Here is another beautiful but (so far) unidentifiable isolated dorsal vertebra from the Wealden Supergroup. Rather than the usual orthogonal views (anterior, posterior, lateral) this is in an oblique view: right anterolateral.

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This vertebra is one of two that, together, make up the specimen BMNH R90. For my own convenience I have assigned them lower-case latters so each can be referred to individually. I call this one R90a. R90b is pretty similar, and it seems a reasonable assumption that they are from the same individual.

As with the wonder that is BMNH R2523, I don’t know what R90a is yet. A preliminary cladistic analysis indicates that it is a neosauropod, probably macronarian and most likely somphospondylian, but that is based on very weak resolution and will quite likely change once I’ve added my suite of new dorsal-vertebra characters to the matrix.

Welcome to another SV-POW! world first: the first ever outing (to my knowledge) of a photo of BMNH R5333, an articulated set of two-and-a-bit titanosaur caudal vertebrae. These vertebrae come from the famous Wessex Formation of the Isle of Wight: they are from the Lower Cretaceous, and specifically from the Barremian. The specimen is shown here in left lateral view: contrary to what you might expect, the bulbous, convex condyle on these vertebrae is located on the posterior articular surface, while the concave cotyle is located on the anterior articular surface (see Tutorial 2 if you need help with these terms). Vertebrae that have their concave articular faces positioned anteriorly are termed procoelous, and many (but not all) titanosaurs are characterised by procoelous caudal vertebrae. Why titanosaurs had procoelous caudal vertebrae is a good question. Some dinosaur workers have suggested that the ball-in-socket articulations present here might have given their owners a particularly strong or flexible tail that they might have used as a prehensile organ, or as mobile ‘fifth limb’ used when the animals were rearing up to eat from trees.

For those of you that care, BMNH R5333 was figured (but not discussed or mentioned) by Blows (1998): other than that I don’t think it’s ever been covered in the literature. For shame!

Three big dorks

October 18, 2007

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Figure 1. Sauroposeidon proteles, eighth cervical vertebra (top) and posterior portion of seventh cervical (bottom). Mike Taylor (left) and Matt Wedel (right) for scale.

The promised land

October 15, 2007

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We promised non-presacrals and non-brachiosaurids, so here’s a diplodocid caudal vertebra in right lateral view. Most of the neural spine is blown off. The huge hole in the side of the vert is legit, though. That’s a pneumatic foramen (literally, air hole), through which air-filled tubes connected to the respiratory system entered the bone–just like in birds. More on that later. Mike and I are off to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Austin. Will you get the not-promised but so far always delivered extra post this week? Time alone will tell.

By the way, I see that I stupidly did not include any form of scale bar here. This bone is about the size of a really big toaster. If you dropped it on your foot, you’d never dance again. Not bad, considering it comes from about halfway down the tail…

In the last post, Matt promised you non-brachiosaurs, sacrals and caudals. And so I bring you the gift of … brachiosaur dorsals! Feast your eyes, gloat your soul, on the last four presacral vertebrapresacral vertebrae 4-7 of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107.  [My mistake -- for some reason, I called these the last four when I originally wrote this post.  Now fixed -- Mike, 11 September 2009.]

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These bones form part of the first brachiosaurid sauropod ever described. It was initially reported by Elmer S. Riggs in 1901, described and named by him in 1903, and described in more detail, again by Riggs, in 1904.

It’s still one of the best brachiosaurid specimens, consisting of the last seven dorsal vertebrae, sacrum, first two caudals, left coracoid (NOT right as stated by Riggs), right humerus, ilium and femur, and ribs. Sadly no skull elements or cervicals, though.

Here we see the bones in an oblique left anterodorsolateral aspect, with your humble chronicler in the background, measuring something so quickly that motion blur hides his craggy, manly features. That I am in the photo means that Matt must have taken it. It’s one of 122 photos that we took of these dorsals, in a single long, crazy day that, apart from brachiosaur dorsals, was also filled with brachiosaur humeri, giraffe cervicals and Godzilla rolls (sushi). Ah, happy days!

Skyward!

October 8, 2007

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This one’s not about the morphology of the vertebrae, but rather their cumulative effect. The subject is the mounted Brachiosaurus outside the Field Museum in Chicago. The picture was taken in July 2005 by me or by Mike; we had two Nikon Coolpix cameras going and just pooled the photos.

We’ll get you some sacrals, caudals, and non-brachiosaurids one of these days. We swear.

At the risk of turning this blog into Brachiosaurus brancai 8th Cervical Picture of the Day, here’s a quick tutorial on your basic sauropod vertebral anatomy, using everyone’s favourite cervical vertebra.

Brachiosaurus brancai, 8th cervical, various views

This picture shows the same vertebra as was photographed in the very first SV-POW! entry.  I’ve composited the figures of this element from Janensch (1950), an exhaustive and lavishly illustrated monograph on the vertebrae and ribs of B. brancai. Parts of this vertebra’s right-hand side are missing, as is apparent in the anterior and posterior views, but most of it is excellently preserved.

First things first: directions. In standard anatomical descriptions of dinosaurs, the direction towards the front is called anterior, and towards the back is posterior — so an anterior view (such as the top left part of this picture) is looking at the front of the vertebra. Upwards is dorsal, downwards is ventral. Sticking out sideways is lateral, and towards the midline is medial. These directions can be combined into single words that describe oblique directions such as anteroventral, posterolateral and anteroventromedial. (Some poor misguided souls use “cranial” and “caudal” in place of “anterior” and “posterior”, but we’ll have none of that here.)

The main body of the vertebra, the roughly cylindrical part, is called the centrum. At the front of the centrum in sauropod cervicals and most dorsals is a ball which fits into a corresponding socket at the back of the preceding one. The ball is called a condyle, the socket is called a cotyle.

Dorsal to the centrum is the neural arch, which is surmounted by the neural spine. A hollow passageway runs through the neural arch from front to back: this houses the spinal cord, and is called the neural canal. (You can’t really see it in the pictures above; you can make it out much more clearly in the BMNH R2523 photos, anterior and posterior.)

Two processes (which just means pointy bits) project laterally from each side of the vertebra: in cervicals they mostly hang downwards a bit, i.e. they project ventrolaterally. (It is a bit of a mystery to me why we say “project ventrolaterally” in scientific writing instead of “hang down”, but there it is.) The dorsal pair of processes are the diapophyses (singular diapophysis, pronounced dye-a-POFF-a-siss). The ventral pair are the parapophyses. They are the articulation points for the ribs. In cervical vertebrae, the ribs are often fused to the processes that support them; in dorsal vertebrae they are free, attached only by soft tissue. (In the pictured specimen, the ribs are broken off very close to their point of origin. In life, they would have projected backwards as thin cylinders a couple of meters long.)

As you see, the diapophysis, parapophysis and fused cervical rib form a loop lateral to the centrum. This loop doesn’t really have a name — it’s called the ansa costro-transversaria in birds, but very few palaeontologists use avian anatomical nomenclature for sauropods. So we three just call it the “cervical rib loop”.

Finally (for now), we have the zygapophyses. There are two pairs of these: prezygapophyses at the front, and postzygapophyses at a location that I will not insult your intelligence by stating. When vertebrae are strung together in a line, their zygs articulate, but they can slide past each other to a limited degree, allowing some flexibility. How much flexibility is a matter of some debate which we may revisit in another post.  The facets of the prezygs always face anteromedially (that’s upwards and inwards, remember?) and the postzygs ventrolaterally, although their precise orientation varies along the spinal column.

That it for now. Coming soon in subsequent tutorials: fossae and foramina; laminae; variation along the column; and much, much more. Remember to tell all your friends that this is where the party is.

Just a quick post to feed the desire for sheer sauropodous beauty. This picture shows a single partial vertebra in six different views. The top row, from left to right, shows the vertebra in left lateral view (i.e. the front is pointing to the left as you look at it), then in an oblique view, then in anterior view (i.e. from the front). The bottom row shows it in right lateral, oblique, and posterior (i.e. from the back).

BMNH R2523, isolated Wealden sauropod dorsal

This is a dorsal vertebra (i.e. from the back rather than the neck, hips or tail – see Matt’s “Regions of the vertebral column” tutorial. It’s probably from quite far back in the dorsal column, near the hips.

What kind of sauropod is it? I’m not sure. At first, I thought it was rather Camarasaurus-like, which would be an exciting result because there is no convincing camarasaurid material known from the Wealden. But then when I put it into a cladistic analysis, it popped out as a basal diplodocoid, though very weakly supported. I have a lot more work lined up to do on Wealden sauropod dorsals, so hopefully I’ll be able to get back to you with a firmer identification at some point.

What is this Wealden, I hear you ask?  It’s a big chunk of rock from the Early Cretaceous, extending across much of southern England and into the continent.  Darren is a real Weald Jockey, so I’ll leave it to him to tell you more about it in a future post (or, more likely to point you to one of the Wealden posts on his Tetrapod Zoology blog).

Welcome to the third SV-POW! post. Given that this is my (me = Darren Naish) first post, I cannot resist using it as another excuse to post a picture of, and talk briefly about, the wonder that is MIWG.7306, the immense* brachiosaur cervical vertebra that I and colleagues described in 2004. A series of blog articles (on Tetrapod Zoology ver 1) were previously posted on this specimen and its history, starting here.

* Immense in terms of what experience I have with British sauropod vertebrae. With a centrum length of 745 mm, MIWG.7306 is the longest cervical vertebra yet reported from Europe… however, it is very much outclassed by far bigger vertebrae from Argentina, the USA and elsewhere.

7306 left lateral, posterior half

You’re looking here at the posterior half of the left side of MIWG.7306: the bone is broken in two. That’s actually a really useful thing with sauropod vertebrae, as it allows us to examine the internal anatomy. More on that subject another time, I’m sure.

MIWG.7306 serves as a reasonable introduction to a few subjects that we will, no doubt, be coming back to again and again. Firstly, it is an elongate bone: the centrum (the main ‘body’ of the vertebra) is stretched relative to the condition present in most other vertebrates, and at least some of the elongation present in the sauropod neck was evolved by way of this vertebral elongation. The different sauropod groups differed in the degree of elongation of their neck vertebrae: some exhibited a fairly moderate degree of elongation, and others went over-the-top silly with it.

Another interesting thing concerns the cavities you can see on the sides of the vertebra. Based mostly on the close similarity apparent between these cavities and similar cavities present on the vertebrae of birds, we think that – in life – these structures housed air sacs. This means that sauropods were pneumatic animals… there is lots more to say about this subject, and we’ll come back to it in future posts, I’m sure (particularly given that Matt is a leading world expert on the subject of sauropod pneumaticity).

Anyway, there we have it. My first SV-POW! post.

Howdy, Matt Wedel here. This is the Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (or SV-POW! as we like to call it), and you just got a post yesterday, so what are we doing back here already? Mike and Darren and I are trying to get SV-POW! up and running as quickly and smoothly as possible, and the best way to do that is to post. And as long as we’re posting, we might as well get a little work done, too.

(Also, we will follow our titular guideline and post at least one sauropod vertebra picture every week; however, we reserve the right to bring you even more doses of awesome than you expected.)

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Today we’re covering the very basics of vertebrae. You’ve been toting around a full set for your entire life, but just in case you’ve never gotten acquainted, here’s the skinny.

Vertebrae are the segments of bone or cartilage that make up the spinal column or backbone. In sharks and rays the vertebrae are composed of cartilage, but in almost all of the bony fish and their descendants–including you–the vertebrae are made of bone.

In most fishes and amphibians there is little or no regional specialization of the vertebral column, but in more derived tetrapods (vertebrate animals with four limbs, or whose ancestors had four limbs) the vertebral column can be divided into at least four regions:

Cervical vertebrae are neck vertebrae. They usually have fixed (non-mobile) ribs on either side. You may not know it, but your own cervical vertebrae have these ribs. They’re just very short. In some sauropods the cervical ribs were mind-bogglingly long, up to 4 meters or more in length, but that’s a story for another post. With a couple of weird exceptions, all mammals have only 7 cervical vertebrae, even the giraffe. But other clades are not so limited. For example, birds can have 24 or more. The largest number of cervical vertebrae in any known sauropod is 19.

Dorsal vertebrae are the vertebrae that fall between the neck and the sacrum. In sauropods they always have large, mobile ribs, of the sort that you usually think of when you hear the word ‘rib’. In mammals the dorsal series is divided into thoracic vertebrae, which have ribs, and lumbar vertebrae, which do not, but in sauropods all of the dorsal vertebrae have ribs. Sauropods had as many as 12 or 13 dorsal vertebrae and as few as 9.*

Behind the ribcage is the sacrum, a block of fused sacral vertebrae. The sacrum articulates with the bones of the pelvis; this is the only bony attachment between the appendicular skeleton (limbs and limb girdles) and the axial skeleton (skull, vertebrae, and ribs). There is no bony connection between the shoulder girdles and the vertebral column. Instead, the shoulder girdles and forelimbs are bound to the body by ligaments and muscles. Sauropods had between 4 and 6 sacral vertebrae.*

Caudal vertebrae are tail vertebrae. There is usually more change along the caudal series than in other regions of the vertebral column. The vertebrae closest to the sacrum often closely resemble unfused sacral vertebrae, but down at the end of the tail the vertebrae are usually reduced to simple rods or nubs of bone. Your coccyx or tailbone is made of fused caudal vertebrae, so technically you do have a tail skeleton, just not an external tail (unless you’re lucky).

Well, that’s quite enough for now. We’ll take up the parts of a vertebra in a future post. And it won’t all be anatomical drudgery; we wouldn’t have created SV-POW! if we didn’t have really cool stuff to show off.

The skeleton in the image above is that of Brachiosaurus. The cervical vertebra, BYU 12867, is also from Brachiosaurus, and it is 94 cm long. The dorsal vertebra, OMNH 1382, is from Apatosaurus, and it is 93 cm tall (however, the top of the neural spine is missing so it would have been more than a meter tall in life).

* Some sauropods might have more dorsal vertebrae or fewer sacral vertebrae, depending on the definition of ‘sauropod’ that one uses. Right now it seems that at least some of the animals traditionally called prosauropods are, in fact, primitive sauropods.

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