X-Men Origins: Pneumaticity
May 8, 2009
In case you’ve missed it, William Miller has been asking some great questions over in the comment thread for “Brachiosaurus: both bigger and smaller than you think“. Here’s his most recent, which is so good that the answer required a post of its own:
…in birds, the air sacs are obviously useful for flight, and they might have been useful for weight lightening in sauropods: but the common ancestor would have been flightless and too small to need the lightening. So what drove their evolution in the first place, I wonder?
To which I say: oh, Alice, the rabbit hole is a lot deeper than that.
Introduction to the Three Mysteries
First, in birds the diverticula that enter the bones are a comparatively small subset of all diverticula. Visceral, intermuscular, and subcutaneous diverticula run between the guts, between muscles, and under the skin, respectively. These are usually more numerous and more extensive than the diverticula that enter the bones, and with rare exceptions, like the subcutaneous “bubble wrap” in pelicans, we have no idea what they do. If, indeed, they do anything. All a character needs to do to be hereditarily propagated is not compromise the survival and reproduction of its bearer. Diverticula could be mostly functionless products of developmental processes that are usually invisible to selection but sometimes produce useful exaptations, like lightening the skeleton, insulating the body, etc. Sort of the evolutionary equivalent of the fire extinguisher in your kitchen: most of the time it does absolutely nothing, but once in a while it is really, really useful.
Second, postcranial skeletal pneumaticity (PSP) starts in the cervical vertebrae in basal theropods and sauropodomorphs, and possibly also in pterosaurs (Butler et al. 2009). The vertebrae adjacent to the lungs and air sacs are not the first to be pneumatized. Rather, the pneumatic diverticula must have gotten out of body cavity and traveled a ways before they started impacting the skeleton. Assuming that one thing had to come before another and it didn’t happen in one saltatory leap, diverticula must have evolved before they started pneumatizing the skeleton.
Third, in the earliest evolutionary stages of pneumatization in saurischians, the amount of bone removed is completely negligible. In Wedel (2007) I calculated that in Pantydraco (Thecodontosaurus caducus at the time) and Coelophysis the pneumatic spaces in the bones accounted for 0.0017% and 0.17%, respectively, of the body volumes. The fossae in the Pantydraco vertebrae are not absolutely diagnostic for PSP, but they’re in the right place and hard to explain otherwise. The holotype individual is a juvenile, and it is possible that PSP might have been more extensive in an adult, but it could increase one hundred-fold and still only be 1/500 of the animal’s volume, as in Coelophysis. Although I haven’t run the numbers, a similar result probably hold for the basalmost sauropods with definitive PSP.
To sum up:
- Most diverticula in birds are not involved with pneumatizing the skeleton, so PSP can’t be the reason for their existence.
- In basal saurischians, the diverticula that pneumatized the skeleton must have evolved before they could start pneumatizing the skeleton, so PSP can’t be the reason for their existence, either.
- In the early stages of the evolution of PSP in saurischians, the amount of mass saved was negligible and could not plausibly have influenced natural selection, so PSP didn’t initially evolve to lighten the skeleton.
Lighten Up, Fatso
There is a complication on that last point, which requires a little digression on fat.
In birds, pneumatic diverticula don’t just replace bone tissue, they also take up space that would be occupied by fat in mammals, for example in the spaces between muscles and around plexuses of nerve and blood vessels. Any of you who have had the misfortune to dissect the brachial plexus of a mammal know whereof I speak–you spend most of your time carefully picking fat out from around the nerves and blood vessels. This isn’t gross subcutaneous fat that means an animal or person is obese, this is adipose tissue doing its other job of being a lightweight packing material. Mammal bodies put fat in those spaces because they need to occupied by something light and squishy and fat is the cheapest thing your body can build.
That may seem backwards; we think of fat as an energy store and therefore energetically expensive. But it’s cheaper to build than muscule or cartilage or skin, and lighter than any other tissue or fluid in the body. It has been observed that even when mammals are starving, they do not use the fat in the yellow marrow that fills the marrow cavities of long bones. This is utterly unsurprising if you think about how bodies work. Nature really does abhor a vacuum, at least biologically (cosmically, it seems to be the biggest thing ever). If a starving body used the fat in the marrow cavity, it would have to replace it with something else, and all of the alternatives are heavier and more expensive to build. If the fat was not replaced, a partial vacuum would develop which would cause serous fluid to weep into the space, and that would also be heavier and more expensive, and a great site for infection to boot (ask someone who has an edema).
Birds cheat the system by replacing the lightest of tissues with something even lighter: air, held in diverticula that are basically super-thin layers of epithelium. Possibly diverticula had been running around replacing fat for a long time before they first entered the skeleton, in which case the earliest stages of pneumatization would have been a continuation of pre-existing function of replacing superfluous connective tissue (fat and bone are both forms of connective tissue, along with cartilage, ligaments, tendons, mesenteries, fascia, and blood; blood is connective tissue the way snakes are tetrapods).
Although that will be difficult or impossible to test, it actually makes quite a bit of sense. Getting fat out of the way ought to be easy; the lipids can be mobilized into the bloodstream and the flattened cells could either be pushed out of the way or resorbed. Getting bone out of the way requires increasing parathyroid hormone, mobilizing blood-born multinucleated osteoclasts, and convincing them to digest bone where it needs to be digested, which I assume is a more complicated process from a regulatory standpoint (physiologists or cell biologists, please correct me if I’m wrong!). So it seems plausible that diverticula might have acquired the ability to replace fat early on, and the ability to replace bone much later, and that by the time they got started on the skeleton diverticula could have been lightening the body for a long time by removing little bits of superfluous fat.
This does not contradict my statement above that by and large we don’t know what diverticula do. Some diverticula run where there is no fat to replace. And healthy birds do carry some fat, like any healthy tetrapod. One would think that this energy-reserve fat would need to be protected from diverticula that would otherwise resorb it, but I don’t know how or if that happens, and I don’t know if anyone else does either. The amount of research on diverticula is basically nil.
I also think that fat-resorbing diverticula don’t solve the third mystery, they just pushes it back a level. The amount of mass saved by replacing the “packing” fat with air is probably negligible in most animals, and it certainly would have been so in the earliest stages of replacement, so the third mystery still holds if it is restated as:
3b. In the early stages of the evolution of diverticular replacement of connective tissue in saurischians, the amount of mass saved was negligible and could not plausibly have influenced natural selection, so PSP didn’t initially evolve to lighten the body.
The Problem is the Solution
So, we seem to be stuck. We don’t know why diverticula evolved in the first place, and we don’t know what most diverticula do, and even the diverticula that lighten the body could not have initially evolved to do so.
One upshot of all this is that we need more research on possible physiological functions of diverticula in birds. Oy! Ornithologists and avian physiologists! We’ve thrown you a bone, now throw us some data. Please?
Another upshot is that the erratic evolutionary pattern of PSP in Triassic and early Jurassic ornithodirans is maybe not entirely unexpected. Pterosaurs and theropods seem to have had PSP right out of the gate, but at least in theropods it was not enough to have done any good. Basal sauropodomorphs had little or no PSP, and not enough to have done any good below about the level of Eusauropoda. No non-dinosaurian dinosauromorphs have been found with PSP, but then we only have a handful of them and they’re all pretty dinky, so it’s possible it just hasn’t been recognized yet. Silesaurids, at least, had very pronounced, very thin laminae, which in derived saurischians are almost always associated with PSP. And ornithischians never had PSP at all, as far as we know.
My opinion is that an air sac system is probably primitive for Ornithodira, and that most of these lineages had pneumatic diverticula, but the speed with which they “discovered” extensive, skeleton-lightening PSP–ranging from “almost immediately” in pterosaurs to “after a while” in theropods to “after a long while” in sauropodomorphs to “never” in ornithischians–varied because it was such an evolutionarily haphazard process. Basically, PSP had to evolve as a developmental accident, and in some lineages it got far enough to become visible to selection, and in others it did not, or took a long time to do so. That’s a pretty picture that makes a lot of sense to me. If I ever figure out a way to test it, I’ll let you know.
The Solution is the Problem
The absence of PSP in Ornithischia is still a right sod. Pterosaurs, theropods, and sauropodomorphs all evolved some level of PSP in the Late Triassic, even if it wasn’t enough to significantly lighten their skeletons at first. Why not ornithischians? If air sacs are primitive for Ornithodira, then ornithischians had the gear for 160 million years and never exploited it, when the other three major lineages of ornithodirans discovered PSP pretty fast out of the gate. And if air sacs are not primitive for Ornithodira, three out of four ornithodiran lineages still discovered PSP on their own, so why not Ornithischia? It’s a big mystery, any way you slice it.
What do you think?
- Butler, R.J., Barrett, P.M., and Gower, D.J. 2009. Postcranial skeletal pneumaticity and air sacs in the earliest pterosaurs. Biology Letters. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0139
- Wedel, M.J. 2007.What pneumaticity tells us about ‘prosauropods’,
and vice versa. Special Papers in Palaeontology 77:207–222.