April 27, 2013
A few weeks ago I threw this picture into the “Night at the Museum” post and promised to say more later. Later is now.
I started sculpting dinosaur claws because of the coincidental arrival of two things in my life. One was a cast of OMNH 780, the horrifically awesome thumb claw of Jurassic megapredator Saurophaganax maximus, which I blogged about here. (If you’re curious, I’m using it to amaze people at public talks, so it is serving a semi-legit educational purpose.)
The other is this video of Adam Savage’s TED talk on how he got into sculpting two very different birds. I’ve watched it about a zillion times and shown it to loads of friends, because Savage so nicely captures what it’s like to be obsessed by interesting things. We have different objects of desire, and, okay, I don’t have 20 gigs of photos of anything, but when I’m having a lousy day, watching that video reminds me why I do what I do. You should blow off the rest of this post and go watch it right now.
Back so soon? So, I am a little obsessed with theropod claws right now (aesthetically and fanboyishly, not scientifically), and I thought it would be cool to try my hand at making them. Also, I’ve been wanting to do some molding and casting, and I wanted to be able to practice on cool stuff without having any ethical concerns about trading in fossils or replicating someone else’s specimen. More on the molding and casting in a future post.
A final boring note before the actual instructions: I have no idea what I’m doing. Those two claws in the photo above? The little one on the right is the first thing I’ve sculpted out of anything more serious than Play-Doh, and the big one on the left–the subject of this post–is the second. If I can do this, you can do this.
On to the how.
Sculpey isn’t really clay in the traditional sense. It’s slightly oily plastic that polymerizes when baked. When it first comes out of the package, it’s surprisingly brittle and crumbly. You have to knead it for a while before you can do anything useful with it.
Here’s a lump after some kneading. My work surface here is a dinner plate covered with aluminum foil.
At the local hobby store you can buy a set of clay sculpting tools, in plastic for about five bucks or in wood for up to thirty. But unless you’re a professional sculptor you can skip all that folderol and just use your fingers and crap you find around the house.
The main thing I learned during this stage? You can achieve just about any shape you want, depending on how much time you’re willing to invest. I worked iteratively, smoothing and resmoothing and smoothing some more.
Cheap tools in action: using popsicle sticks to smooth the edges of the claw. You can get a bag of 100 of these suckers at the dollar store. If you don’t already have a decent pair of wire cutters, you can get them at the dollar store, too, and you can use the wire cutters to cut all kinds of edges into the popsicle sticks. So that’s like 100 clay tools for a buck or two.
If it seems like I’m hating on fancy clay tools, it’s because IME real artists just get on with making art and don’t get too precious about it. Here’s Zak Smith on painting (warning–nothing bad in that post, but there is some NSFW stuff elsewhere on that site):
the process is as follows: I take a very small paint brush with wet paint on it, put it on the paper, and move my hand around. There is no magic or machinery involved and it is done freehand. Sometimes I look at a real thing or person and paint it, sometimes its a picture i took, and sometimes i just make it up. How to tell? If its a picture with a title like “Lisa” then probably that’s from real life, if it’s, say, a zebra-man with two samurai next to it, then that’s made up.
“What kind of paint?” The cheapest kind they have at whatever store I am at.
So it drives me crazy when I see wannabe artists shelling out thirty bucks for tools they could make or emulate for less than a tenth of that. (If you’re serious enough to have actual fancy tools, holster the angry comments, I don’t think you’re keeping the local Hobby Lobby in business buying the faux-fancy tools.)
Need a clay knife? Floss picks work pretty well. I used this one a LOT. Here I’m angling the articular facet for the next phalanx.
Blood vessel grooves. I think I used the blunt end of a bamboo kabob skewer to install these, with some follow-up shaping with popsicle sticks. I also straightened and shortened the claw tip a bit from the previous photo.
Funny story: a few years ago I was going through the public exhibits at a certain nameless museum and at the “touch a fossil” table an excited young docent started to explain how the “blood groove” was there to let the blood flow out of the wound so the claw wouldn’t get trapped by suction. I tried to explain that it was really there to hold the vessels that nourished the keratin sheath that covered the bony claw in life, but he was unpersuaded. I wished, for the first and only time, that I had a cast Tenontosaurus claw with me so he could explain why herbivores needed “blood grooves” on their claws, too…
Now: detailing. I didn’t want to sculpt the claw as it was in life, I wanted a fossil claw, something that looked like it might have been left out in the rain for 145 million years. The bone I picked up on the beach, and the exposed spongiosa is just perfect for putting a realistic bone texture on stuff. The rock is a rock. I used it for nicks and gouges.
I carve cracks with a straight pin. I carve them fairly deep, a couple of mm, so if I accidentally smudge some clay over a crack I can cut or sand it off, post-baking, and get the crack back. I don’t worry about raised edges along the edges of the cracks–these sand off in a heartbeat after baking. Just carve away.
Right after the above photo was taken, I popped the whole plate in the oven for about 45 minutes at 295 F to bake the Sculpey. There are lots of different kinds of Sculpey and other polymer clays on the market, so read the instructions on the box before you bake. Also, the baking drives off the oils that made the stuff kneadable, so save your baking for a nice day when you can have the windows open. If you’re going to bake a lot of Sculpey, you might want a separate oven for it. The vapors from the baking Sculpey do make me feel a little ill, so I get some good airflow through the house and limit my exposure. Caveat sculptor.
Here’s the claw right after baking. Some areas are smooth and shiny from being in more intimate contact with the foil. If you’re not going to sculpt the other side of something and you want a perfectly flat, smooth surface, watch out for this.
The only point of this photo is to show that the baked Sculpey is not rock-hard. The tip of the claw is drooping under its own weight here. For my first, smaller claw, I carved a groove in the flat side with a Dremel and put in a section of bent hanger wire to help it maintain its shape. For this second one, I figured the other half of the claw would give it sufficient thickness to hold its shape after baking, and I was right.
Here’s the reverse side, sculpted using the same techniques as I used for the first side, but not baked yet. I suppose there might be some kind of Sculpey Einstein out there who can do a whole claw in one go, but I couldn’t figure out how to do both sides without leaving fingerprints everywhere, or how to support the thing while it baked, so I did the two sides sequentially. If you think of a better solution, let me know, although really this is not much extra work–about an hour, max, while I was watching Mythbusters.
Now we gotta talk about asbestos for a while (this is relevant, I promise). Here’s a photomicrograph of a macrophage (a kind of white blood cell) self-impaled on some asbestos fibers, in what started out as attempted consumption of foreign material by the macrophage, and ended up closer to a crucifixion.
Here’s the deal: you have macrophages roaming around in your lungs, and when they find stuff that isn’t supposed to be there–which is pretty much everything other than your own living cells–they eat the offending material. And by “eat” I mean “engulf and try to chemically destroy”, using all kinds of profoundly noxious stuff–hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine gas. And if the offending material is extremely resistant to such treatment, as is the case with asbestos, the macrophages just keep unleashing hell. Forever. Which doesn’t dissolve the asbestos, but does eventually dissolve your lungs. Asbestos by itself doesn’t hurt you much–it’s what you do to yourself trying to get rid of it that kills you.
Why am I bringing up this depressing stuff? Partly because you are in command of a human body and you should know something about how it works. And partly because, if you have been following this little how-to, very soon you are going to be sanding your Sculpey dinosaur claw. Which is made out of plastic. Which is going to shed tiny particles of plastic into the air while you sand it. Which you are going to inhale unless you are wearing a mask. Now, I don’t know the actual resilience of baked Sculpey particles under the chemical assault your macrophages are prepared to light them up with, and I don’t recommend that you perform the experiment on yourself. I got a pack of five of these:
for two bucks at the hardware store. If you can afford ten bucks for a block of Sculpey, you can afford to spend two more to save your lungs.
This goes for sanding just about everything, by the way. It’s like germs or radiation, just because you can’t see or feel the damage doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Also like germs and radiation, some simple precautions are all you need to avoid the vast majority of the problems. Or you can skip them, and someday someone like me may be using your corpse to teach people about how not to care for a human body. Your pick!
Sanding. I only do one pass, with 220 grit. If you start with 60 grit, you can say goodbye to all the details you put in, because they are going to be gone very quickly. Basically I’m just trying to knock off the most egregious of the rough edges. I’m not trying to get a very smooth surface–that comes next.
I didn’t take any pictures of this, but after the sandpaper I scrubbed the whole claw with 000 steel wool. I had never used this stuff before–I only learned about it from that Adam Savage TED talk–and it is pretty amazing. For one thing, it will give whatever you are sanding a shockingly smooth finish. For another, it actually goes away as you use it. You’ll start out with a full-sized bundle and after sanding for 10 minutes you’ll be down to a half-size bundle. If you’re slouching in front of the TV, it will look like a metal cat shed all over your t-shirt. The chances of actually inhaling a tiny sliver of steel and having it get all the way down into your lungs are probably pretty slim, but I masked up anyway (there are still microscopic Sculpey shards coming off at this stage). Anyway, the steel wool gives a very even appearance to the surface, so you can’t tell what areas got really hit by the sandpaper, and for me it was one of the most satisfying parts of the whole process.
And here’s the final result. On the right the tip is a little blackened from over-baking, since the right side went through the oven twice, but it’s not bad. At this point you can paint or do whatever. I haven’t experimented with painting Sculpey yet, and online sources are mixed about what works best. You don’t want to use anything thick for a primer or you’ll lose the fine details. When I do finally get around to painting, I’m going to start with flat black auto primer, just like Adam Savage used on his Maltese Falcon (which I know was resin, not Sculpey, but still), and see if that doesn’t do the trick. If you know of something better, please tell us in a comment.
Next up in this series: molding and casting.
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.
March 3, 2013
If you’re just joining us, this post is a follow-up to this one, in which I considered the possible size and identity of the Recapture Creek femur fragment, which “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen (1987: page 604) said was “the largest bone I have ever seen”.
True to his word, Brooks Britt at BYU got back to me with measurements of the Recapture Creek femur fragment in practically no time at all:
Length 1035 mm, width 665 mm. However, you cannot trust the measurements because Jensen put a lot of plaster on the proximal half of the bone.
Now, taking plaster off a bone is not going to make it any larger. So the plastered-up specimen is the best case scenario for the RC femur to represent a gigapod. And I know the stated width of 665 mm is the max width of the proximal end, because I sent Brooks a diagram showing the measurements I was requesting. The length is a little less than anticipated, and doesn’t quite jibe with the max proximal width–I suspect a little might have broken off from the distal end where the preservation looks not-so-hot.
Based on those measurements, it looks like Jensen got the scale bar in Figure 8 in his 1987 paper approximately right–if anything, the scale bar is a little undersized, but only by 5% or so, which is actually pretty good as these things go (scale bars without measurements are still dag-nasty evil, though). By overlapping Jensen’s photo with the femur of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype (FMNH P25107) to estimate the size of the element when complete, I get a total length of 2.2 meters–exactly the same size as the Brachiosaurus holotype. If the Recapture Creek femur is from a Camarasaurus, which I don’t think we can rule out, it was 2 meters long when complete, or 11% longer and 37% more massive than the big C. supremus AMNH 5761–about 35 tonnes or maybe 40 on the outside. So it’s a big bone to be sure, but it doesn’t extend the known size range of Morrison sauropods.
So, as before, caveat estimator when working from scaled illustrations of single partial bones of possibly immense sauropods.
Now, here’s a weird thing. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that the Recapture Creek femur is from a brachiosaur. That gives us three individual Late Jurassic brachiosaurids–the Recapture Creek animal, the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype, and the mounted Giraffatitan brancai–that are almost exactly the same size in limb bone dimensions (although B.a. had a longer torso). But we know that brachiosaurids got bigger, as evidenced by the XV2 specimen of Giraffatitan, and based on the lack of scapulocoracoid fusion in both FMNH P25107 and the mounted Giraffatitan. So why do we keep finding these (and smaller) subadults, and so few that were XV2-sized? I know that there gets to be a preservation bias against immense animals (it’s hard to bury a 50-tonne animal all in one go), but I would not think the 13% linear difference between these subadults and XV2-class adults would be enough to matter. Your thoughts?
February 28, 2013
From Jensen (1987, page 604):
“In 1985 I found the proximal third of an extremely large sauropod femur (Figs. 8A, 12A) in a uranium miner’s front yard in southern Utah. The head of this femur is 1.67 m (5’6″) in circumference and was collected from the Recapture Creek Member of the the Morrison Formation in Utah near the Arizona border. It is the largest bone I have ever seen.”
Jensen included not one but two figures of this immense shard of excellence. Here they are:
The specimen was heavily reconstructed, as you can see from the big wodge of unusually smooth and light-colored material in the photo. So we can’t put much stock in that part of the specimen.
Unfortunately, the only measurement of the specimen that Jensen gives in the paper is that circumference; there are no straight-line linear measurements, and the figures both have the dreaded scale bars. Why dreaded? Check this out:
As you can see, when the scale bars are set to the same size, the bones are way off (the scale bar in the drawing is 50 cm). This is not an uncommon problem. I make the Fig 8 version 30% bigger in max mediolateral width of the entire proximal end, and still 17% bigger in minimum diameter across the femoral head, as measured from the slight notch on the dorsal surface (on the right in this view).
Can we figure out which is more accurate based on the internal evidence of the paper? For starters, the Fig 12 version is a drawing (1), that does not match the outline from the photo (2), and the hand-drawn scale bar (3) does not actually coincide with any landmarks (4), and that’s plenty of reasons for me not to trust it.
What about that circumference Jensen mentioned? Unfortunately, he didn’t say exactly where he took it, just that the head of the femur had a circumference of 1.67 meters. Is that for the entire proximal end, or for the anatomical head that fits in the acetabulum, er wot? I’m afraid the one measurement given in the paper is no help in determining which of the figures is more accurately scaled.
The obvious thing to do would be to see if this bone is in the BYU collections, and just measure the damn thing. More on that at the end of the post.
In the meantime, Jensen said that the shape of the Recapture Creek femur was most similar to the femur of Alamosaurus, or to that of Brachiosaurus among Morrison taxa, and he referred it to Brachiosauridae. So how does this thing–in either version–compare with the complete femur of FMNH P25107, the holotype of Brachiosaurus altithorax?
The first thing to notice is that the drawn outline from Figure 12 is a much better match for the Brachiosaurus altithorax femur–enough so that I wonder if Jensen drew it from the Recapture Creek specimen, or just traced the B.a. proximal femur and scaled it accordingly (or maybe not accordingly, since the scale bars don’t match).
But let’s get down to business: how long would the complete femur have been?
Using the scale bar in the photograph from Figure 8 (on the left in above image), I get a total femur length of 2.36 meters. Which is long, but only 7.7% longer than the 2.19-meter femur of FMNH P25107, and therefore only 25% more massive. So, 35 tonnes to Mike’s 28-tonne B.a., or maybe 45 tonnes to a more liberal 36-tonne B.a. Big, yeah, but not world-shattering.
Using the scale bar in the drawing from Figure 12 (on the right in the above image)–which, remember, is 50 cm, not 1 meter–I get a total femur length of about 1.9 meters, which is considerably smaller than the B.a. holotype. That is very much at odds with Jensen’s description of it as “the largest bone I have ever seen”, and given that we have many reasons for not trusting the scale bar in the drawing, it is tempting to just throw it out as erroneous.
So it would seem that unless Jensen got both scale bars too big, the Recapture Creek brachiosaur was at most only a shade bigger than the holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus altithorax.
But wait–is the Recapture Creek brachiosaur a brachiosaur at all? Jensen didn’t list any characters that pushed him toward a brachiosaurid ID, and I don’t know of any proximal femur characters preserved in the specimen that would separate Brachiosaurus from, say, Camarasaurus. And in fact a camarasaur ID has a lot to recommend it, in that Camarasaurus femora have very offset heads (the ball- or cylinder-like articular surface at the top end sticks out a big more to engage with the hip socket–see Figure 12 up near the top of the post), moreso than in many other Morrison sauropods, and that would make them better matches for the Recapture Creek femur photo. Here’s what the comparo looks like:
I make that a 2.07-meter femur using the photo on the left, and a 1.66-meter femur using the drawing on the right. The one decent femur in the AMNH 5761 Camarasaurus supremus collection is 1.8 meters long, so these results are surprisingly similar to those for the B. althithorax comparison–the drawing gives a femur length shorter than the largest known specimens, and the photo gives a length only slightly longer. A camarasaur with a 2.07 meter femur would be 15% larger than the AMNH C. supremus in linear terms, and assuming isometric scaling, 1.5 times as massive–maybe 38 tonnes to AMNH 5761′s estimated 25. A big sauropod to be sure, but not as big as the largest apatosaurs, and not nearly as big as the largest titanosaurs.
I have always been surprised that the Recapture Creek femur frag has attracted so little attention, given that “Dinosaur Jim” himself called it the biggest bone he had ever seen. But it appears that the lack of attention is justified–whether it was a brachiosaur or a camarasaur, and using the most liberal estimates the scale bars allow, it simply wasn’t that big.
Update about half an hour later: Okay, maybe I was a little harsh here. IF the photo scale bar is right, the Recapture Creek femur might still represent the largest and most massive macronarian from the Morrison Formation (Edit: only if it’s a brachiosaur and not a camarasaur; see this comment), which is something. I suppose I was particularly underwhelmed because I was expecting something up in OMNH 1670-to-Argentinosaurus territory, and so far, this ain’t it. I’ll be interested to see what the actual measurements say (read on).
The Moral of This Story
So, if it wasn’t that big after all, and if no-one has made a stink about it being big before now, why go to all this trouble? Well, mostly just to satisfy my own curiosity. If there was a truly gigantic brachiosaur from the Morrison, it would be relevant to my interests, and it was past time I crunched the numbers to find out.
But along the way something occurred to me: this should be a cautionary tale for anyone who gets all wound up about the possible max size of Amphicoelias fragillimus. As with A. fragillimus, for the Recapture Creek critter we have part of one bone, and at least for this exercise I was working only from published illustrations with scale bars. And as with A. fragillimus, the choice of a reference taxon is not obvious, and the size estimates are all over the place, and some of them just aren’t that big.
It always amuses me when A. fragillimus comes up and people (well, trolls) accuse us of being big ole’ wet blankets that just don’t want to believe in 200-tonne sauropods. It amuses me because it’s wrong on so many levels. Believe me, when we have our sauropod fanboy hats on, we most definitely do want to believe in 200-tonne sauropods. That would rock. But when we put our scientist hats on, wanting and belief go right out the window. We have to take a cold, hard look at the data, and especially at its limitations.
Oh, the other moral is to go buy a tape measure, and use it. Sheesh!
As I said above, the obvious thing to do would be to just track down the bone and measure it. It does still exist, it’s in the BYU collections, and Brooks Britt has kindly offered to send along some measurements when he gets time. So we should have some real answers before long (and here they are). But I wanted to work through this example without them, to illustrate how much uncertainty creeps in when trying to estimate the size of a big sauropod from published images of a single partial bone.
February 24, 2013
I was cruising the monographs the other night, looking for new ideas, when the humerus of Opisthocoelicaudia stopped me dead in my tracks. I think you’ll agree it is an arresting sight:
I’d seen it before, but somehow I had never grokked its grotesque fatness. I mean, damn, Opisthocoelicaudia, you really let yourself go. Especially compared to the slenderness and grace of this juvenile Alamosaurus humerus:
Now, I realize that part of the slenderness of this Alamosaurus humerus might be because it’s a juvenile–other alamosaur humeri are a bit more robust–but it’s still a striking contrast. I couldn’t help but superimpose them, scaled to the same midshaft width:
I flipped the Alamosaurus humerus left-to-right to match that astonishing lump of Opisthocoelicaudia. The result reminds me of one of Abrell and Thompson’s Actual Facts:
If you put Woodrow Wilson inside William Howard Taft, he would have stuck out by a good 18 inches.
None of that probably signifies anything more than that I am easily amused. And also, Opisthocoelicaudia is Just Plain Wrong. You hear me, Opisthocoelicaudia? Don’t make me make you cry mayonnaise!
- Borsuk-Bialynicka, M. 1977. A new camarasaurid sauropod Opisthocoelicaudia skarzynskii, gen. n., sp. n. from the Upper Cretaceous of Mongolia. Palaeontologia Polonica 37: 5-64.
- Lehman, Thomas M. and Alan B. Coulson. 2002. A juvenile specimen of the sauropod dinosaur Alamosaurus sanjuanensis from the Upper Cretaceous of Big Bend National Park, Texas. Journal of Paleontology 76(1): 156-172.
October 2, 2012
Here’s a blast from the past:
This alleged Compsognathus is a card from the “Flesh” card-game that was printed across several progs (issues) of the comic 2000 AD in 1977. This one is from the back cover of Prog 9. (Click through the picture for the whole back cover.)
“Flesh” was one of the half-dozen or so stories that appeared each week in those early months of 2000 AD. It was the story of how cowboys of the future travelled back to the Mesozoic to harvest dinosaurs for their meat, and was the subject of Jeff Liston’s chapter in the recentish Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur research.
Compsognathus made another pop-culture appearance in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, of course, as the cute little “compys” that tear one of the nastier human characters to pieces.
Why does the 2000 AD Compsognathus have actinopterygian-like fins for arms? According to Wikipedia, The idea comes from Bidar et al. (1972), who supposed that the French specimen had webbed forefeet, which would look like flippers in life — an idea illustrated as part of a larger scene by Halstead (1975):
John Ostrom’s (1978) Compsognathus monograph showed that this was nonsense, but of course that was too late for the early issues of 2000 AD.
Bidar, A.; Demay L., Thomel G. 1972. Compsognathus corallestris, une nouvelle espèce de dinosaurien théropode du Portlandien de Canjuers (Sud-Est de la France). Annales du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Nice 1:9–40.
Halstead L.B. 1975. The evolution and ecology of the dinosaurs. Eurobook. ISBN 0-85654-018-8.
Ostrom, J.H. 1978. The osteology of Compsognathus longipes. Zitteliana 4:73–118.
Update 1 (the next day)
In a comment below, Andrea Cau points to this post on his blog Theropoda (“the most inclusive blog containing Allosaurus fragilis but not Saltasaurus loricatus) which contains two more flippered-Compsognathus illustrations. Here they are: one from David Lambert’s book Dinosaur! …
… and one from David Norman’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs.
Update 2 (two days later)
Silly me, I should of course have posted Bidar et al.’s (1972) own life restoration of Compsognathus. It’s not great art, but it’s … actually, I’m not sure what it is. But anyway, here it is:
September 25, 2012
Another extraordinary specimen from the wonderful Oxford University Museum of Natural History: the skeleton of a goliath frog Conraua goliath, the largest extant anuran, which comfortably exceeds 30 cm and 3 kg in life:
As noted by sometime SV-POW!sketeer Darren Naish over on Tetrapod Zoology, frogs have stupidly weird skeletons — surely the most derived of any tetrapod, despite their lowly, early diverging “amphibian” status. Rather than describe all the oddities myself, I’ll just quote Darren’s article:
Anurans have (at most) nine presacral vertebrae, and some have as few as five; ribs are either highly reduced or absent; the radius and ulna are fused (forming the radioulna); the bones of the pectoral girdle are highly reduced and complimented by an assortment of new weird bits; the pelvis consists of a rod-like central unit (the urostyle) surrounded by two super-long, shaft-like ilia; and in their (generally) elongate hindlimbs, the tibia and fibula are fused (forming the tibiofibula) while the ankle bones are elongated to form a long ‘extra’ limb segment.
That’s a pretty astonishing list; and, sure enough, frog skeletons weird me out every time I see them. (Of all the dead animals I’d like to get hold of in decent condition, to extract the bones from, frogs miss the top of the list only to bats, crocs and turtles. And maybe raptors.)
This particular species of frog has another skeletal oddity that caught my eye:
As you can see, the humerus is perforated: there is a distinct foramen running down it just behind the anterior edge. Is the anterior bar a partially detached deltopectoral crest? Or is it a completely novel ossification that has become partially fused to the humerus?
For what it’s worth, this feature doesn’t seem to be consistently present in goliath frogs. A bit of googling shows that it’s present in this skeleton, but not in this one from Bone Clones. The humerus of the latter does have a distinctly protruding deltopectoral crest, but it lacks the perforation. So I guess that is evidence against the Novel Ossification hypothesis.
Does anyone know more about this odd feature? Does it develop through ontogeny? Is it found in other frogs? What is its mechanical significance?
July 19, 2012
In a comment on the previous post, Steve P. asked whether “Apatosaurus” minimus might not be a Apatosaurus specimen after all — particularly, an Apatosaurus ajax individual resembling NSMT-PV 20375, the one in the National Science Museum, Tokyo, that Upchurch et al. (2005) so lavishly monographed.
Initially, I dismissed this idea out of hand, because the “Apatosaurus” minimus sacrum-pelvis complex is so very different to that of the “Brontosaurus” illustrated by Hatcher (1903: fig. 4), as seen in an earlier post. But on going back to the Upchurch et al. monograph I realised that their sacrum-ilium complex is very different from Hatcher’s. Here it is, cleaned up from scans and re-composed in the same format as the Camarasaurus and “Apatosaurus” minimus from last time, for easy comparison.
Sacrum and fused ilia of Apatosaurus ajax NSMT-PV 20375. Top row: dorsal view with anterior to left. Middle row, left to right: anterior, right lateral (reversed), posterior. Bottom row: ventral view with anterior to left. Modified from Upchurch et al. (2005: plate 4 and text-figure 9).
Here’s Hatcher’s “Brontosaurus” illustration (from his plate 4) again:
I’m not sure what to make of this. The Tokyo Apatosaurus seems to be intermediate in some respects between Hatcher’s specimen and “Apatosaurus” minimus.
One important difference is that the neural spines are much taller in Hatcher’s illustration than in the Tokyo Apatosaurus. Could that be ontogenetic? (IIRC the Tokyo individual is subadult). Or are they in fact different species? Or is it just individual variation?
I don’t know. Anyone?
- 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.
- Upchurch, Paul, Yukimitsu Tomida, and Paul M. Barrett. 2005. A new specimen of Apatosaurus ajax (Sauropoda: Diplodocidae) from the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) of Wyoming, USA. National Science Museum Monographs No.26. Tokyo.
Upchurch et al. (2005)
July 14, 2012
More goodness from Osborn and Mook’s (1921) gargantuan Camarasaurus monograph, again prepared largely for comparison with “Apatosaurus” minimus. Last time, I showed you one of O&M’s pubis illustrations. Now an ischium:
This shows the left ischium AMNH 576o’/Is.4. Left column: proximal aspect. Middle column, from top to bottom: medial, lateral, posterior (no dorsal view was provided). Right column: distal. Heavily modified from Osborn and Mook (1921: fig. 101) — cleaned up, lettering and lines removed, recomposed in a more informative layout, views rescaled to better match each other, and tweaked for colour.
As usual, click through for full resolution (only 989 x 978 this time).
It’s interesting to compare this with the similarly composed illustration of the “Apatosaurus” minimus ischium from last week.