No One Expects the Comparative Anatomist

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Upcoming television series on PBS: Inside Nature’s Giants, begins January 18th at 10 PM.

Professor Joy Reidenberg is an unlikely TV star. She’s a comparative anatomist with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Physically, she is diminutive, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and not the sort of slender sylph in morphotype that TV producers seem to favor. But Joy has deep anatomical knowledge and a gift for communicating what she knows, and that led the producers of the documentary series, “Inside Nature’s Giants”, to feature Joy in their program.

(Originally posted at Austringer)

Diane and I have known Joy for years as a fellow attendee of various biennial conferences hosted by the Society for Marine Mammalogy. At the latest conference, we caught up with her following the conference-end banquet. She spun us a fascinating tale of how she came to star in a television series. Joy said that she received a call from the producers early one Friday afternoon preceding a holiday weekend, asking her if she might be interested in dissecting a stranded fin whale for a television program. Sure, she said, thinking that they were prospecting and planning for a project that would be months, if not years, down the road. So the question following her “yes” response floored her: Could she be on the plane for Ireland at 6 PM? Maybe was the answer, as Joy told us that physically getting to each part of the transportation network she’d need to get her stuff and passport would stretch things. Her husband and daughter decided to join the expedition. To cut things short, Joy and family made it to Ireland, and despite various amusing misadventures, made it to the locality of the whale stranding on time. There, the documentary producers pressed her into service as liaison to the local health authorities, who had to be convinced that permitting a whale necropsy on the spot was the best way forward to safely disposing of the carcass. She also had to try to convince the police to keep people away from the body, and she reported less success on that front. In any event, Joy got to do the dissection there for the cameras, and her innate enthusiasm and ability to draw people into discussion of anatomy impressed the producers so much that she became a regular co-host on the series.

There was also the adventure of traveling back home. Diane and I have attended necropsies of cetaceans, sirenians, pinnipeds, and sea turtles, and one has to take fairly strong measures to deal with the remaining odor that clings to clothes, skin, and hair. Joy had to physically get inside a decaying whale there in Ireland, and that makes for a different scale of olfactory assault. Joy told us of taking a succession of showers with vigorous scrubbing, but in the end even her family opted to stay in a separate room at the hotel. On the plane ride back, Joy was shifted to the very rear of the plane by the flight attendants, who kindly told the other passengers that they were having trouble with the toilets to explain the stench.

The TV series, “Inside Nature’s Giants”, is slated to air six episodes on PBS, starting January 18th, 2012, at 10 PM. The series is all about charismatic megafauna, but concentrates on post-mortem anatomical examination. Check your local PBS affiliate to make sure of the schedule. Another regular on the series who should be familiar to readers is Prof. Richard Dawkins.

28 Comments

It was “Nature” or some similar program a few years back when they filmed a bear discovering a beached whale carcass. Rancid blubber heaven for the bear, it rolled in it like a dog in a pile of fish heads.

Inside Nature’s Giants is a great series; I saw some of them on YouTube. The giraffe episode is a great one to show to creationists– the ridiculous recurrent laryngeal nerve is shown to be ridiculous beyond ridiculous. The point is made that evolution can’t go back to the drawing board!

They have all been screened on UK terrestrial TV. As with all such programmes, they are padded out to fill a broadcast slot rather than edited to suit the relevant content, some episodes could be much shorter without losing anything. Probably a bit basic if you are a comparative anatomist, but worth watching for the rest of us nontheless.

Dave Lovell said:

… As with all such programmes, they are padded out to fill a broadcast slot rather than edited to suit the relevant content, some episodes could be much shorter without losing anything.

This often gets painful. A few years ago there was an episode of Nova about the evolution of flowering plants. About half of it was on paleontologists studying a fossil that was the earliest-known flowering plant. That was fine. But to fill the rest of the episode they showed a photographer wandering around mountains in southwest China photographing wildflowers that were relatives of common garden flowers. Lots of pretty pictures, but you kept waiting for him to do some actual science .… and you waited … and you waited .… It would give viewers the idea that wandering around taking beautiful photos is Science.

fnxtr said: It was “Nature” or some similar program a few years back when they filmed a bear discovering a beached whale carcass.

Then there’s the news program about the geniuses who decided to dynamite a beached whale - YouTube “exploding whale”.

Joe Felsenstein said:

A few years ago there was an episode of Nova about the evolution of flowering plants. About half of it was on paleontologists studying a fossil that was the earliest-known flowering plant. That was fine. But to fill the rest of the episode they showed a photographer wandering around mountains in southwest China photographing wildflowers that were relatives of common garden flowers. Lots of pretty pictures, but you kept waiting for him to do some actual science .… and you waited … and you waited .… It would give viewers the idea that wandering around taking beautiful photos is Science.

Taking photos of pretty and little-known flowers can be the beginning of science. Think of all the notes and drawings Darwin must have made when he was sailing on the Beagle. Was he not doing science? It would have been pointless only if he did nothing with what he found.

Joe Felsenstein said:

Dave Lovell said:

… As with all such programmes, they are padded out to fill a broadcast slot rather than edited to suit the relevant content, some episodes could be much shorter without losing anything.

This often gets painful. A few years ago there was an episode of Nova about the evolution of flowering plants. About half of it was on paleontologists studying a fossil that was the earliest-known flowering plant. That was fine. But to fill the rest of the episode they showed a photographer wandering around mountains in southwest China photographing wildflowers that were relatives of common garden flowers. Lots of pretty pictures, but you kept waiting for him to do some actual science .… and you waited … and you waited .… It would give viewers the idea that wandering around taking beautiful photos is Science.

In my opinion, looking at flowers gets painful only when you fall into the thorny or poisonous ones.

In an herbology class, I read that another one of Charles Darwin’s inspirations was looking through the illustrations of an English translation of the Bencao Gangmu (“Compendium of Materia Medica”) by the Ming Dynasty herbalist Li Shizhen

dalehusband said:

Joe Felsenstein said:

A few years ago there was an episode of Nova about the evolution of flowering plants. About half of it was on paleontologists studying a fossil that was the earliest-known flowering plant. That was fine. But to fill the rest of the episode they showed a photographer wandering around mountains in southwest China photographing wildflowers that were relatives of common garden flowers. Lots of pretty pictures, but you kept waiting for him to do some actual science .… and you waited … and you waited .… It would give viewers the idea that wandering around taking beautiful photos is Science.

Taking photos of pretty and little-known flowers can be the beginning of science. Think of all the notes and drawings Darwin must have made when he was sailing on the Beagle. Was he not doing science? It would have been pointless only if he did nothing with what he found.

Or, what about a certain Swedish botanist by the name of Carl von Linné? He accomplished a lot with his flower power, right?

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

dalehusband said:

Joe Felsenstein said: … Lots of pretty pictures, but you kept waiting for him to do some actual science …

Taking photos of pretty and little-known flowers can be the beginning of science. …

To dalehusband and the others who felt that this could have been science: the Nova program I was complaining about was called First Flower. It does not seem to be available for free viewing, but if your local library has a copy, maybe you could look at it and let me know whether the flower photography looked like it was about to blossom into science …

The flowers were a nice touch. It shows the fundagelicals that scientists are human and like flowers on the table (before they sit down and eat kittens).

Dave Lovell said:

They have all been screened on UK terrestrial TV. As with all such programmes, they are padded out to fill a broadcast slot rather than edited to suit the relevant content, some episodes could be much shorter without losing anything. Probably a bit basic if you are a comparative anatomist, but worth watching for the rest of us nontheless.

Actually, the sperm whale episode will be cut down from a 90 minute special to fit the 55 minute slot for PBS, so no useless padding! In the other episodes (Burmese python, great white shark, big cats), there is a new segment slated to be added to the end called “inside us” that will relate the relevant anatomy to human anatomy. I hope you will find it interesting!

Reminder: the first episode is on tonight!

Just saw the sperm whale episode on my local PBS station. I thought it was quite well done, and it was entertaining to see Joy in action and showing so much enthusiasm for the job.

I’m hoping that “Inside Nature’s Giants” makes a full run on PBS. Its scripts are unapologetic in presenting information in an evolutionary context. This has apparently scared off other networks in the USA before.

Thanks for the heads up Karen, that was an amazing program. Joy did a great job. She really how exciting science can be.

The only question I have is, why get Richard Dawkins on the show, just to read form the bible? Why not have him explain how whales evolved from terrestrial ancestors and what drove them back into the sea?

I sure learned a lot about whales. It makes me ashamed to be from the same species that hunts them.

DS, Dawkins did explain (briefly) that sperm whales evolved from terrestrial ancestors. That was early in the program.

Wow. I’ve never seen a woman so excited to see a whale’s penis before.

Wesley R. Elsberry said:

DS, Dawkins did explain (briefly) that sperm whales evolved from terrestrial ancestors. That was early in the program.

Thanks. Yes I know. It was about thirty seconds. He didn’t say when, why or how they went back into the sea. I think that would have been more appropriate than reading a description of a whale from the bible for five minutes. Still, they did go out of the way to mention that the bible belonged to him. I guess that’s the important thing, that everyone knows that Richard owns a bible.

Still, the show was well done and very informative. If only creationists knew the joy of learning.

I was absolutely dying for him to point out the vestigial pelvic bones, just DYING for that simple pan up and point!!!

I saw the show last night and concur with the comments of others - it was very well done, interesting, and extremely informative. Learning of the role of the spermaceti in echolocation and buoyancy regulation was fascinating. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Joy!

Mcsnebber said:

I was absolutely dying for him to point out the vestigial pelvic bones, just DYING for that simple pan up and point!!!

We didn’t focus on the pelvic bones for the sperm whale episode, because we covered that in a previous episode on the fin whale. In the UK, the fin whale episode aired first. Hopefully, if there are enough viewers in the US, PBS will buy the remaining episodes and you will get to see the fin whale too!

Joy Reidenberg said:

Mcsnebber said:

I was absolutely dying for him to point out the vestigial pelvic bones, just DYING for that simple pan up and point!!!

We didn’t focus on the pelvic bones for the sperm whale episode, because we covered that in a previous episode on the fin whale. In the UK, the fin whale episode aired first. Hopefully, if there are enough viewers in the US, PBS will buy the remaining episodes and you will get to see the fin whale too!

I am just thrilled to get a response from the good professor herself, especially after just seeing you on the episode! Your expertise, enthusiasm, love of your field and teaching skill are so on display. I am humbly your student. Catherine

In a similar vein, but at the other end of the evolutionary spectrum, the BBC screened the first of a three part series this week about some of the proverbial Living Fossils. It is available on BBC i-player until Feb 14th, and no doubt the other episodes will follow. Well worth watching. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episod[…]Great_Dying/

Dr. Reidenberg’s ability to explain anatomy in humans as well as other animals kept me mesmerized throughout the whale program last week. The python show that aired tonight was equally intriguing. I love her enthusiasm and skill; looking forward to more shows with this dynamic host! Hope PBS picks up the rest of the shows.

Prof. Joy Reidenberg gets written up by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times! Congratulations, Joy!

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This page contains a single entry by Wesley R. Elsberry published on January 12, 2012 9:12 AM.

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