A life-size silhouette of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, with Thierra Nalley, me, and Jessie Atterholt for scale. Photo by Jeremiah Scott.

Tiny Titan, a temporary exhibit about the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus project, opened at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California, last night. How? Why? Read on.

Things have been quieter this year on the Haplo front than they were in 2018, for many reasons. My attention was pulled away by a lot of teaching and other day-job work–we’re launching a new curriculum at the med school, and that’s eaten an immense amount of time–and by some very exciting news from the field that I can’t tell you about quite yet (but watch this space). Things are still moving, and there will be a paper redescribing MWC 8028 and all the weird and cool things we’ve learned about it, but there are a few more timely things ahead of it in the queue.

One of the things going on behind the scenes this year is that Jessie Atterholt, Thierra Nalley, and I have been working with Alton Dooley, the director of the Western Science Center, on this exhibit. Alton has had a gleam in his eye for a long time of using the WSC’s temporary exhibit space to promote the work of local scientists, and we had the honor of being his first example. He also was not fazed by the fact that the project isn’t done–he wants to show the public the process of science in all of its serendipitous and non-linear glory, and not just the polished results that get communicated at the end.

Everything’s better cut in half. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Which is not to say that the exhibit isn’t polished. On the contrary, it looks phenomenal. Thanks to a loan from Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey in Colorado, most of the real fossils are on display. We’re only missing the ribs and most of the sacrum, which is too fragmentary and fragile to come out of its jacket. As you can see from the photo up top, there is a life-size vinyl silhouette of the Snowmass Haplo, with 3D prints of the vertebrae in approximate life position. Other 3D prints show the vertebrae before and after the process of sculpting, rescanning, and retrodeformation, as described in our presentation for the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress last year (that slideshow is a PeerJ Preprint, here). The exhibit also includes panels on “What is Haplocanthosaurus” and its relationships, on pneumaticity in sauropods, on the process of CT scanning and 3D modeling, and on the unusual anatomical features of the Snowmass specimen. The awesome display shown above, with the possibly-bumpy spinal cord and giant intervertebral discs reconstructed, was all Alton–he did the modeling, printing, and assembly himself.

Haplo vs Bronto. Thierra usually works on the evolution and development of the vertebral column in primates, so I had to show her how awesome vertebrae can be when they’re done right. Photo by Brittney Stoneburg.

My favorite thing in the exhibit is this striking comparison of one the Snowmass Haplo caudals with a proximal caudal from the big Oklahoma apatosaurine. This was Alton’s idea. He asked me if I had any photos of caudal vertebrae from really big sauropods that we could print at life size to compare to MWC 8028, and my mind went immediately to OMNH 1331, which is probably the second-largest-diameter vertebra of anything from all of North America (see the list here). It was also Alton’s idea to fill in the missing bits using one of Marsh’s plates of Brontosaurus excelsus from Como Bluff in Wyoming. It’s a pretty amazing display, and it turns out to have been a vehicle for discovery, too–I didn’t realize until I saw the verts side-by-side that the neural canal of the Snowmass Haplo caudal is almost as big as the neural canal from the giant apatosaurine caudal. It’s not a perfect comparison, because the OMNH fossil doesn’t preserve the neural canal, and the Como specimen isn’t that big, but proportionally, the Snowmass Haplo seems to have big honkin’ neural canals, not just at the midpoint (which we already knew), but all the way through. Looks like I have some measuring and comparing to do.

(Oh, about the title: we don’t know if the Snowmass Haplo was fully grown or not, but not all haplocanthosaurs were small. The mounted H. delfsi in Cleveland is huge, getting into Apatosaurus and Diplodocus territory. Everything we can assess in the Snowmass Haplo is fused, for what that’s worth. We have some rib chunks and Jessie will be doing histo on them to see if we can get ontogenetic information. I’ll keep you posted.)

Brian’s new Haplocanthosaurus restoration, along with some stinkin’ mammals. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Brian Engh contributed a fantastic life restoration of Haplocanthosaurus pro bono, thanks to this conversation, which took place in John Foster’s and ReBecca Hunt-Foster’s dining room about a month ago:

Brian: What are you drawing?

Me: Haplocanthosaurus.

Brian: Is that for the exhibit?

Me: Yup.

Brian (intense): Dude, I will draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Me: I know, but you’re a pro, and pros get paid, and we didn’t include a budget for paleoart.

Brian (fired up): I’m offended that you didn’t just ask me to draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Then he went to the Fosters’ couch, sat down with his sketchbook, and drew a Haplocanthosaurus. Not only is it a stunning piece on display in the exhibit, there are black-and-white printouts for kids to take and color (or for adults to take to their favorite tattoo artists, just sayin’). [Obligatory: this is not how things are supposed to work. We should all support original paleoart by supporting the artists who create it. But Brian just makes so damn many monsters that occasionally he has to kick one out for the heck of it. Also, I support him on Patreon, and you can, too, so at a stretch you could consider this the mother of all backer rewards.]

One special perk from the opening last night: Jessica Bramson was able to attend. Who’s that, you ask? Jessica’s son, Mike Gordon, found the first piece of bone from the Snowmass Haplo on their property in Colorado over a decade ago. Jessica and her family spent two years uncovering the fossils and trying to get paleontologists interested. In time she got in touch with John Foster, and the rest is history. Jessica lives in California now, and thanks to John’s efforts we were able to invite her to the exhibit opening to see her dinosaur meet the world. Stupidly, I did not get any photos with her, but I did thank her profusely.

A restored, retrodeformed caudal of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, 3D-printed at life size for the exhibit. Photo swiped from the WSC Facebook page.

I owe a huge thanks to Alton Dooley for taking an interest in our work, and to the whole WSC crew for their hard work creating and promoting the exhibit. You all rock.

The exhibit will run through the end of March, 2020, at least. I deliberately did not show most of it, partly because I was too busy having fun last night to be diligent about taking photos, but mostly because I want you to go see it for yourself (I will do a retrospective post with more info after the exhibit comes down, for people who weren’t able to see it in person). If you make it out to Hemet, I hope you have half as much fun going through the exhibit as we did making it.

Way back in 2009–over a decade ago, now!–I blogged about the above photo, which I stole from this post by ReBecca Hunt-Foster. It’s a cut and polished chunk of a pneumatic sauropod vertebra in the collections at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado.

This is the other side of that same cut; you’ll see that it looks like a mirror image of the cut at the top, but not quite a perfect mirror image, because some material was lost to the kerf of the saw and to subsequent polishing, and the bony septa changed a bit just in those few millimeters.

And this is the reverse face of the section shown above. As you can see, it is a LOT more complex. What’s going on here? This unpolished face must be getting close to either the condyle or the cotyle, where the simple I-beam or anchor-shaped configuration of the centrum breaks up into lots of smaller chambers (as described in this even older post). It’s crazy how fast that can happen–this shard of excellence is only about 4 or 5 cm thick, and in that short space it has gone from anchor to honeycomb. I think that’s amazing, and beautiful.

It’s probably Apatosaurus–way too complex to be Camarasaurus or Haplocanthosaurus, not complex enough to be Barosaurus, no reason to suspect Brachiosaurus, and although there is other stuff in the DJ collections, the vast majority of the sauropod material is Apatosaurus. So that’s my null hypothesis for the ID.

Oh, back in 2009 I was pretty sure these chunks were from a dorsal, because of the round ventral profile of the centrum. I’m no longer so certain, now that I know that the anchor-shaped sections are so close to the end of the centrum, because almost all vertebrae get round near the ends. That said, the anchor-shaped sections are anchor-shaped because the pneumatic foramina are open, and having foramina that open, that close to the end of the vertebra still makes me think it is more likely a dorsal than anything else. I’m just less certain than I used to be–and that has been the common theme in my personal development over the last decade.

 

I had an interesting opportunity when I was in Utah and Colorado a couple of weeks ago. At Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado, I went looking for a cast of the Potter Creek Brachiosaurus humerus. I found it — more on that another time — and I also found a cast of BYU 4503, the holotype dorsal vertebra of Dystylosaurus (now almost universally regarded as Supersaurus [but then…]), lurking with it in a corner of the collections room.

Dystylosaurus cast, posterior view.

Somehow I had overlooked the Dystylosaurus cast on all of my previous visits to DJ, which is a shame, because the cast is easy to pick up, flip over, and manipulate. Very much unlike the actual fossil, which combines the charming attributes, shared with many other sauropod vertebrae, of weighing hundreds of pounds but still being awfully fragile.

Dystylosaurus cast, anterior view.

So, hey ya, I had a chance to photograph and measure both sides of the vertebra. You’re not supposed to take measurements from casts, but I figured what the heck, no-one was going to lock me up for it, and I could compare the measurements from the cast to the measurements of the real thing when I visited BYU later in the trip. And that’s exactly what I did. It was easy to make sure I took the second set of measurements the same way I had done the first set, because I took them just a few days apart.

The real deal at BYU.

Here’s what I got. For each measurement, the actual value measured from the real fossil at BYU comes first, followed by the same measurement from the cast at Dinosaur Journey, followed by the difference as a percentage of the first (true) measurement.

  • Total Height (as preserved): 1050mm / 1022mm / -2.6%
  • Max Width (as preserved): 905mm / 889mm / -1.8%
  • Anterior Centrum Height: 400mm / 394mm / -1.5%
  • Anterior Centrum Width: 470mm / 454mm / -3.4%
  • Posterior Centrum Height: 365mm / 352mm / -3.5%
  • Posterior Centrum Width: 480mm / 473mm / -1.5%

They’re not the same! On average, the measurements of the cast are 2.4% smaller than the same measurements taken from the actual bone. (Incidentally, you may be wondering how I measured the posterior centrum faces of the BYU vertebra without flipping it. I used a couple of wooden blocks as orthogonators and measured between them, and I did it at several points to make sure they were truly parallel. In essence, I made giant redneck calipers, a method that Mike and I have had to employ many times when measuring huge, weirdly-shaped fossils. Remind me to show you John Foster’s giant caliper setup sometime.)

Dinosaur Journey cast in right lateral view, big doofus for scale.

Anyway, the discrepancy in the measurements should not be surprising. It is a known phenomenon that when an object is molded and cast, there is a little bit of shrinkage. You can see it bedevil Adam Savage in his quest for the ultimate Maltese Falcon replica in this charming video:

So, on one hand, no outright disasters here; all of the cast measurements are within a few percent of the real measurements, so if all you had was a cast, you could get a pretty good sense of the size of the real thing. But precision counts, even among giant sauropods. In a world where the largest vertebra of Argentinosaurus is only 1cm bigger in diameter than the largest vertebra of Patagotitan, differences like I got with Dystylosaurus would be enough to scramble the order of giant vertebrae. So if you’re ever stuck measuring something from a cast, be forthright and say as much, so that no-one mistakes the cast measurements for the real thing.

Here are some more measurements from BYU 4503, the real thing, for you completists. Note that the vertebra is sheared a bit from right postero-ventral to left antero-dorsal, so figuring out how to take the centrum length is not straightforward. I ended up doing it twice, once orthogonal to the posterior centrum face, and once following the slant of the centrum, both at the mid-height of the centrum, as shown in the little diagram from my notebook (above).

  • Centrum Length, left side, orthogonal: 295mm
  • Centrum Length, left side, on the slant: 310mm
  • Centrum Length, right side, orthogonal: 280mm
  • Centrum Length, right side, on the slant: 305mm
  • Max Width across prezygs: 305mm
  • Min gap between prezygs: 19mm
  • Max Width across parapophyses: 620mm
  • Max antero-posterior length of prezyg articular surfaces: 55mm
  • Max antero-posterior depth of hypantrum: 95mm
  • Max antero-posterior depth of fossa between spino-prezyg laminae (SPRLs): 80mm
  • Neural spine cavity, max antero-posterior extent: 40mm
  • Neural spine cavity, max medio-lateral extent: 70mm

Finally, a huge thanks to Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey and Brooks Britt and Rod Scheetz at BYU for letting me come play with their huge toys er, hugely important scientific specimens. Rod was particularly helpful, shifting giant things about with a forklift, helping me measure bones that are longer than I am tall, and boxing up loan specimens for me. Mike and I have had really good luck with pro-science curators and collections managers, but the folks at DJ and BYU have always been standouts, and I can’t thank them enough.

Back into the Corner of Shame, artificially tiny Dystylosaurus!

Unworn:

Worn:

Spent some time last week just admiring these things. They’re pretty cool.

EDIT: in answer to Mike’s question in the first comment below, here’s a photo of some more worn teeth, showing that the level of wear in the one shown above is not unusual. Also, all of these worn teeth still had full roots, with no sign of the root resorption that would have preceded shedding of the tooth, so they were evidently going to be used for a while yet, probably a few months at least — BUT see the very useful comment from Jens Kosch below on the likely rapidity of tooth replacement in Camarasaurus.

DINO collections - more worn Camarasaurus teeth

Nothing too serious here, just a fun shot I got while in the collections at BYU this past week. The Brachiosaurus element is metacarpal 1 (thumb column) from BYU 4744, the Potter Creek material. I highlighted my own metacarpal 3. There is a metacarpal 3 from this specimen, but I didn’t see it on the shelf. According to D’Emic and Carrano (2019), the MC3 is 60cm long, vs 57cm for this MC1. So this photo could have been 3cm more impressive!

Oh, ignore the tag on the left that says “radius”. You could be forgiven for thinking that the bone I have my hand on is a radius, but the radius from this individual is 1.34 meters long, or about two-and-a-third times the length of this metacarpal.

Reference

D’Emic, M.D. and Carrano, M.T., 2019. Redescription of Brachiosaurid Sauropod Dinosaur Material From the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation, Colorado, USA. The Anatomical Record.

I don’t know if this exists in the US, but here in Britain it’s common for kids in Year 11 at school (age 15 or 16) to have a week allocated where they find a position (usually unpaid) and do some work outside the school. It’s called “work experience”.

A friend of a friend has a son that age, and he wants to be a palaeontologist. I was asked if I had any advice. Here’s what I wrote, lightly edited: I hope it’s useful to other enthusiastic kids.

Palaeontology, being the study of ancient life through the medium of fossils, is really the intersection of two fields: geology (the study of rocks) and biology (the study of life). Your first decision is whether you see yourself primarily as a geologist whose favourite rocks happen to be fossils; or as a biologist whose favorite organisms happen to be long dead. Myself, I fall 100% in the latter category — I know almost nothing about geology — which means I call myself a palaeobiologist. But because historically palaeontology grew out of geology in England, most palaeontology happens in geology departments. (That’s why my acacdemic address is “Department of Earth Sciences” despite my near-total ignorance of earth sciences.)

If you want to come into palaeo via the geology end of things, I’m not really sure what to suggest. Perhaps talk to oil companies or someone like that? Maybe surveying companies — perhaps someone who is working on the HS2 route and might know about work being done to understand the nature of the ground that the new railway is to be built on?

But if you want to come in via the biology route, you have a lot of options to do with extant (i.e. non-extinct) animals and plants. In your position, I would be writing to every zoo in travelling distance — or where I could stay with a friend or relative — trying to get a placement at one of them. Alternatively, you might be able to get a placement at a veterinary surgery (as our youngest did), which would be great for learning some animal anatomy. Or even a farm might be useful. Or if you’re interested in ancient plants, then perhaps an arboretum or nursery could give relevant experience with extant plants.

Finally, the other obvious thing to try would be a museum. Even if you land up in one that has no palaeontology collection, it will be useful for you to get to understand how museums work, how access to collections happens, how specimens are stored, indexed, etc.

Our eldest son knew from about fourteen or fifteen that he was interested in economics and government, and he ended up doing three “work experience”-like placements: first the official school-sanctioned one in the Treasury in London (thanks to a family friend who worked there); then on his own school-holiday time in local government in Birmingham (thanks to another family friend!); and finally during the summer working in the constituency office of our MP Mark Harper (due to sheer persistence and chutzpah). I think having done all three of these gave him a really good, broad perspective on the kinds of things he was interested in. If I were you, I would be looking for three placements, too — one school-sanctioned and two in forthcoming holidays. And I’d ideally want a zoo, a veterinary surgery and a museum.

Hope that’s helpful!

Two professionals, hard at work.

After this year’s SVPCA, Vicki and London and I spent a few days with the Taylor family in the lovely village of Ruardean. It wasn’t all faffing about with the Iguanodon pelvis, the above photo notwithstanding. Mike and I had much to discuss after the conference, in particular what the next steps might be for the Supersaurus project. Mike has been tracking down early mentions of Supersaurus, and in particular trying to determine the point at which Jensen decided that it might be a diplodocid rather than a brachiosaurid. I recalled that Gerald Wood discussed Supersaurus in his wonderful 1982 book, The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. While on the track of Supersaurus, I stumbled across this amazing claim in the section on Diplodocus (Wood 1982: p. 209):

According to De Camp and De Camp (1968) these giant sauropods may have been able to regenerate lost parts, and they mention another skeleton collected in Wyoming which appeared to have lost about 25 per cent of its tail to a carnosaur and then regrown it — along with 21 new vertebrae!

De Camp and De Camp (1968) is a popular or non-technical book, The Day of the Dinosaur. Used copies can be had for a song, so I ordered one online and it was waiting for me when I got back to California.

The Day of the Dinosaur is an interesting book. L. Sprague De Camp and Catherine Crook De Camp embodied the concept of the “life-long learner” before there was a buzzword to go with it. He had been an aerospace engineer in World War II, and she had been an honors graduate and teacher, before they turned to writing full time. Individually and together, they produced a wide range of science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction books over careers that spanned almost six decades. The De Camps’ writing in The Day of the Dinosaur is erudite in range but conversational in style, and they clearly kept up with current discoveries. They also recognized that science is a human enterprise and that, like any exploratory process, it is marked by wildly successful leaps, frustrating wheel-spinning, and complete dead ends. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the authors were completely up to speed on plate tectonics, an essentially brand-new science in 1968, and they explain it as an alternative to older theories about immensely long land bridges or sunken continents.

At the same time, the book arrived just before the end-of-the-1960s publications of John Ostrom and Bob Bakker that kicked off the Dinosaur Renaissance, so there’s no mention of warm-blooded dinosaurs. The De Camps’ sauropods and duckbills are still swamp-bound morons, “endlessly dredging up mouthfuls of soft plant food and living out their long, slow, placid, brainless lives” (p. 142), stalked by ‘carnosaurs’ that were nothing more than collections of teeth relentlessly driven by blind instinct and hunger. The book is therefore an artifact of a precise time; there was perhaps a year at most in the late 1960s when authors as technically savvy as the De Camps would have felt obliged to explain plate tectonics and its nearly-complete takeover of structural geology (which had just happened), but not to comment on the new and outrageous hypothesis of warm-blooded, active, terrestrial dinosaurs (which hadn’t happened yet).

The book may also appeal to folks with an interest in mid-century paleo-art, as the illustrations are a glorious hodge-podge of Charles R. Knight, Neave Parker, photos of models and mounted skeletons from museums, life restorations reproduced from the technical literature, and original art produced for the book, including quite a few line drawings by one L. Sprague De Camp. Roy Krenkel even contributed an original piece, shown above (if you don’t know Krenkel, he was a contemporary and sometime collaborator of Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta, and his art collection Swordsmen and Saurians is stunning and still gettable at not-completely-ruinous prices; I’ve had mine since about 1997).

ANYWAY, as entertaining as The Day of the Dinosaur is, it doesn’t do much to help us regenerate the tale of the regenerated tail. Here’s the entire story, from page 114:

Sauropods, some students think, had great powers of regenerating lost parts. One specimen from Wyoming is thought to have lost the last quarter of its tail and regrown it, along with twenty-one new tail vertebrae. That is better than a modern lizard can do; for the lizard, in regenerating its tail, grows only a stumpy approximation of the original, without new vertebrae.

That’s it. No sources mentioned or cited, so no advance over Wood in terms of tracking down the origin of the story.

Massospondylus tail with traumatic amputation at caudal 25 (Butler et al. 2013: fig. 1A).

To be clear, I don’t really think there is a sauropod that regrew its tail, especially since we have evidence for traumatic tail amputation without regeneration in the basal sauropodomorph Massospondylus (Butler et al. 2013), in the theropod Majungasaurus (Farke and O’Connor 2007), and in a hadrosaur (Tanke and Rothschild 2002). But I would love to learn how such a story got started, what the evidence was, how it was communicated, and most importantly, how it took on a life of its own.

If anyone knows any more about this, I’d be very grateful for any pointers. The comment thread is open.

References

  • Butler, R. J., Yates, A. M., Rauhut, O. W., & Foth, C. 2013. A pathological tail in a basal sauropodomorph dinosaur from South Africa: evidence of traumatic amputation? Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 33(1): 224-228.
  • De Camp, L. S., and De Camp, C. C. 1968. The Day of the Dinosaur. Bonanza Books, New York, 319 pp.
  • Farke, A. A., & O’Connor, P. M. 2007. Pathology in Majungasaurus crenatissimus (Theropoda: Abelisauridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 27(S2): 180-184.
  • Krenkel, R. G. 1989. Swordsmen and Saurians: From the Mesozoic to Barsoom. Eclipse Books, 152 pp.
  • Tanke, D. H., & Rothschild, B. M. 2002. DINOSORES: An annotated bibliography of dinosaur paleopathology and related topics—1838-2001. Bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, vol. 20.
  • Wood, G. L. 1982. The Guinness Book of Animals Facts & Feats (3rd edition). Guinness Superlatives Ltd., Enfield, Middlesex, 252 pp.