Ray Wilhite posted this gorgeous image on a Facebook thread, and we’re re-posting it here with his permission.

It’s taken from a poster that Ray co-authored (Roberts et al. 2016). We’re looking here at a coronal cross-section of a hen (age not specified), with anterior to the left. Latex has been injected into the air sacs and lungs, highlighting them in shocking pink.

FInding your way around: the big yellow blobs near the middle are vitelline follicles. Just to their left, the two rounded red triangles that look like networks are the lungs. All the rest of the pink is diverticula and air-sacs: the interclavicle air-sac to the left, the caudal thoracic air-sac right behind the left (lower) lung, and abdominal air-sacs running backwards from the tips of the lungs. The big white oval is a calcified egg.

More from this poster in a subsequent post!

References

  • Roberts, John, Ray Wilhite, Gregory Almond, Wallace D Berry, Tami Kelly, Terry Slaten, Laurie McCall and Drury R. Reavill. 2016. Gross and histologic diagnosis of retrograde yolk inhalation in poultry. The American Association of Avian Pathologists, San Antonio, Texas. doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.28204.26246

 

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If you followed along with the last post in this series, you now have some bird vertebrae to play with. Here are some things to do with them.

1. Learn the parts of the vertebrae, and compare them with those of other animals

Why are we so excited about bird vertebrae around here? Mostly because birds are reasonably long-necked living dinosaurs, and although their vertebrae differ from those of sauropods in relative proportions, all of the same bits are present in roughly the same places. If you know the parts of a bird vertebra and what each one does, you have a solid foundation for inferring the functions of sauropod vertebrae. Here’s a diagram I made for my SVP poster with Kent Sanders way back in 1999. I used an ostrich vertebra here but you should be able to find the same features in a cervical vertebra of just about any bird.

These are both middle cervical vertebrae in right lateral view. A middle cervical vertebra of a big ostrich will be between 3 and 4 inches long (7.5-10 cm), and one from a big brachiosaur like Giraffatitan will be about ten times longer.

I should do a whole post on neck muscles, but for now see this post and this paper.

2. Put the vertebrae in order, and rearticulate them

It is often useful to know where you are in the neck, and the only way to figure that out is to determine the serial position of the vertebrae. Here’s an articulated cervical series of a turkey in left lateral view, from Harvey et al. (1968: pl. 65):

Harvey’s “dorsal spine” is the neural spine or spinous process, and his “ventral spine” is the carotid process. The “alar process” is a sort of bridge of bone connecting the pre- and postzygapophyses; you can see a complete version in C3 in the photo below, and a partial version in C4.

Speaking of that photo, here’s my best attempt at rearticulating the vertebrae from the smoked turkey neck I showed in the previous post, with all of the vertebrae in left dorsolateral view.

These things don’t come with labels and it can take a bit of trial and error to get them all correctly in line. C2 is easy, with its odd articular surface for the atlas and narrow centrum with a ventral keel. Past that, C3 and C4 are usually pretty blocky, the mid-cervicals are long and lean, and then the posterior cervicals really bulk out. Because this neck section had been cut before I got it, some of the vertebrae look a little weird. Somehow I’m missing the front half of C6. The back half of C14 is also gone, presumably still stuck to the bird it went with, and C7 and C12 are both sectioned (this will come in handy later). I’m not 100% certain that I have C9 and C10 in the right order. One handy rule: although the length and neural spine height change in different ways along the column, the vertebrae almost always get wider monotonically from front to back.

And here’s the duck cervical series, in right lateral view. You can see that although the specific form of each vertebra is different from the equivalent vert in a turkey, the same general rules apply regarding change along the column.

Pro tip: I said above that these things don’t come with labels, but you can fix that. Once you have the vertebrae in a satisfactory order, paint a little dot of white-out or gesso on each one, and use a fine-point Sharpie or art pen to write the serial position (bone is porous and the white foundation will keep the ink from possibly making a mess). You may also want to put the vertebrae on a string or a wire to keep them in the correct order, but even so, it’s useful to have the serial position written on each vertebra in case you need to unstring them later.

3. Look at the air spaces

One nice thing about birds is that all of the species that are readily commercially available have pneumatic traces on and in their vertebrae, which are broadly comparable to the pneumatic vertebrae of sauropods.

The dorsal vertebrae of birds are even more obviously similar to those of sauropods than are the cervicals. These dorsal vertebrae of a duck (in left lateral view) show a nice variety of pneumatic features: lateral fossae on the centrum (what in sauropods used to be called “pleurocoels”), both with and without foramina, and complexes of fossae and foramina on the neural arches. Several of the vertebrae have small foramina on the centra that I assume are neurovascular. One of the challenges in working with the skeletal material of small birds is that it becomes very difficult to distinguish small pneumatic foramina and spaces from vascular traces. Although these duck vertebrae have small foramina inside some of the lateral fossae, the centra are mostly filled with trabecular, marrow-filled bone. In this, they are pretty similar to the dorsal vertebrae of Haplocanthosaurus, which have fossae on the neural arches and the upper parts of the centra, but for which the ventral half of each centrum is a brick of non-pneumatic bone. For more on distinguishing pneumatic and vascular traces in vertebrae, see O’Connor (2006) and Wedel (2007).

This turkey cervical, in left posterolateral view, shows some pneumatic features to nice advantage. The lateral pneumatic foramina in bird cervicals are often tucked up inside the cervical rib loops where they can be hard to see and even harder to photograph, but this one is out in the open. Also, the cervicals of this particular turkey have a lot of foramina inside the neural canal. In life these foramina are associated with the supramedullary diverticula, a set of air-filled tubes that occupy part of the neural canal in many birds — see Atterholt and Wedel (2018) for more on this unusual anatomical system. The development of foramina inside the neural canal seems to be pretty variable among individuals. In ostriches I’ve seen individuals in which almost every cervical has foramina inside the canal, and many others with no foramina. For turkeys it’s even more lopsided in my experience; this is the first turkey in which I’ve found really clear pneumatic foramina inside the neural canals. This illustrates one of the most important aspects of pneumaticity: pneumatic foramina and cavities in bones show that air-filled diverticula were present, but the absence of those holes and spaces does not mean that diverticula were absent. Mike and I coined the term “cryptic diverticula” for those that leave no diagnostic traces on the skeleton — for more on that, see the discussion section in Wedel and Taylor (2013b).

Finally, it’s worth taking a look at the air spaces inside the vertebrae. Here’s a view into C12 of the turkey cervical series shown above. The saw cut that sectioned this neck happened to go through the front end of this vertebra, and with a little clean-up the honeycomb of internal spaces is beautifully displayed. If you are working with an intact vertebra, the easiest way to see this for yourself is to get some sandpaper and sand off the front end of the vertebra. It only takes a few minutes and you’ll be less likely to damage the vertebrae or your fingers than if you cut the vertebra with a saw. Similar complexes of small pneumatic cavities are present in the vertebrae of some derived diplodocoids, like Barosaurus (see the lateral view in the middle of this figure), and in most titanosauriforms (for example).

I have one more thing for you to look for in your bird vertebrae, and that will be the subject of the next installment in this series. Stay tuned!

References

What it says on the tin. This is a specimen from the UCMP comparative collection.

I was just going to post this photo with zero commentary, but I can’t help myself. Note that on the two vertebrae in the middle, the crista transverso-obliqua (what in non-avian dinos would be the spinopostzygapophyseal lamina or SPOL) rises higher than either the neural spine apex or the epipophyses. That’s crazy. And it demonstrates something we also see in sauropods, which is that laminae are not merely the plates of bone left behind after pneumatization has scooped all of the unnecessary material out of a normal vertebra–sometimes they are additive structures, too.

If all of that sounded like gibberish, I can sympathize. I spent my first few months as a sauropodologist just learning the lingo (another thing I should blog about sometimes). Here’s a labeled version:

As long as I’m yapping, note the light shining through the honeycombed internal structure of these highly pneumatic vertebrae. For more on the ridiculous pneumaticity of pelican bones, see this post and this one. For more on the homology of bird and sauropod vertebrae, see Wedel and Sanders (2002), and for more on laminae as additive versus reductive structures, see the discussion on pages 210-212 of Wedel (2007).

References

 

In a comment on the last post, Mike wrote, “perhaps the pneumaticity was intially a size-related feature that merely failed to get unevolved when rebbachisaurs became smaller”.

Caudal pneumaticity in saltasaurines. Cerda et al. (2012: fig. 1).

Or maybe pneumaticity got even more extreme as rebbachisaurids got smaller, which apparently happened with saltasaurines  (see Cerda et al. 2012 and this post).

I think there is probably no scale at which pneumaticity isn’t useful. Like, we see a saltasaurine the size of a big horse and think, “Why does it need to be so pneumatic?”, as if it isn’t still one or two orders of magnitude more massive than an ostrich or an eagle, both of which are hyperpneumatic even though only one of them flies. Even parakeets and hummingbirds have postcranial pneumaticity.

Micro CT of a female Anna’s hummingbird. The black tube in the middle of the neck is the supramedullary airway. Little black dots in the tiny cervical centra are air spaces.

We’re coming around to the idea that the proper way to state the dinosaur size question is, “Why are mammals so lousy at being big on land?” Similarly, the proper way to state the pneumaticity question is probably not “Why is small sauropod X so pneumatic?”, but rather “Why aren’t some of the bigger sauropods even more pneumatic?”

Another thought: we tend to think of saltsaurines as being crazy pneumatic because they pneumatized their limb girdles and caudal chevrons (see Zurriaguz et al. 2017). Those pneumatic foramina are pretty subtle – maybe their apparent absence in other sauropod clades is just because we haven’t looked hard enough. Lots of things have turned out to be pneumatic that weren’t at first glance – see Yates et al. (2012) on basal sauropodomorphs and Wedel and Taylor (2013b) on sauropod tails, for example.

Back of the skull of a bighorn sheep, showing the air spaces inside one of the broken horncores.

Or, even more excitingly, if the absence is genuine, maybe that tells us something about sauropod biomechanics after all. Maybe if you’re an apatosaurine or a giant brachiosaurid, you actually can’t afford to pneumatize your coracoid, for example. One of my blind spots is a naive faith that any element can be pneumatized without penalty, which I believe mostly on the strength of the pneumatic horncores of bison and bighorn sheep. But AFAIK sauropod girdle elements don’t have big marrow cavities for pneumaticity to expand into. Pneumatization of sauropod limb girdles might have come at a real biomechanical cost, and therefore might have only been available to fairly small animals. (And yeah, Sander et al. 2014 found a pneumatic cavity in an Alamosaurus pubis, but it’s not a very big cavity.)

As I flagged in the title, this is noodling, not a finding, certainly not certainty. Just an airhead thinking about air. The comment thread is open, come join me.

References

In my recent visit to the LACM herpetology collection, I was interested to note that almost every croc, lizard, and snake vertebra I saw had a pair of neurovascular foramina on either side of the centrum, in “pleurocoel” position. You can see these in the baby Tomistoma tail, above. Some vertebrae have a big foramen, some have a small foramen, and some have no visible foramen at all. Somehow I’d never noticed this before.

This is particularly interesting in light of the observation from birds that pneumatic diverticula tend to follow nerves and vessels as they spread through the body. Maybe we find pneumatic features where we do in dinosaurs and pterosaurs because that’s where the blood vessels were going in the babies. Also, these neurovascular foramina in extant reptiles are highly variable in size and often asymmetric – sound familiar?

It should. Caudal pneumaticity in the tail of Giraffatitan MB.R.5000. Dark blue vertebrae are pneumatic on both sides, light blue vertebrae only have fossae on the right side. Wedel and Taylor (2013b: Figure 4).

I am starting to wonder if some of the variability we associate with pneumaticity is just the variability of soft tissue, full stop. Or if pneumaticity is variable because it developmentally follows in the footsteps of the blood vessels, which are themselves inherently variable. That seems like a promising line of inquiry. And also something I should have though of a lot sooner.

Here’s D10 and the sacrum of Diplodocus AMNH 516 in left lateral and ventral view, from Osborn (1904: fig. 3). Note how the big lateral pneumatic foramina, here labeled ‘pleurocoelia’, start out up at the top of the centrum in D10 and kind of pinch out up there, seemingly entirely absent by S3 (although there is a suspicious-looking shadowed spot above and behind the sacral rib stump labeled ‘r3’). Then on S4 and S5 the big foramina are back, but now they’re low on the centrum, ventral to the sacral ribs. In ventral view, the foramina on D10, S1, and S2 aren’t visible–they’re both over the curve of the centrum, and in the case of S1 and S2, obscured by the sacral ribs. But in S4 and S5, the big lateral foramina are visible in ventral view.

I’ve been interested in a while in this seeming hand-off in centrum pneumatization from dorsolateral, which prevails in the dorsal vertebrae, to ventrolateral, which prevails in the posterior sacral and caudal vertebrae. Almost all sauropod dorsals have the pneumatic foramina quite high on the centrum, sometimes even encroaching on the neural arch. But if sauropod caudals have pneumatic fossae or foramina on the centrum, they’re usually quite low, and almost always below the caudal rib or transverse process (there may also be pneumatic fossae on the neural arch and spine)–for evidence, see Wedel and Taylor (2013b). To me this implies two different sets of diverticula.

I think that in part because sometimes you get both sets of diverticula acting on a single vert. Here’s the centrum of sacral 4 of Haplocanthosaurus CM 879 in right dorsolateral view; anterior is to the right.

Here’s the same thing annotated (yeah, it does look a little like an Ent who is alarmed because his left eye has been overgrown by a huge nasal tumor). This vert has two sets of pneumatic features on the centrum: a big lateral fossa below the sacral rib articulation, presumably homologous with the same feature in S4 of the Diplodocus above; and a smaller dorsolateral fossa above and behind sacral rib articulation.

Unfortunately, CM 879 doesn’t tell us much about how these two sets of diverticula might have changed along the column. The centra of S1-S3 were not found, S5 lacks both sets of fossae, the first caudal has fossae both on the centrum, below the caudal rib, and low on the arch, and the second and subsequent caudals lack both sets of fossae. (I wrote a LOT more about pneumaticity in this individual in my 2009 air sacs paper, which is linked below.)

Working out how these diverticula change serially is a tractable problem. Someone just needs to sit down with a reasonably complete, well-preserved series that includes posterior dorsals, all the sacrals, and the proximal caudals–or ideally several such series–and trace out all of the pneumatic features. As far as I know, that’s never been done, but feel free to correct me if I’ve missed something. I’m neck deep in other stuff, so if someone wants that project, have at it. (If you happen to look into this, I’d be grateful for a heads up, so we don’t run over each other if I do get a yen to investigate further myself.)

References

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