The polished face of the block, 1.5″ tungsten cube for scale. The bowtie shapes are the two biconcave vertebral centra.

It is pretty darned satisfying to be heading to the Isle of Wight for SVPCA next week. My only other visit was in the spring of 2004, when Vicki and I were in England on a spring break vacation/research trip. We spent a night at a bed and breakfast in Sandown and visited the Dinosaur Isle museum, where I got to see “Angloposeidon” and the Barnes High brachiosaur in person.

My most tangible memento of that trip is this cut and polished block with two vertebral centra from what I’m guessing is an ichthyosaur. It has a little story.

While we were at Dinosaur Isle I got to see another cut-and-polished specimen, the partial titanosauriform centrum shown above (and memorialized on the blog way back in 2008, when SV-POW! was about 6 months old). I’ve seen others since (like this one), but that was the first such specimen I’d seen in person, and it captured my imagination.

Vicki and I took a bus to get back to the ferry from Sandown, and somewhere in the island interior there was a bus stop at a small collection of buildings, maybe just two or three? One was a rock shop, and I really wanted to pop in and see what they had. The bus driver warned me, sternly, that the bus would be stopped for precisely two minutes, and that if I was not back on board in 120 seconds I’d be left behind.

So I sprinted inside the shop, found this block behind the counter, paid, and dashed back to the bus, arriving with a few seconds to spare. For four years it sat on my desk or on our mantle, then it got boxed up with a bunch of other natural history stuff and was buried in a closet for a decade. I didn’t get around to unboxing it until January, 2018 — you can spot it in the second photo down in this post. Since then it’s lived on my desk at work, or on a bookshelf adjacent to my desk.

One of the things I love best about it is that even in these somewhat weathered, almost certainly non-diagnostic shards of adequacy, the internal structure is beautifully preserved.

This chunk of rock embodies a lot of time — developmental time for the ichthyosaur, to grow such beautiful bones; deep time for these vertebrae, voyaging to us across millions of years; and personal time. In the fifteen-and-a-half years since my last visit to the Isle of Wight, I’ve gone from being a grad student to a professor at a med school (which I did not see coming back in 2004), and Mike and I have gone from being pen pals to frequent coauthors and co-travelers (and we’re still pen pals).

I think it’s only right that I pressure Mike into stopping at that rock shop, if it’s still there, so I can find a companion piece. Stay tuned.

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Last September I spent a day in the LACM Herpetology collections with Jessie Atterholt, looking at weird features in crocs, lizards, snakes, and salamanders. I’ll have more to say about the specific things we were looking for in a month or so, after Jessie’s given her talk at SVPCA. This was just an incidental hit. We were looking at cryptobranchid (literally “hidden gill”) salamanders, because they’re big enough that you don’t need a microscope to see all their weird features. Cryptobranchids include the North American hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, and the giant salamanders of China and Japan, Andrias davidianus and Andrias japonicus, respectively, plus a raft of fossil taxa.

This is the mandible of LACM 162475, a specimen of Andrias davidianus, in right lateral view. I’d never spent quality time with the skeleton of a giant salamander, and I was impressed with how evil their teeth are. Just in terms of general outline, these little murder-sticks wouldn’t look out of place in the jaw of a dromaeosaur. Click to enfangenate.

Jessie did an Instagram post on the upper jaw of Cryptobranchus a few months ago, and as long as you’re over there, have a look at the half a pig head that she just plastinated for our colleagues in WesternU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s not the same pig as the one we hemisected last December, but I think it got cut at the same time.

My friend and frequent collaborator Jessie Atterholt has her office in the next building over from mine. When you walk in, you see something that looks approximately like this. Not exactly like this, because I took these photos in February and she’s changed a few things (and I’m rubbish about getting stuff posted in a timely fashion).

The last time I showed an office full of amazing stuff like this, it was Peter Dodson’s. It will come as no surprise that Jessie was Peter’s student at UPenn before she went to Berkeley for her PhD.

The far case holds mostly books and skulls. Dr. A has her own plastination setup for making preserved organs and organisms, and the snake on the second shelf here is one that she prepped herself. One side of the snake still has the skin on, the other half has been skinned to show the muscles. This is crunch week for me so I don’t have time to ID all of the stuff, but alert readers should have no problem spotting some digitally-resurrected Haplocanthosaurus bits.

Mostly skulls on the middle rack. The sirenian skull on the second shelf and the cave bear on the fourth are both casts, but almost everything else is real bone. The bighorn sheep on the middle shelf is a natural mummy.

Here’s a close-up of the top shelf. Other than some 3D-printed human skull bones sitting in front of the brain slice on the left, everything here is real bone, including the lion, baboon, and human skulls, and the giraffe cervicals winding across the top. Jessie’s been collecting since she was a kid and the African megafauna are gifts from a globe-trotting family friend.

The upper shelves here have quite a few of Jessie’s plastinated specimens, both whole organisms and things like hearts and kidneys from various critters.

A close-up of some of Jessie’s coolest anatomical preparations. In back is an internal cast of the lungs and bronchial tree of a cat. The baby rattlesnake died after eating a proportionally gigantic lizard — I was dumb and forgot to flip the snake over to show the lizard inside, plastinated along with its predator. The ground squirrel on the right is another half-fleshed, half-skinned plastinate, and the mouse up front is a classic dissection presentation, preserved forever through plastination.

I’ve heard it said that the difference between a collector and a hoarder is curation. As someone who definitely lurks more on the hoarder end of that spectrum (to paraphrase Dave Barry, if you could see my office you’d be blinded or driven insane), I’m pretty darned jealous of both the breadth of Jessie’s collection, and the skill and taste with which it is displayed. She’s featured some of these specimens on her Instagram, which I strongly recommend.

It’s a miracle!

June 30, 2019

I’ll see your face-of-the-blessed-virgin-in-a-waffle and raise you the fourth dorsal vertebra of the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype BM.R.2181 (formerly HMN S II) in a dandelion leaf:

I saw this lying on the ground as my friend Nataley was playing a short set at a festival, and it immediately made me think of this:

Janensch (1950:Abb. 54). 17ter Präsakralwirbel (SII), Hinteransicht.

Darren covered this briefly on the Scientific American version of Tetrapod Zoology, but the photos seem to have gone down and who knows how much longer any of that stuff will be up. Plus, he had other things to discuss, so the story has never been told in its entirety. This happened back in April, 2014. Here’s the full writeup I sent to Darren and Mike about it back when:

This happened Sunday afternoon and I thought you’d be interested. London and I let our box turtle, Easty (Terrapene carolina triunguis), crawl around the front yard on sunny days — with supervision, of course. She loves to dig around the edge of the sidewalk and flower bed and eat wood lice, worms, and whatever else comes her way. Sunday we saw her biting this biggish thing that from a distance looked like crumpled up paper. She was really going at it, so I got close to see what she was munching on. It was the head of a rat that our cat, Moe, had killed last week. Easty was snapping off bits of the braincase and eating them.

I had read of turtles scavenging carcasses for minerals but this was the first time I had observed it myself. She kept at it for about 20 minutes, until all of the thin, easily broken parts of the braincase were gone. She didn’t attempt to eat any of the facial skeleton or basicranium. Once she was done, she was done — I tossed the skull in front of her a couple of times and she would stop to smell it, but then walk past it, or even over it on one occasion.

So, there you have it, turtle eats part of rat skull. In keeping with my resolution to blog more about turtles, I’ll try to get some video of Easty feeding later this year. Right now she’s hibernating in a plastic tub on the bottom shelf of our refrigerator, so the hot turtle-feeding action will have to wait. Watch this space!

P.S. The gray ring on Easty’s shell in these photos is a sort of bathtub ring, from soaking in her water dish with just the top of her shell exposed, which she does for about six hours a day when she’s not hibernating. For pictures of Easty with a cleaner shell, please see the previous post. She really is a beautiful turtle.

Cool new paper out today by Yara Haridy and colleagues, describing the oldest known osteosarcoma in the vertebrate fossil record. The growth in question is on the proximal femur of the Triassic stem turtle Pappochelys.

Brian Engh did his usual amazing job illustrating this pervert turtle with no shell and a weird growth on its butt.

I don’t have a ton more to say about the paper, it’s short and sweet. I got to meet Yara in person at SVP last fall and learn about her research, and there is going to a LOT more weird stuff coming down the pike. She is after some really fundamental questions about where bone comes from, how it develops in the first place, and how it remodels and heals. Get ready to see some crazy jacked-up bones from other basal amniotes in the next few years, including some vertebrae that are so horked that Yara and I spent some time discussing which end was which.

On a probably inevitable and purely selfish personal note, I don’t blog nearly enough about turtles. I like turtles. Which, if you’re going to say, you gotta say like this kid:

In fact, I love turtles, and if there were no sauropods, I’d probably be working on turtles. Other people show you pictures of their cats, I’m going to show you pictures of my turtle, Easty. She’s a female three-toed box turtle, Terrapene carolina triunguis.

Here she is closing in on an unlucky roly-poly (or pill bug, if you prefer).

Having a close encounter with our cat Berkeley last summer. I think Easty kinda blew Berkeley’s mind. She’s been around our other cat, Moe, for years, so she’s completely unfazed by cats. But Berkeley is a SoCal kitty who showed up on our doorstep starving and yowling when he was about eight weeks old, so this was his first encounter with a turtle.

Berkeley batted at Easty’s shell a couple of times and then spent about half an hour having a visible existential crisis. Here was a small creature that he couldn’t frighten and couldn’t move, which was not the least bit afraid of him and either ignored him or treated him like an obstacle. Watching them interact — or rather, watching Easty act and Berkeley react — was solid entertainment for most of the afternoon.

Why have I hijacked this post to yap about my turtle? Primarily because up until now I’ve had a hard time visualizing a stem turtle. Turtles are so much their own thing, and I’ve been so interested in them for virtually my entire life, that imagining an animal that was only partly a turtle was very difficult for me. The thing I like most about Brian’s art of the tumorous Pappochelys is that it reads convincingly turtle-ish to me, especially the neck and head:

So congratulations to Yara and her coauthors for a nice writeup of a very cool find, and to Brian for another vibrant piece of paleoart. Triassic turtles sometimes had cancer on their butts. Tell the world!

Since I’ve already blown the weekly schedule here in the new year, maybe my SV-POW! resolution for 2019 will be to blog more about turtles. I’m gonna do it anyway, might as well make it a resolution so I can feel like I’m keeping up with something. Watch this space.

Reference

A simply mind-blowing preparation of the skull of an American paddlefish, Polyodon spathula. In life the paddle-shaped snout is covered by thousands of electroreceptors that detect the swarms of zooplankton on which the paddlefish feeds.

This was on display in the gift shop at the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City when I visited in July of this year. I was relieved it wasn’t for sale, first because it truly would have bankrupted me, and second because as a fellow excavator of antiquities once said, “It belongs in a museum!”