Last time, I noted that photographs of the exact same object, even under the same lighting conditions, can come out different colours. That is one of the two reasons why I am not persuaded that the very different colours of my photos of the two Supersaurus scapulae is strong evidence that they are from different individuals.

The other reason is that, as BJ Nicholls pointed out in a comment on that post, “Color in fossils can be misleading even in real life. As bones erode out, surface float pieces can be bleached on exposed surfaces. Bones within a bed can vary a lot in color too.”

Here’s an example:

What we have here are some of bones from the skeleton of Charlie the monitor lizard. After I extracted these bones from Charlie’s decomposing carcass ten years ago (can it really have been that long?!) I have left them sitting on a tray, awaiting articulation.

At the top of this photo is a scapulocoracoid; at the bottom, some dorsal vertebrae. As you can see, the former has bleached white, while the latter have remained ivory coloured. Remember, these are bones from the same individual that were extracted at the same time (give or take maybe a day or two), and that have been in exactly the same situation (on a tray, on a window sill, in my office) ever since.

The moral: bone colour doesn’t really tell you much at all.

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Several drinks later, they all die and somehow become skeletonised, and that’s how they all land up on a table in my office:

2016-04-14 11.12.52

Top left: pieces of monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus. Cervical vertebrae 1-7 on the piece of paper, femora visible above them, bits of feet below them. Awaiting reassembly. The whole skeleton is there.

Top right, on a plate on top of some lizard bits: skull, cervicals and feet of common pheasant Phasianus colchicus. The skull has come apart, and I can’t figure out how to reattach the quadrates. One of the feet is cleanly prepped out and waiting to be reassembled, while the other retains some skin for now.

Bottom left: skull and anterior cervicals of red fox Vulpes vulpes. Lots of teeth came out during the defleshing process, and will need to be carefully relocated and glued after the skull has finished drying out.

Bottom right: skull and anterior cervicals of European badger Meles meles. The skull is flat-out awesome, and by far my favourite among my mammal skulls. If tyrannosaurs were medium-sized fossorial mammals, they’d have badgers’ skulls for sure. A few teeth that came out have been glued into place; once the glue is dry, this skull is done.

 

Murphy and Mitchell (1974: fig. 1)

Murphy and Mitchell (1974: fig. 1)

One thing that I’ve never understood is why some people are skeptical about sauropods using their tails defensively, when lizards do this all the time. I’ve been digging through the literature on this for a current project, and there are some really great accounts out there, and by ‘great’ I mean ‘scary’.

Here’s a key passage from Murphy and Mitchell (1974: p. 95):

V. salvator uses the tail to strike repeatedly in combination with biting for defense…Captive Varanus (varius, spenceri, mertensi, and salvadorii) use the tail for defense, but only salvadorii appears to aim directly for a handler’s eye. An adult male V. salvadorii accurately struck the senior author’s eye with the tip of the tail as he was attempting to maneuver the lizard. On many subsequent occasions, the monitor tried to strike the eye of the handler with accuracy.

Not being a monitor expert, I was initially thrown by the V. salvator/V. salvadorii issue. V. salvator is the water monitor, V. salvadorii is the crocodile monitor. Both get pretty darned big; Wikipedia lists 3.21 m (10.5 ft) for V. salvator and 2.44-3.23 m (8.0-10.6 ft) for V. salvadorii.

Anyway, I’d heard of lots of anecdotal reports of lizards from many clades using their tails to lash at rivals, predators, or handlers, but I’d never read about a lizard aiming directly for the target’s eyes. It immediately made me think about (1) sauropod tails, especially the whip-lash tails of flagellicaudan diplodocoids and at least some titanosaurs (Wilson et al. 1999), and (2) the supraorbital crests and ridges in many theropods, especially big Morrison forms like Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus. Of course, supraorbital crests in theropods could serve many functions, including shading the eyes and social and sexual display, but it’s interesting to speculate that they might have had a defensive function as well. Has anyone ever proposed that in print?

Diplodocus USNM 10865 - Gilmore 1932 pl 6 - cleaned up

Diplodocus longus USNM 10865, from Gilmore (1932: plate 6)

 

Most of the papers that pooh-pooh the use of whiplash tails in defense (e.g., Myhrvold and Currie 1997) argue that the tail-tip would be too small to do any serious damage to a multi-ton attacker, and too fragile to survive an impact. This seems wrong-headed to me, like arguing that unless you find putative animal weapons broken and caked in their adversaries’ blood, they aren’t used as weapons. A structure doesn’t have to do lethal damage or any damage at all to serve as a weapon, as long as it dissuades a predator from attacking. I’d think that getting hit in the eye by a 35-foot bullwhip might convince an allosaur to go have a look at Camptosaurus instead.

Now, one could argue that if the whip-lash doesn’t do any serious damage, predators will learn to blow them off as dishonest signals (we’re assuming here that having your eye possibly knocked out doesn’t count as ‘serious damage’ to an allosaur). But it’s not like the whiplash was the only weapon a diplodocid could bring to bear: the proximal tail could probably deliver a respectable clobberin’, and then there’s the zero fun of being stomped on by an adversary massing a dozen tons or more. In that sense, the whip-lash is writing checks the rest of the body can certainly cash. It’s saying, “Getting hit with this will be no fun, and if that isn’t enough, there’s plenty more coming.”

All of this is leaving aside more obvious defensive adaptations of the tail in Shunosaurus, maybe Omeisaurus and Mamenchisaurus, and probably Spinophorosaurus (although I’d feel better about Spinophorosaurus if the association of the spikes and the tail was more secure). I suspect that all sauropod tails were useful in defense, but only some sauropod taxa used that behavior enough for a morphological enhancement (club, spikes, whiplash) to have evolved. Similarly, common snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, will wiggle their unspecialized tongues to attract fish (I’ve witnessed this myself in captive specimens) but lack the worm-shaped tongue lure found in the more ambush-specialized alligator snappers, Macrochelys temminckii. On reflection, there are probably few morphological changes in evolution that aren’t preceded by behavior. Not in a Lamarckian sense, just that certain variations aren’t useful unless the organism is already (suboptimally) performing the relevant function.

Bonus observation: Mike noted back when that Shunosaurus and Varanus retain complex caudal vertebrae all the way out to the end. Since in this case ‘complex’ means ‘having processes that muscles can attach to’, maybe that has something to do with keeping up relatively fine motor control in your bad-guy-whomping organ. Would be interesting to compare caudal morphology between tail-whomping lizards and committed caudal pacifists (assuming we can find any of the latter that we’re certain about – maybe tail-whomping just doesn’t get used very often in some taxa, like those that have caudal autotomy). Anyone know anything about that?

References

  • Murphy, J. B., & Mitchell, L. A. (1974). Ritualized combat behavior of the pygmy mulga monitor lizard, Varanus gilleni (Sauria: Varanidae). Herpetologica, 90-97.
  • Myhrvold, N. P., & Currie, P. J. (1997). Supersonic sauropods? Tail dynamics in the diplodocids. Paleobiology, 23(4), 393-409.
  • Wilson, J. A., Martinez, R. N., & Alcober, O. (1999). Distal tail segment of a titanosaur (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous of Mendoza, Argentina. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 19(3), 591-594.
1_MonitorLizard_AnatomyFlow

Image courtesy of Emma Schachner.

Gotta say, I did not see that coming.

Today sees the publication of a new paper by Emma Schachner and colleagues in Nature, documenting for the first time that unidirectional, flow-through breathing–previously only known in birds and crocodilians–happens in freakin’ monitor lizards. The image above, which is most of Figure 1, pretty much tells the tale.

Some quick background: until the early 1970s, no-one was quite sure how birds breathed. Everyone knew that birds breathe, and that the air sacs had something to do with it, and that the bird lungs are set up as a series of tubes instead of a big array of little sacs, like ours, but the airflow patterns had not been worked out. Then in a series of nifty experiments, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and his students and colleagues showed that birds have unidirectional airflow through their lungs on both inspiration and expiration. Amazingly, there are no anatomical valves in the lungs or air sacs, and the complex flow patterns are all generated by aerodynamic valving. For loads more information on this, including some cool animations, please see this page (the diagram below is modified from versions on that page). For a short, eminently readable summary of how undirectional airflow in birds was first discovered (among many other fascinating things), I recommend Schmidt-Nielsen’s wonderful little book, How Animals Work.

Avian breathing

After 1972, biologists had almost four decades to get used to the idea that birds had this amazing miraculous lung thingy that was unique in the animal kingdom. Then in 2010, Colleen Farmer and Kent Sanders of the University of Utah blew our collective minds by demonstrating that alligators have unidirectional flow-through lungs, too. That means that far from being a birds-only thing, unidirectional flow-through lung ventilation was probably primitive for Archosauria, and was therefore the default state for non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, the other ornithodirans and the hordes of croc-line archosaurs.

Crocodilian breathing - Schachner et al 2013a fig 10

Diagrammatic and highly simplified representation of airflow through the dorsobronchi and ventrobronchi during inspiration (A) and expiration (B) in the crocodilian lung, and inspiration (A) and expiration (D) in the avian lung. The avian model is a modification of the Hazelhoff loop (Hazelhoff, 1951). Arrows denote direction of airflow, white arrows show air flowing through the parabronchi, blue arrows show air entering the trachea, the red circled “X” demonstrates the location of the aerodynamic inspiratory valve (i.e., air does not flow through this location during inspiration). Colors represent hypothesized homologous regions of the lung in both groups. Abbreviations: d, dorsobronchi; P, parabronchi; Pb, primary bronchus; v, ventrobronchi. [Figure 10 and caption from Schachner et al. 2013a.]

The birdy-ness of crocodilian lungs was further cemented earlier this year when Schachner et al. described the lung morphology and airflow patterns in Nile crocs, which have lungs that are if anything even more birdlike than those of gators. I got to review that paper and blogged about it here.

Now…well, you read the headline. Monitor lizards have unidirectional airflow through their lungs, too. This falls at about the halfway point between “whatisthisIdonteven”–I mean, dude, unidirectional airflow in friggin’ lizards!–and “yeah, that makes a weird sort of sense”. Because to sum up a lot of science unscientifically, monitors just kick a little more ass than other squamates. They have crazy high aerobic capacities for animals that aren’t birds or mammals, they’re ecologically versatile and geographically widespread, they get waaay bigger than any other extant lizards (Komodo dragons) and until recently got even bigger than that (Megalania). Is it going too far to link the success of varanids with their totally pimpin’ flow-through lungs? Maybe, maybe not. But it seems like fertile ground for further study.

Schachner_fig3_labels

Phylogeny for Diapsida showing lungs of representative taxa.
Greyscale images are modified from Milani and transected. The coloured
three-dimensional images are the bronchial tree (right lateral view). Images are
not to scale. a, Diapsida. b, Sphenodon punctatus. c, Crocodile sp. (left) and
Alligator mississippiensis (right). d, Squamata. e, Iguana iguana (left) and
Polychrus marmoratus (right). f, Gekko gecko. g, Lacerta viridis. h, Python sp.
in dorsal view . i, Varanus bengalensis (left) and V. exanthematicus (right).
The blue regions of the phylogeny reflect the hypothesis that unidirectional
airflow evolved convergently; the green arrow shows the alternative hypothesis
of an ancestral origin. [Figure 3 and caption from Schachner et al. (2013b).]

Now, obviously the gigantic question looming over all of amniote biology like one of those monoliths from 2001 is: does this mean that unidirectional flow-through lung ventilation is primitive for all diapsids? That is a super-interesting possibility, and in the new paper Schachner et al. advance some evidence both for and against. On the “for” side, well, hey, there’s uniflow in monitors, crocs, and birds, and in all three cases, air flows down the primary bronchus into a sac at the caudal end, and then back cranially through series of interconnected sacs or tubes. On the “against” side, the patterns of airflow in varanids are similar to those in archosaurs but not identical: in archosaurs, the caudal-to-cranial flow goes through dorsal, tube-shaped secondary bronchi, whereas in varanids it goes through ventrolateral, sac-like bronchi. Also, varanids and archosaurs are phylogenetically distant, so if uniflow was primitive for diapsids, it would seem to have been lost in a lot of other lineages–potentially, all the non-varanid lepidosauromorphs.

On the gripping hand, uniflow would seem to have been lost in all those other lepidosauromorphs, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe some of them are in the same state varanids were in until this year: they’ve had uniflow lungs forever and we don’t know because no-one has looked yet. And this is one of the concluding points in the new paper: we need to go look more at how living animals actually work.

A small sample of monitor lung diversity, from Becker et al. (1989).

A small sample of monitor lung diversity, from Becker et al. (1989).

In fact, we don’t just need to look at more critters in general, we specifically need to look at more monitors. I have been casually throwing around the terms “monitors” and “varanids” as if the findings of Schachner et al. (2013b) apply to all of them. They may not–the new paper is only about airflow in the savannah monitor, Varanus exanthematicus (same species as Mike’s “sauropod” Charlie), and monitor lungs are sufficiently diverse in form to have been used as taxonomic characters (Becker et al. 1989). So monitors may actually provide multiple windows into the evolution of unidirectional, flow-through lung ventilation. This is especially tantalizing because extant monitors cover a much wider range of body sizes and ecologies than extant crocs, so–just maybe–we can find out if and how diversity in lung structure and ventilation is related to body size and mode of life. Somebody get on that, stat.

Hypothetical bird lung intermediates - Perry 1992 fig 6

Figure 6 from Perry (1992).

My favorite part of all this? Something virtually identical to how monitor lungs work was proposed just over two decades ago by Steve Perry, as a hypothetical stage between saccular lungs and bird-like lungs. See the “Euparkerian grade” lung in the above figure, with perforations between adjacent chambers? Compare that to the diagram of the monitor lung in the image at the top of the post–they’re pretty darned similar. Now, two caveats. First, Steve was suggesting this as a plausible ancestral state for archosaurs, not monitors, and as mentioned above, monitors do things a little differently than archosaurs. Second, there are some things in this figure that are now known to be incorrect, primarily the lack of unidirectional airflow in the crocodilian lung. In fact, on the page opposite this figure, Steve explicitly discounted the possibility of unidirectional airflow in croc lungs. Still, he recognized that croc lungs and bird lungs share profound structural similarities, that they are really points on a spectrum of plausible intermediate conditions, and that crocs had the potential to shuttle air around their lungs because of the complex connections between chambers. So if Steve was not completely right, neither was he completely wrong; it might be most accurate to say that he was less wrong than anyone else at the time, and for about 20 more years after. Which is pretty darned good; I’ve had to rebut myself within the space of five years (Wedel 2007: prosauropod pneumaticity is equivocal. Yates et al. 2012: oh no it’s not!).

Here are the thoughts that have been tumbling through my head since I first learned about this. Obviously structures can be simplified or lost through evolution. Birds and turtles lost their teeth, numerous tetrapods have lost one or both pairs of limbs, and, heck, the platypus lost its stomach. But I rarely see hypotheses of derived simplification entertained for organs like hearts and lungs. There seems to be an unstated but widespread assumption that complex = better when it comes to core physiological processes like breathing.

Reptilian lung morphospace - Perry 1992 fig 2

Figure 2 from Perry (1992)

But it ain’t necessarily so. Following Steve Perry’s diapsid-lung-continuum diagrams, I have often wondered if croc lungs are derived from bird lungs instead of the reverse; maybe the ancestral archosaur had a fully bird-like lung/air-sac system and the non-diverticular, not-super-aerobic lungs of crocs represent a simplification of that system to suit their more sedate lifestyle as semiaquatic ambush predators. That’s pretty much what Seymour et al. (2004) suggested for crocodilian hearts, and it seems plausible given that so many early crocodylomorphs were long-legged, terrestrial, and possibly cursorial (e.g., sphenosuchians). In other words, maybe extant crocs are secondarily ectothermic, with secondarily and possibly paedomorphically reduced air sac systems.

Heck, maybe even bird lungs are simplified compared to their ancestral condition. Most birds have nine air sacs: paired cervical, anterior thoracic, posterior thoracic, and abdominal sacs, and an unpaired clavicular air sac. Some have reduced the number further through loss or fusion of adjacent air sacs. But they all start out with 12 embryonic air sacs (the extras fuse together, IIRC almost all of them becoming part of the clavicular sac), which suggests that the ancestors of birds might have had more than the standard nine.

If we assume that there was some diversity in respiratory anatomy in Mesozoic dinosaurs–which is not much of a stretch, given the diversity we see within (let alone among) monitors, crocs, and birds–it would be an awfully big coincidence if the only dinosaur clade to survive the end Cretaceous extinction just happened to have the fanciest lungs. As far as I know, no-one has proposed that birds survived because they out-breathed everyone else. If anything, the decent-to-high survival rates of mammals, crocs, and turtles across the K-Pg boundary, and the complete extinction of air-sac-equipped pterosaurs and non-avian saurischians, suggests that lung ventilation had nothing to do with survivorship. So what are the chances that crown birds have the most complex lungs among ornithodirans? (Don’t say “flight” because enantiornithines and pterosaurs had air sacs and died out, and bats don’t have air sacs and fly just fine.)

I’m not saying these “awesomeness came first” hypotheses are currently more parsimonious than the standard view. But they’re plausible, and at least potentially testable, and if nothing else an antidote to the idea that birds sit at the top of some physiological Great Chain of Being.

Back to the homology-vs-convergence question. If flow-through lungs are primitive for diapsids, maybe they’ll turn up in a few more critters. But maybe evolving undirectional airflow just isn’t that hard, and only requires poking some holes through the walls of adjacent lung chambers–as stated above, we need to go check more critters. But either way, the form and function of the lungs in V. exanthematicus are not only fascinating in their own right, they give us a window into what the early evolution of archosaurian–and maybe even early diapsid!–breathing might have been like. And that’s phenomenal.

I have some more thoughts on this, particularly the implications for sauropods and other dinosaurs, but those will have to wait for another post.

Images and figures from Schachner et al. (2013b) appear here courtesy of Emma Schachner (website), who kindly offered to let me look under the hood before the paper came out. She also created a cool video showing the 3D lung anatomy of V. exanthematicus. Thanks, Emma, and congratulations!

References

The gloves are off!

October 12, 2011

A package!  A package has arrived!

What can it be?

All right!  Let’s get down to business?

Now, where did I leave that monitor-lizard neck skeleton?  Ah yes …

That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Stay tuned for exciting news about turkey zygapophyses.

 

In a comment on the initial Shunosaurus tail-club post, Jaime Headden pointed out the passage in the Spinophorosaurus paper (Remes et al. 2009) that discusses the club of Shunosaurus (as justification for positioning the Spinophorosaurus osteoderms on the end of its tail):

With the holotypic skeleton, two closely associated dermal  ossifications were found originating from contralateral sides  (Fig. 4A–C). These elements have a subcircular base that is  rugose and concave on its medial side, and bear a caudodorsally  projecting bony spike with a rounded tip laterally. Although these  elements were found in the pelvic region under the dislocated  scapula, we regard it as most probable that they were placed on  the distal tail in the living animal for the following reasons: First,  the close association of the contralateral elements indicates they  were originally placed near the (dorsal) midline of the body.  Second, the stiffening of the distal tail by specialized chevrons is  also found in other groups of dinosaurs that exhibit tail armor  [42,43]. Third, osteoderms of similar shape are known from the  closely related basal eusauropod Shunosaurus [26]. In the latter  form, these elements cover the middle part of a tail club formed by  coalesced distal vertebrae; however, the decreasing size of the distal-most caudal vertebrae of Spinophorosaurus indicate that such a  club was not present in this genus. The right osteoderm is slightly  larger and differs in proportions from the left element, indicating  that, as in Shunosaurus [26], originally two pairs of tail spines were  present (Fig. 5).

— Remes et al. (2009:6-8)

And this gives the reference that I needed for the Shunosaurus tail-spikes (as opposed to the club) — reference 26 is Zhang (1988), which, embarrassingly, we’ve featured here on SV-POW! in our first Shunosaurus post.  Evidently I was so focussed on preparapophyses when I looked at that monograph that I completely failed to register the tail-club spikes — but then, which of us can truly say he has not made that mistake?

Anyway, here’s what Zhang has to show us:

And here’s that tail again, this time from the poorly reproduced photographic plate 12, part 1, and in right lateral view:

It’s apparent that this really is the other side of the distal tail (rather than a reversed image of the same side) because the osteoderms are in front of the club vertebrae in the left-lateral figure, but behind them in the right-lateral plate.

It would be great to say more about these, but the English language summary of Zhang’s monograph is understandably brief, constituting six pages of the 90.  What’s not quite so understandable is that neither the diagnosis of the genus Shunosaurus nor that of the species S. lii mentions the tail-club or spikes, which are arguably the most distinctive features.  The “revised diagnosis” on pp. 78-79 does, however — just:

Posterior caudals platycoelous, with small cylindrical centra; neural spines low, rod-like.  In several last caudals swollen ralidly [sic] and forming “tail-mace”; in addition there are two pairs of little caudal spines, being analogous to that of stegosaurs.

Not much to go on, but something.  That’s all, though — there is no further description, and crucially, no indication of whether the tail elements were found articulated or whether the spikes were found isolated and subsequently moved to the end of the tail.  It may be that Remes at al. know something I don’t, of course — they might have a translation of Zhang (1988) — but if not, then it’s amusing to consider that the spikes on the tail of Shunosaurus may or may not be supported by evidence, and that the inference of tail-spikes on Spinophorosaurus might be based on dodgy premises.

The other thing that struck me forcibly, as I looked at the figure and plate above, is that the caudal vertebrae remain fairly complex all the way to the end: they retain distinct and prominent neural spines, unlike the distal caudal vertebrae of diplodocids and brachiosaurs.  I notice that the distal caudals of Spinophorosaurus also seem to be complex, based on fig. 3H-I and also on the skeletal reconstruction that is fig. 5 — both of which we’ve reproduced before, in our old Spinophorosaurus article.

So what’s going on here?  Are Shunosaurus and Spinophorosaurus unusual in having distal caudals that retain complex neural spines?  If so, is this property correlated with the possession of a tail-club and/or spines?  Is it causally related?  Or could it be that this is normal for basal eusauropods, and my ideas of sauropod tails have been too coloured by extreme neosauropodocentricity?  Clearly I ought to go and look at a lot more basal sauropods’ distal tails before publishing this post.  And prosauropods’, theropods’, ornithischians’, pterosaurs’, crocadilians’ and lizards’ distal tails.

As it happens, the one non-neosauropod group of reptiles whose distal tails I do know something about is monitor lizards, thanks to my adventures with the corpse of “Charlie”.  And those caudals do maintain astonishingly detailed structure right to the end of the tail, with even absolutely tiny caudals having distinct processes.  Here are some photographs that show this.

First, one showing all 56 caudal vertebrae (the 1st is half in frame at top right, next to the sacrum; the rest read from left to right on successive rows, like words on a page).

Now here are five representative caudals from different regions on the tail — the last ones from each row in the picture above, as it happens: caudals 1, 10, 21, 30, 42 and 56.  They are in more or less dorsal view, though caudal 1 has fallen forward onto its anterior face.  In this and subsequent pictures, caudal 10 (the second shown) is  for some reason back to front.

Now here are the same vertebrae, in the same order and orientation, but now in left dorsolateral aspect (except caudal 10 which is of course in right dorsolateral):

Finally, here are the three smallest of these vertebrae (numbers 30, 42 and 56) in close-up, again in left dorsolateral view, so you can more easily see how much structure even the distalmost caudal has:

That last caudal is about 2.5 mm long.

(It’s interesting that caudals 30 and 42 have those cute fused chevrons.)

So anyway: we know that caudal vertebrae retain distinct structure all the way down to the tip of the tail in monitor lizards at least some basal eusauropods: could it be that this is the primitive state, and that degenerate caudals are found only in neosauropods and mammals?  Gotta prep out some more animals’ skeletons and find out!

References

Well, not really really.

charlie-appendicular-480px

Appendicular skeleton of savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", in dorsal view.

What we have here is of course the bones of all four feet of a lizard (plus the limb bones): “sauropod” means “lizard foot”, so lizard-foot skeletons are sauropod skeletons — right?

(Note that the hind limbs are arranged in a weird posture here, with the knees bent forward.  Also that the left pes is missing one digit — possibly IV — which was presumably lost some time ago and healed.)

These are the bones of “Charlie”, a mature savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, estimated as fourteen or fifteen years old at the time of death.  I have his whole skeleton — cranial, axial and limb-girdles — in various states of preparation, and no doubt they will all appear here sooner or later.  I was fortunate enough to encounter Charlie in the reptile house of a local kids’ activity centre with the boys, and he was not in a good way.  Luckily, his keepers happened to come in as I was looking at him, we got talking, and I popped the question as tactfully as I could — would it be OK to take his body away when the sad day comes?

The sad day came, and I found a message on my answering machine.  For one reason and another, it was a couple of days before I was able to drive out and pick up his mortal remains, but it was a proud day when I brought him home:

Charlie in his glory

Savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", recently expired, in left dorsolateral view. Scale bar for, uh, scale.

Charlie was a good-sized beast: 111 cm in length from snout to tail, and massing 3.4 kg.  I tell you, it was quite a challenge getting him into that pot that you see top right.

Charlie with Jonno

Savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", recently expired, in right anterodorsolateral view. Juvenile Homo sapiens "Jonno Taylor" for scale.

To prepare Charlie for the pan, I had to remove his tail — much, much harder than I’d been prepared for, as it was so difficult to locate the sacrocaudal intervertebral joint — and gut him.  Unfortunately, by the time I opened him up, internal decomposition had set in, and he was not in a pleasant state:

charlie-opened-up-480px

Savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", recently expired, in the unpopular right posteroventrolateral view.

(I have much more disgusting photos than this one, but it wouldn’t be tasteful to show them.)  Anyway, I abandoned my initial plan of dissecting the organs out, and basically just removed and discarded them.  I’ve actually had shamefully little experience with dead animals, so I don’t know how much the horrible state of Charlie’s guts is due to his final illness and how much to post-mortem decomposition.

Once I’d managed — just — to get him into the pot, Charlie was lightly simmered for a couple of hours (to Fiona’s delight), then dismembered, and the individual parts reboiled before I started picking the bones out of the various parts.  There’s more to say, but that will have to wait for another time.