A couple of months ago, Darren (the silent partner in the SV-POW! organisation) tweeted this photo …


… describing it as “Skull of the Morrison Formation Brachiosaurus at Denver Museum of Nature & Science”.


As Darren knows well (but didn’t have have space to explain in the tweet), it’s not quite as simple as that. What follows is adapted from Taylor 2009:789.

In 1883, a large sauropod skull (81 cm in length) was found in Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. It was shipped to O. C. Marsh in Yale that year and an illustration of the skull was used in his second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus (Marsh, 1891: plate 16).

Marsh's second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus, based primary on the holotype YPM 1980, using a skull based on the Felch Quarry specimen. From Marsh (1891:plate XVI)

Marsh’s second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus, based primary on the holotype YPM 1980, using a skull based on the Felch Quarry specimen. From Marsh (1891:plate XVI)

And here’s that skull in close-up:


This is often described as a “Camarasaurus-type” skull, but it’s not, really. It’s too long and low, and not stupid and ugly enough, to be Camarasaurus.

As we described in a previous post, this skull was also apparently the inspiration for the horrible, horrible sculpted skull that was originally used on the mounted Brontosaurus. (And let me reiterate my praise of the Yale museum for displaying this important historic object in their gallery instead of hiding it away.)

Anyway, the Felch Quarry skull was subsequently transferred to the National Museum of Natural History, where it was accessioned as USNM 5730. McIntosh and Berman (1975:195-198) recognized that whatever the skull was, it wasn’t Brontosaurus, but chickened out a bit by describing it as being “of the general Camarasaurus type” (p. 196). But McIntosh subsequently identified the skull tentatively as Brachiosaurus (Carpenter and Tidwell, 1998:70) and it was later described by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998), who considered it intermediate between the skulls of Camarasaurus and Giraffatitan, and referred it to Brachiosaurus sp.

The skull may be that of Brachiosaurus altithorax, but this is currently impossible to test due to the lack of comparable parts. Near this skull was a 99 cm cervical vertebra, probably of Brachiosaurus, but this was destroyed during attempts to collect it (McIntosh and Berman, 1975:196). Shame there are no photos.


  • Carpenter, Kenneth, and Virginia Tidwell. 1998. Preliminary description of a Brachiosaurus skull from Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Modern Geology 23:69-84.
  • Marsh, Othniel Charles. 1891. Restoration of Triceratops. American Journal of Science, Series 3, 41:339-342.
  • McIntosh, John S., and David S. Berman. 1975. Description of the palate and lower jaw of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus (Reptilia: Saurischia) with remarks on the nature of the skull of Apatosaurus. Journal of Paleontology 49:187-199.
  • Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.

I’ve been taking a long-overdue look at some of the recently-described giant sauropods from China, trying to sort out just how big they were. Not a new pursuit for me, just one I hadn’t been back to in a while. Also, I’m not trying to debunk anything about this animal – as far as I know, there was no bunk to begin with – I’m just trying to get a handle on how big it might have been, for my own obscure purposes.

‘Huanghetitan’ ruyangensis was named by Lu et al. (2007) on the basis of a sacrum, the first 10 caudal vertebrae, some dorsal ribs and haemal arches, and a partial ischium. The holotype is 41HIII-0001 in the Henan Geological Museum. Lu et al. (2007) referred the new animal to the genus Huanghetitan, which was already known from the type species H. liujiaxiaensis (You et al., 2006). However, Mannion et al. (2013) found that the two species are not sister taxa and therefore ‘H.’ ruyangensis probably belongs to another genus, which has yet to be erected. Hence my use of scare quotes around the genus name.

Huanghetitan ruyangensis sacrum comparison

Here’s the sacrum of ‘H.’ ruyangensis from Lu et al. (2007: fig. 2). The original small scale bar is supposed to be 10cm. You know how I feel about scale bars (or maybe you don’t, in which case read this and this), but in this case the scale seems pretty legit based on limited measurements that are also given in the paper. I comped in the sacrum of Brachiosaurus altithorax FMNH P25107 from this post (many thanks to Phil Mannion for the photos!), and scaled it according to the max width across the second pair of sacral ribs, which Riggs (1904: p. 236) gives as 105 cm. The sacrum of ‘H.’ ruyangensis is a little bigger, but not vastly bigger. ‘H.’ ruyangensis had six sacrals to Brachiosaurus‘s five, so extra length is mostly illusory, whereas the extra width is mostly legit.

According to Lu et al. (2007), the anterior face of the first caudal vertebra in ‘H.’ ruyangensis measures 26.9 cm tall by 32 cm wide, and the centrum is 18.2 cm long. The same measurements in Brachiosaurus are 28 x 33 cm for the anterior face and 16 cm for the centrum length. It’s basically a tie.

What about the big rib? Lu et al. (2007) show a complete dorsal rib of ‘H.’ ruyangensis that is 293 cm long. That’s nothing to sniff at – the longest rib of Brachiosaurus, and the cause for the specific name altithorax (‘tall-bodied’), measures 274.5 cm, so the ‘H.’ ruyangensis rib is about 7% longer. But it’s not the longest rib known for any sauropod. As far as I know, that honor goes to a Supersaurus dorsal rib measuring 305 cm (Lovelace et al., 2008). The biggest Supersaurus caudal also blows away the caudals of both ‘H.’ ruyangensis and Brachiosaurus, with a anterior face 39 cm tall by 46 cm wide. But then diplodocids were all about that bass, so there’s not much point in comparing tail size with a titanosauriform if you’re trying to get a handle on overall body size. Still, the 35-40 ton Supersaurus shows that you can have 3-meter ribs without being anywhere near Argentinosaurus territory, mass-wise.

So what’s the verdict? ‘H.’ ruyangensis was a little bigger than the holotype of Brachiosaurus altithorax, but only by a few percent. It might have been about the same size as the XV2 specimen of Giraffatitan brancai. Or, who knows, it could have had completely different proportions and massed considerably more (or less). But on the current evidence, it doesn’t seem to have been one of the biggest sauropods of all time. I hope we get some more of it one of these days.



Supersaurus vs Brachiosaurus - BYU 9024 and FMNH P25107

This was inspired by an email Mike sent a couple of days ago:

Remind yourself of the awesomeness of Giraffatitan:

Now think of this. Its neck is 8.5m long. Knock of one measly meter — for example, by removing one vertebra from the middle of the neck — and you have 7.5 m.

Supersaurus’s neck was probably TWICE that long.

Holy poo.

I replied that I was indeed freaked out, and that it had given me an idea for a post, which you are now reading. I didn’t have a Giraffatitan that was sufficiently distortion-free, so I used my old trusty Brachiosaurus. The vertebra you see there next to Mike and next to the neck of Brachiosaurus is BYU 9024, the longest vertebra that has ever been found from anything, ever.

Regarding the neck length of Supersaurus, and how BYU 9024 came to be referred to Supersaurus, here’s the relevant chunk of my dissertation (Wedel 2007: pp. 208-209):

Supersaurus is without question the longest-necked animal with preserved cervical material. Jim Jensen recovered a single cervical vertebra of Supersaurus from Dry Mesa Quarry in western Colorado. The vertebra, BYU 9024, was originally referred to “Ultrasauros”. Later, both the cervical and the holotype dorsal of “Ultrasauros” were shown to belong to a diplodocid, and they were separately referred to Supersaurus by Jensen (1987) and Curtice et al. (1996), respectively.

BYU 9024 has a centrum length of 1378 mm, and a functional length of 1203 mm (Figure 4-3). At 1400 mm, the longest vertebra of Sauroposeidon is marginally longer in total length [see this post for a visual comparison]. However, that length includes the prezygapophyses, which overhang the condyle, and which are missing from BYU 9024. The centrum length of the largest Sauroposeidon vertebra is about 1250 mm, and the functional length is 1190 mm. BYU 9024 therefore has the largest centrum length and functional length of any vertebra that has ever been discovered for any animal. Furthermore, the Supersaurus vertebra is much larger than the Sauroposeidon vertebrae in diameter, and it is a much more massive element overall.

Neck length estimates for Supersaurus vary depending on the taxon chosen for comparison and the serial position assumed for BYU 9024. The vertebra shares many similarities with Barosaurus that are not found in other diplodocines, including a proportionally long centrum, dual posterior centrodiapophyseal laminae, a low neural spine, and ventrolateral flanges that connect to the parapophyses (and thus might be considered posterior centroparapophyseal laminae, similar to those of Sauroposeidon). The neural spine of BYU 9024 is very low and only very slightly bifurcated at its apex. In these characters, it is most similar to C9 of Barosaurus. However, theproportions of the centrum of BYU 9024 are more similar to those of C14 of Barosaurus, which is the longest vertebra of the neck in AMNH 6341. BYU 9024 is 1.6 times as long as C14 of AMNH 6341 and 1.9 times as long as C9. If it was built like that of Barosaurus, the neck of Supersaurus was at least 13.7 meters (44.8 feet) long, and may have been as long as 16.2 meters (53.2 feet).

Based on new material from Wyoming, Lovelace et al. (2005 [published as Lovelace et al. 2008]) noted potential synapomorphies shared by Supersaurus and Apatosaurus. BYU 9024 does not closely resemble any of the cervical vertebrae of Apatosaurus. Instead of trying to assign its serial position based on morphology, I conservatively assume that it is the longest vertebra in the series if it is from an Apatosaurus-like neck. At 2.7 times longer than C11 of CM 3018, BYU 9024 implies an Apatosaurus-like neck about 13.3 meters
(43.6 feet) long.

Supersaurus vs Diplodocus BYU 9024 and USNM 10865 - Gilmore 1932 pl 6

Bonus comparo: BYU 9024 vs USNM 10865, the mounted Diplodocus longus at the Smithsonian, modified from Gilmore 1932 (plate 6). For this I scaled BYU 9024 against the 1.6-meter femur of this specimen.

If you’d like to gaze upon BYU 9024 without distraction, or put it into a composite of your own, here you go:

Supersaurus cervical BYU 9024




This is BYU 12867–you’ve seen it here before–in dorsal view. It’s not a brilliant shot–I took it through the glass of the display case while filming a documentary at the North American Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi, Utah, in 2008. Centrum length is 94 cm, total length with the overhanging prezygapophyses is over a meter.

As promised, some thoughts on the various new brachiosaur mass estimates in recent papers and blog-posts.

Back in 2008, when I did the GDI of Giraffatitan and Brachiosaurus for my 2009 paper on those genera, I came out with estimates of 28688 and 23337 kg respectively. At the time I said to Matt that I was suspicious of those numbers because they seemed too low. He rightly told me to shut up and put my actual results in the paper.

More recently, Benson et al. (2014) used limb-bone measurements to estimate the masses of the same individuals as 56000 and 34000 kg. When Ian Corfe mentioned this in a comment, my immediate reaction was to be sceptical: “I’m amazed that the two more recent papers have got such high estimates for brachiosaurs, which have the most gracile humeri of all sauropods“.

So evidently I have a pretty strong intuition that Brachiosaurus massed somewhere in the region of 35000 kg and Giraffatitan around 30000 kg. But why? Where does that intuition come from?

I can only assume that my strongly held ideas are based only on what I’d heard before. Back when I did my 2008 estimate, I probably had in mind things like Paul’s (1998) estimate of 35000 kg for Brachiosaurus, and Christiansen’s (1997:67) estimate of 37400 for Giraffatitan. Whereas by the time the Benson et al. paper came out I’d managed to persuade myself that my own much lower estimates were right. In other words, I think my sauropod-mass intuition is based mostly on sheer mental inertia, and so should be ignored.

I’m guessing I should ignore your intuitions about sauropod masses, too.


In recent photo posts on the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton and its bones in the ground, I’ve lamented that the Field Museum’s online photo archive is so unhelpful: for example, if it has a search facility, I’ve not been able to find it.

But the good news is that there’s a Field Museum Photo Archives tumblr. Its coverage is of course spotty, but it gives us at least some chance of finding useful brachiosaur images. Like this one of the sixth presacral vertebra (i.e. probably D7 in a column of 12 dorsals):


It’s instructive to compare that with Riggs’s (1904: plate LXXII) illustration of the same vertebra in the same aspect, in which he almost literally airbrushed out the jigsaw-puzzle complexity of the preserved bone surface:



More disturbing still, compare that old photograph with my own (terrible) 2005 photo of the same vertebra:


It looks very much as though the vertebra itself — not just Riggs’s illustration — has been “improved” since the older photo was taken exactly a century earlier in 1905. This is a constant problem when dealing with old fossils.

Here are three more interesting photos from the Tumblr. First, the Brachiosaurus fossils in the field:


This is evidently from later in the excavation process than the previous photo of this area, since much of the material is now jacketed. That’s the femur in front of shot, here seen in anteromedial view, with the top towards the right.

Next up, this photo purports to be “Thirteen men including Security Guard unloading dorsal vertebrae of type specimen Brachiosaurus fossil”:


But in fact it’s not Brachiosaurus — the neural spines are too tall and slender. I am pretty sure this is Riggs’s Apatosaurus — the rightmost dorsal has that distinctive notch on the dorsal aspect of the neural spine. And indeed, checking his monograph on that specimen (Riggs 1903: plate XLVI), I see that its dorsals were distorted in this way, and that the front-centre vert is a fine match for its D10.

Finally, there’s this one of the prep room:


On the far left, we have the still-jacketed Brachiosaurus femur; next to it stands Harold W. Menke, who discovered the fossil; and to his right is Elmer S. Riggs, who wrote the description.

Those are all the Brachiosaurus-related images I’ve been able to find on the tumblr. But do let me know if you find any others.


  • Riggs, Elmer S. 1903. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part I: Apatosaurus Marsh. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:165-196.
  • Riggs, Elmer S. 1904. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part II, the Brachiosauridae. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:229-247.


Continuing our Brachiosaurus series [part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6, part 7], here is another historically important photo scanned from the Glut encyclopaedia: this time, from Supplement 1 (2000), page 157.


This is the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107 in the field, at Grand Junction, Colorado, in 1900. Clearly visible are the seven presacral vertebrae running across the middle of the photo (upside-down, so we see their ventral surfaces), several ribs on either side, and the end of a long-bone to the left — most likely the distal end of the femur.  The flat bone at bottom left is probably part of the ilium, with the circular cut-out being the acetabulum. (The caption also mentions the sacrum, which I can’t see.)

As with the photo of the mounted skeleton in the museum, this is one of the Field Museum’s own photos — neg. #4027 — but I can’t find a better copy online. It’s got to be out there somewhere — can anyone help?


Glut, Donald F. 2000. Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia: Supplement 1. McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. 442 pages.


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