OMNH baby Apatosaurus

I was at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in March to look at their Apatosaurus material, so I got to see the newly-mounted baby apatosaur in the “Clash of the Titans” exhibit (more photos of that exhibit in this post). How much of this is real (i.e., cast from real bones, rather than sculpted)? Most of the vertebral centra, a few of the neural arches, some of the limb girdle bones, and most of the long bones of the limbs. All of the missing elements–skull, neural arches, ribs, appendicular bits–were sculpted by the OMNH head preparator, Kyle Davies. Kyle is one of those frighteningly talented people who, if they don’t have what they need, will just freaking build it from scratch. Over the years he has helped me out a LOT with the OMNH sauropod material–including building a clamshell storage jacket for the referred scapula of Brontomerus so we could photograph it from the lateral side–so it’s about time I gave him some props.

Atlas-axis model with Kyle

Case in point: this sweet atlas-axis complex that Kyle sculpted for the juvenile Apatosaurus mount.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies

Most fish, amphibians, and other non-amniote tetrapods only have a single specialized vertebra for attaching to the skull. But amniotes have two: a ring- or doughnut-shaped first cervical vertebra (the atlas) that articulates with the occipital condyle(s) of the skull, and a second cervical vertebra (the axis) that articulates with the atlas and sometimes with the skull as well. Mammals have paired occipital condyles on the backs or bottoms of our skulls, so our skulls rock up and down on the atlas (nodding “yes” motion), and our skull+atlas rotates around a peg of bone on the axis called the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (shaking head “no” motion). As shown in the photos and diagrams below, the dens of the axis is actually part of the atlas that fuses to the second vertebra instead of the first. Also, reptiles, including dinosaurs and birds, tend to have a single ball-shaped occipital condyle that fits into the round socket formed by the atlas, so their “yes” and “no” motions are less segregated by location.

Anyway, the whole shebang is often referred to as the atlas-axis complex, and that’s the reconstructed setup for a baby Apatosaurus in the photo above.  In addition to making a dull-colored one for the mount, Kyle made this festive version for the vert paleo teaching collection. Why so polychromatic?

Atlas-axis model key

Because in fact he built two: the fully assembled one two photos above, and a completely disassembled one, some of which is shown in this photo (I had to move the bigger bits out of the tray so they wouldn’t block the key card at the back). I originally composed this post as a tutorial. But frankly, since Kyle did all of the heavy lifting of (a) making the thing in the first place, (2) making a color-coded key to it, and (d) giving me permission to post these photos, it would be redundant to walk through every element. So think of this as a self-study rather than a tutorial.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies - labeled

Oh, all right, here’s a labeled version. Note that normally in an adult animal the single piece of bone called the atlas would consist of the paired atlas neural arches (na1) and single atlas intercentrum (ic1), and would probably have a pair of fused cervical ribs (r1). Everything else would be fused together to form the axis, including the atlas pleurocentrum (c1), which forms the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (etymologically the “tooth” of the axis).

Romer 1956 fig 119 atlas-axis complex

Here’s the complete Romer (1956) figure from the key card, with a mammalian atlas-axis complex  for comparison. Incidentally, the entire book this is drawn from, Osteology of the Reptiles, is freely available online.

Apatosaurus axis-atlas complex Gilmore 1936 figs 5 and 6

And here’s the complete Gilmore (1936) figure. Sorry for the craptastic scan–amazingly, this one is NOT freely available online as far as I can tell, and Mike and I have been trying to get good scans of the plates for years. Getting back on topic, single-headed atlantal cervical ribs have been found in several sauropods, especially Camarasaurus where several examples are known, so they were probably a regular feature, even though they aren’t always preserved.

Also, as noted in this post, it is odd that in this specimen of Apatosaurus the cervical ribs had not fused to the first two vertebrae, even though they normally do, and despite the fact that the vertebrae had fused to each other, even though they normally don’t. Further demonstration, if any were needed, that sauropod skeletal fusions were wacky.

Varanops atlas-axis complex Campione and Reisz 2011 fig 2C3

For comparison to the above images, here is the atlas-axis complex in the synapsid Varanops, from Campione and Reisz (2011: fig. 2C).

Those proatlas thingies are present in some sauropods, but that’s about all I know about them, so I’ll say no more for now.

There is a good overview of the atlas-axis complex with lots of photos of vertebrae of extant animals on this page.

Previous SV-POW! posts dealing with atlantes and axes (that’s right) include:


I was recently bemoaning the lack of published diplodocid cervical illustrations in dorsal view. Subsequently I mentioned that Upchurch et al. (2005) had illustrated five cervicals of an Apatosaurus specimen.

I was overlooking one other paper that contains such an illustration. Which is a bit embarrassing, as it’s one of ours. In fact, it’s our most recent paper, Wedel and Taylor (2013) on sauropod neural spine bifurcation. The very first figure in that paper (the first of 25!) is relevant to my interests. So here it is:

Figure 1. A cervical vertebra of Apatosaurus ajax YPM 1860 showing complete bifurcation of the neural spine into paired metapophyses. In dorsal (top), anterior (left), left lateral (middle), and posterior (right) views.

Figure 1. A cervical vertebra of Apatosaurus ajax YPM 1860 showing complete bifurcation of the neural spine into paired metapophyses. In dorsal (top), anterior (left), left lateral (middle), and posterior (right) views.

Click through for glorious high-resolution goodness!


Upchurch, Paul, Yukimitsu Tomida, and Paul M. Barrett. 2005. A new specimen of Apatosaurus ajax (Sauropoda: Diplodocidae) from the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) of Wyoming, USA. National Science Museum Monographs No. 26. Tokyo. ISSN 1342-9574.

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, I asked if anyone has dorsal-view photos of the cervical vertebrae of Diplodocus. No responses yet, and I do urge you to chip in if you have any ideas. But here’s something to keep us positive: Apatosaurus cervicals!


This is Plate 1 from Upchurch et al.’s (2005) excellent descriptive monograph of a specimen of Apatosaurus ajax, NSMT-PV 20375. It shows cervicals 3, 6, 7, 12 and 14, each in left lateral, dorsal and right lateral view; and C14 in ventral view. Click through for the glorious full-resolution version (5183 × 2876).

Here is a close-up of C12 in dorsal view.


Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Up top there is a commercially obtained cast sculpture of a thumb claw of Megaraptor. Down below is an unpainted urethane cast of one of my favorite inanimate objects in the universe: OMNH 780, a thumb claw of Saurophaganax. I dunno how much of the Megaraptor claw is real [none, it turns out, but it's based on a true story]; certainly the cast is faithful enough to record some tool-marks in the rugose part near the base. But I know how much of OMNH 780 is legit, and that is all of it. I would have put in a photo of the actual specimen but irritatingly I forgot to take any during my recent visit, and I didn’t have the Megaraptor claw back then anyway. Hopefully I’ll get back to the OMNH this summer, and then it is ON.

The kaiju-loving fanboys of CarnivoraForum undoubtedly want to know how these two compare. Well, much to my disappointment, the Megaraptor claw is a shade longer (28.7 cm max straight-line distance) than the Saurophaganax claw (26.3 cm). But the Saurophaganax claw is about twice as thick and way more robust, and the flexor tubercle which anchored the tendon that powered the claw’s movement is friggin’ immense. It’s like pitting an NBA forward against an NFL linebacker: one is a little taller, but the other one will pound you like a tent stake.

If anyone’s wondering, these claws are both waaay shorter than those of Therizinosaurus (half a meter and up), which still holds the longest-claws-of-anything-ever title. The problem for fans of excessive violence is that Therizinosaurus probably wasn’t doing terribly exciting things with its claws–grooming its feathers, making veggie kabobs, and scratching its ample behind, most likely.

Mmmmmm...suffering. OM NOM NOM NOM!!

Mmmmmm…suffering. OM NOM NOM NOM!!

The same was not true for Saurophaganax, which the unbelievers call Allosaurus maximus, a red-blooded all-American murder machine with a triple PhD in kicking your ass. When it wasn’t drinking camptosaur blood straight from the jugular, it was eating mud-mired diplodocids butt first while they were still alive. And what about those rumors that Saurophaganax was completely feathered in $100 bills, or that it was the direct linear ancestor of Charles Bronson and Steven McQueen? It’s probably too soon to say, since I just made them up, but I’ll bet your mind is blown nonetheless.

How dangerous was Saurophaganax? Let me put it this way: it’s still dangerous. Thanks to the high concentration of heavy elements in Morrison dinosaur bones, you’re supposed to air out the specimen cabinets before you start working so the radon can escape. Otherwise you might breathe in freakin’ radioactive gas and get cancer (in contrast to some “facts” in the previous paragraph, this is actually true). That’s right, Saurophaganax can kill you, just by lying around in a drawer. After 145 million years, it’s still reaping souls for Hades. By god, that’s giving them what for!

In short, the thumb claw of Saurophaganax is the most impressive instrument of dinosaurian destruction I’ve yet laid eyes on. If you want to see it in context, check out the mounted skeleton at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.

This idiot is going to die.

This idiot is going to die.


Another raw photo from the road.

The Morrison fossils from the Oklahoma panhandle were dug up and prepped out by  WPA workers in the 1930s, and their preparation toolkit consisted of hammers, chisels, pen-knives, and sandpaper. (Feel free to take a minute if you need to get your nausea under control.) And whereas most Morrison fossils are much darker than the surrounding matrix, in the Oklahoma panhandle the bone and matrix are about the same color. Sometimes the prep guys didn’t know they’d gone too deep until they sanded into the trabecular bone. Or in this case, into the air spaces in the condyle of this anterior dorsal of Apatosaurus.

Still, we have lots of anterior dorsals of Apatosaurus, and very few we can see inside, and they’re too darned big to scan, so this gives us useful information that a more perfect specimen would not. So I salute you, underemployed dude from eighty-odd years ago. Thanks for showing me something cool.

OMNH 1331 is my new hero

March 24, 2013

Here’s an update from the road–get ready for some crappy raw images, because that’s all I have the time or energy to post (with one exception).

OMNH 1331

Here’s OMNH 1331. It’s just the slightly convex articular end off a big vertebra, collected near Kenton, Oklahoma, in 1930s by one of J. Willis Stovall’s field crews. I measured the preserved width at 45 cm using a tape measure, and at 44.5 in GIMP using the scale bar in the photo, which is up on a piece of styrofoam so it’s about the same distance from the camera as the rim of the vertebra (i.e, about 8 feet–as high as I could get and still shoot straight down). So whether your distrust runs to tape measures or scale bars in photos, I am prepared to argue that this sucker is roughly 45 cm wide.

OMNH 1331 internal structure

There’s admittedly not a ton of morphology here, but the size and the fact that the other side is hollow and has a midline bony septum show that it is a pneumatic vertebra from a sauropod, and given that the quarry it’s from was chock-full of Apatosaurus, and liberally salted with gigantic Apatosaurus, I feel pretty good about calling it Apatosaurus.

OMNH 1331 cloned and flipped

To figure out how wide the articular face was when it was intact, I duplicated the image and reversed it left-to-right in GIMP, which yields an intact max width of about 49 cm. That is friggin’ immense.

If we make the maximally conservative assumption that this is the largest centrum in the whole skeleton of a big Apatosaurus, then it has to be part of a dorsal vertebra. Here are the max diameters of the largest dorsal centra in some big mounted apatosaurs, taken from Gilmore (1936). The number in parentheses is how many percent bigger OMNH 1331 is.

  • A. louisae CM 3018 – 36.5 cm (34%)
  • A. parvus UWGM 15556 – 36.5 cm (34%)
  • A. sp. FMNH P25112 – 41 cm (20%)

OMNH 1331 lateral view

However, this might not be part of a dorsal vertebra. For one thing, it’s pretty convex, and Apatosaurus dorsals sometimes have a little bump but they’re pretty close to amphiplatyan, at least in the posterior half of the series. For another, I think that smooth lower margin on the right in the photo above is part of the rim of a big pneumatic foramen, but it’s waaay up high and pretty medial on the centrum, opening more dorsally than laterally, which I have seen a lot in anterior caudal vertebrae. Finally, Jack McIntosh went through the OMNH collections years ago and his identifications formed the basis for a lot of the catalogue IDs, and this thing is catalogued as the condyle off the back end of a proximal caudal.

Here are the max diameters of the largest caudal centra in those same mounted apatosaurs, again taken from Gilmore (1936). Once again, the number in parentheses is how many percent bigger OMNH 1331 is.

  • A. louisae CM 3018 – 30 cm (63%)
  • A. parvus UWGM 15556 – 32.5 cm (51%)
  • A. sp. FMNH P25112 – 39 cm (26%)

(Aside: check out the skinny rear end on A. louisae. ‘Sup with that?)

So whatever vert it’s part of, OMNH 1331 is damn big bone from a damn big Apatosaurus. There are lots of other big Apatosaurus vertebrae in the OMNH collections, like OMNH 1670, but OMNH 1331 is the largest centrum that I know of in this museum. Which is why you’re getting a post about most of one end of a centrum in the wee hours of the morning–it’s most of one end of an awesome centrum. And it pains me when people do comparison figures of big sauropod vertebrae, or lists of the “Top 10 Largest Sauropods”, and put in stuff like Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus and Supersaurus, but leave out Apatosaurus. It was legitimately huge, and it’s time the world realized that.

For more on the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus, see:


Gilmore, C.W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175-300.

Fuzzy Apato Juvenile by Niroot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, back to Niroot’s baby:

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

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

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

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

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in left antero-lateral view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of

Today our paper on sauropod neck anatomy is formally published in PeerJ.

There’s not much new to say about the paper, since we posted it to arXiv last year and told the world about it then (post 1, post 2, post 3). Although a lot more attractive in form, this version is almost identical in content, modulo some changes requested by the PeerJ reviewers, and some changes to the figures to make sure every part of every figure was CC BY or otherwise in the public domain. Many thanks to everyone who gave us permission to use their images, especially Scott Hartman, who is rapidly getting to be the go-to person for this sort of thing just by doing good work and being a nice guy.

The big news, of course, is not the paper but the outlet. We’re excited about PeerJ because it promises to be a game-changer, for lots of reasons. Mike has a nice article in the Guardian today about the thing that is getting the most attention, which is the cost to publish. I blogged about it last fall, when I bought the max bling lifetime membership–for about one-tenth of the OA publication fee for a single article from one of the big barrier-based publishers.

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

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

Then there’s turnaround time: for our paper, a mere 72 days, including both submission day (Dec. 3) and publication day (Feb. 12). My fastest turnaround before this was 73 days for my sauropod nerve paper, but that was from submission to posting of the accepted manuscript, not publication of the final version of record. Prior to that I’d had a couple of papers published within six months of submission, but that was definitely the exception rather than the rule. And sadly, I’ve had several situations now where a paper  languished in peer review for six months.

And that brings me to peer review–the real “peer” in PeerJ. When you sign up a lifetime membership, you agree to review one paper a year for them to keep your membership active. Certainly not a crushing amount of work, especially since I’ve been averaging 5 or 6 reviews a year for much less congenial outlets.

I’ve seen this from both sides now, since I was tapped to review a manuscript for PeerJ back in December. The first thing I liked is that they asked for the review back within 10 days. That’s just about right. I can see a thorough review taking three days (not working straight through, obviously, but taking time to carefully read, digest, look stuff up, and compose the review), and a busy academic maybe needing a week to find that kind of time. If one is too busy to get it done within 10 days, better to just be honest, say that, and decline the review. There is certainly no reason to let reviewers have manuscripts for four to six weeks, let alone the three to four months that was standard when I got into this business.

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

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

The second thing I liked is that they gave me the option to sign the review (which is almost always implicitly present, whether reviewers take advantage of it or not), and they gave the authors of the manuscript the option to publish my review alongside the paper. I love that. It means that, for the first time ever*, maybe the time and effort I put into the review will not disappear without a trace after I send it off. (It is astonishingly wasteful that we write these detailed technical critiques and then consign them to never be seen by any but a handful of people.) And it had a salutary effect on my reviewing. I always strive to be thoughtful and constructive in my reviews, but the knowledge that this review might be published for the world to see made me a lot more careful, both in what I said and how I said it. Hopefully, the authors I reviewed for will opt to publish my review, so you will be able to judge for yourself whether I succeeded–I’ll keep you posted on that. UPDATE: Hooray! The paper is out, and it’s a beaut, and the authors did publish the review history, which is excellent. The paper is Schachner et al. (2013), “Pulmonary anatomy in the Nile crocodile and the evolution of unidirectional airflow in Archosauria”, the reviews by Pat O’Connor and myself and the author responses and the editor’s letters are all available by clicking the “Peer review history” link on the sidebar, and you should go read all of it right now.

* There are a bare handful of other outlets that publish reviews alongside papers, but I’ve never been tapped to review for them, so this was my first experience with a peer review that might be published.

Naturally Mike and I took the maximum openness option and had our reviews and all the rest of the paper trail published alongside our paper, and I intend to do this every time from here on out. As far as I’m concerned, the benefits of open peer review massively outweigh those from anonymous peer review. There will always be a few jackasses in the world, and if openness itself doesn’t force better behavior out of them, at least they’ll be easier to identify and route around in an open world. Anyway, to see our reviews, expand ‘Author and article information’ at the top of this page, and click the link in the green box that says, “The authors have chosen to make the review history of this article public.”

One happy result of this will manifest in just a few weeks. Bunny-wrangler and sometime elephant-tracker Brian Kraatz and I co-teach a research capstone course for the MS students at WesternU, and one of the things we cover is peer review. Last year I had to dig up a couple of my reviews that were sufficiently old and anonymous that no harm could come from sharing them with the students, but even so, they only got half the story, because I no longer had the manuscripts and couldn’t have shared them if I had. This year I’ll be able to point the students at PeerJ and say, “Go look. There’s the back-and-forth. That’s how we do this. Now you know.”

Science, process and product alike, out in the open, freely available to the world: that’s why I’m proud to be a member of PeerJ.

(And I haven’t even mentioned the preprint server, or all the thought the PeerJ team put into the graphic design of the papers themselves, or how responsive the production team was in helping us get the finished product just right, or….)

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in left postero-lateral view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in left postero-lateral view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of

The pictures in this post have nothing to do with our paper, other than showing off one of the beautiful products of the factors we discuss therein. The images are all borrowed from Brant Bassam’s amazing BrantWorks, which we will definitely be discussing more in the future. Explicit permission to reproduce the images with credit can be found on this page. Thanks, Brant!

UPDATE: Bonus Figure

This special version of Figure 3 from our new paper goes out to Dean, who inspired it with this comment. As Tony Stark said, “It’s like Christmas, only with more…me.” Click to enWedelate.

Matt Wedel (6'2" or 1.88m tall) with various long-necked amniotes for scale.

A selection of Matt Wedels (6’2″ or 1.88m tall) with various long-necked amniotes for scale.

The last time we reported on the Apatosaurus cervical-shaped Umbaran Starfight from The Clone Wars, we’d heard from the concept artist Russell G. Chong, who had done the final design on the startfighter, and who told that he wasn’t aware of a sauropod original to the design.


But Russell was not the original designer. He put me onto David Hobbins, who had generated the original rough design that he’d honed. I wrote to David early in January to find out more:

Date: 4 January 2013 22:57
From: Mike Taylor <>
To: David Hobbins
Subject: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

Hi, David. You don’t know me, but I was put onto you by Russell G. Chong. Matt Wedel and I are palaeontologists, specialising in the neck skeletons of sauropod dinosaurs. Matt noticed that the Umbaran Starfighter seems to be closely modelled on an Apatosaurus vertebra – see these four blog posts [1, 2, 3, 4] (You don’t need to read them all, the first one gives the flavour.)

We’re trying to figure out whether this is deliberate as it appears, or just a crazy coincidence. The design was finished by Russell, but he wasn’t its originator, and thinks you might be the man — or know who was.

Can you comment?

David wrote back a few days ago. Here is his message (reproduced with permission):

Date: 16 January 2013 15:58
From: David Hobbins
To: Mike Taylor <>
Subject: Re: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

Hi Mike,

I read the blog posts — interesting commentary! I remember the original design perfectly, and you are absolutely right, I was inspired by the skeletal forms of dinosaur bones. It’s pretty cool that you were able to discern that!

I’ve looked for the original photo I took of the vertebra, but it seems to be lost in the archives. I can’t confirm that it was of an Apatosaurus vertebra exactly, but it’s quite possible. I was at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and took a number of photos that day.

Nature renders complex and beautiful designs; I often find myself drawn to studying organic forms and patterns as inspiration in my vehicle designs.

And he clarified in a subsequent message:

Date: 16 January 2013 20:51
From: David Hobbins
To: Mike Taylor <>
Subject: Re: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

The bone was presented as a single vertebra on public display. I’m uncertain that the collection will be the same now. I took the photo back in 2007 just before the California Academy of Sciences moved into their present location in Golden Gate Park. I’m sure there have been a lot of changes since.

I will continue the search for the original photo. Will let you know right away if I find anything.

So this is great news! Matt’s initial hypothesis is confirmed from the horse’s mouth. All we need to wrap this investigation up is a photo of the original exhibit.

Does anyone out there have a photo of an isolated Apatosaurus vertebra that was on exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco before it moved to Golden Gate Park? Or does anyone know someone who works at CAoS that we could talk to?

Update (later the same day)

This discovery has been covered at sci-fi fan site io9!

The rest of the posts in what we’re calling the Umbaran Starfighter Saga:

Umbaran Starfighter update

January 4, 2013

A few weeks ago, we were considering the bizarre Umbaran Starfighter from The Clone Wars, and its extraordinary similarity to an Apatosaurus cervical:


In a comment, Kyle Hartshorn suggested:

The Clone Wars “Plan of Dissent” episode concept art gallery features some conceptart of the starfighter, with the artist initials “RGC”. I believe that’s Russell G. Chong, one of the show’s art designers. You can find his contact information at his website.

He might not be the one who came up with the design–that art looks too polished to be an early concept—but he would probably know who did.

Nice detective work.

Here’s some of that concept art:


I found an email address for Chong, and wrote to him:

Hi, Russell. Matt Wedel and I are palaeontologists, specialising in the neck skeletons of sauropod dinosaurs. Matt noticed that the Umbaran Starfighter seems to be closely modelled on an Apatosaurus vertebra — see these two blog posts.

We’re trying to figure out whether this is deliberate as it appears, or just a crazy coincidence. One of our commenters believes the design might be yours — can you comment?

Russell was on vacation for a while, but wrote back a couple of days ago. I quote his message with permission:

Hey Mike,

I’ve been away on vacation and I just found this email.

That’s pretty trippy that the vertebrate looks so similar.

It’s also pretty trippy that palaeontologists are watching clone wars.

I did have the final design for this ship but I didn’t do the original ‘inspirational’ sketch. George often goes thru a book of older sketches from the movies and randomly picks stuffout for us to ‘fix’ or ‘cleanup’. My input was to give it more extreme character so I sharpened some edges and made the fins more pronounced, figured out how to land it, design a working cockpit, and then gave it final color. I don’t know who did the original but I don’t recall any notation saying they based it on the Aptosaurus vertebra so I have to say, yes, it’s coincidental.

Similarities are really odd!

Russell also gave me a lead on where I might look for the original designer. I’ll follow that up, and report back in a later post.


Victory! For the full saga, check out these links:



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