Osteology Everywhere: Astana

I don’t usually write about the moonscaped city I’ve lived in for the past 2 years, but I stumbled upon some osteology today worth sharing. Astana is an anachronism. The capital of Kazakhstan for only 16 years, the city sports a futuristic skin, glistening with Kazakh cultural heritage and thrust upon a Soviet skeleton. This place is a palimpsest, embodying the country’s rich history and spirited aspirations.

Astana’s modern and edgy facade encroaching into the steppe and swamp on the city’s southwest outskirts

I live and work on the Left Bank of the Yesil River. Under constant development, the Left Bank often falls short of the metropolitan feel the city’s striving toward. But hop over to the other side of the river to the Right Bank, and Astana takes on a much more urban feel. This is the older part of the city (though this is still relatively young), and as such there are more people and there is more stuff.2014-06-28 13.07.46Now, to combat my summer antsiness, I recently acquired a bicycle (velosiped in Russian), not so much for exercise but to explore this colorful city. (All the pictures in this post are a result of this acquisition) This morning I rolled onto what turned out to be Eurasian National University, and was surprised to find myself besieged by bones:


Unlike other Osteology Everywhere posts, where I think I see bones in quotidian sights, these objects are indeed bones.

In the spirit of the bone quizzes on Bone Broke Blog, I challenge you to tell me what these bones are. There are four of a kind on the red and white tiles in the foreground, and a taller one stood upright on a sphere in the background. Can you identify 1) what bone each of these is, and 2) the animal they come from? Bonus points if you can specify which side of the body. Here are some other views:

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Finally, although only mildly related but because it’s totally badass, here’s a picture of lightning I snapped during a storm last week:2014-06-20 21.57.37



Osteology everywhere: A sign I might have a problem

Over the holiday break I was working at a cafe, and was shocked to find the upholstery besprinkled with bones. Looking at this seatback, can you tell what kinds of bones, and from whom, adorn this food establishment?

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Of course there’s no one right answer, but what I saw were the undeveloped shafts of infant limbs. Infants?! Mildly morbid, mayhap, but one of the distinguishing features of juvenile limb bones compared with adults is that babies’ epiphyses (joint ends) are not fused to the shafts. Observe:

From left to right, human perinatal humerus, femur and tibia (from Scheuer and Black, 2000).

From left to right, human perinatal humerus, femur and tibia (from Scheuer and Black, 2000).

Each of the newborn bones pictured above is comprised of a shaft (diaphysis) that flares proximally and distally into a ‘metaphysis.’ In adults, the epiphyses are completely fused to the metaphyses, but in juveniles the epiphyses are separated from metaphyses by a growth plate made of cartilage. Different epiphyses tend to fuse at characteristic ages, and when fusion occurs bone growth ceases.

Functionally, this cartilage growth plate allows the bones to increase in length, as multiplying cartilage cells are replaced by bone cells. Because the epiphyses of different limbs fuse at different times, this means that limb proportions change subtly over the course of growth. Practically, this means that if an archaeologist (or forensic scientist or paleontologist) finds a limb shaft with unfused ends, he or she can estimate the age at which the individual may have died:

Same bones in same order as in previous figure (also from Scheuer and Black, 2000)

Standards for epiphyseal fusion. Same bones in same order as in previous figure (also from Scheuer and Black, 2000). “A” refers to the age (years) when the epiphysis firsts appears, and “F” to when it fuses to the shaft.

So if we assume the bones in the second figure are from the same person, we see a humerus, femur and tibia with completely unfused epiphyses. If we refer to our aging standards (third figure), we can see that the first epiphysis to fuse is the proximal humerus, between 2-6 years, and the next epiphyses to fuse are the distal humerus and femur head/proximal tibia between 12-14 years. So we could conclude that this poor kid was certainly younger than 12, years, if not even younger than 2 years. Again, having more of the skeleton (especially jaws with developing teeth) would help us make a more precise estimation.

Baby bones all over the place?! Shame on you, Panera.

GET THIS BOOK: Scheuer L and Black S. 2000. Juvenile Developmental Osteology. Academic Press.

Osteology everywhere: Muffin tops

It’s become challengingly chilly here in Astana and my days of running outdoors are fading into memories redshifting into oblivion, so last weekend I went ice skating instead. Pulling off certifiably Scott Hamiltonian moves, I espy my silhouette and what hominid face is staring back?

That’s, right, Australopithecus boisei (right). Of course they’re not identical, but then they don’t really have to be when you see Osteology Everywhere.

But then again, when you’ve been doing this too long, you start to see Paleontology Everywhere, too. The shadow also reminded me of a time a few years ago, when we were picking through bags of backdirt at Dmanisi, foraging for micromammals, passing pachmelia and time with trivia. Someone posed the riddle, “What did one muffin say to the other muffin?” To which I responded:

Osteology everywhere: Pelvis has left the building

The vernal awakening has brought rain to Ann Arbor, and right on here on main campus I spotted the rain-splotched silhouette of an articulated human pelvis (left).

Check out those short and flaring iliac blades, and the shortness of the ischium. These features are associated with repositioning key muscles for walking and running on two feet, and are very unlike what is seen in the four-legged, suspensory climbing apes.

But just how ‘human’ are these features? The crushed pelvis of Oreopithecus bambolii, a ~8 million year old fossil ape from Italy, has somewhat human-like short ilia (left). This pelvis also has weak anterior inferior iliac spines (Rook et al. 1999), which anchor the hip/trunk flexor muscle rectus femoris, and are allegedly a developmental novelty seen only in hominids (Lovejoy et al. 2009). These traits have led some to claim that Oreopithecus was a hominid, or at least bipedal. Without getting into that debate, I’ll just say that seeing these ‘bipedal’ features in this late Miocene ape’s pelvis weakens the case that their presence in Ardipithecus ramidus indicates a unique connection between Ardi and later, true hominids like australopiths.

UPDATE: Check the comments for notes on the Ardi and Oreo fossils from someone who’s actually studied them (I myself have only seen pictures and read about them).

Lovejoy, C., Suwa, G., Spurlock, L., Asfaw, B., & White, T. (2009). The Pelvis and Femur of Ardipithecus ramidus: The Emergence of Upright Walking Science, 326 (5949), 71-71 DOI: 10.1126/science.1175831

Rook, L. (1999). Oreopithecus was a bipedal ape after all: Evidence from the iliac cancellous architecture Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96 (15), 8795-8799 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.96.15.8795