Coordinating and completing any special issue of a major journal like The Anatomical Record is a Herculean task. But it was one that paleontologists and guest editors of the recent Anatomical Record 800-page special issue on crocodiles, Emma R. Schachner and Casey M. Holliday took on and successfully accomplished.
Schachner, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at LSU Health in New Orleans and Holliday, an associate professor at the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, both have been members of AAA for over a decade–and have worked together in labs, including stints with Peter Dodson at the University of Pennsylvania and in Larry Witmer’s lab at Ohio University.
And they both share a fascination with crocodiles. “Crocodiles are a gateway species to science, everyone is intrigued. Even kids like them. Dinosaurs are considered the gateway to understanding evolution but you’re looking at skeletons, while crocs seem like a living fossil. You can go look at them in a zoo,” Schachner said.
“Yeah, they’re super cool. They’re really derived. They have these flat heads and all their eyes and ears are on top of their heads. They’ve had that skull shape for 180 million years now, Holliday agreed.
“We both come from labs where we were trained up to be analog and digital morphologist,” Holliday noted. “Both of our advisors trained us to know how to dig into animals using experimental or physiological techniques like Emma did with live alligators and then imaging them. And I learned how to read CAT scan data of head anatomy while also learning how to dissect little nerves and muscles in tiny animals in Larry’s lab. We both had to take all these anatomy skills and knowledge from living animals and apply that to old dead animals to figure out how they work.”
Not only are crocodiles intriguing, they’re also integral to the study of other species, particularly those in the Archosauria clade. “For me, it’s because I started off working with dinosaurs, and they’re the sister group,” Schachner said. “Usually, any paleontologists interested in dinosaur biology are going to be interested in birds and crocodilians. It’s the two halves, the two parts of the same question.”
Crocodiles, while still mysterious to most people, are also still evolving and adapting to their environment. For example, today’s crocodiles are actually more cold-blooded than their ancestors. “Really, we’ve had a Renaissance in crocodile biology over the last 20 or so years, in that we’ve started to recognize that they’re not living fossils but instead they’ve actually been constantly evolving over last 60 million years without dinosaurs around and even before,” Holliday said.
The new special issue of AR devoted to crocodiles came about in part because of the recent dinosaur special issue. “I’d been bugging Jeff Laitman about a special issue similar to the dinosaur one,” Holliday said. “We wanted to bridge the gap between extant crocs and fossil crocs and everything in between.”
One of the coolest aspects of the special issue is the cover artwork, according to Holliday and Schachner. Luckily, AR had a budget for cover art. “We came up with a list of five artists that we liked their style and someone we could afford with the money we got, and we found Hank Sharpe,” Holliday said. “He’s an up-and-coming artist who had made nice drawings of dinosaurs before, and we came up with the layout and animals we wanted, and we got that cover.”
Sharpe also provided an additional image. “Another part of the deal was I wanted an image of the anatomy as well, so Hank gave us two pieces of art, including one with lungs, muscles and nerves. The two images are overlayed together.”
The perks of working with The Anatomical Record goes beyond an occasional artwork budget, Holliday noted. While other journals limit the length of submissions or charge a publishing fee, The Anatomical Record does not. “Good science and good stories often require open ended page links and color publications that you don’t necessarily have to pay for to get published,” Holliday said. “AR provides really great editorial support, but also full color and no page limit. They’ve been really generous throughout this process.”