ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology


Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct
Tetrapod Zoology Home

Katrina van Grouw’s The Unfeathered Bird, a unique inside look

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



The Unfeathered Bird, quite probably the best zoology book of 2013.

If you pay any attention to the world of zoological research (as you will do, given that you’re reading a blog called Tetrapod Zoology), you’ll know that the study of anatomy has very much come to the fore in recent years.

Previously bemoaned as a Victorian pursuit that had had its day and was inferior to the newer, shinier science of genetics, anatomy has been made ‘sexy’ by advances in CT-scanning, 3D visualisation and other new technologies. But it has also become widely realised that huge questions and areas of poor to non-existent knowledge remain as goes our understanding of anatomy and the evolution of anatomical systems in general.

Technical papers on such subjects as sensory organs in the heads and jaws of crocodiles and whales, the adhesion mechanisms used by geckos, the bite strengths of big cats, humans, bats and lizards, the flexibility of owl necks and numerous other anatomical topics have all been published lately, often with substantial media and public interest. A better understanding of big evolutionary patterns, most famously that between non-bird dinosaurs and the earliest birds, can also be considered part of this anatomical movement: it has inspired researchers to look at the transitions between groups, and hence, in the case of birds and other dinosaurs, to look in more detail at the mechanics, form and evolution of tails, limbs and feathers.

Frigatebird pursues tropicbird, from The Unfeathered Bird. Hey, I've seen the original! Image (c) Katrina van Grouw.

With all of this as background, picture now the publication of a gigantic, lavishly illustrated book dedicated entirely to avian anatomy and very much grounded in an evolutionary perspective. That book is Katrina van Grouw’s The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton University Press); I only have good things to say about it, and so do all the other people whose opinions I take notice of. There are already a huge number of highly positive reviews of this book out there in the blogosphere and elsewhere; if you’re interested in bird anatomy, or are aware of the book already, you’ll likely have seen or read some or many of them.

Muscle study of a porpoising Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), image (c) Katrina van Grouw, from The Unfeathered Bird.

Very briefly, I’ll say that the book is huge (cover = 26 cm x 31 cm), its more than 300 sepia-tinted pages boasting an incredible array of van Grouw artwork (van Grouw 2013). Individual skulls and articulated limb skeletons, posed skeletons, muscle studies that look like x-ray visions of live birds going about their business, and anatomical illustrations of heads, feet, wings, tails and other parts feature throughout. The book isn’t just composed of pictures, however. A substantial text describes the bird groups and their key behavioural and anatomical modifications, providing enormous insight on functional morphology, anatomical minutiae and form-function correlation (van Grouw 2013). It is simply imperative that you get hold of this book if you consider yourself interested in bird anatomy and diversity, or in anatomy or evolution in general. [Image below from John Hutchinson's review of The Unfeathered Bird.]

Katrina with peacock skeleton and, behind, her, the famous painting from the book's cover. My own photos of this painting are not so good, so I stole this one from John Hutchinson's What's In John's Freezer.

The Unfeathered Bird would be a remarkable and noteworthy book at any time, but I think that part of its success comes from the fact that it has appeared at a time when an interest in anatomy, in an improved understanding of bird evolution and ancestry, and in an appreciation of avian anatomical weirdness and innovation are at an all-time high. Given that the book has been widely praised by palaeontologists who specialise on Mesozoic dinosaurs, I suspect that the sheer celebration of bones, skeletons and functional morphology is a major plus-point… with apologies and due respect to biologists who work on living animals, all too many people who study birds often seem uninterested or uncaring about the nuts and bolts of anatomy, as if genetics, behaviour and ecology are all that matters. As I said previously in my review of Gary Kaiser’s The Inner Bird (Kaiser 2007, Naish 2011), books devoted to bird anatomy are just about non-existent. And, while I think very highly of Gary’s book, one of its weaknesses is a lack of illustrations.

Pouter pigeon skeleton and skinned individual: the technique used to inflate the neck was particularly ingenious. Image (c) Katrina van Grouw, from The Unfeathered Bird.

Anyway, rather than just wax lyrical about Katrina and her work, I’ve been given the opportunity to do something rather different. I’m in the lucky position of being in relatively close geographical proximity to Katrina (we both live in southern England), and I was recently invited to visit Katrina and her husband Hein at their house. The article you’re reading now is thus more than just another review of The Unfeathered Bird, it’s a (hopefully) unique, behind-the-scenes look into Katrina’s work.

And so it was that, some time several weeks ago, I travelled from my secret London base to Aylesbury, home of the famous van Grouw…

A visit to Katrina’s

Katrina van Grouw's amazing illustration of a Great hornbill skeleton. Image (c) Katrina van Grouw.

We go to the pub, we go for a walk in the woods (Katrina’s dog, Feather, amuses me by taking a bath in a giant puddle of mud, just in time for her trip back to the car), and I accompany Katrina as she takes one of her illustrations – the one featuring the Great hornbill Buceros bicornis (how apt!) – to a framers. It’s being framed for display at an exhibition, thus beginning a nice story arc that will be completed at the end of this article.

At her house, I meet Katrina’s ornithologist husband, Hein. Hein keeps pigeons and shows me the several different kinds he keeps and breeds. There are Jacobin pigeons, with their absurd neck ruffs and bizarrely long primaries, and fantails, some of which are so-called silkies: pigeons where the feathers have a weird, ‘decomposed’, messy appearance caused by the absence of the barbs that normally keep the feathers neat, tidy and with a sensible aerodynamic form.

At left: one of Hein's silkie pigeons (check out the weird feathers). At right: portrait of a Jacobin pigeon, its luxuriant ruff almost hiding its face. Photos by Darren Naish.

Hein has been running various hybridisation experiments on the pigeons, crossing the different breeds in order to learn about the expressions of the genes involved in creating their weird feather forms. Nothing is as simple as we might have assumed a few decades ago, the possible role of epigenetics complicating our ideas about the expression of traits. The weird feathered feet of some of the pigeons has Katrina, Hein and I wondering all sorts of things about microraptors and other ancient relatives of birds.

Katrina and Hein’s house and garden are, together, a packed museum or theme-park of zoological awesomeness, designed to make people like me swoon with awe or fume with jealously, I’m not sure which. Still in the garden, and I see their impressive collection of muntjac deer skulls, so we stop and speak about the evolution of antlers. Katrina and Hein keep ferrets, so we speak about the role lifestyle has on mustelid skull anatomy. Indoors, and I get to see whole cases and display cabinets dedicated to mounted and posed bird skeletons (wild and domestic), many or most of which look like old friends since they are the exact models Katrina illustrated for The Unfeathered Bird (more on that in a moment).

Amy the all-important duck. Photo by Darren Naish.

If your memory is good, and if you’ve read The Unfeathered Bird, you may recall the book being dedicated “To Amy”. Amy is (or was) a mallard, her mounted skeleton and glass case being one of the first objects I encounter as I enter the house. Close to Amy are cabinets of posed skeletons that have been collected and mounted for Katrina’s in-progress project on domestic animals (more on that in a moment, too). A skeleton toy poodle, domestic cat, and variety of chickens and pigeons occupy another cabinet in another room. Then there’s the library. Shelves and shelves of the Poyser bird books, numerous (most, or all) of Birds of the Western Palaeactic and Handbook of the Birds of the World, and so on.

Encountering the art

And then – the art! I finally get to see, in person, the originals of many of Katrina’s pieces, including the famous peacock skeleton that features on the book’s cover, and – awarded centre place in Katrina and Hein’s front room – a giant study of a skeletal Mute swan.

Grover Krantz (1931-2002) and his wolfhound Clyde, in life and as mounted skeletons at the Smithsonian Institution. Both images (c) Smithsonian Institution.

Front cover of Krantz (1999). However, I just checked: my copy doesn't have that 'The Anthropologist Speaks Out' line. Does anyone else's?

Then, there’s the new stuff. I’d read an article in which Katrina had told of her plans to illustrate both the late anthropologist Grover Krantz, famous for his serious and long-standing interest in Bigfoot (Krantz 1987, 1999), together with his beloved Irish wolfhound, Clyde. The bodies of both were donated to the Smithsonian Institution after Krantz’s death in 2002, their skeletons mounted in a pose that mimics one they adopted for a photo taken in life. This is wonderful – both brilliant on an intellectual level and moving on an emotional one – and exactly the sort of thing I love seeing at museums. Unfortunately, there are some anatomical errors; my understanding is that Katrina is set to ‘repair’ them in an illustration, the Smithsonian then using this as a guide to remount Clyde’s skeleton.

This crossover between Krantz and van Grouw is an unexpected surprise. Hey, Krantz wasn’t exactly an intellectual hero of mine, but, having read his bigfoot book, various of his papers and articles and a lot of material about him, I do feel as if I ‘knew’ him, in a way. I meant to bring along my copy of Krantz’s Bigfoot Sasquatch Evidence to show to Katrina, but forgot. I was to learn of other curious and delightful crossovers involving Katrina and other people from the TetZooverse…

Mark Evans and Joy Reidenberg of the Inside Nature's Giants team with the Pegwell Bay sperm whale. Image (c) Channel 4.

Katrina shows me drawers full of illustrations, some I know from the book, others of which are wholly new to me. I know the pictures in The Unfeathered Bird reasonably well, so it’s weird to see them ‘in person’. Many are startlingly large, but, then, they would be, since many (or all? I’m not sure) show the birds at life-size. The other crossover surprise is revealed as Katrina pulls out her drawn-from-life illustrations of the Sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus that beached on the coast of Pegwell Bay, Kent. Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Inside Nature’s Giants (I wrote about all the episodes of series I back when they were screened for the first time). So, while the ING crew (Joy Reindenberg and so on) were there on the beach, dissecting the whale, Katrina was watching and drawing. Neat.

Bones and bones and bones

Some of the many bird skeletons I see in the van Grouw household. You might recognise some of these skeletons from The Unfeathered Bird. Photo by Darren Naish.

I mentioned those cabinets of skeletons. I try to be polite and not gawp idiotically at them for too long, or look as if I’m taking too many photos. I may or may not have succeeded, I don’t know. Before visiting, I’d wondered how Katrina creates the illustrations that she does. Like an idiot, I’d assumed that she looks at live birds before imagineering a sort of x-ray version that has the bones (or muscles or other structures) pictured in place. Nope.

Katrina, Great bustard skeleton, and her drawing of it. You may recognise that the bustard has been posed in its characteristic display posture. This image comes from Tim Birkhead's site Bird Sense.

Katrina and Hein have amassed many bird skeletons, all obtained (via absolutely legal and ethical means) at the carcass stage from bird parks or private collections, or picked up following natural deaths in the wild. Hein has prepared and cleaned these specimens from scratch, “boiling most of them on the kitchen stove”, Katrina tells me. And cleaned animal skeletons don’t generally come in posed, fully articulated form – you have to position them yourself, using wire and frames and so on if you want them to be in life-mimicking poses. It turns out that Hein is a world-class expert at this, and it is these mounted skeletons that are the models that Katrina has drawn from.

There are owls and parrots gripping and clambering on perches, a budgie peering into its favourite mirror, a woodpecker clinging vertically to a branch, a peacock bowing in display, and so many others. All are wonderful. I don’t know where to start so end up looking at virtually none of them. If you own The Unfeathered Bird, you’ll recognise some of the mounted skeletons you see here. Wouldn’t it be incredible if you could see those same skeletons yourself, in a museum or something? We’ll come back to that.

Coming soon: the domesticates!

Katrina and Hein's case of domestic animals - there are chickens, pigeons, a poodle and a cat here. Some of the breeds represented in this case are unusual and obscure (like the scandaroon and African owl pigeons). Photo by Darren Naish.

Heavily hinted at in The Unfeathered Bird is Katrina’s interest in the anatomy and diversity of domestic animals; the great, surprising variety in these animals really needs to be taken more seriously, not neglected or ignored because the creatures concerned are ‘unnatural’. We’ve bred lizards that lack scales, pigs and cattle that have conjoined digits and horse-like, non-cloven hooves, cattle with bifid neural spines and gargantuan, swollen horns, and ‘silky’ birds that have ‘loose’ feathers that lack the anatomical bits and pieces that ordinarily help feathers maintain their form. These are all curious – sometimes major – anatomical innovations, yet selective breeding has allowed their expression after just a few decades or less.

Katrina tells me of the plans for her next book, devoted entirely to the world of domesticates. Needless to say, there’s the danger that this project will become one of those Sisyphean tasks, its scope and size being something like a person’s life work, not the subject suitable for a single volume. And, already, Katrina has decided not to embark upon the path of discussing the animals on a species-by-species basis, but to focus on major themes and trends within domestication. Assuming all goes to plan, this work will appear in January 2018: 150 years after the publication of Darwin’s Variation of Animals Under Domestication. I can’t wait to see this project come to fruition. It being a Katrina van Grouw project, it can safely be assumed that it’ll feature amazing images of posed skeletons and x-ray-style images of musculature.

Domestic pigeon breeds, illustrated together in Darwin's Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1868.

But – waitaminute. We’ve all seen the skeletons of innumerable animals in museums and other such places. But how often have you seen mounted skeletons of domestic animals? There’s the odd chicken, duck, horse, cat or dog skeleton here and there, but they all belong to standard, widespread breeds. The concern, then, is that it might actually prove very, very difficult to obtain skeletons of the more obscure, rare or atypical breed. Furthermore, an annoying snobbishness about domestic animals – they are, so the thinking goes, merely ‘dogs’ or ‘sheep’ or ‘pigs’ not really different from all the others – means that museums and the people behind them have often not considered these animals worthy of study or of being incorporated into, or retained within, collections.

Despite these issues, Katrina and Hein have managed to obtain a lot of required material already. I get to see the skulls and skeletons of various obscure sorts of sheep, dog and pigeon. Some skeletons are still disarticulated, kept tidily in boxes and waiting for assembly. They create the irresistible impression that you might be able to buy your own Munchkin cat skeleton for assembly like an airfix plane kit or lego set. You can’t.

Part of Katrina and Hein's wall-mounted collection of sheep skulls. You can see what I think are Manx Loaghtan at top left (both straight-horned and curly-horned forms), and what I think is a Jacob at lower left. The spiral-horned skulls are from Dalesbred sheep; the skull with the long, spiralling horns at lower right is a Racka sheep. Photo by Darren Naish.

At the time of my visit, it seems that there are still quite a few domestic animal breeds that Katrina aims to get her proverbial hands on. We speak about double-muscled whippets and about Whisky, last of the Turnspit dogs. Believe it or don’t, 17th and 18th century kitchens in Europe used these small, short-legged dogs to turn wheels (bolted to the wall) and thereby keep spits from rotating in the fireplace. Turnspit dogs had had their day by the 1860s and faded into oblivion thereafter, eventually becoming extinct. If this is all new to you, I appreciate that it might sound like fraudulent nonsense. It is not (Bondeson 2011).

Henry Wigstead's illustration of 1799 (published in 1800), showing a kitchen's turnspit dog at work in its wooden wheel. Image is in public domain.

The Unfeathered Bird: a lengthy backstory

One of the most remarkable soft-tissue structures of the bird world: the ridiculous over-long trachea of the Trumpet manucode (be sure to check out the Tet Zoo article linked to below). Image (c) Katrina van Grouw.

The tale of how The Unfeathered Bird came to be is long – years long, involving failed deals with various publishers. In the end, the publishing of the book through Princeton University Press came about, Katrina told me, due to a chance meeting with a publishing executive in a pub. Had she not gone to that pub, or been introduced to that person, I suppose a real possibility might exist that the book would still not be out. I’ve had very bad luck with publishers (it seems that just about everyone involved in publishing has stories of this sort), but they’re nowhere close to Katrina’s story in duration and heartbreak. And, as if getting the book published might seem like a happy end to a long, frustrating adventure, there’s more.

The events surrounding what happened as goes Katrina’s position as the (former) employee of a major natural history museum are sad and a bit weird. Despite knowing of Katrina’s plans to produce a bird-themed book at the time of her initial employment, the museum later let on that they had a strict policy of not letting employees produce natural history-themed books, even in their own spare time. Now, I can very much understand why a museum (or other institution) would not want employees to write books during work time, but… surely people are (essentially) allowed to do what they like in their own time? Katrina never used specimens from the museum collections during the preparation of her book. She eventually left of her own accord, knowing that the book’s publication would cause problems. I still cannot quite get my head around the way things panned out.

Muscle study and skeleton of Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus/Picoides major), image (c) Katrina van Grouw.

Anyway, as goes the final product itself – I mean, the book – I think my feelings are already clear. This book should be cherished and enjoyed by people interested in birds alone, or in anatomy, evolution or animal diversity in general (hmm, I think I already said this). The birds are arranged according to the Systema Naturae of Linnaeus, a decision that might raise some eyebrows but which was chosen to show how convergent evolution has shaped avian anatomy. Opting to follow this particular scheme also removed the need to follow one or other recent phylogenetic arrangement, a sensible decision given the 25 year gestation of the volume. Naturally, there are places where the text – while referring to certain hypotheses of affinity – does not reflect the views favoured in the most recent studies. To take just one example: owls are noted as possible relatives of nightjars (p. 44), whereas recent work actually puts them close to trogons and piciforms (e.g., Hackett et al. 2008).

Anyway, I’m extraordinarily grateful to Katrina and Hein for their time, kindness, hospitality and assistance, and for the opportunity to produce the article you’ve just read.

During May 2014, Katrina (at right) appeared on the BBC TV series Springwatch. Michaela Strachan flicks through The Unfeathered Bird. Skeletons of bitterns and other herons poke into shot.

Epilogue

Some of Katrina's art, on display at Buckinghamshire County Museum, Aylesbury. Note Great hornbill illustration in framed form (and dodo, and storks). Photo by Darren Naish.

Some time after my visit, I got to see an entire museum gallery devoted to The Unfeathered Bird. The gallery in question is at Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury and remains there until late September 2014. I attended in May and was blown away. Whereas many or most of Katrina’s pieces of art were stored or stacked up against walls during the time of my visit, I now got to see an entire gallery devoted to them, displayed in all their beauty, framed, on the four walls of the room. Among the many was the Great hornbill illustration that Katrina had been arranging to have framed when I visited her. Arranged about the room are glass display cases housing both some of the mounted skeletons referred to above as well as taxidermy mounts of some of the species depicted in Katrina’s illustrations. For a fan, this was a huge treat.

Another skeleton you might recognise from The Unfeathered Bird: a Red-throated diver (Gavia stellata) on display at the exhibition at Buckinghamshire County Museum. You might also recognise the painting in the background. Photo by Darren Naish.

I hope you enjoyed this van Grouw-themed article, and I assure you that it won’t be the last time that Katrina is mentioned or discussed here at Tet Zoo.

van Grouw, K. 2013. The Unfeathered Bird. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, pp. 287, ISBN 978-0-691-15134-2. Hardback, index. Here at amazon.co.uk, here at amazon.

For previous articles on bird anatomy and various of the issues mentioned here, see…

Refs – -

Bondeson, J. 2011. Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Hackett, S. J., Kimball, R. T., Reddy, S., Bowie, R. C. K., Braun, E. L., Braun, M. J., Cjojnowski, J. L., Cox, W. A., Han, K.-L., Harshman, J., Huddleston, C. J., Marks, B., Miglia, K. J., Moore, W. S., Sheldon, F. H., Steadman, D. W., Witt, C. C. & Yuri, T. 2008. A phylogenomic study of birds reveals their evolutionary history. Science 320, 1763-1768.

Kaiser, G. W. 2007. The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Toronto.

Krantz, G. S. 1987. A reconstruction of the skull of Gigantopithecus blacki and its comparison with a living form. Cryptozoology 6, 24-39.

- . 1999. Bigfoot Sasquatch Evidence. Hancock House, Surrey, B.C. & Blaine, WA.

Naish, D. 2011. [Review of] The inner bird: anatomy and evolution. Historical Biology 23, 313-316.

van Grouw, K. 2013. The Unfeathered Bird. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 33 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Christopher Taylor 8:19 pm 06/20/2014

    the museum later let on that they had a strict policy of not letting employees produce natural history-themed books, even in their own spare time.

    What is this, I don’t even…

    Seriously, I’d like to know the justification behind this one. On the face, it seems like cutting off one’s nose. Is there an underlying assumption that no-one could possibly produce a book entirely in one’s spare time, so any such book would be a priori evidence of skiving?

    Link to this
  2. 2. imhennessy 12:35 am 06/21/2014

    Are the marks on the wing bone of that Great Hornbill where feathers attach?

    What was the ingenious method used to inflate the throat sack for the pigeon illustration?

    I’m glad the issue with her former employer was not extended. Here, in the US, it would not be surprising to have an organization try to prevent the publication of materials produced on personal time while in their employ.

    Link to this
  3. 3. BrianL 3:53 am 06/21/2014

    I got this book a few months ago and, like everyone else it seems, I was blown away by its illustrations. Being a sucker for phylogeny, I was put off by the Linnaean classification at first but I’ve come to understand that decision.

    Personally, I’d say the inclusion of so many domestic varieties is where its greatest (in a primus inter pares sense) strength lies, because as you mentioned, you just don’t see that illustrated elsewhere.

    While I found myself appalled by quite a few of the ‘monsters’ deliberately created through ruthless selective breeding, on the whole I also got a sense of awe and wonder as I realised how selective breeding pushes the inherent variety among a species and the boundaries of anatomy to its limits. In that sense, I think the most extreme domestic varieties might tell us more about the possibilities of selection on a short term scale than natural selection can, since individuals being able to survive in the wild is not a factor among domestics allowing variety to be pushed to its very limits rather than to its limits within ‘survivable sensibility’.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Therizinosaurus 4:47 am 06/21/2014

    “all too many people who study birds often seem uninterested or uncaring about the nuts and bolts of anatomy”

    Any idea of why this is or defense from any ornithologist? We have plenty of people studying avian anatomy, and using it for phylogenetic analyses (e.g. Livezey, Mayr, Smith). Why does no one start writing… oh I don’t know… an osteology of at least one bird per order? Clearly a need for that data is there, and the specimens are certainly there.

    Link to this
  5. 5. ayates 6:04 am 06/21/2014

    “Is there an underlying assumption that no-one could possibly produce a book entirely in one’s spare time, so any such book would be a priori evidence of skiving?”

    Even if it was produced partly at work, surely the act of producing a natural history themed book falls squarely into the aim of communicating knowledge generated at the museum to the wider public? You know one of the core goals, or even the Raison d’être of a natural history museum?

    Link to this
  6. 6. naishd 6:17 am 06/21/2014

    Response to question posed in comment # 4 (“Any idea of why this is or defense from any ornithologist?”): the studies of osteological characters for the purposes of phylogenetic elucidation come mostly (though not entirely) from palaeontologists who are, of course, more anatomy-focused than many others. I don’t mean to say that neontologists aren’t all uninterested in anatomy (look at the work of Zusi, Bock and others), but, rather, that modern ornithological research programmes and research groups don’t even consider anatomy as something that warrants study – everything is set up with genes, physiology, ethology and ecology in mind. For confirmation, look at Birkhead et al.’s 2014 Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin. You will find it hard to locate discussions of any ornithologist studying anatomy beyond the late 1800s.

    In response to comment 5: I agree wholeheartedly; you are looking at the situation like a rational person. It is unbelievable, but there are some research institutions in the world where employees are discouraged or even prevented from publishing research, the idea being that they should only do the job they’re paid to do (curation, dealing with visitors, administration, maintenance).

    Link to this
  7. 7. DavidMarjanovic 9:28 am 06/21/2014

    It’s very common in neontology to neglect anatomy in general and the skeleton in particular. Scientific collections of birds and small mammals normally consist of standardized skins; the feathers/hairs are all still there, but the rest, except maybe the skull, is thrown away.

    I’ve read descriptions of extant salamander species where the skeleton isn’t even mentioned. I’d have thought that if you describe a new species, you look for all diagnostic characters – but no, a few from gross body shape and coloration are enough!

    There’s a long paper from 1994 that illustrates the skulls and one or two vertebrae of a fairly large number of European salamander species. The rest of the skeleton isn’t mentioned; and the drawings don’t bother showing whether the skull roofs are ornamented.

    Without Digimorph, the coding of the outgroups in my upcoming phylogenetic analysis of newts would be utterly pathetic. And I still haven’t managed to find a Lissotriton clade: the species from one of the precursor matrices form a clade or grade, the ones from the other form another clade elsewhere.

    I remember the thread that involved the photo of a basilisk skeleton – the photo: probably the only one in the world.

    Link to this
  8. 8. ectodysplasin 1:01 am 06/22/2014

    1. Description of osteology is difficult.

    2. High-quality description of osteology that will be useful for years to come is even more difficult.

    3. High quality description of internal structures of bony structures and soft tissues interacting with bone is extremely extremely difficult and time consuming, and requires reference to histology, dissection, and contrast tomographic methods (contrast x-ray CT, OPT, or MRI).

    4. Most scientists are interested in specific questions with specific scope, and target descriptive work towards establishing a literature record of data necessary to answer these specific questions.

    5. Field -ologists who are out collecting mammals, birds, salamanders, or whatever are most interested in recording diversity; thus, you’ll see rather cursory descriptions that are little more than a differential diagnosis. That’s sufficient to identify the animal to other field researchers, who want to be able to identify the animal in the field so they can record occurrences correctly. Additional data (mass, soft tissue morphology, etc) are things that future researchers are expected to collect when they have a research question that requires collection of that data.

    I think there are downsides to both the neontological approach and the paleontological approach. The neontological approach results in a LOT of replication of effort, which may waste researcher time and effort (or not, depending on how much you like replication). The paleontological approach results in some degree of original researcher bias, which can introduce problems into the dataset. In addition, multiple analyses of the same published data will generally reflect the same irregularities in the original sample, so “replication of effort” can in some cases actually serve the purpose of testing the inferential power of prior analyses.

    The fortunate thing, I suppose, is that this means there’s really an endless number of research projects out there for someone interested. If there’s data you want/need that hasn’t yet been published, that’s an excellent opportunity to conduct a new and potentially informative study and publish it.

    Link to this
  9. 9. BrianL 3:59 am 06/22/2014

    I’m surprised this post has received so few comments thus far. I’ll have a shot at trying to change that.

    What do TetZoo commenters think is or are the most extreme examples of selective breeding out there among domestic animals and why?

    My personal pick right now would be fantail pigeons, in that these creatures have been bred to have a double set of tail feathers, a hollow back, a neck resting on said back and the head being held near the tail. Look at the illustration in ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ to behold what that looks like in all its terror and wonder.

    Link to this
  10. 10. irenedelse 8:03 am 06/22/2014

    @BrianL:

    For examples of extreme selective breeding, how about the whole range of domestic dogs? Size of the animal, shape of skull, length of legs, variety of coat (including hairless ones), plus various deformities like shortened face, bulging eyes, prognathism, loose skin folds…

    Link to this
  11. 11. BrianL 8:43 am 06/22/2014

    Regarding oddities of domestic dogs, in a Dutch standard work about them, ‘Toepoels Hondenencyclopedie’ which apparently doesn’t exist in English, (http://www.bol.com/nl/p/toepoels-hondenencyclopedie/1001004002649085/) it is matter-of-factly stated that some Italian Greyhounds have ‘partially formed or absent genitalia’. This has always struck me as deeply odd, does anyone know more about this?

    Link to this
  12. 12. irenedelse 9:16 am 06/22/2014

    @BrianL

    This page in English about Italian greyhounds states cryptorchisism as one of the health defects to be wary of in this breed. They also have frequent teeth problems, tend to hypothyroidism and bone fractures. All issues that seem related in some way with breeding for small size.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Heteromeles 11:28 am 06/22/2014

    To get back to the “osteology problem,” what are the chances for using CAT scans coupled with 3-D modeling techniques to figure out ways to more quickly map skeletons and assign names to the parts and protuberances?

    I agree that there’s a lot to be said for drawing bones, if only because it forces the information through the osteologist’s brain in between the bone and the page, something that doesn’t necessarily happen when computer files are manipulated. Still, if there’s a large backlog of undocumented skeletal material and there are limited specimens for many species, one could argue that finding ways to automate documentation of internal structures is a good thing, especially if it can be done without non-destructively.

    Link to this
  14. 14. irenedelse 4:35 pm 06/22/2014

    @ Heteromeles:

    A good place to start would be the drawers and cupboards in museums, I bet. Between the specimens collected but not studied yet, and the ones barely described (or even wrongly identified), surely there’s enough for a generation of PhDs. In fact, didn’t several species of tetrapods identified in the 21st century already had specimens in museums before someone realized what it was? I’m thinking ofbTapirus kabomani (of undying podcast fame!) of course, but also the olinguito and the giant New Zealand gecko…

    Link to this
  15. 15. Chabier G. 6:13 pm 06/22/2014

    The scorn about anatomy has bad consequences, mainly lost of knowledge. Here there is a striking example:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8346807

    How can anybody publish a paper about a “discovered new bone”, when this bone was already known?, the “additional bone” in question is called “os prominens” in Baumel’s Nomina Anatomica Avium, and it’s present not only in “short winged raptors”, but also in Kites and Griffon Vultures. It’s one of these neoformed bone structures, as the “os nuchale” in cormorants. I think that many anatomical descriptions would be concealed amid the pages of very old publications. Some people interested about bird anatomy can dissect accurately birds and find anatomical features not mentioned in modern works, and then they can think they have made an actual discovery.

    Link to this
  16. 16. John Harshman 7:44 pm 06/22/2014

    The reference work I would most like to see would be a treatise on comparative avian osteology, with copious illustrations. Or maybe a web site. In fact, wasn’t a web site with all that data supposed to be one of the products of the Archosaur Tree of Life project?

    Link to this
  17. 17. John Harshman 12:56 am 06/23/2014

    Scientific collections of birds and small mammals normally consist of standardized skins; the feathers/hairs are all still there, but the rest, except maybe the skull, is thrown away.

    For what museums is this true? At the Field Museum, when collecting birds, it’s long been the practice to make skins from a certain proportion of specimens, skeletons from another, pickles from another, and tissues from almost all. And a lot of the skins are prepared as shmoos so that they can get skeletons from the same specimens. How unusual is that?

    Link to this
  18. 18. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:14 am 06/23/2014

    Some points:

    @Darren
    The book seems interesting, but the same you can see in a normal book about bird anatomy adding a bit of imagination. There is a reason why 19. century people were fascinated by it. How a peacock fans and closes its tail? What allows a Hawfinch to crack seeds with 50 kg force? How you have all the power in an eagle packed in a body weighing 5 times less than an equally strong mammal?

    @David 7
    Museum skin of the bird is normally prepared with skull, wing and feet bones.

    The reason why bones are not preserved is that whole specimen is space consuming (why preserve bones? any other organ is equally interesting). One solution is to pickle the whole carcass but then the specimen is difficult to extract plus the colors fade.

    @Brian 9
    My favorite is color mutation of Gouldian Finch for their nonsense. You probably know this bird famous for extremely colorful plumage in patches of primary colours. I was on a bird show recently and saw mutants lacking every color patch separatelyof this species, plus – a wholly whitish-yellow, Canary-like mutant.

    @Heteromeles 13
    Using CT and automatic image recognition for mass description of bones (or any other avian antomy) is perfectly doable and would be a great project.

    And a good point that ‘objective’ classification by software might reval some information overlooked by osteologists.

    The only similar example I know of is some recent entomologist who used automatic sftware to mass-describe some tropical insect group.

    @irenedelse 14
    There is a saying that every big collection of S American bird skins contains overlooked species.

    A very interesting project might be to use an image recognition software to scan, digitize and describe colors and sizes of large number of normal bird specimens. This would allow to quantify colors and sizes of large series of birds. In many bird species, subspecific division is total mess. Subspecies described decades ago turn to be invalid. The whole research eg. ‘whether subspecies A is distinctly larger and darker than B’ is totally subjective. Specimens are misidentified for centuries. As I said, probably many unrecognized species are hidden among the similar ones.

    Link to this
  19. 19. DavidMarjanovic 9:57 am 06/23/2014

    1. Description of osteology is difficult.

    Some parts of externally visible anatomy are just as difficult to describe. Each scale on the face of at least some squamates has a name… the remiges and coverts of birds all have numbers…

    For what museums is this true? At the Field Museum, when collecting birds, it’s long been the practice to make skins from a certain proportion of specimens, skeletons from another, pickles from another, and tissues from almost all.

    That requires a lot of specimens from each species. What little I know of bird collections is drawers upon drawers of skins (most likely prepared as Jerzy says).

    Tissues? Do you mean samples for DNA analysis? Obviously that’s not a very old practice…

    Link to this
  20. 20. irenedelse 11:56 am 06/23/2014

    Is anyone here familiar with the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN)? David Marjanovic maybe? One of the buildings is house to the Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy museum, with an utterly fascinating collection of skeletons of extant or recently extinct animals (more or less grouped by Linnean classification), in addition to fossils of prehistoric ones. The comparative anatomy of vertebrates occupies the whole first floor of quite a large building, crammed nearly wall to wall in glass cabinets, plus I don’t know how many specimens in the drawers that line the walls… A few pickled specimens are exposed, mainly fish and amphibians but also embryos of other vertebrates. An impressive number of labels are written in careful 19th century handwriting. Obviously the legacy of Cuvier and his disciples.

    Link to this
  21. 21. John Harshman 12:03 pm 06/23/2014

    What little I know of bird collections is drawers upon drawers of skins

    The museums I know well also have drawers upon drawers of skeletons. Perhaps you missed those drawers? Though it’s true that the skeletal collections are considerably smaller than the skin collections, they’re still large enough.

    Tissues? Do you mean samples for DNA analysis? Obviously that’s not a very old practice…

    Depends on what “old” means. It’s been the common practice for at least 25 years. Perhaps you’re older than you think.

    Link to this
  22. 22. ectodysplasin 6:42 pm 06/23/2014

    @heteromeles,

    To get back to the “osteology problem,” what are the chances for using CAT scans coupled with 3-D modeling techniques to figure out ways to more quickly map skeletons and assign names to the parts and protuberances?

    I agree that there’s a lot to be said for drawing bones, if only because it forces the information through the osteologist’s brain in between the bone and the page, something that doesn’t necessarily happen when computer files are manipulated. Still, if there’s a large backlog of undocumented skeletal material and there are limited specimens for many species, one could argue that finding ways to automate documentation of internal structures is a good thing, especially if it can be done without non-destructively.

    I’m from a lab that works extensively with CT data, so I can maybe offer some insight.

    Describing CT data takes more manual effort than you’d think. If you just want to figure gross skull anatomy, sure, then you can just threshold the DICOMM stacks, take screenshots, and assemble a quick and dirty description. But if you want to isolate and compare individual elements, you need to manually volumize elements, which takes time. If you want to resolve ambiguities about what is or is not passing through holes in the skull, you need to do time-consuming contrast staining work ground-truthed in histology and dissection.

    As for trying to automate this with machine learning, remember that various other factors might confound that process, including contrast artifacts introduced by staining or fixing, deformation, and scan parameters, and you’re still talking about massive, massive, massive amounts of data for a computer to handle.

    Link to this
  23. 23. ectodysplasin 6:52 pm 06/23/2014

    @David,

    Some parts of externally visible anatomy are just as difficult to describe. Each scale on the face of at least some squamates has a name… the remiges and coverts of birds all have numbers…

    Yep. But these are useful for field ID. Sutural pattern isn’t.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Heteromeles 11:55 pm 06/23/2014

    To clarify, I was thinking of CAT scans being good for producing accurate (as in undistorted) 3-D image files that could be interpreted without destroying the specimen. I wasn’t thinking about using machine learning to “map” the features of each bone, although I suppose that turning IBM’s Watson into a phylogenetically trained osteologist would be fun (all we need is a lottery winner to fund the project…).

    The basic point here is that drawing is time-consuming. While it can be incredibly informative, it can also introduce gross distortions and more subtle biases. Shape files have their own problems, as ectodysplasin noted, but ideally they miss some of the distortions and biases. Better still, they can be produced relatively quickly with little destruction of specimens, which allows rare specimens to be studied repeatedly rather than once.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Tayo Bethel 12:59 am 06/24/2014

    Just finished reading the book … and I plan to do so again sometime very,very soon–say, in the next hour or so.
    @variation in domestic animals–I think the crested duck is probably the most disturbing domestic that I have ever heard of. Such poor creatures should not be allowed to reproduce and carry on their suffering to future generations A lifetime migraine sounds rather painful.

    Link to this
  26. 26. ectodysplasin 2:07 am 06/24/2014

    @heteromeles

    One does not need to illustrate every bone these days. That’s what cameras and line drawings are for. This eliminates a lot of the bias. The main plus of CT data is that you can quickly create standardized images for comparison. However, if you want to isolate specific bones, this is not necessarily easy. Some skulls may be relatively quick to segment, but others may take weeks of effort, and depending on the CT processing program you have, this may take much, much longer.

    Furthermore, figuring specimens is different from presenting written descriptions.

    Link to this
  27. 27. irenedelse 2:40 am 06/24/2014

    @ Tayo Bethel:

    I didn’t know about the crested duck, but now after a little googling… OMG, poor creatures indeed. There are other genes in domestic breeds with teratological or even lethal effects if homozygous (every serious cat fancier knows that you shouldn’t breed two tail-less Manx cats together for instance), but here the desired form itself is living with a hole in the head. Ow.

    Link to this
  28. 28. John Harshman 6:49 pm 06/24/2014

    On a bird-related but not this-thread-related note, does anyone know of a peer-reviewed publication that discusses or critiques James & Pourtless 2009? Or did it just go out with a whimper?

    Link to this
  29. 29. Stripeycat 8:05 pm 06/25/2014

    My “favourite” selective breeding problem is relatively subtle. It occurs in horses, specifically heavy-set Quarter Horses and related breeds. Back in the seventies, there was a very successful stallion called Impressive, who has an estimated 50-60,000 descendents today. He also carried an dominant mutation in the sodium ion channel (expressed in skeletal muscles) that causes HYPP (Hyper-something-I’ve-forgotten Periodic Paralysis). Because of the muscular twitching the disease causes, affected animals bulk up their musculature quickly, which was considered desirable in halter showing classes; so they were bred for. Although homozygotes do have slightly worse symptoms than heterozygotes on average, both can occasionally be asymptomatic; and both can, without warning, suffer appalling episodes of muscle paralysis which can and do result in fatal falls or suffocation, all without losing consciousness. Obviously, this is a serious animal welfare issue, but it endangers human life too if the horse is ridden at the time of the episode.

    Where this becomes unforgivable is that people *knew* the bloodlines were associated with the more serious symptoms even if they didn’t connect those with the increased muscle mass, long before the gene was identified. Despite this, they continued to breed from them, even from animals whose close relatives had died of the disease. Even now, after years of pressure, although most (but note not all) of the relevant breed registries require a genetic test and refuse to register homozygous foals, they still permit heterozygotes in the stud-book and in shows. And, because there’s serious money involved, breeders continue to produce and sell heterozygotes, who can literally drop dead without notice.

    Sorry if this rant is too ranty, but the twofer of animal cruelty and human endangerment is /special/.

    Link to this
  30. 30. DavidMarjanovic 9:39 am 06/29/2014

    Is anyone here familiar with the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN)? David Marjanovic maybe?

    Yes! The building you’re talking about is a museum of a museum! ^_^

    Depends on what “old” means. It’s been the common practice for at least 25 years. Perhaps you’re older than you think.

    I may not be, but many bird collections are much older than that, so that the vast majority of species represented in them don’t have any preserved tissue samples.

    (Herptile collections are often in alcohol, which preserves DNA quite well.)

    Link to this
  31. 31. irenedelse 3:08 pm 06/29/2014

    “Yes! The building you’re talking about is a museum of a museum! ^_^”

    That’s a good description. Some of the most fascinating exhibits are about historical conceptions of dinosaurs, fossils, “antediluvian times” and how to present science to the public. Crammed in with the skeletons ans fossils, there’s a lot of artistic interpretations, old and New, of animals, natural landscapes, etc.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Nick Gardner 2:04 pm 06/30/2014

    One does not need to illustrate every bone these days. That’s what cameras and line drawings are for. This eliminates a lot of the bias. The main plus of CT data is that you can quickly create standardized images for comparison. However, if you want to isolate specific bones, this is not necessarily easy. Some skulls may be relatively quick to segment, but others may take weeks of effort, and depending on the CT processing program you have, this may take much, much longer.

    I agree. Especially concerning fossils where disarticulated specimens cannot be created and bony surfaces have been obscured or damaged by preparation or where there is a sample size of one for comparative purposes.

    Link to this
  33. 33. Stevebodio 11:22 pm 08/2/2014

    As you may know I spent some good time with Katrina at the Berry Center for Biodiversity in Laramie last year, and came home with a life- sized hummingbird. (if not I’ll send some photos!)

    Her Domestic book may be my single most hoped- for book of science and art in many years. Ever think of collaborating with her on something?

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Holiday Sale

Black Friday/Cyber Monday Blow-Out Sale

Enter code:
HOLIDAY 2014
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >

X

Email this Article

X