Rodents of usual size and their moving skeletons

Harry, one of the rats in our trials, walking through the X-ray beams.

Harry, one of the rats in our trials, walking through the X-ray beams.

The past week at Brown University’s C-arms XROMM lab was so busy I haven’t had a moment to post about our research experiences until now.  If you’re just catching up, please see my previous post on our setup.

This was certainly a new but fascinating experience both for me and my student, Radha.  With help from Dr. Beth Brainerd and Dr. Angela Horner, we learned how to coax the rats to walk a plank of wood between the two X-ray emitting “cans” of the positioned C-arm fluoroscopes.  At one end of the room is a bank of two computers connected to each high-speed camera and C-arm.  When the rats were doing what we were interested in, a push of a floor pedal turned on the X-rays and recorded the ensuing stream of images which were then converted into standard computer movies.

Walk the plank - each rat walked across this plan between the C-arm fluoroscopes to a hidey-hole box we nick-named the Rat Haven.

Walk the plank – each rat walked across this plank between the C-arm fluoroscopes to a hidey-hole box we nick-named the Rat Haven.

Dr. Brainerd helping Radha and I to capture the X-ray data.

Dr. Brainerd helping Radha and I to capture the X-ray data.

Radha Varadharajan at C-arms lab

Here is Radha Varadharajan capturing and recording the X-ray movies that will be the foundation of our study.

Angela Horner has been working with rats for years, and her experience in motivating these little mammals was a godsend — from Wednesday to Thursday, Radha and I learned from her experience and were able to collect loads of data that will allow us to begin reconstructing their locomotor and postural movements in 3-D.

Here, Dr. Angela Horner is motivating the rat Harry to walk the plank through the X-ray beams.

Here, Dr. Angela Horner is motivating the rat Harry to walk the plank through the X-ray beams.

Radha and I both had opportunities to coax the rats across the plank to the Rat Haven as well.  You will notice we named our rats.  Two of them were dubbed Pink and Floyd as a nod to one of my favorite bands who also featured cartoon rats in their backdrop movie for “Welcome to the Machine.”  Yeah, we’re geeky like that.

Here I am holding one of the rats we named Evan.  Evan was a bit "lazy," but ended up being great at walking a narrow dowel, helping us to see forearm movements in detail.

Here I am holding one of the rats we named Evan. Evan was a bit “lazy,” but ended up being great at walking a narrow dowel, helping us to see forearm movements in detail.

Here is Radha coaxing Pink the Rat through the X-ray beams.

Here, Radha is coaxing Pink the Rat through the X-ray beams.

Want to see a sneak-peak of the end result of our labors?  Here is one clip of Harry the Rat.

We are especially grateful for all the help we had this past week, and among many others Erika Giblin and Ariel Camp were invaluable in providing access and assistance with all of our XROMM issues.  Thank you everyone!

An old dinosaur learning new tricks

Okay, so I’m the “old dinosaur” here, although I was informed recently that I could still pass as a graduate student.

I am happy to report that I am back on the campus of Brown University this week with one of my undergraduates, Radha Varadharajan, to begin what I hope to be the first in a long series of studies on the evolution of amniote (reptile, bird, mammal) forelimb posture.  We (my “rat pack” students and I) are using the XROMM technology I have detailed here on this blog to understand how the three-dimensional movements of the forelimb bones of rats actually occur.  The long-term goal of this initial study is to document how these movements facilitate hand placement and posture, and how these details of locomotion are related to bone shape.  My ultimate goal is to use the somewhat primitive forelimb posture of rats as a template to understand how some early fossil mammals may have moved.

Today, Radha and I, under the tutelage of Dr. Elizabeth Brainerd, began the process of setting up the so-called C-arm fluoroscopes that will allow us to take calibrated X-ray movies of a number of rats as they walk, run, and perhaps do other activities that we happen to capture.  This was especially exciting and informative for me, because these are the “new tricks” this “old dinosaur” wants to learn.  Tomorrow, we begin in earnest filming the skeletal movements of the rats.

You will notice in the pictures posted here that Radha and I are suited up in lead aprons and thyroid collars because, as you might anticipate, we do not want to expose ourselves to X-ray radiation during the data capture.  In fact, she and I have participated in numerous safety trainings and tests to ensure we stay safe.

Here I am behind the two C-arm fluoroscopes.  In front of the scopes, you can spy the wooden plank walk-way for the rats, and an acrylic box that the rats will walk or run through in the vicinity of the X-ray fields.

Here I am behind the two C-arm fluoroscopes. In front of the scopes, you can spy the wooden plank walk-way for the rats, and an acrylic box that the rats will walk or run through in the vicinity of the X-ray fields.

Here is Radha learning x-ray capture at the Brown C-arms lab.

Here is Radha learning x-ray capture at the Brown C-arms lab.

We also spent time today with Dr. David Baier learning how to set up what is called a rig in the MAYA software program that will later animate the skeletons of the rats we film.  Essentially, a rig in this case means creating a joint system that can be calibrated with the X-ray films and “attached” to the 3-D bone geometry from CT-scans of the rats used in the study.  I further shook some of the rust out of my head reviewing and practicing how to import calibrated data from X-ray digital movies and syncing them with 3-D bone geometry — skills I first acquired almost one year ago during Brown’s 2012 XROMM course.

All of this setup and learning is key for me and my students, not only because we want to do the science right, but also for other reasons I shall divulge in future posts.

Everyone at Brown has once again been incredibly helpful, and I am especially indebted to Dr. Brainerd for her encouragement and help over the past year with XROMM.

Please stay tuned … this week promises to get more interesting …

Academic “evolution”

Recently, one of my former undergraduate honors students, Collin VanBuren, did something remarkable: he not only was accepted into Cambridge University, but was also the recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship!  What is the Gates Cambridge Scholarship?  It is a prestigious award for outstanding applicants from countries outside the U.K. to pursue full-time postgraduate work in any subject available at the university. For Collin VanBuren, this is well-deserved indeed.

Collin, like many of my students, came to me as an eager undergrad with an interest in zoology, and in particular he was interested in marine mammals.  So, I put him to task studying the morphology of the cetacean radius bone (a bone in the forearm) because of my broader interests in forelimb posture among mammals and dinosaurs.  Collin, like many of my students, far exceeded my expectations: he not only collected a lot of data on cetaceans and other mammals, but he desperately wanted to pursue reptile and dinosaur radius morphology.  I warned him it would not be easy and that he was under a short time constraint.  Collin assured me it could be done, and over 400 bones later, he was correct!  He presented his undergraduate work at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (as an oral talk, no less — and it was his first ever SVP presentation!) and he and I are now revising what I expect will be a well-received paper … and very much due to his diligence!

During all of this research, Collin headed the Zoology Club at WIU, he participated on several digs in the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation of Utah with me, other eager students, and the Burpee Museum, and was one of many active members of our Functional Morphology and Evolutionary Anatomy (FMEA) Lab, co-directed by Dr. Jess White.  Collin then was accepted into Dr. David Evans’s M.S. program at the University of Toronto, where he has continued to excel, before this latest award.

Seeing my former WIU students succeed always makes me smile and remember the many fun dissections, interesting discussions, and sense of a cohort we often had.  I am singling out Collin now, of course, but I could and will write updates about my other students, including among many others: Ashley Morhardt, now a successful Ph.D. student in Dr. Larry Witmer’s lab; Hillary Parks, who successfully defended her M.S. at WIU and went on to be a key member of the Burpee Museum; Kristy Tuttle who did an M.S. at WIU on rodents and will now be working with Dr. Virginia Naples at Northern Illinois University on her Ph.D.; Simon Masters, one of my first M.S. students at WIU, who is currently one of the best dinosaur paleontology field hands out there; Katie Reiss who did an excellent undergraduate project on shark tail morphology and has gone on to earn her M.S. in shark toxicology; and many more I could and need to mention in the near future.

It is often remarked in academic circles that we have our own academic family as well as our biological one.  In other words, we are “descendants” of our advisors, who are descendants of theirs, and so on, and we can trace back our scientific roots, if you like.  For me, my academic “ancestor” is J. Michael Parrish, and I believe that his encouragement and support of me during my formative years as a scientist have now been passed to another generation. As a scientist or other academic, your students are your “children,” and I hope that, like a “parent,” these students succeed and stand on their own two feet.  I cannot take but a shred of credit for them, because they were all self-motivated, but I am glad to know them and especially glad to hear when they do well.

Again, many congratulations to Collin, and, as I begin to advise a new and eager crop of students here at Stockton, I hope they get to meet and be inspired by my former WIU students.  Would that be cross-pollination or interbreeding?

The “Rat Pack” Succeeds

A lot has happened in the Bonnan Lab at Stockton these past few months.

First, the “Rat Pack” as I fondly call them (Evan Drake, Kadeisha Pinkney, and Radha Varadharajan), presented their research proposals for 3-D rat locomotion and kinematics to the Northeastern Regional Vertebrate Evolution Symposium (NERVES) on March 22nd, 2013, at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) College of Osteopathic Medicine.  Their talks were very well received and we had excellent suggestions from colleagues and scholars.  I was especially proud of these undergraduates because they were able to give technical talks to a scientific audience having only worked with me for a few months on their projects. Bravo!

A special thank you to the Symposium’s organizers, Drs. Brian Beatty and Matthew Mihlbachler!

You can read their NERVES talk titles below.

Next, they put their collective heads together and, with my input, created a very nice poster for the 2013 NAMS Research Symposium at Stockton.

You can read their NAMS research abstract below as well.

The "Rat Pack" presented their preliminary research on rat locomotion to the 2013 NAMS Research Symposium.  Left to right: Kadeisha Pinkney, Radha Varajharadan, and Evan Drake.

The “Rat Pack” presented their preliminary research on rat locomotion to the 2013 NAMS Research Symposium. Left to right: Kadeisha Pinkney, Radha Varadharajan, and Evan Drake.

Kadeisha (left) and Radha (right) explain the joys of rat locomotion to interested students.

The “Rat Pack” attracted quite a crowd.

Last, but not least, Radha Varadharajan received the first Robert L. Fines scholarship awarded at Stockton, April 26, 2013, for her work on this research and her future career goals in veterinary medicine.  Dr. Fines is a former Stockton alumnus (1975) and is one of the premiere M.D. researchers successfully fighting pancreatic cancer.  He is the Herbert Irving Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Medical Oncology at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York, New York.  I am honored and proud that Radha has received this award from such a prestigious alumnus.

The scholarship will allow Radha to travel with me to Brown University the week of May 20-24, where we will work with Dr. Elizabeth Brainerd and colleagues X-ray filming the rats walking, running, and landing at their XROMM C-arms facility.  Stay tuned and we’ll keep you posted on our time and research activities while at Brown.

Finally, I must acknowledge the help of our campus veterinarians, Drs. Ralph Werner and Mary Wilkes, for their efforts in helping me with the rats, as well as our animal caretaker, John Rokita, for his constant help and suggestions on rodent protocols and biology.

I feel truly grateful to have made such a jump to a new college and to already be surrounded by supportive faculty, eager students, and the chance to pursue 3-D kinematics research.

NERVES Talk Titles

Varadharajan, Radha and Bonnan, Matthew F. 2013. Exploring 3-D long bone kinematics in the White Rat (Rattus norvegicus) as a model for inferring forelimb posture in early mammals: Contribution of the scapula.>

Pinkney, Kadeisha and Bonnan, Matthew F. 2013. Exploring 3-D long bone kinematics in the White Rat (Rattus norvegicus) as a model for inferring forelimb posture in early mammals: Contribution of the humerus.

Drake, Evan and Bonnan, Matthew F. 2013. Exploring 3-D long bone kinematics in the White Rat (Rattus norvegicus) as a model for inferring forelimb posture in early mammals: Contribution of the radius and ulna.

NAMS RESEARCH SYMPOSIUM ABSTRACT

Forelimb movements in Rattus norvegicus (white rat) and their relationship to pronation: implications for early mammal forelimb posture

Varadharajan, Radha; Pinkney, Kadeisha; Drake, Evan; and Bonnan, Matthew F.

 

Rattus norvegicus (the white rat) is a therian mammal with a forelimb morphology similar to that of early non-cursorial mammals. Currently, early mammal limb posture is controversial, with reconstructions ranging from sprawling to parasagittal. With this current ambiguity, the study of forelimb shape and movements in R. norvegicus may provide a model to infer the locomotor patterns of earlier mammals.  Previous research, most notably by Jenkins (1971, 1974), indicates that the forelimb posture of rats does not follow simple, pendulum-like mechanics but rather a more complex, less-upright range of movement. For the first time, we will study the 3-D morphology and kinematics of the forelimb in R. norvegicus by utilizing three-dimensional moving X-ray animations generated through the XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology) technique.  Specifically, we will focus on the three-dimensional movements of the scapula, humerus, and antebrachium (radius and ulna), and their combined contribution to pronation (placing the hand palm-side down).  To this end, we will test three interdependent hypotheses on the contribution of each of these limb segments to pronation. For the scapula, we examined the serratus anterior, supraspinatous, infraspinatous, spinotrapezius, acromiotrapezius, and rhomboids major and minor. Data gathered on the rat scapula through literature and dissection lead to the hypothesis that this element contributes in a significant way to pronation. Specific features of the humerus distinguish the parasagittal from the sprawling stance in early fossil mammals: degree of torsion, condylar structures of the elbow joint, width of the intertubercular groove, and the relative sizes of the lesser and greater tubercles.  These features are associated with major locomotor muscles such as the pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, and pronator teres. We hypothesize that the humerus will contribute in a significant way to the pronation of the hand in the white rat. In humans, the radius can rotate about the ulna to pronate the hand because these elements are bowed, creating the space necessary to allow such movements. The pronator teres and pronator quadratus pull on the radius and rotate it about the ulna, whereas the supinator and biceps brachii act as antagonists to return the bones to a parallel position. Unlike humans, the radius and ulna of Rattus norvegicus fit tightly together like two spoons stacked together, with little, if any, space available in which the radius can rotate about the ulna.  Moreover, the pronator quadratus has not yet been described or identified in our rat dissections. Instead, the radius and ulna appear “fused” by the interosseous membrane and rendered incapable of supination. Rats have little need to supinate the forelimb because the forelimbs are primarily used in locomotion. It is therefore hypothesized that all pronation and supination occur in the humerus and scapula in rats because the radius and ulna are in such close proximity to each other that we infer they participate little, if any, to pronation.  After we capture the three-dimensional movements of these bones with XROMM, we will test our hypotheses and perhaps gain insight into the posture of early mammals.