The enigmatic taphonomy of Sauroposeidon
July 24, 2008
This figure is stolen from Wedel et al. (2000:fig. 5). A shows the first 11 cervical vertebrae* of Sauroposeidon in articulation. B shows how the holotype specimen, OMNH 53062, must have disarticulated, and C shows it as it was found. Shaded vertebrae and bits of vertebrae were not found. The thickness of the cervical ribs is greatly exaggerated for clarity.
*We assume that Sauroposeidon had 13 cervicals like Brachiosaurus. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it had more, but it is unlikely that it had fewer. Sauroposeidon seems to be all about crazy neck elongation, and it doesn’t make sense to make some vertebrae longer while losing others.
- In life, the long cervical ribs formed overlapping bundles, just like the long neck tendons of birds, and that is how the preserved cervical ribs are arrayed–in vertically stacked bundles.
- Each cervical rib is about 4 cm in diameter where it attaches to its vertebra, and tapers to a point about 3 meters away. The last meter or so of each rib goes from being the diameter of a pencil to the diameter of a mechanical pencil lead. They just sort of peter out into nothingness.
- The fact that even the pencil-lead-sized wisps of the cervical ribs are still in articulation suggests pretty strongly that the neck was buried with the muscles intact.
- If the neck had simply been broken transversely (like a guillotine cut), the two most anterior vertebrae in the preserved block of four should have the cervical ribs of even more anterior vertebrae beneath them, and the cervical ribs from the two most posterior vertebrae would not stick out the back of the preserved block.
- The facts that the cervical ribs from the missing anterior vertebrae are also missing, and that the cervical ribs from the preserved vertebrae trail behind the articulated block, suggest that the neck was pulled apart lengthwise, as shown in B.
- None of the vertebrae have any teeth marks or any sign of mechanical damage, other than the missing neural spine from the third preserved vertebra. The front third of the first preserved vertebra was eroded away before the vertebrae were discovered in the field.
- Assuming that Sauroposeidon was built like Brachiosaurus, it must have had a body mass somewhere between 40 and 60 tons. Even if it was built more like Mamenchisaurus–hellacious neck tacked on fairly dinky body–it was still probably a 20-ton critter.
- After 14 years of subsequent erosion and fieldwork, no other sauropod bones have been discovered at the site.
- How did the neck get separated from the body? The body was presumably too big to move, and the neck is too well preserved to have been moved very far.
- What pulled the neck apart?
- How did the neck come apart without disturbing those little pencil-lead cervical rib ends?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, by the way. And I’m open to suggestions.
Here’s my best guess. I think the body stayed put, and the neck floated away. Not far–a few hundred feet would be enough to put the body outside the outcrop area at the holotype site, but not so far that the neck would be all beat up. I think it floated rather than being dragged (by an Acrocanthosaurus, for example) because the vertebrae are all in such good shape and none of them have any tooth marks. I think it floated in calm water because the preservation is so good. I think the neck muscles rotted enough to let the force of the current rip part of the neck away from the base, just like you can pull a cooked chicken neck apart lengthwise without messing up the articulations among the vertebrae in the chunk that breaks free.
All of that will suffice to get the neck separated from the body. What really bugs me is the separation of the anterior part of the neck from the preserved block of vertebrae. It is tempting to think that the anterior part never came off, and that those vertebrae simply eroded away before they were found, like the front third of the most anterior preserved vert. But that can’t be; if those vertebrae were in articulation and just eroded away, we should still have their cervical ribs below the first two preserved verts.
Who knows, maybe the scenario I outlined above is good enough to explain both breaks. For some reason it is just easier to image most of the neck coming off the carcass than to imagine one part of the neck coming off the other part of the neck. But maybe the anteriormost vertebrae were ripped off and floated away first, and then the preserved block came free and floated off on its own later. (The head probably exploded, as these things were wont to do.)
It is worth noting that there are probably only a handful of people alive who have any first-hand experience with how multi-ton animal carcasses are dispersed, and zero people alive who have ever seen a dead sauropod rot. So, like too much in paleontology, what seems plausible or reasonable to me may not line up with objective reality.
BTW, this post fulfills a promise I made in a comment thread here. If we promise a post, we deliver. (We just don’t specify a due date.)
Comments, suggestions, hypotheses, rants, and crank fringe theories welcome.