Imposter syndrome revisited

September 13, 2018

My wife Fiona is a musician and composer, and she’s giving a talk at this year’s TetZooCon on “Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective”. (By the way, it looks like some tickets are still available: if you live near or in striking distance of London, you should definitely go! Get your tickets here.)

With less than four weeks to go, she’s starting to get nervous — to feel that she doesn’t know enough about wildlife to talk to the famously knowledgeable and attractive TetZooCon audience. In other words, it’s a classic case of our old friend imposter syndrome.

Wanting to reassure her about how common this is, I posted a Twitter poll:

Question for academics, including grad-students.
(Please RT for better coverage.)

Have you ever experienced Imposter Syndrome?
(And feel free to leave comments with more detail.)

Here are the results at the end of the 24-hour voting period:

Based on a sample of nearly 200 academics, just one in 25 claims not have experienced imposter syndrome; nearly two thirds feel it all the time.

The comments are worth reading, too. For example, Konrad Förstner responded:

Constantly. I would not be astonished if at some point a person from the administration knocks at my door and tells me that my work was just occupational therapy to keep me busy but that my healthcare insurance will not pay this any longer.

What does this mean? Only this: you are not alone. Outside of a tiny proportion of people, everyone else you know and work with sometimes feels that way. Most of them always feel that way. And yet, think about the work they do. It’s pretty good, isn’t it? Despite how they feel? From the outside, you can see that they’re not imposters.

Guess what? They can see that you‘re not an imposter, either.

I’ve known who Peter Doson was since I was nine years old. A copy of The Dinosaurs by William Stout and William Service, with scientific content by Peter, showed up at my local Waldenbooks around the same time as the New Dinosaur Dictionary – much more on The Dinosaurs another time. Then when I started doing research as an undergrad at the University of Oklahoma, Peter’s chapter on sauropod paleobiology in The Dinosauria (Dodson 1990) was one of the first things I read. At the SVP banquet in 2000, I ran into Peter and he shook my hand and said, “Sauroposeidon rocks!” I managed not to swoon – barely.

When I was in Philadelphia this March, Peter invited me to the UPenn vet school for an afternoon. He gave me a tour of the building with its beautiful lecture halls and veterinary dissection lab, and then we spent a couple of hours rummaging around in his office. That was one of the highlights of the trip, because it turns out that Peter and I are both comparative anatomy junkies. He’s been at it for longer, and he has more regular access to dead critters and more space to display them, so his collection puts mine to shame. But he kindly let me play with study whatever I wanted.


In fact, he went farther than that: he quizzed me. A lot. I take it that it’s a right of passage for people coming through Peter’s office. It was an enjoyable challenge, and I got photos of a few quiz items so you can play, too. This transversely-sectioned skull was one of the first mystery specimens. I figured it out pretty quickly, for reasons I’ll reveal in a future post. Can you? Post your IDs in the comments.

I don’t remember all of the quiz items. One of them was the dark skull lying upside down behind the ratite skeleton in the photo up top. I had to figure that one out without picking it up, so you have about as much information as I did. We’ll call that one quiz item #2. Embiggenate for all the clues you’ll need.

This wasn’t a quiz item, just something cool: the skull of a large dog with the top of the cranium removed. In the paired cavities at the top, we’re looking down through the frontal sinuses to see the respiratory turbinates in the nasal cavities. The single large space behind is the braincase. At the very front, in the shadowed recess, you can see the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone, perforated with dozens of holes to let the olfactory nerve endings through from the back of the nasal cavities. We have the same thing on a smaller scale a centimeter or two behind our brows, and oriented horizontally. But what really drew my attention were the linear arrays of paired foramina arcing across the floor of the braincase – holes to let cranial nerves and the internal jugular veins out of the skull, and the internal carotid arteries in. We have the same structures in our heads, of course, but the layout isn’t as neat – our big brains, bent forward at such a sharp angle from the spinal cord, have squished things around a bit.

Here are more skulls, garnished with a human femur and a ratite pelvis and synsacrum. Peter quizzed me on the Archaeoceratops (front) and Auroraceratops (back) skulls on the far right. I IDed them correctly, but only because I spent some quality time with the Alf Museum’s casts when I was reconstructing the skull of Aquilops. On the far left is an alligator skull with injected arteries, which is definitely worth a closer look.

Here’s a dorsal view of the injected alligator skull. The arteries have been injected with red resin, and then all of the soft tissue has been macerated away, leaving just the bone and the internal cast of the arterial tree. Some of the midline bone has been removed here to reveal the courses of the cerebral, ethmoid, and nasal arteries. Also note the artery looping around in the left supratemporal fenestra.

Here’s a look into the right side of the back of the skull, where the lateral wall of the braincase has been Dremeled away to show the course of the internal carotid artery. It’s a very cool demonstration of a bit of anatomy that I had never seen before. For more on cranial blood vessels in crocs, check out the obscenely well-illustrated recent paper by Porter et al. (2016).

To my chagrin, that’s all the good photos I got from Peter’s office – we were too busy passing specimens back and forth and frankly geeking out like a couple of kids. One of my favorite specimens from his office was the mounted foot skeleton of a horse, which Jessie Atterholt had prepared for him when she was his student at UPenn. It’s such a cool preparation that it captured my imagination, and when I got back I warned Jessie that if she didn’t get her own articulated horse foot posted soon, I was going to make something similar for myself and steal her thunder. A couple of months later, her horse foot is up on Instagram – I featured it in this post – and my cow foot is still sitting in pieces, waiting for me to put it together. Here’s a shot of Jessie’s, to hopefully prod me into action:

I didn’t get all of Peter’s quiz questions correct. I knew that the endocast of the pharyngeal pouch in a horse was an endocast, but of what I didn’t know, although I did correctly identify the hyoid apparatus of a horse, mounted separately. And there was a partial cetacean jaw that I misidentified as a shark (in my defense, it was from one of the small, short-faced weirdos). Still, Peter said that I’d done as well as anyone else ever had. That was nice to hear, but I was already happy to have gotten to see and talk about so many cool things with a fellow connoisseur. Thanks, Peter, for a wonderful afternoon, and for permission to post these pictures. I am looking forward to a rematch!


  • Dodson, P. 1990. Sauropod paleoecology. In: D.B. Weishampel, P. Dodson, P., & H. Osmolska, (eds), The Dinosauria, 402-407. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Porter, W.R., Sedlmayr, J.C. and Witmer, L.M., 2016. Vascular patterns in the heads of crocodilians: blood vessels and sites of thermal exchange. Journal of Anatomy 229(6): 800-824.
  • Stout, W., Service, W., and Preiss, B. 1984. The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic View of a Lost Era. Bantam Dell Publishing Group, 160pp.

This is the second post in the “bird neural canals are weird” series (intro post here), and it covers the first of five expansions of the spinal cord or meninges in the lumbosacral regions of birds.

The lumbosacral expansion of the spinal cord is not unique to birds and doesn’t require any special explanation. As noted in the slide, all limbed tetrapods and some fishes with sensitive fins have adjacent segments of the spinal cord correspondingly expanded. These expansions house the extra afferent neurons needed to collect sensory inputs from the limbs, the extra efferent neurons needed to provide motor control to the limbs, and the extra interneurons needed for sensory and motor integration (including reflex arcs) – ‘extra’ here meaning ‘more than are required for non-limb neck, trunk, and tail segments’.

Humans have these, too, in our lower cervical vertebrae to run our forelimbs, and in our lower thoracic vertebrae to run our hindlimbs. Recall that the segmental anatomy of the adult human spinal cord corresponds increasingly poorly to the vertebrae the farther we are from the head because of our child-sized spinal cords (see this post for more).

So if the lumbosacral expansion is present in all tetrapods with hindlimbs, why bring it up? My goal is to develop a set of criteria to distinguish the various spinal and meningeal specializations in birds, in part because it’s an interesting challenge in its own right, and in part because doing so may help illuminate some unusual features in sauropods and other non-avian dinosaurs. If we want to be able to detect whether, say, a glycogen body is present, we need to know how to tell the impression left by a glycogen body from the more generalized lumbosacral expansion present in all limbed tetrapods. The key characteristics of the lumbosacral expansion are that the cord (and hence the canal) expands and contracts gradually, over many segments, and that the expansion is in all directions, radially, and not biased dorsoventrally or mediolaterally.

Numbering reflects spinal nerve count – 8 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, and 5 sacral spinal spinal nerves. Cervical expansion for the forelimbs is roughly C5-T1, and lumbosacral expansion for hindlimbs is L2-S3. Gray (1918 image 665).

The one way in which the lumbosacral expansion of birds is weird, at least compared to mammals, is that the magnitude of the change is so great in hindlimb-dominant flightless birds like the ostrich. Here’s a graph from Gray’s Anatomy showing the cross-sectional area of the human spinal cord in square mm, with the head on the left. Note that the swellings for the limbs bump up the cross-sectional area by a quarter to a third, relative to adjacent non-limb areas.

Streeter (1904: fig. 4)

Here’s the same diagram for an ostrich, again in square mm, again with the head to the left. The lines here are a little different – the “substantia grisea” is the gray matter (mostly neuron cell bodies), and the white matter (axons, mostly myelinated) is divided into the large ventrolateral funiculi (descending motor, ascending pain, temperature, and unconscious proprioception) and the much smaller dorsal funiculi (ascending touch and conscious proprioception). Here the lumbosacral expansion maxes out at more than double the cross-sectional area of the cord in the inter-limb torso segments – and this is just the white and gray matter, and does not include the glycogen body (which is proportionally small in the ostrich, as we’ll see in a future post).

Note that the ostrich does have a much smaller expansion of the spinal cord associated with the forelimbs, but one glance at the graph will tell you that the hindlimbs are a lot more important. This too has implications for fossils. Because the cross-sectional area of the neural canal tends to track the cross-sectional area of the spinal cord (despite the cord not filling the canal), it is possible to make inferences about limb use in fossil taxa based on the relative cross-sectional area of the neural canal along the vertebral column. Emily Giffin published several papers about this in the 1990s (e.g., Giffin 1990, 1995), all of which are worth reading.

Next in this series: the glycogen body.


Dorsal vertebra of a rhea from the LACM ornithology collection. Note the pneumatic foramina in the lateral wall of the neural canal.

If you’ve been here for very long you know I have a bit of a neural canal fixation. Some of this is related to pneumaticity, some of it is related to my interest in the nervous systems of animals, and some of it is pure curiosity about an anatomical region that seems to receive very little attention in proportion to its weirdness – especially in birds.

Human thoracic vertebrae in midsagittal section showing vertebral venous plexus. Gray (1918, image 579), available from

The neural canals of mammals are pretty boring. The canal is occupied by the spinal cord and its supporting layers of meninges, and the rest of the volume is padded out by adipose tissue and blood vessels, notably an extra-dural venous plexus. Aaand that’s about it, as far as I know. (If there are weird things inside mammalian neural canals that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments – I’m a collector.)

But not so in birds, which have a whole festival of weird stuff going on inside their neural canals. Let’s start with pneumaticity, just to get it out of the way. Many birds have supramedullary diverticula inside their neural canals, and these can leave osteological traces, such as pneumatic foramina, in the walls of the neural canal. That’s cool but it’s a pretty well-known system – see Muller (1908) on the pigeon, Cover (1953) on the turkey, and these previous posts – and I want to get on to other, even stranger things.

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).

The spinal cords of birds have several gross morphological specializations not seen in mammals, as do their meninges, and most of these apomorphic structures can also leave diagnostic traces on the inner walls of the neural canal. In fact, birds have so many weird things going on with their spinal cords – at least five different things in the lumbosacral region alone – that I spent a week back in January just sorting them out. To crystalize that body of knowledge while I had it all loaded in RAM, I made a little slideshow for myself, and I’ll use screenshots of those slides to illustrate the morphologies I want to discuss. We’ll cover the vanilla stuff in the next post, and the really weird stuff in subsequent posts.

Stay tuned!


Frog RLN ventral view - Ecker 1889 plate 1 fig 115 - RLN highlighted

Just posting a few images from my impending talk at SVPCA this Thursday.

I’ve written about the recurrent laryngeal nerve before, in Wedel (2012) and in this post. It’s present in all tetrapods, from frogs and salamanders on up. The frog RLN is shown in ventral view above, and in lateral view below, both from Ecker (1889:plate 1, figures 114 and 115). I’ve highlighted the RLN in red in both. Perhaps not a monument of inefficiency, but still recurrent, and therefore dumb.

Frog RLN lateral view - Ecker 1889 plate 1 fig 114 - RLN highlighted

And in a giraffe – RLN in blue, nerve path to hindfoot phalanges in red. Hollow circles are nerve cell bodies, solid lines are axons.

Giraffe skeleton silhouette 1000 with nerves

And in the elasmosaur Hydrotherosaurus, same color scheme plus the nerve path to the tail in purple, base image from Welles (1943).

Hydrotherosaurus nerve pathways 4 - RLN pathway

That’s all for now!


The longest cell in Andy Farke is one of the primary afferent (sensory) neurons responsible for sensing vibration or fine touch, which runs from the tip of his big toe to his brainstem. (NB: I have not actually dissected Andy to confirm this, or performed any viral neuron tracing on him, this is assumed based on comparative anatomy.) Here’s a diagram:
Longest cell in Andy Farke

This is what happens when (a) I need to create a diagram to illustrate the longest cell in the human body for my students, and (b) my friends put stuff online with a CC-BY license.

Found this while I was checking out Aquilops art online:


It’s a derivative work by Andy IJReid, from this Wikimedia page, based on two PhyloPic silhouettes Andy created (go here for the pathetically tiny lower vertebrate and here for Aquilops).


From there it was pretty straighforward to mash up Andy’s silhouette with the nerve stuff from Wedel (2012: fig. 2).

So if you want the full deets on licensing – which I am obligated to provide whether you want them or not – the image up top is a derivative image by me, based on work by Andy published at PhlyoPic under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported (CC-BY 3.0) license, and based on my own image published in Acta, also under a CC-BY license.

If you’d like to know more about the science behind very long nerves in vertebrates, please see these posts:

Also, keep making stuff and putting it online under a license people can actually use. It’s beneficial for science and education, and hugely entertaining for me.


Wedel, M.J. 2012. A monument of inefficiency: the presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(2):251-256.

I’m scrambling to get everything done before I leave for England and SVPCA this weekend, so no time for a substantive post. Instead, some goodies from old papers I’ve been reading. Explanations will have to come in the comments, if at all.

Streeter (1904: fig. 3). Compare to the next image down, and note that in birds and other reptiles the spinal cord runs the whole length of the vertebral column, in contrast to the situation in mammals.

Streeter (1904: fig. 3). Compare to the next image down, and note that in birds and other reptiles the spinal cord runs the whole length of the vertebral column, in contrast to the situation in mammals.

Nieuwenhuys (1964: fig. 1)

Nieuwenhuys (1964: fig. 1)

Butler and Hodos (1996: fig. 16.27)

Butler and Hodos (1996: fig. 16.27)

For more noodling about nerves, please see:


  • Butler, A.B., and Hodos, W. 1996. Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy: Evolution and Adaptation. 514 pp. Wiley–Liss, New York.
  • Nieuwenhuys, R. (1964). Comparative anatomy of the spinal cord. Progress in Brain Research, 11, 1-57.
  • Streeter, G. L. (1904). The structure of the spinal cord of the ostrich. American Journal of Anatomy, 3(1), 1-27.


being eaten 600

My friend, colleague, and sometime coauthor Dave Hone sent the above cartoon, knowing about my more-than-passing interest in sauropod neurology. It was drawn by Ed McLachlan in the early 1980s for Punch! magazine in the UK (you can buy prints starting at £18.99 here).

I know that this isn’t the only image in the “oblivious sauropods getting eaten” genre. There’s a satirical drawing in Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies showing a sleeping brontosaur getting its tail gnawed on by some pesky mammals. I’ll scan that and post it when I get time (Update: I did). I’m sure there must be others in a similar vein–point me to them in the comments or email me and I’ll post as many as I can get my hands on.

I wouldn’t post stuff like this if I didn’t think it was funny. But if you want the real scoop on whether sauropods could have responded quickly to injuries to their distant extremities, here’s the deal:

First of all, sauropods really did have individual sensory nerve cells that ran from their extremities (tip of tail, soles of feet)–and from the rest of their skin–to their brainstems. In the longest sauropods, these cells were probably something like 150 feet long, and may have been the longest cells in the history of life. We haven’t found any fossils of these nerves and almost certainly never will, but we can be sure that sauropods had them because all vertebrates do, from hagfish on up. That’s just how we’re built. (This is all rehash for regular readers–see this post and the linked paper.)

Wedel RLN fig2 480

So how long does it take to send a nerve impulse 150 feet? The fastest nerve conduction velocities are in the neighborhood of 120 meters per second, so a signal from the very tip of the tail in a 150-foot sauropod would take about half a second to reach the brain.

Is it possible that sauropods had accelerated nerve conduction velocities, to bring in those distant signals faster? To the brain, probably not. The only ways to speed up a nerve impulse are to increase the diameter of the axon itself, which some invertebrates do, and to increase the thickness of the myelin sheath around the axon, which is what vertebrates tend to do (some invertebrates have myelin-like tissues that apparently help accelerate their nerve impulses, too). Fatter axons mean fatter nerves, and for at least half the trip to the brain, the axons in question are part of the spinal cord. And we know that sauropod spinal cords were pretty small, relative to their body size, because the neural canals of their vertebrae, through which their spinal cords passed, are themselves small–Hatcher wrote about this more than a century ago. So there’s a tradeoff–sauropods could have had very fast, very fat axons, but not very many of them, and therefore poor “coverage” at their extremities, with nerve endings widely spaced, or better coverage with more axons, but those axons would be skinnier and therefore slower. We don’t know which way they went.

Incidentally, you can experiment with the density of sensory nerve endings in your own body. Close your eyes or blindfold yourself, and have a friend poke you in various places with chopsticks. Seriously–start with the two chopsticks right together, and gradually spread them out until you can feel two distinct points (or, if you want to get really tricky, have your friend mix up the close and widely spread touches so there’s no direction for you to anticipate). The least sensitive part of your body is your back–over your back and shoulders, you’ll probably have a hard time distinguishing points of touch that are less than an inch apart. On your hands and face, you’ll probably be able to distinguish points only a few millimeters apart; in fact, for fingertips you’ll probably need finer instruments than chopsticks–maybe toothpicks or pins, but I take no responsibility for any accidental acupuncture!

Back to sauropods. Could predators have taken advantage of the comparatively long nerve conduction velocities in sauropods? I seriously doubt it, for several reasons:

  • Simple reflex arcs are governed by interneurons in the spinal cord. The tail-tip-to-spinal-cord distance was a lot shorter than the tail-tip-to-brain route. Even over the round trip of “sensory impulse in, motor impulse out”, it would have been at worst equal, and that’s assuming the nerve impulse had to go all the way to the base of the tail.* Call it half a second, max.
  • It gets worse: the peripheral nerves outside the spinal cord are not limited by the size of the neural canal, so they can be more heavily myelinated, with faster conduction times. For example, each of the sciatic nerves running down the backs of your thighs is much larger in cross-section than your entire spinal cord. If sauropod peripheral nerves were selected for fast conduction, they might have been bigger and faster than anything around today.
  • Half a second is not much time for a theropod to formulate a plan, especially if Step 1 of the plan is “grab 150-foot sauropod by the tail”.
  • This assumes that said theropod was able to sneak right up to the sauropod without being detected. You go try that with a big wild herbivore and let me know how it works out. (Also, a big animal tolerating your presence, because you are pathetically small and weak, is not the same as it being unaware of your presence.)
  • All of this assumes the theropod only went for the bony whip-lash at the tip of the tail–the fastest-moving extremity, and the least-nourishing single bite anywhere on the target. If the theropod went for a meatier bite closer to the base of the tail, it would have to sneak closer to the sauropod’s head (better chance of being spotted), and the nerve conduction delay would be shortened.
  • A 150-foot sauropod would probably mass somewhere between 50 and 100 tons, and would be capable of dealing incredible damage to even the largest theropods, which maxed out around 15 tons. There’s a good reason predators go after the young, sick, and weak. Smaller sauropods would be less dangerous, but they’d also have faster tail-to-central-nervous-system-and-back reaction times.
  • A theropod big enough to go after a 150-foot sauropod would also be subject to fairly long nerve-conduction delays, which would limit whatever trifling advantage it might have gotten from such delays in the sauropod.

So, although I have no doubt that in their long history together, giant theropods did occasionally tackle full-grown giant sauropods–because real animals do all kinds of weird things if you watch them long enough, and lions will take on elephants when they get desperate–I am extremely skeptical that the theropods enjoyed any advantage based on the “slow” nervous systems of those sauropods.

* Some relevant hard-core anatomy for the curious: sauropods have neural canals in their tail vertebrae, and usually far down their tails, too. But that doesn’t mean much–you have neural canals to the bottom half of your sacrum, but your spinal cord stops around your first or second lumbar vertebra. From there on down, you just have nerve roots. So the shortest reflex arc from your big toe has to go up to your lower back and return. Why is your spinal cord so short? Basically because your central nervous system stops growing when you’re still a child–it will add new connections after that, and a few new cells in your olfactory bulbs and hippocampus, but it won’t get appreciably bigger or longer. After mid-childhood, your body keeps growing but your spinal cord stays the same length, so you end up with this freaky little-kid spinal cord tucked up inside your grown-up vertebral column. Weird, huh?

So did sauropod spinal cords stop at mid-back or go all the way into the tail? We have several conflicting lines of evidence. In extant reptiles, the spinal cord does extend into the tail in at least some taxa (I haven’t done anything like a complete survey, just read a couple of papers). Birds are no help because their tails are extremely short, but their spinal cords do extend into the synsacrum (and expand there, thanks to the glycogen body, which was probably also present in sauropods and responsible for the inaccurate “second brain” meme). But then birds grow up very fast, with even the largest reaching full size in a year or two, so they don’t share our problem of the body outgrowing the nervous system. We know that sauropods grew pretty quickly, but they also took a while to mature–somewhere between one and three decades, probably. Did that protracted growth period give their vertebral columns the time to outgrow their spinal cords? I have no idea, because the division of the spinal cord into roots happens inside the dura mater and doesn’t leave any skeletal traces that I know of. Someone should go figure it out–or at least figure out if it can be figured out!

I have a new paper out:

Wedel, M.J. 2012. A monument of inefficiency: the presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(2):251-256.

Update June 6, 2012: the final version was formally published yesterday, so the rest of this paragraph is of historical interest only. Like Yates et al. on prosauropod pneumaticity, it is “out” in the sense that the manuscript has been through peer review, has been accepted for publication, and is freely available online at Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Technically it is “in press” and not published yet, but all that formal publication will change is to make a prettier version of the paper available. All of the content is available now, and the paper doesn’t include any of those pesky nomenclatural acts, and so, as with the prosauropod pneumaticity paper, I don’t see any reason to pretend it doesn’t exist. Think of the accepted manuscript as the caterpillar to the published version’s butterfly: different look, but same genome.

This one came about because last summer I read a review of Richard Dawkins’s book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The review mentioned that the book includes a lengthy discussion of the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) in the giraffe, which is a spectacularly dumb piece of engineering and therefore great evidence against intelligent design creationism. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the RLN, of course. It’s one of the touchstones of both human anatomy and evolutionary biology; anatomy because of its clinical importance in thyroid surgery, known for more than two millennia, and evolutionary biology because it is such a great example of a developmental constraint. (Dawkins’s coverage of all of this is great, BTW, and you should read the book.)

No, the reason the book review inspired me to write the paper was not because the RLN was new to me, but because it was overly familiar. It is a cool piece of anatomy, and its fame is justly deserved–but I am sick and tired of seeing the stinkin’ giraffe trotted out as the ultimate example of dumb design. My beloved sauropods were way dumber, and it’s time they got some credit.

But first, let’s talk about that nerve, and how it got to be there.

No necks for sex? How about no necks for anybody!

Embryos are weird. When you were just a month old (counting from fertilization), you had a set of pharyngeal arches that didn’t look radically different from those of a primitive fish. These started out quite small, tucked up underneath your comparatively immense brain, and each pharyngeal arch was served by a loop of artery called an aortic arch. What we call the arch of the aorta in an adult human is a remnant of just one of these embryonic aortic arches, and as you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s down in your chest, not tucked up next to your brain. When you were in the embryonic stages I’m talking about, you didn’t yet have a neck, so your brain, pharyngeal arches, aortic arches, and the upper parts of your digestive system were all smooshed together at your front end.

One thing you did have at that stage was a reasonably complete peripheral nervous system. The nerve cell bodies in and near your central nervous system sent out axons into the rest of your body, including your extremities. Many of these axons did not persist; they failed to find innervation targets and their parent neurons died. Imagine your embryonic central nervous system sending out a starburst of axons in all directions, and some of those axons finding targets and persisting, and others failing and dying back. So the architecture of your nervous system is the result of a process of selection in which only some cells were successful.

Crucially, this radiation and die-off of axons happened very early in development, when a lot of what would become your guts was still hanging under your proportionally immense brain like the gondola on a blimp. This brings us to the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

Going back the way we came

The fates of your embryonic pharyngeal arches are complex and I’m not going to do a comprehensive review here (go here for more information). Suffice it to say that the first three arches give rise to your jaws and hyoid apparatus, the fourth and sixth form your larynx (voicebox), and fifth is entirely resorbed during development. Update: I made a pharyngeal arch cheat sheet.

There are two major nerves to the larynx, each of which is bilaterally paired. The nerve of the fourth pharyngeal arch becomes the superior laryngeal nerve, and it passes cranial to the fourth aortic arch. The nerve of the sixth pharyngeal arch becomes the inferior or recurrent laryngeal nerve, and it passes caudal to the sixth aortic arch. At the time that they form, both of these nerves take essentially straight courses from the brainstem to their targets, because you’re still in the blimp-gondola stage.

If you were a shark, the story would be over. The more posterior pharyngeal arches would persist as arches instead of forming a larynx, each arch would hold on to its artery, and the nerves would all maintain their direct courses to their targets.

The normal fate of the aortic arches in humans. From

But you’re not a shark, you’re a tetrapod. Which means that you have, among other things, a neck separating your head and your body. And the formation of your neck shoved your heart and its associated great vessels down into your chest, away from the pharyngeal arches. This was no problem for the superior laryngeal nerve, which passed in front of the fourth aortic arch and could therefore stay put. But the inferior laryngeal nerve passed behind the sixth aortic arch, so when the heart and the fourth and sixth aortic arches descended into the chest, the inferior laryngeal nerve went with them. Because it was still hooked up to the brainstem and the larynx, it had to grow in length to compensate.

As you sit reading this, your inferior laryngeal nerves run down your neck into your chest, loop around the vessels derived from the fourth and sixth aortic arches (the subclavian artery on the right, and the arch of the aorta and ductus arteriosus on the left) and run back up your neck to your larynx. Because they do this U-turn in your chest and go back the way they came, the inferior laryngeal nerves are said to ‘recur’ to the larynx and are therefore more commonly referred to as the recurrent laryngeal nerves (RLNs).

An enlightening diversion

The RLN is the poster child for “unintelligent design” because it is pretty dumb. Your RLNs travel a heck of a lot farther to reach your larynx than they ought to, if they’d been designed. Surely an intelligent designer would have them take the same direct course as the superior laryngeal nerve. But evolution didn’t have that option. Tetrapod embryos could not be built from the ground up but had to be modified from the existing “sharkitecture” of ancestral vertebrates. The rules of development could not be rewritten to accommodate a shorter RLN. Hence Dawkins’s love affair with the RLN, which gets 7 pages in The Greatest Show on Earth. He also appeared on the giraffe episode of Inside Nature’s Giants, in which the RLN was dug out of the neck and the continuity of its ridiculous path was demonstrated–probably the most smack-you-in-the-face evidence for evolution that has ever been shown on television (said the rabid fan of large-tetrapod dissections).

Incidentally, the existence and importance of the RLN has been known since classical times. The RLN innervates the muscles responsible for speech, and on either side it passes right behind the thyroid gland, which is subject to goiters and tumors and other grotesque maladies. So a careless thyroidectomy can damage one or both of the RLNs; if one gets snipped, the subject will be hoarse for the rest of his or her life; if both are cut, the subject will be rendered mute. The Roman physician Galen memorably demonstrated this by dissecting the neck of an immobilized but unanesthetized pig and isolating the RLNs (Kaplan et al. 2009). One moment the poor pig was squealing its head off–as any of us would be if someone dug out our RLNs without anesthesia–and the next moment Galen severed the RLNs and the animal abruptly fell silent, still in unbelievable pain but now without a mechanism to vocally express its discomfort.

Galen versus pig. Figure 2 from Kaplan et al. 2009.

The name of the nerve also goes back to Galen, who wrote:

I call these two nerves the recurrent nerves (or reversivi) and those that come upward and backward on account of a special characteristic of theirs which is not shared by any of the other nerves that descend from the brain.

Like at least some modern surgeons, Galen does not seem to have been overly burdened by humility:

All these wonderful things, which have now become common property, I was the first of all to discover, no anatomist before me ever saw one of these nerves, and so all of them before me missed the mark in their anatomical description of the larynx.

Both of those quotes are from Kaplan et al. (2009), which is a fascinating paper that traces the knowledge of the recurrent laryngeal nerve from classical times to the early 20th century. If you’d like a copy and can’t get hold of one any other way, let me know and I’ll hook you up.

Share and share alike

By now you can see where this is going: all tetrapods have larynges, all tetrapods have necks, and all tetrapods have recurrent laryngeal nerves. Including giraffes, much to the delight of Richard Dawkins. And also including sauropods, much to the delight of yours truly.

Now, I cannot show you the RLN in a living sauropod, nor can I imagine a scenario in which such a delicate structure would be recognizably preserved as a fossil. But as tetrapods, sauropods were bound to the same unbreakable rules of development as everything else. The inference that sauropods had really long, really dumb RLNs is as secure as the inference that they had brainstems, hearts, and larynges.

Wedel (2012) Fig. 1. Course of the left vagus nerve and left recurrent laryngeal nerve in a human, a giraffe, and Supersaurus. The right recurrent laryngeal nerve passes caudal to the right subclavian artery rather than the aorta and ductus arteriosus, but otherwise its course is identical to that of the left.

Giraffes have necks up to 2.4 meters long (Toon and Toon 2003), so the neurons that make up their RLNs approach 5 meters in the largest indiividuals. But the longest-necked sauropods had necks 14 meters long, or maybe even longer, so they must have had individual neurons at least 28 meters long. The larynx of even the largest sauropod was probably less than 1 meter away from the brainstem, so the “extra” length imposed on the RLN by its recurrent course was something like 27 meters in a large individual of Supersaurus. Take that, Giraffa.

Inadequate giraffe is inadequate.

One way or another

It is possible to have a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve–on one side, anyway. If you haven’t had the opportunity to dissect many cadavers, it may come as a surprise to learn that muscles, nerves, and blood vessels are fairly variable. Every fall in Gross Anatomy at WesternU, we have about 40 cadavers, and out of those 40 people we usually have two or three with variant muscles, a handful with unusual branching patterns of nerves, and usually half a dozen or so with some wackiness in their major blood vessels. Variations of this sort are common enough that the better anatomy atlases illustrate not just one layout for, say, the branching of the femoral artery, but 6-10 of the most common patterns. Also, these variations are almost always asymptomatic, meaning that they never cause any problems and the people who have them usually never know (ask Mike about his lonely kidney sometime). You–yes, you, gentle reader!–could be a serious weirdo and have no idea.

Variations in the blood vessels seem to be particularly common, possibly because the vessels develop in situ with apparently very little in the way of genetic control. Most parts of the body are served by more than one artery and vein, so if the usual vessel isn’t there or takes an unusual course, it’s often no big deal, as long as the blood gets there somehow. To wit: occasionally a person does not have a right subclavian artery. This does not mean that their right shoulder and arm receive no blood and wither away; usually it means that one of the segmental arteries branching off the descending aorta–which normally serve the ribs and their associated muscles and other soft tissues–is expanded and elongated to compensate, and looks for all the world like a normal subclavian artery with an abnormal connection to the aorta. But if the major artery that serves the forelimb comes from the descending aorta, and the 4th aortic arch on the right is completely resorbed during development, then there is nothing left on the right side to drag the inferior laryngeal nerve down into the torso. A person with this setup will have an inferior laryngeal nerve on the right that looks intelligently designed, and the usual dumb RLN on the left.

Can people have a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve on the left? Sure, if they’ve got situs inversus, in which the normal bilateral asymmetry of the internal organs is swapped left to right. Situs inversus is pretty darned rare in the general population, occurring in fewer than 1 in 10,000 people. It is much more prevalent in television shows and movies, where the hero or villain may survive a seemingly mortal wound and then explain that he was born with his heart on the right side. (Pro tip: the heart crosses the midline in folks of both persuasions, so just shoot through the sternum and you’ll be fine. Or, if you’re worried about penetration, remember Rule #2 and put one on either side.) Anyway, take everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph, mirror-image it left to right, and you’ve got a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve on the left. But just like the normally-sided person who still has an RLN on the left, a person with situs inversus and no remnant 4th aortic arch on the left (double variation alert!) still has an RLN looping around the aorta and ductus arteriosus on the right.

Bottom line: replumb the vessels to your arms, swap your organs around willy-nilly, you just can’t beat the aorta. If you have an aorta, you’ve got at least one RLN; if you don’t have an aorta, you’re dead, and no longer relevant to this discussion.

Nonrecurrent laryngeal nerves–a developmental Hail Mary?

But wait–how do we know that the inferior laryngeal nerve in embryonic sauropods didn’t get rerouted to travel in front of the fourth and sixth aortic arches, so it could be spared the indignity of being dragged into the chest later on?

First of all, such a course would require that the inferior laryngeal nerve take an equally dumb recurrent course in the embryo. Or maybe it should be called a procurrent course. Instead of simply radiating out from the central nervous system to its targets in the sixth pharyngeal arch, the axons that make up the RLN would have to run well forward of their normal course, loop around the fourth and sixth aortic arches from the front, and then run back down to the sixth pharyngeal arch. There is simply no known developmental mechanism that could make this happen.

Even if we postulated some hypothetical incentive that would draw those axons into the forward U-turn, other axons that took a more direct course from the central nervous system would get to the sixth pharyngeal arch first. By the time the forwardly-recurring axons finished their intelligently-routed course and finally arrived at the sixth pharyngeal arch, all of the innervation targets would be taken, and those axons would die off.

Also, at what point in the evolution of long necks would this forwardly-looping course supposedly be called into existence? Ostriches and giraffes have RLNs that take the same recurrent course as those of humans, pigs, and all other tetrapods. The retention of the recurrent course in extant long-necked animals is further evidence that the developmental constraint cannot be broken.

Finally, the idea that a non-recurrent laryngeal nerve would need to evolve in a long-necked animal is based on the perception that long nerve pathways are somehow physiologically taxing or otherwise bad for the animals in which they occur. But almost every tetrapod that has ever lived has had much longer neurons than those in the RLN, and we all get on just fine with them.

In dire extremity

Probably you have seen enough pictures of neurons to know what one looks like: round or star-shaped cell body with lots of short branches (dendrites) and one very long one (the axon), like some cross between an uprooted tree–or better yet, a crinoid–and the Crystalline Entity. When I was growing up, I always imagined these things lined up nose to tail (or, rather, axon to dendrite) all down my spinal cord, arms, and legs, like boxcars in a train. But it ain’t the case. Textbook cartoons of neurons are massively simplified, with stumpy little axons and only a few to a few dozen terminals. In reality, each neuron in your brain is wired up to 7000 other neurons, on average, and you have about a hundred billion neurons in your brain. (Ironically, 100 billion neurons is too many for your 100 billion neurons to visualize, so as a literal proposition, the ancient admonition to “know thyself” is a non-starter.)

Back to the axons. Forget the stumpy little twigs you’ve seen in books and online. Except for the ganglia of your autonomic nervous system (a semi-autonomous neural network that runs your guts), all of the cell bodies of your neurons are located in your central nervous system or in the dorsal root ganglia immediately adjacent to your spinal cord. The nerves that branch out into your arms and legs, across your face and scalp, and into your larynx are not made of daisy chains of neurons. Rather, they are bundles of axons, very long axons that connect muscles, glands, and all kinds of sensory receptors back to the nerve cell bodies in and around your brain and spinal cord.

Indulge me for a second and wiggle your toes. The cell bodies of the motor neurons that caused the toe-wiggling muscles to fire are located in your spinal cord, at the top of your lower back. Those motor neurons got orders transmitted down your spinal cord from your brain, and the signals were carried to the muscles of your feet on axons that are more than half as long as you are tall.

Some of your sensory neurons are even longer. Lift your big toe and then set it down gently, just hard enough to be sure that it’s touching down on the floor or the sole of your shoe, but not hard enough to exert any pressure. When you first felt the pad of your toe touch down, that sensation was carried to your brain by a single neuron (or, rather, by several neurons in parallel) with receptor terminals in the skin of your toe, axon terminals in your brainstem, and a nerve cell body somewhere in the middle (adjacent to your sacrum and just a bit to one side of your butt crack, if you want the gory details). That’s right: you have individual sensory neurons that span the distance from your brainstem to your most distal extremity. And so does every other vertebrate, from hagfish to herons to hippos. Including, presumably, sauropods.

I had you set your toe down gently instead of pushing down hard because the neurons responsible for sensing pressure do not travel all the way from toe-tip to brainstem; they synapse with other neurons in the spinal cord and those signals have been through a two-neuron relay by the time they reach your brainstem. Ditto for sensing temperature. But the neurons responsible for sensing vibration and fine touch go all the way.

If you want to experience everything I’ve discussed in this post in a single action, put your fingertips on your voicebox and hum. You are controlling the hum with signals sent from your brain to your larynx through your recurrent laryngeal nerves, and sensing the vibration through individual neurons that run from your fingertips to your brainstem. Not bad, eh?

Wedel (2012) Fig. 2. The longest cells in the bodies of sauropods were sensory neurons that connected receptors in the skin of the extremities with interneurons in the brainstem, a pattern of neural architecture that is present in all extant vertebrates. The nerve cell bodies would have been located in the dorsal root ganglia adjacent to the spinal cord. The diagram of the neuron is based on Butler and Hodos (1996: fig. 2–1B).

Getting back to big animals: the largest giraffes may have 5-meter neurons in their RLNs, but some of the sensory neurons to their hindfeet must be more like 8 meters long. I don’t think anyone’s ever dissected one out, but blue whales must have sensory neurons to the tips of their flukes that are almost 30 meters (98 feet) long (subtract the length of the skull, but add the lateral distance from body midline to fluke-tip). And Supersaurus, Amphicoelias, and the like must have had neurons that were approximately as long as they were, minus only the distance from the snout-tip to the back of the skull. I could be wrong, and if I am I’d love to be set straight, but I think these must have been the longest cells in the history of life.

Oh, one more thing: up above I said that almost every tetrapod that has ever lived has had much longer neurons than those in the RLN. The exceptions would be animals for which the distance from brainstem to base of neck was longer than the distance from base of neck to tip of limb or tail, so that twice the length of the neck would be longer than the distance from base of skull to most distal extremity. In that case, the neurons that contribute to the RLN would be longer than those running from brainstem to tail-tip or toe-tip. Tanystropheus and some of the elasmosaurs probably qualified; who else?

Parting Thoughts

In this post I’ve tried to explain the courses that these amazingly long cells take in humans and other vertebrates. I haven’t dealt at all with the functional implications of long nerves, for which please see the paper. The upshot is that big extant animals get along just fine with their crazy-long nerves, and there’s no reason to assume that sauropods were any more troubled. So why write the paper, then? Well, it was fun, I learned a lot (dude: axoplasmic streaming!), and most importantly I got to steal a little thunder from those silly poseurs, the giraffes.

Department of Frivolous Nonsense: yes, I titled the paper after those TV ads for Chili’s hamburgers from a few years back. If you never saw them, the ads compared mass-produced, machine-stamped fast-food burgers with restaurant burgers painstakingly built by hand, and concluded with, “Chili’s Big-Mouth Burgers: monuments of inefficiency!”

Update: All of the following is out of date now that the paper has been formally published. Department of Good Karma: since the paper is at the “accepted manuscript” stage, I still have the chance to make (hopefully minor) changes when I get the proofs. As is always, always, always the case, I caught a few dumb errors only after the manuscript had been accepted. Here’s what I’ve got so far, please feel free to add to the list:

  • Page 1, abstract, line 3: pharyngeal, not pharyngial
  • Page 1, abstract, line 8: substitute ‘made up’ for ‘comprised’
  • Page 6, line 12: substitute ‘make up’ for ‘comprise’
  • Page 9, line 5: citation should be of Carpenter (2006:fig. 3), not fig. 2
  • Page 10, line 7: “giant axons of squid are”, not ‘ares’
  • Page 12, entry for Butler and Hodos should have year (1996)
  • Page 12, entry for Carpenter has ‘re-evaluation misspelled
  • Page 16, entry for Woodburne has ‘mammalian’ misspelled

(Notes to self: stop trying to use ‘comprise’, lay off the ‘s’ key when typing bibliography.)