Why giraffes have short necks
September 26, 2012
Today sees the publication, on arXiv (more on that choice in a separate post), of Mike and Matt’s new paper on sauropod neck anatomy. In this paper, we try to figure out why it is that sauropods evolved necks six times longer than that of the world-record giraffe — as shown in Figure 3 from the paper (with a small version of Figure 1 included as a cameo to the same scale):
This paper started life as a late-night discussion over a couple of beers, while Matt was over in England for SVPCA back in (I think) 2008. It was originally going to be a short note in PaleoBios, just noting some of the oddities of sauropod cervical architecture — such as the way that cervical ribs, ventral to the centra, elongate posteriorly but their dorsal counterparts the epipophyses do not.
As so often, the tale grew in the telling, so that a paper we’d initially imagined as a two-or-three-page note became Chapter 5 of my dissertation under the sober title of “Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs”, weighing in at 41 1.5-spaced pages. By now the manuscript had metastatised into a comparison between the necks of sauropods and other animals and an analysis of the factors that enabled sauropods to achieve so much more than mammals, birds, other theropods and pterosaurs.
(At this point we had one of our less satisfactory reviewing experiences. We sent the manuscript to a respected journal, where it wasn’t even sent out to reviewers until more than a month had passed. We then had to repeatedly prod the editor before anything else happened. Eventually, two reviews came back: one of them careful and detailed; but the other, which we’d waited five months for, dismissed our 53-page manuscript in 108 words. So two words per page, or about 2/3 of a word per day of review time. But let’s not dwell on that.)
This work made its next appearance as my talk at SVPCA 2010 in Cambridge, under the title Why giraffes have such short necks. For the talk, I radically restructured the material into a form that had a stronger narrative — a process that involved a lot of back and forth with Matt, dry-running the talk, and workshopping the order in which ideas were presented. The talk seemed to go down well, and we liked the new structure so much more than the old that we reworked the manuscript into a form that more closely resembled the talk.
That’s the version of the manuscript that we perfected in New York when we should have been at all-you-can-eat sushi places. It’s the version that we submitted on the train from New York to New Haven as we went to visit the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. And it’s the version that was cursorily rejected from mid-to-low ranked palaeo journal because a reviewer said “The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript” — which was of course precisely what we’d intended.
Needless to say, it was deeply disheartening to have had what we were convinced was a good paper rejected twice from journals, at a cost of three years’ delay, on the basis of these reviews. One option would have been to put the manuscript back into the conventional “scientific paper” straitjacket for the second journal’s benefit. But no. We were not going to invest more work to make the paper less good. We decided to keep it in its current, more readable, form and to find a journal that likes it on that basis.
At the moment, the plan is to send it to PeerJ when that opens to submissions. (Both Matt and I are already members.) But that three-years-and-rolling delay really rankles, and we both felt that it wasn’t serving science to keep the paper locked up until it finally makes it into a journal — hence the deposition in arXiv which we plan to talk about more next time.
In the paper, we review seven characteristics of sauropod anatomy that facilitated the evolution of long necks: absolutely large body size; quadrupedal stance; proportionally small, light head; large number of cervical vertebrae; elongation of cervical vertebrae; air-sac system; and vertebral pneumaticity. And we show that giraffes have only two of these seven features. (Ostriches do the next best, with five, but they are defeated by their feeble absolute size.)
The paper incorporates some material from SV-POW! posts, including Sauropods were corn-on-the-cob, not shish kebabs. In fact, come to think of it, we should have cited that post as a source. Oh well. We do cite one SV-POW! post: Darren’s Invading the postzyg, which at the time of writing is the only published-in-any-sense source for pneumaticity invading cervical postzygapogyses from the medial surface.
As for the non-extended epipophyses that kicked the whole project off: we did illustrate how they could look, and discussed why they would seem to make mechanical sense:
But we found and explained some good reasons why this apparently appealing arrangement would not work. You’ll need to read the paper for details.
Sadly, we were not able to include this slide from the talk illustrating the consequences:
Anyway, go and read the paper! It’s freely available, of course, like all arXiv depositions, and in particular uses the permissive Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence. We have assembled related information over on this page, including full-resolution versions of all the figures.
In the fields of maths, physics and computer science, where deposition in arXiv is ubiquitous, standard practice is to go right ahead and cite works in arXiv as soon as they’re available, rather than waiting for them to appear in journals. We will be happy for the same to happen with our paper: if it contains information that’s of value to you, then feel free to cite the arXiv version.