New paper: pneumatic diverticula in the neural canals of birds

March 29, 2022

Morphological variation in paramedullary airways; yellow = spinal cord, green = diverticula. The spectrum of variation is discretized into four groups: i, branches of intertransverse diverticula contact spinal cord at intervertebral joints; ii, branches of intertransverse diverticula extend partially into the vertebral canal, but remain discontinuous; iii, paramedullary diverticula form sets of tubes that are continuous through vertebral canals of at least two consecutive vertebrae; iv, continuous paramedullary diverticula anastomose with supravertebral diverticula. Each variant is depicted diagrammatically (A, dorsal view; B, E, H, & K, transverse view) and shown in two CT scans; images in each column correspond to the same morphology. Morphology i: C, cormorant; D, scrub jay. Morphology ii: F, bushtit; G, common murre. Morphology iii: I, red-tailed hawk; J, black-crowned night heron. Morphology iv: L, M, pelican. (Atterholt and Wedel 2022: figure 5)

New paper out:

Atterholt, Jessie, and Wedel, Mathew J. 2022. A computed tomography-based survey of paramedullary diverticula in extant Aves. The Anatomical Record, 1– 22. https://doi.org/10.1002/ar.24923

Quick aside, which will soon be of historical interest only: so far, only the accepted-but-unformatted manuscript is available, with the final, fully-formatted ‘version of record’ due along at some point in the future. We’re not sure when that will be — could be next week, could be months from now — which is why I’m following my standard procedure and yapping about the new paper now. This has paid off in the past, when papers that were only available in accepted ms form were read and cited before the final version was published. UPDATE on April 9: the formatted version of record is out now, as an open-access article with a CC-BY license, and I swapped it for the ‘accepted ms’ version in the links above and at the end of this post.

This paper has had a weirdly drawn-out gestation. Jessie and I hatched the idea of it way back in 2017, when we were teaching in the summer anatomy course together. I learned that Jessie had a big war chest of CTs of dead birds, and I’d been obsessed with supramedullary diverticula in birds and sauropods for some time already (e.g., an SVPCA talk: Wedel et al. 2014). There were detailed published descriptions of the supramedullary diverticula in a handful of species — namely chickens, turkeys, and pigeons — but no broad survey of those diverticula across living birds. Jessie had the CT scans to do that big survey, which we got rolling on right away. She presented our preliminary results at SVPCA in 2018 (Atterholt and Wedel 2018), and by rights the paper should have been along shortly thereafter. More on that in a sec.

One thing that may seem odd: we use the term ‘paramedullary diverticula’ instead of the more familiar and established ‘supramedullary diverticula’. That’s because these diverticula are not always dorsal to the spinal cord; sometimes they’re lateral, sometimes they’re ventral, and sometimes they completely surround the spinal cord, like an inflated cuff. So we decided that the term ‘paramedullary’, or ‘next to the spinal cord’, was more accurate than ‘supramedullary’, or ‘above the spinal cord’, for describing this class of diverticula.

Observed variation in the shape, arrangement, and orientation of paramedullary diverticula relative to the spinal cord; yellow = spinal cord, green = diverticula. A, paired diverticula dorsal to spinal cord in an ostrich. B, paired diverticula lateral to spinal cord in a bushtit. C, paired diverticula ventral to spinal cord in a violet turaco. D, three diverticula dorsal to spinal cord in an ostrich. E, four diverticula dorsal to spinal cord in an eclectus parrot. F, single, c-shaped diverticulum dorsal to spinal cord in an ostrich. G, diverticula completely surrounding spinal cord and pneumatizing vertebra in a violet turaco. H, no paramedullary diverticula present in a Pacific loon. I, diverticula completely surrounding spinal cord in a pelican. (Atterholt and Wedel 2022: figure 6)

I will have more to say about the science in other posts, and you can get the scientific backstory in this post and this one and the abstracts cited above and linked below. The rest of this post is mostly about me, so if you stick around, buckle up for some advanced navel-gazing.

There’s no one reason why this paper didn’t come out sooner. In short, I hit a wall. We went through a curriculum change at work, and suddenly the annual schedule that I’d relied on for a decade was completely upended. I had some unexpected challenges in my personal life. But the biggest problem was that my attitude toward research and writing had changed, for the worse.

When I was fresh out of grad school I had this kinda snotty attitude that my research was MINE, and wherever I was teaching was just, like, a paycheck, man, but they don’t own me, or my research. And as my teaching and committee responsibilities ramped up I still felt like research and writing was something I did for myself, and that my mission was to steal however many hours I could away from the “day-job work” to get done the things that I really wanted to do. Like a guerilla insurgency. In retrospect, it was a pretty good attitude for getting stuff done.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking about research as something that belonged to me, something that I did for myself, and started thinking about it as part of my job. (This also maybe is not so flattering in what it reveals about how I think, or at least thought, about my job.) Instead of using my research time as a source of energy and a wellspring of satisfaction and positivity, I starting thinking of it only as a sink. And it happened so insidiously that I didn’t even realize it. My productivity plummeted, and I didn’t understand why. I was restless and depressed, and I didn’t understand that either. At the level of my superficial thoughts I still wanted to get research done, but my subconscious was turned off to it, so I just spun my wheels.

Then the pandemic hit. I’d always been a pretty optimistic, upbeat person, but I found myself just staring off into space franticizing about all the horrible things going on in the world, or staying up too late doom-scrolling the news. I slept too little, and poorly, and by the end of 2020 I felt worn down to a nub.

Osteological evidence of paramedullary diverticula. A, pocked texturing inside the vertebral canal of a pelican (LACM 86262). B, pneumatic foramen on the roof of the vertebral canal of an albatross (Phoebastria nigripes, LACM 115139). C, pneumatic foramina in the floor of the vertebral canal of an ostrich (Struthio camelus, LACM 116205). D, deep pneumatic fossae in the roof of the vertebral canal of an Eastern moa (Emeus sp., LACM unnumbered). (Atterholt and Wedel 2022: figure 7)

Then a series of positive things happened:

  • I received a long, heartfelt email from Jessie (fittingly!), asking after me and laying out a plan for getting the paper done and out. It was the kick I needed to look inside and start picking myself apart, to figure out what the heck was going on. Much of this post is cribbed from my reply to her.
  • I got a little break from lecturing in the spring of 2021, and that gave me the space to get a couple of things finished and submitted — the pneumatic variation paper with Mike in January (Taylor and Wedel 2021), and the Haplocanthosaurus neural canal paper, which was submitted even earlier in January, although it came out much later (Wedel et al. 2021; more on that publication delay in a future post).
  • Finally, I had young, energetic coauthors who were moving projects forward that required modest levels of effort from me, but which paid off with highly visible publications that I’m proud to be an author on, including the saltasaur pneumaticity paper (Aureliano et al. 2021) and the ‘Sauro-Throat’ paper (Woodruff et al. 2022).

It’s impossible to overstate how energizing it was to get new things done and out, and how much it helped to have collaborators who were putting wins on the board even when I was otherwise occupied. One of those collaborators was Jessie, who just kept pushing this thing forward — and, sometimes, pushing me forward — until it was done. So the paper you can read today is a testament not only to her acumen as a morphologist, but also to her tenacity as a scholar, and as a friend.

The part of the paper I’m happiest about is the “Conclusions and Directions for Future Research”, which points the way toward a LOT of further studies that need to be done, both on extant birds and on fossil archosaurs, ranging from bone histology to functional morphology to macroevolution. As we wrote in the concluding sentence of the paper, “We hope that this study serves as a foundation and an enticement for further studies of this most unusual anatomical system, in both extinct and extant archosaurs.”

I can’t wait to see what comes next.

References

One Response to “New paper: pneumatic diverticula in the neural canals of birds”

  1. dale mcinnes Says:

    Well. Isn’t that something. Your frustration in trying to separate your work from your “job” in the research institute where you worked with your other assignments. And here I thought our institute was unique. It was even more bizarre. I was with some of the fellows doing research at home after hours on some oolites, doing reconstructions, then writing the manuscripts. This was all extra, after hours, doing research that the institute would never get around doing. They were ordered by the institute to turn over their manuscripts, including the reconstructions to the other research people that were directly employed to do that. Most grabbed preparator jobs because that was all that was available to being employed in this field. That didn’t stop them from producing their own manuscripts. Result? They destroyed their work. They were told that they would be terminated otherwise. Politics. Even in science. As a result, most dinosaur people left for employment in other fields. It was a major blow to the program. I was the first one out. So. count yourself lucky. In Alberta here, it was far more restrictive. Only in the last 10 years did people find their way back into the “new” dinosaur programs. Most of our research crew continued to write books (but no papers) from several different libraries where they became well known …. again but never set foot back into that old dinosaur program that we loved so much. Life. It is what it is.


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