Pneumaticity article in Cosmos

March 14, 2011

Busy days. I just published a popular article on skeletal pneumaticity as a web feature at the Australian science magazine Cosmos. It’s entitled, “We are all air-heads: of sinus headaches and strangled birds”, and it includes a few things I don’t think I’ve discussed here, so hopefully even you regulars will find it a worthwhile read. I’d tell you more about it, but that would defeat the point, wouldn’t it? Go on over and check it out.

While you’re there, look at all the cool articles by award-winning science blogger and Cosmos Editorial Assistant Bec Crew, who served as my editor in this venture. I’m grateful to Bec for her help getting the article bashed into shape, her patience with my own article revision incontinence (don’t laugh, some writer you know might suffer from ARI), and most of all her enthusiasm where gory tales of science are concerned. If you’re not familiar with Bec’s work at Save Your Breath for Running Ponies, you’re in for a treat. Set your drink down first so you don’t spew it on the keyboard laughing.

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6 Responses to “Pneumaticity article in Cosmos”

  1. Wally Wedel Says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking article. In your analogy to human sinus are you also suggesting that sauropod pneumaticity may also have supported membranes within the pneumatic cavities that would be subject to infection? Can you hypothesize about how infection might lead to death of a sauropod and thus be evident in the fossil record?

  2. Mathew Wedel Says:

    In your analogy to human sinus are you also suggesting that sauropod pneumaticity may also have supported membranes within the pneumatic cavities that would be subject to infection?

    Yep. Although I don’t know how common it is for birds to have infections start within the pneumatic bones. I think it is more common for them to develop sacculitis in their air sacs. The epithelium lining the air sacs is partly ciliated (meaning that cilia on the lining cells have a chance to sweep foreign matter away, just like the cilia in your trachea and bronchi), but partly not, and as I understand it dust and pathogens that land on the non-ciliated tracts of epithelium are very hard or impossible for the birds to get rid of. Which is one reason why poultry farms go to such great lengths to control dust levels. I have read that the pneumatization of the bones by diverticula of the air sacs makes it possible for a treatable respiratory infection to develop into a usually fatal bone infection, and I would assume that the same was true for extinct saurischians.

    Can you hypothesize about how infection might lead to death of a sauropod and thus be evident in the fossil record?

    I can’t, really, because I don’t know how fast those infections kill animals. There is a paradox in paleopathology that only the diseases that kill slowly can be seen in the skeleton. Something that kills an animal very quickly will leave no traces on the skeleton, so an extremely sick animal might look like a perfectly healthy animal if all one has to work with are bones.

    The other problem is that if the pneumatic bones became infected, presumably any resulting changes in the bone would be in the internal cavities, so we’d only catch them on a CT. The number of sauropod vertebrae that have been CTed to date is *tiny*. So you have to think about (1) how many sauropods might have had active infections inside the pneumatic bones when they died (probably very few), (2) how many of those made it through the fossilization lottery (definitely very few), and (3) how many of those will have their vertebrae CTed (again, very few). And that’s assuming that (4) the infections we’re discussing would leave diagnostic traces that could be readily differentiated from the wackiness of normal pneumatic morphology (I have no idea, but I’m doubtful), and (5) that those traces would be visible and interpretable on a CT slice (no clue). In short, it’s a cool idea, but if anyone finds definitive evidence in my lifetime, I’ll be surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless.

  3. Zach Miller Says:

    Great article, and it gave me an excellent method of making the lynx skull nice ‘n’ white (after I get the braaaaaains and sinus tissue out). No photos, really. Two hours of alternatively boiling/simmering the thing made the meat just kind of…sluff off.

    I really like Running Ponies, but they update it once every five months or so, which is an awful shame. Discourages regular readership, but yes, it is hilarious.


  4. [...] say yes”.  As though that weren’t enough, he had the audacity to follow up with another post about an article he’s just had published in the Australian science magazine [...]


  5. [...] She blogged about one of my posts, I blogged about how indescribably wonderful her blog was, she published something I wrote–my first paying gig as a writer, I think. Now she’s blogging at [...]


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