Last time, we looked briefly at my new paper Almost all known sauropod necks are incomplete and distorted (Taylor 2022). As hinted at in that post, this paper had a difficult and protracted genesis. I thought it might be interesting to watch the story of a published paper through its various stages of prehistory and history. Strap in, this is a long one — but hopefully of interest, especially to people who are just coming into academia and wonder how this stuff works in practice.

Taylor (2022: Figure 9). Sequences of cervical vertebrae of extant animals, showing that articular facet shape remains similar along the column. Top. Cervical vertebrae 3–7 of a mature savannah monitor lizard, Varanus exanthematicus, in anterior view. (The cervicals of monitor lizards, unlike those of sauropods and most mammals, are procoelous, with the anterior facet being concave and the posterior convex.) Bottom. cervical vertebrae 2–5 of a mature house-cat, Felis catus, in posterior view.

It’s never easy to identify when a thing started, but I suppose the first seeds of this paper were sown back in 2004, when Matt was planning a visit to London (to meet me in person for the first time, as it happens) and we were planning out what things we might do during the museum time we had booked. The Rutland cetiosaur was on our itinerary, and I wrote to Matt:

I also wondered about trying to measure the radius of curvature of any well-preserved condyles and cotyles. Are there any established procedures for doing this? (And is the material up to it?)

The answer, of course, is “no”. But that wasn’t apparent until I saw the material. That got me started thinking about all the kinds of mechanical analyses we’d like to do with fossil necks, and about how good we would need the material to be for the results to mean anything.

Those ideas percolated for some years.

May 19, 2011: I wrote How long was the neck of Diplodocus?, in which I considered some of the ways that the neck of the Carnegie Diplodocus is not quite so well established as we tend to assume, and went on to make similar observations about the Humboldt brachiosaur Giraffatitan “S II”.

September 18, 2011: I gave a talk (co-authored with Matt) at the Lyme Regis SVPCA, entitled Sauropod necks: how much do we really know?, the first half of which had grown out of the observations in that initial blog-post. (The second half was about the problems caused by the lack of preserved intervertebral cartilage in fossilised vertebrae, and that half became our 2013 PLOS ONE paper.)

September 20, 2013: I wrote Measuring the elongation of vertebrae, in which I discussed a problem with Elongation Index (EI): that crushing of cotyles makes both their vertical height and horizontal width unreliable to use in ratio with vertebral length.

June 4, 2014: I wrote The Field Museum’s photo-archives tumblr, featuring: airbrushing dorsals. Among other photos, I noted one of presacral 6 (probably D7) of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype, showing that before it was “restored” into its present state, it was a mosaic of bone fragments.

October 6, 2015: I submitted to PeerJ a manuscript based on these observations and others. At the same time, I published a preprint of the submitted manuscript, and briefly blogged about it under the title My most depressing paper. I expected that the paper would quickly be published in essentially its submitted form.

In the following days, the preprint and blogpost both quickly attracted many comments pointing out complete or near-complete sauropod necks that I had missed in the manuscript’s catalogue of such necks.

October 27, 2015 (only three weeks later!): I got back three reviews which were the very definition of “tough but fair”. They were written by three researchers whose sauropod work I hugely respect and admire — Paul Barrett, Paul Upchurch and Jeff Wilson — and they graciously acknowledged the strengths of the submission as well as bringing numerous justified criticisms. It’s traditional in acknowledgements sections to say nice things about the reviewers, but really these were everything one could hope for.

(I disagreed with only two of the many critical points made: one by Paul Upchurch, which we will come to later; and Paul Barrett’s recommendation that the illustrations should use only specimens in credentialled museums. For fossils, of course, that’s right. But the paper also contains numerous photos of extant-animal vertebrae from my own collection, and that’s OK — common — even, in the extant-animal literature. A house-cat is a house-cat, and the cervicals of one are not going to be meaningfully different from those of another.)

Because it had taken the journals and the reviewers only three weeks to get detailed, helpful, constructive reviews back to me, I was now in a position to make this paper a big success story: to turn the revisions around quickly, and maybe even get an acceptance within a month of submission. The time was right: the material was still fresh in my mind so soon after the initial submission, so it should have been the work of a few evenings to revise according to the reviewers’ requests and get this thing on the road.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, I became downhearted at the prospect of going back to this manuscript and dealing with all the criticisms. I want to emphasize again that this is not in any way a complaint about the reviews, which were not unduly negative. I just looked at them and felt … weary. So I let it slide for a while.

The problem is, “a while” quickly became multiple months. And by then, the material was no longer fresh in my mind, so that doing the work I should have done half a year earlier would now have been a much bigger job. I would have had to load lots of stuff back into mental RAM before I could even get started. And there was always something more appealing to do. So I left it for a full year.

The problem is, “a year” quickly became multiple years. I have no excuse for this.

And for six years, this unconsummated project has been hanging over me, draining my motivation, whispering to me every time I try to work on something else. It’s been a drag on everything I’ve tried to do in palaeo, all because I didn’t summon the energy to drive a stake through its heart back in 2015.

Learn from my mistake, folks: don’t do this.

When you get the reviews back from a submission, give yourself a week to mourn that the reviewers didn’t recognise the pristine perfection of your initial submission, then get back on the horse and do the work. Just like I didn’t.

Seriously: be better than me. (That’s certainly what I plan to do.)

Anyway …

Early 2021: I finally got my act together, and got started on the big revision. And by this point it was a big revision because not only did I have to handle all those long-postponed reviews, and all the comments on the preprint and the blog-posts from 2015. I also had to handle five more years of developments. The biggest effect this had was that I needed to completely rewrite the woefully inadequate catalogue of complete necks, which in the original preprint listed only six species. The new version lists specimens rather than species, and very many more of them. To make the list as comprehensive as possible this time …

January 27, 2021: I created my initial draft of the new list as a Google Doc, and posted Towards a catalogue of complete sauropods necks asking readers on this blog to offer corrections and additions. They did. That resulted in a lot more work as I chased down details of candidate necks in published sources and sought personal communications about others. As a result …

March 24, 2021: I posted the draft list as The catalogue of complete sauropods necks nears completion. A few more comments came in as a result, but the list was apparently approaching a steady state.

March 27, 2021: Matt dropped me a line breaking down the listed necks across a basic phylogeny of sauropods, and counting the occurrences. I thought this was interesting enough to make up a new illustration, which I posted on the blog as Analysing the distribution of complete sauropod necks and added to the in progress revised manuscript.

May 11, 2021: I was working on finding a way to measure the variation of cotyle aspect ratios along preserved necks, so I could show qualitatively that they vary more in sauropod fossils than in bones of extant amniotes. I came up with a way of calculating this, but wondered if it already existed. In my post Help me, stats people! I asked if anyone knew of it, but it seemed no-one did. (In the end, the resubmitted paper offered two versions of this metric: one additive, the other multiplicative. To the best of my knowledge, these are novel, if simple, contributions.)

June 6, 2021: In one of the original reviews, Paul Upchurch had commented that a further confounding factor in understanding neck lengths is identifying the cervicodorsal junction. I started to put together a new manuscript section on that issue, and posted my initial thoughts as What’s the difference between a cervical and dorsal vertebra?. This post, too, generated some useful feedback that made its way into the version of the section that landed up in the revised paper.

At this point, I had put together much of the new material I needed for the resubmission. So I went back to the revised draft, integrated all the new and modified material, and …

July 12 2021: I submitted the new manuscript. Because it was the best part of six years since the old version had been touched, I asked PeerJ to handle it as a new submission, and invited the handling editor to solicit reviews either from the same people who’d done the first round or from different people, as they saw fit. This time I did not also post a pre-print — I really didn’t need yet more comments coming in at this point, I just needed to get the wretched thing over the line.

September 3 2021: the editorial decision was in, based on three reviews: major revisions. sigh. Again, though, the reviewers’ criticisms were mostly legitimate, and I could sympathise with the editor’s decision. One of the reviewers of the new version — Paul Upchurch — had previously reviewed to 2015 version, but the other two were new.

Needless to say, more work was required in response to these new reviews, but it was much more tractable than the big revision had been. I added a brief discussion of retrodeformation. I wrote about how we can use phylogenetic bracketing to estimate cervical counts, and three reasons why this doesn’t work as well as we’d like. I discussed how explicit documentation of articulation and damage mitigates their misleading effects. I removed a sideswipe at the journal Science, which I have to admit was out of place. I added a discussion of different definitions of the elongation index. I clarified the prose to make it clearer that my goal was not to criticise how others had done things, but to lay out for new researchers what pitfalls they will have to deal with.

But the most fundamental issue that arose in this round of review was whether the paper should be published at all. I will quote from Paul Upchurch’s review (since it is freely available, along with all the other reviews and my responses):

I have [a] fundamental, and I fear fatal, [problem] with this paper. First, and most importantly, I think it attempts to address a problem that does not really exist. It sets up a strawman with regard to the need to tell researchers that sauropod necks are less complete than we previously thought. However, I would argue that we are well aware of these issues and that the current paper does not provide convincing evidence that there is a problem with the way we are doing things now. To be clear, I am not saying that the incompleteness of sauropod necks is not a problem – it definitely is. What I’m saying is that there is little value in a paper whose main message is to tell us what we already know and take into account.

(Let me emphasize again that this criticism came in the context of a review that was careful, detailed and in many ways positive. There was absolutely nothing malicious about it — it was just Paul’s honest opinion.)

The interesting thing about this criticism is that there was absolutely nothing I could do to remedy it. A paper criticised for lacking a phylogenetic analysis can be made acceptable to the reviewers by adding a phylogenetic analysis. But a paper criticised for not needing to exist can only stand or fall by the handling editor’s agreement with either the author or the reviewer. So all I could do was write a response in the letter than accompanied my revision:

We now come to Paul’s fundamental issue with this paper: he does not believe it is necessary. He writes “The scientific community working on these issues does not need to be reminded of the general importance of understanding the limitations on the data we use”. Here I suggest he is misled by his own unique perspective as the person who quite possibly knows more about sauropods than anyone else alive. Labouring under “The curse of knowledge”, he charitably assumes other palaeontologists are as well-read and experienced as he is — but almost no-one is. I know that I, for one, desperately needed a paper along these lines when I was new to the field.

Happily, the handling editor agreed with me — as did the other two reviewers, which surely helped: “in a time of ever more sophisticated methods, it is good to be made aware of the general imperfections of the fossil record […] I thus recommend the article for publication”. So:

November 11 2021: I submitted the revised revision, along with the response letter quoted in part above.

December 15 2021: The editor requested some more minor changes. I made some of them and pushed back on a few others, then:

December 20 2021: I submitted a third version of this second attempt at the paper.

December 28 2021 (a welcome belated Christmas present): the paper was finally accepted. From here on, it was just a matter of turning handles.

January 4 2022: The proof PDF arrived, looking lovely but riven with mistakes — some of them my own, having survived multiple rounds of revision; others introduced by the typesetting process, including some unwelcome “corrections” that created new errors.

January 13 2022: I sent back a list of 56 errors that needed correcting.

January 24 2022: The paper was published at PeerJ!

Being of a pedantic turn of mind, I went through the final typeset version to check that all the proofing errors had been fixed. Most had, of course. But one in being fixed had introduced another; another was partially corrected but is still missing an apostrophe in the final version. Small stuff.

And then I went through the “things to do when a paper comes out” checklist: posting an SV-POW! article that I had prepared in the days leading up to publication; updating the SV-POW! sidebar page for this paper; adding the new paper to my publications list (and removing the separate entry for the 2015 preprint); adding it to my univeristy’s IR; adding it to my ORCiD page (though if you omit this, it seems to figure it out on its own after a while — kudos!); and skipping LinkedIn, Mendeley, ResearchGate, Academia.edu and Facebook, none of which I do.

And with that, the quest really is at an end, barring this post and any others that might occur to me to write (I have nothing more planned at this point).

Now it’s time to get that vertebral orientation paper revised and resubmitted!

References

Today finally sees the publication of a paper (Taylor 2022) that’s been longer in gestation than most (although, yes, all right, not as long as the Archbishop). I guess the first seeds were sown almost a full decade ago when I posted How long was the neck of Diplodocus? in May 2011, but it was submitted as a preprint in 2015. Since then it’s taken far longer than it should have done to get it across the line, and it is primarily with a feeling of relief that I see the paper now published.

Taylor (2022: figure 4). W. H. Reed’s diagram of Quarry C near Camp Carnegie on Sheep Creek, in Albany County, Wyoming. The coloured bones belong to CM 84, the holotype of Diplodocus carnegii; other bones belong to other individuals, chiefly of Brontosaurus, Camarasaurus and Stegosaurus. Modified (cropped and coloured) from Hatcher (1901: plate I). Cervical vertebrae are purple (and greatly simplified in outline by Reed), dorsals are red, the sacrum is orange, caudals are yellow, limb girdle elements are blue, and limb bones are green.

In this quarry map for the Carnegie Diplodocus, does it seem to you that the vertebrae of the neck (in purple) are drawn unconvincingly, compared with the fairly detailed drawings of the dorsals? Does that suggest that maybe Reed — who drew this diagram years after the excavation was complete — didn’t really remember how the neck was laid out? How well does the textual description of the skeleton in situ match this map? These are the kinds of questions I was asking myself as I started thinking about what has become the paper published today.

In some ways it’s a really simple paper, pretty much summarised by its title: almost all known sauropod necks are incomplete and distorted. It started out as a formalised version of three posts on this blog (How long was the neck of Diplodocus?, Measuring the elongation of vertebrae and The Field Museum’s photo-archives tumblr, featuring: airbrushing dorsals), but somewhere along the line the tale grew in the telling and it’s ended up as 35 pages of goodness. In the process of review it acquired a lot of new material, including: a discussion of how to locate the cevicodorsal junction (summary: it’s complicated); a couple of ways to numerically quantify the degree of distortion along a neck; and a brief discussion of retrodeformation (summary: it’s complicated).

Head and neck from Janensch’s (1950b: plate VI) skeletal reconstruction of Giraffatitan brancai (= “Brachiosaurusbrancai of his usage) mounted specimen based on MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN SII). The parts of the head and neck that were lost to damage are greyed out, including the first two cervicals and the neural arches and spines of all cervicals after C8. Oh, and the head.

I hope this paper will be of use, especially to people coming into the field with the same unrealistic assumptions I had back in the early 2000s. Back then, I had in mind a project to determine the thickness of intervertebral cartilage in the neck of Diplodocus by measuring the radii of curvature of the condyles and cotyles of successive vertebrae — an idea that distortion makes unrealistic. I took the DinoMorph work at face value — something that seems incredible to me knowing what know now. The paper that came out today is basically the one I wish I’d been able to read in 2000 (but updated!)

By the way, when I was fine-tooth-combing the proof PDF a few days ago, I was delighted to be reminded that I got the phrase “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty” into the paper — a reference of course, to the words of the philosopher Vroomfondel in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’ll file this alongside the Monty Python reference in my history-of-sauropod-research book chapter and the Star Wars paraphrase that opens a computer-science paper I lead-authored in 2005.

References

This is super cool: my friend and lead author on the new saltasaur pneumaticity paper, Tito Aureliano, made a short (~6 min) video about the fieldwork that Aline Ghilardi and Marcelo Fernandes and their team — many of whom are authors on the new paper — have been doing in Brazil, and how it led to the discovery of a new, tiny titanosaur, and how that led to the new paper. It’s in Portuguese, but with English subtitles, just hit the CC button.

Previous post:

Reference

 

Posterior dorsal vertebra of the Upper Cretaceous nanoid saltasaurid LPP-PV-0200. Three-dimensional reconstruction from CT scan in left lateral view (A). Circle and rectangle show sampling planes and the respective thin sections are in (B,C). ce centrum, ns neural spine, pn pneumatopore, poz postzygaphophysis, prz prezygapophysis. Scale bar in (A) 10 cm; in (B,C) 1 cm. Computed tomography data processed with 3D Slicer version 4.10.

Well, this is a very pleasant surprise on the last day of the semester:

Tito Aureliano, Aline M. Ghilardi, Bruno A. Navarro, Marcelo A. Fernandes, Fresia Ricardi-Branco, & Mathew J. Wedel. 2021. Exquisite air sac histological traces in a hyperpneumatized nanoid sauropod dinosaur from South America. Scientific Reports 11: 24207.

You may justly be wondering what I’m doing on a paper on a South American titanosaur. It came about like this:

  • I wrote to Tito Aureliano back in March to congratulate him on his 2019 paper, “Influence of taphonomy on histological evidence for vertebral pneumaticity in an Upper Cretaceous titanosaur from South America”, which I’d just reread, and was impressed by;
  • he told me he was working on a manuscript on saltasaur pneumaticity and would be grateful for my thoughts;
  • I sent him said thoughts, with no strings attached;
  • he asked me if I’d be willing to come on the project as a junior author;
  • I said yes;

and a few months later, here we are.

Dorsal vertebra internal structures of LPP-PV-0200. Reconstructed tomography model in distal (A) and right lateral (B) views illustrating subvertical tangential CT scan slices in false color (1–9). Images show that only a few structures had survived diagenesis which restricted the assessment of the internal architecture to limited spaces. Lighter blue and green indicate lower densities (e.g., pneumatic cavities). Purple and darker blue demonstrate denser structures (e.g., camellate bone). Dashed lines indicate internal plates of bone that sustain radial camellae. ce centrum, cc circumferential chambers, cml camellae, hc-cml ‘honeycomb’ camellae, ns neural spine, pf pneumatic foramen, pn pneumatopore, pacdf parapophyseal-centrodiapophyseal fossa, pocdf postzygapophyseal-centrodiapophyseal fossa, rad radial camellae. Computed tomography data processed with 3D Slicer version 4.10.

My correspondence to Tito basically boiled down to, “All the things you’ve identified in your CT scans are there, but there are also a few more exciting things that you might want to draw attention to” — specifically circumferential and radial camellae near the ends and edges of the centrum, and pneumatic chambers communicating with the neural canal, which were previously only published in Giraffatitan (Schwarz and Fritsch 2006; see Atterholt and Wedel 2018 and this post for more). The internal plates of bone inside the cotyle, which help frame the radial camellae, were first noted by Woodward and Lehman (2009), and discussed in this post.

I can’t think of any reason not to just post the notes I sent to Tito back in March, so here you go:

Wedel suggestions for Aureliano et al Saltasauridae dorsal

I may have more to say about this in the coming days, but at the moment I have two extant dinosaurs — ducks, to be precise — smoking on the grill, and I need to get back to them. The new paper is open access, free to the world (link), so go have fun with it.

UPDATE the next day: here’s another post on the new paper:

References

Here’s another “blogging this so I can stop retyping it in emails to students” post. 

Relevant to all anatomy practical exams:

  • Every time you approach a cadaver/station, get your orientation down first. Muscles, nerves, and vessels are always on their way from one place to another, and knowing the orientations of those individual structures is critical, but useless if you don’t take the time to grasp the overall orientation of the body, or body region.
  • Related to the above: draw. Draw, draw, draw. Not only to help fix structures in your head, but (probably even more critically) to get orientations down. For example, in the infratemporal fossa the maxillary artery is going from posterior and inferior to anterior and superior, whereas the big branches of the mandibular division of the trigeminal nerve (V3) are mostly angled from posterior and superior to anterior and inferior. One nice thing: the drawings don’t have to be good; even stick figures are useful, and for learning orientations simple diagrams are arguably even better than complex ones.
  • Think about possible distractors regionally as well as systemically. Here’s what I mean: when people miss items on practical exams, often it is not because they confused one nerve for another nerve (systemic thinking), but because they confused a nerve for an artery, or a muscle for a gland, or a tendon for a duct, that happened to be in the same area (regional thinking). Whatever structure you are focused on learning, be aware of all the other structures in the same area, regardless of whether they look like plausible distractors or not — in the heat of the moment, it’s all too easy to pick something in the same region, even if it’s not the same type of structure (artery, vein, nerve, muscle, gland, duct, etc.). It may sound unlikely in the cold light of day — how does one confuse a gland and a muscle? — but the pressure of an anatomy practical has strange effects on the human brain (MJW, pers. obs.).

Relevant to head and neck anatomy specifically:

  • Think about all the places that the various cranial nerves are visible. Make a table cross-referencing all the dissections and all the cranial nerves, so you can see which cranial nerves are visible in which dissections (which views of the head and neck, once the dissections are completed). For example, if I want to tag the hypoglossal nerve on a practical exam, there are potentially five places I can do that: (1) coming off the brainstem; (2) inside the skull, going through the hypoglossal canal; (3) outside the skull, coming out of the hypoglossal canal, or in the deep neck, on the posterior aspect of the pharynx; (4) in the anterior neck, where it arcs below the posterior belly of the digastric muscle; or (5) in the oral cavity, coming into the posterolateral aspect of the tongue. 

Of course, all of this advice presumes that you’re already doing the basic stuff, like studying actively and spending as much time as possible in the lab. If not, read this and do that stuff, too.

Finally, remember that it’s never too late for good study habits to be useful. Even if you put it off until the evening before an exam, a few hours of organized, active studying (plus as many hours of sleep as you can manage) will help you more than frantically cramming all night.

Science doesn’t always get done in the right order.

In the course of the research for my paper with Mike this past spring, “Why is vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaur so variable?”, published in Qeios in January, I had a couple of epiphanies. The first was that I had collated enough information to map the sites at which arteries and veins enter and exit the vertebrae in most tetrapods. The second was that, having done that, I’d also made a map of (almost) all the places that diverticula enter the vertebrae to pneumatize them. This is obviously related to the thesis we laid out in that paper, that postcranial skeletal pneumaticity is so variable because pneumatic diverticula follow pre-existing blood vessels as they develop, and blood vessels themselves are notoriously variable. In fact, if you had to summarize that thesis in one diagram, it would probably look like the one above, which I drew by hand in my research notebook in early March.

Only that’s not quite correct. I didn’t have those epiphanies “in the course of the research”, I had them after the pneumatic variation paper was done and published. And at the time they felt less like epiphanies and more like a series of “Holy crap” realizations:

  1. Holy crap, that diagram would have been really helpful when we were writing the pneumatic variation paper, since it establishes, almost tautologically, that diverticula invade vertebrae where blood vessels already have. In a rational world, Mike and I would have done this project first, and the pneumatic variation paper would have stood on its shoulders.
  2. Holy crap, how have I been working on vertebral pneumaticity for more than two decades without ever creating a map of all the places a vertebra can be pneumatized, or even realizing that such a map would be useful?
  3. Holy crap, how have I been working on dinosaur bones — and specifically their associated soft tissues — for more than two decades without wondering exactly how the blood was getting into and out of each bone? 

Arguably, not only should Mike and I have done this project first, I should have taken a stab at it way back when I was working on my Master’s thesis. Better late than never, I guess.

I used a sauropod caudal as my vertebral archetype because it has all the bits a tetrapod vertebra can have, including the hemal arch or chevron. This was important, because Zurriaguz et al. (2017) demonstrated that the chevrons are pneumatic in some titanosaurs. 

 

For the actual presentation I redrew the vessels on top of a scan of a Camarasaurus caudal from Marsh, which Mike found and cleaned up (modified from Marsh 1896: plate 34, part 4, and plate 39, part 3c). 

We deliberately used an unfused caudal to emphasize that ‘ribs’ — technically, costal elements — are present, they just fuse to the neural arch and centrum rather than remaining separate, mobile elements like dorsal ribs.

Anyway, I’m yapping about this now because this project is rolling: Mike and I submitted an abstract on it for the 3rd Palaeontological Virtual Congress, and a short slideshow on the project is now up at the 3PVC site for attendees to look at and comment on. The congress started last Wednesday and runs through Dec. 15, after which I’m sure we’ll submit the abstract and slide deck somewhere as a preprint, and then turn it into a paper as quickly as possible.

I’ll probably have more to say on this in a day or so, but for now the comment field is open, and your thoughts are welcome.

References

 

As I was clearing out some old documents, I stumbled on this form from 2006:

This was back when Paul Upchurch’s dissertation, then only 13 years old, contained much that still unpublished in more formal venues, notably the description of what was then “Pelorosaurusbecklesii. As a fresh young sauropod researcher I was keen to read this and other parts of what was then almost certainly the most important and comprehensive single publication about sauropods.

I remember contacting Paul directly to ask if he could send a copy, but he didn’t have it in electronic form. So I wrote (on his advice, I think) to Cambridge University Library to request a copy from them. The form is what I got back, saying sure I could have a copy — for £160.08 if I wanted a photocopy, or £337.80 for a microfilm. Since inflation in the UK has run at about 2.83% per year since 2006, that price of £160.08 back then is equivalent to about £243 in today’s money.

Needless to say, I didn’t pursue this any further (and to my shame I’m not even sure I bothered replying to say no thanks). To this day, I have never read Paul’s dissertation — though 28 years after it was completed, it’s obviously less relevant now than it was back in the day.

What is the point of this story? What information pertains?

My point isn’t really “Look how exploitative Cambridge University Library’s pricing is” — I have no experience in running a library, and no realistic sense of what it costs in staff time and materials to make a photocopy of a substantial dissertation. Perhaps the price was only covering costs.

The point instead is: look how things have changed. Newly minted Ph.Ds now routinely deposit copies of their dissertations in repositories where they can be freely read by anyone, anywhere. Here is one recent example from my own university: Logan King’s 2021 dissertation, Macroevolutionary and Ontogenetic Trends in the Anatomy and Morphology of the Non-Avian Dinosaur Endocranium.

This is important. I often think about the Library Loon’s 2012 blog-post Framing Incremental Gains. It’s easy, if you’re in open-access advocacy, to feel the burden of how ssslllooowwwlllyyy things seem to change. Sometimes I’ve heard people claim that nothing has changed in the last 30 years. I completely understand the frustration that leads people to say such things. But it’s not true. Things have changed a lot, and are still changing fast. We seem to be past the tipping point where more than half of all newly published papers are open access. There is a lot to celebrate.

Of course that’s not to deny that there’s plenty more work to be done, and plenty of other ways our present scholarly publishing infrastructure desperately needs changing. But in pushing for that, let’s not neglect how much things have improved.

Back in June, I saw a series of tweets by sculptor and digital artist Ruadhrí Brennan, showing off the work he’d been doing on sculpting brachiosaurid skulls: Giraffatitan, Brachiosaurus (based on the Felch Quarry skull USNM 5730) and Europasaurus. Impressed, I asked if he would send a Giraffatitan skull, and here it is!

Right lateral view

You can immediately see two things: one, it’s good. (I’ll have more to say about this.) And second, it’s small, It’s leaned up against a stack of smallish coins in this photo, to give me the true lateral perspective I wanted, and those coins (10p, 20p, 20p, 5p) also make a decent ad-hoc scalebar.

In fact, it’s sculpted at 1:10 scale — about 9 cm from the tip of the premaxilla to the rearmost projection of the parietals, implying about 90 cm total length for the skull MB.R.2223.1 (“t 1”) — a figure surprisingly difficult to find in the literature (can anyone help?) but consonant with how big it seems in real life.

Anterior view

At that scale, the detail is pretty amazing. Its not just that the overall proportions of the skull are so true, but the visible junctions between the bones — as for example between the paired ascending processes of the two premaxilae, as apparent in anterior view — but the texture of the bone, including things like vascular foramina for the lips but also just straight-up bone surface. It’s a lovely job.

Right anterodorsolateral view

This view is a pretty good match for what we used in the second Shedloads of Awesome post back in 2008 — in fact, let’s just put them side by side so we can compare more easily.

As you can see, I slightly muffed the photography of the model — I could do a better job of matching the aspect I tried. But we’re in the ballpark, and it’s easy to see from this angle how much the model skull really couldn’t be anything other than what it is. That said, there are a few places where it seems the bone junctions don’t quite match those of the real skull. Most obviously, in the real skull the lacrimal seems to laterally overlap the nasal dorsally and the maxilla/jugal ventrally, whereas in the model it fits in more neatly with both. But I am inclined to think this is not so much a mistake as a correction to allow for poor articulation and distortion in the original — a restoration, in other words.

Here’s a different oblique view:

Left anterodorsolateral view, from a rather more dorsal and less lateral perspective than the previous image.

The story here really is just what an odd shape this familiar skull is when viewed in this perspective, and a valuable reminder that we should all try to avoid getting too suckered in by the over-familiar lateral views of various things. 3D objects are weird. They trick you. That’s why, for example, two scapulae that look very different in photos might actually be very similar in reality: the difference is in the angle of the photograph, not in the photographed bones.

Anyway, moving on from that cautionary tale …

The key takeaway is really just that this Giraffatitan skull is very nice, and it leaves me wishing I also had the Camarsaurus one for comparison … even though camarsaurs are ugly and stupid.

Oh, what’s that you say? You want a Giraffatitan skull of your very own? Well, you can have one: get it from the Scaled Beasts shop!

FMNH P13018 with me for scale. Photo by Holly Woodward.

Some of the Burpee Museum folks and PaleoFest speakers visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago after the 2020 ‘Fest. I hadn’t been there since 2012, and a lot had changed. More on that in future posts, maybe. Here I am with FMNH 13018, a right femur referred by von Huene (1929) to Argyrosaurus superbus (note, though, that Mannion and Otero 2012 considered this specimen to be Titanosauria indet., hence the hedge in the title of the post). It’s 211cm long, which is pretty darn big but still well short of the record.

Speaking of the record, here’s a list of the largest sauropod femora (as always, updates in the comments are welcome!):

  1. 250cm – Argentinosaurus huinculensis, MLP-DP 46-VIII-21-3 (estimated when complete)
  2. 238cm – Patagotitan mayorum, MPEF-3399/44
  3. 236cm – Patagotitan mayorum, MPEF-PV 3400/27
  4. 235cm – Patagotitan mayorum, MPEF-PV 3400/27
  5. 235cm – “Antarctosaurus” giganteus, MLP 26-316
  6. 214cm – Giraffatitan brancai, XV1
  7. 211cm – cf. Argyrosaurus superbus, FMNH P13018
  8. 203cm – Brachiosaurus altithorax, FMNH P25107
  9. 200cm – Ruyangosaurus giganteus, 41HIII -0002 (estimated when complete)
  10. 191cm – Dreadnoughtus schrani, MPM-PV 1156

The list is necessarily incomplete, because we have no preserved femora for Puertasaurus, Notocolossus, Futalognkosaurus, or the largest individuals of Sauroposeidon and Alamosaurus, all of which probably had femora in the 210-250cm range. For that matter, most elements of the giant Oklahoma apatosaurine are 25%-33% larger than the equivalent bones in CM 3018, which implies a femur length of 223-237cm (scaled up from the 178.5cm femur of CM 3018). I’m deliberately not dealing with Maraapunisaurus or horrifying hypothetical barosaurs here.

In any case, it’s still a prodigious bone, and well worth spending a moment with the next time you’re at the Field Musuem.

References

  • Mannion, P.D. and Otero, A., 2012. A reappraisal of the Late Cretaceous Argentinean sauropod dinosaur Argyrosaurus superbus, with a description of a new titanosaur genus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 32(3):614-638.
  • Von Huene, F. 1929. Los saurisquios y ornitisquios del Creta´ceo Argentino. Anales del Museo de La Plata 3:1–196.

Starlings are amazing

October 29, 2021

Back in May, Amy Schwartz posted a photo of a starling that shethat had ringed that morning:

Impressed by the subtlety of the coloration, I wondered what would happen if I increased the colour saturation. I did this very simply: in the free image editor GIMP, I selected the parts of the photo that were starling (omitting the human hand and the background), and using the Hue-Saturation tool I wound the saturation up to 100%. Then I did the same thing again. Here is the result, with no other editing at all:

What an extraordinary riot of colour, in a bird that we mostly think of as “basically black with dots.”

So I thought I’d try the same trick on another starling photo, this one from the All About Birds page on the European Starling. Here is the original:

And here is the result of saturating the colours — this time through three cycles.

So my question is this: can other starlings see all this colour? In their own closed starling-centric world, are they fabulously colourful? Is this something close to what is perceptually apparent to animals whose eyes are attuned to different wavelengths from ours?that