The sauropods of Star Wars

January 1, 2009

I’m sure Mike will deride this as sordid linkbait, but what the heck. I’ve been meaning to blog about the sauropods of Star Wars for a while now, and I was finally spurred into action by this comment over at TetZoo.

kraytbones-480

The first (and best) sauropod of Star Wars will be no surprise to anyone with reasonably sharp eyes and rudimentary knowledge of sauropod osteology: the Krayt dragon skeleton that C-3PO walks past on Tatooine is composed mainly of cast sauropod vertebrae.

krayt-cervicals

You can see that the monster’s cervicals have big cervical rib loops. The deeply bifurcated neural spines mean that they are either from a diplodocid or Camarasaurus. Some of them are also fairly long and low-spined, especially those close to the head, which rules out Camarasaurus. I find the purely fictional skull pretty unconvincing next to the real (cast) sauropod vertebrae.

krayt-dorsals

Moving on down the series, we see that all of the dorsals have high neural spines, some of which are deeply bifurcated, which again is consistent with diplodocids but not with Camarasaurus, whose bifurcated spines are all short (and fairly ugly).  The vertebrae also have broad transverse processes that give them a ‘t’ shape. You can see that whoever laid out the dorsals scrambled their order (perhaps deliberately) so that the deeply cleft vertebra in the middle is bordered ahead and behind by verts with little or no bifurcation of the neural spine. In articulated diplodocids, the neural spine cleft first appears in the anterior cervicals, grows larger and deeper through the rest of the neck, and then disappears around the middle of the dorsal series.

nhm-diplodocus-480

So which diplodocid is it? My vote is Diplodocus, probably a cast of the mounted Carnegie skeleton like the one shown here in London’s Natural History Museum (this particular mount turns up here at SV-POW! quite frequently). The cervical rib loops of the anterior cervicals attach near the bottoms of the centra instead of hanging far below them as in Apatosaurus. Also, you can see below that the cervical ribs loops of the posterior cervicals are narrow, as in Diplodocus, but not Apatosaurus (images of Diplodocus cervicals are from Hatcher’s 1901 monograph).

krayt-and-diplodocus-compared

The final piece of evidence for the Diplodocus ID is a closeup of part of one of the vertebrae. According to Wookieepedia (from which I stole the Ep IV screencap I’ve used throughout this post) Lucas and crew left the prop skeleton out in the desert when they were done shooting back in the 70s, and rediscovered it when they returned to Tunisia to film the Tatooine sequences for Attack of the Clones. I don’t know if the skeleton was scavenged by prop hunters before, during, or after the ATOC filming, but pieces of the skeleton turn up on movie prop sites, including the one shown here:

krayt-cervical-rib

This is a cervical rib of a sauropod, and it looks to me more like the slender ribs of Diplodocus than the massive ribs of Apatosaurus. I could be wrong about the genus, but if the bones in the movie don’t belong to Diplodocus they have to be Apatosaurus, and the balance of the evidence points to Diplodocus.

Oddly enough, Wikipedia states that, “The artificial skeleton used for the movie was left there after filming and still lies in the Tunisian desert. During filming of Attack of the Clones, the site was visited by the crew and the skeleton was still found there. The skull used resembles that of a Diplodocus, a herbivorous dinosaur related to the Apatosaur” (emphasis added). Good call, Wiki-trolls.

The “Krayt dragon” locality has been visited, and blogged about, by paleontologist and paleo-blogger Michael Ryan.

One more thing: Diplodocus and Apatosaurus both have 25 presacral vertebrae. The photo above is not crisp enough to determine precisely how many vertebrae are in the cervical+dorsal regions, but it’s more than 25. Also, none of the dinky anterior cervicals of Diplodocus are visible. So I think they must have gotten two sets of presacrals (possibly two whole columns) and used only the bigger vertebrae. I wonder what happened to the verts they didn’t use…I’d give a non-essential organ for a cast Diplodocus cervical.

That’s it for this one. There is another sauropod (sort of) in Episode IV (sort of), but I’ll wait a week before I blab about that one. I wonder if anyone will guess what it is in the meantime? Update: the reveal! (Which, okay, was not much of a reveal, since the answer was guessed by the first commenter!)

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27 Responses to “The sauropods of Star Wars

  1. Paul Says:

    Would it be a ronto?

  2. ReBecca Says:

    If you are talking about the “Special Edition” I know what you speak of (I think)

  3. Mike Keesey Says:

    Neat!

    If it’s “sort of” in Episode IV, does that mean it’s something introduced in the special edition?

  4. Darren Naish Says:

    Surely Matt isn’t insulting our intelligence by referring to rontos (as they’re very obviously based on Paraceratherium), nor to dewbacks (giant herbivorous iguanians that belong in the Squamozoic) or banthas (elephants with furry coats). I remain perplexed. Or is it something to do with the fact that rontos are actually cannibalised versions of the Jurassic Park Brachiosaurus?

    Incidentally, how obvious is it that Ephant Mon is based on an amebelodontid proboscidean?

  5. Warren B. Says:

    “Or is it something to do with the fact that rontos are actually cannibalised versions of the Jurassic Park Brachiosaurus?”

    I think that’s it. It’s a closer link than dewbacks or banthas can boast, anyway.

  6. Mike Keesey Says:

    Not one of the holographic chessmen, then?

  7. Mel. White Says:

    I will have to become a frequent visitor here. I’m the volunteer fossil preparator for the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science who’s been working on a C-4 of Alamosaurus for the past 2 years. I love the work, even if it’s only a few hours a week. There’s nothing like a scribe and a big ol’ hunk of bone and rock to calm your mind and make the troubles of the world go away.

  8. 220mya Says:

    I’ve always maintained that Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street was a tuskless gomphothere.

  9. Bill Says:

    Pieces of the skeleton have been turning up constantly over the years as the dunes shift. Philip Vanni returned with a large number of pieces from a trip in 1997.

    http://www.starwarslocations.com/swarchive/GeographicStarWars2/dunes.htm

    You can see some other pieces here:

    http://theswca.com/index.php?action=disp_item&item_id=47487

    I visited in 1999 and was able to buy several pieces from a Berber man that lives in the area. I’m sure there is still more out there since it was broken up over the years and like you mentioned pieces continue turn up on movie prop sites.

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for these links, Bill! The bottom picture at the first page you referenced has some pretty darned definitive diplodocid dorsals mid-frame. That said, I am not convinced that they are Carnegie casts: Hatcher (1901: pl. VIII) shows all ten dorsals of that specimen, and the orientation of the neural spines is pretty consistent along the column, whereas the rightmost of the three dorsals in the photo seems to be inclined anterodorsally in a way that none of Hatcher’s specimen’s spines do.

    It’s a shame we don’t have better photos.

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    The bottom picture at the first page you referenced has some pretty darned definitive diplodocid dorsals mid-frame. That said, I am not convinced that they are Carnegie casts:

    Me neither. You’re right, none of the Carnegie dorsals have spines tilted like that.

    On the other hand, I’m more certain than ever that it is Diplodocus and not Apatosaurus. The same photo shows a nice mid-cervical. The rib is too dinky for it to be Apatosaurus and the centrum is too short for it be Barosaurus (not that there were any Baro casts floating around in the 70s to my knowledge, I’m just covering all bases).

    Could it be a cast of the Smithsonian Diplodocus?

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    Somebody needs to show these picture to Jack McIntosh. Problem solved in about 30 seconds. Maybe I’ll bring some printouts to SVP. Stay tuned, true believers!


  13. I seem to recall hearing it’s the sauropod “Brontosaurus rex” from the classic Disney film “One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing”.

    The skull certainly looks the same!

  14. Darren Naish Says:

    Here’s something neat I just discovered, totally serendipitously. A number of us in the Mesozoic reptile community own a particular set of widely circulated pdfs (circulated on DVD, and mentioning no names). If you own this collection, look at ‘Benton et al. 2000′ (a paper on fossil vertebrates from the Cretaceous of Tunisia). Whoever saved this tagged it with the filename ‘Tunisia Star Wars verts’. Brothers and sisters, we are one.


  15. [...] The mystery lasted all of a single comment. Several of you got it right, but the title of First (w00t w00t LOL!!1!!11!!) goes to Paul and his terse, “Would it be a ronto?” [...]

  16. Jim Lehane Says:

    I Love the post and the link to the Jawas staring at the Spinosaurus. There needs to be a group of Star Wars Paleo Geeks.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    There needs to be a group of Star Wars Paleo Geeks.

    There is. It’s called “palaeontologists”.

  18. Jim Lehane Says:

    I was going was something a little more exclusive. Maybe a website. Or a blog. Maybe a Facebook group.


  19. [...] dozen times or more, but I had never noticed the hidden sauropod in it until Matt Wedel of SV-POW! pointed it out. While the android C-3P0 wanders around the desert at the beginning of the film, the bones of a [...]

  20. Tim Morris Says:

    The skull and entire cast skeleton are from a british movie made just before Star Wars, called “Our Dinosaur is Missing”, basically a carry-on film rip-off where a dinosaur skeleton is stolen from a museum and carted around the suburbs.


  21. [...] diese kleinen Plastikknochen möglicherweise einen genauso interessanten Blickfang, wie das Fieberglas-Diplodocus-Skellet, welche die Auststatter vom Original Krieg der Sterne-Film auf einem der Dünenkämme [...]

  22. sanxion Says:

    it was the prop some of the technicians had built for disney in 1975s One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, thats why it’s a sauropod


  23. […] have seen in the Rebel propaganda film you call “Episode IV”. Dr. Freezers, even your fellow blog-invigilators at SV-POW! discussed it. Witness the large size and long neck of the typical Krayt; whether horns existed or […]


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