Tutorial 20: how to measure necks using Duplo

January 10, 2013

I’ve measured a few necks in my time, including the neck of a baby giraffe. I can tell you from experience that necks are awkward things to measure, even if they have been conveniently divested of their heads and torsos. They have a tendency to curl up, which impedes attempts to find the straight-line length. Even when you manage to hold them straight, you want them maximally compressed end-to-end rather than stretched out, which is hard to achieve without buckling them out of the straight line. And then you need to measure between perpendiculars in a straight line.

Awkward.

Tonight, I needed to measure the mass and length of seven turkey necks. (Never mind why, all will become clear in time.) And I found a way to do it that works much better than anything I’ve done before.

Here’s the equipment:

IMG_0961-equipment

You will need:

  • Kitchen scales (for weighing the necks)
  • Small numbered labels (for the sandwich bags that the necks will go into for the freezer once they’ve been measured)
  • Pen and paper to take down the measurements
  • Translucent ruler
  • Saucepan full of turkey necks
  • Slightly less than one half of a birthday cake decorated like a map of Middle-earth [optional]
  • A Duplo baseboard (double-sized Lego) and about fifteen 4×2 bricks

Use the bricks to build an L-shaped bracket on the board — about half way back, so that can rest your hand in front of it.

IMG_0963-straightened

Now you can push the neck into the angle of the bracket. By keeping it pressed firmly against the back wall (yellow in my construction), you can keep it straight. I find the best way to get the neck exactly abutting the left (red) wall is to start with the neck in its natural position, with the anterior and posterior ends curving towards you, then sort of unroll it against the back wall, and finally push the posterior end into place with your little finger (see below). There is a satisfying moment– almost a click — as the back end pops into place and the neck slides along a little to right as necessary to accommodate the added length.

IMG_0966-blocked

Now use another brick (blue in this photo) as a bracket: slide it along the back wall from right to left until it’s solidly abutting the anteriormost vertebra. If you do this right, there is very little travel: the entire series of vertebrae is lined up and solidly abutted, with bone pushing against the left wall and your new brick. I find there’s less than half a millimeter of variation between the length under gentle-but-firm pressure (which is what I measured) and under the very strongest force you can exert without buckling the neck.

IMG_0967-measured

Once you have found the blue brick’s correct position, you need to hold it firmly in place and measure its position relative the the left wall. (It doesn’t matter if you let the neck re-curl at this point, so long as the blue brick doesn’t shift.)

You need a translucent ruler so that you can lay it across the neck and see where blue brick¬†falls under the scale. (My ruler’s zero is, rather annoyingly, 5 mm from the end; so I needed to subtract 5 mm from the lengths I measured.)

IMG_0969-bagged

Finally, I bagged up each neck in its own sandwich bag, ready for the freezer. Each neck is labelled with a number so that when I take it out for dissection, I will be able to relate the measurements and observations that I make back to these initial measurements.

For the record, here are the measurements:

  • Neck 1: 154 g, 179.5 mm.
  • Neck 2: 122 g, 151 mm.
  • Neck 3: 154 g, 199.5 mm.
  • Neck 4: 133 g, 162.5 mm.
  • Neck 5: 142 g, 169 mm.
  • Neck 6: 80 g, 167 mm.
  • Neck 7: 70 g, 169 mm.

As expected, there is some correlation between neck mass and length; but not as much as you might expect. Naively (i.e. assuming isometric similarity) mass should be proportional to length cubed, but there is a lot of scatter about that line. I don’t know whether that is due to individual variation, or merely because the various necks — all of them incomplete — are different sections of the full neck. Hopefully I will be able to confirm or rule out that possibility when I’ve dissected down to naked vertebrae.

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5 Responses to “Tutorial 20: how to measure necks using Duplo”


  1. Love it. So much what real palaeontology is like.

  2. Dean Says:

    Science…


  3. Presumably the final step is to wash the living bejeezus out of those Duplo. :)

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    It did indeed take me some time to wash all the Duplo satisfactorily. I now find that I have further necks available to me, which means I will have to go through the whole process again. *sigh*.


  5. [...] which is to blog parts of the science as you’re doing them, which is what Mike was doing with Tutorial 20–that’s a piece of one of our papers due on March [...]


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