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

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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.

Anterior view. Dorsal is to the upper right. The neural spine and left transverse process are missing.

Here’s a closeup of the condyle. The outer layer of cortical bone is gone, allowing a glimpse of the pneumatic chambers inside the vert. The erosion of the condyle was probably inflicted post-excavation by relatively unskilled WPA workers, whose prep tools were limited to chisels, penknives, and sandpaper. Because the bones from the Kenton localities are roughly the same color as the matrix, the preparators sometimes did not realize that they were sanding into the bones until the internal structure was revealed. Bad for the completeness of this specimen, but good for pneumaticity junkies like me, because this baby is too big to be scanned by any but the largest industrial CT machines.

For other posts on the giant Oklahoma apatosaur, see: