Osteology Everywhere: Vertebral Incidens

Try as I might, I can never escape osteology. Never. Just the other day, I was walking through my school’s expansive, boneless atrium, when these haphazardly scattered letters stopped me in my tracks:

2016-02-09 16.26.31

DЯSTUDENSN

Amidst this alphabet soup, there it was, calling out to me. Whispering. Longing….

Untitled

Ah, the dens. What is the “dens” you ask? It is a special little projection on a special little bone, the second cervical vertebra (C2). Why is it special? Well, most vertebrae look pretty similar to one another, with a body in the front being held in awkward embrace by a bony neural arch in the back.

 

But not the first two vertebrae, C1 and C2. No, these rebels are spinal celebrities. C1, whose rock name is “Atlas” (presumably in honor of its favorite episode of Wishbone) cradles the skull’s occipital condyles on its concave shoulders. Lacking a true body or centrum, Atlas viewed from the top resembles the gaping maw of a manta ray:

Top: Manta ray. Bottom: Atlas viewed from top, anterior is on the bottom (from Scheuer and Black, 200). A and F refer to the age at which the bony portions appear and fuse, respectively.

Top: Manta ray. Bottom: Atlas viewed from top, anterior is on the bottom (from Scheuer and Black, 2000). A and F refer to the age at which the bony portions appear and fuse, respectively.

Atlas is a jerk and so it sits right on top of C2, whose rock name is Axis (after the second album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience). More gawky and angsty than Atlas, Axis differs from the rest of the vertebrae in having an extension, the dens, which reaches skyward to boop the inside of Atlas’ maw:

Top: Axis viewed from the front. Bottom: Axis getting pwnd by Atlas. Modified from White et al. 2012.

Top: Axis viewed from the front. Bottom: Axis getting pwnd by Atlas. Modified from White et al. (2012).

The most distinctive feature of Axis, aside from its smoldering adolescent rage, is the dens (or odontoid process). If you find a bone fragment that is verily vertebral and has a perpendicular projection, you can bet good tenge you’ve got an Axis. Even a densless fragment can be distinguished from all other vertebrae by its superior articular facets, which are rather flat and face mostly superiorly.

What I thought would be a casual jaunt after class last week turned out to be a horrific reminder of the most amazing vertebrae. This must be  how Scott Williams always feels.

Osteology Everywhere: Why we number our premolars 3-4

Portishead* came on the radio the other day, making iTunes display the cover of their album, Third. My inner osteologist rejoiced to see it prominently features a tooth!

Third album cover by Porthishead (2008). Image from Wikipedia

Well not a picture, but rather the name, of a tooth. In each quadrant of your mouth (most likely) are two premolars, commonly referred to as “bicuspids.” In the biz, we usually call these pals,  “P3” and “P4.”

UW 101-1277 mandible, part of the Homo naledi holotype skull. Modified from the Wits media gallery.

UW 101-1277 mandible, part of the Homo naledi holotype skull. Each capital letter stands for the tooth type (incisor, canine, premolar, and molar). Modified from Wits’ image gallery.

You might be wondering why we call them P3 and P4, when there are only two premolars per quadrant — what happened to P1 and P2?  Homology to the rescue!

The ancestral mammalian condition was to have four premolars (and a 3rd incisor) in each side of the jaw. This is a “dental formula” of 3-1-4-3, indicating the numbers of each tooth type from front to back. Over time, different groups of animals have lost some of these teeth. Baleen whales have lost all of them.

P1 and an incisor were lost early in the evolution of Primates. Most Strepsirrhines and New World monkeys retain this primitive”2-1-3-3″ dental formula :

Ring tailed lemur (left) and woolly monkey (right) maxillae, showing the primitive primate dental formula including a P2. For scale, gridlines are 10 mm (left) and 20 mm (right).

Ring tailed lemur (left) and woolly monkey (right) maxillae, showing the primitive primate dental formula including a P2. For scale, gridlines are 10 mm (left) and 20 mm (right). Images from this boss database.

The last common ancestor of catarrhines (living humans, apes and Old World monkeys) lost the P2, and so we have only two premolars left in each side of the jaw. These are homologous with the third and fourth premolars of the earliest mammals. And that’s why we call them P3-4.

*The song was “The Rip.” It’s a very good song with an insanely creepy and trippy video: