The Internet is for Alligators-new educational and research resource

As I’ve discussed previously, 3D models of morphological data are becoming commonplace and natural forms of disseminating data on the web. Today, we are proud to present a new online web resource: the 3D Alligator.  The Holliday Lab and WitmerLab are co-hosting, and co-launching new, complementary sites which offer new 3D models of skull and soft tissue elements of the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Our site hosts models of an adult alligator; Witmerlab hosts new models of a hatchling alligator as well as other goodies from past papers.

Sample image from 3D Alligator, one of my favorite elements.

Both offer 3D pdfs, Quicktime movies and numerous other features. In particular, the Adult Alligator has separate pages for every element of the skull where there are Java-based Wirefusion models and labeled jpg images (visit the Laterosphenoid page). There are numerous structures and minutiae (to some) that were not labeled, and there are limitations to what 3D models of a medical CT dataset can show in web-friendly, smoothed format, but hopefully this is the next best thing to having a disarticulated alligator skull in your hands.

Rebecca Skiljan and the 3D Alligator poster at Mizzou Life Sciences Research Day

Most of the work on the Holliday Lab page is thanks to the efforts of Undergraduate Lab Assistant and now Hughes Research Fellow Rebecca Skiljan. Becci has been working on this site since early Fall 2010. Every student who comes through the lab learns the basics of digitally extracting parts of CT or MRI data to aid various ongoing analyses–this one took on a life of its own. Thanks to this experience, among other things, Becci was awarded a prestigious undergraduate research fellowship to employ her skills in a project on the feeding mechanics of a fossil crocodilian during her senior year.

Go check out the site! Please come back with you comments, ideas for additions, or any problems you may have. We expect the site to grow with some upcoming additions.

Inside Alligators-anatomy and public outreach

This past February 12, the Holliday Lab participated in a fairly substantial day of activities. First, strike that…First, to prepare for the 12th, Henry Tsai and I beat a blizzard home by 15min (really!-a drive of legend) with a truck full of gators from Louisiana the previous week -the truck  o’ gators was snowed in in my driveway for 3 days. THEN, on the 12th, Darwin’s birthday, I gave a talk for Mizzou’s Saturday Morning Science program for the general public of Columbia-I think it was the largest crowd I’ve spoken to (Talk title: Inside Alligators: functional anatomy and evolution).  That afternoon, my lab and I hosted  students from 4 different regional high schools (some from as far as St. Louis) as well as a handful of Veterinary School students as part of the Howard Hughes Maps in Medicine Program, a scientific outreach program for high school students, their teachers, and select undergrads.

Few things beat holding a fossil (or gator viscera) in your hand, pointing out interesting things about it, and then handing it off to some interested stranger standing next to you. Whichever side of the transaction you might be on, few can argue that its not an exhilarating experience. I’ve done this at FLMNH with horse, sloth and Smilodon bits, Disney’s Animal Kingdom with Sue the Trex parts, as a grad student, and now as faculty–it never gets old. On the other hand, holding up a little vial of some possibly visible DNA, is something I do not find appealing. So, I’m happy to say that by the end of Saturday’s activities, dozens of people, of all ages, were able to touch, hold, and study some fossil specimens we have on loan, which for various reasons, will likely never be on display at a museum–they’ll likely be locked away in a cabinet. Many of these people may not even ever make it to museums. They also got to explore vertebrate anatomy in a way few get to.

Some of this is self-serving, professional development; I’m identifying avenues for broader impacts for my research that NSF finds appealing either as portions of a standard submission, or the more elaborate Career award. So I’m looking to bring my flavor of paleontology, evolution, and anatomy/physiology to various groups. Many of the activities were geared toward curricular guidelines the schools operate under. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy every moment of it.

We organized the afternoon workshop into 4 different stations followed by a final wrap up and integration period.  Each station had a worksheet to guide the participants through the exercises which included inferring behavior, drawing, measuring skulls, and wading through abdominal anatomy. Although the students originally split into 4 groups, by the end of the day, everyone had flocked to the dissection stations and many protested leaving.

Station 1: Skull anatomy: Objectives-to identify major features of the skull in humans,  ID  them with other vertebrates, and discuss functional differences

Station 2: Dental anatomy: Objectives- Compare and contrast features of dentition and infer diet and chewing behavior

Station 3: Estimating Size: Objectives-Measure portions of crocodilian skulls and using simple equations, estimate their head length

Station 4: Anatomy: Objectives-dissect and identify major organs and other structures in several specimens of Alligator mississippiensis. We also had help from 5 veterinary students interested in exotic medicine. It was their first gator dissection as well.

I’m going to use this post to share part of the day’s activities; it was quite a bit of work, but having just received a CD of photographs from the day, they reminded me of how rewarding the entire experience was-we will do it again. The photos speak for themselves. Thanks to the Mizzou Saturday Morning Science program, Terese Dishaw for photography, Bill Folk and Doris Shoemaker for recruiting the students and organizing the HHMI MAPS program, and Henry Tsai, Becci Skiljan, and Cortaiga Gant for spending their Saturday (and several days prior) helping organize the workshop.