Here’s the story of my fascination with supramedullary airways over the last 20 years, and how Jessie Atterholt and I ended up working on them together, culminating with her talk at SVPCA last week. (Just here for the preprint link? Here you go.)

Müller (1908: fig. 12). Upper respiratory tract, trachea, and lungs in pink, air sacs and diverticula in blue. DSPM = diverticulum supramedullare.

Way back when I was working on my Master’s thesis at the University of Oklahoma and getting into pneumaticity for the first time, Kent Sanders found Müller (1908) and gave me a photocopy. This would have been the spring or summer of 1998, because we used some of Müller’s illustrations in our poster for SVP that year (Wedel and Sanders 1998). Müller’s description of pneumatic diverticula in the pigeon formed part of my intellectual bedrock, and I’ve referenced it a lot in my pneumaticity papers (complete list here).

One of the systems that Müller described is the diverticulum supramedullare, a.k.a. supramedullary diverticula, or, informally, supramedullary airways (SMAs). Traditionally these are defined as pneumatic diverticula that enter the neural canal and lie dorsal (supra) to the spinal cord (medulla), although O’Connor (2006) noted that in some cases the diverticula could completely envelop the spinal cord in a tube of air. I yapped about SMAs a bit in this post, and they’re flagged in almost every ostrich CT or dissection photo I’ve ever published, here on the blog or in a paper.

CT sections of a Giraffatitan cervical, with connections between the neural canal and pneumatic chambers in the spine highlighted in blue. Modified from Schwarz & Fritsch (2004: fig. 4).

Fast forward to 2006, when Daniela Schwarz and Guido Fritsch documented pneumatic foramina in the roof of the neural canal in cervical vertebrae of Giraffatitan. As far as I know, this was the first published demonstration of SMAs in a non-bird, or in any extinct animal. Lemme repeat that: Daniela Schwarz found these first!

OMNH 60718: too ugly for radio. This is an unfused neural arch in ventral view. Anterior is to the left. Neurocentral joint surfaces are drawn over with ladders; pneumatic foramina lie between them.

Shortly thereafter I independently found evidence of SMAs in a sauropod, in the form of multiple pneumatic foramina in the roof of the neural canal in an unfused neural arch of a basal titanosauriform (probably a brachiosaurid) from the Cloverly Formation of Montana. It’s a pretty roadkilled specimen and I was busy with other things so I didn’t get around to writing it up, but I didn’t forget about it, either (I rarely forget about stuff like this).

Then in 2013 I went to the Perot Museum in Dallas to see the giant Alamosaurus cervical series, and I also visited the off-site research facility where juvenile Alamosaurus from Big Bend is housed. When Ron Tykoski let me into the collections room, I was literally walking through the door for the first time when I exclaimed, “Holy crap!” I had spotted an unfused neural arch of a juvenile Alamosaurus on a shelf across the room, with complex pneumatic sculpting all over the roof of the neural canal.

Title slide for the 2014 SVPCA presentation.

The Big Bend and Cloverly specimens were the basis for my talk on SMAs at SVPCA in 2014, coauthored with Anthony Fiorillo, Des Maxwell, and Ron Tykoski. As prep for that talk, I visited the ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, photographed a lot of bird vertebrae with foramina inside their neural canals, and shot this pelican video. That was four years ago – why no paper yet? It’s because I wanted one more piece of smoking-gun evidence: a CT scan of a bird that would show a direct communication between the SMAs and the air spaces inside a vertebra, through one or more foramina in the roof, wall, or floor of the neural canal.

A spectrum of pneumatic traces in the neural canals of birds, including complexes of large or small foramina, isolated foramina, and sculpting without foramina.

In 2017, Jessie Atterholt taught in our summer anatomy course at WesternU as an adjunct (her full-time employment was at the Webb Schools in Claremont, home of the Alf Museum). Jessie and I had been acquainted for a few years, but we’d never had the opportunity to really talk science. As we chatted between dissections, I learned that she had a huge warchest of CT scans of whole birds from her dissertation work at Berkeley (we’d missed each other by a few years). My antennae twitched: one nice thing about SMAs is that, being bounded by bone, they can’t collapse after death, unlike more peripheral diverticula. And air is jet black on CT scans, so SMAs are easy to spot even on comparatively low-res scans. All you need is one or two black pixels. I proposed a collaboration: we could use her CT scans to survey the presence and distribution of SMAs in as many birds as possible.

Vertebral diverticula in two sagittally-exploded cervical vertebrae of a turkey. Anterior is to the left, #5 is the SMA. Cover (1953: fig. 2). Yes, I know this is gross – if anyone has a cleaner scan, I’m interested.

You might think that such a survey would have been done ages ago, but it’s not the case. A few authors have mentioned supramedullary airways, and O’Connor (2006) gave a good description of some of the variation in SMAs in extant birds as a whole. But the only detailed accounts to illustrate the morphology and extent of the SMAs in a single species are Müller (1908) on the common pigeon and Cover (1953) on the domestic turkey. I’d seen what I suspected were traces of SMAs in the vertebrae of many, mostly large-bodied birds, and I’d seen them in CTs of ostriches and hummingbirds, and in ostriches and turkeys in dissection. But Jessie was offering the chance to see both the SMAs and their osteological traces in dozens of species from across the avian tree.

SMAs in a micro-CT of a female Anna’s hummingbird, Calypte anna. Scale bars are in mm.

Real life intervened: we were both so busy teaching last fall that we didn’t get rolling until just before the holidays. But the project gradually built up steam over the course of 2018. One story that will require more unpacking later: everything I’ve written on this blog about neural canals, Haplocanthosaurus, or CT scanning in 2018 is something serendipitously spun out of the SMA survey with Jessie. Expect a lot more Atterholt and Wedel joints in the near future – and one Atterholt et al. (minus Wedel) even sooner, that is going to be big news. Watch this space.

It didn’t hurt that in the meantime Jessie got a tenure-track job teaching human anatomy at WesternU, to run the same course she’d taught in as an adjunct last year, and started here at the beginning of June. By that time we had an abstract on our findings ready to go for this year’s SVP meeting. Alas, it was not to be: we were out in the field this summer when we learned that our abstract had been rejected. (I have no idea why; we’ve increased the taxonomic sampling of SMAs in extant birds by a factor of six or so, most of our important findings are in the abstract, and we mentioned the relevance to fossils. But whatever.)

We were bummed for a day, and then Jessie decided that she’d submit the abstract to SVPCA, only slightly chopped for length, and go to Manchester to present if it was accepted – which it was. Unfortunately I’d already made other plans for the fall, so I missed the fun. Fortunately the SVPCA talks were livestreamed, so last Friday at 1:30 in the morning I got to watch Jessie give the talk. I wish the talks had been recorded, because she knocked it out of the park.

Title slide for the 2018 SVPCA presentation.

And now everything we’re in a position to share is freely available at PeerJ. The SVPCA abstract is up as a PeerJ preprint (Atterholt and Wedel 2018), the longer, rejected SVP abstract is up as a supplementary file (because it has a crucial paragraph of results we had to cut to make the length requirement for SVPCA, and because why not), and our slideshow is up now, too. I say ‘our’ slideshow but it’s really Jessie’s – she built it and delivered it with minimal input from me, while I held down the sauropod side of our expanding empire of neural canal projects. She has the paper mostly written, too.

Oh, and we did get the smoking-gun images I wanted, of SMAs communicating with pneumatic spaces in the vertebrae via foramina in the neural canal. Often these foramina go up into the neural arch and spine, but in some cases – notably in pelicans and the occasional ratite – they go down into the centrum. So I now have no excuse for not getting back to the sauropod SMA paper (among many other things).

We’re making this all available because not only are we not afraid of getting scooped, we’re trying to get the word out. SMAs are phylogenetically widespread in birds and we know they were present in sauropods as well, so we should see some evidence of them in theropods and pterosaurs (because reasons). I made such a nuisance of myself at the recent Flugsaurier meeting, talking to everyone who would listen about SMAs, that Dave Hone went and found some pneumatic foramina in the neural canals of Pteranodon vertebrae during the conference – I suspect just to shut me up. That’ll be some kind of Hone-Atterholt-Wedel-and-some-others joint before long, too.

Anyway, point is, SMAs are cool, and you now have everything you need to go find them in more critters. Jessie and I are happy to collaborate if you’re interested – if nothing else, we have the background, lit review, and phylogenetic sampling down tight – but we don’t own SMAs, and we’ll be nothing but thrilled when your own reports start rolling in. Unexplored anatomical territory beckons, people. Let’s do this.

References

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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 Bartleby.com.

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!

References

I was in Philadelphia and New York last week, visiting colleagues on the East Coast and getting in some collaborative research. Much more to say about that in the future – even just the touristy stuff will fill several posts.

One highlight of the trip was visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia last Friday. Ted Daeschler (of Tiktaalik fame) and Jason Poole (who illustrated this sweet book) were my generous hosts and I got to see a ton of cool stuff both out on exhibit and behind the scenes. Seriously, I could post for a month just on the Academy visit.

A personal highlight for me was seeing the cervical vertebrae of the sauropod dinosaur Suuwassea on exhibit. They are in a glass case and you can get around them pretty well to see a lot of anatomy. At first I was pumped to get nice color photos of all the vertebrae from up close and from multiple angles. Then I thought, “Huh, maybe I should just shoot a video.” So I did. Here you go, four minutes of hot sauropod vertebra action:

Left side, posterolateral oblique view, wide shot.

Same thing, close up.

Right side, lateral, wide.

Same thing, close up.

For more on this and other pneumatic sauropod tails, please see Wedel and Taylor (2013, here). And for more on the currently unresolved taxonomic status of FMNH P25112, see this post.

This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited

 

Or, how a single lateral fossa becomes two foramina: through a finely graded series of intermediate forms. Darwin would approve. The ‘oblique lamina’ that separates the paired lateral foramina in C6 starts is absent in C2, but C3 through C5 show how it grows outward from the median septum. How do I know it grows outward, instead of being left behind during the pneumatization of the more posterior cervicals? Because with very few exceptions, all neosauropod cervicals start out with a single lateral fossa on each side, as illustrated in this post. But many of them end up with two or more foramina. Diplodocus is a nice example of this (from Hatcher 1901: plate 3):

I should clarify that the vertebrae above show that character transformation in this individual, at this point in its ontogeny. The vertebrae of CM 555 are about two-thirds the size of those of CM 3018, the holotype of A. louisae. In CM 3018, even C4 and C5 have completely divided lateral fossae, corresponding to the condition in C6 of CM 555.

As Mike and I discussed in our 2013 neural spine bifurcation paper, isolated sauropod cervicals require cautious interpretation because the morphology of the vertebrae changes so much along the series. The simple morphology of anterior cervicals reflects both earlier ontogenetic stages and more primitive character states. As Mike says, in sauropod necks, serial position recapitulates both ontogeny and phylogeny. So if you have a complete series, you can do something pretty cool: see the intermediate stages by which simple structures become complex.

If you’re thinking this might have something to do with my impending SVPCA poster, you’re right. Here’s the abstract.

For more on serially increasing complexity in sauropodomorph cervicals, see this post.

Just got the APP new issue alert and there are three papers that I think readers of this blog will find particularly interesting:

That’s all for now, just popping in to let people know about these things.