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:

Head and neck of dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius), OUMNH 17427, in left lateral view.

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:

Cervical vertebrae 2-4 of dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius), OUMNH 17427, in left lateral view, with thick false-cartilage spacers between the centra.

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.]

Cervical vertebra 5 of dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius), OUMNH 17427, in left ventrolateral view, with thick false-cartilage spacers before and after its centrum.

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!

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10 Responses to “The Oxford Camel is Just Plain Cheating”

  1. neil Says:

    So I gather that you guys are trying to move beyond camels, but it strikes me that you guys have been neglecting like a whole 2/3 of extant camelid diversity:

    check this out (she’s hot huh?)

    but, seriously

    check THIS out.

    As the kids say, snap.


  2. In a completely ideal world, I would have been able to play with a sequence of camel cervicals;

    More likely, dissect a neck, so that one could discertain precisely WHY this camel is cheating, and compare to a camel’s neck (preferably the same taxon) in vivo. Playing around with dry specimens is cheating.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Of course a whole neck would be better — but much, much harder to come by, and I am not going to be holding my breath.

    Of course what I really want is a live camel that I can view, measure and photograph in extreme postures, then for that exact same camel to drop down dead the next day so I can dissect the neck, and then finally play with the dry vertebrae. But you can’t always get what you want.


  4. [...] The Oxford Camel is Just Plain Cheating and Maybe all the camels are wrong [...]

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    Jaime wrote:

    Playing around with dry specimens is cheating.

    Yes, we know! That’s more or less the point we were making with the neck posture paper last year, and ever since. Preach it!


  6. [...] especially interesting because it’s our first Bactrian camel — the Cambridge Camel and the Oxford camel are both dromedaries.  I’d wondered whether one species might have a better articulating [...]

  7. Nathan Myers Says:

    Camel meat is exported from Australia to Saudi Arabia. You could probably just buy a neck pretty cheap.


  8. Is it just my fancy, or could those fake intervertebrals be short cut lengths of flexible ducting (as used for tumble-driers, shower-fans etc) stuffed in there?

  9. Andreas Johansson Says:

    Mike Taylor wrote:

    Of course what I really want is a live camel that I can view, measure and photograph in extreme postures, then for that exact same camel to drop down dead the next day so I can dissect the neck, and then finally play with the dry vertebrae. But you can’t always get what you want.

    Don’t forget the live x-rays.


  10. [...] course, here at SV-POW!, we have previous with camels: the Cambridge camel, all the camels, the Oxford camel, the Paris [...]


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