The case of the bandy-legged Diplodocus

March 1, 2014

Christine Argot of the MNHN, Paris, drew our attention to this wonderful old photo (from here, original caption reproduced below):

© Paleontological Museum, Moscow In the beginning of XX century, the Severo-Dvinskaya gallery (named after prof. Amalitsky) became the gold basis of the exhibition hall of ancient life in the Geological Museum of St-Petersburg. The museum hall was completed with a cast of the Diplodicus carnegii skeleton presented by E.Carnegy fund in 1913, at the 300-th anniversary of the Romanovs dynasty.

© Paleontological Museum, Moscow
In the beginning of XX century, the Severo-Dvinskaya gallery (named after prof. Amalitsky) became the gold basis of the exhibition hall of ancient life in the Geological Museum of St-Petersburg. The museum hall was completed with a cast of the Diplodicus carnegii skeleton presented by E.Carnegy fund in 1913, at the 300-th anniversary of the Romanovs dynasty.

I found a different version of what seems to be the same photo (greyscaled, lower resolution, but showing more of the surrounding area) here:

1932-jyosqjdogynshijh rp cpodtegqnhjimtgalwjo

What we have here is a truly bizarre mount of Diplodocus — almost certainly one of the casts of the D. carnegii holotype CM 84 — with perfectly erect, parasagittal hind-limbs, but bizarrely everted elbows.

There are a few mysteries here.

First, where and when was this photo taken? Christine’s email described this as a “picture of a Diplodocus cast taken in St. Petersburg around 1920″, and the caption above seems to confirm that location; but then why is it copyright the Paleontological Museum, Moscow? Since the web-site in question is for a Swedish museum, it’s not forthcoming.

The second photo is from the web-site of the Borisyak Paleontological Institute in Moscow, but that site unfortunately provides no caption. The juxtaposition with two more modern Diplodocus-skeleton photos that are from its own gallery perhaps suggest that the modern mount shown in the more recent photographs is a re-pose of the old mount in the black-and white photo. If so, that might mean that the skeleton was actually in Moscow all along rather than St. Petersburg, or perhaps that it was moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow and  remounted there.

Does anyone know? Has anyone out there visited the St. Petersburg museum recently and seen whether there is still a Diplodocus skeleton there? If so, is it still mounted in this bizarre way? Better yet, do you have photos?

Tornier's sprawling, disarticulated reconstruction of Diplodocus, modified from Tornier (1909, plate II).

Tornier’s sprawling, disarticulated reconstruction of Diplodocus, modified from Tornier (1909, plate II).

The second question of course is why was this posture used? This pose makes no sense for several reasons — one of which is that even if Diplodocus could attain this posture it would only serve to leave the forefeet under the torso in the same position as erect forelimbs would have them. The pose only makes any kind of sense at all if you imagine the animal lowering its torso to drink; but given that it had a flexible six-meter-long neck, that hardly seems necessary.

Of course Diplodocus does have a history of odd postures: because of the completeness of the D. carnegii holotype, it became the subject of the Sauropod Posture Wars between Tornier, Hay and Holland in the early 20th Century. Both Tornier (1909) and Hay (1910) favoured a sprawling posture like that of lizards (see images above and below), and were soundly refuted by Holland

The form and attitudes of Diplodocus. Hay (1910: plate 1)

The form and attitudes of Diplodocus. Hay (1910: plate 1)

But the Tornier and Hay postures bear no relation to that of the mounted skeleton in the photographs above: they position the forefeet far lateral to the torso, and affect the hindlimbs as well as the forelimbs. So whatever the Russian mount was doing, I don’t think it can have been intended as a representation of the Tornier/Hay hypothesis.

But it gets even weirder. Christine tells me that “I’m aware of [...] the tests that Holland performed on the Russian cast to get rid of the hypothesis suggesting a potential lizard-like posture. So I think that he would have never allowed such a posture for one of the casts he mounted himself.” Now I didn’t know that Holland had executed the mounting of this cast. Assuming that’s right, it makes it even more inexplicable that he would have allowed such a posture.

Or did he?

Christine’s email finishes by asking: “What do you think? do you think that somebody could have come behind Holland to change the position? do you know any colleague or publication who could mention this peculiar cast and comment its posture?”

Can anyone help?

References

  • Hay, Oliver. P. 1910. On the manner of locomotion of the dinosaurs, especially Diplodocus, with remarks on the origin of birds. Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences 12(1):1-25.
  • Holland, W. J. 1910. A review of some recent criticisms of the restorations of sauropod dinosaurs existing in the museums of the United States, with special reference to that of Diplodocus carnegiei in the Carnegie museum. American Naturalist 44:259-283.
  • Nieuwland, Ilja. 2010. The colossal stranger. Andrew Carnegie and Diplodocus intrude European Culture, 1904–1912. Endeavour 34(2):61-68.
  • Tornier, Gustav. 1909. Wie war der Diplodocus carnegii wirklich gebaut? Sitzungsbericht der Gesellschaft naturforschender Freunde zu Berlin 4:193– 209.
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19 Responses to “The case of the bandy-legged Diplodocus


  1. You write: “Tornier (1909) and Hay (2010).” Obviously, you mean “Hay (1910).”

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I do indeed! Thanks for spotting this, now fixed.

  3. Kurt Kohler Says:

    Strangely the critter behind Diplodocus has straight legs front and back.
    Or is that really a sauropod? The neck seems awfully short. Or is it just perspective that makes it look that way?

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    I did wonder about the erect-legged animal in the background. Given the Indricotherium mural on the wall behind it, I suspect that might be what it is.

  5. Kurt Kohler Says:

    I didn’t even notice the mural. Indricotherium sounds reasonable. It did cross my mind that it might be a mammal. It’s just so big!

  6. Allen Hazen Says:

    I take it the caption was machine-translated? (“Gold basis” sounds like a literal but not idiomatic translation of the Russian (?) for “gold standard”.)

  7. Mark Robinson Says:

    Where and when was this photo taken?

    The 4th para of the page first linked above states that the Palaeontological Museum moved from St Petersburg to Moscow in 1934 along with the rest of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Good old Wikipedia says the same thing altho’ there’s no in-line citation so that source is not necessarily different from above. This suggests that the photo was taken in St Petersburg (or, rather, Leningrad as it was then known) and also explains why the image is now © the Paleontological Museum, Moscow.

    As for when, Carnegie’s donation was unveiled in 1910, so that gives us a 24-year window. However, I note that the filename of the grey-scale photo starts with “1932” so perhaps it is as easy as that?

    Why was this posture used?

    Isn’t that stance basically what was long proposed for ceratopsians? I wonder if it was simply copied from that? /hand-waving

    Also, despite what the first caption says, I don’t think the Severo-Dvinskaya gallery is named after Amalitsky. Pretty sure it’s named after the Severnaya (Northern) Dvina River where most of the establishing specimens were found.

    Lastly, I’m certain also that the large skeleton in the background is Paraceratherium/Indricotherium.

  8. Allen Hazen Says:

    Looking at the website again… Probably machine-translated from Swedish. (The bit about the museum moving to Moscow in 1934: the English translation has a “for” in it, suggesting the move was temporary — for seven years — but the French translation (there are LOTS of languages to choose from; click at the top of the page) doesn’t have any equivalent: the intended meaning, then, is that the move was made seven years before WW II.)

    And the text– just below the photo– says that the collection had an Indricotherium added to it, which is consistent with the critter behind the half-kneeling Diplodocus being an Indricotherium.

  9. Simone Says:

    “Does anyone know? Has anyone out there visited the St. Petersburg museum recently and seen whether there is still a Diplodocus skeleton there? If so, is it still mounted in this bizarre way? Better yet, do you have photos?”

    If I remember correctly, this is one of the 10 copies of D. carnegii. But is actually lost because has been used as a basis for a concrete copy that should be exposed outside the ?Moscow museum. Unfortunately, this process has irreparably damaged the “original” copy. This story was told to me to a member of the Bologna museum (Italy) that has another copy of the same skeleton.

    But search for a confirmation, i’m not confident of my memory! :)

  10. Simone P. Says:

    This story was told to me *from* a member

  11. Bryan Riolo Says:

    The pose makes sense if the animal was getting ready to lay eggs. Think about it… :)

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Only if its cloaca was at the front of its torso rather than in the more conventional location at the back.

  13. Bryan Riolo Says:

    Unless the Diplodocus could not bend its arms that way…you’d know better than me…it makes perfect sense. The bending of the arms in the mount might have been meant to be the first stage: first, it lets itself down a bit in front, then squats at the rear, to lay its eggs gently in the nest. When it’s done, it has all four limbs in position to push up and get to a standing pose. I’ve seen representations of sauropod egg laying where the animal squats in the rear only, which puts all the weight on the beast’s rear legs and makes it very liable to fall down. All fours squatting might have been beneficial for the animal’s blood pressure, as in not putting so much stress on the cardiovascular system in the hindquarters.

    I’m not saying sauropods like Diplodocus laid their eggs that way, but it MIGHT have been part of the reasoning behind this peculiar mount. Nothing I’ve read about Holland suggests he was stupid or given to great flights of fancy in his work.

  14. Required Name Says:

    obviously russian Diplodocus is gently taking a bow

  15. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    Or it was originally mounted in a location with a low ceiling so they bowed the forelimbs so it would fit and then moved it to the location in the photo but retained the posture though it no longer had a purpose. An artifact of its history. Total WAG but at least it’s got a poetic resonance with evolved organisms.

  16. iljajj Says:

    The photo is clearly taken in the Neskuchny Palace, which housed Diplodocus between 1934 and 1941. I’m grateful for the photograph, since the only one I have is taken from the back and doesn’t show the front legs as clearly. T

  17. iljajj Says:

    o me, this clearly looks like an Abel-ian interpretation of Diplodocus.

    The cast is still around, and is now residing in the Orlov museum of natural history in Moscow.

  18. iljajj Says:

    Finally: the St. Petersburg Diplodocus was placed in 1910, not 1913. The correspondence between the museum and Carnegie’s people does not suggest any link to the Romanovs’ tercentennial.


  19. […] did a century ago. The St. Petersburg mount was circulated among a number of Russian museums, and may have been destroyed in an effort to make new molds from the bones. The concrete Diplodocus in Vernal has likewise been […]


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