I don’t teach during the UMass Amherst summer session, but that doesn’t mean I get to spend three months sunbathing in my backyard. As soon as I turn in my final grades, the frenzy of experiments begins – basically everything I don’t have time for during the school year (because I’m, y’know, teaching) gets crammed into the weeks between May and September. This year, I spent the end of May in Louisiana, where I met up with one of my collaborators to work on a 3D anatomical atlas of the alligator cloaca.
This is part of a larger project examining the evolution and function of archosaur reproductive systems: right now, we want to define how the cloacal muscles, blood vessels, and the phallus are oriented relative to one another. And because it's really challenging to define these relationships by dissection alone, we used a modern imaging technique to try to get a more precise picture of the cloaca in situ. In short, we ran 7-foot long American alligators through a CT scanner.
Why so big? We needed mature animals, and alligators don't become sexually mature until they're more than 6 feet long. (These animals were actually on the small side for adult males, but we were also limited by the size of the table in the CT scanner!) So we were lucky to have the expert help of both the wildlife biologists at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge and the vets and technicians at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine for this part of the project. I was amused to see how excited the students were to see what we were doing -- vets-in-training kept stopping by the imaging suite to watch us work.
Of course, collecting the data is just the first step: we’ll be analyzing the images and building 3D computer models for months to come. But it was a particularly thrilling first step.