Sauro-throat, Part 3: what does Dolly’s disease tell us about sauropods?

February 17, 2022

Naturally I was grateful when Cary invited me to be part of the team working on Dolly, the diplodocid with lesions in its neck vertebrae (Woodruff et al. 2022; see previous posts on Dolly here and here). I was also intellectually excited, not only to see air-filled bones with obvious pathologies, but also for what those pathologies could tell us about Dolly and other sauropods. That’s the part of our new paper I want to unpack in this post.

We have a lot of evidence that air-filled bones in birds are a good model for air-filled bones in extinct dinosaurs. And we have several lines of evidence (not just air-filled bones; see Schachner et al. 2009, 2011, 2020) that the respiratory systems of many dinosaurs functioned broadly like those of living birds. But we have less direct evidence than we’d like, so every additional bit of information is welcome.

Diving into Diverticula

In birds, the air-filled bones in the neck and body are connected to the respiratory system by air-filled tubes. These tubes sometimes get called air sacs, in the sense that they are sacs filled with air, but we also refer to them pneumatic diverticula, to distinguish them from the respiratory air sacs in the torsos of birds that ventilate the lungs. Imagine blowing up some rubber gloves and sticking them inside a bird* and you’ll have a pretty good mental model of the system — the inflated ‘palm’ area of each glove is like one of the respiratory air sacs, the air-filled glove fingers are the diverticula, and the rubber material of the glove is the pneumatic epithelium that lines the air sacs and the diverticula alike. 

* Please don’t actually try that.

The cartoon above presents an unrealistically simplified picture of the respiratory system in dinosaurs and birds. For one thing, I omitted the windpipe or trachea — that blue tube going up the neck represents the diverticula that run alongside, and often inside, the neck vertebrae, parallel to the trachea but separated from it by whole sheets of muscle. Also, the cartoon only shows diverticula of the air sacs, but diverticula can also originate from the lungs themselves (see O’Connor 2006: 1211 and Schachner et al. 2020: 16-19). Here’s the actual respiratory system of a pigeon, with the trachea and lungs in pink and the air sacs and their diverticula in blue (Muller 1908 fig. 11):

I think it’s pretty natural to look at that illustration and wonder where the heck the guts go, since it certainly looks like the air sacs are occupying the entire volume of the torso. The answer is that the air sacs enclose the viscera “as do the shells of a nut”, in the memorable formulation of Wetherbee (1951: p. 243), describing the air sacs of the English sparrow.

Fig. 4. Reconstruction of the distribution of pneumatic diverticula in diplodocids and dicraeosaurids. A. Schematic drawing of midcervical vertebra of Diplodocus in left lateral aspect (A1), in dorsal aspect with single neural spine (A2) and in dorsal aspect with bifurcate neural spine (A3). The partitioning of pneumatic diverticula at the lateral surface of the vertebral corpus is hypothetical, based on the strongly divided pneumatic fossae. Schwarz et al. (2007: fig. 4A).

Furthermore, the pneumatic diverticula around the vertebrae in birds are complex, and we are fairly certain that they were also complex in sauropods, because they left so many distinct traces. The most detailed reconstructions of the cervical diverticula in sauropods that I know of are those of Daniela Schwarz and colleagues (2007), as shown above. For what it’s worth, I think those reconstructions are not just reasonable but perhaps conservative; I think there’s a good chance that the diverticular network around the vertebrae was even more complex and extensive. 

The rubber-glove model also lets us see that the diverticula are cul-de-sacs. We know that diverticula can anastomose, or merge, to form networks, and there is a possibility that if diverticula from different air sacs anastomosed, different pressures in those air sacs might allow some air to circulate through the diverticular network. Maybe — the anterior and posterior air sacs fill and empty at the same time, so there might not be a pressure differential to exploit. If air circulates in the diverticula at all in birds, it probably happens in the dorsal vertebrae, where diverticula from different parts of the respiratory system have the best opportunity to anastomose. But the far ends of the diverticular network are always dead ends, and we assume that air diffuses in and out of those terminal diverticula fairly slowly. We’re stuck with assumptions because no-one’s ever checked, experimentally, to determine the rate of diffusion or circulation of air in the diverticula. But it’s hard to imagine much circulation in the terminal diverticula, with no air reservoir or pump at the far end.

Reconstruction of soft−tissues in the neck of Diplodocus. A. Transverse cross−sections through cervical vertebra with bifurcate neural spine in the diapophysis region (A1) and in caudal third of vertebra (A2). B. Transverse cross−sections through cervical vertebra with single neural spine in diapophysis region (B1) and in caudal third of vertebra (B2), dashed outlines representing possible craniocervical extensor muscle analogous to m. biventer cervicis of extant birds or m. transversospinalis capitis of extant crocodylians. Schwarz et al. (2007: fig. 7A-B).

Here’s another great illustration from Schwarz et al. (2007), showing cross-sections of the neck of Diplodocus with hypothetical soft tissues restored. Bone is black, muscle is pink, and the pneumatic diverticula are blue. As this diagram makes clear, the air spaces in the bones are themselves extensions of the diverticula (that much is true regardless of how extensive we make the reconstructed diverticula outside the vertebrae). Instead of smooshing an inflated rubber glove into a duck, imagine smooshing one into a vertebra of a duck — or a Diplodocus — so that all of the empty spaces are occupied by some blobby bit of inflated-glove finger. All of air spaces in the bone would be lined by rubber-glove material, which in this metaphor is the same pneumatic epithelium that lines both the respiratory air sacs and their pneumatic diverticula, outside the bones or inside them.

I get to see this firsthand in the gross anatomy lab in our unit on head and neck anatomy. As we open up the skulls of the cadavers, the air-filled epithelial balloons that fill the sinuses sometimes pull away from, or completely out of, their bony recesses. (I’ll bet I could demonstrate the same thing with the sinuses of a pig or sheep head — I should give that a shot and post the resulting photos or videos here.) The point is, the pneumatic epithelium is in intimate contact with the bone, lining every pneumatic fossa, foramen, and internal chamber; this will be really important later on.

Incidentally, one question I get a lot is whether the diverticula, inside or outside the bones, contributed to gas exchange in sauropods. The answer is, probably not. We know from dissections and histological work on birds that the respiratory air sacs, their diverticula, and the diverticular spaces inside the skeleton are all relatively avascular, meaning that the tissues get enough blood to stay alive, but aren’t specialized for gas exchange. Furthermore, physiological experiments on living birds have shown that about 95% of the gas exchange happens in the lungs, and almost all of the remaining 5% happens in the paired abdominal air sacs (Magnussen et al. 1976), probably because they are so large and so intimately in contact with the guts (Wetherbee’s nutshell metaphor), which are well-supplied with blood. We also know from bone histology that the air-filled bones of extinct dinosaurs are essentially identical to those of modern birds (Lambertz et al. 2018), so there’s no evidence that they functioned any differently.

A simplified diagram of the sauropod respiratory system. What I’ve labeled “air tubes” here are the pneumatic diverticula. Air holes in the vertebrae are also known as pneumatic foramina. The shapes of the lungs and air sacs are speculative, but the minimum extent of the pneumatic diverticula is not–although it could be an underestimate (e.g., diverticula might have gone even further down the tail, and just not left any diagnostic traces on those vertebrae).

A final piece before we get back to Dolly: we know from lots of anecdotal observations, and some actual experiments, that air-filled bones have to stay connected to the outside to form in the first place, and to stay healthy afterward. This is true of both human sinuses and postcranial pneumatic bones in birds, so it’s reasonable to assume that it’s a general feature of all air-filled bones (see Witmer 1997 for lots of relevant citations and discussion). This is a pretty handy thing to know, because if we find an air-filled vertebra way out in the tail, we know pneumatic diverticula of the respiratory system got at least that far. ‘At least’ because pneumatic diverticula can make diagnostic traces on bones, but they don’t always do so. That means that the diverticular network can easily be more extensive than its skeletal traces, but not less so — see Wedel and Taylor (2013) for more on that.

To sum up, we suspect the following things about pneumatic diverticula around the vertebrae of sauropods, including Dolly:

  1. The diverticula were complex, based on the traces they left on the bones, and similarly complex diverticula in birds.
  2. The diverticula were patent, or open, maintaining an open connection to the outside by way of the respiratory air sacs, lungs, and trachea, because that’s how air-filled bones work in living birds and mammals.
  3. Despite being complex and ultimately open to the outside in one direction, the diverticula were cul-de-sacs, with little or no active circulation of air — especially in the neck.

With that in mind, what does the distribution of infected bone in Dolly tell us about sauropods?

Infections and inferences

Here’s another illustration of the respiratory system of the pigeon, this time a dorsal or top-down view, from Muller (1908: fig. 12):

Okay, that was a bit of a bait-and-switch: I promised you Dolly and gave you another pigeon. But that’s only to help you understand this similar cartoon I drew, which represents Dolly’s respiratory system and neck vertebrae, also seen from the top down:

Like the earlier cartoon, this is pretty simplified. For instance, I got lazy and didn’t draw all of the neck vertebrae. In life, Dolly probably had 15 or 16 neck vertebrae, like other diplodocids, and we know that the three with lesions are C5-C7 because they were found articulated. Here I drew just enough vertebrae to make my points, and I left off the head and all the other extraneous bits. Also, I’ve drawn the diverticula that run up the neck originating from cervical air sacs, as in pigeons (Muller 1908), but there is evidence that in ostriches those diverticula may originate from the lungs themselves (Schachner et al. 2020). Whether the diverticula come from the lungs or the air sacs is probably not an answerable question for sauropods, and for my purposes here, it doesn’t matter, only that the diverticula are connected back to the core respiratory system.

Three things struck us about the distribution of the infected bone in Dolly’s neck:

  1. The lesions are all in vertebrae that are a long way up the neck, far from the lungs and respiratory air sacs in the torso.
  2. The lesions are clustered in serially-adjacent vertebrae, instead of being scattered up and down the neck randomly.
  3. The lesions are present bilaterally, on both left and right sides of the affected vertebrae.

Well, as opposed to what? We can imagine a scenario in which the lesions were scattered randomly, not just up and down the neck, but also on left and right sides, like so:

If the infection had been carried in the blood, we might expect such a random pattern. In that case, it would be an extreme coincidence if a blood-borne infection, which could go anywhere in the body, only manifested in the air spaces on the sides of three consecutive vertebrae. The clustering of the Dolly’s lesions, in the air spaces on both sides in three adjacent vertebrae, far up the neck, points to a different cause.

Recall that diverticula are lined by epithelium, and that in air-filled bones, the epithelium is right up against the bone tissue. The infection in Dolly almost certainly started out as an infection in the diverticulum, which was so severe that it spread to the underlying bone. In exactly the same way that the air spaces in the bones are the skeletal footprints of the diverticula, the lesions in Dolly’s vertebrae are the skeletal footprints of infected epithelium lining the diverticula, like so:

The infection may have gotten so severe, far up Dolly’s neck, precisely because there was little airflow so far from the lungs and air sacs. Airborne bacteria or fungal spores could have floated into the diverticula by diffusion, come to rest against the epithelium in warm, dark, humid conditions, and gone wild. It’s also possible that a huge swath of Dolly’s respiratory system was infected, but the infection only got severe enough to spread to the underlying bone in cervical vertebrae 5-7, in which case the actual infection might have looked something like this:

Just like a diverticulum can contact a bone without producing a distinct trace, the pneumatic epithelium could be infected without producing a bony lesion. Thought experiment: how many times have you had a sinus infection, and how many people do you know who have had sinus infections? And how many of those sinus infections were severe enough, and lasted long enough, to produce bony lesions like we see in Dolly? Probably very few — such things do happen in humans, and the medical literature has plenty of cases (and if this has happened to your or a loved one, you have my full sympathy) — but on a population level, the fraction of respiratory infections that produce bony lesions is miniscule. Similarly, it’s very likely that much more of Dolly’s respiratory system was infected than we can tell from the skeleton.

A cervical vertebra of an ostrich with some of the pneumatic diverticula traced on.

The presence of infected bone on both left and right sides of C5-C7 in Dolly is also telling. If the diverticula on the left and right sides of the neck were separate, the symmetrical pattern of infection would be another extreme coincidence. But in birds there are opportunities for diverticula from the left and right sides of the neck to meet and anastomose, especially the supravertebral diverticula on the neural arch (shown above), and the supramedullary diverticula inside the neural canal. Based on pneumatic traces on the vertebrae we infer that the same diverticula were present in sauropods, as shown up above in the Diplodocus figures from Schwarz et al. (2007), and those left-and-right communications probably allowed the infection to develop more or less symmetrically. Or to put it another way, the symmetrical infections are additional evidence that the diverticula on the left and right sides of the neck were connected across the midline, and birds show that there are several ways that could have happened.

CT scans of cervical 7 of MOR 7029. Photograph and scan model of the vertebra ((A,B) respectively). The colored lines in (B) correspond to the scan slices (and scan interpretative drawings below). White arrows point to the external feature, while black arrows denote the hyperintense bone and irregular voids. (C) Comparison of the abnormal tissue composition of MOR 7029 (left), compared to that of a ‘normal’ diplodocine (right). Text and white arrows indicate the various features different shared/differentiated between the two. For the interpretative drawings, white = ‘normal’ bone, grey = hyperintense bone, black = irregular voids. Woodruff et al. (2022: fig. 2).

Another possibility is that a good chunk of the internal structure Dolly’s vertebrae was infected, and the lesions that we see on the surface are just the groady tips of big, disgusting icebergs of infected bone. In fact, that’s pretty much what the CT scans show. So possibly the infection started on one side of each vertebra and basically burrowed through to reach the other side. That would probably take weeks or months, whereas the infection could have spread across the midline through diverticula in hours or days, so I think the latter scenario is still the most plausible explanation for the presence of the lesions on both sides of the affected vertebrae.

In summary, I don’t think Dolly tells us anything surprising that we didn’t suspect before. Rather, the pattern of infection in Dolly makes perfect sense if the diverticula of sauropods were essentially bird-like, and that pattern is difficult to explain any other way.

Finding skeletal traces of a respiratory infection in Dolly was still a crazy lucky break, and that’s something I’ll discuss more in the next post in this series.


8 Responses to “Sauro-throat, Part 3: what does Dolly’s disease tell us about sauropods?”

  1. Cary Woodruff Says:

    This would have been a great figure in the paper!

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    Ha, thanks! If I’d thought of it sooner, I would have pushed to include it. But alas, it only occurred to me after the paper was out.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    @Cary — Like I said to Matt after peeking at a draft of this post before it was published. this is the kind of blog-post that spawns a followup paper. Like the way that the terrible third image in this post eventually became Taylor 2014 on quantifying the effect of neck cartilage on neutral posture.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, but I struggle to see what the follow-up paper would be about. Almost all of this is either background stuff that is already in the literature, or cartoons illustrating ideas that are already in the existing paper in prose form. Still, I’m often blind to potentially publishable spin-offs of my work, so if you see something I don’t, clue me in!

  5. llewelly Says:

    this is great help for understanding the paper (at least for people like me who don’t already know a ton about the air sac systems of birds and sauropods)

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks, llewelly! I haven’t forgotten about your question from the first Dolly post. That will be a big part of an upcoming post — if not the very next one on Dolly, then the one after that.

  7. […] closed the last post by claiming that finding the infected bone in Dolly was “a crazy lucky break”. […]

  8. […] Sauro-throat, Part 3: what does Dolly’s disease tell us about sauropods? […]

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