Haplocanthosaurus neural canals are weird, part 2: getting comparative specimens from the grocery store

May 16, 2021

Anatomical features of the neural canal in birds and other dinosaurs. A. MWC 9698, a mid caudal vertebra of Apatosaurus in posterodorsal view. Arrows highlight probable vascular foramina in the ventral floor of the neural canal. B. LACM 97479, a dorsal vertebra of Rhea americana in left anterolateral view. Arrows highlight pneumatic foramina inside the neural canal. C. A hemisected partial synsacrum of a chicken, Gallus domesticus, obtained from a grocery store. Anterior is to the right. The bracket shows the extent of the dorsal recess for the glycogen body, which only spans four vertebrae. Arrows highlight the transverse grooves in the roof of the neural canal for the lumbosacral organ. D. Sagittal (left) and transverse (right) CT slices through the sacrum of a juvenile ostrich, Struthio camelus. The bracket shows the extent of the lumbosacral expansion of the spinal cord. Indentations in the roof of the neural canal house the lumbosacral organ. In contrast to the chicken, the ostrich has a small glycogen body that does not leave a distinct osteological trace. Yellow arrows show the longitudinal troughs in the ventral floor of the neural canal that house the ventral eminences of the spinal cord. Wedel et al. (2021: fig. 4).

This is the second in a series of posts on our new paper about the expanded neural canals in the tail vertebrae of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus. I’m not going to talk much about Haplo in this post, though. Instead, I’m going to talk about chickens, and about how you can see a lot of interesting spinal anatomy in a living dinosaur for about two bucks.

You know by now that Academia Letters publishes peer reviews, which is one of the things that drew me to this fairly new journal. More on that in a later post, but in the meantime, the peer reviews for the Haplo paper are on the right sidebar here. I confess, I had a total forehead-slap moment when I read the opening lines of Niels Bonde’s review: 

This paper is interesting, and should be published and discussed by others with interest in dinosaur-bird relations. However, as these publications are also meant for the general public, I would recommend that 2 – 3 illustrations were added of the features mentioned for birds under nos. 3 – 6, because the general public (and many paleontologists) have no ideas about these structures, and what they look like.

The original submission only had figures 1 and 2. And this request is totally fair! If you are going to discuss six alternative hypotheses for some mysterious anatomical structure, it’s just responsible reporting to illustrate those things. That goes double if, as Niels Bonde noted, the anatomy in question is unfamiliar to a lot of people, even many paleontologists. Huxley’s quote after first reading Darwin’s Origin of Species flashed through my head: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”

Slide 21 of my 2014 SVPCA talk on supramedullary diverticula in birds and other dinosaurs, illustrating pneumatic foramina in the roof, walls, and floor of the neural canal.

At the time I read that review, I already had images illustrating five of the six hypotheses. A juvenile ostrich synsacrum that Jessie Atterholt and I had CT scanned gave us three of them all by itself: the lumbosacral expansion of the spinal cord to run the hindlimbs, as in all limbed tetrapods and in some fish with sensitive fins; the transverse channels in the dorsal wall of the neural canal to accommodate the lumbosacral balance organ; and the paired troughs in the floor of the neural canal that house the ventral eminences of the spinal cord (Figure 4D in the image at the top of this post). I had good photos of pneumatic foramina in the walls and floor of the neural canal in a dorsal vertebra of a rhea from my 2014 SVPCA talk (Figure 4B), and some photos of small foramina, presumably for blood vessels rather than air spaces, in the floor of the neural canal in a caudal vertebra of Apatosaurus (Figure 4A).

What I did not have is a photo illustrating the fairly abrupt, dome-shaped space in the sacral neural canal that houses the glycogen body of birds. I mean, I had published images, but I didn’t want to wrestle with trying to get image reproduction rights, or with redrawing the images. Instead, I went to the grocery store to buy some chicken.

I don’t know how universally true this is, but IME in the US when you buy a quartered chicken, the vertebrae are usually nicely hemisected by the band saw that separated the left and right halves of the animals. So you can see the neural canal in both the dorsal and sacral parts of the vertebral column. Here are the hemisected dorsal vertebrae in the breast quarter from a sectioned rotisserie chicken:

That’s just how it came to lie on my plate, but it’s not in anatomical position. Let’s flip it over to sit upright:

And label it:

I could and probably should do a whole post just unpacking this image, but I have other fish to fry today, so I’ll just note a couple of things in passing. The big interspinous ligament is the same one you can see in transverse section in the ostrich dissection photos in this post and this one. Also, the intervertebral joints heading toward the neck, on the left of the image, have much thicker intervertebral cartilage than the more posterior dorsals. That’s because the posterior ones were destined to fuse into a notarium. You can see a diagram and a photograph of a chicken notarium in figures 4 and 5, respectively, here. And finally, the big takeaway here is that the neural canal is normal, just a cylindrical tube to hold the spinal cord.

The thigh quarter usually has the pelvis and the hemisectioned synsacrum attached. Here’s a lateral view of the left half of the pelvis and synsacrum:

And the same thing labeled:

And now flipped around so we can see it in medial view:

And now that image labeled:

And, hey, there are three of our alternative hypotheses on display: the long (many vertebral segments) lumbosacral expansion of the spinal cord, which is reflected in a gradually expanded neural canal in the synsacrum; the shorter, higher dome-shaped recess for the glycogen body; and finally the transverse spaces for the lumbosacral balance organ.

As a refresher, there’s nothing terribly special about the lumbosacral expansion of the spinal cord — you have one, labeled as the ‘lumbar enlargement’ in the above diagram. Where the spinal cord has adjacent limbs to run, it has more neurons, so it gets fatter, so the neural canal gets fatter to accommodate it. The cord itself doesn’t look very expanded in the chicken photo above, but that chicken has been roasted rotisserie-style, and a lot of lipids probably cooked out of the cord during that process. What’s more important is that the neural canal is subtly but unmistakably expanded, over the span of many vertebrae.

The lumbosacral spinal cord of a 3-week-old chick in dorsal view. The big egg-shaped mass in the middle is the glycogen body. Watterson (1949: plate 1).

That’s in contrast to the recess for the glycogen body, which is colored in blue in the chicken photo. Glycogen bodies, like the egg-shaped one in the young chicken in the image immediately above, tend not to go on for many vertebral segments. Instead they balloon up and subside over the space of just 4 or 5 vertebrae, so they leave a different skeletal trace than other soft tissues.

Finally, there are the transverse spaces for the lumbosacral balance organ, which I discussed in this post. Those are the things that look like caterpillar legs sticking up from the sacral endocasts in the above figure from Necker (2006). In life, the spaces are occupied by loops of meningeal membranes, through which cerebrospinal fluid can slosh around, which in turn puts pressure on mechanoreceptive cells at the edge of the spinal cord and gives birds a balance organ in addition to the ones in their heads. In the photo of the cooked chicken, the delicate meninges have mostly fallen apart, leaving behind the empty spaces that they once occupied.

I really liked that chicken synsacrum, and I wanted to use it as part of Figure 4 of the new paper, but it needed a little cleaning, so I simmered it for a couple of hours on low heat (as one does). And it promptly fell apart. At least in the US, most of the chickens that make it to table are quite young and skeletally immature. That particular bird’s synsacrum wasn’t syn-anything, it was just a train of unfused vertebrae that fell apart at the earliest opportunity. I had anticipated that might be an issue, so I’d gotten a lot of chicken, including a whole rotisserie chicken and four thigh quarters from the deli counter at the local supermarket. Happily this fried chicken thigh quarter had a pretty good neural canal:

And it cleaned up nicely:

And with a little cropping, color-tuning, and labeling, it was ready for prime time:

I didn’t label them in the published version, for want of space and a desire not to muddy the waters any further, but the jet-black blobs I have colored in the lower part of that image are the exit holes that let the spinal nerves out of the neural canal so they could go serve the hindlimbs, pelvic viscera, and tail. We have them, too.

At my local grocery store, a fried chicken thigh costs about $1.65 if you get it standalone, or you can buy in bulk and save. You get to eat the chicken, and everything else I’ve done here required only water, heat, soap, and a little time. The point is that if I can do this, you can do this, and if you do, you’ll get to see some really cool anatomy. I almost added, “which most people haven’t seen”, but given how much chicken we eat as a society these days, probably most people’s eyes have fallen on the medial surface of a cooked chicken thigh quarter at one time or another. Better to say, “which most people haven’t noticed”. But now you can. Go have fun. 

Way back in January of 2019, I finished up “Things to Make and Do, Part 25b” with this line: “I have one more thing for you to look for in your bird vertebrae, and that will be the subject of the next installment in this series. Stay tuned!” Here we are, 2.3 years later, and I’ve finally made good. So if there’s a promised post you’ve been waiting for, stick around, we may get to it yet.

References

One Response to “Haplocanthosaurus neural canals are weird, part 2: getting comparative specimens from the grocery store”


  1. […] have one more thing for you to look for in your bird vertebrae, and that will be the subject of the next installment in this series. Stay […]


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