Re-reading an email that Matt sent me back in January, I see this:

One quick point about [an interesting sauropod specimen]. I can envision writing that up as a short descriptive paper, basically to say, “Hey, look at this weird thing we found! Morrison sauropod diversity is still underestimated!” But I honestly doubt that we’ll ever get to it — we have literally years of other, more pressing work in front of us. So maybe we should just do an SV-POW! post about the weirdness of [that specimen], so that the World Will Know.

Although as soon as I write that, I think, “Screw that, I’m going to wait until I’m not busy* and then just take a single week* and rock out a wiper* on it.”

I realize that this way of thinking represents a profound and possibly psychotic break with reality. *Thrice! But it still creeps up on me.

(For anyone not familiar with the the “wiper”, it refers to a short paper of only one or two pages. The etymology is left as an exercise to the reader.)

It’s just amazing how we keep on and on falling for this delusion that we can get a paper out quickly, even when we know perfectly well, going into the project, that it’s not going to work out that way. To pick a recent example, my paper on quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture was intended to be literally one page, an addendum to the earlier paper on cartilage: title, one paragraph of intro, diagram, equation, single reference, DONE! Instead, it landed up being 11 pages long with five illustrations and two tables.

I think it’s a reasonable approximation to say that any given project will require about an order of magnitude more work than we expect at the outset.

Even as I write this, the top of my palaeo-work priority list is a paper that I’m working on with Matt and two other colleagues, which he kicked off on 6 May, writing:

I really, really want to kill this off absolutely ASAP. Like, seriously, within a week or two. Is that cool? Is that doable?

To which I idiotically replied:

IT SHALL BE SO!

A month and a bit later, the answers to Matt’s questions are clear. Yes, it’s cool; and no, it’s not doable.

The thing is, I think that’s … kind of OK. The upshot is that we end up writing reasonably substantial papers, which is after all what we’re meant to be trying to do. If the reasonably substantial papers that end up getting written aren’t necessarily the ones we thought they were going to be, well, that’s not a problem. After all, as I’ve noted before, my entire Ph.D dissertation was composed of side-projects, and I never got around to doing the main project. That’s fine.

In 2011, Matt’s tutorial on how to find problems to work on discussed in detail how projects grow and mutate and anastamose. I’m giving up on thinking that this is a bad thing, abandoning the idea that I ought to be in control of my own research program. I’m just going to keep chasing whatever rabbits look good to me at the time, and see what happens.

Onwards!

A couple of months ago, Darren (the silent partner in the SV-POW! organisation) tweeted this photo …

felch-quarry-brachiosaur-skull

… describing it as “Skull of the Morrison Formation Brachiosaurus at Denver Museum of Nature & Science”.

Well.

As Darren knows well (but didn’t have have space to explain in the tweet), it’s not quite as simple as that. What follows is adapted from Taylor 2009:789.

In 1883, a large sauropod skull (81 cm in length) was found in Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. It was shipped to O. C. Marsh in Yale that year and an illustration of the skull was used in his second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus (Marsh, 1891: plate 16).

Marsh's second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus, based primary on the holotype YPM 1980, using a skull based on the Felch Quarry specimen. From Marsh (1891:plate XVI)

Marsh’s second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus, based primary on the holotype YPM 1980, using a skull based on the Felch Quarry specimen. From Marsh (1891:plate XVI)

And here’s that skull in close-up:

Marsh1891-plateXVI-Apatosaurus-skull-UNREVERSED

This is often described as a “Camarasaurus-type” skull, but it’s not, really. It’s too long and low, and not stupid and ugly enough, to be Camarasaurus.

As we described in a previous post, this skull was also apparently the inspiration for the horrible, horrible sculpted skull that was originally used on the mounted Brontosaurus. (And let me reiterate my praise of the Yale museum for displaying this important historic object in their gallery instead of hiding it away.)

Anyway, the Felch Quarry skull was subsequently transferred to the National Museum of Natural History, where it was accessioned as USNM 5730. McIntosh and Berman (1975:195-198) recognized that whatever the skull was, it wasn’t Brontosaurus, but chickened out a bit by describing it as being “of the general Camarasaurus type” (p. 196). But McIntosh subsequently identified the skull tentatively as Brachiosaurus (Carpenter and Tidwell, 1998:70) and it was later described by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998), who considered it intermediate between the skulls of Camarasaurus and Giraffatitan, and referred it to Brachiosaurus sp.

The skull may be that of Brachiosaurus altithorax, but this is currently impossible to test due to the lack of comparable parts. Near this skull was a 99 cm cervical vertebra, probably of Brachiosaurus, but this was destroyed during attempts to collect it (McIntosh and Berman, 1975:196). Shame there are no photos.

References

  • Carpenter, Kenneth, and Virginia Tidwell. 1998. Preliminary description of a Brachiosaurus skull from Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Modern Geology 23:69-84.
  • Marsh, Othniel Charles. 1891. Restoration of Triceratops. American Journal of Science, Series 3, 41:339-342.
  • 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 49:187-199.
  • 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.

AMNH 460 skeleton model 2

In a recent post I showed some photos of the mounted apatosaurine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, AMNH 460, which Tschopp et al. (2015) regarded as an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study.

A lot of museums whose collections and exhibits go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries have scale model skeletons and sculptures that were used to guide exhibit design. I have always been fascinated by these models, partly because they’re windows into another era of scientific research and science communication, and partly because they’re just cool – basically the world’s best dinosaur toys – and I covet them. In my experience, it is very, very common to find these treasures of history buried in collections, stuck up on top of specimen cabinets, or otherwise relegated to some out-of-the-way corner where they won’t be in the way. I know that exhibit space is always limited, and these old models often reflect ideas about anatomy, posture, or behavior that we now know to be mistaken. But I am always secretly thrilled when I see these old models still on exhibit.

AMNH T rex skeleton model

The AMNH has a bunch of these things, because Henry Fairfield Osborn was crazy about ’em. He not only used 2D skeletal reconstructions and 3D model skeletons to guide exhibit design, he published on them – see for example his 1898 paper on models of extinct vertebrates, his 1913 paper on skeleton reconstructions of Tyrannosaurus, and his 1919 paper with Charles Mook on reconstructing Camarasaurus. That genre of scientific paper seems to have disappeared. I wonder if the time is right for a resurgence.

So in a glass case at the feet of AMNH 460 is a model – I’d guess about 1/12 or 1/15 scale – of that very skeleton. You can tell that it’s a model of that particular skeleton and not just some average apatosaur by looking carefully at the vertebrae. Apatosaurines weren’t all stamped from quite the same mold and the individual peculiarities of AMNH 460 are captured in the model. It’s an amazing piece of work.

AMNH 460 skeleton model

The only bad thing about it is that – like almost everything behind glass at the AMNH – it’s very difficult to photograph without getting a recursive hell of reflections. But at least it’s out where people can see and marvel at it.

Oh, and those are the cervical vertebrae of Barosaurus behind it – Mike and I spent more time trying to look and shoot past this model than we did looking at it. But that’s not the model’s fault, those Barosaurus cervicals are just ridiculously inaccessible.

So, memo to museums: at least some of us out here are nuts about your old dinosaur models, and where there’s room to put them on exhibit, they make us happy. They also give us views of the skeletons that we can’t get otherwise, so they serve a useful education and scientific purpose. More, please.

References

Osborn, H. F. (1898). Models of extinct vertebrates. Science, New Series, 7(192): 841-845.

Osborn, H.F. (1913). Tyrannosaurus, restoration and model of the skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 32: 91-92, plates 4-6.

Osborn, H. F., & Mook, C. C. (1919). Characters and restoration of the sauropod genus Camarasaurus Cope. From type material in the Cope Collection in the American Museum of Natural History. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 58(6): 386-396.

AMNH 460 left anterolateral view

Apatosaurines on the brain right now.

I’ve been thinking about the question raised by Jerry Alpern, a volunteer tour guide at the AMNH, regarding the recent Tschopp et al. (2015) diplodocid phylogeny. Namely, if AMNH 460 is now an indeterminate apatosaurine, pending further study, what should the museum and its docents tell the public about it?

Geez, Apatosaurus, it’s not like we’re married!

I think it’s a genuinely hard problem because scientific and lay perspectives on facts and hypotheses often differ. If I say, “This animal is Apatosaurus“, that’s a fact if I’m talking about YPM 1860, the genoholotype of Apatosaurus ajax; it would continue to be a fact even if Apatosaurus was sunk into another genus (as Brontosaurus was for so long). We might call that specimen something else, but there would always be a footnote pointing out that it was still the holotype of A. ajax, even if the A. part was at least temporarily defunct – the scientific equivalent of a maiden name.* For every other specimen in the world, the statement, “This animal is Apatosaurus” is a hypothesis about relatedness, subject to further revision.

* This is going to sound kinda horrible, but when one partner in a marriage takes the other’s surname, that’s a nomenclatural hypothesis about the future of the relationship.

Apatosaurine cervicals are the best cervicals.

Apatosaurine cervicals are the best cervicals.

Fuzzy science

Things that look fairly solid and unchanging from a distance – specifically, from the perspective of the public – often (always?) turn out to be fairly fuzzy or even arbitrary upon closer inspection. Like what is Apatosaurus (beyond the holotype, I mean) – or indeed, what is a planet.** There is no absolute truth to quest for here, only categories and hypotheses that scientists have made up so that we can have constructive conversations about the crazy spectrum of possibilities that nature presents us. We try to ground those categories and hypotheses in evidence, but there will always be edge cases, and words will always break down if you push them too hard. Those of us who work on the ragged frontier of science tend to be fairly comfortable with these inescapable uncertainties, but I can understand why people might get frustrated when they just want to know what the damned dinosaur is called.

** Triton, the largest body orbiting Neptune, is almost certainly a captured Kuiper Belt object, and it’s bigger than Pluto. Moon or planet? Probably best to say a former dwarf planet currently operating as a satellite of Neptune – but that’s a mouthful (and a mindful, if you stop to think about it), not a short, convenient, easily-digestible label. Any short label is going to omit important information. This is related to the problem of paper title length – below some threshold, making something shorter means making it incomplete.

What I would say

I suppose the short version that is most faithful to the Tschopp et al. results is:

This skeleton (AMNH 460) might be Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus or a third, new thing – scientists aren’t sure yet.

A reasonable follow-up sentence – and an answer to the inevitable “Why not?” – would be:

They have to look at 477 anatomical details for lots of skeletons and weigh all the evidence, and that takes time.

Personally, if I was talking to museum visitors I would lean in conspiratorially and say:

If you want to call it Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, go ahead – those are both ‘live’ hypotheses, and even the world’s experts on this problem can’t tell you that you’re guessing the wrong way – at least not yet.

And if there was a kid in the group, I’d add:

Maybe you’ll be the one to figure it out!

What would you say?

My neck is fat.

My neck is fat.

P.S. I wouldn’t change the signage. It could still turn out to be Apatosaurus, and the Tschopp et al. results do not lend themselves to easy label-ification.

P.P.S. With some modification for taxonomy, all of this applies to the Field Museum diplodocid FMNH P25112 as well.

Reference

Tschopp E, Mateus O, Benson RBJ. (2015) A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) PeerJ3:e857 https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.857

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

DSCN0476

[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.]

Brontosaurus, the animal formerly known as Apatosaurus, the animal formerly known as Brontosaurus.

YPM 1980: Brontosaurus excelsus, the animal formerly known as Apatosaurus excelsus, the animal formerly known as Brontosaurus excelsus.

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.

A louisae from Wikipedia - full

Apatosaurus lousiae CM 3018: still Apatosaurus. Photo from Wikipedia.

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.

AMNH mounted Apatosaurus with Taylor for scale

AMNH 460: we don’t know who this is anymore.

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.

FMNH 25112 formerly Apatosaurus

FMNH 25112: what even IS that thing?

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.

Reference

Tschopp E, Mateus O, Benson RBJ. (2015) A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) PeerJ 3:e857 https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.857

In 2012, Matt and I spent a week in New York, mostly working at the AMNH on Apatosaurusminimus 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:

IMG_0501-zallinger-mural

Click through for high resolution (3552 × 2664).

And here is a close-up of the most important, charismatic, part of the mural:

IMG_0500-zallinger-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.

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