacs, which are immense and fairly convoluted because they enclose the viscera like a nut-shell (thanks to Wetherbee  for that wonderfully accessible image). It’s a fairly minor thing, I guess, it’s just frustrating to spend so much time working on this and then have an obvious mix-up like that sneak in.
- In the space of about ten minutes, sauropods are described as “freaks of nature” twice! This is a bit irritating–they are only freaks of nature from our limited, human point of view. Big sauropods had appeared by the late Triassic and huge ones by the Early Jurassic, and they stayed huge and successful through the Jurassic and Cretaceous. For all that they were immense and morphologically derived, sauropods were also just critters. They weren’t mutants, they were functioning and apparently successful members of their ecosystems for a long time, like any other organisms. Possibly, though, long exposure has acclimated me to the just-critters aspect of sauropods more than most folks. :-)
It seems churlish to write so much about a segment that was actually pretty great and right on target except for a few, comparatively minor missteps. Overall I’m thrilled that it turned out so well. See it if you get a chance–your own thoughts are welcome, good, bad, or otherwise.
- Britt, B. B. 1993. Pneumatic postcranial bones in dinosaurs and other archosaurs. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Calgary, Calgary, 383 pp.
- Wetherbee, D. K. 1951. Air-sacs in the English sparrow. Auk 68:242–244.