They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Matt and I, with our silent partner Darren, started SV-POW! fifteen years ago to the day, as a sort of jokey riff on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Our first post, on 1 October 2007, was a photograph of what we called “the most iconic of sauropod vertebrae, the 8th cervical of the Brachiosaurus brancai type specimen HMN SII”. Now, here in glorious monochrome, is that same vertebra fifteen years on!

(The specimen that it’s from is now recognised as belonging to the separate brachiosaurid genus Giraffatitan, and it’s the paralectotype of the species Giraffatitan brancai.)

Obviously what we’re seeing here is not the real thing — very heavy and very fragile — but a life-sized 3D model, carved out of styrofoam by a CNC machine (computerized carving machine) using surface-scan data of the original specimen. This was done at Research Casting International, and we bring you this photo courtesy of Peter May, Garth Dallman, and the rest of the folks at RCI.

The inside of RCI’s workshop is an interesting place — I’ve never been there myself, but it’s at least Matt’s second visit, and it’s very high on my To Visit list. I especially like the “RAPTOR” box just behind and above Matt’s head.

This photo, unfortunately, makes the vertebra look smaller than it is, because when Matt took the selfie he was holding it further back than his own head. It’s still interesting, though, to see where the balance point is for holding it one-handed. It seems that the rear half of the vertebra is denser than the front half. But of course, that’s only when it’s a solid constant-density volume. The real bone, with all its pneumatic internal structures, might have been quite different.

Needless to say, HMN SII:C8 (or MB.R.2181:C8, as we must now call it) is a very old friend on this blog, to the point where it should probably have a category of its own. Among many other appearances it’s popped up in tutorials 2 (Basic vertebral anatomy), 4 (Laminae) and 21 (How to measure the length of a centrum), as well as Bifid Brachiosaurs, Batman! (6 September 2009), What a 23% longer torso looks like (20 September 2009), Plateosaurus is pathetic and its doppelganger Plateosaurus is comical (16 January and 5 September 2013), and of course Copyright: promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts by preventing access to 105-year-old quarry maps (11 October 2015).

If you want to see more exciting photos of this glorious vertebra — and indeed of many other sauropod vertebrae — stay tuned for the next fifteen years!

The largest dinosaurs had individual cells more than 30 meters long. How did such things develop? Read on! Illustration from Wedel (2012: fig. 2).

Here’s something that’s been in the works for a while: a popular article in Scientific American on stretch growth of axons in large, fast-growing animals:

Smith, Douglas H., Rodgers, Jeffrey M., Dollé, Jean-Pierre, and Wedel, Mathew J. 2022. Giraffes vs. blue whales vs. dinosaurs: contest reveals which one builds its nervous system fastest to evade predators. Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/giraffes-vs-blue-whales-vs-dinosaurs-contest-reveals-which-one-builds-its-nervous-system-fastest-to-evade-predators/

This one started a few years ago, when Doug Smith at the University of Pennsylvania saw my ‘long nerves in dinosaurs’ paper (Wedel 2012) and reached out to me to ask about the growth of nerve cells in giant dinosaurs. Among his many other interests in neurobiology, Doug has worked on the stretch growth of axons (Smith et al. 2001, Smith 2009, Purohit and Smith 2016).

As a reminder, the axon is the “sticky-out bit” of the neuron. In unipolar neurons like the one in the cartoon above, the axon transmits signals away from the nerve cell body or soma. Most primary sensory neurons — the ones that actually receive stimuli from the environment — are pseudounipolar, meaning that the axon extends in both directions, with the soma sitting off to the side like a teardrop on a tightrope.

Also worth noting is that almost all drawings of neurons are hilariously compressed and oversimplified. I drew that cartoon neuron, above, with a few dozen synapses. Here is an actual neuron from the cerebellum, drawn from a stained specimen by Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the late 1800s:

In my hand drawn neuron cartoon, the length of the axon is only three or four times the diameter of the soma. You have motor neurons that run from your lower back to your feet, in which the axon is 10,000 times as long as the soma is wide (~1 meter vs 0.1 millimeters). The difference is even more pronounced for primary sensory neurons, some of which run from your toe-tips to your brainstem, and which have somata as small as 0.02 millimeters across, or 1/100,000th of the length of their axons. In a 20-meter whale or sauropod, the axon of a primary sensory neuron could be 1 million times longer than the soma.

How do such ridiculously elongated cells develop? One method is stretch growth, and that’s what Doug has been studying for more than two decades now. Once an axon has found its innervation target, it’s stuck, like a grappling hook trailing a rope. As the body parts between the soma and the axon terminals grow, the axon is forced to grow in length to keep up (in the grapping hook analogy, playing out more rope). This can be done in the lab, by getting neurons to connect to two plates, and then cranking the plates apart.

How fast can axons possibly grow by stretching? For that we have to look at the maximum linear growth rates of the largest and fastest-growing mammals and dinosaurs. Doug and I and our coauthors wrote a whole article about that, and it’s short. Check it out — here’s that link again.

References

This is the first 3D print of a dinosaur bone that I ever had access to: the third caudal vertebra of MWC 8028, the ‘new’ Haplocanthosaurus specimen from Snowmass, Colorado (Foster and Wedel 2014, Wedel et al. 2021). I’ve been carrying this thing around since 2018. It’s been an aid to thought. I touched on this before, in this post, but real sauropod vertebrae are almost always a giant pain to work with, given their charming combination of great weight, fragility, and irreplaceability. As opposed to scaled 3D prints, which are light, tough, and endlessly replaceable.

This was brought home to me again a couple of weeks ago, when I visited the Carnegie Museum, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Research Casting International, in Trenton, Ontario, Canada. I was at each place to have another look at their haplocanthosaur specimens. The Carnegie is of course the home of CM 572, the type of H. priscus, and CM 879, the type of H. utterbacki (which has long been sunk into H. priscus, and rightly so — more on that another time, perhaps). RCI currently has CMNH 10380, the holotype of H. delfsi, for reprepping and remounting before it goes back to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Caudals 1 through 6 of CM 572, the holotype of Haplocanthosaurus priscus.

The caudals of CM 572 and CM 879 aren’t that different in size — the centra max out at about 20cm (8in) in diameter, and the biggest, caudal 1 of CM 572, is 50cm (20in) tall. Still, given their weight and the number of thin projecting processes that could possibly break off, I handled them gingerly.

Caudals 1 through 5 of CM 10380, the holotype of Haplocanthosaurus delfsi.

The caudals of H. delfsi are a whole other kettle of fish. Caudal 1 has a max diameter of 36cm (14in) and a total height of 85cm (33.5in). I didn’t handle that one by myself unless I absolutely had to. Fortunately Garth Dallman of RCI helped a lot with the very literal heavy lifting, as did fellow researcher Brian Curtice, who was there at the same time I was.

Back to my beloved MWC 8028, the Snowmass haplocanthosaur. My colleagues and I are still working on it, and there will be more papers coming down the pike in due time (f’rinstance). I’m pretty sure that the main reason we’ve been able to get so much mileage out of this mostly incomplete and somewhat roadkilled specimen is that we’ve had 3D prints of key bones to play with. Now, I joke all the time about being a grownup who gets paid to play with dinosaur bones, but for once I’m not writing in jest when I say ‘play with’. That 3D printed caudal is basically a dinosaurian fidget toy for me, and I think it’s probably impossible to play with anatomical specimens without getting interested in their nooks and crannies and bits and bobs.

Another nice thing about it: I can throw it in my luggage, take it Oklahoma or Utah or Pennsylvania or Canada, and just plop it in someone’s hand and say, “Look at this weird thing. Have you ever seen that before?” I have done that, in all of those places, and it’s even more convenient and useful than showing CT slices on my laptop. I’ve watched my friends and colleagues run their fingers over the print, pinch its nearly non-existent centrum, poke at its weird neural canal, and really grokk its unusual morphology. And then we’ve had more productive conversations than we would have otherwise — they really Get It, because they’ve really handled it.

When I started writing this post, the title was a question, but that’s tentative to the point of being misleading. Three-D prints are obviously useful for sauropod workers because with very few exceptions our specimens are otherwise un-play-with-able. And playing with dinosaur bones turns out to be a pretty great way to make discoveries, and to share them.

(And yes, we’ll be publishing the CT scans and 3D models of MWC 8028 in due time, so you can play with it yourself.)

References

Years ago, when I was young and stupid, I used to read papers containing phylogenetic analyses and think, “Oh, right, I see now, Euhelopus is not a mamenchisaurid after all, it’s a titanosauriform”. In other words, I believed the result that the computer spat out. Some time after that, I learned how to use PAUP* and run my own phylogenetic analysis and realised how vague and uncertain such result are, and how easily changed by tweaking a few parameters.

These days good papers that present phylogenetic analysis are very careful to frame the results as the tentative hypotheses that they are. (Except when they’re in Glam Mags, of course: there’s no space for that kind of nuance in those venues.)

It’s common now for careful work to present multiple different and contradictory phylogenetic hypotheses, arrived at by different methods or based on different matrices. For just one example, see how Upchurch et al.’s (2015) redescription of Haestasaurus (= “Pelorosaurus“) becklesii presents that animal as a camarasaurid (figure 15, arrived at by modifying the matrix of Carballido at al 2011), as a very basal macronarian (figure 16, arrived at by modifying the continuous-and-discrete-characters matrix of Mannion et al. 2013), and as a basal titanosaur (figure 17, arrived at by modifying the discrete-characters-only matrix from the same paper). This is careful and courageous reporting, shunning the potential headline “World’s oldest titanosaur!” in favour of doing the work right.) [1]

But the thing that really makes you understand how fragile phylogenetic analyses are is running one yourself. There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty and seeing how the sausage is made.

And I was reminded of this principle today, in a completely different context, by a tweet from Alex Holcombe:

Some of us lost our trust in science, and in peer review, in a journal club. There we saw how many problems a bunch of ECRs notice in the average article published in a fancy journal.

Alex relays (with permission) this anecdote from an anonymous student in his Good Science, Bad Science class :

In the introduction of the article, the authors lay forth four very specific predictions that, upon fulfillment, would support their hypothesis. In the journal club, one participant actually joked that it read very much as though the authors ran the analysis, derived these four key findings, and then copy-pasted them in to the introduction as though they were thought of a priori. I’m not an expert in this field and I don’t intend to insinuate that anything untoward was done in the paper, but I remember several participants agreeing that the introduction and general framework of the paper indeed felt very “HARKed“.

Here’s the problem: as the original tweet points out, this is about “problems a bunch of ECRs notice in the average article published in a fancy journal”. These are articles that have made it through the peer-review gauntlet and reached the promised land of publication. Yet still these foundational problems persist. In other words, peer-review did not resolve them.

I’m most certainly not suggesting that the peer-review filter should become even more obstructive than it is now. For my money it’s already swung way too far in that direction.

But I am suggesting we should all remain sceptical of peer-reviewed articles, just as we rightly are of preprints. Peer-review ain’t nuthin’ … but it ain’t much. We know from experiment that the chance of an article passing peer review is made up of one third article quality, one third how nice the reviewer is and one third totally random noise. More recently we found that papers with a prestigious author’s name attached are far more likely to be accepted, irrespective of the content (Huber et al. 2022).

Huber et al. 2022, figure 1.

We need to get away from a mystical or superstitious view of peer-review as a divine seal of approval. We need to push back against wise-sounding pronouncements such as “Good reporting would have noted that the paper has not yet been peer-reviewed” as though this one bit of information is worth much.

Yeah, I said it.

References

Notes

  1. Although I am on the authorship of Upchurch et al. (2015), I can take none of the credit the the comprehensiveness and honesty of the phylogenetics section: all of that is Paul and Phil’s work.

 

UPDATE: Y’all came through! I’m very happy to announce that Vicki’s scholarship is fully funded, and we’ll be able to give out the first scholarship in the spring of 2023 — and every year thereafter. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! 

When my partner, Vicki Wedel, passed away unexpectedly last year, the whole community at Western University of Health Sciences pulled around London and me. One of the most touching things that happened is that my then dean, Paula Crone, DO (now interim provost of the university), got to work right away with University Advancement to set up the Vicki Wedel PhD Memorial Scholarship:

The scholarship will be awarded to a first year WesternU College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific student with a GPA of or greater than 3.0, with demonstrated financial need who excelled in first-year anatomy classes.

I’m happy to report that the scholarship is nearly fully-funded, at which point it will generate at least one scholarship for a deserving student, every year in perpetuity. We’ve had a very kind offer of a matching gift challenge: an anonymous donor will contribute matching funds to get the scholarship to full funding, if the other half of the remainder is donated by next Tuesday, September 6, which is WesternU’s annual Giving Day. At this point, we’re just a few hundred dollars short of that goal.

Other than very infrequent notices about crowdfunding projects, we don’t put any financial solicitations on this blog, but I’m making an exception in this case. It’s a good cause, to fund a scholarship to help a deserving student with demonstrated financial need pursuing medical training at a non-profit health sciences university. And it’s particularly important to me, because I knew Vicki best, and she was always actively looking for ways to support students. I had no idea how many lives she had touched until after she passed — for weeks I was receiving testimonials from students and former students that she helped and encouraged. Vicki’s memorial scholarship is special to me because I can’t think of a better way to honor her legacy.

I need to give a special thank you to Vicki’s parents, Terry and Carla Cooper, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this summer. They kindly asked guests at their celebration to donate to Vicki’s scholarship fund in lieu of giving them gifts, and we’re so close to the finish line because of that act of generosity.

If you’re interested in learning more about Vicki’s memorial scholarship, please follow this link. And if you’re interested in donating, thank you, sincerely. You’ll have the option to be recognized for your donation, or to donate anonymously, whichever you prefer. Every dollar counts, and every dollar is appreciated.

If you’re reading this post sometime after September 6, 2022, and you’re interested in donating, please feel free! It’s still a good cause, and if the scholarship fund gets large enough, it may be possible to either increase the size of the scholarship, or to give more than one.

I am co-authoring a manuscript that, among other things, tries to trace the history of the molds made by the Carnegie Museum in the early 1900s, from which they cast numerous replica skeletons of the Diplodocus carnegii mount (CM 84, CM 94, CM 307 and other contributing specimens). This turns out to be quite a mystery, and I have become fascinated by it.

Below is the relevant section of the manuscript as it now stands. Can anyone out there shed any further light on the mystery?


So far as we have been able to determine, the casting of the concrete Diplodocus of Vernal was probably the last time the Carnegie Museum’s original molds were used. However, that was not Untermann’s intention. In his 1959 account, he wrote (p368–369):

Several museums in the United States and from lands as distant as Japan and Italy have expressed a desire to acquire the molds and cast a Diplodocus of their own from either plaster or some of the newer synthetics. To date no museum has apparently been able to make satisfactory arrangement for the acquisition of the molds and the casting of a skeleton. We still have the molds in Vernal, and any museum, anywhere, is welcome to them just for hauling them off. […] The Diplodocus on the lawn of the Utah Field House is the eleventh replica to be cast from the molds […] Does anyone wish to cast the twelfth?

From here, though, the story becomes contradictory. Sassaman (1988) reported that “the molds finally fell apart because of old age soon after it [the concrete Diplodocus] was made”. Similarly, Ilja Niewland (pers. comm., 2022) said that “The original moulds were thrown away somewhere during the 1960s (nobody at the [Carnegie Museum] could be more specific than that)”, suggesting that the molds may have been returned to their origin.

Both these accounts seem to be in error, as shown by a 1960 report in the Vernal Express newspaper (Anonymous 1960a; Figure H; see also Carr and Hansen 2005). This says that in the middle of July 1960, the molds were collected by the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum (now the Rocky Mount Imperial Center, Children’s Museum & Science Centre) in North Carolina, with the intention that they would be used to create a twelfth cast which would be mounted outside the museum building next to the Tar River in Rocky Mount’s Sunset Park. But was such a cast ever created? A sequence of reports in the Rocky Mount Evening Telegram from April to July 1960 (Williams 1960, Bell 1960a, Bell 1960b, Anonymous 1960b) enthusiastically announce and discuss the impeding arrival, and the later articles say that museum board president Harold Minges has left for Utah to collect to molds — but then the newspaper goes silent on the subject, and the project is never mentioned again. There is no positive evidence that the molds even arrived in Rocky Mount, far less that they were used to create a new mount. Thus newspaper reports from both Utah and North Carolina say that the molds set out on their journey from one to the other, but neither confirms that they ever arrived. On the other hand, there is also no report of the molds being lost or destroyed, so perhaps the most likely interpretation is that they arrived in Rocky Mount, but were found to be in worse condition than expected and quietly left in storage. This interpretation is supported by Rea (2001:210) who reported that “from Vernal the molds kept travelling — first, to the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, although a cast was never made there”. Similarly, Moore (2014:234-235) stated that “From Vernal, Utah, [CM] molds of Diplodocus carnegii are shipped to Rocky Mount Children’s Museum in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Because of the age-related damage to the molds, a cast was never prepared”.

Hurricane Floyd devastated Rocky Mount in 1999, with flooding from the River Tar destroying the original Children’s Museum along with all its exhibits and records (Leigh White, pers. comm., 2022), so no records survive that could confirm the molds’ arrival or any subsequent use. The museum was located next door to a municipal water treatment facility that also flooded and released unknown chemicals, so museum property that might have otherwise been salvageable in that area was deemed contaminated and required to be destroyed. If the molds were in storage at the Children’s Museum at this time, then this was likely the end of their story.

The Children’s Museum was re-established at the newly built Imperial Centre, where it still resides, but no trace exists there of molds or casts of Diplodocus. Corroborating the hypothesis that no cast ever existed, most staff who worked at the museum in the 1980s do not recall any such cast (Leigh White, pers. comm., 2022). Contradicting this, however, Jan Engle Hicks, Curator of Education at the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum from 1971–2002, has a memory of Diplodocus casts being on exhibit at the museum when she started work in 1971. She does not recall if they were still part of the museum collection in 1999 when the collection was destroyed.

Whether or not a cast was made at Rocky Mount, it is possible that this was not the end for the molds. Rea (2001:210) continues: “Eventually the molds found their way to the Houston Museum of Science, where they were used to fill in gaps in the Diplodocus hayi skeleton that had been swapped from Pittsburgh to Cleveland before ending up in Houston”, citing a personal communication from John S. McIntosh. (The skeleton in question is that of CM 662, which became CMNH 10670 in Cleveland, then HMNS 175 in Houston. Having been nominated as the holotype of the new species Diplodocus hayi by Holland (1924:399), the species was later moved to its own new genus Galeamopus by Tschopp et al. (2015:267).)

Due to the loss of the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum records, we cannot tell whether they ever shipped the molds to Houston; and we have not been able to obtain information from the Houston Museum. Brian Curtice (pers. comm., 2022) reports that he was in Houston in 1995 and did not see the molds in the collection, nor hear of their ever having been there. In the absence of evidence that the molds ever made it to Houston, it seems at least equally likely that the missing bones in HMNS 175 were cast and supplied by Dinolab, using the second-generation molds described blow, and that Rea (2001) misreported this.

As recently as 1988, Rolfe (1988) wrote on behalf of the Royal Museum of Scotland, “At present I am exploring the possibility of re-using the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh moulds, although there is considerable doubt about whether they are up to the job, after so much previous use”. Sadly, his letter does not mention their then-current whereabouts.

In an unpublished manuscript, Madsen (1990:4) wrote that “The fate of the initial set of molds is somewhat in question, but Wann Langston (personal communication, 1989) suggests that they seem to have been lost, strayed, or stolen during transport from ? to ?. Principles contacted in regards to the disposition of the molds could not provide specific information.”. Infuriatingly, the question marks are in the original. Since both Langston and Madsen are now deceased, there is no way to discover on which of the molds’ journeys Langston thought they were lost or destroyed. It is unlikely, at least, that Langston had in mind the their initial journey from Vernal to Rocky Mount. Kirby (1998:4) wrote that “Somewhere along the line, as the story goes, the molds received from the Carnegie had been shipped to a school down south and never arrived. So they were lost”. Since Rocky mount is about 2000 miles east (not south) of Vernal, “a school down south” could not have referred, in a Utah publication, to a museum out east. The Houston museum also does not seems an especially likely candidate for this designation, being 1300 miles southeast of Vernal.

Putting it all together, there is no way that all the reports cited here can be accurate. Perhaps the most likely scenario is this: the molds were successfully shipped to Rocky Mount in July 1960 (Anonymous 1960a, Anonymous 1960b) but found to be unusable (Rea 2001:210, Moore 2014:234-235) and left in storage. At some later point there were shipped to a school in a southern state (Kirby 1998:4) but did not arrive (Langston cited in Madsen 1990:4). This may have happened in late 1988 or early 1989, between Rolfe’s (1988) letter that expressed an interest in using the molds and Langston’s personal communication to Madsen in 1989. Where the molds are now, and why they did not arrive, we can only speculate. As Madsen (1990:4) concluded, “It is truly a mystery that an estimated 3–6 tons of plaster molds could simply vanish!”

References

Anonymous. 1960a. Dinosaur molds take long ride to No. Carolina children’s home. Vernal Express, 14 July 1960, page 15. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6zk6w6s/21338221

Anonymous. 1960b. Something ‘big’ for a fact. Rocky Mount Evening Telegram, 8 July 1960, page 4A. https://newspaperarchive.com/rocky-mount-evening-telegram-jul-08-1960-p-4/

Bell, Mae. 1960a. Dinosaur’s coming here brings questions galore. Rocky Mount Evening Telegram, 14 May 1960, page 2. https://newspaperarchive.com/rocky-mount-evening-telegram-may-14-1960-p-2/

Bell, Mae. 1960b. ‘Dinosaur’ soon to arrive here. Rocky Mount Evening Telegram, 3 July 1960, page 3A. https://newspaperarchive.com/rocky-mount-evening-telegram-jul-08-1960-p-8/

Carr, Elaine, and Aric Hansen. 2005. William Randolf Turnage, Dee Hall, and Ernest Untermann [archive photograph with metadata]. University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, image 1086142. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=1086142

Holland, William J. 1924. The skull of Diplodocus. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 9(3):379–403.

Kirby, Robert. 1998. Danny and the dinosaurs. Chamber Spirit (newsletter of the Vernal area Chamber of Commerce) 3(4):1–6.

Madsen, James H. 1990. Diplodocus carnegiei: Production and design of replica skeletons. Unpublished draft manuscript. (No author is named in the manuscript, but Madsen’s son Chris believes it is his work.)

Moore, Randy. 2014. Dinosaurs by the Decades: A Chronology of the Dinosaur in Science and Popular Culture. Greenwood, Westport, Connecticut.

Rea, Tom. 2001. Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA.

Rolfe, William D. I. 1988. Untitled letter to LuRae Caldwell (Utah Field House). 24 October 1988.

Sassaman, Richard. 1988. Carnegie had a dinosaur too. American Heritage 39(2):72–73.

Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus and Roger B. J. Benson. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 2:e857. doi:10.7717/peerj.857

Untermann, G. Ernest. 1959. A replica of Diplodocus. Curator 2(4):364–369. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1959.tb00520.x

Williams, Oliver. Pre-historic dinosaur to tower over city; giant animal four times taller than man. Rocky Mount Evening Telegram, 24 April 1960, page 3B. https://newspaperarchive.com/rocky-mount-evening-telegram-apr-24-1960-p-11/

I was in the Oklahoma panhandle in late June for fieldwork in the Morrison with Anne Weil and her crew at the Homestead Quarry. It’s always a fun trip, in part because we see a lot of wildlife out there. One of my favorite panhandle critters, and in fact one of my favorite animals, period, is the pronghorn, Antilocapra americana. Pronghorns are North America’s fastest land animals, and probably the fastest land animals in the world after cheetahs. That’s because they evolved to outrun American cheetahs, Miracinonyx, which went extinct about 12,000 years ago. Once you are familiar with pronghorns, you could never mistake one for a deer. Body profile alone is enough to tell, even at great distances: deer are graceful-looking animals with long, tapering legs, whereas pronghorns look like lozenges on stilts.

On June 21, we were heading back to Black Mesa after checking out some new-to-me Morrison outcrops north of Boise City, Oklahoma (see Richmond et al. 2020). I was driving my Kia Sorento, with a couple of students also in the truck. I came over a hill going about 65 mph (105 kph), and a female pronghorn that had been grazing in the ditch decided that would be the perfect time to bolt across the road. I thought I was about to have a fairly disastrous high-speed collision with a large-ish ungulate, but between my braking and her veering off a bit, we narrowly missed colliding. Instead, she ended up running down the road, parallel with my truck, seriously about 1 meter ahead and left of the driver’s side front tire. For a few seconds, I was driving 55 mph (89 kph) and she was keeping pace, and it didn’t look like she was really taxing herself. Then I realized that she was technically out ahead of the bumper and could still decide to run in front of the truck, so I accelerated and got past her, but the key point is that I had to speed up to about 60 mph (97 kph) to do it. Once I was past her, she trotted to a stop and stood in the middle of the road, watching me drive off (the road ahead was empty, and I was watching her in the rearview mirror).

I’ve read other anecdotal accounts of people driving alongside pronghorns that were really booking it — some memorable ones are recounted in the Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (Wood 1982) — but I never imagined that I’d get to experience something like that. It was cool as heck, and one of the best wildlife encounters of my life. It all happened too quickly to get any photos, so I’m illustrating this post with pronghorn photos I got on a stargazing expedition to Black Mesa in September, 2020. I also have some half-decent pronghorn photos in this post from 2016.

References

  • Richmond, D.R., Hunt, T.C. and Cifelli, R.L. 2020. Stratigraphy and sedimentology of the Morrison Formation in the western panhandle of Oklahoma with reference to the historical Stovall dinosaur quarries. The Journal of Geology 128(6): 477-515.
  • Wood, G. L. 1982. The Guinness Book of Animals Facts & Feats (3rd edition). Guinness Superlatives Ltd., Enfield, Middlesex, 252 pp.

We have many times been in the position of having the reference for a paper and wanting to find the full text. But I think this is a first: I have the full text of a paper, and I want to find the reference!

The paper is a short one — just two pages — so I will reproduce it in its entirely right here in the blog-post:

As you can see, it’s by Billie R. Untermann and her husband G. Ernest Untermann — both important figure in the history of the Utah Field House museum whose history they were chronicling. The report doesn’t have a running header with the journal title, date, volume or issue, or even page number. We know nothing except that we can guess the date is 1970 or 1971 because of the closing statement that “1971 will be one of its greatest years”.

How can the source be tracked down?

I tried asking around on Twitter, but that didn’t pan out. A couple of people there suggested the G. Ernest Untermann papers collection, at Archives West. But John Foster kindly went through those boxes without turning it up, so our best hope struck out. John also had the had the University of Utah library go through the State Parks newsletters, which seemed the most likely venue, but again without success.

So over to you, dear readers. Can anyone come up with a route to track down the source of this report? To whoever comes up with the reference, I offer the shiny prize of formal acknowledgement in a forthcoming paper.

 

One of the benefits of being me is that my friends often make me cool dino-themed stuff for my birthday (f’rinstance). This year, it was this dinosaur dig cake from my friend Jenny Adams. Yes, it’s a vulgar, overstudied theropod,* but I take the requisite amount of joy from how thoroughly blown apart its skeleton is. Plus, the skull and cervicals are pneumatic (in vivo, if not in choco), so it’s a least plausibly interesting (i.e., not an ornithopod), and it looks cool (i.e., not Camarasaurus).

*I’m morally obligated to thank Paul Barrett for this wonderful phrase, which I use pretty much every chance I get.

Should you want to replicate this glycemic index Chicxulub, here’s the stratigraphic breakdown, starting from the bedrock (bedchoc?):

  • base layer is a regular chocolate cake,
  • but with added chocolate chips,
  • topped with vanilla frosting, to hold down:
  • a whole package of Oreos crumbled into faux dirt
  • surrounding the vanilla-flavored white chocolate dinosaur bones

Jenny made the dino bones using a set of (new, clean) plastic sand molds, like these:

You can find a zillion like ’em online by searching for ‘dinosaur sand toys’ or ‘dinosaur sand mold’.

Anyway, I can report that the excavation has been most enjoyable, but with about half the ‘quarry’ left to explore, the number of fossils recovered intact continues to hover near zero — we’ve been grinding them up to use as dietary supplements. Good thing it’s just a theropod!

I’ve been in contact recently with Matt Lamanna, Associate Curator in the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History — which is obviously the best job in the world. Among a batch of photos that he sent me recently, I seized on this gem:

Tyrannosaurus rex, Diplodocus carnegii, Apatosaurus louisae and multiple mostly juvenile individuals of Homo sapiens. Photograph taken between 1941 and 1965. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

There’s so much to appreciate in this picture: the hunchbacked, tail-dragging Tyrannosaurus; the camarasaur-style skull on the Apatosaurus; the hard-to-pin-down archaic air of Diplodocus.

But the thing I love about it is the 1950s kids. (Or, to be fair, maybe the 1940s kids or early 1960s kids, but you get the point.) They way they’ve all been asked to look up at the tyrannosaur skull, and are obediently doing it. How earnest they all appear. How they’re all dressed as tiny adults. How self-consciously some of them have posed themselves — the thoughtful kid one in from the left, his foot up on the plinth and his chin resting on his hand; the cool kid to his right, arms crossed, interested but careful not to seem too impressed.

Where are these kids now? Assuming it was taken in 1953, the midpoint of the possible range, and assuming they’re about 12 years old in this photo, they were born around 1941, which would make them 81 now. Statistically, somewhere around half of them are still alive. I wonder how many of them remember this day, and the strange blend of awe, fascination, and self-consciousness.

This is a time-capsule, friends. Enjoy it.