We’ve touched on this several times in various posts and comment threads, but it’s worth taking a moment to think in detail about the various published mass estimates for the single specimen BM.R.2181 (formerly known as HMN SII), the paralectotype of Giraffatitan brancai, which is the basis of the awesome mounted skeleton in Berlin.

Here is the table of published estimates from my 2010 sauropod-history paper, augmented with the two more recent estimates extrapolated from limb-bone measurements:

Author and date Method Volume (l) Density (kg/l) Mass (kg)
Janensch (1938) Not specified `40 t’
Colbert (1962) Displacement of sand 86,953 0.9 78,258
Russell et al. (1980) Limb-bone allometry 13,618
Anderson et al. (1985) Limb-bone allometry 29,000
Paul (1988) Displacement of water 36,585 0.861 31,500
Alexander (1989) Weighing in air and water 46,600 1.0 46,600
Gunga et al. (1995) Computer model 74,420 1.0 74,420
Christiansen (1997) Weighing in air and water 41,556 0.9 37,400
Henderson (2004) Computer model 32,398 0.796 25,789
Henderson (2006) Computer model 25,922
Gunga et al. (2008) Computer model 47,600 0.8 38,000
Taylor (2009) Graphic double integration 29,171 0.8 23,337
Campione and Evans (2012) Limb-bone allometry 35,780
Benson et al. (2014) Limb-bone allometry 34,000

(The estimate of Russell et al. (1980) is sometimes reported as 14900 kg. However, they report their estimate only as “14.9 t”; and since they also cite “the generally accepted figure of 85 tons”, which can only be a reference to Colbert (1962)”, we must assume that Russell et al. were using US tons throughout.)

The first thing to notice is that there is no very clear trend through time, either upwards or downwards. Here’s a plot of mass (y-axis) against year of estimate (x-axis):


I’ve not even tried to put a regression line through this: the outliers are so extreme they’d render it pretty much useless.

In fact, the lowest and highest estimates differ by a factor of 5.75, which is plainly absurd.

But we can go some way to fixing this by discarding the outliers. We can dump Colbert (1962) and Alexander (1989) as they used overweight toys as their references. We more or less have to dump Russell et al. (1980) simply because it’s impossible to take seriously. (Yes, this is the argument from personal incredulity, and I don’t feel good about it; but as Pual (1988) put it, “so little flesh simply cannot be stretched over the animal’s great frame”.) And we can ignore Gunga et al. (1995) because it used circular conic sections — a bug fixed by Gunga et al. (2008) by using elliptical sections.

With these four unpalatable outliers discarded, our highest and lowest estimates are those of Gunga et al. (2008) at 38,000 kg and Taylor (2009)at 23,337. The former should be taken seriously as it was done using photogrammetrical measurements of the actual skeletal mount. And so should the latter because Hurlburt (1999) showed that GDI is generally the least inaccurate of our mass-estimation techniques. That still gives us a factor of 1.63. That’s the difference between a lightweight 66 kg man and and overweight 108 kg.

Here’s another way of thinking about that 1.63 factor. Assuming two people are the same height, one of them weighing 1.62 times as much as the other means he has to be 1.28 times as wide and deep as the first (1.28^2 = 1.63). Here is a man next to his 1.28-times-as-wide equivalent:



I would call that a very noticeable difference. You wouldn’t expect someone estimating the mass of one of these men to come up with that of the other.

So what’s going on here? I truly don’t know. We are, let’s not forget, dealing with a complete skeletal mount here, one of the very best sauropod specimens in the world, which has been extensively studied for a century. Yet even within the last six years, we’re getting masses that vary by as much as the two dudes above.


Vicki with book

Remember how my better half, Dr. Vicki Wedel, edited a book about blunt force trauma, called Broken Bones?

If you live in SoCal and you’d like to get a copy, or get your copy signed, then you’re in luck. Vicki will be one of a dozen local authors signing books at the San Bernardino County Museum this coming Sunday, May 18. There will be books for sale if you don’t yet own the titles you want. Noted paleontologist and skeptic Don Prothero will be giving the keynote address and signing copies of his new book, Reality Check. If you’re in the area, come on by. Details here:

SCBM festival of authors 2014

On Monday we visited the Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah, the Cleveland-Lloyed dinosaur quarry, and sites in the Mussentuchit member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. Many thanks to Marc Jones for the photos.

1 - CEU Prehistoric Museum

In 2010, the College of Eastern Utah became Utah State University – Eastern, and the CEU Prehistoric Museum in Price is now officially the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum. The dinosaurs in the center of exhibit hall are being remounted. These include Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus (mounted, toward top of photo), and Camarasaurus (dismounted, on floor). Most of the mounts are either real material or casts of real material from the nearby Cleveland-Lloyd quarry.

The museum has many other exhibits besides the one shown above. The paleo wing alone covers two floors, and upstairs there are great displays on Cretaceous dinosaurs from the area, including Jurassic and Cretaceous ankylosaurs, a ceratopsian, and numerous tracks.

2 - Cleveland-Lloyd orientation

After leaving Price we went to the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur quarry, which has produced over 20,000 separate elements, including the remains of something like 50-60 allosaurs. The smallest ones are hatchlings–several elements from literally cat-sized baby allosaurs are known from the quarry.

3 - Mark Loewen teaching

Mark Loewen (right) talked to us about how the quarry might have formed, and what it’s like to work there. On the left in the above photo you can see a bunch of disarticulated Allosaurus bones suspended above the floor on wires. These are placed to give an idea of the three-dimensional jumbling of the bones in the matrix. It is almost impossible to jacket one bone or even several without hitting others. I remember how that goes from working at the OMNH sauropod bonebed in the Cloverly–it’s almost impossible to avoid blowing through some bones just to get others out of the ground.

4 - Camarasaurus pelvis with bite marks

Here’s one of a handful of bones from the quarry with bite marks. This is the pelvis of a Camarasaurus, lying upside down, anterior toward the wall. The back end of the right ilium is heavily tooth-marked.

After Cleveland-Lloyd we stopped at a couple of sites in the Mussentuchit. I’m not going to blog about those because they are active sites that are still producing fossils. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for fossil localities on public land to be looted and vandalized by unscrupulous private collectors. I don’t want to give those a-holes any help, so I’ve deliberately not shown any photos of about half a dozen of the most interesting sites that we visited during the conference. It sucks to know cool things and not be able to tell people about them, but if I blab then I put those cool things at risk. Happily there is a lot of active research going on, including one or two projects that got hatched at this conference, so hopefully I will be able to tell some of these stories soon.

5 - MMFC14 conveners Jim Rebecca and John

Instead, I will close this series (for now) with a shout-out to the people who convened and ran the field conference: Jim Kirkland (left) and ReBecca Hunt-Foster (middle). John Foster (right) also contributed a lot of time, energy, effort, and expertise.

Jim Kirkland is amazing. If you know him, you know that his heart is as big and outgoing as his booming voice. His knowledge of and enthusiasm for the mid-Mesozoic sites in western Colorado and eastern Utah have driven a lot of science over the past quarter century, and he shared that knowledge and enthusiasm compulsively on this trip. My head is so full of new stuff, it’s honestly hard to think. I wish I had a solid week to just digest everything I learned at the conference.

My highest praise and thanks go to ReBecca. Thanks to her hard work and organization, the whole field conference ran about as much like clockwork as something this complicated can–and when it didn’t run smoothly, like that flat tire on Saturday, she took charge and got us back on track. She was basically den mom to about 60 folks, from teenagers to retirees, from at least ten countries and four continents, and somehow she did it all with unflagging grace and good humor. The fact that she had her appendix out just two or three days before the start of the conference only cements my admiration for what she pulled off here.

I had a fantastic time. I hope they do another one.

[NOTE: see the updates at the bottom. In summary, there's nothing to see here and I was mistaken in posting this in the first place.]

Elsevier’s War On Access was stepped up last year when they started contacting individual universities to prevent them from letting the world read their research. Today I got this message from a librarian at my university:


The irony that this was sent from the Library’s “Open Access Team” is not lost on me. Added bonus irony: this takedown notification pertains to an article about how openness combats mistrust and secrecy. Well. You’d almost think NPG wants mistrust and secrecy, wouldn’t you?

It’s sometimes been noted that by talking so much about Elsevier on this blog, we can appear to be giving other barrier-based publishers a free ride. If we give that impression, it’s not deliberate. By initiating this takedown, Nature Publishing Group has self-identified itself as yet another so-called academic publisher that is in fact an enemy of science.

So what next? Anyone who wants a PDF of this (completely trivial) letter can still get one very easily from my own web-site, so in that sense no damage has been done. But it does leave me wondering what the point of the Institutional Repository is. In practice it seems to be a single point of weakness allowing “publishers” to do the maximum amount of damage with a single attack.

But part of me thinks the thing to do is take the accepted manuscript and format it myself in the exact same way as Nature did, and post that. Just because I can. Because the bottom line is that typesetting is the only actual service they offered Andy, Matt and me in exchange for our right to show our work to the world, and that is a trivial service.

The other outcome is that this hardens my determination never to send anything to Nature again. Now it’s not like my research program is likely to turn up tabloid-friendly results anyway, so this is a bit of a null resolution. But you never know: if I happen to stumble across sauropod feather impressions in an overlooked Wealden fossil, then that discovery is going straight to PeerJ, PLOS, BMC, F1000 Research, Frontiers or another open-access publisher, just like all my other work.

And that’s sheer self-interest at work there, just as much as it’s a statement. I will not let my best work be hidden from the world. Why would anyone?

Let’s finish with another outing for this meme-ready image.

Publishers ... You're doing it wrong

Update (four hours later)

David Mainwaring (on Twitter) and James Bisset (in the comment below) both pointed out that I’ve not seen an actual takedown request from NPG — just the takedown notification from my own library. I assumed that the library were doing this in response to hassle from NPG, but of course it’s possible that my own library’s Open Access Team is unilaterally trying to prevent access to the work of its university’s researchers.

I’ve emailed Lyn Duffy to ask for clarification. In the mean time, NPG’s Grace Baynes has tweeted:

So it looks like this may be even more bizarre than I’d realised.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Update 2 (two more hours later)

OK, consensus is that I read this completely wrong. Matt’s comment below says it best:

I have always understood institutional repositories to be repositories for author’s accepted manuscripts, not for publisher’s formatted versions of record. By that understanding, if you upload the latter, you’re breaking the rules, and basically pitting the repository against the publisher.

Which is, at least, not a nice thing to do to the respository.

So the conclusion is: I was wrong, and there’s nothing to see here apart from me being embarrassed. That’s why I’ve struck through much of the text above. (We try not to actually delete things from this blog, to avoid giving a false history.)

My apologies to Lyn Duffy, who was just doing her job.

Update 3 (another hour later)

This just in from Lyn Duffy, confirming that, as David and James guessed, NPG did not send a takedown notice:

Dear Mike,

This PDF was removed as part of the standard validation work of the Open Access team and was not prompted by communication from Nature Publishing. We validate every full-text document that is uploaded to Pure to make sure that the publisher permits posting of that version in an institutional repository. Only after validation are full-text documents made publicly available.

In this case we were following the regulations as stated in the Nature Publishing policy about confidentiality and pre-publicity. The policy says, ‘The published version — copyedited and in Nature journal format — may not be posted on any website or preprint server’ (http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/confidentiality.html). In the information for authors about ‘Other material published in Nature’ it says, ‘All articles for all sections of Nature are considered according to our usual conditions of publication’ (http://www.nature.com/nature/authors/gta/others.html#correspondence). We took this to mean that material such as correspondence have the same posting restrictions as other material published by Nature Publishing.

If we have made the wrong decision in this case and you do have permission from Nature Publishing to make the PDF of your correspondence publicly available via an institutional repository, we can upload the PDF to the record.

Kind regards,
Open Access Team


Here’s the text of the original notification email so search-engines can pick it up. (If you read the screen-grab above, you can ignore this.)

University of Bristol — Pure

Lyn Duffy has added a comment

Sharing: public databases combat mistrust and secrecy
Farke, A. A., Taylor, M. P. & Wedel, M. J. 22 Oct 2009 In : Nature. 461, 7267, p. 1053

Research output: Contribution to journal › Article

Lyn Duffy has added a comment 7/05/14 10:23

Dear Michael, Apologies for the delay in checking your record. It appears that the document you have uploaded alongside this record is the publishers own version/PDF and making this version openly accessible in Pure is prohibited by the publisher, as a result the document has been removed from the record. In this particular instance the publisher would allow you to make accessible the postprint version of the paper, i.e., the article in the form accepted for publication in the journal following the process of peer review. Please upload an acceptable version of the paper if you have one. If you have any questions about this please get back to us, or send an email directly to open-access@bristol.ac.uk Kind regards, Lyn Duffy Library Open Access Team.

Actually we had the Jurassic talks today, but I can’t show you any of the slides*, so instead you’re getting some brief, sauropod-centric highlighs from the museum.

* I had originally written that the technical content of the talks is embargoed, but that’s not true–as ReBecca Hunt-Foster pointed out in a comment, the conference guidebook with all of the abstracts is freely available online here.


Like this Camarasaurus that greets visitors at the entrance.


And this Apatosaurus ilium with bite marks on the distal end, indicating that a big Morrison theropod literally ate the butt of this dead apatosaur. Gnaw, dude, just gnaw.


And the shrine to Elmer S. Riggs.


One of Elmer’s field assistants apparently napping next to the humerus of the Brachiosaurus alithorax holotype. This may be the earliest photographic evidence of someone “pulling a Jensen“.

Cary and Matt with Brachiosaurus forelimb

Here’s the reconstructed forelimb of B. altithorax, with Cary Woodruff and me for scale. The humerus and coracoid (and maybe the sternal?) are cast from the B.a. holotype, the rest of the bits are either sculpted or filled in from Giraffatitan. The scap is very obviously Giraffatitan.

Matt with MWC Apatosaurus femur

Cary took this photo of me playing with a fiberglass 100% original bone Apatosaurus femur upstairs in the museum office, and he totally passed up the opportunity to push me down the stairs afterward. I kid, I kid–actually Cary and I get along just fine. It’s no secret that we disagree about some things, but we do so respectfully. Each of us expects to be vindicated by better data in the future, but there’s no reason we can’t hang out and jaw about sauropods in the meantime.

Finally, in the museum gift shop (which is quite lovely), I found this:

Dammit Nova

You had one job, Nova. ONE JOB!

So, this is a grossly inadequate post that barely scratches the surface of the flarkjillion or so cool exhibits at the museum. I only got about halfway through the sauropods, fer cryin’ out loud. If you ever get a chance to come, do it–you won’t be disappointed.

Eminent British mathematician Tim Gowers has written an epic post on his attempts to get universities to disclose how much they pay for their Elsevier subscriptions. There is a lot of fascinating anecdote in there, and a shedload of important data — it’s very well worth a read.

But here is the part that staggered me most. Gowers wrote to (among others) Queen’s University Belfast, requesting the subscription cost under Freedom of Information rules. The reply was from Amanda Aicken, Information Compliance Unit (and by the way was addressed to Mr. Gowers, but let it pass). It refused to disclose the price on the basis that:

The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with [...] the University.

Now that paragraph is exactly equivalent to:

The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a positive effect on the University’s future negotiating position with Elsevier.

Wouldn’t a decent university administrator think that’s a good thing?


Order up!

Sauroposeidon OMNH 53062 articulated right lateral composite with giraffe

Sauroposeidon is stitched together from orthographic views of the 3D photogrammetric models rendered in MeshLab. Greyed out bits of the vertebrae are actually missing–I used C8 to patch C7, C7 to patch C6, and so on forward. The cervical ribs as reconstructed here were all recovered and they are in collections, but they’re in several jackets and boxes and therefore not easily photographed.

The meter bars are both one meter as advertised. The giraffe neck is FMNH 34426 (from this post), which is actually 1.7 meters long, but I scaled it up to 2.4 meters to match that of the tallest known giraffe. I think it’s cool that a world-record giraffe neck is roughly as long as two vertebrae from the middle of the neck of Sauroposeidon.

There are loads of little morphological details in the Sauroposeidon vertebrae that are clearer now than they were in our old photographs, but those will be stories for other posts.


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