I just could not wait to write about a seminar that I listened to at the recent Comparative Physiology conference in Westminster, CO. The topic was “paleophysiology”. You got it, the study of physiology in extinct animals! Dr. Thomasz Owerkowicz, an Assistant Project Scientist with Dr. James Hicks at UC Irvine, spoke about his research examining alligators to help understand ancient dinosaurs. Many researchers study modern animals in an effort to understand ancient ones, but the caveat is that they often study them in their modern environment. The novelty of this new research is that Drs. Owerkowicz and Hicks recreated some of the conditions in the ancient environment by incubating American alligator (Alligator mississipiensis) eggs and hatchlings to varying environmental oxygen levels ranging from 12% oxygen (Late Triassic, Early Jurassic) up to 36% oxygen (Permian). What they found was that the hatchlings raised in the hypoxic environment (12%) were smaller than the hatchlings raised in the normoxic (21%) or hyperoxic (up to 36%) environments. Moreover, the liver mass was reduced whereas the heart and lung masses were increased in the hypoxic animals. These findings demonstrate the need to consider the natural environment when studying the physiology, and especially paleophysiology, of animals.
What was really neat, was the contraption they came up with to assess what environment alligators preferred. It looked rather like a large trash can (and maybe was just that) with a modified lid containing 4 holes that created distinct breathing chambers. Each chamber received a different level of atmospheric oxygen. This system was used to measure which environment the alligators preferred to be in by calculating the time spent breathing from each chamber. The data were very preliminary (one animal) so it is difficult to draw any conclusions at this point, but I really look forward to hearing more about the research coming out of this lab.
Seriously, is it too late to change my research focus?