Sauropods held their necks erect … just like rabbits
May 27, 2009
Welcome, one and all, to Taylor, Wedel and Naish (2009), Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. It’s the first published paper by the SV-POW! team working as a team, published in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and freely available for download here.
Far, far back in the uncharted depths of history, silly people like Osborn and Mook (1921:pl. 84), Janensch (1950b: pl. 8) and Paul (1988:fig. 1), who didn’t know any better, used to depict sauropods with their necks held strongly elevated.
All that began to change with Martin’s (1987) short paper in the Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems volume, and was then turned upside-down by Stevens and Parrish’s (1999) seminal paper in Science: two and a half pages that transformed the way the world looked at sauropods.
John Martin looked at the cervical vertebrae of the Rutland specimen of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis, and concluded that the joints between them couldn’t be as flexible as people thought. He reconstructed that animal’s neck in a low, near-horizontal pose, and with a very narrow range of movement that didn’t allow it to raise its head far above shoulder level. Stevens and Parrish brought more rigour to this approach by modelling the cervical articulations of two sauropods (Diplodocus carnegii and Apatosaurus lousiae) using a computer program of their own devising, DinoMorph. And as most SV-POW! regulars will probably know, they got results similar to Martin’s, showing neutral positions for both animals that were well below horizontal, and finding restricted ranges of motion. (“neutral pose” here means that the vertebra are aligned such that the zygapophyses overlap as much as possible.)The DinoMorph posture was quickly adopted as orthodox, and got a lot of exposure in the BBC’s classic CGIumentary, Walking With Dinosaurs: episode 2, Time of the Titans, was primarily about Diplodocus, and under Stevens’s consultancy showed them as having obligate low posture throughout the show.
The new horizontal-neck orthodoxy was also reinforced by an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History featuring a physical metal sculpture of a DinoMorph model:
This brings us pretty much up to date: there’s been very little in the way of published dissent between 1999 and now, and a couple more Stevens and Parrish papers have reinforced their contention. Upchurch (2000) published a half-page response to the DinoMorph paper, and Andreas Christian has put out a sequence of papers arguing for an erect neck posture in Brachiosaurus brancai on the basis that this best equalises stress along the intervertebral joints (e.g. Christian and Dzemski 2007), but otherwise all dissent from the DinoMorph posture has been limited to unpublished venues: for example, Greg Paul has posted several messages on the Dinosaur Mailing List disputing the low-necked posture, but has yet to put any of his arguments in print.
But enough of this dinosaury stuff. Let’s look at a nice, cuddly bunny:
Now here’s the thing: you wouldn’t guess by looking at it, but that rabbit has a vertical neck. In fact, it’s more than vertical: it’s so upright that it bends back on itself. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at this X-ray of an unrestrained awake rabbit:
Can it be that rabbits have unusual cervical vertebrae, such that when you articulate them in neutral pose they curve strongly upwards? No: and to prove it, here is (ahem) Taylor, Wedel and Naish (2009: fig. 1):
(Yes, this is a hare rather than a rabbit, but it’s close enough for government work.) What we found was that it was only possible to get the cervical skeleton anywhere near the habitual life posture by cranking all the proximal cervical joints up as far as they could physically go. In fact, it seems that some of the joints in the live animal flex more than the dry bones can — presumably due to intervertebral cartilage moving the centra further apart.
And this is fully in accord with the findings of Vidal et al. (1986), who X-rayed a selection of live animals (human, monkey, cat, rabbit, rat, guinea pig, chicken, monitor lizard, frog) and found that the neck is inclined in all but the frog. Furthermore, in all the mammals and reptiles, they found that:
- the cervical column is elevated nearly to the vertical during normal functioning;
- the middle part of the neck is habitually held relatively rigid;
- the neck is maximally extended at the cervico-dorsal junction and maximally flexed at the cranio-cervical junction; and
- it is the cranio-cervical and cervico-dorsal junctions that are primarily involved in raising and lowering the head and neck.
(In life, these facts are obscured from view by soft tissue.)
We also looked at unpublished live-alligator X-rays (thanks to Leon Claessens for access to these) and found that even in these ectothermic sprawlers, the neck is habitually elevated above neutral pose. Published X-rays of turtles and even (slightly) salamanders also showed the same tendency.
So what does this mean for sauropods? Simply, unless they were different from all extant terrestrial amniotes, they did not habitually hold their necks in neutral position, but raised well above horizontal. And if they resembled their closest relatives, the birds — and the only other homeothermic and erect-legged group, the mammals — then their necks were strongly inclined. As in, all the proximal cervicals were habitually cranked into the most erect positions they could attain. Kind of like this:
Which is a looong way form the DinoMorph posture that we were all getting used to but couldn’t learn to love. What do you know? Turns out that Osborn and Mook, and Janensch, were right after all.
So that, in a nutshell, is the contention of the first SV-POW! paper: that sauropods held their heads up high. That’s not to say that they couldn’t bring them lower when they wanted to — of course they could, otherwise they’d have been unable to drink — but we believe the evidence from extant animals says that they spent the bulk of their time with their heads held high.
I leave you with this rather beautiful piece that noted pterosaurophile Mark Witton drew to illustrate our favoured posture. Enjoy!
Stay tuned for more on neck posture …
For more cool stuff about the paper, including blog and media coverage and the chance to hear Mike on BBC Radio(!), see our page about the paper on the sidebar.
- Christian, A. and Dzemski, G. 2007. Reconstruction of the cervical skeleton posture of Brachiosaurus brancai Janensch, 1914 by an analysis of the intervertebral stress along the neck and a comparison with the results of different approaches. Fossil Record 10: 38-49.
- Janensch, W. 1950b. Die Skelettrekonstruktion von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Supplement 7): 97-103.
- Martin, J. 1987. Mobility and feeding of Cetiosaurus (Saurischia, Sauropoda) why the long neck? In: P.J. Currie and E.H. Koster (eds.), Fourth Sympo- sium on Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems, Short Papers, 154-159. Box- tree Books, Drumheller, Alberta.
- Osborn, H.F. and Mook, C.C. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias, and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, new series 3: 246-387.
- Paul, G.S. 1988. The brachiosaur giants of the Morrison and Tendaguru with a description of a new subgenus, Giraffatitan, and a comparison of the world’s largest dinosaurs. Hunteria 2 (3): 1-14.
- Stevens, K.A. and Parrish, J.M. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284: 798-800. [Free subscription required]
- Taylor, M.P., Wedel, M.J. and Naish, D. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2): 213-220.
- Upchurch, P. 2000. Neck posture of sauropod dinosaurs. Science 287: 547b.
- Vidal, P.P., Graf, W., and Berthoz, A. 1986. The orientation of the cervical vertebral column in unrestrained awake animals. Experimental Brain Research 61: 549-559.