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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. Continue Reading »

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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Illustration of a turkey head from Ghetie's 1976 atlas.

This post will be of interest to the small subset of scientists that cherish ol’ skool analog anatomical work…folks like me. A few years ago, we “discovered” Ghetie’s Anatomical Atlas of Domestic Birds. Published in 1976 in Bucharest, Romania, this treasure trove of bird structure has flown under the radar for most avian anatomists. It’s a tremendously useful volume in that it illustrates with deceptively simple black-and-white drawings the detailed anatomical structure of a range of domesticated birds. There’s virtually no text, but the explanations of the illustrations are in English, French, Romanian, and Russian. All the anatomical structures are labeled in the familiar (for many of us) Latin. As a one-time avian nomenclator, I should have been well aware of this book, and so I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t. But, with some trepidation, I’m now making it freely available as a PDF download.

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The London specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica, collected 150 years ago from the Solnhofen Limestone of Bavaria (image from Richard Owen's 1863 description).

The original, first-discovered feather of Archaeopteryx, discovered 150 years ago in mid-1861 (photo taken by Witmer in Berlin in 1998).

It recently dawned on me that 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery and naming of Archaeopteryx lithographica. In 1861, an isolated feather and a feathered skeleton were discovered in Solnhofen lithographic limestone quarries in Bavaria, southern Germany. Perhaps no other fossils are as important scientifically, historically, and politically as these. The timing was just about perfect for the evolution debates that raged at the time, for here was a remarkable evolutionary intermediate—feathers and wishbone on an otherwise reptilian skeleton—and come to light less than two years after Darwin’s Origin of Species hit bookstores. Since that time, Archaeopteryx has become a political lightning rod in the evolution/creation debates (that sadly still rage), a scientific ruler against which all ideas on avian origins and evolution must be measured, and ultimately an icon, a symbol, sometimes even a logo. Archaeopteryx is famous…and having a birthday! We should celebrate…but how?

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Okay, that title is a little grandiose, but it was the first appearance WitmerLab research has made on a Top-10-rated network television show. We get requests all the time from the cable science networks  for materials for documentaries, and we’ve even personally appeared in a number of them. But in October, I got a call from a producer at CBS’s hit show CSI: Miami, saying that they were doing a show in which an alligator necropsy figured in a couple of scenes (Spoiler Alert: the gator was used as a murder weapon). They had heard that we did high-tech-y stuff with alligators, and they needed some animations to run in the background, and, oh, could they have them…um…now? Continue Reading »

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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I had no intention of doing another “holiday post” so soon after our Halloween post, but there’s been surprising interest in one of our YouTube videos. Last year we came up with a CT-scan-based animation of a turkey head which showed the blood vessels; we then tagged the end with “Happy Thanksgiving from the Witmer Lab,” and put it up on our YouTube channel. It got a polite response from friends, racking up, ahem, just 266 views. Without giving it much thought, this year on the day before Thanksgiving I posted the YouTube vid to my Facebook wall and to the WitmerLab Facebook page. What a difference a year makes. In the succeeding four days, the video got over 6300 views, a 23-fold increase over the previous 365 days!


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