Monday, April 16, 2012

The Question of Dissection

While I was bored waiting for one of my computer programs to run for my physics final project, I came across this video on This video shows the leading technology in virtual dissection, but I still don't think it comes anywhere close to the real thing. Have a look:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How does Councillor Krespel have to do with the history of German science?

In class we have been reading about the early nineteenth century when the focus on the visual is changing to an emphasis on the auditory and the power of sound. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Councillor Krespel is a story based on this principal. Each character is moved and swayed with music, persuaded and tempted by sound, and they all contribute further to the ethereal force of music that drives the events in this story.

Krespel is an interesting man to say the least. His wild intellect and uncouth mannerisms define the outward appearance of his character, but much gentle emotion lies beneath his surface. A man who cared little for visual aesthetics, Krespel had a passion for music and sought ever better instruments and sounds throughout his early years. It is quite obvious that Krespel’s life is surrounded by music: it is the force that drives him from place to place, it directs important events of his life, it is used to express Krespel’s emotions. His passion for music brought him his daughter, and took her away. In Krespel’s life, music is fate. Hoffmann writes of Krespel’s story to convey the power of sound. Hoffmann’s story opposes the classical idea of recognition through sight that stories like The Odyssey or Oedipus convey. The story is meant to incite the idea that that which is visual and timeless is not all that can affect somebody. That which seems insubstantial, a passing moment in time, can cause great pleasure, or pain.

The use of this concept in Councillor Krespel is indicative of the time period in which it was written. This piece of early nineteenth century literature shares the same philosophy commonly adopted in the science of the time. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s eye opening work of fiction allows us to adopt this point of view through a short story in which sound drives the characters, music creates drama, and song produces death.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Brain Dissection

Today in class we had the pleasure of dissecting and observing the brain of sheep. Needless to say, it was interesting and gave study of the brain a whole new perspective. Just as we had spoken about during a visit to the Anatomy Lab, hands on experience is debated by many - some argue the need to do real dissections in order to learn anatomy while others find other methods (books, virtual dissections, etc) suffice just as well. Personally, I find hands on dissections on real corpses/organs necessary to truly understand anatomy and prepare oneself for say medical school. Understanding the texture, the true size, color, and the imperfections of the body is important and can only be gained through dissecting a real body.

oh hi joey

professor agnew; don't ever hand in assignments late or else.

i eat brains

a day in the class of German 378! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Two Different Histories

It's interesting to think of something as presumably set in stone as history as being subject to alteration under modern viewpoints, but depending on how you look at it, history can actually change drastically. Such is the case in a reading we just had, which talks about the difference between anachronical history and diachronical history, and the proper applications of each.

Anachronical history is a look at history in which one tries to place that history in the context of what we know now. Conversely, diachronical attempts to take a modern perspective out of the study of history, and to understand historical events within the bounds of their own eras.

Anachronical history is not without it's advantages. For one think, it's almost impossible to study history without at least a tint of a modern viewpoint, and an anachronical history can provide a historian with the means to see an entire chain of progress in a very specific study without it seeming disjointed. However, I think that there are more advantages to a diachronical history, because this seems more realistic, and could allow for a greater understanding as to why certain individuals in the past did what they did. Diachronical history also, as I see it, provides a more complete history, because it includes facts that we might now otherwise consider to be unimportant.

Overall, I think that the past should be viewed with a perspective that is partly anachronical and party diachronical, so one can have the best of both. No matter how we view it, I think that the study of history is and will continue to be indispensable moving forward.

-Christopher Hoef

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Question of Gender Roles

One of the more recent readings that we have had to do for this class was of a book's chapter that was titled Science and Gender. It brought up the arguments held by some science historians that the history of science is filled with sexism towards female scientists, and even that science is sexist in how it is structured. One main argument for this contention is that science has seemed to view nature as something to be exploited, reputedly a strictly masculine viewpoint, and in fact, some historians who refer to this tendency have proposed that a separate, female scientific field be created that gives greater care to nature and the environment. I like the premise, but something bothers me about this whole consideration.

This whole idea has caused me to wonder exactly what makes a certain contention more feminine or masculine? Why must a feminine science place so much focus on nature? It places a lot of trust in the idea that women should care about nature, and that seems awfully stereotypical to me, so why is this viewpoint actually encouraged by feminists?

I think that the gender roles that exist have purely social causes, and have almost nothing to do with the innate nature of one's gender. I think that men and women would have generally the same interests if certain social stigmas didn't tell us "you're a woman, so you have to act this way," or "you're a man, so here are a list of things you are forbidden to like." The whole idea troubles me in spite of the fact that it is so ingrained in our society.

But then again, maybe I have a limited viewpoint, so I ask of anyone reading: what do you think of this? Do you think men and women are innately drawn to or away from certain interests? Or are these affected by social stigma? Do you have a different view entirely? Please let me know about your opinions, because I would really enjoy reading them!

-Christopher Hoef

Monday, March 19, 2012

Accidental Discovery: The Microwave

Sometimes I wonder about how the things I use on a daily basis were created.  One such item is the microwave.  I decided to type into the Google search engine, "creation of the microwave".  The history I found was a great surprise to me because the microwave was created due to an accidental discovery.  Scientist, Dr. Percy Spencer, was testing out a new vacuum tube the magnetron, and he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket melted.  He decided to test this consequence further by putting popping corn near the tube, and it popped!  He further tested the properties of the magnetron and created the microwave.

Sometimes important inventions to society are not created by actively searching for them (i.e. a box shaped contraption that quickly heats food), but by making observations.  Spencer made the observation that when he was by the magnetron, the candy bar melted.  He continued off of that observation and created a very useful kitchen appliance.  If Spencer did not have a candy bar in his pocket that day, we might not have microwaves around today.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Body Worlds" and the Ultimate Goal of Anatomy

Upon reading Peter M. McIssac's Article Gunther von Hagen's Body Worlds, one phrase in particular struck me as very interesting, and perhaps very insightful. In the exhibit, human corpses, treated in such a way as to rid them of liquids and odor, are displayed for public viewing and study. McIssac states of "Body Worlds," "von Hagen's strategy can... be read as showing his exhibition to be a culminating moment in the traditions of anatomical display" (McIssac 170). I found the use of the phrase "culminating moment" to be most interesting, as it implies that "Body Worlds" has achieved the ultimate goad of anatomy and anatomical display - almost an achievement of perfection in the field, if you will. It's interesting, because one does not often consider perfection to be attainable, but this case got me thinking about what the Ultimate Goal of Anatomy could be.

First I considered what the Ultimate Goals of other fields might be, and they seemed to follow a pattern. The Ultimate Goal of physics, for instance, is to fully and completely understand all physical interactions in the universe - and I mean all of them - and the Ultimate Goal of medicine is to understand the nature and cure of all diseases. Therefore, the Ultimate Goal of anatomy would be to understand everything about the functions of the human body's organs, and the Ultimate Goal of anatomical display would be to show the human body and these organs without any hindrance, a goal that "Body Worlds" seems to achieve.

In this way, perhaps "Body Worlds" really is the fulfillment of the Ultimate Goal of anatomy and anatomical display, truly making it truly the "culmination" of these fields and perhaps even comparable to perfection. Certainly, anything that can be stamped as "perfect" can be considered a considerable achievement.

-Christopher Hoef

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A little unorthodox?

Perhaps some of you may have already been aware, but this is news to me.. Francis Crick was high under the influence of LSD when he discovered the structure of the double helix DNA.
It is interesting, very interesting to read about one of the greatest discoveries of all time - a discovery that has opened endless possibilities allowing great progress in biology - being discovered as a result of acid. Although I do not condone doing LSD, Crick did and expressed that it allowed him to access his brain in ways that people who don't normally do acid wouldn't otherwise be able to.

"'Dick Kemp told me he met Francis Crick at Cambridge. Crick had told him that some Cambridge academics used LSD in tiny amounts as a thinking tool, to liberate them from preconceptions and let their genius wander freely to new ideas. Crick told him he had perceived the double-helix shape while on LSD.' "

article about double helix discovery under LSD here

Now you shouldn't go taking acid before your biology exams following Crick's example, but it is quite ironic to see how something very harmful and bad for you, has also led to such an important scientific/medical discovery.

Look towards the Stars.

It's really surprising to think about how much astronomy has changed throughout history. It was four hundred years ago when Galileo first pointed his telescope towards Jupiter making the discovery that other bodies in space do not only orbit the earth. It wasn't until 1922 that Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe extended outside of just our own galaxy. Now, using the most advanced astronomical equipment in the world we have been able to find nearly earth like planets orbiting other stars. So far using the Kepler space telescope, astronomers have found over 700 of these exoplanets. Recent statistical analysis has shown that there are even more rocky earth-like planets than there are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn. This is why I believe that within the next 100 years, man will find life on other planets. This idea excites me because the repercussions of finding extraterrestrial life would be immense.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Humboldt Current

On his expedition to South America, Alexander von Humboldt discovered a natural occurrence which, even today, influences various aspects of the weather and biodiversity off the coast of Peru and Chile. Now referred to as the Humboldt current it influences the weather in two ways. The first of these is that it acts as an environmental cooling mechanism. Secondly, it is so large that it has established an overall dry environment around the coast near which it can be found. The Humboldt current is also recognized for its consistently abundant delivery of nutrient-rich water. For this reason, the Humboldt current is responsible for sustaining a wide variety of marine plant, microbial, and animal species. Because of the variety of meteorological and biological impacts this current has on the natural environment near the coast of South America, its name accurately reflects the broad scientific interests and aspirations of its discoverer, who dedicated his career to the study of unity among a multitude of scientific fields.

The American Heritage Science Dictionary via The Free Dictionary


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Erradicating Extinction?

The article "Future of Zoos: Cloned Animals, Robots and Cageless Habitats Under Consideration" by the Huffington Post addressed the possibility of bringing back extinct species of animals via preserved DNA.  Some believe that through cloning animals that became extinct could be brought back.

I think that there are a lot of ethics that must be carefully debated before bringing back any extinct species.  First off, what species would be brought back?  Only ones that were extinct by human means or also those extinct due to natural circumstances?  Second, the consequences of reintroducing the species into the wild would have to be examined.  It is likely that the extinct animals' niches in their former habitat have been filled by some other organism.  Lastly, who would have the supreme control and play the role of "God" in determining what gets to walk on this earth?  That is a power no one person should hold.

Some may think that it would be neat to have a wooly mammoth roaming the earth once again or even just bringing back a recently extinct animal such as the dodo, but serious ethical questions must be examined before any action is taken.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Humboldt Park

Over spring break I went on a trip to Chicago, IL. While there, my friend and I explored Chicago with no real structured itinerary. We happened upon a park on the northeast side of Chicago I believe, called Humboldt park. This park, named after Alexander von Humboldt, is also home to a monument of Humboldt himself.

I cannot get the picture to rotate, but that is Humboldt himself. It was just funny because had we not talked about him in class recently, I would not have recognized the name or known the significance of this monument!
The park is beautiful and one should take a visit if nearby.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Comparative Anatomical Analysis of Neovison vison & Chinchilla lanigera


Neovison vison (the American mink) and Chinchilla lanigera (Chinchilla) are both small mammals from the wild. Currently, there are two existing species of mink and chinchilla. The North American sea mink was hunted to extinction[1], and Chinchilla chinchilla is currently facing extinction[2].

The American mink is native to North America and because of past and present human involvement, its habitat has largely expanded to Europe and South America. Especially in American history, minks were hunted for their desirable fur. Only later was domestication practiced and minks used for household purposes as well.

The chinchilla is native to a much smaller habitat in South America in what are now Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. Like the mink, chinchillas were hunted for their fur, which caused their populations to dwindle drastically. Unlike its carnivorous counterpart, however, hunting of chinchillas continued toward the end of the 20th century, threatening its preservation status[2].

In order to compare the two species, which seemed relatively similar at first glance, skeleton preparations were carried out under the auspices of the University Of Michigan Museum Of Zoology. Skeleton preparations have a lengthy history and are intimately tied to the beginnings of the modern museum. In the modern era, they are used by zoologists, for example, in identifying fossil bones and tracking evolution.

From the skeletons and dentition, evolutionarily adaptive functions were extrapolated and used to explain current niches in their respective habitats. With additional literature, the current biological and evolutionary historical context of the mink and chinchilla were investigated and then compared. Of primary concern was understanding evolutionary strategy in relation to functional anatomy.

Materials & Methods

A preserved mink and chinchilla were graciously provided the University Of Michigan Museum Of Zoology. The chinchilla received was domesticated, and it is believed that the breed originated from Chinchilla lanigera[3]. Both animals were skinned and stripped of their fur coats before removing all internal organs with the exception of the brain and eyes. Fur and organs were then discarded. Carcasses were then set in a dermestarium, where carrion-eating dermestid beetles (Dermestes maculatus) stripped the bones of remaining soft tissue[4]. Depending on the condition of the preserved animal, cleaning the bones may have lasted from a few days to a week for satisfactory results. After this period, the bones were thoroughly examined and assembled using glue and wire.

Noted difficulties with skinning the mink included removal of tail fur and the anal glands. The potent chemicals stored in the anal glands, if nicked, could cause severe olfactory discomfort not only for the preparer but also for those in his/her immediate and distant vicinities.

The given chinchilla had been preserved in the freezer for many years and was thus heavily freezer-burned. Particular hardships were noted with skinning the tail and limbs and removing the fur entirely from the skull. Miniscule amounts of fur therefore remained on the paws, tip of the tail, and nose. Sawdust had to be used in order to soak up fluids leaking from the deteriorated viscera while the fur continuously shed itself. After skinning, the carcass had to be soaked in water for almost an entire week before it could be considered degradable in the dermestarium[4].


Biological Context of Neovison vison

The American mink is found throughout the United States and is also present in most areas of Canada with the exception of the Arctic coast and some islands. The British Isles are also a range for the American mink, where they pose a potentially serious problem for native wildlife because they are non-native predators. The most optimal habitat for the mink is an area with access to brushy or rocky cover in close proximity to streams, ponds, or lakes[5].

The coveted fur of a mink is primarily a darker brown, and often includes white patches on the chin, chest, and throat areas. The thick fur coat is waterproofed by oily guard hairs, and their toes are partially webbed; both of these showing the mink’s ability to live a partially aquatic lifestyle (natatorial). Their long and slender bodies usually range from 46 to 70 centimeters, approximately half of this coming from tail length. Usually, the females are noticeably smaller than males, ranging between 0.7 to 1.1 kilograms, as compared to the males which range between 0.9 and 1.6 kilograms as full-grown adults[5].

During the winter months, the estrous cycle readies the female mink’s fertility and mating begins; the mink becomes sexually mature at around ten months. The gestation period for the American mink is usually between 40 to 75 days, resulting in live birth around the months of April or May. The litter size typically ranges between one to eight newborns, each weighing in at around 8 to 10 grams. The mink is born with a thin coat of white fur covering its underdeveloped body. The young are able to open their eyes at just over three weeks, and are finally weaned at week six. It is not until the fall till the mink leaves its mother to go about establishing territory of its own. The typical lifespan of mink in the wild is ten years[5].

The mink usually lives alone (solitary), as the males do not get along, and the boundaries of their homes are marked using secretions of their anal glands. The American mink is both nocturnal and natatorial; they are proficient swimmers and can dive to depths of five meters to hunt for prey. The mink lives in either self-made burrows in riverbanks, lakes, and streams or may also utilize the dens of other mammals. Interestingly, their burrows are often lined with dried grass and leaves on the inside, along with a proud display of the fur from their prey. Mink communicate heavily through chemical signaling for territorial issues and mating, but may also rely on visual and auditory signaling; they have a keen sense of vision, gustation, and hearing[5].

As a member of the order Carnivora, Neovison vison has a fleshy diet varying by season. During the warmer months, the diet includes crayfish and smaller frogs, as well as small mammals like the shrew, rabbit, mouse, and muskrat. Alternatively, the mink also preys on fish, duck, and other water fowl, and primarily small mammals in the winter months. They play an important role in helping to maintain a balance in the ecosystem because they are such active predators. On the other hand, the American mink does not have many predators to avoid. Humans continue to be deadliest for the mink, but they are hunted by coyotes, bobcats, and other carnivores occasionally (including snakes and birds of prey). Like most species in the mustelid family, the mink is aggressive and fearless, not hesitating to defend itself against larger animals. It is no question that these animals are secretive in nature, and their cryptic nature (well-camouflaged) helps confirm their overall avoidance of most predators[5].

Humans continuously prove to be most dangerous towards the American mink, and because of this humans have devised tactics to keep the population densities constant. Trapping seasons are limited and quotas on catch size are in effect. As with all animals, human destruction of habitat always remains a concern, and contaminants such as mercury can accumulate in the mink’s tissues, causing further complications[5].

The nature of the mink’s fur allows the animal to thrive in such temperate weather throughout North America. The insulation provided by the fur of the mink should allow it to withstand the bitter temperatures of winter in the north. In addition to the thickness of the coat, the oils used to waterproof the animal make the animal more adapt for harsh winters and survival in general. Because water is a much better conductor than air, one would expect the mink to lose far too much body heat in the bitter months of winter if its coat was not waterproofed. In addition to helping N. vison maintain body temperature, the waterproofed coat would reinforce the animal’s agile avoidance of predation because it would prevent the additional water-weight from becoming a burden to carry.

The mink has also adapted to its predatory nature though its interaction with others. Because other minks pose a threat from a competitive standpoint, the solitary behavior of the mink is well-purposed. In addition to competing for prey, finding a mate also gives reason for such independence. The time for a mink to leave its mother also seems quick, and this is yet another support for the species’ need for competition-based independence.

As an altricial species, bearing many underdeveloped young per birth, the newborns are expected to survive because minks are not prey to many. Not being able to open their eyes till over three weeks into life, it is clear that the way the mink has adapted has to do with its nature as a predator.

Biological Context of Chinchilla lanigera

The desire for chinchilla fur has reduced the geographic range of the chinchilla to the mountains of northern Chile. The climate is best described as dry, arid and sandy[3]. In the high elevation, they live in dens such as crevices or holes. Said fur is dense and soft, with single follicles producing up to 60-80 hairs alone[6]. Color will vary from animal to animal. The head is typically broad and the external ears are large. Other characteristic traits include large, black eyes and vestigial cheek pouches (functional ones are found in other rodents such as the golden hamster). All feet have four phalanges and weak claws[6].

It is a sexually dimorphic species with males weighing around 500 g and the more massive females at around 800 g. Typical head-to-tail length is around 22.5-38 cm with the tail taking up the majority of the length, 7.5-15 cm[6]. Females are socially dominant and during estrous appear very aggressive towards both sexes. Despite this, serious scuffles are uncommon. It’s also a mostly monogamous species, breeding between May and November. The gestation period lasts for 111 days, somewhat longer than most rodents. Two litters with two to three young a litter are expected each year. The young are well-developed (precocial) at birth and reach sexual maturity after 8 months, allowing them to breed within the year. Life expectancy in the wild is about 10 years, with domestic life expectancy reaching over 20[6].

C. lanigera is quite social and exists usually in herds of over 100 individuals. This allows for mutual grooming and cleaning. They are mainly nocturnal but have been observed being highly active in the daylight[6]. Its diet consists mainly of grass and seeds and vegetation as filler. On occasion, they feed on insects and bird eggs but only when imminent threat is low. Besides humans, predators include foxes, birds of prey, felines, and snakes[7].

Human involvement beginning since the Inca Empire has drastically reduced the population of the chinchilla and its range. Despite attempts to stimulate reproduction, the population remains low and is on the decline. The species is considered critically endangered and there are no strong theories as to why the population continues to decline[2].

The extremely dry climate has shaped the appearance and size of the chinchilla. Living in the semi-desert of the Andes, chinchillas are small and extremely furred. Their size allows them to dissipate heat efficiently while their unique fur allows them to retain it during colder times. Their size and coating reduce water demand and loss, respectively. Divergence from other rodent lines has reduced the size and use of their cheek pouches, possibly indicating a climate-influenced shift in diet back in its evolutionary past.

With many natural predators, the chinchilla has developed many methods of evasion. Living in a herd allows for additional protection. If a threat is encountered, defense mechanisms in order of severity are as follows: standing up on hind legs to appear larger and to confuse, vocalizing while showing off incisors, grunting and using its paws to shove away the threat, airborne urination coupled with releasing odors from the anal glands, biting, and running away. If the predator bites the hide, the chinchilla will simply shed its hair and run or jump away[8]. Not only that, but the physical maturity of the chinchilla at birth is comparable to that of the adult, giving them less vulnerability early on.

Biological Comparisons: N. vison & C. lanigera

The chinchilla belongs to the mammalian order of Rodentia, a mostly herbivorous group known for their gnawing habits. Out of all mammals, rodents are most diverse and comprise the largest portion, at least 40%[9]. Characteristically, they are relatively small in size. The upper and lower pairs of incisors grow all throughout their lives, preventing long-term wear from the diet. Behind these is a large diastema or gap. There are no canines and in their stead are premolars or molars[9]. Next down in the taxonomy is family Chinchillidae and genus Chinchilla.

The mink belongs to the order Carnivora, which mostly includes carnivores. Animals in this order have evolved traits which allow them to hunt effectively. Members often bear teeth specialized for cutting soft tissue. Heightened senses and larger brains are also common features which are vital in hunting[10]. Next down in the taxonomy is Mustelidae, also known as the weasel family, and after that, the genus Neovison.

Upon searching the literature, it was revealed that the chinchilla also has anal glands. While the mink uses the glands to mark territory[5], the chinchilla uses them for defense[8]. This is not a result of divergent evolution because many mammals have such an organ located near their anus. However, usage has been adapted among certain species for specific purposes. For example, dogs will use it to mark territory as well as identify other dogs in the vicinity[11], whereas the skunk famously uses its anal glands to defend itself against predators.

Further comparisons in height and weight reveal that the mink is approximately twice the length and body mass of the chinchilla in both sexes. The limited number of chinchillas has decreased the genetic variation among the herds and perhaps has restricted range of weight. Chinchillas have denser fur, with two to three times the hairs per follicle when compared to the mink, which has 9-24 through one opening in the epidermis but each has its own follicle[12]. The density of fur in the chinchilla is related to its defense mechanism, as it can willingly shed its fur if bitten to escape a predator’s grasp[8]. It is also vital in preventing moisture loss in its arid environment. The mink, in contrast, is semi-aquatic and therefore, the fur is adapted to be water resistant and does not require a mechanism against drying out.

Upon comparing osteologies, the functional and phylogenetic differences become much more apparent. As typical of carnivorans, the mink skull has a sagittal crest, though less pronounced when compared to other species, as well as defined temporal attachments. The orbits are oriented forward, positioned for binocular vision, and the dense skull has a larger cranial capacity. Finally, upon examining the mandible, the coronoid process is noted to be very prominent, dominating the upper portion of the ramus, and the mandibular condyle is low-set. The sagittal crest, forward-oriented orbits, larger cranial size and jaw shape are all typical of this order[13]. They all aid in hunting prey. The sagittal crest and jaw shape indicate strong biting force and large vertical mobility while the orbit position helps with depth perception. The brain size is related to their intelligence and cunning when it comes to hunting[10]. For the chinchilla, the skull is much lighter and less dense, with bones forming cavities of air. In contrast to the mink, it appears more gracile and has no sagittal crest whatsoever because of its simple herbivorous diet. Were its diet to include more fibrous foods or plants, a sagittal crest would also be present. Position of the orbits in this skull is more lateral. The cranial capacity is smaller, which could indicate a less intelligent animal. This, however, is not reflected in its social nature. The mandible is vastly different in function and form. While the mink has a highly defined coronoid process and a low-set mandibular condyle, the chinchilla mandible has a thin ramus with both features present. The motion is restricted more so in the vertical plane but freer in the horizontal plane. This allows the animal to process the fibrous foods in its diet more. The mink has a typical (incisor, canine, premolar, molar) maxillary dental and mandibular dental pattern[14]. The canine here is the most pronounced of the teeth, sitting right next to three small incisors. They are useful in grasping flesh while the incisors chop. The third maxillary premolar and first mandibular molar are morphologically complementary and the largest teeth after the canines. They are known as the carnassials because of their blade-like structure and shearing capabilities[15]. Because the mink has little to no horizontal mastication, the teeth tend to be narrow and sharp. The reduction of post-carnassial molars, which are used for crushing and grinding, indicates the adaptation of the mink to a carnivorous lifestyle. In stark contrast, the chinchilla has an identical maxillary and mandibular dental pattern of[9]. The incisors here are incredibly pronounced, as is with most rodents. Behind these incisors, there is a large, non-functional diastema and no canines. Throughout carnivoran evolution, diastemata served as gaps in the gumline so that opposing canines could fit, allowing the mouth to close comfortably. However, diastemata are also common where teeth have been left out of development, such the chinchilla and other rodents lacking canines entirely[9]. The premolar and molars are aligned in even rows with minimal grooves and serve to grind rather than tear. Chinchillas eat grasses and seeds for the most part and do not require vertical motion but rather a more flexible horizontal motion for processing tougher foods. One particular feature unique to rodents is the lifelong growth of incisor enamel. The foods encountered in the diet are surprisingly not the only cause of this adaptation. The mutual grinding of the top and bottom pairs actually sharpens one another, effectively creating better gnawing tools[16]. Both the food and grinding wear down the enamel quickly, and it must be replenished throughout its life.

From the mink skeleton, a total of 49 vertebrae are present – 27 cervical to lumbar, 3 sacral, and 19 tail. The chinchilla has a total of 49 vertebrae as well – 26 cervical to lumbar, 3 sacral and 20 tail. The thoracic vertebrae are where the two species differ, as the mink has 15 pairs of ribs and the chinchilla has 13. In the mink, they are attached to a proportionally longer sternum composed of a manubrium, 8 sternebrae and one xiphoid process. The chinchilla ribs are attached to only 5 sternebrae along with the manubrium and xiphoid process. The difference in number could be due to functional differences. The mink is adapted for swimming and diving and requires higher oxygen intake for its physical demands. The lungs need to be larger, which in turn requires a larger thoracic cavity. The vertebrae of the mink in general are much thicker, especially the spinous processes, which indicate stronger muscle attachments.

The bones of the mink arm are particularly robust when compared to that of the chinchilla. The humerus, radius and ulna are not only thicker, but they have pronounced muscle attachments, indicating heavy use. The shoulder and elbow joints also have higher degrees of freedom in movement. Both fall along the line of their use in swimming as well as hunting. Chinchillas mainly gather food and do not require heavy use of the arms. The humerus is shorter in contrast to the radius and ulna, which are practically fused. These bones are much thinner in comparison and are fragile. The chinchilla tends to move only in the sagittal plane of motion whereas the mink needs movement in at least two planes to hunt, swim and dive. Finally, being carnivorous, the mink has claws to help capture prey, sometimes nearly as large as itself. The chinchilla has small forepaws to deal with much smaller items, such as seeds and blades of grass.

Both sacra are attached to relatively flat pelves. The chinchilla pelvis, however, is much longer and has much longer iliac alae. The mink pelvis, like the rest of the skeleton, is dense and compact. It is speculated that the mink pelvis stays short in proportion to its body length in order to maintain its mobility. The mink faces both terrestrial and aquatic obstacles, and a smaller pelvis increases lateral movement. Chinchillas tend to move linearly and their pelves tend to be longer and larger in proportion to body size. It is speculated that the length assists in this unidirectional movement.

The leg bones of the mink are approximately equal in length and robusticity. As is expected with the forelimbs, they are pronounced from heavy use. The leg bones of the chinchilla, however, differ drastically in length and use. The femur is shorter than the tibia and the fibula is practically non-existent, which indicates lack of weight-bearing responsibility. The change of proportion in body length is associated with functionality, as the chinchilla leaps away in confrontations. The longer tibia allows for a better jumping motion.

The hind feet of the mink are adapted for swimming and are approximately the length of its tibia. This again aids in its partially natatorial lifestyle, as the feet are typically webbed. The low force to area ratio is related to its heavier weight. The hind feet of the chinchilla are narrow and adapted for terrestrial life. The opposite effect is seen here: the hind feet have a high force to area ratio because the animal is lighter. This also aids in the jumping escape that is so common with chinchillas.

Concluding Remarks

By looking at the biology of an animal, one can draw conclusions about its functional structure. These may not all be correct, but they are made intelligently based on observations. Throughout the history of science, this exact ‘observe and speculate’ process has been used to further the workings of the natural world. Preparing a mink and chinchilla skeleton and doing an extensive literature search on the biology of the two species almost created a puzzle, and it was with inference and speculation that conclusions were drawn to fill in the gaps. With more extensive knowledge in the respective fields, more accurate conclusions could be made about the two species; however, the main intent of this investigation was to improve critical thinking, especially within the disciplines of osteology and mammalian biology, by going through the exercise of skeleton preparation and analysis. These skills can then be applied to other scientific fields, and it allows early work in determining function by looking at structure and scientific discovery in general to be more appreciated.

Special thanks to Dr. Phil Myers and Dr. Stephen Hinshaw for their support, giving us access to their facilities and allowing us to perform a skeleton preparation. Without it, this project would not have been possible. Dr. Vanessa Agnew we thank especially because without her, this project would not have existed in the first place. She has critically altered our perspectives on the history of science and science itself.


1. Wund, Matthew, and Philip Myers. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, "Class Mammalia." Accessed December 17, 2011.

2. D'elia, G. & Teta, P. 2008. Chinchilla lanigera. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. .

3. Animal World, "Chinchillas." Accessed December 17, 2011.

4. Hinshaw, Stephen. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, "Dermestarium." Accessed December 17, 2011.

5. Schlimme, Kurt. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, "Neovison vison." Accessed December 17, 2011.

6. Hendricks, Colette. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, "Chinchilla lanigera." Accessed December 20, 2011.

7. Chinnie Chin Bin, "The History of Chinchillas." Accessed December 17, 2011.

8. Deane, Amy. Field Trip Earth, "Searching for Wild Chinchillas." Last modified January 23, 2008. Accessed December 17, 2011.

9. Lewis-Clark State College, "Rodentia." Accessed December 17, 2011. lectures/Mammals of the world/rodentia.htm.

10. ZonotriKia, "Carnivora." Accessed December 17, 2011.

11. Ruben, Dawn. PetPlace, "Structure and Function of the Anal Glands in Dogs." Accessed December 17, 2011.


12. Kaszowski, Sylwester, Charles C. Rust, and Richard M. Shackelford. "Determination of Hair Density in the Mink." Journal of Mammalogy . 51. (1970): 27-34. (accessed December 17, 2011).

13. Bureau of Information and Education, Pennsylvania Game Commission, "Examining Predator and Prey - Carnivore, Herbivore and Omnivore." Accessed December 17, 2011.

14. Aulerich, Richard J., and Daris R. Swindler. "The Dentition of the Mink (Mustela vison)." Journal of Mammalogy. 49. (1968): 488-494 . (accessed December 17, 2011).

15. Bels, Vincent L. . Feeding in domestic vertebrates: from structure to behaviour . Cambridge, MA: CABI Publishing, 2006. of minks&ots=6TLdKJzP5B&sig=aHl- (accessed December 17, 2011).

16. Hurst, J.L., (1999). Introduction to rodents. In: The UFAW Handbook on the Care and Management of Laboratory Animals, Vol. 1, Terrestrial Vertebrates, 7th edn. Ed. Poole, T., pp. 262–273. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Brief History of Surgery

For this History of Science class, our final exam can take the form of a research project/experiment. For mine, I am planning on delving into a research project with one of the pediatric urology surgeons I work with at U of M's hospital.

I have always been fascinated by the history of surgery, and how it has evolved over the years, so I thought I would share some of the more interesting parts with the readers of this blog.

Surgeons and doctors were considered very different in the Middle Ages: doctors went to university and got a degree to practice medicine, while surgeons were apprentices, and learned their trade through practice. Surgeons were called Mr. _______ instead of Dr. _________. One of the surgeons I work with practiced in England, and still has his nameplate that says Mr. _________.

Surgeons' primary responsibilities were pulling teeth and setting broken/dislocated bones.

Aseptic techniques for surgery were developed by Joseph Lister in 1867 with his book Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery.

Surgery is often advanced during war, when desperate times call for desperate measures. For example, amputations were experimented with during wartime, especially in the Civil War.

There are many others to check out if you are left curious by this post. Surgery is a fascinating field, and advancements are constantly being made to make surgeries safer and more comfortable for patients.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mammal Skulls

I recently had the opportunity as part of this class to take a look at the skulls of different mammals, and it was an interesting look into how these skulls some in a great variety of shapes, but that a similar shape may still apply to many mammals. In this case, I decided to split up the types of mammal skulls into three. I could have made more or fewer divisions, but at the time I decided to split them into these three categories: land quadrupeds, marine mammals, and primates.

As I decided to classify it, land quadrupeds are obviously characterized by the tendency to live on land and to walk on four legs. Additionally, they typically on fields or mountains, or tended by humans. These type of mammals include goats, giraffes, wolves, and cats. As for their skulls, the length of the skull is usually about twice that of the height, and the snout is fairly elongated.

Next, I designated marine mammals to be those mammals like dolphins and whales that, as would be expected, live in the ocean. These skulls are even more elongated, as it is not uncommon to see these type of skull be three or more times as long as they are tall. Additionally, the snout is very long and thin and actually can make up more than half of the skulls extreme length.

Finally, primates include humans, in addition to all the human's close relatives like chimpanzees or apes that generally live in rain forests. Primate skulls are far more rounded than the skulls of the marine mammals or land quadrupeds, as they have a length that is about equal to their height.

All in all, this is how I, as a layperson, decided to classify these animals based on their skulls. I know that this was mainly only based on two criterion: length of the skull in relation to the height, and general habitat of each mammal, but considering the context, I felt like I did an alright enough job.

-Christopher Hoef

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

After Galvin

Galvin was the first of many scientists to experiment with electrophysiology. His experiments with frogs legs opened the door for other scientists to draw conclusions about physical processes of humans. Several 20th century scientists (Ken Cole, Howard Curtis, Louis Lapicque, Alan Hodgkin, and Bernard Katz) contributed ideas which coincided to prove that neural cells operated via an action potential (Li, "The History of Medical Stimulation). Basically, our neurons are charged, and electrochemical messages are transmitted to our brain when ions travel through the neural cell membranes and change the internal charge. A more recent innovation in electrophysiology is EMS (electrical muscle stimulation). The human body is known to work better under stress, so when placed under electrical stress, muscles become more efficient. This is why athletes often undergo EMS to improve their athletic performance (Li, "The History of Medical Stimulation"). It's cool how Galvin's curiosity and the experiments which resulted from such intrigue led to so many breakthroughs in the field of animal physiology.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Stumbling upon science...

Can you believe that one of the greatest drugs discovered in history was found by accident?  In 1928 Alexander Fleming noticed in his lab that there was mold on one of his plates of bacteria, and around the mold there was an absence of bacteria (  I have been taught throughout my life that Fleming had discovered penicillin, the wonder drug, but I did not know that he discovered it by accident.  It is truly amazing to me is that Fleming was not actively testing mold as an agent to kill bacteria.  He merely discovered it due to his lab being messy.  Based on this one observation, the bacteria free ring around the mold, he was able to make one of the most important scientific discoveries in history.  Many lives would be saved because of Fleming's accidental discovery.  It just goes to show that sometimes the best science can come from making observations of mistakes or accidents.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Modern Physiognomics (Sort of)

Part of one of the readings that we had for Friday discussed the old study of a field called Physiognomics, or as the reading describes it, "body criticism." Physiognomics proposed that a person's entire character, or who he or she "really is" internally, could be determined simply by how he or she looked externally. The field was involved with mystic beliefs, with a central one being the belief in a Glass of Momus, or a window into a person's soul that only a trained eye could perceive.

Although this field, as it originally was, has gone the way of Alchemy and disappeared, a new kind of Physiognomics has actually developed, as new studies show that it is actually possible to assess certain aspects of a person's character based on his or her external appearance. For instance, in general, men with wider faces are considered to be more aggressive, as a wider face is an indication of having more testosterone. Additionally, a person with a liberal political viewpoint is more likely to be able to keep eye contact in conversations than a person with a conservative political viewpoint. Between this and many others, the core ideas of Physiognomics actually work.

Therefore, direct comparisons can be made between early Physiognomics and more modern Physiognomics, but there are many differences between the two, as well. While early Physiognomics focused more on mysticism, modern Physiognomics is based on scientific studies and concrete scientific explanations, like hormones and DNA. Modern Physiognomics also doesn't try to determine universals in character based on external qualities. While old Physiognomics sought to learn everything about who a person "really is," modern Physiognomics is conducted with the full knowledge that what they determine is made up of generalizations rather than blanket statements - i.e. not all men with wide faces are aggressive.

All in all, I found it to be an interesting take on how an old study has been revitalized and adapted based on modern science.

-Christopher Hoef

American Eugenics

So since we were able to view prominent examples of eugenics found throughout European history, I decided to look up examples of eugenics in the United States. What I found was shocking. American eugenics ranged from focus on eliminating occurrences of diseases such as epilepsy, to traits such as general weakness. One of America's most influential inventors, Alexander Graham Bell, even admitted that deaf people should not be allowed to marry in order to eliminate deafness (Remsberg). Humans were compared to animals in the sense that the "best" were "purebred." Eugenics is one of those practices which truly shows the extent of societal misconceptions regarding humanity, and I believe it to be an important focal point in scientific history and in the shaping of our ethical belief systems today. The link below also has an interesting slideshow depicting images of American eugenics, for those who are curious.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Day Einstein Died

Here is a really cool photo story about Einstein's funeral. Only one
photographer attended the funeral. His photos did not run, however, because the family asked the editor of Life to not publish them to allow the family to grieve in peace. Would today's magazine editors not run the photos?

I enjoy the caption on photo six:
Friends and family make their way to their cars after the service for Einstein. The ceremony was brief: Einstein's friend Otton Nathan, an economist at Princeton and co-executor of the Einstein estate, read some lines by the great German poet, Goethe. Immediately after the service, Einstein's remains were cremated.

Should the Nazi Research Data Be Cited?

"I don't want to have to use this data, but there is no other and will be no other in an ethical world"
- John S. Hayward, University of Victoria in British Columbia

 In 1984, Kristine Moe wrote an article, for The Hastings Center Report addressing this very issue. A number of opinions can be found in the article, including those of scientists currently involved in hypothermia research. The scientific community seemed quite divided at the time (and most likely still is); some charged that the research had no validity while others claimed it was indispensable. The author ultimately decides that we should not "let the humanity of the experiments blind us to the possibility that some good may be salvaged from the ashes." What do you think?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Causes of Harm to the Eye

The eye is truly a wondrous organ. The eye’s amazing complexity is perfectly suited for its sole purpose: to perceive light. After dissecting a cow’s eye and getting a first hand look at the intricacy of its structure I began to wonder, what happens when something goes wrong. There is a myriad of diseases, deformations, and malformations that can seriously impair the function of the eye. These conditions are not only attributed to the eye itself since vision is sense comprised of connections between the eyes, visual pathways and the brain.

Myopia, hyperopia, cataracts, and color blindness are just a few conditions attributed directly to problems with the eyeball itself. These conditions occur quite frequently and can be caused by many genetic and exterior factors. One very specific type of eye infliction that I found quite interesting is the “A-bomb cataract.” These cataracts are formed when one directly observes the blast of an atomic bomb without any type of visual shielding. The intense radiation from the blast ionizes the water in the victim’s eyes causing the formation of powerful reducing agents that damage the protein synthesis and DNA causing cataracts. The picture shown is an example of radiation cataracts. These types of cataracts were seen in some of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in WWII. Victims developed the radiation cataracts after exposure to radiation from up to two kilometers from the blast. The development of the cataracts was not instantaneous though. Some patients were diagnosed with the infliction 25 years after the bombings.

While much can go wrong with the eye in its development or through its regular usage, it is comforting to know how much modern medicine can do to treat it. Now even the completely blind can see again by sending visual information through cameras directly into the brain, bypassing the eye and the optic nerve. I find the eye truly fascinating. The specialization of each individual part of the eye is perfectly developed so that we can accurately perceive our surroundings. This is why I am very grateful that modern medicine can protect our vision from the many things that cause it damage.