There’s really no getting around it – anatomy is a challenging subject. It’s not just the enormous number of names to memorize. You also need to remember the relative locations of scores of organs and muscles and internal spaces and such, which gets even more complicated when you consider that many of the shapes and spatial relations inside an animal can change when muscles contract. In short, doing 3D reconstruction in your head on the fly is really hard.
So when I was doing the research for my paper on male alligator reproductive anatomy, I deliberately dissected the pelvic region of each of my specimens from a different direction: I worked on one alligator from the belly upwards, another from its back downwards, and two from the flank inward. Each direction helped me build a better picture of how muscles wrap around the cloacal space and where tendons and ligaments thread through the system and attach to bone. But I still don’t know what all of those structures look like when the phallus is in its “functional” position. I think that some of those muscles squish the cloacal wall into a different shape, but it’ll take a lot more work, some luck, and really good scientific visualization methods to find out for sure.
That’s one reason I’m excited about Mieke Roth’s crowdfunding campaign. Her goal? -- to spend a year dissecting Nile crocodile specimens in John Hutchinson’s lab at the Royal Veterinary College and turning her drawings and notes into a detailed 3D computer reconstruction of this magnificent beast. All of it. Head to tail, skin to gut lining. Her fantastic octopus reconstruction is a testament to her skills, and I for one would love to see her succeed in this larger (much larger!) endeavor -- and not just because she’ll let me help out when she gets to the cloaca.
Detailed anatomical reconstruction of the sort Roth is proposing is fairly rare for large animals: they're far too big to stick inside a microCT scanner (a technique that's given us high-resolution virtual models of the anatomy of small invertebrates), so detailed reconstruction tends to focus on one 'region of interest'. So we have projects like Larry Witmer's fantastic Visible Interactive Alligator giving us a detailed picture of the head, or Colleen Farmer's beautiful 3D reconstructions of alligator lungs, while other areas of the crocodilian body remain something of a mystery. You can help change that.
Check it out: Ultimate Croc Anatomy: IndieGoGo - by Mieke Roth