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Archive for the ‘brain’ Category

The ankylosaurid armored dinosaur Euoplocephalus (AMNH 5405). A new article confirms the highly tortuous "crazy-straw" nasal passage coiled up within the snout..

In 2008, Ryan Ridgely and I published an article on dinosaur sinuses and nasal cavities in the Anatomical Record. One of our findings was unexpected to the point of seeming almost dubious. We found that, despite what had been stated in the literature, including my own published statements, armored dinosaurs (the plant-eating, tank-like ankylosaurs) didn’t have extensive paranasal air sinuses, but instead, long tortuous nasal airways. We looked at several skulls of both the ankylosaurid Euoplocephalus and the nodosaurid Panoplosaurus (or Edmontonia…someone needs to sort that out). According to our CT-scan-based analyses, the nasal passages took a long, twisting, looping course through the snout from the nostril to the throat. No one had ever suspected such a thing, and so we wondered what the community would think of our crazy crazy-straw hypothesis. Science is all about repeatability: if a claim is true, independent workers should be able to replicate results using the same or similar data. So, it was with no small amount of excitement/fear/anxiety that we greeted the news that an independent group consisting of respected researchers from the University of Alberta (Tetsuto Miyashita, ankylosaur specialist Victoria Arbour, and Philip Currie) were testing our hypothesis based on not only our own data but also data from additional specimens. Having others check our work was the reason we had freely released our original data to the community in 2008. That said, “promoting scientific repeatability” is a much more noble concept in the abstract (gulp!). Today, the results appear in an article in the Journal of Anatomy. (more…)

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The Discovery Channels in the UK and the US recently have aired documentaries called “Dino Gangs” that follow dinosaur paleontologist Philip Currie around the globe (Alberta, Mongolia, Indonesia, South Africa, Great Britain), including little Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University. “Dino Gangs” addresses Currie’s theory that tyrannosaurs hunted as cooperative, social packs. Phil and the film crew from Atlantic Productions were here to talk with me about my work with Ryan Ridgely on tyrannosaur brains and sensory capabilities…basically whether tyrannosaurs had the mental wherewithal to pull off pack hunting. Phil Currie and his collaborators have published a few articles that have alluded to the possibility of coordinated, social, pack hunting, mostly notably his 1998 article in Gaia. My goal here is neither to evaluate the nuances of his arguments (e.g., the taphonomic issues) nor to address the media hoopla from the folks at Atlantic, the same folks who brought us Darwinius  and Predator X (check out Brian Switek’s thoughtful response). My goal is simply to relate what went on here in Athens and to clarify how I think tyrannosaur neuroanatomy fits into the argument.

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Alligators are everywhere. They’re team mascots, Transformer toys, actors in Lubriderm commercials (and CSI: Miami), unwanted golfing partners, and even expensive cowboy boots. What might be a surprise is that they’re also “model animals” for scientists, meaning that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of published technical articles on all things gatorly. They’re also commonly used in K-12 and undergraduate classrooms. WitmerLab has been working on American alligators for years, because crocodilians are one of just two living groups (birds are the other) of that great tribe known as archosaurs that includes dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Now, we’re joining with Casey Holliday’s lab at the University of Missouri to present the 3D Alligator, two parallel, complementary, and growing websites that present alligator anatomy in all its 3D digital glory. In both cases, we’re starting with the skull, although we include a few soft-tissue systems that are active areas of research for us (brain, inner ear, sinuses, etc.). Casey’s team presents an adult skull, and we present a wee gatorling, a “day-0” hatchling that was stillborn on its birthday. Sad perhaps, but this little guy is now immortal, because we’re releasing him to the tubes of the interwebz. We also present some of our 3D alligator work on an adult done “way back” in 2008. Check out the WitmerLab 3D Alligator site and the Holliday Lab 3D Alligator site. (more…)

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Evolution in birds of the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain where smell information is processed, passing from a dinosaur (Bambiraptor) through early birds (Lithornis, Presbyornis) to a modern-day bird (pigeon).

Birds have a lousy sense of smell, right? That common perception may apply to some modern-day birds, but that wasn’t always the case. Early birds, frankly, smelled like dinosaurs, meaning that they inherited a pretty respectable sense of smell from their dinosaurian kin. The typical scenario had been that as birds evolved flight, the senses of vision and balance increased and the olfactory sense diminished. Darla Zelenitsky (University of Calgary) and François Therrien (Royal Tyrrell Museum) invited Ryan Ridgely and me to join forces in testing this scenario by studying the evolution of the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain receiving information on odors, across the transition from small theropod dinosaurs to birds. As our new article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals, birds started out with a full sensory toolkit, including a pretty capable sniffer. And we also learned a thing or two about non-avian theropods along the way.
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Hadrosaur multimedia exhibit at "Dinosaurs Unearthed" at the Dallas Museum of Nature & Science. Photo courtesy of Rissa Westerfield, Texas Tech University.

The WitmerLab has an ongoing collaboration on the duckbilled hadrosaur dinosaurs with David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Recently, we’ve received word that some of that work has found its way into the “Dinosaurs Unearthed” exhibit that has been circulating through the US. First, Ohio University grad student Haley O’Brien texted me a photo of the exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City, and then Texas Tech grad student Rissa Westerfield posted a photo on Facebook of the exhibit at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas. Then just yesterday, WitmerLab alum Casey Holliday (now at Missouri) chimed in with his own sighting in KC. Presumably, it’s elsewhere, too. We’re thrilled to hear that the outcome of our research is reaching a broad audience!

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Not many research labs have an actual mission statement, but we kinda came up with one when we first launched our Facebook page: “WitmerLab: 21st century approaches to fleshing out the past. — Our mission is to use the structure of extinct and modern-day animals to interpret evolutionary history…and to share that history with the broader community.” This is the first of a two-part post devoted to the last part of that statement. Here we look at why we jumped into the public arena, and the next post will explore what we’ve been doing. We recently returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology where we presented a poster entitled “Promoting a culture of outreach within an active university research lab setting: WitmerLab at Ohio University,” as part of the SVP Education & Outreach special poster session, and so the topic is fresh.

WitmerLab poster for the 2010 SVP Education and Outreach poster session. Larger JPG: http://bit.ly/bsTqvB . PDF: http://bit.ly/95fHSc .

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The National Geographic Channel ran a documentary called “Bizarre Dinosaurs” way back in October 2009, but just yesterday I got a copy of the DVD, which has inspired this post. I appeared on the show in different contexts, but primarily talking about Nigersaurus, indeed a dinosaur to which the term “bizarre” applies.

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