Please welcome Mirarce eatoni

November 13, 2018

Skeletal reconstruction of Mirarce by Scott Hartman (Atterholt et al. 2018: fig. 19). Recovered bones in white, missing bones in gray. The humerus is 95.9mm long.

Today sees the publication of the monster enantiornithine Mirarce eatoni (“Eaton’s wonderful winged messenger”) from the Kaiparowits Formation of Utah, by Jessie Atterholt, Howard Hutchinson, and Jingmai O’Connor. Not my critter, not my story, but it is SV-POW!-adjacent. (Just here for the paper? Here’s the link.)

Xiphoid process of sternum of Mirarce (Atterholt et al. 2018: fig. 5). Scale bar = 1cm.

As of this past summer, I knew that Jessie had a prehistoric monster coming out soon, and I knew that Brian Engh liked bringing prehistoric monsters to life, and I suspected that if the two reagents were combined, the rest of us might get something cool out of it.

Jessie and Brian talking about Mirarce, Utah for scale. July 13, 2018.

I did some heavy eavesdropping while the three of us were stomping around southern Utah looking for dinosaurs, so I got to hear Jessie and Brian batting ideas back and forth. By the end of our Utah trip Brian had sketches, and not long after, finished art (his post on Mirarce, including process sketches, is here). If you’ve seen one of my talks in the last month or so, you’ve gotten a teaser (with Jessie’s and Brian’s permission), and I know the piece got shown around a bit at SVP, too. You’ve waited long enough, here you go:

Not that the art is the whole story! Mirarce is a legitimately awesome find and Jessie and her coauthors poured a ton of work into the description. I’d tell you all about it, but much more capable and bird-fluent folks are on that already, and I have spinal cord and brainstem lectures to polish. So I’m gonna leave you with some links, which I’ll try to keep updated as different outlets get the story out:

Reference

Atterholt, J., Hutchinson, J.H.., and O’Connor, J.K. 2018. The most complete enantiornithine from North America and a phylogenetic analysis of the Avisauridae. PeerJ 6:e5910 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5910

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The more I look at the problem of how flexible sauropod necks were, the more I think we’re going to struggle to ever know their range of motion It’s just too dependent on soft tissue that doesn’t fossilise. Consider for example the difference between horse necks (above) and camel necks (below).

The skeletons of both consist of vertebrae that are pronouncedly opisthocoelous (convex in front and concave behind), so you might think their necks would be similarly flexible.

But the balls of horse cevicals are deeply embedded in their corresponding sockets, while those of camels have so much cartilage around and between them that the tip of the ball doesn’t even reach the rim of the socket. As a result of this (and maybe other factors), camel necks are far more flexible than those of horses.

Which do sauropod necks resemble? We don’t currently know, and we may never know. It will help if someone gets a good handle on osteological correlates of intervertebral cartilage.

 


[This post is recycled and expanded from a comment that I left on a Tetrapod Zoology post, but since Tet Zoo ate that comment it’s just as well I kept a copy.]

The Sunday after SVP, Brian Engh and I visited the museum in Albuquerque. I was quite taken with the mounted T. rex. It’s waaaay more interesting and dynamic than any other T. rex mount I’ve seen. It even beats the “Rockette rex” in Denver (which I really like and need to blog about), by virtue of putting the body and head down at eye level where you can study them up close.

The only thing I don’t like about this mount is that it has the dumb teeth-hanging-out-too-far thing going on. Why the heck people don’t fix that, I have no idea. Like, even if that’s the way the jaws are molded, cut off the excess and glue the crowns back up where they belong. Or fix the friggin’ mold. It’s not like the problem hasn’t been obvious for decades.

On the upside, pretty much everything else about this mount is awesome. Brian and I spent a fair amount of time working through the muscle attachments and thinking about how bulky the animal would have been in life. The answer is “very”.

Pretty cool to think that a fleshier, more aggro version of this was the last thing that many animals ever saw. And by ‘cool’ I mean ‘terrifying’.

Diverticulum, diverticula

November 4, 2018

This is not ‘Nam. This is Latin. There are rules.

The term for a small growth off an organ or body is diverticulum, singular, or diverticula, plural. There are no diverticulae or God forbid diverticuli, no matter what you might read in some papers. Diverticuli is a word – it’s the genitive form of diverticulum. But I’ve never seen it used that way in an anatomy or paleo paper. Diverticuli and diverticulae as alt-plurals for diverticulum are abominations that must be stomped out with extreme prejudice. If you want to get cute with alternative spellings, Wiktionary says you can use deverticulum. Wiktionary does not warn you that you will be mocked for doing so, but it is true nonetheless.

Stop jacking up straightforward anatomical terms, authors who should know better.

Here’s a swan. Unlike diverticuli and diverticulae, this unlikely morphology is real.

 

Coproliteposting time!

October 28, 2018

I wasted some time today making memes. I blame the Paleontology Coproliteposting group on Facebook.

Of course I started out by making fun of the most mockable sauropod. This one’s for you Cam-loving perverts out there. You know who you are.

This one was inspired by the thiccthyosaur meme, which irritatingly enough I cannot find right now. Oh no, wait, here it is.

I’m laughing through the tears.

For previous adventures in meme-ing, see this post.

In a comment on the last post, Mike wrote, “perhaps the pneumaticity was intially a size-related feature that merely failed to get unevolved when rebbachisaurs became smaller”.

Caudal pneumaticity in saltasaurines. Cerda et al. (2012: fig. 1).

Or maybe pneumaticity got even more extreme as rebbachisaurids got smaller, which apparently happened with saltasaurines  (see Cerda et al. 2012 and this post).

I think there is probably no scale at which pneumaticity isn’t useful. Like, we see a saltasaurine the size of a big horse and think, “Why does it need to be so pneumatic?”, as if it isn’t still one or two orders of magnitude more massive than an ostrich or an eagle, both of which are hyperpneumatic even though only one of them flies. Even parakeets and hummingbirds have postcranial pneumaticity.

Micro CT of a female Anna’s hummingbird. The black tube in the middle of the neck is the supramedullary airway. Little black dots in the tiny cervical centra are air spaces.

We’re coming around to the idea that the proper way to state the dinosaur size question is, “Why are mammals so lousy at being big on land?” Similarly, the proper way to state the pneumaticity question is probably not “Why is small sauropod X so pneumatic?”, but rather “Why aren’t some of the bigger sauropods even more pneumatic?”

Another thought: we tend to think of saltsaurines as being crazy pneumatic because they pneumatized their limb girdles and caudal chevrons (see Zurriaguz et al. 2017). Those pneumatic foramina are pretty subtle – maybe their apparent absence in other sauropod clades is just because we haven’t looked hard enough. Lots of things have turned out to be pneumatic that weren’t at first glance – see Yates et al. (2012) on basal sauropodomorphs and Wedel and Taylor (2013b) on sauropod tails, for example.

Back of the skull of a bighorn sheep, showing the air spaces inside one of the broken horncores.

Or, even more excitingly, if the absence is genuine, maybe that tells us something about sauropod biomechanics after all. Maybe if you’re an apatosaurine or a giant brachiosaurid, you actually can’t afford to pneumatize your coracoid, for example. One of my blind spots is a naive faith that any element can be pneumatized without penalty, which I believe mostly on the strength of the pneumatic horncores of bison and bighorn sheep. But AFAIK sauropod girdle elements don’t have big marrow cavities for pneumaticity to expand into. Pneumatization of sauropod limb girdles might have come at a real biomechanical cost, and therefore might have only been available to fairly small animals. (And yeah, Sander et al. 2014 found a pneumatic cavity in an Alamosaurus pubis, but it’s not a very big cavity.)

As I flagged in the title, this is noodling, not a finding, certainly not certainty. Just an airhead thinking about air. The comment thread is open, come join me.

References

An important paper is out today: Carpenter (2018) names Maraapunisaurus, a new genus to contain the species Amphicoelias fragillimus, on the basis that it’s actually a rebbachisaurid rather than being closely related to the type species Amphicoelias altus.

Carpenter 2018: Figure 5. Comparison of the neural spine of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus restored as a rebbachisaurid (A), and the dorsal vertebrae of Rebbachisaurus garasbae (B), and Histriasaurus boscarollii (C). Increments on scale bars = 10 cm.

And it’s a compelling idea, as the illustration above shows. The specimen (AMNH FR 5777) has the distinctive dorsolaterally inclined lateral processes of a rebbachisaur, as implied by the inclined laminae meeting at the base of the SPOLs, and famously has the very excavated and highly laminar structure found in rebbachisaurs — hence the species name fragillimus.

Ken’s paper gives us more historical detail than we’ve ever had before on this enigmatic and controversial specimen, including extensive background to the excavations. The basics of that history will be familiar to long-time readers, but in a nutshell, E. D. Cope excavated the partial neural arch of single stupendous dorsal vertebra, very briefly described it and illustrated it (Cope 1878), and then … somehow lost it. No-one knows how or where it went missing, though Carpenter offers some informed speculation. Most likely, given the primitive stabilisation methods of the day, it simply crumbled to dust on the journey east.

Carpenter 2018: Frontispiece. E. D. Cope, the discoverer of AMNH FR 5777, drawn to scale with the specimen itself.

Cope himself referred the vertebra to his own existing sauropod genus Amphicoelias — basically because that was the only diplodocoid he’d named — and there it has stayed, more or less unchallenged ever since. Because everyone knows Amphicoelias (based on the type species A. altus) is sort of like Diplodocus(*), everyone who’s tried to reconstruct the size of the AMNH FR 5777 animal has done so by analogy with Diplodocus — including Carpenter himself in 2006, Woodruff and Foster (2014) and of course my own blog-post (Taylor 2010).

(*) Actually, it’s not; but that’s been conventional wisdom.

Ken argues, convincingly to my mind, that Woodruff and Foster (2014) were mistaken in attributing the great size of the specimen to a typo in Cope’s description, and that it really was as big as described. And he argues for a rebbachisaurid identity based on the fragility of the construction, the lamination of the neural spine, the extensive pneumaticity, the sheetlike SDL, the height of the postzygapophyses above the centrum, the dorsolateral orientation of the transverse processes, and other features of the laminae. Again, I find this persuasive (and said so in my peer-review of the manuscript).

Carpenter 2018: Figure 3. Drawing made by E.D. Cope of the holotype of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus (Cope, 1878f) with parts labeled. “Pneumatic chambers*” indicate the pneumatic cavities dorsolateral of the neural canal, a feature also seen in several rebbachisaurids. Terminology from Wilson (1999, 2011) and Wilson and others (2011).

If AMNH FR 5777 is indeed a rebbachisaur, then it can’t be a species of Amphicoelias, whose type species is not part of that clade. Accordingly, Ken gives it a new generic name in this paper, Maraapunisaurus, meaning “huge reptile” based on Maraapuni, the Southern Ute for “huge” — a name arrived at in consultation with the Southern Ute Cultural Department, Ignacio, Colorado.

How surprising is this?

On one level, not very: Amphicoelias is generally thought to be a basal diplodocoid, and Rebbachisauridae was the first major clade to diverge within Diplodocoidae. In fact, if Maraapunisaurus is basal within Rebbachisauridae, it may be only a few nodes away from where everyone previously assumed it sat.

On the other hand, a Morrison Formation rebbachisaurid would be a big deal for two reasons. First, because it would be the only known North American rebbachisaur — all the others we know are from South America, Africa and Europe. And second, because it would be, by some ten million years, the oldest known rebbachisaur — irritatingly, knocking out my own baby Xenoposeidon (Taylor 2018), but that can’t be helped.

Finally, what would this new identity mean for AMNH FR 5777’s size?

Carpenter 2018: Figure 7. Body comparisons of Maraapunisaurus as a 30.3-m-long rebbachisaurid (green) compared with previous version as a 58-m-long diplodocid (black). Lines within the silhouettes approximate the distal end of the diapophyses (i.e., top of the ribcage). Rebbachisaurid version based on Limaysaurus by Paul (2016), with outline of dorsal based on Rebbachisaurus; diplodocid version modified from Carpenter (2006).

Because dorsal vertebrae in rebbachisaurids are proportionally taller than in diplodocids, the length reconstructed from a given dorsal height is much less for rebbachisaurs: so much so that Ken brings in the new version, based on the well-represented rebbachisaur Limaysaurus tessonei, at a mere 30.3 m, only a little over half of the 58 m he previously calculated for a diplodocine version. That’s disappointing for those of us who like our sauropods stupidly huge. But the good news is, it makes virtually no difference to the height of the animal, which remains prodigious — 8 m at the hips, twice the height of a giraffe’s raised head. So not wholly contemptible.

Exciting times!

References