Supersaurus vs Brachiosaurus - BYU 9024 and FMNH P25107

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

Remind yourself of the awesomeness of Giraffatitan:

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

Supersaurus’s neck was probably TWICE that long.

Holy poo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supersaurus cervical BYU 9024



Check out this beautiful Lego Diplodocus:


(Click through for the full image at full size.)

I particularly like the little touch of having of bunch of Lego Victorian gentleman scientists clustered around it, though they’re probably a bit too big for the skeleton.

This is the work of MolochBaal, and all rights are reserved. You can see five more views of this model in his Flickr gallery. I especially admire how he’s managed to get the vertebral transitions pretty smooth, the careful use of separate radius/ulna and tibia/fibula, and the use of a transparent brick in the skull to represent the antorbital fenestra.

The forefeet are wrong — their toes should not be splayed out — but you can’t blame MolochBaal for that, as he was copying the mounted CM 84/94 cast in the Madrid museum.


I need to be sleeping, not blogging, so here are just the highlights, with no touch-ups and minimal commentary.


I don’t know what these real street signs were doing sitting on the ground when I walked to the museum this morning, but it was a good omen for the conference.


Home base for this part of the conference. We head to Green River, Utah, on Friday for the Early Cretaceous half.


I had never seen this on exhibit. This is not the Brachiosaurus scapulocoracoid formerly referred to “Ultrasauros”, this is the other big scap from Dry Mesa, from the giant diplodocid Supersaurus.


Seems legit.


This is not Dinosaur Baptist Church–it is a cathedral of an entirely different order.


And that order is Sauropoda.


The sauropod bones are entombed in a matrix consisting of super-hard sandstone and non-sauropod bits.

I got about 150 photos of the Wall, but only because I ran out of time. You probably already know what I’m going to attempt with them. (If not, here’s a hint.)


Jim Kirkland (center left) literally walked us through the Morrison and Cedar Mountain Formations at this set of exposures north of the visitor center. The reddish stuff on the lower left is Morrison, and after that it’s CMF all the way up this ridge and next two behind it.


A cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, signalling that we’ve come to end of this tail–er, tale.


Further updates as time and opportunity allow. If you tweet about the conference, please use #MMFC14!

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

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

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

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

1932-jyosqjdogynshijh rp cpodtegqnhjimtgalwjo

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

There are a few mysteries here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or did he?

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

Can anyone help?


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

Let’s take another look at that Giraffatitan cervical. MB.R.2180:C5, from a few days ago:


That’s a pretty elongate vertebra, right? But how elongate, exactly? How can we quantify whether it’s more or less elongate than some other vertebra?

The traditional answer is that we quantify elongation using the elongation index, or EI. This was originally defined by Upchurch (1998:47) as “the length of a vertebral centrum divided by the width across its caudal face”. Measuring from the full-resolution version of the image above, I make that 1779/529 pixels, or 3.36.

But then those doofuses Wedel et al. (2000:346) came along and said:

When discussing vertebral proportions Upchurch (1998) used the term elongation index (EI), defined as the length of the centrum divided by the width of the cotyle. Although they did not suggest a term for the proportion, Wilson & Sereno (1998) used centrum length divided by the height of the cotyle as a character in their analysis. We prefer the latter definition of this proportion, as the height of the cotyle is directly related to the range of motion of the intervertebral joint in the dorsoventral plane. For the purposes of the following discussion, we therefore redefine the EI of Upchurch (1998) as the anteroposterior length of the centrum divided by the midline height of the cotyle.

Since then, the term EI has mostly been used in this redefined sense — but I think we all agree now that it would have been better for Wedel et al to have given a new name to Wilson and Sereno’s ratio rather than apply Upchurch’s name to it.

Aaaanyway, measuring from the image again, I give that vertebra an EI (sensu Wedel et al. 2000) of 1779/334 = 5.33. Which is 58% more elongate than when using the Upchurch definition! This of course follows directly from the cotyle being 58% wider than tall (529/334 pixels).

So one of principal factors determining how elongate a vertebra seems to be is the shape of its cotyle. And that’s troublesome, because the cotyle is particularly subject to crushing — and it’s not unusual for even consecutive vertebrae from the same column to be crushed in opposite directions, giving them (apparently) wildly different EIs.

Here’s an example (though not at all an extreme one): cervicals 4 and 6 of the same specimen, MB.R.2180 (formerly HM SI), as the multi-view photo above:


Measuring from the photos as before, I make the width:height ratio of C4 683/722 pixels = 0.95, and that of C6  1190/820 pixels = 1.45. So these two vertebrae — from the same neck, and with only one other vertebrae coming in between them — differ in preserved cotyle shape by a factor of 1.53.

And by the way, this is one of the best preserved of all sauropod neck series.

Let’s take a look at the canonical well-preserved sauropod neck: the Carnegie Diplodocus, CM 84. Here are the adjacent cervicals 13 and 14, in posterior view, from Hatcher (1901: plate VI):


For C14 (on the left), I get a width:height ratio of 342/245 pixels = 1.40. For C13 (on the right), I get 264/256 pixels = 1.03. So C14 is apparently 35% broader than its immediate predecessor. I absolutely don’t buy that this represents how the vertebrae were in life.

FOR EXTRA CREDIT: what does this tell us about the reliability of computer models that purport to tell us about neck posture and flexibility, based on the preserved shapes of their constituent vertebrae?

So what’s to be done?

The first thing, as always in science, is to be explicit about what statements we’re making. Whenever we report an elongation index, we need to clearly state whether it’s EI sensu Upchurch 1998 or EI sensu Wedel et al. 2000. Since that’s so cumbersome, I’m going propose that we introduce two new abbreviations: EIH (Elongation Index Horizonal), which is Upchurch’s original measure (length over horizontal width of cotyle) and EIV (Elongation Index Vertical), which is Wilson and Sereno’s measure (length over vertical height of cotyle). If we’re careful to report EIH and EIV (or better still both) rather than an unspecified EI, then at least we can avoid comparing apples with oranges.

But I think we can do better, by combining the horizontal and vertical cotyle measurements in some way, and dividing the length by the that composite. This would give us an EIA (Elongation Index Average), which we could reasonably expect to preserve the original cotyle size, and so to give a more reliable indication of “true” elongation.

The question is, how to combine the cotyle width and height? There are two obvious candidates: either take the arithmetic mean (half the sum) or the geometric mean (the square root of the product). Note that for round cotyles, both these methods will give the same result as each other and as EIH and EIV — which is what we want.

Which mean should we use for EIA? to my mind, it depends which is best preserved when a vertebra is crushed. If a 20 cm circular cotyle is crushed vertically to 10cm, does it tend to smoosh outwards to 30 cm (so that 10+30 = the original 20+20) or to 40 cm (so that 10 x 40 = the original 20 x 20)? If the former, then we should use arithmetic mean; if the latter, then geometric mean.

Does anyone know how crushing works in practice? Which of these models most closely approximates reality? Or can we do better than either?

Update (8:48am): thanks for Emanuel Tschopp for pointing out (below) what I should have remembered: that Chure et al.’s (2010) description of Abydosaurus introduces “aEI”, which is the same as one of my proposed definitons of EIA. So we should ignore the last four paragraphs of this post and just use aEI. (Their abbreviation is better, too.)



  • Hatcher, Jonathan B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63 and plates I-XIII.
  • Upchurch, Paul. 1998. The phylogenetic relationships of sauropod dinosaurs. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 124:43-103.
  • Wedel, Mathew J., Richard L. Cifelli and R. Kent Sanders. 2000b. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45(4):343-388.
  • Wilson, J. A. and Paul C. Sereno. 1998. Early evolution and higher-level phylogeny of sauropod dinosaurs. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Memoir 5:1-68.

In his classic monograph, Hatcher (1901) illustrated the cervical vertebrae of the Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84 with beautiful drawings:

Wedel and Taylor 2013 bifurcation Figure 13 - Diplodocus cervicals from Hatcher

But only in lateral view.

Other plates show photos in lateral, anterior and posterior views, and these are useful even though they’re much less clear than the drawings.

But he didn’t illustrate the vertebrae at all in dorsal or ventral view — and as far as I know, no-one else has done so either. I would find these views really useful for something I’m working on. Does anyone have photos?



Hatcher, Jonathan B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63 and plates I-XIII.

Brachiosaurus sp. BYU 12866 c5? in left lateral view with CT slices, some corrected for distortion.

Brachiosaurus sp. BYU 12866 c5? in left lateral view with CT slices, some corrected for distortion.

Last Tuesday Mike popped up in Gchat to ask me about sauropod neck masses.  We started throwing around some numbers, derived from volumetric estimates and some off-the-cuff guessing. Rather than tell you more about it, I should just paste our conversation, minimally edited for clarity and with a few hopefully helpful links thrown in.

Mike: Dud. Neck masses.
Matt: What about ‘em?
Mike: Taylor (2009:803) measured the neck of Giraffatitan by GDI as 4117 liters.
Matt: k
Mike: I didn’t convert that to a mass, but I guess density of 0.5 is as good as any, which gives us (say) 2 tonnes.
Matt: That works for me.
Mike: That’s for an 8.5 m neck. So Supersaurus at 15 …
Matt: Yep. Almost twice as long, and not much more slender, and from what I’ve seen, ASP about the same.
Mike: Is 1.76 times as long. If it was isometric with the G. neck, it would be 5.5 times as heavy, which is 11 tonnes.
Matt: Oh.
Mike: So first: yeesh. Like, that is the mass of a whole freaking Diplo. Now we surely have to say isometry is unlikely.
Matt: Prolly.
Mike: But just multiplying out by length is unrealistic too. So maybe I should guess at mass =~ l^2? If I went with that, I’d get 6410 kg, which is elephant mass.
Matt: Something just occurred to me. Like, just now. For my 2006 poster, I calculated the mass of the cervical series in Giraffatitan, by summing over the CT slices from Brachiosaurus sp. BYU 12866 and multiplying by appropriate scale factors for the rest of the verts. We could “skin” that in muscle, and actually figure this out, for various muscle thicknesses, for one sauropod.
Mike: We should totally do that … if we had some idea how heavily muscled it was.
Matt: Well, obviously the thing to do is what Hutch et al. did for the tyrannosaurs, and put on several soft tissue envelopes. Crazy skinny, our best guess, markedly unfit, OMG, etc. It’s not that much more work. In fact, that could be my SVPCA talk this year.
Mike: Sure, but that’s just how to mitigate our ignorance. All we’d be doing at this point is taking n guesses instead of one. But, yeah, we should do it. Or you should if you prefer.
Matt: Let’s make it a Wedel and Taylor. I’ll crunch the numbers, but I want your input.
Mike: Works for me!
Matt: Good. Now let’s file it until April at least.
BYU 12613, a posterior cervical probably referable to Diplodocus, in dorsal (top), left lateral (left), and posterior (right) views. It compares most favourably with C14 of D. carnegii CM 84/94 (Hatcher 1901: plate 3) despite being less than half as large, with a centrum length of 270 mm compared to 642 mm for C14 of D. carnegii. From Wedel and Taylor (in press).

BYU 12613, a posterior cervical probably referable to Diplodocus, in dorsal (top), left lateral (left), and posterior (right) views. It most closely resembles C14 of D. carnegii CM 84/94 (Hatcher 1901: plate 3) despite being less than half as large, with a centrum length of 270 mm compared to 642 mm for C14 of D. carnegii. From Wedel and Taylor (in press).

Matt: Oh!
Matt: Also.
Matt: You know that little Diplo cervical from BYU that we figure in our in-press paper?
Mike: I think I know the one, yeah.
Matt: I am SUCH a moron. I have CT scans of the whole thing.
Mike: Good.
Matt: I forgot that Kent and I scanned it back in 2008. Even blogged about it, fer cryin’ out loud.  So I can do the sum-over-slices, scale-for-other-verts thing for Diplodocus, too. Which is at least closer to Supes than JANGO is.
Mike: Remind me, is it from a juvenile?
Matt: Maybe, maybe not. It IS tiny, but the neural spine is fused, the internal structure is crazy complex, and it doesn’t have any obvious juvenile characters other than just being small. The ASP is about as high as it gets in diplodocids. Which, as you may remember, is not nearly as high as it gets in titanosauriforms–that’s another paper that needs writing. Damn it. To know all this stuff and not have told it yet is killing me.
Mike: PeerJ!
Matt: I know!
Mike: Bottom line, it’s nuts that no-one has ever even tried to weigh a sauropod neck.* We should definitely do it, even if we do a really crappy job, if only so that others feel obliged to rebut.
Matt: Quite. Let’s do it. For reals.
Mike: In April. Done.

* R. McNeill Alexander (1985, 1989) did estimate the mass of the neck of Diplodocus, based on the old Invicta model and assuming a specific gravity of 1.0. Which was a start, and waaay better than no estimate at all. Still, let’s pretend that Mike meant “tried based on the actual fossils and what we know now about pneumaticity”.

The stuff about putting everything off until April is in there because we have a March 31 deadline to get a couple of major manuscripts submitted for an edited thingy. And we’ve made a pact to put off all other sciencing until we get those babies in. But I want to blog about this now, so I am.

Another thing Mike and I have been talking a lot about lately is the relation between blogging and paper-writing. The mode we’ve seen most often is to blog about something and then repurpose or rewrite the blog posts as a paper. Darren paved the way on this (at least in our scientific circle–people we don’t know probably did it earlier), with “Why azhdarchids were giant storks“, which became Witton and Naish (2008). Then last year our string of posts (starting here) on neural spine bifurcation in Morrison sauropods became the guts–and most of the muscles and skin, too–of our in-press paper on the same topic.

But there’s another way, which is to blog parts of the science as you’re doing them, which is what Mike was doing with Tutorial 20–that’s a piece of one of our papers due on March 31.

Along the way, we’ve talked about John Hawks’ model of using his blog as a place to keep his notes. We could, and should, do more of that, instead of mostly keeping our science out of the public eye until it’s ready to deploy (which I will always favor for certain projects, such as anything containing formal taxonomic acts).

And I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for me–for us–to take a step that others have already taken, and do the obvious thing. Which is not to write a series of blog posts and then decide later to turn it into a paper (I wasn’t certain that I’d be writing a paper on neural spine bifurcation until I had written the second post in that series), but to write the paper as a series of blog posts, deliberately and from the outset, and get community feedback along the way. And I think that the sauropod neck mass project is perfect for that.

Don’t expect this to become the most common topic of our posts, or even a frequent one. We still have to get those manuscripts done by the end of March, and we have no shortage of other projects waiting in the wings. And we’ll still post on goofy stuff, and on open access, and on sauropod stuff that has nothing to do with this–probably on that stuff a lot more often than on this. But every now and then there will be a post in this series, possibly written in my discretionary blogging time, that will hopefully move the paper along incrementally.


Here are cervical vertebrae 2-15 of Diplodocus carnegii in right lateral view, from Hatcher (1901: plate 3). Click to embiggen, and then just gaze in wonder for a while.


Wouldn’t that look smashing, printed, framed, and hanging on the wall?

I wonder if I will ever stop finding new interesting things to think about in this image. I doubt it.

(For a bit o’ fair-and-balanced, remember that this neck may not be complete, and that some of the neural spines are sculptures.)

Thanks to Mike for the scan.


Hatcher, John Bell. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy, and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63.

Caudal pneumaticity in saltasaurines. Cerda et al. (2012: fig. 1).

Earlier this month I was amazed to see the new paper by Cerda et al. (2012), “Extreme postcranial pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs from South America.” The title is dramatic, but the paper delivers the promised extremeness in spades. Almost every figure in the paper is a gobsmacker, starting with Figure 1, which shows pneumatic foramina and cavities in the middle and even distal caudals of Rocasaurus, Neuquensaurus, and Saltasaurus. This is most welcome. Since the 1990s there have been reports of saltasaurs with “spongy bone” in their tail vertebrae, but it hasn’t been clear until now whether that “spongy bone” meant pneumatic air cells or just normal marrow-filled trabecular bone. The answer is air cells, loads of ‘em, way farther down the tail than I expected.

Caudal pneumaticity in diplodocines. Top, transverse cross-section through an anterior caudal of Tornieria, from Janensch (1947: fig. 9). Bottom, caudals of Diplodocus, from Osborn (1899: fig. 13).

Here’s why this is awesome. Lateral fossae occur in the proximal caudals of lots of neosauropods, maybe most, but only a few taxa go in for really invasive caudal pneumaticity with big internal chambers. In fact, the only other sauropod clade with such extensive pneumaticity so far down the tail are the diplodocines, including Diplodocus, Barosaurus, and Tornieria. But they do things differently, with BIG, “pleurocoel”-type foramina on the lateral surfaces of the centra, leading to BIG–but simple–camerae inside, and vertebral cross-sections that look like I-beams. In contrast, the saltasaurines have numerous small foramina on the centrum and neural arch that lead to complexes of small pneumatic camellae, giving their vertebrae honeycomb cross-sections. So caudal pneumaticity in diplodocines and saltsaurines is convergent in its presence and extent but clade-specific in its development. Pneumaticity doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Pneumatic ilia in saltasaurines. Cerda et al. (2012: fig. 3).

But it does get a little cooler. Because the stuff in the rest of the paper is even more mind-blowing. Cerda et al. (2012) go on to describe and illustrate–compellingly, with photos–pneumatic cavities in the ilia, scapulae, and coracoids of saltasaurines. And, crucially, these cavities are connected to the outside by pneumatic foramina. This is important. Chambers have been reported in the ilia of several sauropods, mostly somphospondyls but also in the diplodocoid Amazonsaurus. But it hasn’t been clear until now whether those chambers connected to the outside. No patent foramen, no pneumaticity. It seemed unlikely that these sauropods had big marrow-filled vacuities in their ilia–as far as I know, all of the non-pneumatic ilia out there in Tetrapoda are filled with trabecular bone, and big open marrow spaces only occur in the long bones of the limbs. And, as I noted in my 2009 paper, the phylogenetic distribution of iliac chambers is consistent with pneumaticity, in that the chambers are only found in those sauropods that already have sacral pneumaticity (showing that pneumatic diverticula were already loose in their rear ends). But it’s nice to have confirmation.

So, the pneumatic ilia in Rocasaurus, Neuquensaurus, and Saltasaurus are cool because they suggest that all the other big chambers in sauropod ilia were pneumatic as well. And for those of you keeping score at home, that’s another parallel acquisition in Diplodocoidea and Somphospondyli (given the apparent absence of iliac chambers in Camarasaurus and the brachiosaurids, although maybe we should bust open a few brachiosaur ilia just to be sure*).

* I kid, I kid.**

** Seriously, though, if you “drop” one and find some chambers, call me!

Pectoral pneumaticity in saltasaurines. Cerda et al. (2012: fig. 2).

But that’s not all. The possibility of pneumatic ilia has been floating around for a while now, and most of us who were aware of the iliac chambers in sauropods probably assumed that eventually someone would find the specimens that would show that they were pneumatic. At least, that was my assumption, and as far as I know no-one ever floated an alternative hypothesis to explain the chambers. But I certainly did not expect pneumaticity in the shoulder girdle. And yet there they are: chambers with associated foramina in the scap and coracoid of Saltasaurus and in the coracoid of Neuquensaurus. Wacky. And extremely important, because this is the first evidence that sauropods had clavicular air sacs like those of theropods and pterosaurs. So either all three clades evolved a shedload of air sacs independently, or the basic layout of the avian respiratory system was already present in the ancestral ornithodiran. I know where I’d put my money.

There’s loads more interesting stuff to talk about, like the fact that the ultra-pneumatic saltasaurines are among the smallest sauropods, or the way that fossae and camerae are evolutionary antecedent to camellae in the vertebrae of sauropods, so maybe we should start looking for fossae and camerae in the girdle bones of other sauropods, or further macroevolutionary parallels in the evolution of pneumaticity in pterosaurs, sauropods, and theropods. Each one of those things could be a blog post or maybe a whole dissertation. But my mind is already thoroughly blown. I’m going to go lie down for a while. Congratulations to Cerda et al. on what is probably the most important paper ever written on sauropod pneumaticity.


  • Cerda, I.A., Salgado, L., and Powell, J.E. 2012. Extreme postcranial pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs from South America. Palaeontologische Zeitschrift. DOI 10.1007/s12542-012-0140-6
  • Janensch, W. 1947. Pneumatizitat bei Wirbeln von Sauropoden und anderen Saurischien. Palaeontographica, Supplement 7, 3:1–25.
  • Osborn, H. F. 1899. A skeleton of Diplodocus. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 1:191–214.

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.

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