On Monday we visited the Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah, the Cleveland-Lloyed dinosaur quarry, and sites in the Mussentuchit member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. Many thanks to Marc Jones for the photos.

1 - CEU Prehistoric Museum

In 2010, the College of Eastern Utah became Utah State University – Eastern, and the CEU Prehistoric Museum in Price is now officially the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum. The dinosaurs in the center of exhibit hall are being remounted. These include Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus (mounted, toward top of photo), and Camarasaurus (dismounted, on floor). Most of the mounts are either real material or casts of real material from the nearby Cleveland-Lloyd quarry.

The museum has many other exhibits besides the one shown above. The paleo wing alone covers two floors, and upstairs there are great displays on Cretaceous dinosaurs from the area, including Jurassic and Cretaceous ankylosaurs, a ceratopsian, and numerous tracks.

2 - Cleveland-Lloyd orientation

After leaving Price we went to the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur quarry, which has produced over 20,000 separate elements, including the remains of something like 50-60 allosaurs. The smallest ones are hatchlings–several elements from literally cat-sized baby allosaurs are known from the quarry.

3 - Mark Loewen teaching

Mark Loewen (right) talked to us about how the quarry might have formed, and what it’s like to work there. On the left in the above photo you can see a bunch of disarticulated Allosaurus bones suspended above the floor on wires. These are placed to give an idea of the three-dimensional jumbling of the bones in the matrix. It is almost impossible to jacket one bone or even several without hitting others. I remember how that goes from working at the OMNH sauropod bonebed in the Cloverly–it’s almost impossible to avoid blowing through some bones just to get others out of the ground.

4 - Camarasaurus pelvis with bite marks

Here’s one of a handful of bones from the quarry with bite marks. This is the pelvis of a Camarasaurus, lying upside down, anterior toward the wall. The back end of the right ilium is heavily tooth-marked.

After Cleveland-Lloyd we stopped at a couple of sites in the Mussentuchit. I’m not going to blog about those because they are active sites that are still producing fossils. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for fossil localities on public land to be looted and vandalized by unscrupulous private collectors. I don’t want to give those a-holes any help, so I’ve deliberately not shown any photos of about half a dozen of the most interesting sites that we visited during the conference. It sucks to know cool things and not be able to tell people about them, but if I blab then I put those cool things at risk. Happily there is a lot of active research going on, including one or two projects that got hatched at this conference, so hopefully I will be able to tell some of these stories soon.

5 - MMFC14 conveners Jim Rebecca and John

Instead, I will close this series (for now) with a shout-out to the people who convened and ran the field conference: Jim Kirkland (left) and ReBecca Hunt-Foster (middle). John Foster (right) also contributed a lot of time, energy, effort, and expertise.

Jim Kirkland is amazing. If you know him, you know that his heart is as big and outgoing as his booming voice. His knowledge of and enthusiasm for the mid-Mesozoic sites in western Colorado and eastern Utah have driven a lot of science over the past quarter century, and he shared that knowledge and enthusiasm compulsively on this trip. My head is so full of new stuff, it’s honestly hard to think. I wish I had a solid week to just digest everything I learned at the conference.

My highest praise and thanks go to ReBecca. Thanks to her hard work and organization, the whole field conference ran about as much like clockwork as something this complicated can–and when it didn’t run smoothly, like that flat tire on Saturday, she took charge and got us back on track. She was basically den mom to about 60 folks, from teenagers to retirees, from at least ten countries and four continents, and somehow she did it all with unflagging grace and good humor. The fact that she had her appendix out just two or three days before the start of the conference only cements my admiration for what she pulled off here.

I had a fantastic time. I hope they do another one.

Actually we had the Jurassic talks today, but I can’t show you any of the slides*, so instead you’re getting some brief, sauropod-centric highlighs from the museum.

* I had originally written that the technical content of the talks is embargoed, but that’s not true–as ReBecca Hunt-Foster pointed out in a comment, the conference guidebook with all of the abstracts is freely available online here.


Like this Camarasaurus that greets visitors at the entrance.


And this Apatosaurus ilium with bite marks on the distal end, indicating that a big Morrison theropod literally ate the butt of this dead apatosaur. Gnaw, dude, just gnaw.


And the shrine to Elmer S. Riggs.


One of Elmer’s field assistants apparently napping next to the humerus of the Brachiosaurus alithorax holotype. This may be the earliest photographic evidence of someone “pulling a Jensen“.

Cary and Matt with Brachiosaurus forelimb

Here’s the reconstructed forelimb of B. altithorax, with Cary Woodruff and me for scale. The humerus and coracoid (and maybe the sternal?) are cast from the B.a. holotype, the rest of the bits are either sculpted or filled in from Giraffatitan. The scap is very obviously Giraffatitan.

Matt with MWC Apatosaurus femur

Cary took this photo of me playing with a fiberglass 100% original bone Apatosaurus femur upstairs in the museum office, and he totally passed up the opportunity to push me down the stairs afterward. I kid, I kid–actually Cary and I get along just fine. It’s no secret that we disagree about some things, but we do so respectfully. Each of us expects to be vindicated by better data in the future, but there’s no reason we can’t hang out and jaw about sauropods in the meantime.

Finally, in the museum gift shop (which is quite lovely), I found this:

Dammit Nova

You had one job, Nova. ONE JOB!

So, this is a grossly inadequate post that barely scratches the surface of the flarkjillion or so cool exhibits at the museum. I only got about halfway through the sauropods, fer cryin’ out loud. If you ever get a chance to come, do it–you won’t be disappointed.

You know the drill: lotsa pretty pix, not much yap.


Our first stop of the day was the Fruita Paleontological Area, which has a fanstastic diversity of Morrison animals, including the mammal Fruitafossor and the tiny ornithopod Fruitadens.


Plus it’s a pretty epic landscape, especially with the clouds and broken light we had this morning.


I found a bone! Several bits, actually, a few meters away from the Fruitadens type quarry. I’d like to think that this proximal femur might be Fruitadens, but I don’t know the diagnostic characters and haven’t had time to look them up. Anyone know how diagnostic this honorary shard of excellence might be?


After lunch, John Foster took us on a short hike to the quarry where Elmer Riggs got the back half of the Field Museum Apatosaurus. The front half came from a site in southern Utah, several decades later.


The locals brought Riggs out in the 1930s for the dedication of two monuments–this one at the Apatosaurus quarry, and another like it at the Brachiosaurus quarry some miles away. Tragically, both monuments have the names of the dinosaurs misspelled!


In the afternoon we visited the Mygatt-Moore Quarry and the Camarasaurus site in Rabbit Valley. Can you see the articulated Camarasaurus neck in this photo?


Here’s a hint: the neural arches of two posterior cervical vertebrae in transverse horizontal cross-section.


This Camarasaurus is apparently a permanent feature. If you’re wondering why no-one has excavated it, it’s because it’s buried in sandstone that is stupid-dense. The expenditure of time and resources just isn’t worth it, when right down the hill dinosaurs are pouring out of the much softer sediments of the Mygatt-Moore Quarry like water from a hydrant. This is the lesson I am learning about the Morrison: finding dinosaurs is easy. Finding dinosaurs you can get out of the ground and prepare–that’s something else.


Our last stop of the day was Gaston Design, where Rob Gaston showed us how he molds, casts, and mounts everything from tiny teeth to good-sized skeletons.


Like this Deinosuchus that is about to chomp on Jim Kirkland. Jim doesn’t look too worried.


Here’s a nice cast of a busted sauropod dorsal, probably from Apatosaurus or Diplodocus, showing the pneumatic internal structure. Compare to similar views of dorsals in this post and this one. This is actually one half of a matched set that includes both halves of the centrum. I left with one of those sets of my own, a few dollars poorer and a whole lot happier.


The end–for now.

Illustration talk slide 39

Illustration talk slide 40

Illustration talk slide 41

Illustration talk slide 42

Illustration talk slide 43

The Sauroposeidon stuff is cribbed from this post. For the pros and cons of scale bars in figures, see the comment thread after this post. MYDD is, of course, a thing now.

Previous posts in this series.


Wedel, M.J., and Taylor, M.P. 2013. Neural spine bifurcation in sauropod dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation: ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology 10(1): 1-34. ISSN 1567-2158.

Last time, we took a very quick look at YPM 1910, a mounted skeleton that is the holotype of Camarasaurus (= “Morosaurus“) lentus, in the dinosaur hall of the Yale Peabody Museum.

Here’s the whole skeleton, in various views. Skip down to the bottom for the science; or just enjoy the derpiness. First, in anterior view:


Here’s a more informative right anterolateral view. As you can see, this little Camarasaurus is in every sense in the shadow of the the much more impressive Apatosaurus (= “Brontosaurus“) excelsus holotype, YPM 1980: click through for the full image:


And here’s the corresponding photo from Lull (1930: figure 1) (see below):

Camarasaurus lentus, holotype skeleton, oblique front view (Full 1930: fig. 1)

Camarasaurus lentus, holotype skeleton, oblique front view (Lull 1930: fig. 1)

It’s interesting to see such a familiar mount in such unfamiliar surroundings. Judging by the cabinets in the background, YPM 1910 was mounted in what’s now the dinosaur hall at Yale — i.e. it hasn’t moved since the photo was taken. But back then, Brontosaurus hadn’t been mounted, and Zallinger’s mural hadn’t been painted.

If you thought this animal looked dumb from the front, check out this left anterodorsolateral view, taken from the balcony above the hall. The foreshortening of the neck makes Cam look like a particularly dense puppy.

(Once more, click through for the full version of the photo, including the much more impressive Apatosaurus.)


Right lateral view, with Zallinger’s justly famous mural in the background. Note the Diplodocus-type double-beamed chevrons in the tail:


Here’s the justly under-rated posterior view:


And finally, Lull’s left posterolateral photo — taken from a position that can’t now be replicated, due to the inconveniently located Brontosaurus. (The Archelon in the background, which was previously featured on SV-POW!, has been moved to the end of the hall since Lull’s time.

Camarasaurus lentus, oblique rear view. Lull (1930: fig. 2)

Camarasaurus lentus, oblique rear view. Lull (1930: fig. 2)

How much of this skeleton is real? Happily, not the skull. We can only hope that the real thing wasn’t quite so troubling. But much of the rest of the skeleton is real bone. To quote Lull (1930:1-3):

In the Yale specimen the entire vertebral column is present from the second or third cervical to the tenth caudal with one or two later caudals. Of the limbs and their girdles there are present the left scapula, right coracoid, both humeri, the left radius and ulna, both ilia, the right pubis and left ischium, and both femora, tibiae and fibulae. One cervical rib is present but no thoracic ribs. The disarticulated sacrum lacked one rib from either side.

(How could Lull have been unsure whether the most anterior preserved cervical was the second or third? C2 in sauropods, as in most animals, is radically different from the subsequent cervicals. He does go on to say that only the centrum of the most anterior vertebra is preserved, but the axis has a distinct anterior central articulation.)

Lull is quite ready to criticise the mount, and notes in particular:

The cervical ribs in the Yale mount are not long enough by half, and the thoracic ribs may be somewhat heavy and their length a little short [...] both carpus and tarsus are probably incorrect, as the elements in each instance are fewer than shown, there being no more than two at most. There is apparently no justification for the fore and aft extensions of the distal chevrons, as these were not preserved and the Osborn-Mook restoration was followed. [...] A probable error lies in too great an allowance for cartilage between the [pelvic] elements, thus making the acetabulum seem rather large.

He also notes a scheme that sadly never came to pass:

[The holotype of Camarasaurus (= "Morosaurus") robustus], a very perfect specimen, we intend to mount when the great Brontosaurus excelsus type is completed. The three sauropods, ranging in length from 21 to nearly 70 feet, should make a very impressive group.

They would have done! But in the end it fell to the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin to give us the world’s first three-sauropod combo (unless someone knows of an earlier one?)

Finally; the mounted Yale Camarasaurus also crops up in three of the plates of Ostrom and McIntosh (1966). Plate 60 depicts metacarpals I and II in all the cardinal views except for some reason posterior; plate 61 does the same for metacarpals III and IV); and plate 70 shows the right pubis in every aspect but anterior. Here it is:


Morosaurus lentus [Now referred to Camarasaurus lentus] Marsh (1889) YPM 1910 (holotype). Right pubis (reversed) in medial (1), posterior (2), lateral (3), proximal (4), and distal (5) views; transverse sections through blade (6) and shaft (7). (Ostrom and McIntosh 1966: plate 70)

Judging by this, it’s a beautifully preserved element with some very distinctive morphology. But we’ve been burned by Marsh’s plates before, and I don’t trust them at all any more — at least, not until I’ve seen the elements for myself. Now I wish I paid more attention to Derpy’s pubes.

And on that line, I’m out.


Lull, Richard S. 1930. Skeleton of Camarasaurus lentus recently mounted at Yale. American Journal of Science, 5th series, 19(109):1-5.

Ostrom, John H., and John S. McIntosh. 1966. Marsh’s Dinosaurs: the Collections from Como Bluff. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. 388 pages including 65 positively scrumptious plates.

Matt’s harsh-but-fair “Derp dah durr” / “Ah hurr hurr hurr” captions on his Giraffatitan skull photos reminded me that there is a sauropod with a much, much stupider head than that of Giraffatitan. Step forward YPM 1910, a mounted skeleton that is the holotype of Camarasaurus (= “Morosaurus“) lentus, in the dinosaur hall of the Yale Peabody Museum.

Herp derp derp

Full details on this specimen next time!

(But a spoiler: the skull isn’t real.)

We jumped the gun a bit in asking How fat was Camarasaurus? a couple of years ago, or indeed How fat was Brontosaurus? last year. As always, we should have started with extant taxa, to get a sense of how to relate bones to live animals — as we did with neck posture.

So here we go. I give you a herd of Indian elephants, Elephas maximus (from here):


You will notice, from this conveniently-close-to-anterior view, that their torsos bulge out sideways, much further than the limbs.

Now let’s take a look at the skeleton of the same animal in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (downloaded from here but for some reason the photo has now gone away):


The rib-cage is tiny. It doesn’t even extend as far laterally as the position of the limb bones.

(And lest you think this is an oddity, do go and look at any mounted elephant skeleton of your choice, Indian or African. They’re all like this.)

What’s going on here?

Is Oxford’s elephant skeleton mounted incorrectly? More to the point, are all museums mounting their elephants incorrectly? Do elephants’ ribs project much more laterally in life?

Do elephants have a lot of body mass superficial to the rib-cage? If so, what is that mass? It’s hard to imagine they need a huge amount of muscle mass there, and it can’t be guts. Photos like this one, from the RVC’s televised elephant dissection on Inside Nature’s Giants, suggest the ribs are very close to the body surface:


I’m really not sure how to account for the discrepancy.

Were sauropods similarly much fatter than their mounted skeletons suggest? Either because we’re mounting their skeletons wrongly with the ribs too vertical, or because they had a lot of superficial body mass?

Consider this mounted Camarasaurus skeleton in the Dinosaur Hall at the Arizona Museum of Natural History (photo by N. Neenan Photography, CC-BY-SA):


Compare the breadth of its ribcage with that of the elephant above, and then think about how much body bulk should be added.

This should encourage palaeoartists involved in the All Yesterdays movement to dramatically bulk up at least some of their sauropod restorations.

It should also make us think twice about our mass estimates.

Wedel and Taylor 2013 bifurcation Figure 4 - classes of bifurcation

Figure 4. Cervical vertebrae of Camarasaurus supremus AMNH 5761 cervical series 1 in anterior view, showing different degrees of bifurcation of the neural spine. Modified from Osborn & Mook (1921: plate 67).

Today sees the publication of my big paper with Mike on neural spine bifurcation, which has been in the works since last April. It’s a free download here, and as usual we put the hi-res figures and other supporting info on a sidebar page.

Navel-gazing about the publication process

This paper is a departure for us, for several reasons.

For one thing, it’s a beast: a little over 13,000 words, not counting tables, figure captions, and the bibliography. I was all geared up to talk about how it’s my longest paper after the second Sauroposeidon paper (Wedel et al. 2000), but that’s not true. It’s my longest paper, period (13192 vs 12526 words), and the one with the most figures (25 vs 22).

It’s the first time we’ve written the paper in the open, on the blog, and then repackaged it for submission to a journal. I have several things to say about that. First, it was more work than I expected. It turns out that I definitely do have at least two “voices” as a writer, and the informal voice I used for the initial run of blog posts (linked here) was not going to cut it for formal publication. So although there is very little new material in the paper that was not in the blog posts, a lot of the prose is new because I had to rewrite almost the whole thing.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, last May kinda sucked, because just about every minute that wasn’t spent eclipse chasing was spent rewriting the paper. On the other hand, as Mike has repeatedly pointed out to me, it was a pretty fast way to generate a big paper quickly, even with the rewriting. It was just over two months from the first post in the destined-to-become-a-paper series on April 5, to submission on June 14 (not June 24 as it says on the last page of the PDF), and if you leave out the 10 days in late May that I was galavanting around Arizona, the actual time spent working on the paper was a bit under two months. It would be nice to be that productive all the time (it helped that we were basically mining everything from previously published work; truly novel work usually needs more time to get up and going).

Wedel and Taylor 2013 bifurcation Figure 18 - Barosaurus and Supersaurus cervicals

Figure 18. Middle cervical vertebrae of Barosaurus AMNH 6341 (top) and Supersaurus BYU 9024 (bottom) in left lateral view, scaled to the same centrum length. The actual centrum lengths are 850 mm and 1380 mm, respectively. BYU 9024 is the longest single vertebra of any known animal.

You may fairly wonder why, if almost all the content was already available on the blog, we went to the trouble of publishing it in a journal. Especially in light of sentiments like this. For my part, it’s down to two things. First, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, what I wrote in that post was a yell, not a thought. I never intended to stop publishing in journals, I was just frustrated that traditional journals do so many stupid things that actually hurt science, like rejecting papers because of anticipated sexiness or for other BS reasons, not publishing peer reviews, etc. Happily, now there are better options.

Second, although in a sane world the quality of an argument or hypothesis would matter more than its mode of distribution, that’s not the world we live in. We’re happy enough to cite blog posts, etc. (they’re better than pers. comms., at least), but not everyone is, and the minimum bound of What Counts is controlled by people at the other end of the Overton window. So, bottom line, people are at least theoretically free to ignore stuff that is only published on blogs or other informal venues (DML, forums, etc.). If you want to force someone to engage with your ideas, you have to publish them in journals (for now). So we did.

Finally, ever since Darren’s azhdarchids-were-storks post got turned into a paper, it has bothered me that there is an icon for “Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research” (from ResearchBlogging.org), but not one (that I know of) for “Blogging Into Peer-Reviewed Research”. If you have some graphic design chops and 10 minutes to kill, you could do the world a favor by creating one.

Hey, you! Want a project?

One of the few things in the paper that is not in any of the blog posts is the table summarizing the skeletal fusions in a bunch of famous sauropod specimens, to show how little consistency there is:

Wedel and Taylor 2013 NSB Table 1 - sauropod skeletal fusions

(Yes, we know that table legends typically go above, not below; this is just how they roll at PJVP.)

I want this to not get overlooked just because it’s in a long paper on neural spine bifurcation; as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most important part of the paper. I didn’t know that these potential ontogenetic indicators were all mutually contradictory across taxa before I started this project. Not only is the order of skeletal fusions inconsistent among taxa, but it might also be inconsistent among individuals or populations, or at least that’s what the variation among the different specimens of Apatosaurus suggests.

This problem cries out for more attention. As we say at the end of the paper:

To some extent the field of sauropod paleobiology suffers from ‘monograph tunnel vision’, in which our knowledge of most taxa is derived from a handful of specimens described decades ago (e.g. Diplodocus carnegii CM 84/94). Recent work by McIntosh (2005), Upchurch et al. (2005), and Harris (2006a, b, c, 2007) is a welcome antidote to this malady, but several of the taxa discussed herein are represented by many more specimens that have not been adequately described or assessed. A comprehensive program to document skeletal fusions and body size in all known specimens of, say, Camarasaurus, or Diplodocus, could be undertaken for relatively little cost (other than travel expenses, and even these could be offset through collaboration) and would add immeasurably to our knowledge of sauropod ontogeny.

So if you’re looking for a project on sauropod paleobiology and you can get around to a bunch of museums*, here’s work that needs doing. Also, you’ll probably make lots of other publishable observations along the way.

* The more the better, but for Morrison taxa I would say minimally: Yale, AMNH, Carnegie, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Field Museum, Dinosaur National Monument, BYU, University of Utah, and University of Wyoming, plus Smithsonian, University of Kansas, OMNH, Denver Museum, Wyoming Dinosaur Center, and a few others if you can swing it. Oh, and Diplodocus hayi down in Houston. Check John Foster’s and Jack McIntosh’s publications for lists of specimens–there are a LOT more out there than most people are familiar with.


Recapture Creek comparo with measurements

If you’re just joining us, this post is a follow-up to this one, in which I considered the possible size and identity of the Recapture Creek femur fragment, which “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen (1987: page 604) said was “the largest bone I have ever seen”.

True to his word, Brooks Britt at BYU got back to me with measurements of the Recapture Creek femur fragment in practically no time at all:

Length 1035 mm, width 665 mm.  However, you cannot trust the measurements because Jensen put a lot of plaster on the proximal half of the bone.

Now, taking plaster off a bone is not going to make it any larger. So the plastered-up specimen is the best case scenario for the RC femur to represent a gigapod. And I know the stated width of 665 mm is the max width of the proximal end, because I sent Brooks a diagram showing the measurements I was requesting. The length is a little less than anticipated, and doesn’t quite jibe with the max proximal width–I suspect a little might have broken off from the distal end where the preservation looks not-so-hot.

Based on those measurements, it looks like Jensen got the scale bar in Figure 8 in his 1987 paper approximately right–if anything, the scale bar is a little undersized, but only by 5% or so, which is actually pretty good as these things go (scale bars without measurements are still dag-nasty evil, though). By overlapping Jensen’s photo with the femur of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype (FMNH P25107) to estimate the size of the element when complete, I get a total length of 2.2 meters–exactly the same size as about 8% bigger than the Brachiosaurus holotype (actual length 2.03 m). If the Recapture Creek femur is from a Camarasaurus, which I don’t think we can rule out, it was 2 meters long when complete, or 11% longer and 37% more massive than the big C. supremus AMNH 5761–about 35 tonnes or maybe 40 on the outside. So it’s a big bone to be sure, but it doesn’t extend only slightly extends the known size range of Morrison sauropods. (Updated 2014-05-19–as I related in the first post, I somehow got it fixed in my head that the holotype B.a. femur was 2.19 m when it is actually 2.03 m.)

So, as before, caveat estimator when working from scaled illustrations of single partial bones of possibly immense sauropods.

Now, here’s a weird thing. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that the Recapture Creek femur is from a brachiosaur. That gives us three individual Late Jurassic brachiosaurids–the Recapture Creek animal, the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype, and the mounted Giraffatitan brancai–that are almost exactly the same size in limb bone dimensions (although B.a. had a longer torso). But we know that brachiosaurids got bigger, as evidenced by the XV2 specimen of Giraffatitan, and based on the lack of scapulocoracoid fusion in both FMNH P25107 and the mounted Giraffatitan. So why do we keep finding these (and smaller) subadults, and so few that were XV2-sized? I know that there gets to be a preservation bias against immense animals (it’s hard to bury a 50-tonne animal all in one go), but I would not think the 13% linear difference between these subadults and XV2-class adults would be enough to matter. Your thoughts?


Jensen, J.A. 1987. New brachiosaur material from the Late Jurassic of Utah and Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 47(4): 592-608.

From Jensen (1987, page 604):

“In 1985 I found the proximal third of an extremely large sauropod femur (Figs. 8A, 12A) in a uranium miner’s front yard in southern Utah.  The head of this femur is 1.67 m (5’6″) in circumference and was collected from the Recapture Creek Member of the the Morrison Formation in Utah near the Arizona border.  It is the largest bone I have ever seen.”

Jensen included not one but two figures of this immense shard of excellence. Here they are:

Jensen 1987 figure 8

Jensen 1987, Figure 8

Jensen 1987, Figure 12

Jensen 1987, Figure 12

The specimen was heavily reconstructed, as you can see from the big wodge of unusually smooth and light-colored material in the photo. So we can’t put much stock in that part of the specimen.

Unfortunately, the only measurement of the specimen that Jensen gives in the paper is that circumference; there are no straight-line linear measurements, and the figures both have the dreaded scale bars. Why dreaded? Check this out:

Recapture Creek figs 8 and 12 comparedAs you can see, when the scale bars are set to the same size, the bones are way off (the scale bar in the drawing is 50 cm). This is not an uncommon problem. I make the Fig 8 version 30% bigger in max mediolateral width of the entire proximal end, and still 17% bigger in minimum diameter across the femoral head, as measured from the slight notch on the dorsal surface (on the right in this view).

Can we figure out which is more accurate based  on the internal evidence of the paper? For starters, the Fig 12 version is a drawing (1), that does not match the outline from the photo (2), and the hand-drawn scale bar (3) does not actually coincide with any landmarks (4), and that’s plenty of reasons for me not to trust it.

What about that circumference Jensen mentioned? Unfortunately, he didn’t say exactly where he took it, just that the head of the femur had a circumference of 1.67 meters. Is that for the entire proximal end, or for the anatomical head that fits in the acetabulum, er wot? I’m afraid the one measurement given in the paper is no help in determining which of the figures is more accurately scaled.

The obvious thing to do would be to see if this bone is in the BYU collections, and just measure the damn thing. More on that at the end of the post.

In the meantime, Jensen said that the shape of the Recapture Creek femur was most similar to the femur of Alamosaurus, or to that of Brachiosaurus among Morrison taxa, and he referred it to Brachiosauridae. So how does this thing–in either version–compare with the complete femur of FMNH P25107, the holotype of Brachiosaurus altithorax?

The Recapture Creek brachiosaur femur fragment compared to the complete femur of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107

The Recapture Creek femur fragment compared to the complete femur of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107

The first thing to notice is that the drawn outline from Figure 12 is a much better match for the Brachiosaurus altithorax femur–enough so that I wonder if Jensen drew it from the Recapture Creek specimen, or just traced the B.a. proximal femur and scaled it accordingly (or maybe not accordingly, since the scale bars don’t match).

But let’s get down to business: how long would the complete femur have been?

Using the scale bar in the photograph from Figure 8 (on the left in above image), I get a total femur length of 2.36 meters. Which is long, but only 7.7% longer than the 2.19-meter femur of FMNH P25107, and therefore only 25% more massive. So, 35 tonnes to Mike’s 28-tonne B.a., or maybe 45 tonnes to a more liberal 36-tonne B.a. Big, yeah, but not world-shattering. Update 2014-05-19: I don’t know where I got the 2.19-meter femur length for Brachiosaurus altithorax, but it’s a mistake. So the rest of that paragraph should read: Which is 16% longer than 2.03-meter femur of FMNH P25107, and therefore 57% more massive. So, 44 tonnes to Mike’s 28-tonne B.a., or maybe 57 tonnes to a more liberal 36-tonne B.a. That’s nowhere near the 2.5-meter femur and estimated 70-tonne mass of the largest Argentinosaurus, but it’s pretty darned good for a brachiosaur.

Using the scale bar in the drawing from Figure 12 (on the right in the above image)–which, remember, is 50 cm, not 1 meter–I get a total femur length of about 1.9 meters, which is considerably smaller than the B.a. holotype. That is very much at odds with Jensen’s description of it as “the largest bone I have ever seen”, and given that we have many reasons for not trusting the scale bar in the drawing, it is tempting to just throw it out as erroneous.

So it would seem that unless Jensen got both scale bars too big, the Recapture Creek brachiosaur was at most only a shade bigger than the holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus altithorax.

But wait–is the Recapture Creek brachiosaur a brachiosaur at all? Jensen didn’t list any characters that pushed him toward a brachiosaurid ID, and I don’t know of any proximal femur characters preserved in the specimen that would separate Brachiosaurus from, say, Camarasaurus. And in fact a camarasaur ID has a lot to recommend it, in that Camarasaurus femora have very offset heads (the ball- or cylinder-like articular surface at the top end sticks out a big more to engage with the hip socket–see Figure 12 up near the top of the post), moreso than in many other Morrison sauropods, and that would make them better matches for the Recapture Creek femur photo. Here’s what the comparo looks like:

Recapture Creek - Camarasaurus comparo

The Recapture Creek femur fragment compared with a complete femur of Camarasaurus.

I make that a 2.07-meter femur using the photo on the left, and a 1.66-meter femur using the drawing on the right. The one decent femur in the AMNH 5761 Camarasaurus supremus collection is 1.8 meters long, so these results are surprisingly similar to those for the B. althithorax comparison–the drawing gives a femur length shorter than the largest known specimens, and the photo gives a length only slightly longer. A camarasaur with a 2.07 meter femur would be 15% larger than the AMNH C. supremus in linear terms, and  assuming isometric scaling, 1.5 times as massive–maybe 38 tonnes to AMNH 5761′s estimated 25. A big sauropod to be sure, but not as big as the largest apatosaurs, and not nearly as big as the largest titanosaurs.

I have always been surprised that the Recapture Creek femur frag has attracted so little attention, given that “Dinosaur Jim” himself called it the biggest bone he had ever seen. But it appears that the lack of attention is justified–whether it was a brachiosaur or a camarasaur, and using the most liberal estimates the scale bars allow, it simply wasn’t that big.

Update about half an hour later: Okay, maybe I was a little harsh here. IF the photo scale bar is right, the Recapture Creek femur might still represent the largest and most massive macronarian from the Morrison Formation (Edit: only if it’s a brachiosaur and not a camarasaur; see this comment), which is something. I suppose I was particularly underwhelmed because I was expecting something up in OMNH 1670-to-Argentinosaurus territory, and so far, this ain’t it. I’ll be interested to see what the actual measurements say (read on).

The Moral of This Story

So, if it wasn’t that big after all, and if no-one has made a stink about it being big before now, why go to all this trouble? Well, mostly just to satisfy my own curiosity. If there was a truly gigantic brachiosaur from the Morrison, it would be relevant to my interests, and it was past time I crunched the numbers to find out.

But along the way something occurred to me: this should be a cautionary tale for anyone who gets all wound up about the possible max size of Amphicoelias fragillimus. As with A. fragillimus, for the Recapture Creek critter we have part of one bone, and at least for this exercise I was working only from published illustrations with scale bars. And as with A. fragillimus, the choice of a reference taxon is not obvious, and the size estimates are all over the place, and some of them just aren’t that big.

It always amuses me when A. fragillimus comes up and people (well, trolls) accuse us of being big ole’ wet blankets that just don’t want to believe in 200-tonne sauropods. It amuses me because it’s wrong on so many levels. Believe me, when we have our sauropod fanboy hats on, we most definitely do want to believe in 200-tonne sauropods. That would rock. But when we put our scientist hats on, wanting and belief go right out the window. We have to take a cold, hard look at the data, and especially at its limitations.

Oh, the other moral is to go buy a tape measure, and use it. Sheesh!


As I said above, the obvious thing to do would be to just track down the bone and measure it. It does still exist, it’s in the BYU collections, and Brooks Britt has kindly offered to send along some measurements when he gets time. So we should have some real answers before long (and here they are). But I wanted to work through this example without them, to illustrate how much uncertainty creeps in when trying to estimate the size of a big sauropod from published images of a single partial bone.


Jensen, J.A. 1987. What I did on my holidaysNew brachiosaur material from the Late Jurassic of Utah and Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 47(4): 592-608.


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