Get down, get fuzzy, speculative juvenile Apatosaurus!

February 27, 2013

Fuzzy Apato Juvenile by Niroot

Well, this is rad. And adorable. Brian Switek, whom we adore, commissioned a fuzzy juvenile sauropod from Niroot, whom we adore, for his (Brian’s) upcoming book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, which I am gearing up to adore. And here is the result, which I adore, borrowed with permission from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.

There is much to like here. Here’s my rundown:

  • Small forefeet that are the correct shape: good. Maybe too small, given that young animals often have big feet. But better too small than too big, given how often people screw this up.
  • Pronounced forelimb-hindlimb disparity: win.
  • Fat neck: pretty good.

In fact, let me interrupt the flow of praise here to put in Brant Bassam’s dorsal view of his mounted Phil Platt model Apatosaurus skeleton. I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while now and haven’t gotten to it, so now’s a good time: just look at how friggin’ FAT that neck is, and how it blends in with the body, and how the tail gets a lot skinnier a lot quicker (and, yeah, caudofemoralis, but not that much).  Now, go look at a bunch of life restorations of Apatosaurus–drawings, paintings, sculptures, toys, whatever–and see how many people get this wrong, by giving Apatosaurus a too-skinny neck. The answer is, damn near everyone.

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in dorsal view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of BrantWorks.com.

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in dorsal view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of BrantWorks.com.

Okay, back to Niroot’s baby:

  • Proportionally shorter neck and tail because it’s a juvenile: win.
  • Neck wrinkles possibly corresponding to vertebrae: okay, just this once.
  • Greenish fuzz possibly functioning as camouflage: We-ell

Yes, it’s true that all of the known sauropod skin impressions show scales, not fuzz. But. We don’t have anything like full-body coverage. And I suspect that there is a collection bias against fuzzy skin impressions. Scaly skin impressions are probably easier to recognize than 3D feathery skin impressions (as opposed to feathers preserved flat as at Liaoning and Solnhofen) because the latter probably just look like wavy patterns on rock, and who is looking for feather impressions when swinging a pickaxe at a sauropod’s back end? And how many sauropods get buried in circumstances delicate enough to preserve dinofuzz anyway? Also, some kind of fuzz is probably primitive for Ornithodira, and scales do not necessarily indicate that feathers were absent because owl legs. So is this speculative? Yes. Is it out of the question? I think not. In the spirit of Mythbusters, I’m calling it ‘plausible’.

Oh, one more thing: Niroot posted this in honor of Brian Switek’s birthday. Happy birthday, Brian! (You owe me a book!)

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19 Responses to “Get down, get fuzzy, speculative juvenile Apatosaurus!”

  1. Dino Hunter Says:

    Fuzy Sauropods, Give me a break! This is taking feathered dinosaurs way to far! You KNOW for a fact that sauropods had scales!

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes; as noted in the article.

  3. Duane Says:

    Nice pic. I’ve often wondered if sauropods had some rather intricate counter-current heat exchange systems going on in their distal parts. Aquatic birds with naked legs have such and heat is lost much faster in the water than in the air. Of course I don’t see how we could find proof for countercurrent heat exchange in sauropods. Shucks.


  4. I love the concept! I’m all for fuzzy sauropods, I’ve been hoping someone would do this in artwork!


  5. The “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” tack is a good one, but it can be wrongly used. Such as: to say that because we don’t have preservation of a structure, it is still plausible to suggest it is there. When does the sciencing start? To me, it doesn’t. Problematically, there are counterindications for this type of stuff — preservation of squamous, knobbly sauropod skin impression, most of it undescribed — and there is almost no data indicating extent of “fuzzy” integument over body. The “stripe of feathers” thing? Arises from speculation that animals would have developed only partial “fuzzy” integument at some point prior to becoming fully covered in the stuff; with all due respect to Niroot, it simply isn’t reasonable. (I go whole hog on the “fuzzy” integument of sauropods and its discussion here. You are welcome to participate.)

    And I do mean “fully:” There is no evidence that “dinofuzz” Stage I-III feathers existed in pterylae-like tracts, but rather the opposite, where it seems aside from some sections of the body (feet, hands?), animals so covered have it everywhere, such as Sinosauropteryx prima. (The peculiarity of Juravenator starki does not negate this particular aspect of my argument: I wouldn’t settle on its systematics just yet, it being a juvenile and such being notoriously unstable in phylogenies.)

    Indeed, we can leave Theropoda and this will still be true, as the ornithischian Tianyulong confuciusi shows. If anything, were they so covered, it will be everywhere, or nowhere. Thus, one may argue, evidence for squamation voids any potential for “fuzz.”

    We can, therefore, make with a higher than “shrug” level of certainty that the likelihood of “fuzzy” sauropods is LOW. So low, I’d bet you money on it. Smaller sauropodomorphan? Sure, I’ll give you a fuzzy Massospondylus carinatus myself. But I think the value of larger body size, semi-tropical biome, and a “fuzzy” prehistory will follow the trend seen in mammals: That there will be a diminishing size and distribution of nonsquamous integument to the point that you could illustrate it just as before, full of the knobs and bumps and dermal “armor” and it would look no different.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    If our knowledge of elephants came from fossil skeletons and rare patches of preserved fossil skin, we wouldn’t guess that they had hairy tails. We’d be even less likely to predict this: a “crown” of fur surprisingly like what’s illustrated in Niroot’s ‘podlet.


  7. We need some taphonomic studies on how various kinds of integument are lost during decay. As examples like the “Montauk Monster” show, hair-like integument seems to go completely pretty quickly after death, especially if the corpse is submerged in water. Elephants are covered in sparse hair, but would this show up in fossil skin impressions even if it didn’t fall out soon after the mummification process started? Would coarse pebbly skin like in some birds and large relatively hairless mammals be distinguishable from scales? Etc.

  8. himmapaan Says:

    Thank you so much, Matt!
    I must say, I rather regretted the neck ‘wrinkles’ soon after the illustration was completed but of course by then, it was too late. Now, I prefer necks more like this or this, where the wrinkles, if any, are simply folds of skin, rather than trying to correspond to the vertebrae. The fuzz is brownish rather than greenish, but it probably looks different on different screens; not that it matters a great deal!

    I do wish people would read my accompanying explanation before they raise an outcry, as I expected they would (this has certainly taken place elsewhere, too). ;) In many ways, Brian’s request for this piece was a slightly light-hearted one. For my part, I have no pretensions towards any kind of artistic provocation for its own sake, as anyone who knows me understands. :P

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    I do wish people would read my accompanying explanation before they raise an outcry

    Hell, I wish they’d read my accompanying explanation before they raised an outcry. I’m pretty sure I acknowledged that all of the known sauropod skin impressions show scales, not fuzz. Oh yes, here it is, from the very start of the fuzz discussion: “All of the known sauropod skin impressions show scales, not fuzz.”

    Perhaps I should just be grateful for commenters who are so thoughtful that they will patiently explain stuff I already said to me.


  10. As far as I am aware, the only comprehensive skin impressions are from the Auca Mahuevo titanosaur embryos. Only faulty typological thinking could lead you to infer from that that all sauropods must have been scaly. Instead, phylogenetic bracketing tells us that quills are probably (although far from definitely) an ancestral sauropodomorph trait that was lost somewhere in the lineage leading to the Auca Mahuevo titanosaurs. Where in that lineage? We have absolutely no idea.

    Elephants are an interesting example because Elephas is more closely related to woolly mammoths than to Loxodonta. The distribution can be complex!


  11. Matt Wedel and Natee both raise points that seem to aver I am “rais[ing] an outcry” at this. I am not; I have nothing but admiration for Natee’s likely superior skill with graphite, and the rendering itself is beautiful, and its subject matter appropriately steeped in the scare quotes of speculation. Despite my blog making a big issue of what could become a problem in artists splashing feathers or fuzz about the place all slap-dash and whatnot, I do note THERE that the speculation is simply that. I acknowledge this in multiple places, including when Mark Witton and I discussed this on HIS blog, on Facebook, elsewhere with others on DA, my blog, etc.. The “outcry” of my large reply is based SOLELY on the seemingly detraction from that point Matt reiterates. For immediately after his reiteration, he had written:

    But. We don’t have anything like full-body coverage. And I suspect that there is a collection bias against fuzzy skin impressions. Scaly skin impressions are probably easier to recognize than 3D feathery skin impressions (as opposed to feathers preserved flat as at Liaoning and Solnhofen) because the latter probably just look like wavy patterns on rock, and who is looking for feather impressions when swinging a pickaxe at a sauropod’s back end? And how many sauropods get buried in circumstances delicate enough to preserve dinofuzz anyway?

    Yes, there are difficulties in knowing FOR SURE about the preservation of these structures, but Matt spends the greater chunk of his paragraph explaining away certainty of the fuzz-less sauropod ideal, not the fuzzy one. Forgive me for repeating what was said, when the discussion seemed to be going the way of pushing these factors aside. (I am also aware of the problems of assuming adult integument from perinates.) But let me make clear my major thrust here: The very logic that allows one to bracket any mammal in heavy volumes of fur can be used for any dinosaur, any bird, etc., yet we know that expression (and probably distribution) of these structures involves other rules. It is those rules we should be looking for, such as those that show elephants are hairy, but not sloth-like in pelage. These rules should override our predilection for speculation: speculation should fall in the grey zone where the science doesn’t have something to say, where the bracket or the expectation don’t reject, or the null hypothesis cannot be overturned. As an additional point, I should note that we have data on a heterodontosaurid and a basal ceratopsian both from the EK of China with vastly different integument — despite the environment for these two animals being fairly similar, the sediments the same, certainly similar temperate environment, and even at the same latitude (and nearly longitutde).

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    Despite my blog making a big issue of what could become a problem in artists splashing feathers or fuzz about the place all slap-dash and whatnot, I do note THERE that the speculation is simply that.

    As do I. From the post: “So is this speculative? Yes.”

    It is those rules we should be looking for, such as those that show elephants are hairy, but not sloth-like in pelage. These rules should override our predilection for speculation:

    I thought I was looking for those rules when I wrote the paragraph about the possibility of fuzzy sauropods, and clearly identified it as speculation.

    On the actual points, we seem to be in pretty good agreement.

  13. himmapaan Says:

    Have no fear, Jaime, I didn’t charge you with that at all. :) I should have made that much clearer. You have never been guilty of what could be called an ‘outcry’. As Matt says, on the actual points, we are in agreement. I refer more to the very first comment here and others of its nature that I’ve received elsewhere.


  14. [...] explained the thinking behind the piece sufficiently on his own blog. In the brave new world of integumentarily enhanced ornithodirans, these diamantinasaurs are certainly interesting but not particularly outlandish (Brian’s [...]

  15. David Marjanović Says:

    What I don’t understand is where the paleoartist tradition of feathers as dorsal structures comes from. Did Paul (1988) make it up from whole cloth?

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Mayr et al’s (2002) bristly Psitaccosaurus?


  17. Early reconstructions of Sinosauropteryx probably helped too, where the filaments preserved along the dorsal midline were initially interpreted as the full extent of the integumentary covering. In both cases I wonder how much taphonomy has to do with it, given the variation in apparently feathered areas in specimens of S. prima, Yutyrannus, etc. As Koseman pointed out in his All Yesterdays book launch presentation, the bristly Psittacosaurus could be a dinosaurian Montauk Monster for all we know.


  18. […] Well, I think it’s awesome. And entirely plausible, for reasons already explained in this post. […]


  19. […] with human arms. And while Pleo-sized apatosaur infants would be pretty cute, especially if any were fuzzy, they’d soon grow too large to curl up on your lap. Fast-growing Apatosaurus may have packed […]


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