November 19, 2013
In lieu of the sauropod neck cartilage post that I will get around to writing someday, here are some photos of animals London and I saw at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum this Sunday morning.
In chronological order:
Mountain lion, Puma concolor
Black bear, Ursus americanus, which taxon has also graced these pages (and my desk) with its mortal remains.
Bobcats, Lynx rufus. These two play-fought for a while. Watching them was the highlight of the morning, and maybe the highlight of the whole trip.
Gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. This guy just paused here for a moment, but I am super happy with the chiaroscuro effect.
Javelina, Pecari tajacu. Sunday evening we saw a couple of wild javelinas alongside one of the roads on the west side of Tucson–only the second time I’ve seen them in the wild.
Coyote, Canis latrans. Now these guys I see all the time–on my own street, even, some mornings.
Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus. This one flew right over our heads during the Raptor Free Flight demonstration. I tried to get photos of it on the wing but it was too darned fast. Most impressive: however big they look in pictures, they look a heck of a lot bigger–and scarier–swooping two feet over your head.
Mexican Wolf, Canis lupus baileyi
And, okay, here’s a sauropod, or part of a sauropod: a mounted cast of the forelimb of Sonorasaurus thompsoni. Nine-year-old Homo sapiens for scale.
So, pretty outstanding place, and I highly recommend going. But, like every other printed or digital source I found, I recommend getting there first thing in the morning to see all the animals while they are out and about. London and I walked out of the big “critter loops” at 10:30 and the Mexican wolf was the only animal still roaming around.
October 11, 2013
But not “funny ha-ha”. More like, “funny how that neck is clearly impossible.” I mean, really.
This is another shot from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. A few hundred more posts like this and I’ll be done.
For more flamingo-related weirdness, check out Casey Holliday’s work (with Ryan Ridgely, Amy Balanoff, and Larry Witmer) on the wacky blood vessels in flamingo heads. Unfortunately, Holliday et al. found no evidence of the antigravity generators that are obviously present in flamingoes somewhere. So there’s more work to be done here.
Kinda makes me sad, to ponder all of the sweet soft-tissue adaptations that extinct organisms must have had, that we will probably never know (enough) about. At least we have freaks like this around to remind us.
September 9, 2013
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.
Case in point: this sweet atlas-axis complex that Kyle sculpted for the juvenile Apatosaurus mount.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
- A fused atlas and axis in Apatosaurus
- Yet more uninformed noodling on the future of scientific publishing and that kind of thing
- Another mystery: embossed laminae and “unfossae”
- Tutorial 15: the bones of the sauropod skeleton
- Campione, N.E. and Reisz, R.R. 2011. Morphology and evolutionary significance of the atlas−axis complex in varanopid synapsids. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56 (4): 739–748.
- Gilmore, C.W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11: 175-300.
- Romer, A.S. 1956. Osteology of the Reptiles. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 772 pp.
September 6, 2013
We’re just back from SVPCA 2013 in Edinburgh. The first part of the meeting was held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, but on Friday we moved to the National Museums Scotland. Which is awesome. And free to the public. The design process for the museum seems to have been, “Okay, let’s get one of, oh, every interesting thing in the world, and put it right here.” We have tons more photos of amazing things from the museum, and maybe we’ll get around to posting them sooner or later, but today I have other things to do.
Like make fun of Mike. And talk about vomiting dinosaurs.
This groovy stuffed fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis, is shown in the act of puking, which it does to dissuade predators. And probably everyone else. I am reliably informed by Darren that this is unrealistic fulmar vomit, and that the real thing is more of a thin stream, like the world’s nastiest water gun, which can be directed with considerable accuracy. Note to self: don’t piss off the fulmars.
Last year cemented “drawing goofy sauropods down at the pub” as a regular SVPCA Thing. So one night I was out with Mike and Darren and paleoartist Bob Nicholls, who is famous around these parts as the creator of the Greatest. Paleoart. Ever. I did a goofy sketch in my notebook illustrating the “defensive vomit” hypothesis, which Brian Engh and I cooked up during this alligator dissection. More on that another time, maybe. Anyway, after bashing out a fairly pathetic sauropod-puking-on-theropod scene, I passed the notebook to Bob and said, “Make this not suck”. Which he did. (Seriously, if you could see my original scrawl, you’d be the one throwing up.)
So now I have an original Bob Nicholls sketch–heck, the world’s first Wedel-Nicholls artist collaboration!–in my notebook, of one of evolution’s most majestic successes responding appropriately to a vulgar, overstudied theropod. Bob drew it right in front of me and I got to drink good beer while I watched him work.
And that, more or less, is why I attend SVPCA.
I couldn’t sign off without giving you another version of Giant Irish Mike, with the background cropped out so he can be dropped right into posters, slide shows, and other works of science and art. I really, really hope that he turns up in conference talks and other presentations in the months and years to come. If so, send us a photo documenting his miraculous apparition and we’ll show it to the world.
Another nice display from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City (previous MoO posts here and here). Check out the really gnarly ones that are indeed growing right through the bones of the face. That must have sucked.
We’ve covered rodent teeth here a few times before (one, two)–more than is probably right, for a blog ostensibly about sauropod vertebrae. Sherlock Holmes said, “Life is a great chain, the nature of which can be determined by the discovery of a single link.” I’d amend that to, “Life is a great tree, the inherent fascination of which flows through every tiny twig.”
Back when we started SV-POW!, Mike predicted that the technical niche blog was the wave of the future. That prediction does seem to be coming true, albeit more slowly than I thought it would. Nevertheless, if you are susceptible to the inherent fascination of rodent teeth, get yourself over to Ian Corfe’s Tetrapod Teeth & Tales for more geeky goodness.
Now, in a move that will possibly enrage one segment of the audience but hopefully delight another, I am going to forge even further away from the ostensible raison d’être of the blog and talk about monsters. Specifically Cthulhu–in my experience, in the Venn diagram of life, the “interested in paleo” and “interested in Lovecraft” circles overlap almost entirely. Over at my everything-except-paleontology-and-astronomy blog, I’ve been thinking about Lovecraftiana and wrestling with what a Cthulhu idol, such as those described in Lovecraft’s stories, ought to look like. If you’d like to contribute, get on over there and leave a comment. If you send* me a picture (drawing, painting, 3D render, photo of sculpture, whatever) or leave a link, I’ll include it in an upcoming post. Cthulhu fhtagn!
* Send to email@example.com, please include Cthulhu in the subject line.
July 3, 2013
Another shot from my visit last month to the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City: the business end of a tegu (Tupinambis). Lots of cool stuff in this pic: heterodont dentition, wacky sclerotic ossicles, and some sweet neurovascular foramina along the maxilla. Someone should knock out a shrink-wrapped life restoration, a la All Todays.
June 30, 2013
Well, I’m back. Been on the road a lot–to Flagstaff for a few days around Memorial Day, and in Oklahoma to visit family in the first half of June. Now I’m busy with the summer anatomy course, but I finally found time to post some pictures.
One of my favorite museums in the world is the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. It hits all the right notes for me: just shedloads of stuff on display, mounts you can walk all around and even touch (all they ask is that you don’t climb on them), and nary an interactive gizmo in sight. Plus a gift shop at the end where I could easily spend an hour (and several thousand dollars, if I had that much disposable dough and someplace to put all the loot). This was my second visit, but I never got around to posting the photos from my last visit, so maybe I can make up for that this summer. This post just has some highlights–I’ll try to get more photos up before another month goes by.
One of my favorite things in the museum is this awesome and appropriate triple display of the three-banded armadillo.
And old friend, from a new perspective.
In my experience, in the Great Plains states it is a rare museum indeed that does not have a two-headed calf. Not just natural history museums, either–historical museums and roadside attractions usually have at least one. The first I ever encountered was at the Dalton Gang Hideout in Meade, Kansas–maybe someone knows if it is still there? Even as a kid, I understood that the link between bovine developmental anomalies and Old West outlaws was pretty tenuous–basically, both crop up in Kansas–but I didn’t mind then and I don’t mind now. IMHO, finding two-headed calves on display in unexpected places only reinforces the concept of museums as cabinets of wonder.
Of course, it is entirely appropriate to find two-headed calves in an osteology museum, and the Museum of Osteology has more specimens than I’ve ever seen in one place.
The herp case is rad: the anaconda in the middle is a 14-footer, and the king cobra at lower right is 13’7″. And check out the super-fat Gaboon viper below the anaconda. If you’re wondering about turtles and crocs, they’re in the next case over.
As anyone who followed Darren’s multi-part series on matamatas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) knows, they are fabulously weird. As I conceive it, there are two kinds of turtles: matamatas, and “regular-ass turtles”, the latter being the paraphyletic group that includes all non-matamata turtles.
My favorite mounts in the Museum of Osteology are the smallest: a pair of impossibly tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds.
I spend a lot of time with vertebrate bodies and skeletons, both taking them apart and putting them back together, and I am not exaggerating when I say that these are the most astonishing skeletal mounts I have ever seen. Unfortunately there aren’t any external indicators of scale with these skeletons, and perspective effects would defeat any attempt to put a scale bar up against the glass. These ruby-throated hummingbirds are slightly longer-billed than the Anna’s hummingbird mentioned in this post, but even so the skulls are probably no more than 30mm long. I recently helped London clean up a rat skull (yet another thing I need to blog about), and that skull was about as big as one of these skeletons minus the bill.
That’s all for now. If you’re ever in Oklahoma City, go check out the Museum of Osteology. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in bones, anatomy, animals, nature, or even, like, things.
May 29, 2013
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.
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.
April 19, 2013
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.
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.
All I want to do in this post is make people aware that there is a difference between these two things, and occasionally that affects those of us who work in natural history.
In one of his books or essays, Stephen Jay Gould made the point that in natural history we are usually not dealing with whether phenomena are possible or not, but rather trying to determine their frequency. If we find that in a particular population of quail most of the birds eat ants but some avoid them, then we know some things: that quail can tolerate eating ants, that quail are not required to eat ants, and that both strategies can persist in a single population.
This idea has obvious repercussions for paleoart, especially when it comes to “long-tail” behaviors. I dealt with that in this post, and also in the comment thread to this one. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
Sometimes it is useful to talk about things that never happen, or that have at least never occurred in the sample of things we know of. Obviously how certain you can be in these cases depends on the intensity of sampling and the inherent likelihood of a surprising result, which can be hard to judge. If you argued right now that T. rex lacked feathers because no T. rex specimens have been found with feathers, you’d most likely be wrong; it is almost certainly just a matter of time before someone finds direct evidence of feathers in T. rex, given the number of T. rex specimens waiting to be found and the strength of the indirect evidence (e.g., phylogenetic inference, analogy: ornithomimids are known to be feathered even though most specimens are found without feather impressions). If you argue that sauropods are unique among terrestrial animals in having necks more than five meters long, you’re most likely right; being wrong would imply the existence of some as-yet undiscovered land animal of sauropod size, or with seriously wacky proportions (or both), and our sampling of terrestrial vertebrates is good enough to make that extremely unlikely.
The reason for this post is that sometimes people confuse that last argument, which is about sampling and induction, with the argument from personal incredulity.
For example, in our no-necks-for-sex paper (Taylor et al. 2011), we included this passage:
Sauropoda also had a long evolutionary history, originating about 210 million years ago in the Carnian or Norian Age of the Late Triassic, and persisting until the end-Cretaceous extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs about 65 millions years ago. Thus the ‘necks-for-sex’ hypothesis requires that this clade continued to sexually select for exaggeration of the same organ for nearly 150 million years, a scenario without precedent in tetrapod evolutionary history.
One of the reviewers argued that we couldn’t include that section, because it was just the argument from personal incredulity writ large, like so:
There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore we don’t believe that the case in question is the sole exception.
…with the second part of that unstated (by us) but implied. But we disagreed, and argued (successfully) that it was an argument based on sampling, like so:
There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that the case in question is the sole exception.
Now, it is perfectly fair to criticize arguments like that based on the thoroughness of the sampling and the likelihood of exceptions, as discussed above for T. rex feathers. Just don’t mistake arguments like that for arguments from personal incredulity.* On the flip side, if someone makes an argument from personal incredulity, see if the same thing can be restated as an argument about sampling. Maybe they’re correct but just expressing themselves poorly (“I refuse to believe that the moon is made out of cheese”), and maybe they’re wrong and restating things in terms of sampling will help you understand why.
* If you want to get super pedantic about it, they’re both arguments from ignorance. But one of them is at least potentially justifiable by reference to sampling. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but it may get to be that way as the sampling improves (e.g., there is no evidence of planets closer to the sun than Mercury, and at this point, that is pretty persuasive evidence that no such planets exist).
Parting shot: one thing that has always stuck in my head from Simberloff (1983) is the bit about imagining a large enough universe of possible outcomes. And I’ve always had a perverse fascination with Larry Niven’s “Down in Flames”, in which he pretty much demolished his Known Space universe by assuming that every basic postulate of that universe was false. Neither of these follow directly on from the main point of the post, but they’re not completely unrelated, either. Because I think that they yield a pretty good heuristic for how to do science: imagine what it would take for you to be wrong–imagine a universe in which you are wrong–and then go see if the thing that makes you wrong, whatever it is, can be shown to exist or to work. If not, it doesn’t mean you’re right, but it means you’re maybe less wrong, which, if we get right down to it, is the best that we can hope for.
The photos have nothing to do with the post, they’re just pretty pictures from the LACM to liven things up a little.
- Simberloff, D. (1983). Competition theory, hypothesis-testing, and other community ecological buzzwords. The American Naturalist, 122(5), 626-635.
- Taylor, M. P., Hone, D. W., Wedel, M. J., & Naish, D. (2011). The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology, 285(2), 150-161.