The Oxford Camel is Just Plain Cheating
September 28, 2010
Welcome to post four of what seems to be turning out to be Camel Week here on SV-POW!. As it happens, I spent last Friday and Saturday in Oxford, for a meeting of the Tolkien Society, and I had three hours or so to spend in the wonderful Oxford University Natural History Museum.
In a completely ideal world, I would have been able to play with a sequence of camel cervicals; but very short notice, the collection manager’s unavailability and the off-site location of many specimens conspired to prevent this. And now that the museum’s online specimen-catalogue search is back up, I see that they don’t in fact have a sequence of camel cervicals. But they do have a mounted camel, and I was able to take a good look at its neck.
And now, so can you:
At first glance it doesn’t look as silly as the Cambridge Camel — it doesn’t have those gaping spaces between the centra of the neck. But on second glance, you can see that the reason for this is that the mount has fat wodges of fake articular cartilage wedged between the centra. Take a closer look:
As you can see, those things are thick. It’s not easy to measure them, or the vertebrae, in a fairly tall mount that you’re not meant to touch, and which is up on a pedestal, behind a rope that you’re not allowed to cross. But because I love you guys, I did the best I could with my foldable Ikea paper tape-measure, and here are the figures I came up with (omitting C1, which I couldn’t reach):
- C2: 18 cm long, with 3 cm of “cartilage” behind it
- C3: 17 cm / 3 cm
- C4: 17 cm / 2 cm
- C5: 17 cm / 2 cm
- C6: 14 cm / 1.5 cm
- C7: 11 cm / 1 cm
Adding these up gives us 12.5 cm of cartilage for the 94 cm of neck — adding 13% on to the length of the actual vertebrae. As a side-note, IF sauropods had a similar ratio of cartilage, then the 15 m neck of Supersaurus would be more like 17 m. But that is a very big supposition, and not one I am going to try to defend … not only because sauropods ain’t mammals but also because the idea of a solid six inches of cartilage between adjacent vertebrae is a little bit scary.
[Oddly enough, we've featured the Oxford Camel before on SV-POW! -- more than two years ago, in fact. It's in the background of the second photo in our old SV-POW! on tour post, standing behind Matt, Darren and me, and showing off its false cartilage pretty darned clearly if you click through to the full-sized version. But we paid no attention to its barely-longer-than-a-meter neck, because we were young and stupid back then.]
What does this tell us?
At this stage, it’s really just another chunk of ignorance to chuck onto the Big Old Heap Of Ignorance (hereafter, the BOHOI). But the point is that at least now we know we’re ignorant. That’s progress, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Please tell me it is. Whatever else it may tell us, the Oxford Camel is more evidence that the characteristic posture and range of motion of extant animals are not constrained by, and do not closely resemble, poses determined purely from osteology. It doesn’t, yet, get us much further than that, though — all it does it make us more aware of how much more work there is to be done. Just quantifying the error would help. We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.
I leave you with this picture, a larger version of one that Darren once used on Tetrapod Zoology, and which he sent me a couple of days ago:
That is some serious flexibility: as well as bending its neck to the right, this deer has twisted it through 180 degrees — not something that it’s obviously capable of from looking at its skeleton.
How is it done? We don’t know. But we aim to find out.
Coming soon …
… Sauropod vertebrae! Yes, really!