April 30, 2015
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
[Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN S II), mounted skeleton in left anteroventrolateral view. Presacral vertebrae sculpted, skull scaled and 3d-printed from specimen T1. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.]
Today is a good day for sauropod science. Since we’re not getting this up until the afternoon, you’ve probably already seen that Emanuel Tschopp and colleagues have published a monstrous specimen-level phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocidae and, among other things, resurrected Brontosaurus as a valid genus. The paper is in PeerJ so you can read it for free (here).
I’ve already been pinged by lots of folks asking for my thoughts on this. I know that the return of Brontosaurus is what’s going to catapult this paper into the spotlight, but I hope what everyone takes away from it is just what a thorough piece of work it is. I’ve never seen so many phylogenetic characters illustrated so well. It sets a new standard, and anyone who wants to overturn this had better roll up their sleeves and bring a boatload of data. I’m also very, very happy that it’s open-access so everyone in the world can see it, use it, question it, tear it apart or build on it. Getting Brontosaurus back is just gravy. Although, being pro-brontosaur enough to have named a dinosaur in honor of Brontosaurus, I’m also pretty happy about that. If you need a quick guide to who’s who now, A. ajax and A. louisae are still Apatosaurus, and B. excelsus, B. yahnahpin (formerly Eobrontosaurus), and B. parvus (originally Elosaurus) are all Brontosaurus. For more details, go read the paper.
My personal feelings aside, a lot of people are asking how solid is this generic re-separation. I haven’t read the entire paper yet – it’s 299 pages long, for crying out loud – but the separation of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus seems solid enough. Tschopp et al. didn’t do it lightly, they justify their decision in detail. I don’t hold with the idea that just because two taxa are sisters, means that they cannot be separated generically. As usual in phylogenetic taxonomy, it comes down to what we decide as a community constitutes “diagnosably distinct”. Tschopp et al. have actually put some thought into what that might mean here, and whether you agree with them or not, they’ve at least made all of their evidence and reasoning explicit. That’s both an opportunity and a challenge for critics: an opportunity to pin down exactly where and why you may disagree, and a challenge to do exactly that. You can’t just sit back and say, “I think the analysis is flawed” or “I wouldn’t have coded that character that way” (well, you can, but if that’s all you say, no-one is obliged to take that kind of lazy, drive-by criticism seriously). There are 477 characters here, most of them illustrated, for 81 OTUs, and a lot of post-hoc discussion of the results. So whether you agree with the authors or not, in whole or in part, both fans and critics should dig in and build on this work. Is it the last word on diplodocid taxonomy? Of course not. But it does move the field forward significantly, and the Tschopp et al. should be applauded for that.
There’s a lot more in there than just bringing back Brontosaurus. “Diplodocus” hayi is elevated to its own genus, Galeamopus. Neither of those things are super surprising. There have been rumors since the 90s at least that Brontosaurus might be coming back, and everyone has known for a while that D. hayi was a bit wonky. I was also not surprised to see Australodocus returned to Diplodocidae – when I saw the type material in 2011, it looked diplodocid to me (based on some characters I’ll have to unpack in some other post). More surprising to me are the sinking of Dinheirosaurus into Supersaurus, the finding that Tornieria is not particularly close to Diplodocus, and the uncertain positions of AMNH 460, the American Museum mount, which is an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study, of FMNH 25112, the Field Museum “Apatosaurus”, which might not even be an apatosaurine at all(!). In several cases, Tschopp et al. come right out and say that X is going to need further study, so if you want to work on sauropods and you’re stuck for project ideas, go see what needs doing.
As I was scanning the paper again while composing the last paragraph, I almost fell down the rabbit hole. So much interesting stuff in this paper. Even if all you care about is morphology, the hundred or so figures illustrating the phylogenetic characters ought to keep you happy for a very long time. I look forward to reading through the vertebral characters in detail and seeing what I’ve been missing all these years.
I’m contractually obliged to point out that the authors chose to publish the complete peer-review history of the paper, so you can see what the editor (Andy Farke) and reviewers had to say. As always, I think this transparency (and credit for the reviewers) is great for science, and I can’t wait until it’s the norm at more journals.
In addition to the paper, there’s also an interview with lead author Emanuel Tschopp on the PeerJ blog, and a nice shout-out for SV-POW!
Parting shot: why did Tschopp et al. get different results than anyone had previously? Because they used more specimens and more taxa – more data full stop. That’s also why their paper warrants serious consideration. It’s serious work. Let’s go stand on their shoulders.
In 2012, Matt and I spent a week in New York, mostly working at the AMNH on “Apatosaurus” minimus and a few other specimens that caught our eye. But we were able to spend a day at the Yale Peabody Museum up in New Haven, Connecticut, to check out the caudal pneumaticity in the mounted Apatosaurus (= “Brontosaurus“) excelsus, YPM 1980, and the bizarrely broad cervicals of the Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429.
While we there, it would have been churlish not to pay some attention to the glorious and justly famous Age of Reptiles mural, painted by Rudolph F. Zallinger from 1944-1947.
So here it is, with the Brontosaurus neck for scale:
Click through for high resolution (3552 × 2664).
And here is a close-up of the most important, charismatic, part of the mural:
Again, click through for high resolution (3552 × 2664).
That’s your lot for now. We’ve long promised a proper photo post of the Brontosaurus mount itself, and I’ll try to get that done soon. For now, it’s just scenery.
February 10, 2015
Go to Google and do a picture search for “natural history museum”. Here are the results I get. (I’m searching the UK, where that term refers to the British museum of that name — results in the USA may very.)
In the top 24 images, I see that half of them are of the building itself — rightly so, as it’s a beautiful and impressive piece of architecture that would be well worth visiting even if it was empty. Of the rest, ten are of specimens inside the museum: and every single one of them is of the Diplodocus in the main hall. (The other two photos are from the French natural history museum, so don’t really belong in this set. Not coincidentally, they are both primarily photos of the French cast of the same Diplodocus.)
The NHM’s Diplodocus — I can’t bring myself to call it “Dippy” is the icon of the museum. It’s what kids go to see. It’s what the museum used as the basis of the logo for the 2005 SVPCA meeting that was held there. It’s essentially the museum mascot — the thing that everyone thinks of when they think of the NHM.
And rightly so: it’s not just a beautiful specimen, it’s not just sensational for the kids. As the first cast ever made of the Carnegie specimen CM 84, it’s a historically important object in its own right. It was the first mounted Diplodocus ever, being presented in 1905 before the the original material was even on display in Pittsburgh.
As a matter of fact, this cast was the very first mounted sauropod to be publicly displayed: that honour is usually given to the AMNH Apatosaurus, but as museum-history expert Ilja Nieuwland points out:
The London ‘Dippy’ was in fact the first sauropod on public display, if only for three days in early July of 1904, in the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall.
There you have the Natural History Museum Diplodocus: the symbol of the museum, an icon of evolution, a historical monument, a specimen of great scientific value and unparalleled symbolism.
So naturally the museum management want to tear it down. They want to convert the Diplodocus hall into a blue whale hall. Because the museum doesn’t already have a blue whale hall.
Or, no — wait — it does already have a blue whale hall. That’s it. That’s what I meant to say. And very impressive it is, too.
I don’t mind admitting that the whale hall is my second favourite room in the museum. Whenever I go there as a tourist (rather than as a scientist, when I spend all my time in the basement), I make sure I see it. It’s great.
The thing is, it’s already there. A museum with a whale hall does not need another whale hall.
Obviously anticipating the inevitable outcry, the museum got all its ducks in a row on this. They released some admittedly beautiful concept artwork, and arranged to have opinion pieces written in support of the change — some by people who I would have expected to know better.
One of the more breathtaking parts of this planned substitution is the idea that Diplodocus is no longer relevant. The NHM’s director, Sir Michael Dixon says the change is “about asking real questions of contemporary relevance”. He says “going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do”. This “relevance” rhetoric is everywhere. The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”, writes Henry Nicholls in the Guardian.
There was a time when Diplodocus was relevant, you know: waaay back in the 1970s. But time has moved on, and now that’s 150,000,035 years old, it’s become outdated.
Conversely, the rationale for the whale seems to be that they want to use it as a warning about extinction. But could there ever be a more powerful icon of extinction than a dinosaur?
The thing is, the right solution is so obvious. Here’s what they want to do:
Clearly the solution is, yes, hang the whale from the ceiling — but don’t remove the Diplodocus. Because, seriously, what could be a better warning about extinction than the juxtaposition of a glorious animal that we lost with one that we could be about to lose?
All this argument about which is better, a Diplodocus or a blue whale: what a waste of energy. Why should we have to choose? Let’s have both.
I’ve even had an artist’s impression made, at great expense, to show how the combination exhibit would look. Check it out.
(If anyone would like to attempt an even better rendering, please by my guest. Let me know, and I’ll add artwork to this page.)
So that’s my solution. Keep the museum’s iconic, defining centrepiece — and add some more awesome instead of exchanging it. Everyone wins.
November 14, 2014
So how did the YPM come to make such a monstrosity? What was it based on? Tune in next time for the surprising details!
I told him at the time that I’d soon get around to writing a post. But before I did, he wrote a post on this himself: Bully for Camarasaurus. And it’s excellent. Go and read it!
I don’t have a lot to add to what Ben has written, except regarding this:
What Marsh had instead [when restoring the skull for his 1891 “Brontosaurus” reconstruction] were a few fragmentary bits of Camarasaurus cranial material, plus a snout and jaw (USNM 5730) now considered to be Brachiosaurus.
Here’s what Marsh came up with:
But what of the supposed Brachiosaurus skull that he used as a reference? It was finally described 107 years later by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998), in a paper that helpfully also lays out the history behind it. Here’s how it looks:
The skull was found by a crew under the supervision of M. P. Felch in the western part of his Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Felch reported it to O. C. Marsh in a letter of 8 September 1883. It was found by a meter-long cervical vertebra that probably belonged to Brachiosaurus “which was destroyed during attempts to collect it” (McIntosh and Berman 1975:196). [Of course, Felch and Marsh could hardly have been expected to identify this vertebra correctly, as Brachiosaurus would not be discovered and named for another twenty years (Riggs 1903), and the nature of its neck would not become apparent until Janensch (1914) described the related brachiosaurid Giraffatitan (= “Brachiosaurus“) brancai.]
The Felch skull, along with other material from the quarry, was shipped to Marsh at Yale in October of that year, and was initially assigned the specimen number YPM 1986. At that time it was only partially prepared, hence the rather poor resemblance between the restored version above and Marsh’s hypothetical “Brontosaurus” [= Apatosaurus] skull that was based on it.
It’s notable that Holland (1915) was quite certain that this was not a skull of Brontosaurus, and that a Diplodocus-like skull found with the A. louisae holotype belonged to it. It’s worth reading the skull section of his paper to see just how solid his reasoning was. And it’s extraordinary to think that Osborn’s power, all the way over in New York, was so great that he was able to successfully bully Holland, 370 miles away in Pittsburgh, into not putting the evidently correct skull on the Carnegie Museum’s Apatosaurus mount. That mount remained sadly headless until after Holland’s death.
Aaanyway, YPM 1986 was pretty much ignored after Marsh’s abuse of it as a reference for the Brontosaurus reconstruction’s skull. After Marsh’s death in 1899, much of the material collected by Felch was transferred to the Smithsonian (US National Museum of Natural History). The skull was among these specimens, and so was re-catalogued as USNM 5730.
As so often, it was Jack McIntosh who rediscovered this skull and recognised its true affinities. Some time after his tentative identification of the skull as pertaining to Brachiosaurus (presumably on the basis of its resemblance to that of Giraffatitan), Carpenter borrowed the skull, had it more fully prepared, wrote the description, and had a restored model constructed from casts of the preserved elements and models of the missing ones.
Carpenter and Tidwell (1998:fig. 2) also handily showed the restored Felch quarry skull alongside those of other sauropods:
By re-ordering the top row, we can see what a neat intermediate it is between the skulls of Camarasaurus (left) and Giraffatitan (= “Brachiosaurus” of their usage):
I provisionally accepted USNM 5730 as belonging to Brachiosaurus in my re-evaluation of 2009, and included it in my reconstruction (Taylor 2009:fig. 7):
But as noted by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998:82), the lack of comparable parts between the Felch skull and the Brachiosaurus holotype (which remains the only definitive Brachiosaurus material) means that the assignment has to remain tentative.
What we really need is a more complete Brachiosaurus specimen: one with both a skull and good postcervical elements that let us refer it definitively to Brachiosaurus altithorax by comparison with the holotype. And heck, while we’re at it, let’s have a specimen with a good neck, too!
The real question remains: how did Marsh, using a brachiosaur skull as his basis, come up with this?
And stranger still, how someone at the Yale Peabody Museum — we don’t know who — used it, or more likely Marsh’s reconstruction, as a basis for this sculpture:
The Yale mount didn’t go up until 1931 — the last of the Big Four Apatosaurus mounts after the AMNH, Carnegie and Field Museum, which is surprising as it was the first of those specimens to be found. So by the time the skull was sculpted, sauropod skulls were actually reasonably well known. It’s not clear quite how anyone working from a decent reconstruction of, say, a Camarasaurus skull — the one in Osborn and Mook (1921:figure 30), say — could come up with this monster.
The last thing to say is this: it does credit to the YPM that they display this historically important sculpture rather than hiding it away and pretending it never happened. For me, part of the fascination of palaeontology is seeing not just how organisms evolved through prehistory but how ideas evolved through history. It’s great that we can still see important mistakes, alongside their corrections (i.e. the new and lovely skull on the YPM Apatosaurus mount.)
- Carpenter, Kenneth, and Virginia Tidwell. 1998. Preliminary description of a Brachiosaurus skull from Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Modern Geology 23:69-84.
- Holland, William J. 1915. Heads and tails: a few notes relating to the structure of the sauropod dinosaurs. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 9:273-278.
- Janensch, Werner. 1914. Ubersicht uber der Wirbeltierfauna der Tendaguru-Schichten nebst einer kurzen Charakterisierung der neu aufgefuhrten Arten von Sauropoden. Archiv fur Biontologie, Berlin III, 1(1):81-110.
- Marsh, O. C. 1891. Restoration of Triceratops (with plates XV and XVI). American Journal of Science, 3rd series 41(244):339-342.
- McIntosh, John S., and David, S. Berman. 1975. Description of the palate and lower jaw of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus (Reptilia: Saurischia) with remarks on the nature of the skull of Apatosaurus. Journal of Paleontology 49(1):187-199.
- Osborn, Henry Fairfield, and Charles C. Mook. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, n.s. 3:247-387, and plates LX-LXXXV.
- Riggs, Elmer S. 1903. Brachiosaurus altithorax, the largest known dinosaur. American Journal of Science 15(4):299-306.
- Taylor, Michael 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.
July 16, 2014
I was at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County yesterday to do some research in the ornithology collection. After lunch I was working on this pelican skeleton and I thought, “Geez, there is just no way to do this thing justice with still photos. I should make a video.” Here it is. You’ll want to see it full-screen–this being my first time out making a video, I didn’t realize that I was holding the phone the wrong way for efficient viewing on other devices.
The specimen is LACM Ornithology 86262. I’m posting this video with the knowledge and kind permission of the ornithology collection staff.
For previous things in this vein, please see:
- There’s almost nothing but nothing there, Brachiosaurus edition
- There’s almost nothing but nothing there, Sauroposeidon edition
If you like it that stuff like this exists, please support your local natural history museum, especially the LACM, which has some really fantastic education and outreach programs.
In recent photo posts on the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton and its bones in the ground, I’ve lamented that the Field Museum’s online photo archive is so unhelpful: for example, if it has a search facility, I’ve not been able to find it.
But the good news is that there’s a Field Museum Photo Archives tumblr. Its coverage is of course spotty, but it gives us at least some chance of finding useful brachiosaur images. Like this one of the sixth presacral vertebra (i.e. probably D7 in a column of 12 dorsals):
It’s instructive to compare that with Riggs’s (1904: plate LXXII) illustration of the same vertebra in the same aspect, in which he almost literally airbrushed out the jigsaw-puzzle complexity of the preserved bone surface:
More disturbing still, compare that old photograph with my own (terrible) 2005 photo of the same vertebra:
It looks very much as though the vertebra itself — not just Riggs’s illustration — has been “improved” since the older photo was taken exactly a century earlier in 1905. This is a constant problem when dealing with old fossils.
Here are three more interesting photos from the Tumblr. First, the Brachiosaurus fossils in the field:
This is evidently from later in the excavation process than the previous photo of this area, since much of the material is now jacketed. That’s the femur in front of shot, here seen in anteromedial view, with the top towards the right.
Next up, this photo purports to be “Thirteen men including Security Guard unloading dorsal vertebrae of type specimen Brachiosaurus fossil”:
But in fact it’s not Brachiosaurus — the neural spines are too tall and slender. I am pretty sure this is Riggs’s Apatosaurus — the rightmost dorsal has that distinctive notch on the dorsal aspect of the neural spine. And indeed, checking his monograph on that specimen (Riggs 1903: plate XLVI), I see that its dorsals were distorted in this way, and that the front-centre vert is a fine match for its D10.
Finally, there’s this one of the prep room:
On the far left, we have the still-jacketed Brachiosaurus femur; next to it stands Harold W. Menke, who discovered the fossil; and to his right is Elmer S. Riggs, who wrote the description.
Those are all the Brachiosaurus-related images I’ve been able to find on the tumblr. But do let me know if you find any others.
- Riggs, Elmer S. 1903. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part I: Apatosaurus Marsh. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:165-196.
- Riggs, Elmer S. 1904. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part II, the Brachiosauridae. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:229-247.