“Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”: further thoughts

October 9, 2010

I wasn’t going to write about this, partly because it’s so darn depressing, but mostly because in the wake of this comment it seemed like the “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” paper was being withdrawn, and to quote something Mike said off-list, I was happier about the retraction than I was sad about the implied revisionism. But then Henry Galliano wrote:

Although the paper has still not been completed, no changes have been made altering it conclusions. Interestingly, despite the 4000 recent hits and downloads from our website, it is surprising no evidence has been submitted challenging our claims.

If it’s really supposed to be an internal manuscript/press release type thing, why brag about the lack of criticism? Did it ever occur to you that we might be holding off out of respect, to give you an avenue of retreat where you could perhaps salvage a few scraps of dignity? But if you’re going to call us out for not tearing apart this joke of a paper, then stand by.

In the previous post, Mike wrote:

In other words, we’re being asked to believe that the new specimens are more different from all other Morrison diplodocids than any of them are from each other.  And yet we’re brought to this conclusion by the very animals that are apparently not as similar.  It’s as though I discovered dogs, and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs and house-cats are are all the same species.

No, it’s way, way worse. Because, claims of the authors to the contrary, “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” is not some kind of morphological outlier among Morrison diplodocids. From where I stand, it looks like it’s right in the middle. So it’s as though I discovered ocelots and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs, and housecats were all the same thing.

If no apatosaurs had ever been found, and they got the first one, and then concluded that all the apatosaurines were one taxon and all the diplodocines were another, that would at least make some kind of sense, in that they’d be drawing their taxonomic distinctions along actual phylogenetic lines. Then it would be a fairly straightforward lumper/splitter fight. In the actual event, I’m sad to say that it’s the “A. brontodiplodocus” proponents against the reality-based community.

Back to Henry’s statement about the “surprising” lack of evidence to the contrary: dude, don’t do this to yourself. We thought you were on the right track with the implied retraction from your earlier comment. You’ve been one of the white hats, but if you go down this dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will!

It’s not at all “surprising” that no one has submitted evidence to the contrary. The evidence is in the 133 years’ worth of careful morphological and phylogenetic work that you blew right past on the way to nominating your new animal, at least implicitly, as TEH MOSTEST IMPORTANT DIPLODOCID EVAR!!11eleventy! Your material is awesome, and I don’t doubt that you’ve got a new animal on your hands, but the idea that it is one of only two diplodocids in the Morrison–or worldwide–and all the others are morphs of the same thing, is both suspiciously convenient for you, and so outrageously extreme that it would take a mountain of work (that is not presented in the paper) to demonstrate. In addition to the gross, obvious morphological differences, it would be really nice to know why there are geographic, stratigraphic, and paleoecological differences among the other Morrison diplodocids. Doesn’t the work of Dodson et al. (1980), Turner & Peterson (1999), and Foster (2003, 2007), just for starters, count for anything? Instead of boasting about the uncontested status of your claims, how about doing enough work to convince us to take them seriously in the first place? People who take the time to do reasonable morphological comparisons and phylogenetic work that doesn’t hail from an opium den have better things to do than exhaustively smack down every act of Hoser taxonomy that leaks onto teh intarwebz in the first two days. Give us a minute to get over our collective shock, and in the meantime, make up your mind about what the document is. Is it supposed to be considered published, or not? If so, it’s fair game for criticism, but don’t deny that you’re at least attempting acts of taxonomy. If not, don’t beg us to criticize it. You may get a lot more than you wished for.

Sadly, this will probably go down in popular opinion as a clash between academic and commercial paleontologists, or between credentialed paleontologists and hobbyists.  It shouldn’t. I don’t care if someone is employed by a university or a rock shop, or whether they have any degrees in the field. All I care about is the quality of the work. (Repeatability, which necessitates that specimens be properly curated in accredited museums to ensure perpetual access to future researchers, is an inherent component of that quality.) Jack McIntosh is a physicist, and as far as I know never got any formal training in paleontology. But that’s irrelevant, because he taught himself by looking at literally thousands of specimens and reading everything he could get his hands on, and because his papers are as exhaustively researched as one could hope for. As Robert McKee wrote of Steven Pressfield, you can’t read Jack’s papers without being overwhelmed by “the work, the work, all the work” behind them. In contrast, I couldn’t read the “A. brontodiplodocus” paper without be overwhelmed by the complete disregard–and indeed implicit contempt–for all of the work that people from Cope and Marsh to Jerry Harris and David Lovelace have done on the admittedly knotty problem of Morrison sauropod diversity.

Taxonomy is facing a crisis, brought on by two things: at least for some charismatic clades, Hoser taxonomists potentially outnumber actual taxonomists (although even one is bad enough, as herpetologists have found); and there is essentially no filtering on what counts. Anyone in the world can whip up whatever uninformed BS they want and send a certain number of hardcopies off to libraries, and according to the ICZN their crappy work counts and the rest of us just have to deal with it. And the problem is only going to get worse in the shiny digital future as electronic publication removes the already minor inconvenience associated with “publishing” acts of taxonomy. I can think of a handful of possible outcomes:

  • Working scientists are going to bog down in endlessly putting out the fires of Hoser taxonomy.
  • We’ll install some kind of de jure filter to deal with Hoser taxonomy.
  • We’ll collectively decide to ignore acts of Hoser taxonomy, which will constitute a de facto filter.

For my part, I think the ICZN’s policy of noninterference in cases like this is taking a sound principle to the point of lunacy. It’s like I walked up to a policeman, punched him in the nose, and told him he couldn’t arrest me because my assault counted as protected speech (on reflection, I’ll bet this actually happens in Berkeley). Of the options above, I suspect that we’ll end up with the third, and I won’t be entirely happy about that, because I also suspect that some credentialed academics will want to ignore the work of commercial paleontologists and hobbyists just because they’re not credentialed academics. Which would be wrong. We want to sort the work based on its quality, not who produced it.

Which is an interesting position for me to come to, given what I’ve said here in the past about filters. It was easier to deal with the thought of completely open publication when the waste products weren’t landing on my lawn. But I still think that this is the way things are going. In which case, post-hoc criticism of self-published works is often going to be the only filter we get. The comment thread is open. Filter away!


  • Dodson, P., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Bakker, R.T., and McIntosh, J.S. 1980. Taphonomy and paleoecology of the dinosaur beds of the Jurassic Morrison Formation. Paleobiology 6:208-232.
  • Foster, J.R. 2003. Paleoecological analysis of the vertebrate fauna of the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic), Rocky Mountain Region, U.S.A. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Bulletin 23.
  • Foster, J.R. 2007. Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and Their World. Indiana University Press. 389pp.
  • Turner, C.E., Peterson, F., 1999. Biostratigraphy of dinosaurs in the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of the Western Interior, U.S.A. Pp. 77–114 in Gillette, D.D. (Ed.), Vertebrate Paleontology in Utah. Utah Geological Survey Miscellaneous Publication 99-1.
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23 Responses to ““Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”: further thoughts”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Matt. When I saw Henry’s “no evidence has been submitted challenging our claims” I breathed a deep sign and resigned myself to having to pour more effort into a response. Now I don’t have to — you’ve covered it for me. Funny enough, your modification of my cats-and-dogs analogy occurred to me late last night. You’re exactly right.

  2. David Hone Says:

    This is something that annoys me intensely about bad papers (taxonomic or otherwise). It takes far more work to fix them than it does to create the problem and it leaves the ‘proper’ workers with a horrible choice – ignore work which they know is out there on the grounds that this is easy to do and won’t affect the grand scheme of things (but knowingly intellectually dishonest, avoiding known research) or waste a ton of jumping through dozens of hoops to fix a problem in a paper than few will read or site.

  3. [...] fans will probably be regular readers of SV-POW! and might have spotted the recent posts here and here on the sort-of-but-not-quite paper by a group working on some privately collected material. There [...]

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    Now I don’t have to — you’ve covered it for me.

    You’re welcome. It was grim work. I’d much rather be discussing your and Darren’s new papers, or the Ray Bradbury book signing I attended last night, or any of a million other things. But some things can’t pass without comment.

    Tonight I’m off to the Mojave Desert for a star party, so no time for blogging about the fun stuff. But it’s a long weekend here in the states (Columbus Day, doncha know), so maybe I’ll get something else posted before the work week starts. Depending, I suppose, on what happens with the evolving “A. brontodiplodocus” situation.

    Sigh. The desert is looking better by the minute.

  5. “Because, claims of the authors to the contrary, “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” is not some kind of morphological outlier among Morrison diplodocids. From where I stand, it looks like it’s right in the middle.”

    “… and I don’t doubt that you’ve got a new animal on your hands…”

    So… you do think it’s a distinct taxon intermediate between diplodocines and apatosaurines then? Who knows how the character states will most parsimoniously work out, but in addition to being a basal diplodocine with apatosaurine features or vice versa, couldn’t this also indicate it’s just basal to the split between subfamilies? And in that case, it really would be on a branch separate from all other Morrison diplodocids.

    As an aside, these kinds of stories make me wish I knew more about sauropods. I love tearing apart horrible papers (Czerkas volume, anything BAND, Kayentavenator, etc.). You should all try to find the fun in it too. In addition to the base fun of it all, you get to uncover what the material really represents, and maybe discourage the authors from doing such shoddy work in the future. But even if it doesn’t discourage them, at least the paleo community will know their work is crap for now on. If peer review won’t catch these travesties and some skip the process altogether, a public shaming might be the best way to combat shoddy work.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Mickey, you should think twice about indulging your enjoyment in shredding poor work. Surely you should be resenting the way it’s contributed to the ridiculous delay in getting your own work published.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Whew, thank goodness. I had always thought the conclusions of this paper were quite suspect, but given the lumpathon going on over the last few years with people like Horner et al. I thought that maybe there were more similarities between the various genera than I was aware of and decided to keep quiet until someone else weighed in.

    Just a bit of speculation here, but I wonder if the specimens found at this sight represent two species, a basal apatosaurine and a basal diplodocine, shortly after the two diverged in time. The early evolution of the diplodocids is not well documented, with the possible exception of Cetiosauriscus the group almost seems to appear fully formed in the Late Jurassic like Athena from Zeus’ head. The fossil record as we currently know also gives no information on the early history of either the Apatosaurinae or the Diplodocinae.

    This sort of thing isn’t exactly unheard of in paleontology, the new ceratopsian Medusaceratops was originally thought to be a representative of Albertaceratops until later researched showed it was actually a centrosaurine. Maybe the similarity in both cases means that we managed to catch these organisms shortly after the act of speciation or something. In addition, John Foster in Jurassic West (2007) notes that Haplocanthosaurus is the only sauropod present in the first stratigraphic zone of the Morrison Formation. Perhaps the original divergence between the two diplodocid subfamilies occurred prior to or in the earliest parts of the Morrison. And in an even more speculative bent, perhaps this was driven by the increase in total land area due to the retreat of the Sundance Sea.

    As for the paper itself, it does point out something that may become a future problem for paleontologists. I know of several amateur and commercial paleontologists who believe they aren’t allowed to write peer-reviewed papers to be published in journals because they aren’t professional paleontologists or work at a university (in fact, this even applies to a couple museum paleontologists who work at non-university public museums). Or that if they donate their specimens to a public institution so they can be publicly available they will be barred from studying the specimens and/or they will go to someone else to name. It doesn’t help that some paleontologists actively cultivate this view towards amateur and commercial paleontologists.

    If an amateur or commercial paleontologist dots all their i’s and cross their t’s, subject their papers out to peer review, and place the holotype fossils in a publicly available institution, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to publish stuff? Or if they can, why isn’t this more publicly known? Then again, even though amateur and commercial paleontologists should be able to author and co-author papers, they still have the responsibility to confer scientifically valuable specimens to public institutions.

  8. Tom Johnson Says:

    I’m reminded of Dr. Dean Edell’s observations about “alternative” vs. “traditional” medicine: it’s really about evidence-based (scientific) versus non-evidence based. We don’t need “alternative” paleontology. The real bummer is, regardless of the merits of the “draft” paper, or lack thereof, the specimen(s) are real. It is to be hoped that the specimen(s) will yet be made available for study by the scientific community at large.

  9. “Mickey, you should think twice about indulging your enjoyment in shredding poor work. Surely you should be resenting the way it’s contributed to the ridiculous delay in getting your own work published.”

    Ironically enough, the work of mine that’s closest to getting published consists of criticism of other work. That’s been delayed purely due to my own fault of not being able to stick to one topic long enough to complete a manuscript since there’s always something new and interesting out there.

    Criticizing bad ideas has always been a part of paleontology and even forms a good portion of your own work- criticizing Janensch’s idea brancai is Brachiosaurus, criticizing the ICZN’s policy on electronic publishing, criticizing the idea of an ONP, etc.. By doing this, we encourage authors and reviewers to do their job better. Hopefully they’ll think next time- is this taxon’s indeterminate status backed up by evidence? Is this basal bird simply distinguished by characters expected in a juvenile of a known taxon? Is this cladistic analysis really meaningful if certain taxa are deleted a priori? And superior work will result. In this way, criticism of papers can have a greater effect on the community than publishing a unique quality paper of our own would. At least that’s my hope. :)

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Mickey points out that: “Criticizing bad ideas has always been a part of paleontology and even forms a good portion of your own work.”

    Sure, that’s true. The real issue is not whether your work contains a component of criticism towards other publications; it’s whether you let it continue to exist only on the DML and your blog, or whether you get it through peer review and published in a recognised form.

  11. [...] an interesting comment on Matt’s “Amphiocoelias brontodiplodocus” post, an anonymous commenter wrote (among much else): As for the paper itself, it does point out [...]

  12. [...] “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”: further thoughts and Can amateurs publish in palaeontology? [...]

  13. Jamie Stearns Says:

    Regarding diplodocid (actually, it should be diplodocoid, since we don’t have any basal rebbachisaurs or dicraeosaurs yet) evolution, I have lamented the lack of work on Dystrophaeus ever since I learned that the holotype locality had been relocated, complete with matching metacarpal uncovered in a preliminary dig.

    Why hasn’t anybody even attempted to get this thing out of the ground yet? It’s basically the ur-everything for Morrison sauropods, and thus should be of the greatest importance for those working on them, yet it currently just sits in a lonely canyon in Utah waiting for someone to dig it up.

  14. [...] are other things I do want to talk about”.  Well, with A. suuwatorneriosaurodocus now firmly dealt with, I can talk about what I wanted to — which is Taylor (2010), a little number than I like to [...]

  15. Jamie Stearns Says:

    By the way, as regards Hoser taxonomy, I would prefer Option 2; that is, new taxa can only be named in legitimate articles that have undergone peer review.

  16. [...] over yet), and then in the festival of articular cartilage, then by the whole “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” thing and the subsequent discussion of amateurs in palaeo, and then by what was already an [...]

  17. Adam Baig Says:

    I know that having one genus and species, replacing numerous genera and species, is going to end some names that are more than 100 years old. Some may conclude that this is going overboard, like (as already mentioned) saying that a fossil ocelot, a fossil lion and a fossil domestic cat is automatically the same species, and that the differences are individual variation. This is different. We all know that sauropods were very large, and we know that the larger the species of any kind of animal in body size, leads to lesser numbers of closely related species in a time period. Really, how can North America in the late-Jurassic have sustainable numbers of “Apatosaurus”, “Diplodocus”, “Barosaurus”, “Supersaurus”, etc., with enough food and roaming grounds for everybody? It makes perfect sense that there is only one species: “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”. This also sheds a lot of new light on their lifestyles and behaviors.

  18. Matt Wedel Says:

    Really, how can North America in the late-Jurassic have sustainable numbers of “Apatosaurus”, “Diplodocus”, “Barosaurus”, “Supersaurus”, etc., with enough food and roaming grounds for everybody?

    You are familiar with the argument from incredulity?

    The problem with the “there’s just one species” thing is that Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, etc. remain diagnosably distinct across hundreds of miles and millions of years. There is not just a big melting pot of stuff grading insensibly into each other.

    I’m not rejecting the hypothesis out of hand. I’m rejecting it because it doesn’t fit the fossil record.

    If I blithely suggested that all Late Cretaceous tyrannosaurids belonged to one species, without having some explanation for why there are stratigraphic and geographic differences among the currently recognized taxa, tyrannosaur workers would laugh me out of the room. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. So far, that evidence is sadly lacking here.

    If you disagree, by all means, refute! But that means actually coming up with a better explanation of the evidence. So you’ll have to go read all of John Foster’s work on Morrison paleoecology, and all of the work on Morrison biostratigraphy, and all of the current phylogenetic analyses of Morrison sauropods, and how the “one species” model explains the data better than the current understanding of Morrison sauropod diversity. Saying, “I can’t believe all these big things coexisted” doesn’t cut it.

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    Adam: “it makes perfect sense that” is not a scientific argument. As we’ve already pointed out here, anyone seriously advancing the hypothesis that there was just one diplodocid species in the Morrison has to come up with an explicit and persuasive accounting for (A) the HUGE range of morphological variation; (B) the stratigraphic separation between species within the Morrison; (C) the geographical separation ditto. No-one has come close to doing that, in fact no has even attempted it.

    So, no. There were multiple diplodocid species in the Morrison. Lots of them. Whether you think that makes sense or not.

  20. [...] privately held specimens and the use of a non-peer-reviewed “publication”. Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel led a detailed discussion about the flaws in this paper at SV-POW. In the comments on those [...]

  21. Rebecca Webb Says:

    The author is obviously NOT a herpetologist. As it happens Ray Hoser’s taxonomy is the most realistic of our generation. Some of his names are a bit iffy, but I suppose he can claim justification for them on the basis of avoiding creating homonyms.

  22. Mike Taylor Says:

    [Administrator's note: we're not going to get sucked into the tarpit of Hoser Taxonomy here, but let the record show that we couldn't disagree more with Rebecca Webb's comment. Darren summarised out thought on Hoser a few years ago and nothing's changed since then.]

  23. “Rebecca Webb”‘s website is Hoser’s – what a surprise!

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