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Fantastic Bloody Pigeon! (Or Hitchcock Nightmare)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 5, 2017

Bloody pigeon (Photo: Wellcome Images/Scott Echols)

Bloody pigeon (Photo: Wellcome Images/Scott Echols)

The Wellcome Trust presents an annual award for scientific imagery, and two of this year’s winners (above and below) caught my eye for the new ways in which they reveal the natural world.  Think of the one above as new insight into the cardiovascular system of living (and extinct) dinosaurs.  Or just a bloody pigeon.

Here’s how The Guardian‘s Nicola Davis describes it:

Open-beaked against a jet-black background, the image of a bird leaps forth, a frenzy of red-and-white squirming lines hinting at its form. It looks like a still from a Hitchcockian nightmare. “It looks so cross, sort of squawking at you,” says Catherine Draycott, head of Wellcome Images.

In fact, the eerie shot is the product of

data captured during a CT scan; the hectic lines are the blood vessels inside a humble pigeon. “It is fascinating because of the way it shows the incredible density of blood vessels around the collar area, around the base of the neck,” says Draycott,  pointing out the secret of the pigeon’s ability to regulate its internal temperature.

The picture was captured by Scott Echols, a veterinarian and president of Scarlet Imaging, as part of an ongoing endeavour known as the Grey Parrot Anatomy Project, which aims to develop ways to aid diagnosis and treatment for a host of animals, from birds to humans.

But the image isn’t just an arresting testament to the ingenuity of mother nature – it is also a tribute to scientific innovation. As Echols explains, using CT scans and contrast agents (substances to improve the visibility of things inside a body) to map blood vessels is a tricky business. “I had a student and we were working with what was considered at the time the best agent to look at the cardiovascular system,” he says. “And at some point the material exploded – it exploded all over me and, more concerning, all over my student – and left a mark on the wall like a crime scene where you have a body and a chalk outline.” Even more worrying, the contrast agent was toxic. “It was a mixture of lead, cadmium, mercury – horrible stuff,” says Echols.

In a bid to find a non-toxic alternative, Echols began concocting various experimental mixtures. The result was a contrast agent known as BriteVu. “That pigeon represents one of the earlier images after we figured out how to get the formula right,” says Echols. “It circulates through all the blood vessels to the capillary level, so you can see every single capillary in the body.” Echols says that the image is limited only by the capability of the CT scanner. “That particular pigeon was scanned at 100 microns, so you are seeing a fraction of the vessels that are there,” he says. “If we were to scan it in greater detail you’d see even finer vessels.”

The upshot is a technique that offers the chance to explore cardiovascular systems in three dimensions. But the success hasn’t been limited to birds. “We ended up testing the product on different animals and since then we have discovered anatomy no one knew existed,” says Echols, adding that all animals used in the project are already diagnosed as having terminal conditions.

But while the image, and the technique behind it, is shedding new light on anatomy, Echols, a former wildlife artist, hopes it will also captivate those outside the lab. “One of the beauties of art is that it brings out something inside of you maybe you didn’t even know was there, a curiosity, a past memory – whatever it may be,” he says. “I hope it brings out that inner curiosity that I believe is in all of us.”

To find out about the Hawaiian bobtail squid, below, check out the Guardian article.

(Photo: Wellcome Images/Macroscopic Solutions)

(Photo: Wellcome Images/Macroscopic Solutions)

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