May 3, 2012

I’m in Chicago, visiting the Field Museum, which means two things: Brachiosaurus (see below), and Mold-A-Rama. Downstairs from the great hall, on the ground floor, they have Mold-A-Rama machines, and I cannot resist their siren song.

The Mold-A-Rama is the king of novelty souvenirs. You can keep your stamped pennies, little pewter spoons, hand-painted bells, and refrigerator magnets. None of them is worthy to sully the presence of the awesome Mold-A-Rama. You put in two dollars, and then you get to watch as this hissing, clanking 1950s machine with tubes and wires and lights actually makes your item right in front of your eyes. A few minutes later, BAM, you’re holding a hot, smelly hunk of probably carcinogenic plastic that is so fresh from the mold that it is still a bit soft. You can’t buy that kind of authenticity–except from a Mold-A-Rama.

See that red thing, newly made, still in the bowels of the machine? That is MY T. rex!

This is my first Mold-A-Rama Triceratops. I already have a T. rex from my last visit, way back in 2005, which I can now pass on to my son. I also have a Stegosaurus, a Brontosaurus (shown but not commented on here), and a Trachodon. Yeah, yeah, I know the real animals are known as Apatosaurus and Edmontosaurus these days, but I’m not talking about the real animals. I’m talking about Mold-A-Rama, and trust me, the Mold-A-Rama critters are Brontosaurus and Trachodon. They drag their tails, they live in swamps, they’re cold-blooded and they died out from racial senescence (in about 1975, I think).

Finally, because Mike will straight-up murder me if I post from Chicago without it, here’s your friendly local not-quite-fully-mature mounted holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus:

Last time, we saw why Haplocanthosaurus couldn’t be a juvenile of Apatosaurus or Diplodocus, based on osteology alone.  But there’s more:

Ontogenetic status of Haplocanthosaurus

Here is where is gets really surreal.  Woodruff and Fowler (2012) blithely assume that Haplocanthosaurus is a juvenile of something, but the type specimen of the type species — H. priscus CM 572 — is an adult.  As Hatcher (1903:3) explains:

The type No. 572 of the present genus consists of the two posterior cervicals, ten dorsals, five sacrals, nineteen caudals, both ilia, ischia and pubes, two chevrons, a femur and a nearly complete series of ribs, all in an excellent state of preservation and pertaining to an individual fully adult as is shown by the coössified neural spines and centra.

So far as I can see, Woodruff and Fowler are confused because the second species that Hatcher describes, H. utterbacki, is based on the subadult specimen CM 879.  Where possible in the previous post, I have used illustrations of the adult H. priscus, so that the comparisons are of adult with adult.  The exceptions are the two anterior cervicals and the first dorsal, which are known only from H. utterbacki.  And sure enough, if you look closely at the illustrations, you can see that in these vertebrae and only these vertebrae, Hatcher had the neurocentral junction illustrated — because it wasn’t yet fused.

Haplocanthosaurus posterior, mid and anterior cervical vertebrae, C14, C9 and C4, in right lateral view. C14 of adult H. priscus (from Hatcher 1903:plate I); C9 and C4 of H. utterbacki (from plate II). Red ellipses highlight neurocentral sutures.

As it happens, the difference in ontogenetic status between these two specimens is nicely illustrated by Wedel (2009), although he was only in it for the pneumaticity:

Neurocentral fusion in Haplocanthosaurus. A, B. Posterior cervical vertebra C?12 of sub-adult H. utterbacki holotype CM 879: A, X-ray in right lateral view; B, coronal CT slice showing separate ossificaton of centrum and neural arch. C, D. Mid-dorsal vertebra D6 of adult H. priscus holotype CM 572: X-rays in (A) right lateral and (B) anterior view, showing fully fused neural arch. Wedel (2009:fig. 6)

So H. utterbacki CM 879 certainly is an immature form of something; and that something is Haplocanthosaurus, most likely H. priscus.  (The characters which Hatcher used to separate the two species are not particularly convincing.)

With that out the way, we can move on to …

Phylogenetic analysis

A simple way to evaluate the parsimony or otherwise of a synonymy is to use a phylogenetic analysis. In their abstract, Woodruff and Fowler claim that “On the basis of shallow bifurcation of its cervical and dorsal neural spines, the small diplodocid Suuwassea is more parsimoniously interpreted as an immature specimen of an already recognized diplodocid taxon”.  Without getting into the subject of Suuwassea again — Matt pretty much wrapped that up in part 4 — the point here is that the word “parsimony” has a particular meaning in studies of evolution: it refers to minimising the number of character-state changes.  And we have tools for measuring those.

So let’s use parsimony to evaluate the hypothesis that Haplocanthosaurus is one of the previously known diplodocids.  Pretending for the moment that Haplocanthosaurus really was known only from subadults, how many additional steps would we need to account for if ontogeny were to change its position to make it group with one of the diplodocids?

You don’t need to be a cladistics wizard to do this.  (Which is handy, since I am not one.)  Here’s the method:

  • Start with an existing matrix, add constraints, re-run it, and see how the tree-length changes.  Since I am familiar with it, I started with the matrix from my 2009 paper on brachiosaurs.
  • Re-run the matrix to verify that you get the same result as in the published paper based on it.  This gives you confidence that you’re running it right.  In this case, I got a minimum tree length of 791 steps, just as in Taylor (2009).
  • Add extra instructions to the run-script defining and imposing constraints.  Note that you do not have to mess with the characters, taxa or codings to do this.
  • Run the matrix again, with the constraint in place, and see how the tree-length changes.
  • Repeat as needed with other constraints to evaluate other phylogenetric hypotheses.

(This is how we produced the part of the Brontomerus paper (Taylor et al. 2011:89) where we said “One further step is sufficient to place Brontomerus as a brachiosaurid, a basal (non−camarasauromorph) macronarian, a basal (non−diplodocid) diplodocoid or even a non−neosauropod. Three further steps are required for Brontomerus to be recovered as a saltasaurid, specifically an opisthocoelicaudiine”.  And that’s why we weren’t at all dogmatic about its position.)

Anyway, going through this exercise with Haplocanthosaurus constrained in turn to be the sister taxon to Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, etc., yielded the following results:

  • (no constraint) –  791 steps
  • Apatosaurus — 817 (26 extra)
  • Diplodocus — 825 (34 extra)
  • Barosaurus — 815 (24 extra)
  • Camarasaurus — 793 (2 extra)
  • Brachiosaurus — 797 (6 extra)

(I threw in the other well-known Morrisson-Formation sauropods Camarasaurus and Brachiosaurus, even though Woodruff and Fowler don’t mention them, just because it was easy to do and I was interested to see what would happen.  And when I say Brachiosaurus, I mean B. altithorax, not Giraffatitan.)

I hope you’re as shocked as I am to see that for Haplocanthosaurus to emerge as the sister taxon of any diplodocid needs a minimum of 24 additional steps — or an incredible 34 for it to be sister to Diplodocus.  In other words, the hypothesis is grossly unparsimonious.  Of course, that doesn’t in itself mean that it’s false: but it does render it an extraordinary claim, which means that it needs extraordinary evidence.  And while “the simple spines of Haplocanthosaurus might bifurcate when it grows up” is extraordinary evidence, it’s not in the way that Carl Sagan meant it.

In short, running this simple exercise — it took me about a hour, mostly to remember how to do constraints in PAUP* — would have given Woodruff and Fowler pause for thought before dragging Haplocanthosaurus into their paper.

Oh, and it’s ironic that placing Haplo as sister to Brachiosaurus requires only a quarter as many steps as the closest diplodocid, and as sister to Camarasaurus requires only two steps.  If you really want to synonymise Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus is the place to start.  (But don’t get excited, it’s not Camarasaurus either.  It’s Haplocanthosaurus.)

[By the way, anyone who'd like to replicate this experiment for themselves is welcome: all the files are available on my web-site.  You only really need the .nex file, which you can feed to PAUP*, but I threw in the log-file, the generated tree files and the summary file, too.  Extra Credit: run this same exercise to evaluate the parsimony of Suuwassea as a subadult of one of these other genera.  Report back here when you're done to earn SV-POW! points.]


It’s a truism that we stand on the shoulders of giants.  In the case of sauropod studies, those giants are people like J. B. Hatcher, Charles Gilmore, Osborn and Mook and — bringing it up to date — John McIntosh, Paul Upchurch, Jeff Wilson and Jerry Harris.  When Hatcher described Haplocanthosaurus as a new genus rather than a subadult Diplodocus, he wasn’t naive.  He recognised the effects of ontogeny, and he was aware that one of his two specimens was adult and the other subadult.  He was also probably more familiar with Diplodocus osteology than anyone else has ever been before or since, having written the definitive monograph on that animal just two years previously (Hatcher 1901).

By the same token, people like Upchurch and Wilson have done us all a huge favour by making the hard yards in sauropod phylogenetics.  If we’re going to go challenging the standard consensus phylogeny, it’s just good sense to go back to their work (or the more recent work of others, such as Whitlock 2011), re-run the analyses with our pet hypotheses encoded as constraints, and see what they tell us.

So in the end, my point is this: let’s not waste our giants.  Let’s take the time to get up on their shoulders and survey the landscape from up there, rather than staying down at ground level and seeing how high we can jump from a standing start.

The rest of the series

Links to all of the posts in this series:

and the post that started it all:


  • Hatcher, J.B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy, and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63.
  • Hatcher, J.B. 1903. Osteology of Haplocanthosaurus with description of a new species, and remarks on the probable habits of the Sauropoda and the age and origin of the Atlantosaurus beds; additional remarks on Diplodocus. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 2:1-75.
  • Taylor, M.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.
  • Taylor, M.P., Wedel, M.J. and Cifelli, R.L. 2011. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98. doi:10.4202/app.2010.0073
  • Wedel, M.J. 2009. Evidence for bird-like air sacs in saurischian dinosaurs. Journal of Experimental Zoology 311A:611-628.
  • Whitlock, J.A. 2011. A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161(4):872-915. doi: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00665.x
  • Woodruff, D.C, and Fowler, D.W. 2012. Ontogenetic influence on neural spine bifurcation in Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda): a critical phylogenetic character. Journal of Morphology, online ahead of print.

In a new comment on an oldish post, Peter Adlam asked:

I recently happened upon a picture of the late Jim Jenson standing beside the huge front leg of “Ultrasauros”, which leads me to ask a few questions. Did he really find a complete forelimb? Was the leg from Brachiosaurus altithorax? If that leg is valid at actual size how tall/long was the whole animal? It looks to be about 40% to 50% taller than the berlin Giraffatitan, I am guessing the leg is a constructed representation of how the leg would look rather than a cast of the actual leg because if the whole front leg was found they would probably be the most talked about sauropod bones in the world and the fact is I’ve heard pretty much nothing about these remains for years.

I answered this in a followup comment, but because the answer involved a few nice images, I thought it ought to be promoted into a post of its own.  So here it is, in expanded form.

I believe I know the picture Peter was talking about: it was either the one on the right, of Jensen working on the limb in the lab, or the one below of the same limb, again with Jensen, this time out in the desert.

As an aside: based on a post by ReBecca Hunt-Foster (scroll down to the 12th picture), it looks like this forelimb may have ended up in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Stuff (NMMNHS).

Anyway, the bad news is that, no, this is not a complete forelimb fossil. The worse news is that the limb is not even partly cast from real material: it’s a pure sculpture, based presumably on the forelimb of Giraffatitan brancai, but scaled up according to Jensen’s idea of how big “Ultrasauros” was. The only part of the model that probably was cast from real material is not part of the limb proper, but the scapulocoracoid — which is the only real brachiosaur element that Jensen found and described from the Dry Mesa quarry.  In fact, the scap in these photos (and in ReBecca’s) does look very much like BYU 9462, the element that Jensen meant to designate as the “Ultrasauros” holotype, but didn’t, instead plumping for … ah, you all know the story.

"Ultrasauros" scapulocoracoid BYU 9462 (almost certainly a cast), with Graeme Elliott for scale.

But in fact, the scapulocoracoid in the whole-forelimb pictures above looks much too small in comparison with the other elements; or to put it the right way round, since only the scap is based on an actual fossil, all the other elements are too big — which suggests that Jensen exaggerated the sizes of the sculpted limb bones well beyond what the scapulocoracoid warranted.  (In any case, the idea that this scap represents a much larger brachiosaurid than any previously known specimen was shown by Curtice et al. (1996) to be mistaken — it’s from an animal pretty similar in size to, and probably a little smaller than, the largest known Tendaguru specimens.)

But the good news is, Peter’s sense of awe is not misplaced. Real brachiosaur forelimbs are actually not much less impressive than this. See for example me next to the right forelimb of the Berlin Giraffatitan mount, which is real bone — as shown in our classic post Shedloads Of Awesome:

Or here I am again, this time with the Chicago Brachiosaurus mount. (The Chicago mount is a cast, based on a hybrid of real Brachiosaurus elements, some bits of Giraffatitan, and some sculptures, but the scaling is good.)

My rule of thumb, based on a lot of posing for photos around the Chicago mount, is that if I stand next to the forelimb and reach up, I can just rest my hand on the top of the ulna without stretching.  I’m about six feet tall, if that helps.

Jim Jensen was 4% taller than me — 6’3″.  Bearing that in mind, and looking at the second photograph above (the first one is useless because of the forced perspective), Jensen’s inability to reach close to the top of the ulna suggests that his model is inflated by maybe 30%.  Which means that it represents an animal about 1.3^3 = 2.2 times as voluminous and heavy as it should be.  But let’s not forget that among the Giraffatitan material in Berlin is the isolated fibula XV 2, which at 134 cm in length is 12.6% longer than the 119 cm tibia of S II.  So that is from animal about half way between S II and Jensen’s Imaginary Monster in size.

So.  Real brachiosaurs are awesome enough.

Early Brachiosaurus art

April 8, 2010

Most people think of Janensch’s (1950b) plate VIII as being the first skeletal reconstruction of “Brachiosaurus” (although Janensch’s species “Brachiosaurusbrancai is now referred to the separate genus Giraffatitan).  And it certainly is a classic:

"Brachiosaurus" brancai (i.e. Giraffatitan) classic skeletal reconstruction (Janensch 1950b: plate VIII)

But the reconstruction published in 1950 is modelled on the physical mount of the specimen HMN SII, which not only was constructed much earlier, but was even published as a photograph in Janensch’s (1938) earlier paper on the mass of his species.  Comparing the drawing (above) with the photograph (below), it’s easy to see how closely they resemble each other, not only in proportions but in pose:

"Brachiosaurus" brancai (i.e. Giraffatitan) mounted skeleton in the Humboldt Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin; photograph from Janensch (1938: fig 1)

Yet less well known is that when the mount was completed, shortly before the start of World War II, it was unveiled against a backdrop of Nazi banners.  I have not been able to find a photograph of this (and if anyone has one, please do let me know), but I do have this drawing of the event, taken from an Italian magazine and dated 23rd December 1937.  Since the date stamp is marked “Zoolog. Museum Berlin”, I guess that is the date that a museum artist executed the drawing, or maybe when a copy was released by the museum to the magazine.  Once again, I don’t know, and would welcome clarification.  Anyway, here it is:

So we have a published photograph and a published drawing of a brachiosaur skeleton that predate Janensch’s (1950b) reconstruction, but was there an earlier actual skeletal reconstruction?  Indeed there was: Matthew’s (1915) popular book included what I believe was the first ever brachiosaur reconstruction, and here it is:

Composite Brachiosaurus skeletal reconstruction, from Matthew (1915: fig. 24)

Matthew’s caption to this figure says that it is “from specimens in the Field Museum in Chicago and the Natural History Museum in Berlin”, i.e. it incorporates elements from both Brachiosaurus proper (B. altithorax) and the Tanzanian species “Brachiosaurusbrancai.  And if you’re familiar with the fossils in question, that’s evidently the case: for example, the scapula is clearly based on HMN Sa 9, and the posterior dorsals are unmistakably those of FMNH P25107.  [The inclusion of those dorsals fulfils our weekly sauropod-vertebra picture mandate, in case you were wondering.]

This is pretty impressive work, especially given that it was published one year after Janensch’s (1914) preliminary short paper on the Tendaguru Formation’s fossils.  Since that initial report did not figure the scapula Sa 9, it’s tempting to imagine that Matthew or his artist must have visited Berlin and seen the material in person; but as this was in the middle of World War I, that seems unlikely.  Does anyone know the story here?

And finally, we come to what is probably the first life restoration of Brachiosaurus or any brachiosaur.  It’s the work of Abel, and I found it in Young (1975: page 4):

Abel's restoration of Brachiosaurus, undated, from Young (1975) page 4

Infuriatingly, Young does not say anything whatsoever about the provenance of this restoration — for all I know, it might have been done in 1974 by a talentless artist who ignored the previous sixty years’ work.  But it seems more likely that it’s very early work, and therefore of great historical importance.  Once more (and believe me, I am getting embarrassed at how often I’ve said this), I welcome any further information.

And in other news …

Many of you will have used PDFs downloaded from the O. C. Marsh archive at  That address will become inoperative at the end of this month, and the archive is now hosted at – Please update your bookmarks, links, etc.


  • Janensch, Werner.  1914.  Ubersicht uber der Wirbeltierfauna der Tendaguru-Schichten nebst einer kurzen Charakterisierung der neu aufgefuhrten Arten von Sauropoden.  Archiv fur Biontologie, Berlin, III, 1 (1), pp. 81-110.
  • Janensch, Werner.  1938.  Gestalt und Grösse von Brachiosaurus und anderen riesenwüchsigen Sauropoden.  Biologe 7: 130-134, 2 figs.
  • Janensch, Werner.  1950b.  Die Skelettrekonstruktion von Brachiosaurus brancai.  Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3: 97-103.
  • Matthew, W. D.  1915.  Dinosaurs, with special reference to the American Museum collections.  American Museum of Natural History, New York.  164 pages.
  • Young, D.  1975.  Brachiosaurus, the biggest dinosaur of them all. Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin 46(1):3-9.


This is an actual page from the late, lamented Weekly World News, from December 14, 1999. I always thought it was pretty darned funny that they had the alien remains discovered in the “belly” of an animal known only from neck vertebrae. Now, subjecting a tabloid story to technical scrutiny really is like dancing about architecture, but…it just tickles me. As does the entire story. I haven’t been able to get hold of Dr. Posvby to confirm his findings, but it’s been over a decade and he still hasn’t published, so I’m not holding my breath.

Incidentally, the WWN archives are available on Google Books: go here to read about Bat Boy siring a 3-headed alien Elvis baby on a female Sasquatch. Or something to that effect.

The hot news on the block right now is the description of the new sauropod Abydosaurus mcintoshi, which, amazingly, is known from four more or less complete skulls (Chure et al. 2010).  This is unheard of — absolutely unprecedented.  There are few enough sauropods for which a skull is known at all; but four of them, all in decent nick, is breathtaking.

And here is one of them, the holotype:

Abydosaurus mcintoshi holotype skull DINO 16488, from Chure et al. (2010:fig. 3)

It’s a real shame that, presumably due to space limitations, this is the only one of the skulls that’s figured in the paper; but the good news is that some of the referred material is illustrated in the supplementary information, which — like the paper itself — is freely available, thanks to the wonder of open-access publishing.

According to the phylogenetic analysis in the paper, Abydosaurus is a brachiosaurid — it is recovered in all MPTs as the sister taxon to Chure et al.’s “Brachiosaurus” OTU (on which, see below).  Since it’s from the mid Cretaceous (Cenomanian-Albian, from the Mussentuchit Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation), it’s likely about 105 million years old, which means it lived the best part of 50 million years after the better known brachiosaurs Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan.  It was evidently attracted by the Giraffatitan component of the compound OTU, since the skull and neck are effectively unknown in Brachiosaurus (see Taylor 2009 for a review of the holotype and referred material).  Because it lived in pretty much the same time and place as Sauroposeidon, there is the tantalising possibility that it is actually the skull of that animal; on the other hand, the four recovered skulls are all too small to fit the Sauroposeidon holotype, so unless they were all subadult, that appealing idea is probably wrong.

Unlike Giraffatitan — the only other brachiosaur with decent cranial material, so far as I recall — Abydosaurus has narrow teeth , superficially similar to those of diplodocids and titanosaurs.  Chure et al. show that this seems to be part of a general trend of sauropods evolving progressively narrower tooth crowns through time, perhaps because narrow teeth can be replaced more quickly and turnover rate is more important than robustness.

Abydosaurus mcintoshi, reconstruction of skull and anterior neck based on holotype and referred specimens (from Chure et al. 2010:fig. 4). Note your weekly helping of sauropod-vertebra goodness in the upper-right corner, in the form of a transverse slice though cervical 3 just behind the diapophyses.

One aspect of this paper particularly pleases me, and that is that the new species is named after John McIntosh.  For anyone out there who doesn’t know who McIntosh is, he’s been working on sauropods since forever: he’s produced a stream of important papers on the skulls of diplodocids, among many other things, and wrote the Sauropoda chapter in the original The Dinosauria (McIntosh 1990).  All of this in his spare time, mind you, because as his day-job he was a professor of theoretical physics at Yale and Princeton.  He’s probably seen more sauropod material than anyone else alive.  And on top of all that, he is one of the good guys.  I drew the long straw at the Austin SVP in 2007, and got to sit next to him at the informally convened sauropod-workers’ lunch, and it was a revelation to see his face light up as I tried to describe the weird morphology of the as-yet-unpublished vertebra that we now know as Xenoposeidon.  At an advanced age — I don’t know exactly how old he is, but you can get some idea from the fact that he flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a week after the bombs were dropped — his enthusiasm remains undimmed, and he is truly an inspiring example to every avocational palaeontologist.

So it’s sort of scandalous that it took so long before McIntosh got a sauropod of his own.  (Jensen did name Ultrasaurus after him, but as has been much discussed, that ended up synoymised with Supersaurus).  I know there’s at least one more new sauropod in the works that’s slated to be named after him, and I’m in favour.

Brooks Britt (a co-author on the paper) with one of the skulls of Abydosaurus. Stolen from Science Daily.

A note on brachiosaur taxonomy

I suppose I ought to mention this, only because if I don’t, everyone will just ask me about it.  Chure et al. (2010) refer to Giraffatitan by the old name “Brachiosaurusbrancai throughout, and explain why they do so on page 2:

Taylor (2009) recently suggested that the North American species Brachiosaurus altithorax is generically distinct from the African species Brachiosaurus brancai, which is known from abundant material including a complete skull and many craniodental elements. Based on numerous differences between overlapping parts of both holotypes, Taylor (2009) proposed that the African species should be known as Giraffatitan brancai. While we are open to this possibility, we do not believe that it is sufficiently justified at present because the identified differences have not been defended as separating genera, rather than species, populations, or individuals. The sister-taxon relationship between the two species recovered in the phylogenetic analysis performed by Taylor (2009) neither supports nor refutes their generic-level separation. At this point, we consider the decision to recognize the African species as a genus apart to be arbitrary. We choose to retain the original nomenclature in this contribution, distinguishing between the two species where appropriate.

I am sort of nonplused by this.  I’m certainly not saying that my 2009 paper is unassailable: as soon anyone comes along with evidence that Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan should after all be considered congeneric, I’ll be first in line to hear them out.  But I do feel that now 26 osteological differences have been described between the species, the null hypothesis has shifted, and the burden of proof is now on those who wish to synonymise the genera.  “We choose to retain the original nomenclature” is not an argument, and doesn’t really advance understanding.  So I’m afraid I think this was a regrettable misstep.

Anyway — I don’t want to end on that note!  The big deal here is that we now have four fantastic new brachiosaur skulls, no doubt to be described in more detail hereafter, and John McIntosh has a beautiful sauropod named after him.  Happy days!


Since I started taking photographs of sauropod vertebrae back in 2004, I’ve got much, much better at it, and for the last few months I’ve been meaning to write an article about what I’ve learned along the way.  A few weeks ago, fellow SV-POW!er Ranger Matt Wedel posted an article on his 10 Minute Astronomy blog on how to photograph the moon through binoculars, and that served as a prod to get back into blogging gear in the post-Christmas season.

Before I launch in, let me be really clear that I am not a proper photographer — not at all.  I don’t even know what an F-stop is or what Single Lens Reflex means.  Probably I should invest some time into learning some of this, since specimen photographs are so important in the world of sauropod vertebrae.  (After all, the specimens are more than a little cumbersome to loan, so photos often have to stand as proxies for the actual specimens.)  Nevertheless, what I’ve learned in the last five or six years has got me to the point where I am producing much, much better specimen photographs than when I started, and I hope at least some of you can benefit from what I’ve learned.

The very best (and still very bad) of the first batch of Archbishop photographs I took, back in July 2004. Note that it's not square on, doesn't fit in the frame, that it's over-exposed and (as you'll see if you click through to the full-sized version) both blurry and infested with artifacts. Compare with the recent photo at the end of this article. Copyright the NHM since it's their material.



First up, get a decent camera.  However skilled you are, you can’t take better photos than the hardware allows.  Although I am to blame for the composition above and for some of blurriness, the over-exposure, poor definition and artifacts are the fault of the camera.  I was using a truly horrible camera back then — some super-cheap list-of-features-on-a-discount-website piece of kit.

The good news is that a “decent” camera doesn’t need to break the bank: for our purposes you don’t need to spend a fortune on professional-photographer standard equipment.  I am looking on ebay right now, and it seems you can get my model of camera for £100 in the UK or $150 in the US (second-hand of course) which is a level of investment we really should be prepared to put into one of the most important aspects of descriptive work.

What constitutes a decent camera?  Mostly, optics.  These days, every camera has more than enough megapixels for most purposes, so you can just forget about that statistic altogether.  It’s about the quality of the lens and the size of the CCD — those are the factors that determine how much information the camera can capture, and if it puts out more bits than that, then all it’s doing is wasting disk-space and bandwidth.

Can I justify the claim that all modern cameras have enough megapixels?  I think so.  Suppose you’re preparing a full-page plate for the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.  In practice, plates are nearly always composites of several photos, but suppose you want a single shot filling the whole plate.  The printable area of a JVP page is 182 x 233 mm, which is 7.2 x 9.2 inches.  At 300 dpi, that’s 2161 x 2752 pixels, which is 5947072, or a slice under 6 megapixels.  So 6 Mp is enough for a full-page plate.  (For what it’s worth, my camera does 2272 x 1704 = 3.8 megapixels, and I have never found myself feeling a need for more resolution.)

For the same reason, you definitely want optical zoom rather than digital zoom, which really amounts to just blowing up the image.


Another big win: get a spare battery, so that one can be recharging while you’re using the other.  If you don’t do that, your camera is out of commission half the time.

And get a big enough memory card.  What’s “big enough”?  For me, that means enough space to hold a whole day’s images so I can do a single dump onto the laptop in the evening, rather than having to keep stopping to transfer.  I can take maybe a maximum of 300 photos a day.  With 1 Mb images, that means I need a 300 Mb card, which is chickenfeed.  You literally can’t buy cards that small any more, so this is not really a factor these days and I might just as well not have mentioned it.  (The reason I did mention it is that my camera originally came with a 16 Mb card or something similarly stupid, which meant ten minutes or so of photography before downloading.)

Horrible photograph of a Brachiosaurus altithorax dorsal (holotype specimen FMNH P25105, natch), showing how NOT to compose a picture.


In the photo above, I did everything wrong.  The vertebra is cropped partly out of the frame, it’s viewed from an uninformative angle, it has a scalebar obscuring part of the bone, and the background is a mess.  Here are five simple rules to avoid badgering it up like I did here:

Get the specimen in frame

I know it sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reviewed my photos, picked one that is good in other respects, and realised that I’ve trimmed a bit off the end of a diapophysis or something.

Shoot from cardinal directions

Also  really important.  I am not (of course) saying that you should never get photos from any directions but the cardinals, but if you come home from photographing a vertebra and you don’t have shots from in front, behind, above and left and right lateral, you’d better have a good reason why not.  Only by getting all of these can you make informative composites like the ones of the Archbishop that I’ve been posting lately.

Don’t put anything in front of the specimen

Again this sounds terribly obvious, but I’ve got it wrong many, many times.  The most common culprits are scalebars (as in the picture above) and the tops of the sandbags that a specimen is resting on, obscuring the bottom of the centrum.  I know some people find it useful to have photos with scalebars in them: that’s fine; just don’t forget to also take some without the scalebars.

Use a plain background when possible.

Of course you don’t always have this luxury, but some collections have big white sheets of pleasantly rigid styrofoam that you have prop up behind your specimens to good effect — see the last photo in this post for an example.  Yes, you’re probably going to photoshop the background out later anyway, but it is much, much quicker and easier to remove a near-white more-or-less solid background than a busy one — especially if the background is similar in colour to the specimen, as for example when a brown bone has wood behind it.

But the good news is that all these problems can be ameliorated if you follow the last and most important rule in this section which is:

Take many shots and keep only the good ones

I remember reading once, long ago, that the single biggest factor in the difference of quality between a professional photographer’s work and an amateur’s is that the pro takes ten times as many shots and throws 90% of them away.  In these days of digital cameras with huge memory cards, we can all make like professionals now.  When Matt and I were at the Field Museum in Chicago, we took 168 photos of those Brachiosaurus dorsals alone.  Of those, maybe a dozen or so are really worth keeping.  But at least I have those dozen.

In general, I take every photograph twice.  As I’ve got better at taking the photos, I am increasingly finding that both come out well and it’s a toss-up which to keep, but maybe one time in ten or twenty, one of them just doesn’t come out right — something is wrong with the focus, or the camera shakes, or something — and that’s when I’m glad I have the spare.

Another terrible photo, this time with the flash washing out all the detail of the neural spine of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype HMN SII, 8th cervical, in left lateral view.



I have found that it is generally best to avoid using the camera’s flash unit: more often than not it just washes out all the detail, as in the Giraffatitan cervical above.  You’d never guess it from this photo, but the lateral faces of that spine are delicately and elaborately sculpted.  Having said that, using flash does sometimes seem to improve a photo — I’ve not been able to put together a mental model of when it does and doesn’t, so I will often take a photo (or pair) without flash and an otherwise identical one with, and see which works better.

On the other hand, my camera’s built-in flash is pretty lame.  Expensive flash units might do much better.

Other lights

I have had varying success in posing external light-sources to illuminate vertebrae.  The lights at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History are excellent, for example, and allowed me to get stellar picture quality in some of my photos of the Hotel Mesa sauropod material.  [Note to self: we should show some of that material here some time.]  On the opposite extreme, the old angle-poise lamps in the sub-basement of the Natural History Museum, when they worked at all, and could be posed without falling over, seemed to do little more than cast a sickly yellowish pall over the specimen.  But things are better down there since pterosaurophile curator and part-time cephalopod Lorna Steel managed to persuade the department to spring for a few daylight lamps.  They fall apart distressingly easily, but do cast good diffuse light if you can persuade them to go into, and stay in, the position you want.

As with flash, it seems that the only thing to do is try photos with and without external lights, and with the lights in various different positions, and see what comes out best.

Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype HMN SI, cervical vertebra 6 in right anterolateral view. Not a bad photo -- click through to the full-sized version to appreciate the awesome.


If you’re not using flash or external lights, you have a problem, because most sauropod bones are kept in dimly lit basements with no natural light and low ambient light levels that make photography difficult.  If you use your camera in automatic mode (and I admit that I do), it will compensate by lengthening the exposure time, which means that camera-shake becomes a much bigger deal.  With flash, or in good daylight, the shutter will typically open for 1/250 or 1/125 of second; but in low light, your exposure can easily be as much as 1/4 second, and it’s pretty much impossible to keep a camera truly still for that long.

So what can you do?  Well, there are several levels of compensation.

Simply being aware of remaining still

When I have to hold the camera in my hands and I know it’s going to be a long exposure I find myself going into a sort of zen state — I become aware of my heartbeat and try to time the shutter release so that the camera doesn’t get moved by my pulse.  It’s error-prone, but at least being aware of it can help.

Brace against a door-frame or similar

Better, if you can do it, is to brace the camera against an immovable object such as a door frame or a specimen cabinet.  The photograph above was taken using what Matt and I came to call “The Wedel Method”: the camera was held in place on the shelf across the aisle from the specimen, but with the barrel rotated 180 degrees so that the LCD screen faced back into the aisle.  I stood between the camera and vertebra, slightly off to one side and facing away from the vertebra so I could use the screen.  In that position, I zoomed and panned to the the composition I wanted, then let the shelf keep the camera rock-steady as I released the shutter.  This only works with a camera such as a CoolPix 4500 that has a rotating barrel, but that is a useful feature for other reasons, too, and I recommend that you get a camera that has it if possible.  (For example, when you need to get a photo from directly above a specimen, you can often frame it by looking at the rotated screen, even if the specimen is in a cabinet can’t can’t be moved.)


Of course, much better than ad-hoc bracing like door-frames is a proper tripod, and I feel mortified that it took me about five years of specimen photography before I invested in a half-decent one.  I got a Hama Star 61 from Amazon, where you can currently get them at the absurdly low price of £7, and I am really happy with it: it it hits the sweet-spot between being too heavy to lug around comfortable and too light to stabilise the camera properly.  Listen: whatever you’re doing, stop it RIGHT NOW and go buy a tripod instead.  Not a little table-top one, a proper floor-standing one.  You’ll thank me.

Shutter delay

The other thing that can make a huge difference in avoiding camera shake is to arrange that the shutter is released a few seconds after you press the button — so that you eliminate the movement associated with the press itself.  On my camera, for some reason, you can only do this in macro mode (used for close-ups, also known as “flower mode”), but since the camera is happy to focus on large far-off objects in this mode, that’s not a problem.

The combination of tripod mounting and shutter delay means that you can get good exposure in almost any light.

The Archbishop in all its glory, with everything working right. The much-loved dorsals 8 and 9 in right lateral view. Click through to see the detail. Compare with the horrible photo of the same bones at the top of this article. Copyright the NHM since it's their material.


Get a camera with decent optics, and a tripod.  Compose your photos so that the element is fully in frame and unobscured, in orthogonal aspect, with a solid black or white background if possible.  Turn off the flash; use external lighting if it’s available and helpful.  Use shutter delay, and take several photos, keeping only the good ones. That’s what I’ve learned in six years of photographing sauropods, and I am a bit disappointed to find that it can be summarised in 58 words.

… And finally …

I was asked to pass this message on a while back, and I’m glad to finally do so:

From: Carol Brown<>

Hi Michael,

We just posted an article, “100 Best (Free) Science Documentaries Online” ( I thought I’d drop a quick line and let you know in case you thought it was something you’re audience would be interested in reading. Thanks


Here’s one of those text-light photo posts that we always aspire to but almost never achieve. In the spring of 2008 I flew to Utah to do some filming for the History Channel series “Evolve”, in particular the episode on size, which aired later that year. I always intended to post some pix from that trip once the show was done and out, and I’m just now getting around to it…a bit belatedly.

Utah 2008 01 mountains from museum door

Here’s the view out the back door of the BYU Earth Sciences Museum in Provo, Utah. Not bad–the mountains actually made me drag my eyes away from sauropod vertebrae for a few seconds here and there.

Utah 2008 02 Brooks driving forklift

Here’s the view in other direction, with Brooks  Britt using a forklift to retrieve the big Supersaurus cervical.

Utah 2008 03 Supes and giraffe

And here is said cervical, with a mid-cervical of a giraffe for scale. You may remember the big cervical from this post (and if you click that link, notice how much nicer the new collections area is than the off-site barn where I first encountered the Cervical of Doom). Sauropods FTW!

Utah 2008 04 taping down Diplo vert

While the film crew were shooting Brooks and picking up some establishing shots, I was ransacking the collections for pretty vertebrae. We took our treasures up to the University of Utah med center in Salt Lake for CT scanning. Here Kent Sanders is helping me tape down a Diplodocus cervical.

Utah 2008 05 Kent in reading room

And here’s Kent in the CT reading room playing with the data. Like old times–I spent most of my Saturdays in 1998 and 1999 scanning verts with Kent when he was at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Utah 2008 06 NAMAL main drag

The next morning we went to the North American Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi. Here’s a view down the main drag, with the mounted Supersaurus on the left, mounted Brachiosaurus in the center, and original Supersaurus sacrum (on loan from BYU) in the case on the right.

Utah 2008 07 Matt in lift

The highlight of my day trip year.

I was back at BYU just a few months ago shooting another documentary, but that story will have to wait for the dramatically appropriate moment. Stay tuned!

In my not-long-quite-so-recent-any-more paper on Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan, I gave as one of the autapomorphies of Brachiosaurus proper that the glenoid articular surface of its coracoid is laterally deflected.  Although we’ve discussed this a little in comments on SV-POW!, it’s not yet made it into one of our actual articles.  I hestitated to feature it here since it’s so darned appendicular, but in the end I concluded that it was too interesting and potentially important to overlook.

So here it is!

Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107, left coracoid in lateral, posterior and ventral views (oriented as though the scapular blade were horizontal). Modified and composed from photographs by Phil Mannion; used with permission.

The deflected surface is most apparent in the posterior view at the right of the fiigure, in which it appears deflected about 55 degrees from the horizontal.  That’s misleading, though — partly because the shape is more complex in three dimensions than can be easily visualised from these orthogonal shots, and partly because of course the coracoid was not held perfectly vertical in life.  In fact, the orientation of the coracoid in sauropods, and of the entire shoulder girdle, remains rather controversial.  It’s not an area I’ve got involved in so far, but this Mystery Coracoid Of Weirdness (hereafter MCOW) might just be my gateway into the wacky world of pectoral girdles.

The ventral view at the bottom of the figure is also informative: as you can see from that angle, the articular surface extends a long way laterally (i.e. towards the top of the figure  in this orientation).  Once you’ve got your eye in with those images, it’s easy to see the facet in the lateral-view photo, despite the less than ideal saturated lighting: it’s shaped like a raindrop falling towards bottom left.  (Well, not really: raindrops are actually vertically flattened spheroids rather then raindrop-shaped, but that’s not the point.)

Observations and interpretations on this oddity will be very welcome.

Finally, here is your regularly scheduled sauropod vertebra:

Brachiosauridae incertae sedis NHM R5937 "The Archbishop", cervical S. Top to bottom: left lateral; dorsal with anterior to right; posterior, right lateral and anterior. Images copyright the NHM since it's their specimen.

Broadly speaking, pneumatic sauropod vertebrae come in two flavors. In more primitive, camerate vertebrae, modeled here by Haplocanthosaurus, the centrum is a round-ended I-beam and the neural arch is composed of intersecting flat plates of bone called laminae (lam above; fos = fossa, nc = neural canal, ncs = neurocentral suture; Ye Olde Tyme vert pic from Hatcher 1903).

In more derived, camellate vertebrae, the centrum and neural arch are both honeycombed with many small air spaces. This inflated-looking morphology is very similar to that seen in birds, like the turkey we recently discussed. The fossae and foramina on the outside tend to be smaller and more numerous than in camerate vertebrae, as shown here in a titanosauriform axis from India (Figure 3 from Wilson and Mohabey 2006). The green arrows show that the fossae visible on the external surface are excavations or depressions into the honeycombed internal structure of the bone.

External fossae on bones can house many different soft tissues, including muscles, pads of fat or cartilage, and pneumatic diverticula (O’Connor 2006). Pneumatic fossae are often strongly lipped and internally subdivided and may contain pneumatic foramina, which makes them easier to diagnose (but they may also be simple, smooth, and “blind”, which makes them harder to diagnose as pneumatic). But in all of these cases we are usually talking about the same thing: a visible excavation into a corpus of bony tissue, which may have marrow spaces inside if it is apneumatic, or air spaces inside if it is pneumatic (the corpus of bone, not the dent). That’s probably how most of us think about fossae, and it would hardly need to be explained…except that sometimes, something much weirder happens.

Consider this cervical of Brachiosaurus (this is BYU 12866, from Dry Mesa, Colorado). Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan have an in-between form of vertebral architecture that my colleagues and I have called semicamellate (Wedel et al. 2000); the centrum does have large simple chambers (camerae), but smaller, thin-walled camellae are also variably present, especially along the midline of the vertebra and in the ends of the centrum. As in Haplocanthosaurus, the neural arch is composed of intersecting plates of bone; unlike Haplocanthosaurus, these laminae are not flat or smooth but are instead highly sculpted with lots of small fossae. Janensch (1950) called these “Aussenkaverne”, or accessory outside cavities, because and they are smaller and more variable than the large fossae and foramina that invade the centrum.

And that’s the weird thing. As the red arrows in the above image show, the “Aussenkaverne” are not excavations or depressions into anything, except the space on the other side of the lamina (which in life would have been occupied by another diverticulum). The neural arches of Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan are not excavated by fossae, they’re embossed, like corporate business cards and fancy napkins.

What’s up with that!? We tend to think of pneumaticity as reducing the mass of the affected elements, but the shortest distance between two vertebral landmarks is a smooth lamina. These embossed laminae actually require slightly more bony material than smooth ones would.

As you can see above, the outer edges of the laminae are thick but the bone everywhere else is very thin. Maybe, like the median septa in pneumatic sauropod vertebrae, the thin bone everywhere except the edges of the laminae was just not loaded very much or very often, and was therefore free to get pushed around by the diverticula on either side, in the sense of being continually and quasi-randomly remodeled into shapes that don’t strike us as being very mechanically efficient. But also like the median septa, the thin parts of the laminae are only rarely perforated (but it does happen), for possible (read: arm-wavy) reasons discussed in the recent FEA post. And maybe the amount of extra bone involved in making embossed laminae versus smooth ones was negligible even by the very light standards of sauropod vertebrae.

Another question: since these thin sheets of bone were sandwiched in between two sets of diverticula, why are the “unfossae” always embossed into them, in the medial or inferior direction? Why don’t any of them pop out laterally or dorsally, looking like domes or bubbles instead of holes, like Mount Fist-of-God from Larry Niven’s Ringworld? Did the developmental program get accustomed to making fossae that went down and into a corpus of bone, and just kept on with business as usual even when there was no corpus of bone to excavate into? I’m only half joking.

I don’t have good answers for any of these questions. I scanned this vert a decade ago and I only noticed how weird the “unfossae” were a few months ago. I’m putting all this here because “Hey, look at this weird thing that I can only wave my arms about” is not a great basis for a peer-reviewed paper, and because I’d like your thoughts on what might be going on.

In Other News

The Discovery Channel’s Clash of the Dinosaurs premiered last night. I would have given you a heads up, except that I didn’t get one myself. I only discovered it was on because of a Facebook posting (thanks, folks!).

COTD is intended to be the replacement, a decade on, for Walking With Dinosaurs. I’m happy to report that one of the featured critters is Sauroposeidon. I grabbed a couple of frames from the clips posted here.

I haven’t seen the series yet, because I don’t have cable. But I’m hoping to catch it at a friend’s place next Sunday night, Dec. 13, when the entire series will be shown again. With any luck, I’ll have more news next week.

Finally, I got to do an interview at Paw-Talk, a forum for all things animal. I’m very happy with how it turned out, so thanks to Ava for making it happen. While you’re over there, have a look around, there’s plenty of good stuff. Brian Switek, whom you hopefully know from this and this, is a contributor; check out his latest here.



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