Over the past few weeks, Channel 4 here in the UK screened the four-part series Inside Nature’s Giants. If you’re at all interested in the world of zoology you’ll already – I assume – have heard quite a lot about it. I watched it religiously, and let me tell that you that it was excellent, well deserving of the Tet Zoo stamp of approval. More importantly, it was – as billed – pretty much the first time that this sort of thing had been done for television. The public face of natural history is, let’s face it, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, ecology, conservation, conservation, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, with some more behaviour thrown in for good measure. Anatomy (including functional morphology) just doesn’t get attention, mostly because the decision makers assume that it’s boring, or too difficult to depict on TV, or too disgusting. It might be disgusting at times, but there’s no doubt that it’s fascinating: Inside Nature’s Giants has been highly acclaimed and, like similar projects (I can only think of Gunther von Hagens’ 2006 series Anatomy for Beginners), it won a lot of highly deserved attention [whale guts shown here; image © Channel 4]. If you’re in the UK you still have access to the whole series at 4oD.
Filmed in co-operation with the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and its staff, and involving a team of experts and a studio audience, the series was presented by Mark Evans (TV veterinary scientist Mark Evans, not the plesiosaur expert or any of the other ten Mark Evans you might know). Richard Dawkins also featured in each episode (more on this later), and biologist Simon Watt helped put the animals in their behavioural and ecological context. Anatomist Joy Reidenberg, best known for her work on cetacean cranial morphology and on the anatomy of the hyoids and larynx in neanderthals and other mammals, was a regular face throughout the series. Other noted anatomists made guest appearances [in adjacent image, Reidenberg reveals the recurrent laryngeal nerve of a giraffe, while Dawkins looks on. More on this scene later. Image © Channel 4].
One of the main plus points about the series it that it wasn’t just about cutting up dead bodies; it was also big on putting the animals in their phylogenetic context, and there was much talk of evolutionary history, of compromise, and of the consequences of history. Cladograms and reconstructions of fossil species were used. This all sounds too good to be true, and it was. There was no catch. Jaded and cynical as I am, I expected to be disappointed or frustrated, as I usually am even with the most popular of natural history shows on TV (don’t get me started on Life in Cold Blood…). But no – I do only have good things to say. In this and the following few articles I want to discuss the contents of the series in a bit more detail. I wholeheartedly support this sort of thing, so this is mostly my attempt to bring the series to wider attention.
The four episodes were The Elephant, The Whale, The Crocodile, and The Giraffe. We begin at the beginning…
Episode 1 was devoted to the elephant or, more specifically, to the Asian elephant Elephas maximus. They started by looking at the gigantic guts [see below; image © Channel 4], then dissected the head, and the trunk. How the trunk works still seems pretty mysterious: we know how elephants move the trunk, but how do they support it, hold it rigid, and raise it above the head when it has no skeleton of any sort? A few suggestions have been made but the answer still seems elusive so far as I can tell. Elephant lungs are bizarre in being directly attached to the inside of the ribcage and diaphragm via elastic tissue, and in lacking a pleural cavity (this configuration is apparently present in some tapirs as well). The most popular explanation for this is that it better allows elephants to create powerful suction and hence to suck water in via the trunk (Short 1962), but an alternative idea, mentioned in the programme, is that the negative pressure involved assisted early elephants in using the trunk as a snorkel while swimming. Aquatic habits are only likely to have been the case in the very earliest proboscideans (moeritheres and so on), so this system must initially have evolved in short-trunked forms… if this hypothesis is true [Image © Channel 4].
The problems of dumping heat, and the role of the ears, were looked at too, and they finished by focusing on John Hutchinson’s research on locomotion and limb function (see Hutchinson et al. 2003, 2006, Weissengruber et al. 2006, Ren et al. 2008, Ren & Hutchinson 2008). They obviously liked John’s suggestion that elephant hindlimbs work something like pogo-sticks when loaded, and we got to see how a foot deforms and recoils when squashed in a hydraulic press.
One final thing: given Reidenberg’s area of specialty, and given that she was shown dissecting the head, I was a bit surprised that they didn’t discuss the pharyngeal pouch. That’s right, elephants have a pouch inside their throat cavity. They can use it to carry one gallon (3.8 kg) of water. However, you can’t cover everything.
Next: whale! Oh yes, I have a lot to say about the series.
For more on elephant anatomy and other anatomy-themed stuff see…
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 5: of elephants and gorillas
- RIP Yeheskel Shoshani
- Bipedal orangs, gait of a dinosaur, and new-look Ichthyostega: exciting times in functional anatomy part I
- Of dragons, marsupial lions and the sixth digits of elephants: functional anatomy part II
- When I grow up, I want to be a functional anatomist: functional anatomy part III
Refs – -
Hutchinson, J. R., Famini, D., Lair, R. & Kram, R. 2003. Are fast-moving elephants really running? Nature 422, 493-494.
- ., Schwerda, D., Famini, D., Dale, R. H. I., Fischer, M. & Kram, R. 2006. The locomotor kinematics of African and Asian elephants: changes with speed and size. Journal of Experimental Biology 209, 3812-3827.
Ren, L., Butler, M., Miller, C., Schwerda, D., Fischer, M. & Hutchinson, J. R. 2008. The movements of limb segments and joints during locomotion in African and Asian elephants. Journal of Experimental Biology 211, 2735-2751.
- . & Hutchinson, J. R. 2008. The three-dimensional locomotor dynamics of African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants reveal a smooth gait transition at moderate speed. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 5, 195-211.
Short, R. V. 1962. The peculiar lungs of the elephant. New Scientist 316, 570-572.
Weissengruber, G. E., Egger, G. F., Hutchinson, J. R., Gorenewald, H. B., Famini, D. & Forstenpointner, G. 2006. The structure of the cushions in the feet of African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Journal of Anatomy 209, 781-792.