Here’s a frozen pig head being hemisected with a band saw.

The head in question, and the other bits we’ll get to later on in this post, both came from Jessie Atterholt’s Thanksgiving pig. As soon as Jessie knew she was cooking a pig for Thanksgiving, she had a plan for the head and the feet: cut ’em in half, skeletonize one half (like Mike did with his pig head), and plastinate the other. Jessie has her own plastination setup and you can see some of her work in her Instagram feed, here.

Here’s the freshly hemisected head. At one time or another, about four of us were involved in checking the alignment of the cut, with the intention of just missing the nasal septum (it can be easier to see some of the internal nasal anatomy if the septum’s all on one side). But we were all wrong–not only did the saw hit the nasal septum dead on, it hemisected the septum itself. Which I guess is the next-best possible outcome. The septum is the big expanse of white cartilage behind the nose and in front of the brain. You have one, too–it separates your left and right nasal cavities–but yours is a lot thinner.

Here’s the left half washed off and cleaned up a bit.

I was completely entranced by the little blood vessels inside the nasal septum, seen here as tiny traceries of red inside the blue-white cartilage. Also notice the frontal sinus above the septum and in front of the brain.

Here’s the right half in a postero-medial oblique view. Shown well here are the first two cervical vertebrae, plus part of the third, and the intervertebral joints. This was a young pig and the remains of growth plates are still visible between the different ossification centers of the vertebrae. If I get inspired (= if I get time) I might do a whole post on that.

It wasn’t my pig or my show, but Jessie made me a gift of two pig feet, and I got a little time on the saw. Here I’m using a plastic tool to push one of the pig’s hind feet through the saw.

We had been dithering over how best to prep the feet but the lure of the band saw proved irresistable: we hemisected all four. We’re planning to do half skeletonized/half plastinated preps for all of them, a forefoot and a hindfoot set for each of us.

Jessie and I were joined by two other WesternU anatomists, Thierra Nalley and Jeremiah Scott. Here Thierra is explaining to Jeremiah, who works on primate dentition and diet, that mammals have more parts than just teeth.

That’s a good segue to this video I shot, in which Thierra gives a quick tour of the hemisected pig head. All four of us have just come off of teaching human head and neck anatomy, so it was cool to see in another mammal the same structures we’ve just been dissecting in humans.

From 1:40 to 1:55 in the video Thierra and I are discussing the prenasal bone, something pigs have that we don’t. It’s the separate bone at the end of the snout in this mounted skeleton:

Darren discusses and illustrates the prenasal bone in this Tetrapod Zoology post.

Parting shots: many thanks to Ken Noriega and Tony Marino of WesternU’s College of Veterinary Medicine for their guidance, assistance, and expertise. Jessie covered this dissection as an Instagram story, here–I believe you have to be signed in to see it. Update: Jessie added a regular stream post, with lots of features labeled, here. I’ll probably have more to say about this pig and its bits in the future. Stay tuned!

For more hemisected heads and skulls, see:


I did a fieldwork!

This is going to set new records for “almost too late to be worth posting”, but here goes.

First up, this Wednesday evening, Oct. 18, at 6:00 PM (in about 18 hours), while most of the paleontologists in the West are at SVP in Albuquerque, I will giving a public lecture at the Canyonlands Natural History Assocation’s Moab Information Center, at the corner of Main St. and Center in Moab (link). The talk is titled, “Lost worlds of the Jurassic: Diverse dinosaurs and plants in the lower Morrison Formation of south-central Utah”, and it is free to the public. It’s a report on the fieldwork I’ve been doing in the Morrison Formation of southern Utah for the past few summers with John Foster, Brian Engh, and Jessie Atterholt. I promise lots of pretty pictures and probably more yapping about sauropods than anyone really needs. Did I mention it’s free? I hope to see you there.

Second, I will be at SVP myself, for a bit. Basically Friday night and Saturday. Gotta catch up with collaborators and go see Brian Engh pick up his Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize Saturday night. Why do you care? Western University of Health Sciences has an open position for an anatomist, and a lot of paleo folks have anatomy training, so…if you are interested in this position specifically, or if you have general questions about what it’s like to be a paleontologist teaching gross anatomy at a med school (spoiler: mostly awesome), come find me sometime Friday evening or Saturday and chat me up. I’ll probably be roaming the hallways and talking with folks instead of attending talks (sorry, talk-givers–you all rock, I’m just too slammed this year). And if you are on the job market, have some anatomy experience, and aren’t allergic to sun, palm trees, and amazing colleagues, please consider applying for the position. We’re taking applications through October 26, so don’t tarry. Here’s that link again.

My good friend, frequent collaborator, and fellow adventurer Brian Engh has won the John J. Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize for 2D paleoart (there are also categories for 3D paleoart and scientific illustration). He’s in august company; previous Lanzendorf winners include luminaries like John Gurche, Michael Skrepnick, Mark Hallett, Todd Marshall, and Julius Csotonyi (among many others–see the complete list of previous winners here). Naturally I’m happy as heck for Brian, and immensely proud of him, not only for the award, but also for what he’s doing now. Usually when we say “pay it forward” we mean metaphorically, but Brian is literally going to pay it forward. He’s created his own paleoart contest, the SummonENGH 2018, and he will award half of his October Patreon take to the winner.

He lays out the rules on his blog and in this video:

There’s a Facebook group, here, and a hashtag: #TheSummonEngh2018 (Facebook, Twitter).

Why do I think this is cool? It’s no exaggeration to say that I am a paleontologist today because I was exposed to mind-bending paleoart from a young age. Brian cares about paleoart–he cares about making better paleoart, himself, and he cares about making paleoart better, for everyone. And now he’s putting his money where his mouth his and doing something to hopefully bring more visibility to the paleoart community, and help move the field forward. That’s admirable, and I’m happy to support the cause.

Also, when we visited the Aquilops display at Dinosaur Journey this summer, we were lucky enough to capture this single frame showing a 100% real paleo-energy discharge. I definitely felt something at the time, but I didn’t know the full extent of what had happened until Brian sorted through our photos after the trip. Apparently this was all fated to happen–some kind of transdimensional chronoparticle emission linking past and future–and who am I to argue with fate?

Now, go summon monsters!

I am still building up to a big post on vertebral orientation, but in the meantime, check out this caudal vertebra of a Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis. This is right lateral view–the vert is strongly procoelous, and the articular ends of the centrum are really tilted relative to the long axis. I find this encouraging, for two reasons. First, it helped me clarify my thinking on how we ought to orient vertebrae, which Mike wrote about here and here. And second, it gives me some hope, because if we can figure out why tilting your articular surfaces makes functional sense in extant critters like monitors, maybe we can apply those lessons to sauropods and other extinct animals.

This is LACM Herpetology specimen 121971. Many thanks again to Neftali Camacho for access and assistance, and to Jessie Atterholt for basically doing all the other jobs while I was faffing about with this Komodo dragon.

Juvenile Tomistoma schlegelii, LACM Herpetology 166483, with me for scale. It wasn’t until I picked up the skull that I realized it was the same specimen I had looked at back when. I was looking at its neck in 2011, and its tail today, for reasons that will be revealed at the dramatically appropriate moment. I was only playing with the skull because it’s cute, an intricate little marvel of natural selection. Photos by Vanessa Graff (2011) and Jessie Atterholt (2018). Many thanks to collections manager Neftali Camacho for his hospitality and assistance both times!

John Yasmer, DO (right) and me getting ready to scan MWC 8239, a caudal vertebra of Diplodocus on loan from Dinosaur Journey, at Hemet Valley Imaging yesterday.

Alignment lasers – it’s always fun watching them flow over the bone as a specimen slides through the tube (for alignment purposes, obviously, not scanning – nobody’s in the room for that).

Lateral scout. I wonder, who will be the first to correctly identify the genus and species of the two stinkin’ mammals trailing the Diplo caudal?

A model we generated at the imaging center. This is just a cell phone photo of a single window on a big monitor. The actual model is much better, but I am in a brief temporal lacuna where I can’t screenshot it.

What am I doing with this thing? All will be revealed soon.

Preserved bits of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, MWC 8028, with me for scale. Modified from Wedel (2009: fig. 10), but not much – MWC 8028 was about the same size as CM 879.

Let’s say you had a critter with weird neural canals and super-deeply-dished-in centrum-ends, and you wanted to digitally rearticulate the vertebrae and reconstruct the spinal cord and intervertebral cartilages, in a project that would bring together a bunch of arcane stuff that you’d been noodling about for years. Your process might include an imposing number of steps, and help from a LOT of people along the way:

1. Drive to Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado, to pick up the fossils and bring them back to SoCal. (Thank you Paige Wiren, John Foster, and Rebecca Hunt-Foster for an excuse to come to the Moab area, thank you Brian Engh for the awesome road trip, and thank you Julia McHugh for access to specimens and help packing them up!).

2. Take the fossils to the Hemet Valley Medical Center for CT scanning. (Thank you John Yasmer and team.)

3. Find a colleague who would help you generate 3D models from the CT scans. (Thank you Thierra Nalley.)

4. Talk it over with your university’s 3D vizualization team, who suggest a cunning plan: (Thank you Gary Wisser, Jeff Macalino, and Sunami Chun at WesternU.)

5. They print the best-preserved vertebra at 75% scale. (50% scale resin print shown here.)

6. You and a collaborator physically sculpt in the missing bits with some Super Sculpey. (Thank you Jessie Atterholt for sculpting, and thank you Jeremiah Scott for documenting the process.)

(7.) The 3D-viz team use their fancy optical scanner (basically a photogrammetry machine) to make:

  • a second-generation digital model (digital)
  • from the sculpted-over 3D print (physical)
  • of the first-generation digital model (digital)
  • made from the CT scans (digital)
  • of the original fossil material (physical).

(8.) With some copying, pasting, and retro-deforming, use that model of the restored vert as a template for restoring the rest of the vertebrae, stretching, mirroring, and otherwise hole-filling as needed. (Prelim 2D hand-drawn version of caudal 1 shown here.)

(9.) Test-articulate the restored vertebrae to see if and how they fit, and revise the models as necessary. (Low-fi speculative 2D version from January shown here.)

(10.) Once the model vertebrae are digitally rearticulated, model the negative spaces between the centra and inside the neural canals to reconstruct the intervertebral cartilages and spinal cord.

(11.) Push the university’s 3D printers to the limit attempting to fabricate an articulated vertebral series complete with cartilages and cord in different colors and possibly different materials, thereby making a third-generation physical object that embodies the original idea you had back in January.

(12.) Report your findings, publish the CT scans and 3D models (original and restored), let the world replicate or repudiate your results. And maaaybe: be mildly astonished if people care about the weird butt of the most-roadkilled specimen of the small obscure sauropod that has somehow become your regular dance partner.

We did number 6 yesterday, so just counting the arbitrarily-numbered steps (and ignoring the fact that 7-12 get progressively more complicated and time-consuming), we’re halfway done. Yay! I’ll keep you posted on how it goes from here.