Someone on Facebook asked whether sauropods had subcutaneous fat, and by the time my answer hit five paragraphs I thought, “The merciful thing to do here is blog this and link to it.” So here are some things to keep in mind regarding the integumentary systems of sauropods.

Emu dissection at UC Santa Cruz back in 2004. Note the fat pad on the chest and how it abruptly comes to an end.

Sauropods may have had some subcutaneous fat – we can’t rule it out – but it probably wasn’t broadly distributed as it is in mammals. In the interaction of their air sac systems with connective tissue, sauropods were probably a lot like birds. Most birds don’t have subcutaneous fat all over their bodies. Instead, they have subcutaneous air sacs (or pneumatic diverticula) over parts or all of their bodies – in pelicans these are like bubble wrap under the skin, presumably for impact padding and insulation (Richardson 1939, 1943). The diverticula go everywhere and most places they go, they replace adipose tissue, even the harmless bits of fat between muscles that are basically the body’s packing peanuts (broiler chickens don’t count here, they’ve been artificially selected to be radically unhealthy). We suspect that sauropods had subcutaneous diverticula because so many other aspects of their pneumatic systems correspond to those of living birds (see the discussion in Wedel and Taylor 2013b for more on that).

Contrast the narrow line of adipose tissue down the ventral midline with the almost-completely-lean hindlimb.

That’s not to say that birds don’t have subcutaneous fat, just that it tends to be highly localized. Back in grad school I got to help dissect an emu (link) and a rhea (one, two), and in both cases the fat was concentrated in two places: huge paired fat pads over the pelvis, like big lozenges, and a concentration over the sternum with extensions along the ventral midline from the base of the neck to the cloaca. It was weird, the fat would be present and then it would just stop, like somebody flipped a switch. We pulled 18 lbs of fat off a 102-lb emu, so it wasn’t a trivial part of the body composition. IME, even relatively fatty birds like ducks tend to have the fat start and stop abruptly, and again, the fat deposits tend to be concentrated on the breast and tummy and over the hips.

Fat-tailed gecko, borrowed from here.

A lot of lizards and crocs and even some turtles carry fat deposits in their tails, and that is one aspect of sauropod anatomy that is definitely un-bird-like. So some sauropods might have had fat tails.

We can be pretty sure that at least some sauropods had thick skin. Osteoderms (armor plates) from Madagascar show that the bits that were embedded in the skin could be up to 7cm thick, so the surrounding skin was at least that thick and possibly even thicker (Dodson et al. 1998). And that was most likely on Rapetosaurus, which was not a huge sauropod. So giant sauropods might have had even thicker skin. Maybe. Remember that big-ass-ness (here arbitrarily defined as 40+ metric tons) evolved independently in:

They probably didn’t all get there looking the same way, beyond sharing the basic sauropod bauplan.

I’m too lazy to write about the fossil evidence for scaly skin and keratinous spines in sauropods – see this post and the references therein.

One final thing to think about is scar tissue. The scar tissue on the chest of a male elephant seal can be up to 5cm thick. Some sauropods might have had calluses or patches of scar tissue in predictable places, from combat, or habitually pushing down trees with their chests or tails, or doing whatever weird things real animals do when we’re not looking.

So in the toolbox of things to play with in reconstructing the integument of sauropods, we have thick skin, keratinous spines, osteoderms, fat pads (possibly concentrated over the hips and shoulders or on the tail), subcutaneous diverticula, calluses, and scar tissue. And that’s just the stuff we have found or reasonably inferred so far, barely 150 years into our exploration of animals we know mostly from bits and bobs, whose size means they mostly got buried in big sediment-dumping events that would not preserve delicate integumentary structures. Give us a millennium of Yixian Formations and Mahajanga Basins and Howe Quarries and the picture will probably change, and the arrow of history dictates that it will change for the weirder.

Likely? Probably not. But roll the evolutionary dice for 160 million years and you’ll get stranger things than this. Recycled from this post.

Finally, and related to my observation about big-ass-ness: sauropods were a globally-distributed radiation of animals from horse-sized to whale-sized that existed from the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous. The chances that all of them had the same integumentary specializations, for display or combat or insulation or camouflage or whatever, are pretty darned low. Support weird sauropods – and vanilla ones, too.

Almost immediate update: I’ve just been reminded about Mark Witton’s excellent post on dinosaur fat from a couple of years ago. Go read that, and the rest of his blog. I’m sure I missed other relevant posts at other excellent blogs – feel free to remind me in the comments.



I was in Philadelphia and New York last week, visiting colleagues on the East Coast and getting in some collaborative research. Much more to say about that in the future – even just the touristy stuff will fill several posts.

One highlight of the trip was visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia last Friday. Ted Daeschler (of Tiktaalik fame) and Jason Poole (who illustrated this sweet book) were my generous hosts and I got to see a ton of cool stuff both out on exhibit and behind the scenes. Seriously, I could post for a month just on the Academy visit.

A personal highlight for me was seeing the cervical vertebrae of the sauropod dinosaur Suuwassea on exhibit. They are in a glass case and you can get around them pretty well to see a lot of anatomy. At first I was pumped to get nice color photos of all the vertebrae from up close and from multiple angles. Then I thought, “Huh, maybe I should just shoot a video.” So I did. Here you go, four minutes of hot sauropod vertebra action:

By contrast to the very delicate pelican humerus and ulna in the previous post, here is the left femur of Aepyornis OUMNH 4950 — an “elephant bird” from Antolanbiby, Madagascar. It’s just a couple of meters away from the pelican, in the same Oxford gallery:

This is of course a ludicrously robust bone, as befits a gigantic ground-dwelling bird. But the fun thing is that it, too, is very pneumatic. You can see this in lots of ways: the foramina up at the top, the little patch of stretched texture at mid-length, and most of all in the honeycomb structure of the inside of the bone, which we can see where the cortex has broken off at both proximal and distal ends.

Birds: they’re made of air.

Here are the humerus and ulna of a pelican, bisected:

What we’re seeing here is the top third of each bone: humerus halves on the left, ulna halves on the right, in a photo taken at the 2012 SVPCA in one of our favourite museums.

The hot news here is of course the extreme pneumaticity: the very thin bone walls, reinforced only at the proximal extremely by thin struts. Here’s the middle third, where as you can see there is essentially no reinforcement: just a hollow tube, that’s all:

And then at the distal ends, we see the struts return:

Here’s the whole thing in a single photo, though unfortunately marred by a reflection (and obviously at much lower resolution):

We’ve mentioned before that pelicans are crazy pneumatic, even by the standards of other birds: as Matt said about a pelican vertebra (skip to 58 seconds in the linked video), “the neural spine is sort of a fiction, almost like a tent of bone propped up”.

Honestly. Pelican skeletons hardly even exist.

One of the field trips for last year’s SVPCA meeting was a jaunt to Nottingham to see the Dinosaurs of China exhibit at Wollaton Hall. We got to see a lot of stuff, including original fossils of some pretty famous feathered dinos – but of course what really captured our attention was the mounted Mamenchisaurus. This is a cast of the good old M. hochuanensis holotype specimen that has been put up all over the world, including in a car-park in Copenhagenon stilts in Chicago and even in a flooded basement in Slovenia.

Wollaton Hall houses the Nottingham Museum of Natural History, which is a fantastic trove of weird and wonderful things from around the world. We should really post about those things – I had them in mind when I was recently lamenting my lousy conversion rate of museum visit photos into blog posts. That will have to wait for another time. I’ll just note in closing that grand buildings and mounted sauropods go together like peanut butter and chocolate, and that this field trip was outstanding.

Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel, Darren Naish, and Bob Nicholls (kneeling) at Wollaton Hall, with Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis for scale.

Back in 2009, I posted on a big cervical series discovered in Big Bend National Park. Then in 2013 I posted again about how I was going to the Perot Museum in Dallas to see that cervical series, which by then was fully prepped and on display but awaiting a full description. Ron Tykoski and Tony Fiorillo (2016) published that description a couple of years ago, and after almost five years it’s probably time I posted an update.

I did visit the Perot Museum in 2013 and Ron and Tony kindly let me hop the fence and get up close and personal with their baby. I got a lot of nice photos and measurements of the big specimen. It’s an impressive thing. Compared to the other big sauropod cervicals I’ve gotten to play with, these vertebrae aren’t all that long – the two longest centra are about 80cm, compared to ~120cm for Sauroposeidon, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan, and 137cm for Supersaurus (more details here) – but they are massive. According to the table of measurements (yay!) in Tykoski and Fiorillo (2016), which accord well with the measurements I took when I was there, the last vert is 117.5cm tall from the bottom of the cervical rib to the top of the neural spine, 98.4cm wide across the diapophyses, and has a cotyle measuring 29cm tall by 42cm wide. Here it is with me for scale:

I guarantee you, standing next to that thing and imagining it being inside the neck of a living animal is a breathtaking experience.

I failed in my mission in one way. In a comment on my 2013 post, I said, “I’ll try to get some good lateral views of the mount with as little perspective as possible.” But it can’t be done – the geometry of the room and the size of the skeleton don’t allow it, as Ron noted in the very next comment. There is one place in the exhibit hall where you can get the whole skeleton into the frame, and that’s a sort of right anterolateral oblique view. Here’s my best attempt:

So, this is an awesome specimen and you should go see it. As you can see from the photos, the vertebrae are right on the other side of the signage, with no glass between you and them, so you can see a lot. The rest of the exhibits are top notch as well. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself within striking distance of Dallas.


Tykoski, R.S. and Fiorillo, A.R. 2016. An articulated cervical series of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis Gilmore, 1922 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from Texas: new perspective on the relationships of North America’s last giant sauropod. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 15(5):339-364.

Left side, posterolateral oblique view, wide shot.

Same thing, close up.

Right side, lateral, wide.

Same thing, close up.

For more on this and other pneumatic sauropod tails, please see Wedel and Taylor (2013, here). And for more on the currently unresolved taxonomic status of FMNH P25112, see this post.