October 9, 2015
Since I posted my preprint “Almost all known sauropod necks are incomplete and distorted” and asked in the comments for people to let me know if I missed any good necks, the candidates have been absolutely rolling in:
- The Kaatedocus siberi holotype SMA 0004 (thanks to Oliver Demuth for pointing this out)
- The Futalognkosaurus dukei holotype MUCPv-323 (thanks to Matt Lamanna)
- The referred Rapetosaurus specimen FMNH PR 2209 (Matt Lamanna again)
- The as-yet unnnamed DGM ‘Series A’ titanosaur from Peirópolis (Matt Lamanna again)
- The Camarasaurus lewisi holotype BYU 9047 (thanks to John D’Angelo)
- Dicraeosaurus hansemanni — the mounted “m” specimen, probably MB.R.4886 (thanks to Emanuel Tschopp)
- Maybe some Omeisaurus specimens (Emanuel Tschopp again)
I will be investigating the completeness of all of these and mentioning them as appropriate when I submit the revision of this paper. (In retrospect, I should have waited a week after posting the preprint before submitting for formal review; but I was so scared of letting it brew for years, as we’re still doing with the Barosaurus preprint to our shame, that I submitted it immediately.)
So we probably have a larger number of complete or near-complete sauropod necks than the current draft of this paper suggests. But still very few in the scheme of things, and essentially none that aren’t distorted.
So I want to consider why we have such a poor fossil record of sauropod necks. All of the problems with sauropod neck preservation arise from the nature of the animals.
First, sauropods are big. This is a recipe for incompleteness of preservation. (It’s no accident that the most completely preserved specimens are of small individuals such as CM 11338, the cow-sized juvenile Camarasaurus lentus described by Gilmore, 1925). For an organism to be fossilised, the carcass has to be swiftly buried in mud, ash or some other substrate. This can happen relatively easily to small animals, such as the many finely preserved stinkin’ theropods from the Yixian Formation in China, but it’s virtually impossible with a large animal. Except in truly exceptional circumstances, sediments simply don’t get deposited quickly enough to cover a 25 meter, 20 tonne animal before it is broken apart by scavenging, decay and water transport.
Secondly, even when complete sauropods are preserved, or at least complete necks, distortion of the preserved cervical vertebrae is almost inevitable because of their uniquely fragile construction. As in modern birds, the cervical vertebrae were lightened by extensive pneumatisation, so that they were more air than bone, with the air-space proportion typically in the region of 60–70% and sometimes reaching as high as 89%. While this construction enabled the vertebrae to withstand great stresses for a given mass of bone, it nevertheless left them prone to crushing, shearing and torsion when removed from their protective layer of soft tissue. For large cervicals in particular, the chance of the shape surviving through taphonomy, fossilisation and subsequent deformation would be tiny.
So I think we’re basically doomed never to have a really good sauropod neck skeleton.
October 7, 2015
Well, I’m a moron again. In the new preprint that I just published, I briefly discussed the six species of sauropod for which complete necks are known — Camarasaurus lentus (but it’s a juvenile), Apatosaurus louisae (but the last three and maybe C5 are badly damaged), Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (but all the vertebrae are broken and distorted), Shunosaurus lii, Mamenchisaurus youngi and Spinophorosaurus nigerensis.
I did have the wit to say, in the Author Comment:
Although I am submitting this article for formal peer-review at the same time as publishing it as a preprint, I also solicit comments from readers. In particular I am very keen to know if I have missed any complete sauropod necks that have been described in the literature. In the final version of the manuscript, I will acknowledge those who have offered helpful comments.
Happily, several people have taken me up on this (see the comments on the preprint), but one suggestion in particular was a real D’oh! moment for me. Oliver Demuth reminded me about Kaatedocus — a sauropod that we SV-POW!sketeers love so much that it has its own category on our site and we’ve held it up as an example of how to illustrate a sauropod specimen. More than that: we have included several illustrations of its vertebrae in one of our own papers.
Aaanyway … the purpose of this post is just to get all the beautiful Kaatedocus multiview images up in one convenient place. They were freely available as supplementary information to the paper, but now seem to have vanished from the publisher’s web-site. I kept copies, and now present them in the conveniently viewable JPEG format (rather the download-only TIFF format of the originals) and with each image labelled with its position in the column.
Please note, these images are the work of Tschopp and Mateus (2012) — they’re not mine!
C15 (and the rest of the skeleton) is missing, which makes this a very nearly, but not quite, complete sauropod neck.
- Tschopp, Emanuel, and Octávio Mateus. 2012. The skull and neck of a new flagellicaudatan sauropod from the Morrison Formation and its implication for the evolution and ontogeny of diplodocid dinosaurs. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 11(7):853-888. doi:10.1080/14772019.2012.746589
October 6, 2015
I have a new preprint up at PeerJ (Taylor 2015), and have also submitted it simultaneously for peer review. In a sense, it’s not a paper I am happy about, as its title explains: “Almost all known sauropod necks are incomplete and distorted“.
This paper has been a while coming, and much of the content will be familiar to long-time readers, as quite a bit of it is derived from three SV-POW! posts: How long was the neck of Diplodocus? (2011), Measuring the elongation of vertebrae (2013) and The Field Museum’s photo-archives tumblr, featuring: airbrushing dorsals (2014). It also uses the first half of my 2011 SVPCA talk, Sauropod necks: how much do we really know? (and the second half became the seed that grew into our 2013 neck-cartilage paper.)
So in one sense, publishing this is a bit of a mopping up exercise. But it’s also more than that, because I think it’s important to get all these observations (and the relevant literature review) down all in one place, to help us recognise just how serious the problem is. There are, to a first approximation, no complete sauropod necks in the published literature. And the vertebrae of the necks we do have are crushed to the point where trying to articulate them is close to meaningless.
I’m not happy about this. But I think it’s important to face the reality and be honest with ourselves about how much we can really know about sauropod necks. There’s a lot we can do in a qualitative way, but most quantitative results are going to be swamped in supposition and error.
October 4, 2015
Preprints are in the air! A few weeks ago, Stephen Curry had a piece about them in the Guardian (Peer review, preprints and the speed of science) and pterosaur palaeontologist Liz Martin published Preprints in science on her blog Musings of Clumsy Palaeontologist. The latter in particular has spawned a prolific and fascinating comment stream. Then SV-POW!’s favourite journal, PeerJ, weighed in on its own blog with A PeerJ PrePrint – so just what is that exactly?.
Following on from that, I was invited to contribute a guest-post to the PeerJ blog: they’re asking several people about their experiences with PeerJ Preprints, and publishing the results in a series. I started to write my answers in an email, but they soon got long enough that I concluded it made more sense to write my own post instead. This is that post.
As a matter of fact, I’ve submitted four PeerJ preprints, and all of them for quite different reasons.
1. Barosaurus neck. I and Matt submitted the Barosaurus manuscript as a preprint because we wanted to get feedback as quickly as possible. We certainly got it: four very long detailed comments that were more helpful than most formally solicited peer-reviews that I’ve had. (It’s to our discredit that we didn’t then turn the manuscript around immediately, taking those reviews into a account. We do still plan to do this, but other things happened.)
2. Dinosaur diversity. Back in 2004 I submitted my first ever scientific paper, a survey of dinosaur diversity broken down in various ways. It was rejected (for what I thought were spurious reasons, but let it pass). The more time that passed, the more out of date the statistics became. As my interests progressed in other directions, I reached the point of realising that I was never going to get around to bringing that paper up to date and resubmitting it to a journal. Rather than let it be lost to the world, when I think it still contains much that is of interest, I published it as a pre-print (although it’s not pre- anything: what’s posted is the final version).
3. Cartilage angles. Matt and I had a paper published on PLOS ONE in 2013, on the effect that intervertebral cartilage had on sauropod neck posture. Only after it was published did I realise that there was a very simple way to quantify the geometric effect. I wrote what was intended to be a one-pager on that, planning to issue it as a sort of erratum. It ended up much longer than expected, but because I considered it to be material that should really have been in the original PLOS ONE paper, I wanted to get it out as soon as possible. So as soon as the manuscript was ready, I submitted it simultaneously as a preprint and onto the peer-review track at PeerJ. (It was published seven weeks later.)
4. Apatosaurine necks. Finally, I gave a talk at this year’s SVPCA (Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy), based on an in-progress manuscript in which I am second author to Matt. The proceedings of the symposium are emerging as a PeerJ Collection, and I and the other authors wanted our paper to be a part of that collection. So I submitted the abstract of the talk I gave, with the slide-deck as supplementary information. In time, this version of the preprint will be superseded by the completed manuscript, and eventually (we hope) by the peer-reviewed paper.
So the thing to take away from this is that there are lots of reasons to publish preprints. They open up different ways of thinking about the publication process.
October 3, 2015
For a forthcoming minor paper, I need a good-quality scan of Hatcher’s 1901 monograph on Diplodocus carnegii — specifically, plate VI, the photographs of the cervicals in posterior view.
Here is the best scan I have of it:
(Click through for full resolution.)
If anyone has something better, please leave a comment or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
We’re delighted to host this guest-blog on behalf of Richard Butler, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and guru of basal ornithischians. (Note that Matt and I don’t necessarily endorse or agree with everything Richard says; but we’re pleased to provide a forum for discussion.)
Dear friends and colleagues within the SVPCA community;
I am posting here courtesy of Mike and Matt with two objectives. First, I would like to provisionally offer Birmingham as a venue for the 2017 SVPCA meeting, with a host committee of myself, Ivan Sansom, and our postdocs and students. I propose to host the meeting at the University of Birmingham and the Lapworth Museum of Geology, following the latter’s redevelopment and reopening in 2016. Second, I would note that this offer is conditional on the implementation of some changes in SVPCA organisation that I believe will help secure the future of the meeting, while retaining its current atmosphere. Although I have already discussed these proposed changes with many colleagues via email, a broad scale and open consultancy and discussion within the community is needed, hence this post and open comment section.
Despite the apparent success of recent meetings, there are a couple of factors that give me substantial concern about its future. There is a trend, noted by several people, toward increasing disengagement from a large component of the early postdoctoral career and established academic community, with many of these individuals (including myself) attending SVPCA less and less frequently. Numbers provided by Richard Forrest show a small but steady decline in the number of people paying full registration (i.e. non-students) over the last five years. Having discussed this with a number of colleagues, it is clear to me that it stems from multiple reasons, including meeting length and structure, ever-increasing time constraints, and competition with the myriad other meetings such as PalAss, SVP, EAVP, ICVM etc. This disengagement is worrying for a number of reasons, but perhaps most pressingly because it is exactly this part of the vertebrate palaeontology community who are generally expected to organise the meeting in future years.
I am also concerned that people are not queuing up to organise the meeting. We are just about getting by from year to year, but offers are sparse at exactly a time when there are almost certainly more vertebrate palaeontologists employed in the UK than ever before. Why is this? Well, taking on the organization of SVPCA in its current form is not exactly attractive in the current academic world of REF, impact, museum cuts, and the ongoing marketization of universities, with charges for the use of lecture theatres and other spaces increasing rapidly. The meeting is long relative to its size (particularly when SPPC is considered) and its budget is low, and the lack of any formal organization to SVPCA means that there is limited support or continuity from year to year. Hosting it is unlikely to substantially enhance your CV, but it will certainly impact negatively on your other outputs (i.e. papers, grant applications) for that year. We risk reaching a point in the near future where there is no-one willing to host the meeting and the meeting grinds to a halt.
My proposal is that the meeting could bear a small degree of formalisation and modernisation without losing its character, and doing so would ease pressures on hosts. Following discussion with a broad range of colleagues within the SVPCA community, I am proposing that a small SVPCA steering group be established as part of the planning for the Birmingham meeting. This steering group could be established in a simple, representative, democratic, cost-free, and light-touch manner. This group would not need to meet in person other than at SVPCA itself so there would be no financial cost. There would then be an open and democratic basis for deciding upon the future of the meeting and ensuring continuity from year to year.
This committee could come up with an agreed list of recommendations for how the meeting should be organised in the future, addressing topics such as meeting length, the role of SPPC, the relationship of the meeting to PalAss (who already provide significant financial and logistic support), the abstract review process, and innovations such as lightning talks, workshops and keynotes. It could also find solutions to the significant logistic issues to do with bank accounts, payments and the like, all of which place unnecessary strain on the local organisers. Local organisers would still have considerable autonomy, but they would receive more support.
As an initial proposal I suggest a small committee that attempts to represent the different communities that make up SVPCA. The last and next meeting hosts should be on, as well as perhaps five additional elected members, serving limited terms, to represent the student, early career researcher (up to 10 years post-PhD), senior academic, museum, and non-professional communities. Pretty much all of the feedback from colleagues for this idea to date has been positive. Note that this does not imply the formation of a formal society (although that would be an option that a steering committee could discuss), and nor does it challenge many of the aspects of SVPCA that so many of us find attractive, such as its friendly atmosphere or the absence of parallel sessions. I hope it will provide a framework for us to continue to promote scientific excellence and drive up standards in UK vertebrate palaeontology, and help secure the future of the meeting for the next 60 years. I would love to hear any opinions that the community has on this proposal, and the future of SVPCA more broadly.
September 30, 2015
Here’s the last post (at least for now) in the Fighting Apatosaur Art series — and we’re back to Brian Engh, who we started with.
Early in the process of putting together artwork to illustrate our apatosaur neck combat hypothesis, Brian tried out a whole bunch of outlandish concepts. Here are two that he showed us, but which were too speculative to push forward with. First, necks as big, floppy display structures:
As a piece of art, I really like this one: the boldness, the vivid contrasts, the alien quality of the animals. But as a palaeobiological hypothesis, it doesn’t really work: so much of the neck morphology in apatosaurs is to do with absorbing ventral forces that soft-tissue display structures down there don’t make a whole lot of sense.
Here’s the other one — which Brian titles “Apatosaur inflato-porcupine fish neck-bag”.
I particularly like the way the theropod being rolled around on the ground and repeatedly spiked. It’s no more than it deserves.
Does the idea of an inflatable neck make sense? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were sauropods that did something like this — plenty of extant animals inflate parts of their body for display purposes, after all — but I don’t think it would have been apatosaurs. Again, the characteristic features of the neck don’t seem well matched to this scenario.
Well, that’s all the apatosaur neck-combat art we have. If there’s to be a part 7 in this series, it will be made of artwork that you, dear readers, have contributed. Fire away!