Josh Wallman: A Life Guided by Science and Birds.
I suppose it is natural for a neuroscientist to examine the reaction of his/her own mind when confronted with the harrowing loss of a close friend. In the present case, colleagues have noticed the fairly matter-of-fact way that I have responded so far to JoshÕs passing. I am still waiting for the hammer to fall, perhaps because my Òslow switchÓ makes me constitutionally less capable of an immediate grieving emotion. Alternatively, it is possible that the gradual approach of the inevitable demise of Josh over the final few months may have enabled the insertion of some protective steel. In what follows, I have related how my relationship to Josh grew out of our shared interest in birds and in our approach to try bringing science into life. Friends who read this commented that it emphasises the science at the expense of human feelings. But that is the way it came out of my brain, still confused about its response to this particular catastrophic loss.
Early Work on Avian Eye Movements: My friendship and collaboration with Josh began more than 3 decades ago. Less pecunious than I had been in the US, I was looking for an inexpensive search coil system to record the eye movements of exotic Australian birds. Josh had heard about this somehow and at first suggested a DIY electronics solution. In the end, he decided to come Òdown underÓ so that he could help me personally with its construction. I never got around to asking him for his motivation in travelling so far to work with a stranger, but looking back I think that the attraction was the birds. I had just published my work on owls, so the prospect of working on avian binocular vision may also have been a factor.
We studied many bird species, implanting a stainless steel wire under the conjunctiva of both eyes using a modified aneurysm needle. Perhaps the most remarkable bird was the Tawny Frogmouth, Podargus, which adopts a camouflage posture that is so effective that one can walk within a few feet without realising that the Òbroken branchÓ is actually this bird.
Josh and I discovered that the camouflage posture is accompanied by a strikingly different visual mode, where the single binocular foveas are so widely divergent that there is a blind zone straight ahead! Aborigines took advantage of this to approach the perching bird unseen from straight ahead,ÉÉ.. only to circle around if being spied by the birdÕs lateral gaze, ÉÉ..so eventually catching it by this repeated process. When a tame bird is tempted with a food item, a different mode is adopted. Both eyes swing forward so that both foveas now regard the morsel in front and there is significant binocular overlap.
The brain of the frogmouth is very owl-like, with a huge visual Wulst armed with stereo-enabling binocular neurons like the owl. This ancient owl-frogmouth link is supported by some wide-ranging molecular studies such as DNA-DNA hybridisation, although not by single gene phylogenies.
Modes of Visual Behavior In the
Tawny Frogmouth, Podargus. Josh's
search coil apparatus enabled the discovery of a binocular, frontal
mode (upper) that is adopted when a tame bird is not alarmed and is
presented with food: the divergent,
defensive visual mode (lower) is adopted along with the camouflage
posture during a threat. In the latter posture, the divergence of the
visual axes may be so great that there is a blind area straight ahead.
Two Modes of Visual Behavior
In the Tawny Frogmouth, Podargus.
Josh's search coil apparatus enabled the discovery of a binocular, frontal mode (upper) that is adopted when a tame bird is not alarmed and is presented with food: the divergent, defensive visual mode (lower) is adopted along with the camouflage posture during a threat. In the latter posture, the divergence of the visual axes may be so great that there is a blind area straight ahead.
The binocular-frontal vs. divergent-defensive modes of visual behaviour recall the two systems conceived by Karten and Hodos from their work on avian visual pathways. We prefer to give their Òthalamofugal systemÓ a different name, the geniculostriate (because the tectofugal system also has a thalamic relay and because its forebrain destination in the Wulst is an obvious analogue of the mammalian striate cortex, even showing a ÒstriaÓ in fibre stains). The geniculostriate system is the only sensory pathway to skip over the midbrain without a relay there, presumably because its binocular function would be compromised if there is too much prior processing of the monocular images before they are compared. The wiring of the tectofugal pathway (horizontal streak of highly specialised retino-tectal ganglion cells; input largely from the monocular fovea in those birds with two foveas; well-developed even in those birds lacking specialisation for binocular vision) is clearly designed for all eccentricities, not just the binocular field.
We never got around to checking the physiology to see if the tectofugal system (or part thereof) is turned off in some sense when the frogmouth is in binocular mode, and vice versa. It is a good bet that the geniculostriate system is turned off when the defensive, presumably tectofugal mode, is operative because binocular vision is an impossibility in that mode. The two systems have a problem with registration with each other, because the geniculostriate system has a hemifield representation compared with the whole field representation of the tectofugal system. This must cause some kind of clash, or rivalry, when the geniculostriate sends its massive projection back to the tectum. A neural switch between the two systems must therefore underly the striking switch in visual behaviour.
The frogmouth entertained Josh in the wild as well as in the lab. It also later earned Josh a front cover article in Nature (avian saccadic oscillations, see below).
The Chilean Connection:
Josh has had 3 brilliant Chilean PhD students over the years since 1982. I played a role in this, as I was in Santiago in 1981 and steered the first one toward Josh. He was a poet-scientist called Juan-Carlos Letelier. Having blazed the trail from Chile to JoshÕs lab in NY, Juan-Carlos was followed by Gonzalo Marin and Ximena Rojas. They all came from a very creative school of biological thought that had been created by Humberto Maturana at the University of Chile. Maturana is perhaps best remembered for his co-authorship with Jerry Lettvin and others of ÒWhat the frogÕs eye tells the frogÕs brainÓ, but is also noted for his concept and widely translated book on ÒAutopoiesisÓ with the late Francisco Varela. Maturana is still very active, in his 70s, successfully treating pain in human sufferers using philosophy!
A vivid account of the way Maturana inspired students can be found at http://biologyofcognition.wordpress.com/about/
Juan-Carlos and Gonzalo, along with Jorge Mpdozis, uncovered an extraordinary, high speed attentional system in the birdÕs midbrain that is centred on the isthmi nuclei. As often happens when a discovery is made in the Southern Hemisphere, this finding has been taken up by some in the North without due credit being given to the originators. Josh and I worked in Santiago at the Maturana lab complex with the three Chileans. I think our experiment is worth a brief description because all our data were subsequently destroyed in a fire, along with all the other data and equipment in MaturanaÕs famous laboratory.
The experiment was not too dissimilar to receptive field plotting, except that we were using single units to plot the path taken by an attentional spotlight, produced by the nuclei isthmi, as it moved over the surface of the tectum. The activation produced by the attentional spotlight has an oscillatory signature that is unmistakeable, both to oneÕs eye looking at the oscilloscope, and oneÕs ear listening to the speaker, when one is recording from a microelectrode. By placing a dozen microelectrodes over the tectal surface, we could observe their sequential activation by the ÒspotlightÓ and refer this to the equivalent spatio-temporal pattern of the spotlight in space. We had yet to define how, or even whether, the pattern might be affected by visual stimulation, but even without a visual stimulus, we could observe that the spotlight tended to start in the tectal area that corresponded to the fovea and then execute a rough spiral to activate increasingly peripheral retinal regions. This sequential pattern was repeated about 30 times/sec.
Another example of the creativity of the Chileans in the environment that Josh provided in NY was Ximena RojasÕ discovery that avian hair cells can regenerate, unlike their mammalian counterparts. Full credit must go to Ed Rubel for pursuing this important line of research, but I think that it is worth noting that the first observation may have taken place under JoshÕs influence.
Perhaps the most bizarre phenomenon that Josh and I worked on, along with Chris Wildsoet, is the saccadic oscillation shown by all birds. During the jump, or saccade, from point A to point B, the eye movement of a bird oscillates rapidly around the rough optical axis of the eye. The frequency of the oscillation is a function of the eye size, with the tiny eye of a zebra finch oscillating at 60 Hz and the large eyes of nocturnal birds like owls and stone curlews oscillating at around 10 Hz. We put this uniquely avian feature together with another one, the avian pecten, a beautiful folded vascular structure that projects into the eye like a keel from the region of the optic nerve head. It is well known that the pecten provides the major nutrient supply and waste disposal for the inner avian retina, which lacks its own blood supply like the retinal circulation found in the more complex, thicker, mammalian retinas. If diffusion from the pecten is the main source of nutrients and the main exit for wastes, a significant problem would be the time taken for diffusion. In the large eyes of nocturnal birds, unassisted diffusion from the pecten to the edge of the retina would take many minutes. We reasoned that the oscillating pecten would act as a stirrer, like the rotor in a washing machine, to facilitate diffusion. The stirring would be helped by the fact that the posterior third of the avian vitreous is liquid, unlike the gel found further forward in birds and completely filling the vitreous of other vertebrates. The experiment we did was simpleÉÉfluorescein angiographyÉÉand had a striking result. Fluorescein accumulated around the base of the pecten between saccades, but was distributed across the whole retina during the oscillations of a saccade. The frogmouth was crucial for our success because it suppressed saccades for long periods when it was in its defensive mode, a behaviour that had presumably been selected to reduce the conspicuity of its large yellow irises when under threat in the camouflage posture. In chickens we found that the intersaccadic interval was too brief to see clearly what happens to the fluorescein between saccades.
Hans Ussing was the living expert in biological diffusion processes and invented the famous Ussing chamber. When he visited and heard our story about saccadic oscillations, he laughed in astonishment. ÒOnly evolution can have invented such a bizarre solution to a problem, but I believe that you are right in your interpretationÓ.
Nature shared a similar viewpoint to Ussing and published the study, along with a front cover.
Avian Model of Myopia:
If one uses as a guide the difficulty we experienced in getting Australian grant support for working on myopia in chickens, JoshÕs greatest accomplishment must be the wide acceptance of his avian model system for studying myopia. The rapid growth of the chick eye means that one can gather data on the control of eye growth in weeks, as opposed to the years required to acquire similar data in primates. The significance of the problem is brought home by the fact that virtually every adolescent in Singapore and Hong Kong has myopia. A fundamental understanding of this excessive eye growth phenomenon is a key to any progress in prevention. Josh deserves full credit for having provided the superior avian model system that offers the best hope of providing fundamental knowledge that could underpin a preventative strategy.
One significant advance made by Josh in this area was the realisation that the eye itself is capable of regulating its own growth locally, without any intervention from outside influences, such as the brain. There was an Aussie connection here, as Chris Wildsoet and I were interacting with Josh at the time. Teams in both countries carried out different experiments showing that eye growth control was local. We showed that excessive eye growth continued apace, even when the optic nerve was sectioned. At the same time Josh and team showed that excessive growth could be produced in a localised area of the eye if patterned vision was prevented thereÉÉ. but growth was normal in the same eye in the region with patterned visual input. The discovery of local growth control marked a turning point in the field, which is presently waiting for another such turning point, one that will doubtless be delayed by JoshÕs passing.
Rock Art In the Kimberley:
Bradshaw paintings are restricted to sheltered walls of Kimberley sandstone in NW Australia and have a delicate technique that betrays a precise observation of the natural world, as well as the ability to depict it. While on an expedition to the Kimberley with Father Anscar MacPhee and Marilyn Nugent, Josh and I discovered a depiction of small megabats of a species that is not presently found in Australia. None of the 7 extant megabat species in Australia has a white stripe on its face like those in the clear rock art depictions. This kind of rock art is controversial because it is not clear who was responsible, nor when, although there is little doubt that they are very old, from the Pleistocene. I now devote myself full-time to the study of this rock art and have had numerous fruitful conversations with Josh, whose open and brilliant mind always helped my investigations to progress.
The spiritual connection:
I have gone into a lot of detail about the experiments that I shared with Josh because they are important parts of my memory. We both had a great love of birds that helped to ignite our efforts in the lab, but this was a source of joy and solace for both of us in the wild as well. We were both Òslow switchersÓ who sometimes suffered from the moody blues, although I was more likely to switch the other way, toward mania. Josh had found a number of solutions for the blues, of which ÒneophiliaÓ was paramount. He would seek out some completely new activity, challenging if possible. Travel to an exotic location often featured. Both of us could be lifted by wild birds, so the combination of a new avian, and a new exotic, experience was especially therapeutic. I can remember occasions where I received from Josh an email photo of some unusual bird he had taken in an unusual location, like the batrachostomid frogmouth from Malaysia. This was a distant relative of the much larger Australian frogmouth, Podargus, that was so important for the success of our early experiments together. One might say that our connection to birds was a spiritual one which may offset the matter-of-fact nature of this piece.