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  • Metabolism part II: MSMR and the myth of the quarter power law

    A classic regression line showing metabolism scaling with mass. From: universereview.ca

     

    Last timeI gave a brief (?) run through the various types of metabolic rates that we find in the animal kingdom, along with the various ways in which they were measured. There was one last metabolic rate type I wanted to cover, but instead only teased; that of mass specific metabolic rate (MSMR). This type of metabolic rate measurement is fundamentally different from all the others that we talked about previously, and coupled with the sordid history behind this concept, it seemed appropriate to give MSMR its own post.

    So without further ado, let’s get this party started.

    MSMR = Mass Specific Metabolic Rate

    Dinosaur fanatics will no doubt recognize this infamous phrase. It tends to pop up a lot in literature dealing with dinosaur energetics. Mass specific metabolic rate differs from other MR measurements because it is not an actual measurement. Rather, MSMR is a mathematical abstraction taken from actual metabolic rate measurements of multiple taxa spanning a wide range of sizes. Ultimately what MSMR does is show us how metabolism scales with size. That in itself deserves a brief digression.

    Scaling and biology

    Size can radically change an organism’s structure, and function. The reasons for this relate back to some fundamental physical properties of all things. For instance, consider the metrics of height, width and length. Each of these measurements, taken by themselves, represent one dimension only. If one wants to get the idea of the size of a two dimensional object, one need only combine (multiply) any two of these measurements. If we combine all three we can get a good 3-D representation of how much space an object takes up.

    If any structure is to grow isometrically (i.e. everything grows at the same rate) then for any increase in a linear measurement (length, width, or height) the area of that object will double, while the volume of the object will triple.

    For instance, if an object that was 1 meter long, suddenly doubled in size isometrically, its area would increase by:

    2m x 2m = 2m2, or 4 meters in area (4 square meters).

    While the object doubled its length, it quadrupled its area.

    Physical laws on scaling mean that ants of this size and shape will always remain in the realm of fiction…on Earth. Pic from Undead Backbrain

    Meanwhile the volume of that object will increase by a multiple of all three linear measurements:

    2m x 2m x 2m, = 2m3, or 8 meters in volume/mass (8 cubic meters).

    So now the object that has increased its linear measurements by 2, increased its surface area by 4 and increased its mass by 8.

    This has immediate implications for any organism. If we look at just vertebrates we find that the strength of things such as bone and muscle are determined by their cross sectional area.

    To put this in more practical terms: for any given change in length, width or height of an isometrically growing organism, strength is going to double while weight is going to triple. The obvious problem here being that eventually (and rather quickly) weight is going to outpace strength. This puts a limit on how big an organism can get. It also explains why the short guy in gym class can always do more chin ups than the taller guys.

    The way that life has found around this isometry problem is to just dump the concept of isometry altogether. Instead, organisms will grow different body parts at accelerated, or decelerated rates (e.g. increasing bone density and muscle size faster than other organs for large animals). This is referred to as allometry. In general, allometric equations are generally some type of variable regressed against body mass. By doing so, one is able to determine how that variable is changing in relation to a change in size. It tends to look something like this:

    y = aMbb

    Where a is an experimentally determined allometric coefficient, Mb is body mass, and b is the allometric exponent.

    For the purposes of this discussion the general rule is that bigger vertebrates will have relatively bigger bones and muscles than a smaller vertebrates scaled up to their size.

    Rubner, Kleiber and metabolic scaling: battle of the Maxes.

    If bigger creatures generally show an allometric increase in size for various body parts, then one would expect to find some kind of similar allometric effect for metabolism. After all, a bigger animal is going to be composed of more cells, which will require more energy to power. So then should we expect metabolic rate to scale to mass (i.e. to increase by the third power?). Perhaps, but one should also keep in mind that as each of these cells expends energy, they are also producing a little bit of heat. Thus more cells results in a hotter critter. In animals, heat is lost primarily via conduction; a process that is intimately associated with surface area. Perhaps, then, it would be better if metabolic rate followed surface area instead, and increased by the second power.

    However which way metabolism scales it looks like it should relate somehow to these two variables.

    In order to figure this out, one must measure the lowest metabolic rate of one’s animals — the BMR/SMR. The reason for using BMR/SMR is that one is theoretically looking at the “metabolic floor.,” or the MR level that must be maintained to avoid death (and, thus the MR that is not likely to be affected by food acquisition, exercise, stress, etc.). The importance of using BMR will come up again further down.

    One measures the BMR/SMR of one’s animals and plots those metabolic rates against the size of the animals measured. From this one should be able to acquire a ratio of metabolic rate to mass. Often the data must be regressed first in order to achieve any kind of statistical analysis.

    The first attempts at this were done using mammals, and one of the most influential people to try this out was Max Rubner. Rubner measured the metabolic rate of dogs and regressed these data against mass. What he found was that as body size increased, metabolic rate increased by approximately 2.325 times. Rubner took this one step further and found that his exponent for metabolic rate could be made mass independent by simply subtracting it from the exponent for mass (3.0). The end result: mass specific metabolic rate for dogs appeared to increase by the 0.675 power, or the 2/3rds power (Rubner 1883).

    So what does all of this mean? Essentially it means that metabolism increases slower than body mass. So if we were to graph out metabolism in relation to the amount of mass that that metabolism is powering, we would discover that the data form a negative slope, with bigger animals falling further towards the low end of the slope than smaller animals. To put it more succinctly, it takes less relative metabolic energy to power a larger mass than it does to power a smaller mass. This is mass specific metabolism.

    A common misconception about MSMR is that metabolic rate goes down as one gets larger, but this is not the case at all. The metabolism of a large animal is still larger than that of a small animal, it is just that for a given mass, the increase in metabolism is less than one would expect. For example if you took the BMR of a large beagle (14kg) and the BMR of a boxer (30kg), one would expect the boxer to show a basal metabolic rate that is at least twice as fast as that of the beagle (since it is roughly twice the mass of the beagle). If we input the data into the allometric equation mentioned earlier, we get:

    BMR = (89kcal/day/kg*)Mb0.675

    BMR = (89kcal/day/kg*)(14kg)0.675 = 528.48 kcal/day

    BMR = (89kcal/day/kg*)(30kg)0.675 = 883.99 kcal/day

    *The 89kcal/day/kg is the allometric constant given by Rubner 1883. It is the average BMR for his dogs after correcting for mass.
    A visual example for the scaling of metabolic rate.

    What we find is that the boxer does have a higher metabolic rate than the beagle, but it is only 1.67 times greater, instead of 2. This lower than expected metabolic rate will translate to lower than expected food costs as well. To put it another way: it would be cheaper to feed one boxer than to feed two beagles of roughly the same size, or to shift things away from dogs: it is cheaper to feed one elephant than it is to feed an elephant’s weight in shrews.

    Rubner’s discovery was amazing and his equation elegant. It became to be referred to as: Rubner’s surface law of metabolism; a law that would stay in practice for 50 years afterward. It wasn’t until 1932 that this law was officially challenged, and by another Max at that. Swiss agricultural chemist Max Kleiber studied MSMR in mammals ranging from rats to cows. He plotted their body masses and BMRs on a logarithmic scale, and came to the conclusion that Rubner’s 2/3rd surface area law was incorrect. Rather mass-specific metabolism followed a “higher power.” That of 3/4, or 0.75. It’s interesting to note that the result Kleiber found was in fact not quite 0.75 (it was 0.73). This number was rounded to 0.75 in order to make it more “slide rule friendly” (Schmidt-Nielsen 1984)

    Quarter power laws for everyone.

    A simple illustration based off of Brody’s (1945) infamous mouse to elephant curve. Note the negative slope showing how much energy is used per hour by each gram of tissue

    So Rubner’s law was broken, and Kleiber’s law came in to replace it. For over 70 years Kleiber’s law was held up as that rare case of a biological constant Subsequent BMR studies of mammals (Brody 1945) and other organisms including bacteria (Hemmingsen 1960) found results that “hovered” around 0.75, thus suggesting that this biological law was not just a mammal thing, but rather a hallmark of all organisms.

    This leads us to the obvious question of why?

    Typically, the response to this question is a thermal one. Small animals lose heat easier than large animals, due to their larger relative surface area. If a large animal has an easier time retaining body heat, then it would make sense that its body would need to produce relatively less of it. The problem with this answer is that it only works for automatic endotherms (i.e. mammals and birds). However the MSMR phenomenon is present in bradymetabolic thermoconformers too. Therefore this answer cannot be the only one.

    The answer to this question had remained elusive up until 14 years ago, when West et al proposed that the quarter power scaling laws that we see in nature appear to be the result of the fractal nature of delivery networks (West et al 1997), which in the case of vertebrates, are blood vessels. West et al. proposed that the fractal nature of blood vessels, combined with area preserving branching patterns could be used to explain why metabolism scales to the 3/4 power. The work by West et al was the first real attempt to explain why metabolism should scale to the 3/4 power, and has since been referred to as the metabolic theory of ecology.

    Data on MSMR calculations from Brody and Hemmingsen all seemed to show that everything followed the 3/4 exponent rule. These two papers, along with Kleiber’s influential work, are some of the most cited papers in the physiological literature. One the one hand this illustrates just how influential their findings were for biology in general, but on the other hand it also suggests that their work should be the most thoroughly scrutinized. Scientists occasionally take the work of others for granted. This can lead to unpleasant side effects and near dogmatic views of things (e.g. the old saw about swamp bound dinosaurs). In general, it is a good idea to occasionally go back to these seminal works and verify that the authors got things right the first time.

    Dodds et al. (2001) did just that. The authors looked back at the work of Brody, Hemmingsen, Keliber and others in the field of MSMR, in order to see if the 3/4 power law was a real thing, or mathematical error. Their results found that data from as far back as 1982 suggested that there was a problem with the 3/4 power law. Much of the data that had come out since Kleiber, Brody and Hemmingsen’s time suggested that the exponent for metabolic power should lie much closer to 2/3rds than 3/4. Dodds et al. went even further and challenged the metabolic theory of ecology by citing apparent mathematical errors in the work by West et al. in 1997. This challenge to the model by West et al. remains controversial, with arguments that continue to sling back and forth (e.g. Kozlowski and Konarzewski 2004, Brown et al 2005). Dodds et al (2010) recently took on the nutrient supply approach spearheaded by West et al, but looked at it from a purely geometric point of view (rather than fractal.). Their results found strong support for nutrient networks being the limiting factor for metabolic rate. Their results also found that these structures scaled to the 2/3rd power.

    Kleiber’s faux pas; or: why MR type matters.

    In 2003, White and Seymour gave a critical re-evaluation of Kleiber’s initial work. Kleiber was an agriculturist, and at least part of his impetus for looking at MSMR was to produce a greater yield in biomass, for farm animals. It is no surprise, then, that most of Kleiber’s study animals were of the barnyard variety. The problem with using livestock to determine MSMR is that domestic animals — especially ones that are raised for food — have been under extensive selection to produce larger animals for less cost. Thus, they are unlikely to be accurate representatives of a “wildtype” metabolic rate. Another, much larger, problem was the over-representation of artiodactyls in Kleiber’s study. In fact, both Kleiber, and Brody (and by extension Hemmingsen, as he re-used most of Brody’s data) had artiodactyls encompassing over 20% of their data.

    Okay, so what exactly is the problem here?

    The problem is that artiodactyls only make up approximately 5% of all extant mammals. To increase this representation by 4 times is going to skew the results. Also, as White and Seymour pointed out (2003), many of these animals were on the upper edge of the regression line, resulting in a disproportionate influence over the scaling exponent.

    Topping it all off was the biggest issue of all, and one that crops up time and time again with many metabolic studies. As mentioned in part 1 of this series, BMR and RMR are not the same thing. If one is going to measure the mass specific metabolism of an animal, one must get it from the basal metabolic rate. There are strict methods for acquiring these data (McNab 1997), not the least of which is the necessity of measuring the metabolism of an animal that is in a post-absorptive state. This is a time in between eating and fasting, where the body is not doing any digestion at all. This is important because digestion can actually ramp up basal/standard metabolism substantially over resting/fasting levels. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this would be data from Burmese pythons (Python molurus) in which feeding metabolism increases SMR by over 44 times the resting rate (Secor and Diamond 1996)!

    Ensuring that an animal is in a postabsorptive state is no easy task. Some taxa, such as very small mammals (e.g. shrews, hamsters, etc) run so close to the thermal edge that it might be impossible to get them in a postabsorptive state without killing them. As Speakman et al (1993) wittingly put it: “Before small shrews become post-absorptive they enter a state of profound rest in which they have zero metabolism and from which they never recover!” One might wonder, then, if BMR = RMR in such a situation (but see McNab 1997 for a counterpoint).

    Guys like these can take up to 7 days to fully absorb a meal! cows from: icanhasinternets.com

    The problem with artiodactlys is that they are ruminants. That is to say they rely on bacterial degradation of cellulose in order to extract nutrients from their food. Because of this, the digestive phase for ruminants can last for a substantially long time. Typically, artiodactyls are fasted for 72 hours before having their BMR measured, yet data on digestion in ruminants suggests that they can last as long as 7 days before entering a postabsorptive state (White and Seymour 2005), if at all (McNab 1997). When this is not taken into account, one winds up measuring RMR instead of BMR, which raises the overall exponent to the mass specific metabolic rate equation.

    Now, to be fair, Kleiber did note that his extensive use of artiodactyls (three cows and a sheep) could have an unwanted effect on his data if they were not being measured in a postabsorptive state. Thus, he performed an analysis with and without his ruminants. Interestingly, the results still hovered around 3/4ths (0.72-0.73). White and Seymour (2005) argued that the reason behind this still high exponent might be due to the relatively high BMRs of domestic carnivores (Kleiber used dogs) and humans. The authors later went on to show that the removal of these data points ultimately drops the exponent down to the 2/3rds that seem to be so commonplace among other metabolic studies.

    Another aspect of BMR studies that tends to get overlooked when researchers attempt MSMR calculations is the need to measure animals in a thermoneutral environment. This is an environment in which the animal is not actively thermoregulating, otherwise known as the thermoneutral zone. Automatic endotherms are often lauded for their ability to maintain body temperatures regardless of the external environment. This seems to have lead to the assumption that the environmental temperature should not matter, which results in experiments that grab metabolic rate data from animals that are in fact, rather stressed (e.g. Hanski 1984, who measured “BMR” in shrews that were 7°C below their thermal neutral zone). White and Seymour noted that mass and body temperature showed an intimate relationship in mammals (White and Seymour 2003), and that in order to get a useful comparative estimate of BMR for mammals that encompasses the full range of masses seen in this group, BMR should be standardized to a common body temperature. This is very intriguing for White and Seymour have essentially taken BMR and converted it to SMR. As mentioned previously, automatic endotherms do not escape the Q10 effect, but instead keep it at bay by keeping their cells encased in a bubble of stable temperatures. This means that one can use Q10 values to adjust BMR to fit an appropriate “universal” temperature with which to compare taxa. That temperature turned out to be 36.2°C with a Q10 of 3.0.

    White and Seymour discovered that when BMR was standardized to a universally comparable temperature, the mass specific exponent for metabolic rate was approximately 0.67, or 2/3rds. Even more fascinating: when data for birds are given the same rigorous treatment, they also scale to the 2/3rds power (McKechnie and Wolf 2004). So it appears that Rubner had it right all along. For seventy years we have been using a formula that suffered from some hefty methodological errors.

    Well at least that’s all fixed now, right?

    One power law to rule them all? Probably not.

    Dodds, Rothman, Weitz (2001), White and Seymour’s (2003) works to turn over the established 3/4 power law belief in physiology did not go unquestioned Savage et al (2004) gave a particularly in depth critique of their analyses, pointing out some questionable assumptions that White and Seymour had made, as well as the disproportionate amount of data available for mammals (i.e. some genera were over-represented with multiple BMR measurements, while others might not have any data at all). This violates a fundamental assumption of practically every statistical analysis. Namely that data points are independent. Savage et al pointed out that most BMR data exists for mammals that are less than 1kg in size. This is going to bias the regression statistic (indeed, Dodds et al. [2001] noted that the 2/3rd power only seemed effective for mammals up to about 10kg. The authors cited a lack of data for larger taxa as a likely cause of this strangeness).

    Savage et al decided to repeat the statistical analyses of White and Seymour, as well as a few other authors. In the process they found various errors in each analysis that resulted in some major discrepancies (e.g. basal metabolic rates that varied over an order of magnitude for the same species in the same study, the exclusion of large chunks of Mammalia that spanned the larger size ranges, thus reducing their dataset). The authors separated their taxa into “bins” that covered various size ranges. The idea being that by separating mass into sections like this, they could turn mass into a treatment effect, which should allow the statistical analysis to better analyze the effect of BMR as described by body mass.

    The result of Savage et al’s study showed that the scaling exponent for BMR to body mass was around 0.712 +/- 0.012. This new regression suggested that the “true” exponent for BMR in relation to mass, was neither 2/3rds, nor 3/4ths, but something in between. The authors noted this unexpected result, but quickly pointed out that this was for data that was heavily biased for small size (mostly rodents). This was where the “binning” idea would come into effect. By essentially forcing a uniform distribution across the mass ranges available the authors results revealed an exponent of 0.737 +/- 0.025, or an exponent that lives around 3/4ths.

    The authors took this a step further by looking for exponents to describe field metabolic rate and maximal metabolic rate. Their reasoning being that these are more easily obtained measurements that have more biologically meaningful results to them. I am less confident of these results, as FMR encompasses many aspects of an organism’s lifestyle, while MMR can be difficult to fully obtain. Further, I would argue that the benefits of BMR is that they indicate what the bare minimum energy requirements of an organism should be. That has the potential to be extremely useful for paleontology. Especially if one is looking to figure out how much food (at minimum) an organism would need to eat to survive in some environment (and thus, infer something about thermophysiology).

    White et al . (2006) responded back, by doing a more thorough analysis of available data. They disregarded Savage et al’s notion of mass “binning” (which was fine, as Savage et al. disregarded the need to adjust for temperature, citing negligibility of the results as the reason), and used data from 938 species ranging from 158mg (0.35 lbs) to 138kg (304 lbs), and covering every major vertebrate class. Data were only used if they fit the strict criteria for BMR mentioned previously, and each group was compared to a standard temperature (38°C and 20°C), after accounting for Q10 effects. Once again, White and Seymour found strong support for a 2/3rds exponent…for mammals and birds.

    And this is where we come to the punchline in all of this. While the arguments had previously focused on automatic endotherms, data started to appear in both those groups, and (especially) the groups outside

    Figure 1 from White et al 2006 illustrates the mess likely represents a more accurate look of how metabolism scales with mass. Note how the automatic endotherms actually scale up slower than everyone else.

    Mammalia and Aves, that a universal metabolic exponent appeared not to exist. This was tackled more formally by White et al. (2007) who reviewed the current literature citing numerous examples where the single exponent view was not being met empirically. This was followed up by a final analysis by the authors on 127 published allometric exponents for taxa that spanned the range of animal classes. Following Felsenstein (1985) they incorporated independent contrasts to remove the effects of phylogeny (which has a tendency to screw the pooch for independence of data points) . The authors then assigned the exponents found to one of three categorical variables:

    1. Taxonomy (Amphibia, Arthropoda, Aves, Actinopterygia/Chondrychthys [“fish”], Mammalia, Reptilia, Prokaryotes)
    2. Thermoregulation (automatic endotherm, or bradymetabolic “ectotherm”)
    3. Metabolic state (FMR, RMR, MMR, BMR/SMR)

    Then, after assigning some fancy statistical mojo (weighted generalized mix model, for those that are into that kind of stuff), the authors found that among their three categories, only thermoregulation seemed to show any real affect on where the exponent wanted to go (i.e. it “pushed” the exponent towards some kind of “true mean”). This suggests that a true discrepancy between these modes of thermophysiology ultimately affect metabolic rate. Surprisingly, White et al’s study seemed to show that automatic endotherms converge at an exponent closer to 2/3rds, while everyone else hovers closer to 3/4ths. However there is still considerable sway around these exponents. So much so that White et al. urge researchers to do away with the 2/3rds 3/4ths argument altogether, as it has become quite apparent that choosing one, or the other is going to both bias results and obscure pertinent data. The authors do offer some alternatives that might be used such as statistics that incorporate multiple exponent models, accounting for body mass by using it as a variable in an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) model, or just choosing the right exponent for the job (e.g. the 3/4ths exponent seems to work well for FMR of mammals, but overestimates the FMR of birds).

    Where are we now?

    So here we are, finally at the end of this long winded blog entry, and what do we have to show for it? Well…mostly that biological laws are so few and far between that any relationship, or phenomenon that has the audacity to be referred to as a “law” or “rule” should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

    Another thing to take away from this is just how complicated metabolic physiology studies really are. They have to account for so many unexpected variables that is amazing we can say anything at all about extant animals. One thing I did not touch upon was the fact that all MSMR equations use regression as their model of choice. A severe limit to this approach (and one that is violated all the time) is that regression models can really only predict — with any certainty — the estimated MSMR of an animal that falls within the size range measured. Once one starts to extrapolate beyond the maximum, or minimum size of the available data, one is practically just speculating.

    Regression graph showing trend line for a range of predicted values (bold line) and possible real distributions that exist beyond the measured data (grey dotted lines). Hence why regression predictions should always be limited to the range of data used.

    Lastly, given what little we are able to say about extant animal metabolism and its limits, just think about how much less we can confidently say about extinct taxa. This is especially true for paleontological studies that attempt to use metabolic scaling exponents to infer the possible thermophysiology of extinct organisms. Thus any study that attempts to do this kind of paleophysiology, would be best served by computing hypothetical BMR/SMRs that used a wide range of metabolic exponents.

    And that, in a nutshell, is what all the fuss is about for MSMR.

     

    ~ Jura

    References

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    Castellini, M.A., Kooyman, G.L., Ponganis, P.J. 1992. Metabolic Rates of Freely Diving Weddell Seals: Correlations with Oxygen Stores, Swim Velocity and Diving Duration. J. Exp. Biol. Vol.165; 181-194
    Dodds, P.S. 2010. Optimal Form of Branching Supply and Collection Networks.Phys.Rev.Let. Vol.104 (4); 048702
    Dodds, P.S., Rothman, D.H., Weitz, J.S. 2001. Re-Examination of the “3/4-Law” of Metabolism. J.Theor.Biol. Vol.209:9-27
    Felsenstein, J. 1985. Phylogenies and the Comparative Method. Am.Nat. Vol.125:1-15
    Frappell, P. 2006. Respirometry, The Gold Standard. The Physiologist. Vol.49; 12.
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    Hemmingsen, A. M. 1960. Energy Metabolism as Related to Body Size and Respiratory Surfaces, and its Evolution. Rep. Steno Memorial Hosp. Nordisk Insulinlab. Vol.9;1-110
    Heusner, A.A. 1991. Size and Power in Mammals. J.Exp.Biol. Vol.160(1);25-54
    Kleiber, M. 1932. Body Size and Metabolism. Hilgardia. Vol.6;315-353
    Kozlowski, J., Konarzewski, M. 2004. Is West, Brown and Enquist’s Model of Allometric Scaling Mathematically Correct and Biologically Relevant? Funct.Ecol. Vol.18:283-289
    McKechnie, A. E., Wolf, B. O. 2004. The Allometry of Avian Basal Metabolic Rate: Good Predictions Need Good Data. Physiol.Biochem.Zool. Vol.77:502-521
    McNab, B. K. 1997. On the Utility of Uniformity in the Defnition of Basal Rate of Metabolism. Physiol. Zool. Vol.70; 718-720
    Nagy, K.A., Girard, I.A., Brown, T.K. 1999. Energetics of Free-Ranging Mammals, Reptiles and Birds. Annu.Rev.Nutr. Vol.19;247-277
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    Packard, G.C., Birchard, G.F. 2008. Traditional Allometric Analysis Fails to Provide a Valid Predictive Model for Mammalian Metabolic Rates. J.Exp.Biol. Vol.211;3581-3587
    Savage, V.M., Deeds, E.J., Fontana, W. 2008. Sizing up Allometric Scaling Theory. PLoS Comput.Biol.Vol.4(9):e1000171.
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  • Metabolism part I: The importance of being specific

    From archaea to blue whales. Metabolism is a hallmark of all living things

    Metabolism, and metabolic rate tend to feature pretty highly in literature related to dinosaurs and other reptiles. For instance it is often stated that reptiles have metabolic rates around 1/10th those of similar sized mammals and birds, but what exactly does that mean? Talks of thermoregulation focus heavily on the role of metabolism, while allometric studies focus on how metabolism is affected by size. Given the prevalence of metabolic terminology in dinosaur and reptile papers/books, I thought it might be best to quickly give a review of metabolism, metabolic studies, and what all of that means for real animals.

    Metabolism is everything


    Metabolism is defined as the sum total energy expenditure of an organism. That is to say metabolism is the total energy an organism uses during its life. It is often broken up into the chemical reactions that build up resources (anabolism) and the reactions that break those resources down (catabolism). The amount of metabolism, or energy expenditure during a specific interval of time (seconds to days) is referred to as metabolic rate. From bacteria to blue whales, metabolism is the measure of all the energy that lets these critters go, and metabolic rates determine how much energy that is going to take. It can be measured in a variety of ways from respirometry to doubly labeled water and heart rate telemetry. The diversity of metabolic rate measurements is reflected in the units used to measure metabolism; which can range from watts/hour to milliliters of oxygen per minute, and even to joules per second.

    Specificity is important


    A key thing about metabolic rates is that they are plastic. They change depending on the situation presented. For instance one could measure the metabolic rate of a sleeping cat, and then compare it to measurements from that same cat while playing, or after eating a big meal. Metabolic rates ramp up when energy demand increases, and then ramp down when that energy demand decreases, or when the environment demands drastic energy cuts (e.g. starvation). Thus when measuring the metabolic rate of an animal it is important to decide exactly what kind of metabolic rate you are trying to measure.

    And boy, oh boy are there a lot of different flavours to choose from.

    One can measure: BMR, SMR, RMR, MMR, AMR, and FMR just for starters.

    Those are a lot of initialisms, and they are just the most common ones. The choice of metabolic rate that one decides to measure is also going to dictate the technique that will be employed. So what do all these things stand for, and what technique is best for what? Let’s find out.
    Continue reading  Post ID 723


  • T-U-R-T-L-E Power! Part 2: The weird and wacky origin of turtles.

    A Galapagos tortoise struts about, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever know where the hell it came from. Photo from petcaregt.com

    This is a long overdue follow up to my original Turtle Power article back in…yeah never mind the date.

    As established previously, turtles are a strange, and highly diverse group of animals, but how did they come to be this way?

    The turtle bauplan has been a phylogenetic double edged sword. On the one hand, the unique shell design, and the necessary body contortions associated with it, make chelonians a very easy group to classify. However, it is these same peculiarities that keep us from finding the ancestor to turtles. To date, there are no half-turtles. No good transitionals between one reptile group to that of turtles. As such, the list of turtle ancestors runs all over Reptilia. Some paleontologists believe the origin lies at the base with reptiles like procolophonoids, and pareiasaurs. Others believe turtles are a bit more closely related to extant reptiles, and belong in, or alongside the sauropterygians (plesiosaurs, nothosaurs, and placodonts). There is even some evidence to suggest turtles are actually in the same reptile group as dinosaurs and crocodylians (Archosauria).

    Curse that shell! - Photo by tompain

    How can the list be this extensive? Read on to find out.

    Continue reading  Post ID 723


  • Get in on the deal: Indiana University Press one day sale.

    I apologize ahead of time for what will likely sound like spam, but:

    Just a quick post to remind folks that today, and only today, Indiana University Press is offering a 60% off sale on all their books. That includes their famed Life of the Past series.

    So if you have yet to get your copy of The Complete Dinosaur, or have been itching to snag the most comprehensive book ever written on Deinosuchus, ankylosaurs, or mosasaurs, but didn’t have the necessary funds; now is your chance to get them for cheap.

    Just remember, the sale ends today.

    ~Jura


  • Mechanics of bipedalism suggest dinosaurs had to be warm-blooded. Or: Why the aerobic capacity model needs to be retired.

    The old "cold blooded or warm blooded" argument once again rears its ugly head.

    [Editor’s note: A response from the authors can be found here. It answers many of the questions I had about the paper, though I feel the biggest question remains open for debate. I appreciate the authors taking their time to answer my questions, and PLoS ONE for allowing this type of open communication.]

    This post has taken an inordinate amount of time to write up. Mostly because it required finding enough free time to sit down and just type it out. So I apologize ahead of time for bringing up what is obviously old news, but I felt this paper was an important one to talk about, as it relied on a old, erroneous, but very pervasive, popular and rarely questioned hypothesis for how automatic endothermy (mammal and bird-style “warm-bloodedness”) evolved.

    Back in November, a paper was published in the online journal: PLoS ONE. That paper was:

    Pontzer, H., Allen, V. & Hutchinson, J.R. 2009. Biomechanics of Running Indicates Endothermy in Bipedal Dinosaurs. PLoS ONE.Vol 4(11): e7783.

    Using muscle force data for the hindlimbs of theropods, and applying it to a model based on Pontzer (2005, 2007), the authors were able to ascertain the approximate aerobic requirements needed for large bipedal theropods to move around. Their conclusion was that all but the smallest taxa had to have been automatic endotherms (i.e. warm-blooded).

    Time to stop the ride and take a closer look at what is going on here.

    In 2004, John Hutchinson – of the Royal Veterinary College, London UK – performed a mathematical study of bipedal running in extant taxa. He used inverse dynamics methods to estimate the amount of muscle that would be required for an animal to run bipedally. He then tested his models on extant animals (Basiliscus, Iguana, Alligator, Homo, Macropus, Eudromia, Gallus, Dromaius, Meleagris, and Struthio). The predictive capacity of his model proved to be remarkably substantial and stable (Hutchinson 2004a). A follow up paper in the same issue (Hutchinson 2004b) used this model to predict bipedal running ability in extinct taxa (Compsognathus, Coelophysis, Velociraptor, Dilophosaurus, Allosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and Dinornis). Results from this study echoed previous studies on the running ability of Tyrannosaurus rex (Hutchinson & Garcia 2002), as well as provided data on the speed and agility of other theropod taxa.

    The difference between effective limb length and total limb length in the leg of Tyrannosaurus rex

    Meanwhile in 2005, Herman Pontzer – of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri – did a series of experiments to determine what was ultimately responsible for the cost of transport in animals. To put it another way: Pontzer was searching for the most expensive thing animals have to pay for in order to move around. One might intuitively assume that mass is the ultimate cost of transport. The bigger one gets, the more energy it requires to move a given unit of mass, a certain distance. However experiments on animals found the opposite to be the case. It actually turns out that being bigger makes one “cheaper” to move. So then what is going on here?

    Pontzer tested a variety of options for what could be happening; from extra mass, to longer strides. In the end Pontzer found that the effective limb length of animals, was ultimately the limiting factor in their locomotion. Effective limb length differs from the entirety of the limb. Humans are unique in that our graviportal stance has us using almost our entire hindlimbs. Most animals, however, use a more crouched posture that shrinks the overall excursion distance of the hindlimb (or the forelimb). By taking this into account Pontzer was able to find the one trait that seemed to track the best with cost of transport in animals over a wide taxonomic range (essentially: arthropods – birds).

    This latest study combines these two technique in order to ascertain the minimum (or approx minimum) oxygen requirements bipedal dinosaurs would need in order to walk, or run.

    As with the previous papers, the biomechanical modeling and mathematics are elegant and robust. However, this paper is not without its flaws. For instance in the paper the authors mention:

    We focused on bipedal species, because issues of weight distribution between fore and hindlimbs make biomechanical analysis of extinct quadrupeds more difficult and speculative.

    Yet this did not stop the authors from applying their work on bipeds, to predicting the maximum oxygen consumption of quadrupedal iguanas and alligators. No justification is ever really given for why the authors chose to do this. Making things even more confusing, just a few sentences later, it is mentioned (ref #s removed to avoid confusion):

    Additionally, predicting total muscle volumes solely from hindlimb data for the extant quadrupeds simply assumes that the fore and hindlimbs are acting with similar mechanical advantage, activating similar volumes of muscle to produce one Newton of GRF. This assumption is supported by force-plate studies in other quadrupeds (dogs and quadrupedal chimpanzees)

    The force plate work cited is for quadrupedal mammals. However, mammals are not reptiles. As Nicholas Hotton III once mentioned (1994), what works for mammals, does not necessarily work for reptiles. This is especially so for locomotion.

    In many reptiles (including the taxa used in this study) the fore and hindlimbs are subequal in length; with the hindlimbs being noticeably longer and larger. Most of the propulsive power in these reptiles comes from the hindlimbs (which have the advantage of having a large tail with which to lay their powerful leg retractor on). The result is that – unlike mammals – many reptiles are “rear wheel drive.”

    The last problem is by far the largest, and ultimately proves fatal to the overall conclusions of the paper. The authors operated under the assumptions of the aerobic capacity model for the evolution of automatic endothermy.

    It is here that we come to the crux of the problem, and the main subject of this post.

    Continue reading  Post ID 723


  • The dangers of documentaries.

    I just had to post a link to the current discussion on the treatment of science in current documentaries.

    SVPOW’s Matt Wedel was on the recent Discovery Channel docu-travesty: Clash of the Dinosaurs. While scientists who work with the media, have gotten used to having their data distorted a bit and hyperbolized for the alleged sake of “entertainment,” Matt actually had his words chopped up and edited in such a way as to make it sound like he was advocating a now well outdated view of dinosaur anatomy.

    This blatant case of slander has raised the question of what one should do in this situation. It has also brought up the broader question of how scientists should handle the media. Should we just sit back, hoping that the interviewers will present the facts as best they can, and then deal with any possible blowback if/when that fails? Should scientists demand tighter editorial control over what is shown in videos like these? We are their scientific consultants after all. Theoretically they need us for legitimacy; which gives us a bargaining chip.

    I don’t know what the right answer is. The least I can do is help Matt pass this info along so future researchers who are asked for an interview, can ask the production crew for assurances that they won’t be slandered in the final product.

    Post your thoughts over on SVPOW, and pass the story on.

    ~Jura


  • Land lubbing crocs get their day in the sun. Also, there’s a varanid special on NOVA.

    Dr. Paul Sereno stands with others at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Note the wheelbarrow like retroarticular processes on the "boar croc."
    Dr. Paul Sereno stands with others at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Note the wheelbarrow like retroarticular processes on the "boar croc."

    After spending? a few years collecting and looking at the weirdness that is Gondwanan crocodyliformes, Dr. Paul Sereno has finally started to unveil stuff. With the help of National Geographic comes When Crocs Ate Dinosaurs. It appears to be a special that focuses on the remarkable – and often underrated – diversity seen within this group of animals. The highlight of the program (at least in my opinion) is the focus on all the very un-crocodile like crocodyliformes.

    The National Geographic website has a special section that shows off the various, apparently unnamed, taxa. For now, there are just placeholder names that will likely hurt the eyes and ears of anyone who had to deal with the aftermath of The Land Before Time.

    The artwork is by artist Todd Marshall. I’ve always enjoyed his portrayals of prehistoric reptiles (he tends to get almost too fanciful with dewlaps and spikes though). Sadly the accompanying animations do not do Marshall’s incredible artwork justice.? It will be interesting to see how it all gets integrated into the television show.

    Also airing tonight is a special on NOVA entitled: Lizard Kings. It features the work of Dr. Eric Pianka; a well known and respected lizard ecologist who has focused on monitors for much of his career.? The special looks to be very interesting. Especially given that it appears to have taken years for the film crew to get the footage they needed. As you read this the special has already aired. However, PBS does make their shows avaialable to watch online for free, on their website. The show should also be viewable on Hulu by tomorrow.

    A perentie monitor (_Varanus giganteus_) poses for the camera.
    A perentie monitor (_Varanus giganteus_) poses for the camera.

    I realize that both of these options are only available in the states. To date there seems to be no international options. At best there are some workarounds.

    Still, for those that can get them, both shows should prove to be entertaining.

    ~Jura


  • New paper says dinosaurs were endomorphs.

    From left to right: Endomorphic Jay Cutler, Mesomorphic Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Ectomorphic poster-child Frank Zane
    From left to right: Endomorphic Jay Cutler, Mesomorphic Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ectomorphic poster-child Frank Zane

    Endo-what now? Allow me to explain.

    If one studies physical fitness (academically, or practically), then one is bound to come across the three main human body types. The endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph.

    Endomorphs are characterized by their ability to easily gain weight (be it fat, or muscle).

    Ectomorphs are characterized by their ability to easily lose weight (fat, or muscle)

    Mesomorphs are the middle ground group that appear to have the most malleable bodies.

    In general, endomorphs have lower metabolisms than the other two, while ectomorphs tend to “run hot” all the time. Few people are all one way, or the other, but a notable dominance of one type, or another is usually prevalent.

    The endo/ecto part can get confusing; especially if one is used to these prefixes in the context of endotherm/ectotherm. The names seem to be reversed from what one might normally hear (ectomorphs being more “warm-blooded” than endomorphs etc). The names have nothing to do with thermophysiology. They were coined after the germinative layers of the body during embryonic development. Endoderm forms the digestive tract, and endomorphs are usually stereotyped as fat. Ectotoderm forms the skin, and ectomorphs are usually stereotyped as being “all skin and bones.”

    The reason I went with these specific bodybuilders (Jay Cutler, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane) was partly to buck these stereotypes, but also to point out something that the news outlets are missing. Namely that having a lower metabolic state, does not mean one is a “couch potato” or has “forgone exercise.” Bigger, means more massive. That may mean fat, but as one can see above, it also can mean muscle and bone. Dinosaurs were not fatter than mammals. They were bigger.

    So what am I rambling on about?

    Grab a calculator and come along for the ride.

    Continue reading  Post ID 723


  • New paper dispells Komodo myth. Also Megalania may have been the world’s largest venomous animal.

    Megalania chasing down Genyornis newtoni. Illustration by Peter Trusler for Wildlife of Gondwana
    Megalania chasing down Genyornis newtoni. Illustration by Peter Trusler for Wildlife of Gondwana

    Just announced today in the journal: PNAS, is a new comprehensive study on Komodo dragon feeding ecology. The comprehensive nature of the paper is the result of the contributions from around 28 individuals from all over Australia, as well as the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

    The paper in question is:

    Fry, B., Wroe, S., Teeuwissed, W., van Osch, M.J.P., Moreno, K., Ingle, J., McHenry, C., Ferrara, T., Clausen, P., Scheib, H., Winter, K.L., Greisman, L., Roelants, K., van der Weerd, L., Clemente, C.J., Giannakis, E., Hodgson, W.C., Luz, S., Martelli, P., Krishnasamy, K., Kochva, E., Kwok, H.F., Scanlon, D., Karas, J., Citron, D.M., Goldstein, E.J.C., Mcnaughtan, J.E., and Norman, J. 2009. A Central role for Venom in Predation by Varanus komodoensis (Komodo Dragon) and the Extinct Giant Varanus (Megalania) prisca. PNAS Early Release. doi:10.1073/pnas.0810883106

    *catches breath*

    The paper is only six pages long, which downplays just how much work must have gone into this project. The authors used Finite Element Analysis, MRIs, and traditional biochemical and dissectional techniques to look deep into the venom apparatus of the living Komodo dragon (V. komodensis).

    For those who may have missed it on the first go around, it has recently been discovered that venom is more widespread among squamates than previously thought (Fry et al 2005). The authors of that paper (a few of whom are on this paper) found the presence of specific glands at the base of the mandible in numerous lizard species. These glands were found to release salivary proteins that were, in fact, venom.

    It was a “primitive” venom for the most part, with little denaturing, or tissue destroying properties, but enough that it seemed to warrant the construction of a new clade of squamates named: Toxicofera (Fry et al 2005, Vidal & Hedges 2009). Though the discovery of incipient venom production in many squamates, was an intriguing surprise, the resultant cladogram has proven problematic, and controversial. The authors found iguanians (iguanas, chameleons, most pet lizards) to be deeply nested within scleroglossa (skinks, snakes, varanids); a view that flies in the face of every morphological study ever done on this group (e.g. Romer 1956, Pianka and Vitt 2003). In order for Toxicofera’s current associations to be valid, iguanians would have to have re-evolved both their temporal bars, as well as a fleshy tongue. While possible (few things in evolution are impossible), it is extremely unlikely; kind of like expecting snakes to re-evolve limbs.

    Despite this contentious relationship, the discovery of venom glands in animals like monitor lizards, was a surprise. This new study by Fry et al is the first to really look at the venom secreting abilities of this gland, and what it means to Komodo dragon ecology.

    Photo by: Jeff Werner [Fauna vol.1 number 3 Mar 98]
    Photo by: Jeff Werner Fauna vol. 1 (3). March 1998.

    It turns out that the mandibular venom gland in V.komodoensishas six different compartments that open between the teeth of the lower jaw. Unlike venomous snakes and helodermatid lizards, the venom does not travel through any grooves in the teeth. Rather, it appears to pool at their base; bathing the teeth of the lower jaw prior to biting a prey animal. It’s a crude method of venom delivery, but one that might explain why Komodo dragons have such thick gums (which the teeth erupt through during a bite).

    According to the authors, the mandibular venom gland of a 1.6m (5.25ft) Komodo dragon has enough fluid to produce 150mg of venom; 30mg of which would be available for delivery. That’s a fair amount of venom, but how does that translate to toxicity?

    Though the delivery method is crude, the venom is fairly potent. According to the authors it only takes 0.1mg/kg of venom in the blood stream to cause pronounced hypotension, and only 0.4mg/kg to cause hypotensive collapse (fainting).

    To put this into perspective, I weigh approximately 76kg (168lbs). It would take approximately 7.6mg of Komodo dragon venom to make me light headed, and 30mg to knock my arse out.

    Hmm, maybe I should reconsider that Komodo island trip?

    Fry et al go on to discuss how V.komodoensis goes about using this venom delivery system during predation. It was at this point that I became a bit hesitant.

    Komodo dragon feeding ecology has been the subject of much misconception. Much like dinosaurs, earlier work on these beasts was more accurate than the work that soon followed. When Komodo dragons were first discovered, they were thought to be scary top predators of their respective habitat. This was quickly downgraded to obligate scavenger; possibly due to the animal’s willingness to eat prekilled meat, but more likely from general incredulity that a large reptile can actively hunt mammals (see table 10-2 of Auffenberg 1981 for examples). It really wasn’t until Dr. Walter Auffenberg spent some 13 months in the wild with Komodo dragons, that this myth was officially dispelled, and some 20 years after for it to become common knowledge. However, once it was discovered that animals lucky enough to escape from an initial V.komodoensis attack were found to die hours/days later, the view of Komodo dragons as “bite and release” predators was born (e.g. Bakker 1986).

    Auffenberg’s work did show that there is something septic about the bite of oras. This was originally attributed to bacterial flora living in the fairly dirty mouths of these predators. Indeed one study (Gillespie et al 2002) found 54 potentially pathogenic bacteria living in the mouths of oras!

    However, and this is the part that always seems to get glossed over: there has never been a reported case of a komodo monitor using this “bite and release” killing strategy. Despite spending over a year living with these animals, Auffenberg never once found an animal bitten, released and then later tracked down after it died. Komodo dragon attacks were quite the opposite in fact. Small, to relatively large prey (goats, boar) were often killed on the spot using violent side to side shaking to snap the neck, while large prey like water buffalo were hamstringed (Achilles tendon severed), followed by abdominal evisceration of the now paralyzed (and often still alive) animal.

    Despite the gruesome detail in which Auffenberg described ora attacks, as well as the sheer lack of evidence for a viper style feeding strategy; one can still read about how Komodo dragons “avoid confrontation with their prey” by allegedly employing this method of killing (for instance).

    So one can forgive my trepidation over what was to be written about next in the Fry et al paper.

    The authors do discuss the alleged “bite and release” hunting style posited for V.komodoensis, but are quick to point out (as I just did) that there has never been a documented case of this hunting strategy being used on dragon prey.Dr. Fry went went one step further in an interview for Science News:

    What’s more, rare sightings of the lizards hunting didn’t fit with this method. Victims typically died quickly and quietly after going into shock, the authors say. “No one’s actually seen a Komodo dragon track a prey for three days until it dies of septicemia,” Fry says. “It’s an absolute fairy tale.”

    This was very comforting to see. One can only hope that the other news outlets don’t miss this point when doing their write ups (Edit: so much for hope).

    Fry et al then went on to dispel the myth that the mouth of dragons contain toxic microflora. Though there have been studies that have shown the presence of potentially pathogenic bacteria in wild oras, none of these studies found a consistent microflora between individuals. In fact, the authors point out that some of the bacteria found in Komodo dragon mouths, were the same bacteria found in the guts of most lizards.

    That venom must be playing an important role in predation was determined by looking at the evolution of venom in squamates. The authors point out that:

    We have shown that in the species that have developed secondary forms of prey capture (e.g., constricting) or have
    switched to feeding on eggs, the reptile venom system undergoes rapid degeneration characterized by significant atrophying of the
    glands, reduction in fang length, and accumulated deleterious mutations in the genes encoding for the venom proteins (9, 26,
    27). This is a consequence of selection pressure against the bioenergetic cost of protein production (28). The robust glands
    and high venom yield in V. komodoensis thus argue for continued active use of the venom system in V. komodoensis.

    So, while the venom of Komodo dragons is not the primary means by which dragons dispatch their prey, it still must play a pretty important role in prey acquisition. Since envenomated prey tend to become docile and quiet (Auffenberg, 1981, and this paper), it may just play a role in initiating shock, and reducing retaliatory actions by prey. It may also serve as a good “failsafe” in the event of a missed kill. Bitten prey that are “lucky” enough to escape an initial attack, tend to find themselves easily preyed upon shortly thereafter. This is similar to hunting tactics seen in Canadian lynx (the only mammalian carnivores known to have a septic bite) when hunting caribou (Auffenberg 1981).

    Komodo dragon FE skull made by the Computation Biomechanics Research Group. UNSW, Sydney Australia.
    Komodo dragon FE skull made by the Computation Biomechanics Research Group. UNSW, Sydney Australia.

    Using Finite Element Analysis, the authors compared the bite and skull strength of V.komodoensis with that of a similar sized saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). The results they obtained agreed with previous FE work on Komodo dragons (Moreno et al 2008), which found the bite of oras to be remarkably weak on its own, thus requiring the aid of the postcranial musculature in delivering much of the force. Ora skull strength is at its greatest during bite and pull behaviour. This data agrees well with field observations showing oras biting and pulling back on their prey. Coupled with their recurved and serrated teeth, this results in the creation of large, gaping wounds, which would aid in venom delivery as the ora’s venom would be spread throughout; quickly entering the bloodstream and speeding up shock.

    Finally the authors extrapolated their work to the monstrous lacertilian behemoth Varanus (Megalania) prisca. Using the extant phylogenetic bracketing method (Witmer 1995, 1998), they were able to determine the likelihood of venom being present in Megalania. If true, this would make Megalania the largest venomous carnivore to have ever lived.

    I’m not sure I buy this part. As Fry et al mentioned in the paper, the venom apparatus tends to degrade quickly when not used. Megalania was a big animal (over 2,000 kg according to the authors, though Molnar 2004 places it as just under 2,000kg for the largest individuals). Any hole that V(M)prisca would create when attacking its prey, would have been devastating enough without the need for anticoagulating venom.

    Also:

    Like the other members of this unique varanid lizard clade, the jawbones of V. prisca are also relatively gracile compared with the robust skull and the proportionally larger teeth similarly serrated (Fig. 3).

    I’d be careful about this assumption, as there is only one fairly complete maxilla (upper jaw bone), and portions of the dentary (tooth bearing lower jaw bone), known for Megalania. This makes comparison with extant monitors, rather hard to do. What little skull bones do exist, show that the skull of Megalania was stronger (or at least, less flexible) than that of other monitor lizards (Molnar, 2004).

    As it stands right now, there are frustratingly too few fossils of Megalania (especially the skull) to accurately say one way, or the other in regards to venom delivery.

    Of course that doesn’t make it any less interesting to speculate about. 🙂

    ~Jura


    References

    Auffenberg, Walter, 1981, The Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor, Florida University press, pgs: 406.

    Bakker, R. 1986. The Dinosaur Heresies. William Morrow. New York. ISBN: 0821756087, 978-0821756089 pgs: 481.

    Fry, B.G., Vidal, N., Norman, J.A., Vonk, F.J., Scheib, H., Ryan Ramjan, S.F., Kuruppu, S., Fung, K., Hedges, S.B., Richardson, M.K., Hodgson, W.C., Ignjatovic, V., Summerhayes, R., Kochva, E. 2005. Early Evolution of the Venom System in Lizards and Snakes. Nature. Vol.439:584-588.

    Gillespie, D., Fredekin, T., Montgomery, J.M. 2002. “Microbial Biology and Immunology” in: Komodo Dragons: Biology and Conservation. James Murphy, Claudio Ciofi, Colomba de La Panouse and Trooper Walsh (eds). pgs: 118-126. ISBN: 1588340732/978-1588340733

    Molnar, R.E. 2004. Dragons in the Dust: The Paleobiology of the Giant Monitor Lizard Megalania. Indiana University Press. 210pgs. ISBN: 0253343747/978-0253343741

    Moreno, K., Wroe, S., Clausen, P., McHenry, C., D’Amore, D.C., Rayfield, E.J., Cunningham, E. 2008. Cranial Performance in the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) as Revealed by High-Resolution 3-D Finite Element Analysis. J.Anat. Vol.212:736-746.

    Pianka, E.R., and Vitt, L.J. 2003. Lizards Windows to the Evolution of Diversity. U.Cal.Press. 333pgs. ISBN: 0520234014/9780520234017

    Romer, A.S. 1956. The Osteology of the Reptiles. Krieger Publishing 800pgs. ISBN: 089464985X/978-0894649851

    Vidal, N. and Hedges, S.B. 2009 The Molecular Evolutionary Tree of Lizards, Snakes, and Amphisbaenians. Biologies. Vol.332(2-3):129-139.

    Witmer, L. 1995. “The Extant Phylogenetic Bracket and the Importance of Reconstructing Soft Tissues in Fossils” in: Functional Morphology in Vertebrate Paleontology. Jeff Thomason (ed). Cambridge Univ. Press. Cambridge, UK. pgs 19-33. ISBN 0521629217/978-0521629218

    Witmer, L. M. 1998. Application of the Extant Phylogenetic Bracket (EPB) Approach to the Problem of Anatomical Novelty in the Fossil Record. J.Vert.Paleo. Vol.18(3:Suppl.): 87A.


  • Sprawling crocodylians walk straight even if there isn’t much O2 to go around.

    Photo of estuarine crocodile by: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook
    Photo of estuarine crocodile by: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook

    Two new papers have recently hit the journal circuit. Both of them involve using living crocodylians to gain a better understanding of paleo-life.

    The first one comes from Denver Museum of Natural History paleontologist, Dr. Kenneth Carpenter:

    Carpenter, K. 2009. Role of Lateral Body Bending in Crocodylian Track Making. Ichnos. Vol.16:202-207. doi:10.1080/10420940802686137.

    The study used an adult Caiman sclerops (first use of a large adult reptile for a locomotion study; at least as far as I know) placed in a small room with two 30cm walls placed on either side of it. This restricted any lateral movement, and “funneled” the animal out the singular opening. At this opening, a camera was placed. It would photograph the animal as it left the room. The room itself, had a smoothed mud covering. This muddy floor would record the tracks of the C.sclerops as it walked by.? Several runs were done, and photographs were taken for each run.

    This is the first study I have seen that gave a front view shot of an adult crocodylian as it walked along. As Carpenter mentioned in the paper:

    This front view is in contrast to most photographic studies which only capture pro?le and top views….

    Carpenter also mentioned the potential of there being an ontogenetic change in limb stance as animals move from hatchling to adult. This is something that I have hinted at previously Hatchling crocodylians seem to have weaker femoral adductors than adults. This is understandable given the greater weight that adult femora need to bear. This can result in a skewed view of crocodylian erect stance; with most authors tending to underestimate the degree of “parasagittality.”

    That said, I was surprised to read that Carpenter had found the adult Caiman sclerops to have a hip adduction angle of approximately 65? from the horizontal. Judging from figure1B, the hindlimb appears to be much closer to the midline than the forelimb. Fig1D seems even closer to, if not 90?. It is important to point out that much of the hindlimb is blocked by the body in this shot, as the animal is fully laterally extended. A concurrent shot from behind would have been very useful here; as would an x-ray series of shots throughout the walk phase (for instance: see this long video of a Crocodylus acutus walk cycle. Pay special attention to the position of the femur).

    Alas, that is not what the paper is about.

    The paper is about how lateral movements during locomotion, have substantial effect on trackways. Dr. Carpenter points out how, despite the semi-erect stance of the forelimbs, the track evidence would suggest an animal with a much narrower (parasagittal?) stance. This has bearing on how prehistoric reptiles, in particular: quadrupedal dinosaurs, may have stood.

    One might rightfully ask if we should expect dinosaurs to have had any lateral movement to their walking cycle at all. Carpenter points out that lateral body bending, though not quite as exaggerated as that of crocs, is present in most tetrapods. Birds seem to be the sole exception, with their extremely stiff thorax. However birds are also obligate bipeds, and the avian thorax is much shorter and stiffer than that of dinosaurs.

    So it would seem to be a likely bet that quadrupedal dinosaurs likely exhibited some degree of lateral body bending.

    Triceratops pic from britannica.com, but originally from: Mounted Skeleton of Triceratops elatus? by Henry Fairfield Osborn, American Museum Novitiates, Sept. 6, 1933
    Triceratops pic from britannica.com, but originally from: Mounted Skeleton of Triceratops elatus? by Henry Fairfield Osborn, American Museum Novitiates, Sept. 6, 1933

    Carpenter’s work rightfully asks us to caution reconstructions of stance based largely off of trackway evidence. A fine case study that the paper brings up, is ceratopians. This group, more than any other, has received considerable attention for how the forelimbs were oriented. Early work on ceratopians, favoured a hefty sprawl to the forelimbs (e.g.? Gilmore 1905, or Lull 1933). This was critically evaluated during the heyday of the dinosaur renaissance. Authors such as Bakker (1986), Paul and Christiansen (2000), instead favoured a fully erect stance. A large portion of the data supporting this assertion, was trackway based. The results of this study call into question that view. However this was not the first paper to have done so. Thompson and Holmes (2007) also questioned the “erect ceratopid” view, using a half scale model of a Chasmosaurus irvinensis forelimb. Their results come closer to the results from this paper. Though Thompson and Holmes felt that there was no real modern analogue to ceratopian forelimb mechanics.

    In the end, Dr. Carpenter reminds future researchers of the importance in incorporating the entire animal when analyzing trackways.

    The second paper comes from the Journal of Experimental Biology.

    Owerkowicz, T., elsey, R.M. and Hicks, J.W. 2009. Atmopsheric Oxygen Level Affects Growth Trajectory, Cardiopulmonary Allometery and Metabolic Rate in the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). J.Exp.Biol. Vol.212:1237-1247. doi:10.1242jeb.023945.

    The authors embarked on a study of how previous paleo-atmospheric oxygen levels might have affected the lives of animals that would have been alive through these times. According to Owerkowicz et al, crocodylians were chosen because:

    Given their phylogenetic position and highly conserved morphology throughout their evolutionary history, crocodilians are often thought to retain many characteristics of basal archosaurs.

    I do take some issue with this, as prior reviews on crocodylomorph diversity (Naish 2001) coupled with many new discoveries ( Buckley et al 2000,? Clark et al 2004, Nobre & Carvalho 2006)? continually cast doubt on the old view that crocodylians have survived “unchanged” for some 200 million years. Nevertheless, the results of the study are both interesting, and relevant to reconstructions of how paleo-life would have adapted to these wildly different paleo-atmospheres.

    Owerkowicz et al raised groups of hatchling American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) under three different atmospheric conditions. A hypoxic (12% O2) condition reminiscent of paleo-atmospheric models for the late Triassic/Early Jurassic periods. Current atmospheric conditions (21% O2), and a hyperoxic (30% O2) condition reminiscent of paleo-atmospheric models for the Carboniferous and Permian periods.

    The results were interesting, though not too surprising. As expected, hypoxic alligator hatchlings were smaller than their normal and hyperoxic counterparts. However, the degree of growth stunting is pretty surprising. Hypoxic hatchlings were about 12% shorter and 17% smaller than normal hatchlings.

    Baby alligators pic from REPTILES mag. December 94. Author unknown.
    Baby alligators pic from REPTILES mag. December 94. Author unknown.

    Surprisingly, hatching time did not change under any conditions. This suggests a degree of “hard wired” embryological development inside the egg. In the case of the hypoxic hatchlings, they came out “almost done.” While all three groups had remnants of a yolk sac upon hatching, the hypoxic hatchlings actually had the yolk sac still protruding (normal and hyperoxic hatchlings just showed distended bellies). In some cases, the yolk sac was larger around than the hind legs, thus making movement clumsy and cumbersome.

    Other interesting results from this study, included notable changes to the cardiopulmonary system. Hypoxic hatchling lungs were actually smaller than the lungs of normal hatchlings; which appears counterintuitive. The heart, meanwhile, showed distinct hypertrophy in hypoxic animals. The authors believe that lack of lung growth in hatchlings may have been due to the fact that lung function does not start until after hatchlings have hatched.? The heart, on the other hand, is hard at work circulating blood just as soon as it is formed; so it would have experienced the challenges of hypoxia at a very early stage.? Bolstering this hypothesis from the authors was the fact that three months after hatching, hypoxic alligators showed a distinct increase in lung growth rate (the lungs appeared to be “catching up” to the heart).? Hypoxic alligators showed shrunk livers as well. No real explanation for this was given, but it was mentioned that reduced liver mass seems to be a common trait in animals raised in hypoxic conditions. It appears to have some bearing on overall metabolic rate.

    Hyperoxic hatchlings exhibited “typical” organ growth rates.? Where hyperoxic animals excelled was in breathing and metabolic rate.

    Breathing rates were smaller in this group, while metabolism and growth rate were all larger. The explanation by the authors was that these hyperoxic animals were receiving such high amounts of oxygen in each breath, that they were actually hitting saturation at much shallower breaths; hence the shallow breathing. The higher metabolic rate is believed? due to a lack of right-left shunting in the crocodylian heart. This shunting is usually caused by low oxygen levels (like that experienced in diving), and tends to result in metabolic depression to conserve available oxygen stores.? Since these alligators lungs were constantly saturated with oxygen, right-left shunting never occurred, resulting in an elevated metabolism.

    Incidentally, Owerkowicz et el give mention of a cardiac shunt known in embryological birds (via the ductus arteriosis). Though only analogous, one can’t help but wonder what this might have meant for all those dinosaurs that lie between these two groups.

    Interestingly, hypoxic alligator hatchlings also showed a higher standard metabolic rate. Though these animals would voluntarily eat less than their normal and hyperoxic counterparts, their metabolism was more like hyperoxic hatchlings than they were normal hatchlings.? Owerkowicz et al believe the reason for the increased metabolism was due to the higher cost of breathing in these animals. Despite taking “normal” breaths, hypoxic hatchlings were taking in a larger tidal volume than their normal and hyperoxic siblings. The heart was also working harder to deliver enough oxygen to tissues.

    Finally the authors give mention of growth rates in hyperoxic animals. Basically, it is faster. The authors mention that this might be caused by the persistently elevated metabolic rate, or perhaps from channeling saved energy from breathing (which is one of the main energetic costs in reptiles) into biomass.? It could be a mix of both, but I’m more inclined to think that it comes more from channeling energy reserves into other parts of the body. A high metabolism means nothing, if there is not enough free energy to go around. Just look at the hypoxic gators from this study. Despite their high metabolism, they grew slower than their peers.

    The results of this study showed how modern animals can acclimate to different atmospheric conditions. They don’t show how animals would adapt and evolve in these conditions, but they do hint at the general directions, and help give us a clearer picture of what life was like millions of years ago.

    ~Jura


    References

    Bakker, R. 1986. The Dinosaur Heresies. William Morrow. New York. ISBN: 0821756087, 978-0821756089 pps: 209-212.Buckley, G.A., Brochus, C.A., Krause, D.W., Pol.D. 2000. A Pug-Nosed Crocodyliform from the late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Nature. vol.405:941-944.

    Clark.J.M., Xu, X., Forster, C.A., Wang, Y. 2004. A Middle Jurassic ‘Sphenosuchian’ from china and the Origin fo the Crocodylian Skull. Nature. Vol.430:1021-1024.

    Gilmore, C.W. 1905. The Mounted Skeleton of Triceratops porosus.? Proceedings United States National Museum. Vol.29:433-435.

    Lull, R.S. 1933. A Revision of the Ceratopsia, or Horned Dinosaurs. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Vol.3:1-175.

    Naish, D. 2001. Fossils Explained 34: Crocodilians. Geology Today. Vol.17(2):71-77.

    Nobre, P.N. and Carvalho, I.S. 2006. Adamantinasuchus navae: A New Gondwanan Crocodylomorpha (Mesoeucrocodylia) from the Late cretaceous of Brazil. Gondwana Research. Vol.10:370-378.

    Paul, G.S., and Christiansen, P. 2000. Forelimb Posture in Neoceratopsian Dinosaurs: Implications for Gait and Locomotion. Paleobiology, 26(3):450-465.