This came out two months ago, and I should have blogged about it then, but as usual I am behind. I’m blogging about it now because it deals with a question that has been on my mind for about 10 years now. If you want to skip my blatherations and get on to the good stuff, here’s the paper (Martin and Palmer 2014).

An Unsolved Problem

Back in 2004 I realized that if one had CTs or other cross-sections of a pneumatic bone, it was possible to quantify how much of the cross-sectional space was bone, and how much was air, a ratio I called the Air Space Proportion (ASP). That was the subject of my 2004 SVP talk, and a big part–arguably the most important part–of my chapter in The Sauropods in 2005. Of course the same calculation works for marrow-filled bones as well, where you would refer to it as an MSP rather than an ASP. If you can quantify the areas of bone, air, and marrow, you can figure out how dense the element was. One-stop shopping for all the relevant (simple) math is in this post.

(From Wedel 2005)

(From Wedel 2005)

Sometimes in science you end up with data that you don’t know what to do with, and that was my situation in 2004. Since I had CTs and other cross-sectional images of sauropod vertebrae, I could calculate ASPs for them, but I didn’t know what those results meant, because I didn’t have anything to compare them to. But I knew where to get I could get comparative data: from limb bone cross-sections. John Currey and R. McNeill Alexander had published a paper in 1985 titled, “The thickness of the walls of tubular bones”. I knew about that paper because I’d become something of an R. McNeill Alexander junkie after reading his book, Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants (Alexander 1989). And I knew that it had data on the cross-sectional properties of the limb bones in a host of animals, including crocs, birds, mammals, and–prophetically–pterosaurs.

If you know the inner and outer radii of a tubular bone, it is trivial to convert that to an ASP. So I could take the data from Currey and Alexander (1985) and calculate ASPs for the pneumatic bird and pterosaur bones in their study. Cubo and Casinos (2000) had a much larger sample of bird limb bones, and those got fed into my 2005 paper as well.

I was alert to the possibility that a mid-shaft cross-section might not be representative of the whole bone, and I hedged a bit in describing the bird ASPs (Wedel 2005: p. 212):

For the avian long bones described above, data were only presented for a single cross sec- tion located at midshaft. Therefore, the ASP values I am about to discuss may not be representative of the entire bones, but they probably approximate the volumes (total and air) of the diaphyses. For tubular bones, ASP may be determined by squaring K (if r is the inner diameter and R the outer, then K is r/R, ASP is πr^2/πR^2 or simply r^2/R^2, and ASP = K^2). For the K of pneumatic bones, Currey and Alexander (1985) report lower and upper bounds of 0.69 and 0.86, and I calculate a mean of 0.80 from the data presented in their table 1. Using a larger sample size, Cubo and Casinos (2000) found a slightly lower mean K of 0.77. The equivalent values of ASP are 0.48 and 0.74, with a mean of 0.64, or 0.59 for the mean of Cubo and Casinos (2000). This means that, on average, the diaphysis of a pneumatic avian long bone is 59%–64% air, by volume.

Now, even though I hedged and talked about diaphyses (shafts of long bones) rather than whole bones, I honestly expected that the ASP of any given slice would not change much along the length of a bone. Long bones tend to be tubular near the middle, with a thick bony cortex surrounding the marrow or air space, and honeycombed near the ends, with much thinner cortices and lots of bony septa or trabeculae (for marrow-filled bones, this is called spongy or trabecular bone, and for air-filled bones it is best referred to as camellate pneumatic bone). I figured that the decrease in cortical bone thickness near the ends of the bone would be offset by the increase in internal bony septa, and that the bone-to-air ratio through the whole element would be under some kind of holistic control that would keep it about even between the middle of the bone and the ends.

It is fair to ask why I didn’t just go check. The answer is that research is to some extent a zero-sum game, in that every project you take on means another that gets left waiting in the wings or abandoned completely. I was mainly interested in what ASP had to say about sauropods, not birds, and I had other fish to fry.

So that’s me from 2004-2012: aware that mid-shaft cross-sections of bird and pterosaur long bones might not be representative of whole elements, but not sufficiently motivated to go check. Then at SVPCA in Oxford that fall, Liz Martin rocked my world.

journal.pone.0097159.g001

Figure 1. CT scan images from two different regions of pterosaur first wing phalanx. A and B show the unmodified CT scans from A) the distal end of UP WP1 and B) the mid-shaft of UP WP1, while C and D show the modified and corrected images used in the calculation. Air space proportion (ASP) is calculated by determining the cross-sectional area of the internal, air filled cavity (the black centre of D) and dividing that by the total cross-sectional area, including the white cortical tissue and the black cavity. In areas with trabeculae, like C, the calculation of the air space includes the air found in individual trabeculae around the edges. Scale = 10 mm. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0097159.g001 (From Martin and Palmer 2014)

A Paper in the Can

At SVPCA 2012, Liz Martin gave a talk titled, “A novel approach to estimating pterosaur bone mass using CT scans”, the result of her MS research with Colin Palmer at the University of Bristol. In that talk–the paper for which has been submitted to JVP–Liz and Colin were interested in using CT scans of pterosaur bones to quantify the volume of bone, in order to refine pterosaur mass estimates. I was fully on board, since estimating the masses of extinct animals is a minor obsession of mine. But what really caught my attention is that Liz and Colin had full stacks of slices spanning the length of each element–and therefore everything they needed to see how or if ASPs of pterosaur wing bones changed along their lengths.

At the next available break I dashed up to Liz, opened up my notebook, and started scribbling and gesticulating and in general carrying on like a crazy person. It’s a wonder she didn’t flee in terror. The substance of my raving was that (1) there was this outstanding problem in the nascent field of ASP research, and (2) she had everything she needed to address it, all that was required was a little math using the data she already had (I say this as if running the analyses and writing the paper were trivial tasks–they weren’t). Fortunately Liz and Colin were sufficiently interested to pursue it. Their paper on ASPs of pterosaur wing bones was submitted to PLOS ONE this February, and published on May 9 (while their earlier paper continues to grind its way through JVP).

And I’m blogging about it because the results were not what I expected.

Pterosaur wing bone ASPs - Martin and Palmer 2014

Figure 2. Plot of air space proportion over the length in six pterosaur wing bones. These plots show a polynomial line fit for each bone to show the general shape distribution. Exact measurements can be seen in Table S1. (From Martin and Palmer 2014).

Here’s the graph that tells the tale. Each line traces the ASP per slice along the length of a single pterosaur wing bone. A few things jump out:

  • Almost all of the lines drop near the left end. This is expected–if you’re cutting slices of a bone and measuring the not-bone space inside, then as you approach the end of the bone, you’re cutting through progressively more bone and less space. A few of the lines also drop near the right. I’m puzzled by that–if my explanation is correct, the ASP should plunge about equally at both ends. And the humerus USNM 11925 doesn’t follow the same pattern as the rest. As Martin and Palmer write, “It is unknown if this is a general feature of humeri, or this single taxon and more investigation is needed.”
  • Almost all of the bones have MUCH lower ASPs at mid-shaft than near the ends, on the order of 10% or more. So mid-shaft cross-sections of pterosaur wing bones tend to significantly underestimate how pneumatic they were. It would be interesting to know if the same holds true for bird long bones, or for the vertebrae of pterosaurs, birds, and sauropods. As Martin and Palmer point out, more work is needed.
  • The variation in ASP along the length of a single bone is in some cases greater than the variation between elements and individuals. That’s pretty cool. On the happy side, it means that getting into the nitty-gritty of ASP is not just stamp-collecting; you really need to know what is going on along the length of a bone before you can say anything intelligent about ASP or the density of the element. On the less happy side, that’s going to be a righteous pain in the butt for sauropod workers, because vertebrae are tough to get good scans of, assuming they will fit through a CT scanner at all (most don’t).
  • Finally, pterosaurs turn out to be even more pneumatic than you would think from looking at the already-freakishly-thin-walled shafts of their long bones. That’s pretty awesome, and it dovetails nicely with the emerging picture that pneumaticity in ornithodirans was more prevalent and more interesting than even I had suspected–it’s in prosauropods (Yates et al. 2012) and brachiosaur tails (Wedel and Taylor 2013) and rebbachisaur hips (Fanti et al. 2013) and saltasaur shoulders (Cerda et al. 2012) and, er, a couple of places that I can’t mention just yet. So life is good.

A few last odds and ends:

You can read more of this story at Liz Martin’s blog, scattered over several recent posts.

If you have CTs of bones and you want to follow in the footsteps of Martin and Palmer, you can do a lot of the work, and maybe all of it, in BoneJ, a free plug-in for ImageJ, which is also free.

A final note: this is Liz Martin’s first published paper, so congratulations are in order. Well done, Liz!

Almost Immediate Update: As soon as I posted this, I sent the link to Liz to see if I’d missed anything important. She writes, “It may be worth mentioning that it’s a question that I am actively following up on in my PhD, and looking into it with birds too hopefully. And it is indeed all possible using ImageJ, as that’s how I did the whole thing!”

References

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Currey Alexander 1985 fig 1

Figure 1 from Currey and Alexander (1985)

This post pulls together information on basic parameters of tubular bones from Currey & Alexander (1985), on ASP from Wedel (2005), and on calculating the densities of bones from Wedel (2009: Appendix). It’s all stuff we’ve covered at one point or another, I just wanted to have it all in one convenient place.

Definitions:

  • R = outer radius = r + t
  • r = inner radius = R – t
  • t = bone wall thickness = R – r

Cross-sectional properties of tubular bones are commonly expressed in R/t or K (so that r = KR). K is defined as the inner radius divided by the outer radius (r/R). For bones with elliptical or irregular cross-sections, it’s best to measure two radii at right angles to each other, or use a different measure of cross-sectional geometry (like second moment of area, which I’m not getting into here).

R/t and K can be converted like so:

  • R/t = 1/(1-K)
  • K = 1 – (1/(R/t))

ASP (air space proportion) and MSP (marrow space proportion) measure the cross-sectional area of an element not taken up by bone tissue. ASP and MSP are the same measurement–the amount of non-bone space in a bony element divided by the total–we just use ASP for air-filled bones and MSP for marrow-filled bones. See Tutorial 6 and these posts: one, two, three.

For tubular bones, ASP (or MSP) can be calculated from K:

  • ASP = πr^2/πR^2 = r^2/R^2 = (r/R)^2 = K^2

Obviously R/t and K don’t work for bones like vertebrae that depart significantly from a tubular shape. But if you had a vertebra or other irregular bone with a given ASP and you wanted to see what the equivalent tubular bone would look like, you could take the square root of ASP to get K and then use that to draw out the cross-section of that hypothetical tubular bone.

To estimate the density of an element (at least near the point of a given cross-section), multiply the proportional areas of bone and air, or bone and marrow, by the specific gravities of those materials. According to Currey and Alexader (1985: 455), the specific gravities of fatty marrow and bone tissue are 0.93 and 2.1, respectively.

For a marrow-filled bone, the density of the element (or at least of the part of the shaft the section goes through) is:

  • 0.93MSP + 2.1(1-MSP)

Air is matter and therefore has mass and density, but it is so light (0.0012-0.0013 g/mL) that we can effectively ignore it in these calculations. So the density of a pneumatic element is: 2.1(1-ASP) For the three examples in the figure at the top of the post, the ASP/MSP values and densities are:

  • (b) alligator femur (marrow-filled), K = 0.35, MSP = K^2 = 0.12, density = (0.93 x 0.12) + (2.1 x 0.88) = 1.96 g/mL
  • (c) camel tibia (marrow-filled), K = 0.57, MSP = K^2 = 0.32, density = (0.93 x 0.32) + (2.1 x 0.68) = 1.73 g/mL
  • (d) Pteranodon first phalanx (air-filled), K = 0.91, ASP = K^2 = 0.83, density = (2.1 x 0.17) = 0.36 g/mL

What if we switched things up, and imagined that the alligator and camel bones were pneumatic and the Pteranodon phalanx was marrow-filled? The results would then be:

  • (b) alligator femur (hypothetical air-filled), K = 0.35, ASP = K^2 = 0.12, density = (2.1 x 0.88) = 1.85 g/mL
  • (c) camel tibia (hypothetical air-filled), K = 0.57, ASP = K^2 = 0.32, density = (2.1 x 0.68) = 1.43 g/mL
  • (d) Pteranodon first phalanx (hypothetical marrow-filled), K = 0.91, MSP = K^2 = 0.83, density = (0.93 x 0.83) + (2.1 x 0.17) = 1.13 g/mL

In the alligator femur, the amount of non-bone space is so small that it does much matter whether that space is filled by air or marrow–replacing the marrow with air only lowers the density of the element by 5-6%. The Pteranodon phalanx is a lot less dense than the alligator femur for two reasons. First, there is much less bony tissue–the hypothetical marrow-filled phalanx is 42% less dense as the alligator femur. Second, the marrow is replaced by air, which reduces the density by an additional 40% relative to the alligator.

Next time: how to write punchier endings for tutorial posts.

References