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

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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

MoO 2013 - humpback head-on

Well, I’m back. Been on the road a lot–to Flagstaff for a few days around Memorial Day, and in Oklahoma to visit family in the first half of June. Now I’m busy with the summer anatomy course, but I finally found time to post some pictures.

One of my favorite museums in the world is the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. It hits all the right notes for me: just shedloads of stuff on display, mounts you can walk all around and even touch (all they ask is that you don’t climb on them), and nary an interactive gizmo in sight. Plus a gift shop at the end where I could easily spend an hour (and several thousand dollars, if I had that much disposable  dough and someplace to put all the loot). This was my second visit, but I never got around to posting the photos from my last visit, so maybe I can make up for that this summer. This post just has some highlights–I’ll try to get more photos up before another month goes by.

MoO 2013 - 3-banded armadillo

One of my favorite things in the museum is this awesome and appropriate triple display of the three-banded armadillo.

MoO 2013 - giraffe face to face

And old friend, from a new perspective.

MoO 2013 - two-headed calves

In my experience, in the Great Plains states it is a rare museum indeed that does not have a two-headed calf. Not just natural history museums, either–historical museums and roadside attractions usually have at least one. The first I ever encountered was at the Dalton Gang Hideout in Meade, Kansas–maybe someone knows if it is still there? Even as a kid, I understood that the link between bovine developmental anomalies and Old West outlaws was pretty tenuous–basically, both crop up in Kansas–but I didn’t mind then and I don’t mind now. IMHO, finding two-headed calves on display in unexpected places only reinforces the concept of museums as cabinets of wonder.

Of course, it is entirely appropriate to find two-headed calves in an osteology museum, and the Museum of Osteology has more specimens than I’ve ever seen in one place.

MoO 2013 - herp display

The herp case is rad: the anaconda in the middle is a 14-footer, and the king cobra at lower right is 13’7″. And check out the super-fat Gaboon viper below the anaconda. If you’re wondering about turtles and crocs, they’re in the next case over.

MoO 2013 - Mata Mata

As anyone who followed Darren’s multi-part series on matamatas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) knows, they are fabulously weird. As I conceive it, there are two kinds of turtles: matamatas, and “regular-ass turtles”, the latter being the paraphyletic group that includes all non-matamata turtles.

MoO 2013 - ruby-throated hummingbird perched

My favorite mounts in the Museum of Osteology are the smallest: a pair of impossibly tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds.

MoO 2013 - ruby-throated hummingbird flying

I spend a lot of time with vertebrate bodies and skeletons, both taking them apart and putting them back together, and I am not exaggerating when I say that these are the most astonishing skeletal mounts I have ever seen. Unfortunately there aren’t any external indicators of scale with these skeletons, and perspective effects would defeat any attempt to put a scale bar up against the glass. These ruby-throated hummingbirds are slightly longer-billed than the Anna’s hummingbird mentioned in this post, but even so the skulls are probably no more than 30mm long. I recently helped London clean up a rat skull (yet another thing I need to blog about), and that skull was about as big as one of these skeletons minus the bill.

That’s all for now. If you’re ever in Oklahoma City, go check out the Museum of Osteology. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in bones, anatomy, animals, nature, or even, like, things.

I recently reread Dubach (1981), “Quantitative analysis of the respiratory system of the house sparrow, budgerigar and violet-eared hummingbird”, and realized that she reported both body masses and volumes in her Table 1. For each of the three species, here are the sample sizes, mean total body masses, and mean total body volumes, along with mean densities I calculated from those values.

  • House sparrow, Passer domesticus, n = 16, mass = 23.56 g, volume = 34.05 mL, density = 0.692 g/mL
  • Budgerigar, Melopsittacus undulatus, n = 19, mass = 38.16 g, volume = 46.08 mL, density = 0.828 g/mL
  • Sparkling violetear,* Colibri coruscans, n = 12, mass = 7.28 g, volume = 9.29 mL, density = 0.784 g/mL

* This is the species examined by Dubach (1981), although not specified in her title; there are four currently-recognized species of violetears. And apparently ‘violetear’ has overtaken ‘violet-eared hummingbird’ as the preferred common name. And as long as we’re technically on a digression,  I’m almost certain those volumes do not include feathers. Every volumetric thing I’ve seen on bird masses assumes plucked birds (read on).

This is pretty darned interesting to me, partly because I’m always interested in how dense animals are, and partly because of how the results compare to other published data on whole-body densities for birds. The other results I am most familiar with are those of Hazlehurst and Rayner (1992) who had this to say:

There are relatively few values for bird density. Welty (1962) cited 0.9 g/mL for a duck, and Alexander (1983) 0.937 g/mL for a domestic goose, but those values may not take account of the air sacs. Paul (1988) noted 0.8 g/mL for unspecified bird(s). To provide more reliable estimates, the density of 25 birds of 12 species was measured by using the volume displacement method. In a dead, plucked bird the air-sac system was reinflated (Saunder and Manton 1979). The average density was 0.73 g/mL, suggesting that the lungs and air sacs occupy some quarter of the body.

That result has cast a long shadow over discussions of sauropod masses, as in this paper and these posts, so it’s nice to see similar results from an independent analysis.  If you’re curious, the weighted mean of the densities calculated from Duchard’s Dubach’s (1981) data is 0.77. I’d love to see the raw data from Hazlehurst and Rayner (1992) to see how much spread they got in their density measurements.  Unfortunately, they did not say which birds they used or give the raw data in the paper (MYDD!), and I have not asked them for it because doing so only just occurred to me as I was writing this post.

There will be more news about hummingbirds here in the hopefully not-too-distant future. Here’s a teaser:

SkeletonFULL

Yes, those are its hyoids wrapped around the back of its head–they go all the way around to just in front of the eyes, as in woodpeckers and other birds that need hyper-long tongue muscles. There are LOADS of other interesting things to talk about here, but it will be faster and more productive if I just go write the paper like I’m supposed to be doing.

Oh, all right, I’ll say a little more. This is a  young adult female Anna’s hummingbird, Calypte anna, who was found by then-fellow-grad-student Chris Clark at a residential address in Berkeley in 2005. She was unable to fly and died of unknown causes just a few minutes after being found. She is now specimen 182041 in the ornithology collection at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley. Chris Clark and I had her microCTed back in 2005, and that data will finally see the light of day thanks to my current grad student, Chris Michaels, who generated the above model.

This bird’s skull is a hair over an inch long, and she had a body mass of 3.85 grams at the time of her death. For comparison, those little ketchup packets you get at fast-food burger joints each contain 8-9 grams of ketchup, more than twice the mass of this entire bird when it was alive!

References

  • Dubach, M. 1981. Quantitative analysis of the respiratory system of the house sparrow, budgerigar and violet-eared hummingbird. Respiration Physiology 46(1): 43-60.
  • Hazlehurst, G.A., and Rayner, J.M. 1992. Flight characteristics of Triassic and Jurassic Pterosauria: an appraisal based on wing shape. Paleobiology 18(4): 447-463.