Turkeys lie

December 18, 2018

We all know what turkeys look like, right?

Turns out that two thirds of that bird is a lie. Here’s a diagram produced for hunters on which part of the turkey to shoot. (It’s all over the Internet, and I can’t trace the original source, but I got it from here):

Bascially, if you fire an arrow at a visible turkey, there’s a 2/3 chance that it’ll pass straight through feathers and completely miss the actual bird.

Now, then: what do we think a theropod looked like in life? Probably not much like what skeleton reconstructions show as the flesh envlope, as for example in Scott Hartman’s Guanlong:

Instead, it might have looked like this:

(Note: this is not in any way a criticism of Scott’s fine work, which is a scientific restoration of the soft tissue, and does not address integument at all.)

And now that pterosaurs have feathers, too(*), we have to assume that they, too, probably had body outlines bearing little resemblance to the flesh-on-bone shapes we’ve been used to seeing.


(*) As Matt pointed out: “I can’t be bothered to write “integumentary structures” when I mean “feathers”. I realize they may be independently derived, but eyes evolved independently like 40 times and we don’t refer to the other 39 instances as “photoreceptive structures”.” (He actually wrote “I can’t be arsed”, but I changed it to “bothered” to make him appear more professional.)



Here at SV-POW! we’re big fans of the way that animals’ neck skeletons are much more extended, and often much longer, than you would guess by looking at the complete animal, with its misleading envelope of flesh.

Here’s another fine example, from John Hutchinson’s new post A Museum Evolves:

Solitaire (flightless bird), skeleton and taxidermy at University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge (UMZC). Photo by John Hutchinson.

Looking at the stuffed bird, it seems that it could get by perfectly well with half as many cervical vertebra, if only it didn’t carry them in such a strange posture.

Well — I say strange. It seems inefficient, yet it must be doing something useful, because it’s essentially ubiquitous among birds and many mammals … including rabbits, as long-time readers will remember.

Owl legs lie

May 12, 2017

Here is your occasional reminder of how very misleading feathers can be in understanding the true shape of an animal. An owl:

And the same owl showing a bit of leg:

And here are the two photos side by side:

We’ve often told you here on SV-POW! that necks lie. But legs lie, as well. Not to mention arms. Which is why so most of our life restorations of dinosaurs (theropods at least) probably look nothing like these animals looked in life.

Credit: I got the owl images from this Japanese page, but I have no idea where they originated. There are copies all over the Web, and figuring out which are the originals — if they’re even still up — would be a major research project. At any rate, you ought to be told that they are not my photos.

Just a quick post to link to all six (so far) installments of the “necks lie” series. I need this because I want to cite all the “necks lie” posts in a paper that I’ll shortly submit, and it seems better to cite a single page than four of them.

I’ll update this post as and when we write more about lying necks.


What a world we live in.


X-ray of the neck of a seal, from Irish Seal Sanctuary. Note that the vertebral column becomes much more vertical than the fleshy envelope suggests.

X-ray of the neck of a seal, from Irish Seal Sanctuary. Note that the vertebral column becomes much more vertical than the fleshy envelope suggests.


In a comment on the previous post, Emily Willoughby links to an excellent post on her own blog that discusses the “necks lie” problem in herons. Most extraordinarily, here are two photos of what seems to be the same individual:

You should get over to Emily’s blog right now and read her article. (Kudos, too, for the Portal reference in the title. I’ve been playing Portal and Portal 2 obsessively for the last week. Quite brilliant, and a very rare example of true innovation in computer gaming.)

Also of interest: this composite of two shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) individuals, which I made from two of the images mentioned in a comment by AL on Emily’s post:

Oh, birds, you crazy creatures!

Back when we were at Cambridge for the 2010 SVPCA, we saw taxidermied and skeletonised hoatzins, and were struck that the cervical skeleton was so very much longer than the neck as it appears in life — because necks lie. At Oxford last week for the 2012 SVPCA, we saw a similar pair of hoatzin mounts (one adult, one juvenile) that clarified the situation:

And here is juvenile in side-view:

As you can see, it’s folding its neck way down out of the way, so that externally it appears much shorter. (And comparing with the Cambridge specimen, you can see that the neck skeleton is proportionally much longer than this in adult.)

Why does it do this? I have no idea.

But I do know it’s not unique to hoatzins. Another nice illustration of how misleading birds’ necks are when viewed in a live animal is this parrot (probably Amazona ochrocephala) in the Natuurhistorisch Museum of Rotterdam (from this Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs post):

One thing that’s not clear to me is how much of the neck the bird can extend in life. If the parrot wants to uncoil all that spare cervical skeleton to reach upwards or forwards, can it? Will the soft tissue envelope allow it? My guess is not, otherwise you’d surely see them doing it. But then … why is all that neck in there at all?

Necks lie, redux

September 1, 2011

In a recent post I showed photos of the trachea in a rhea, running not along the ventral surface of the neck but along the right side. I promised to show that this is not uncommon, that the trachea and esophagus of birds are usually free to slide around under the skin and are not constrained to like along the ventral midline of the neck, as they usually are in mammals. Here goes.

Here’s figure 5 from van der Leeuw et al. (2001): a lateral x-ray of a duck, reaching up just a bit with its head and neck, possibly to get a bite or just look around. Click through for the unlabeled version.

There’s a LOT of stuff going on in this image:

  • As promised, the trachea (blue lines) is taking a very different path to the head than the vertebrae and skeletal muscles.
  • As usual for tetrapods, the neck is extended at the base in the caudal half and flexed at the head in the cranial half.
  • The epaxial (dorsal) muscles at the base of the neck are not tied down to the vertebral column so they are free to bowstring across the U-bend at the base of the neck (black arrow)–this was the point of the figure in the original paper. Although the gross outline of the neck also deviates from the vertebral column on the ventral side near the head, this is caused by the trachea and gullet approaching the pharynx, not because the hypaxial muscles are bowstringed across the curve.
  • As the post title intimates, this neck lies: the cervical vertebrae are significantly more extended than one would expect based on the external appearance of the neck alone. The red line shows the angle of the most strongly retroverted vertebra, which I measure at 48.5 degrees from vertical (41.5 degrees above horizontal)–slightly closer to horizontal than to vertical! We have seen this before, in most mammals and in a couple of small birds (see this post); here we see it even in a reasonably large, long-necked bird.
  • Worse, the gross outline of the neck–what one can see from the outside–lines up with nothing on the inside: the trachea is less curved and the vertebral column is more curved.

Same points again, this time in a chicken in an alert posture (Vidal et al. 1986: fig. 7). Here the most strongly retroverted cervical is 36 degrees from vertical (54 degrees above horizontal).

What’s all this got to do with sauropods?

First, it shows that even in animals with long, slender necks, it’s not enough to show a photo or painting of an extant animal and make assertions about what the cervicals are doing (necks lie, again). It’s even less defensible to make the dual assertions that (a) the gross outline of the neck shows the path of the cervicals and (b) the cervicals are in ONP, all based on a photo or painting of a living animal. The first point can only be established by radiography, and the second by manipulation of the skeleton, either physically or digitally. It may seem like I’m tilting at windmills here, but we’ve seen these very assertions made in conference talks. As always, we’ll follow where the evidence leads, but not until we see some actual evidence.

Second,  I am increasingly haunted by the idea that we are all waaay too influenced, even (maybe especially) subconsciously, by big mammals when we think about sauropods and their necks. Big mammals–like, say, horses and giraffes–have:

  • only 7 cervical vertebrae;
  • lots of big muscles that attach to the thorax and the head and cross the cervical column without attaching to it much or at all;
  • presacral neural spines that max out, height-wise, over the shoulders, creating withers;
  • alert neck postures that are elevated (like all tetrapods) but often short of vertical, with the vertebrae often held more-or-less straight through the middle section of the neck (camels are an obvious exception here).

In contrast, birds have:

  • many cervical vertebrae, from a 12  or so up to 27 or 28;
  • almost no muscles that span from thorax to skull;
  • presacral neural spines that rise monotonically to the synsacrum (except–maybe–in Giraffatitan);
  • alert neck postures that are S-shaped, with the craniocervical joint over or just slightly in front of the cervicodorsal junction.

Which group sauropods had more in common with is left as an exercise for the reader.


  • van der Leeuw, A.H.J., Bout, R.G., and Zweers, G.A. 2001. Evolutionary morphology of the neck system in ratites, fowl, and waterfowl. Netherlands Journal of Zoology 51(2):243-262.
  • Vidal, P.P., Graf, W., and Berthoz, A. 1986. The orientation of the cervical vertebral column in unrestrained awake animals. Experimental Brain Research 61: 549­-559.