Shedloads of Awesome, part 1: the Humboldt brachiosaur remount

November 27, 2008

We warned you that the Awesome was coming … now it’s here.  The first installment of Awesome, anyway, and there’s plenty more to come.


Matt and I have just returned from a nine-day trip to Germany that was pretty much Heaven-on-Earth for us.  The first three days were spent in Bonn, at the first open workshop of the DFG-funded Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the
evolution of gigantism
project.  Happily, Matt and I were each able to give two talks: his on the sauropod lung and the repeated evolution of very long necks, mine on limb-bone cartilage strength and habitual neck posture.  (There is a lot more to say about this workshop, which was fascinating for all sorts of reasons, but I am going to press quickly onwards because you want to get to the pictures.)

After the workshop proper came a three-day field-trip, which took us first to the Dinopark at Münchehagen, where we saw the quite startling Europasaurus material, then to the Langenberg Quarry where Europasaurus is found, and finally to Berlin, home of the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde and therefore also of Brachiosaurus brancai (at least, since it was dug up in Tanzania and sent there).  Matt and I, and Mike D’Emic, stayed on for two further days after the field-trip’s visit to the Humboldt, to work on the Tendaguru sauropod material.

Soon we’ll show you some of the great stuff in the collections, but for now I want to concentrate on the public gallery.  It’s three years since, at SVPCA 2005, I described this gallery’s brachiosaur mount as “the single finest object in the known universe”, and that was true even then.  But now the glorious material has been remounted by RCI, under the supervision of Kristian Remes, in a more anatomically correct and far more dynamic pose, and it’s better still.  (The photo at the top shows the remounted brachiosaur, with me for scale next to its elbow.  I bet you didn’t even notice me there when you first looked at it.)  Not only that, but Dicraeosaurus has also been remounted, along with the museum’s cast of the Carnegie Diplodocus (standing in for the Tendaguru diplodocines Tornieria and Australodocus), so that the three sauropods together make a stunning display of Tendaguru sauropod diversity.  (There’s a picture of the whole exhibit at the end of this post).  This is so awesome that I have had to revise my previous opinion that the public gallery of the OUMNH is my favourite in the whole world.  It is now an honourable second.

The Humboldt staff were very good to us, and allowed us quite a bit of quality time alone with the mounts, in the mornings before the public arrived and in the evenings after they’d gone.  Not only that, but they equipped us with a stepladder and a pair of arsegravies to stand it on, so it wouldn’t damage the exhibit’s floor covering — so we were able to get close to the material.  Here, for example, is Matt, carefully checking the proximal caudals for [REDACTED], with Dicraeosaurus‘s head and neck in the background:


Better still, I was able to get right up inside the brachiosaur’s torso, which I needed to do in order to measure its girth:


(There was no possible way to run a tape measure across the rib-cage without a second ladder, so I had to drop lines to the ground: Matt marked where they fell, then measured the distance between the marks.  Brachiosaurus brancai is A LOT bigger than Diplodocus.)

When palaeontologists gather around a mounted skeleton, it’s traditional to pick holes in the mount: in extreme cases, you can find silly mistakes like the scapulae being mounted upside down (juvenile Mamenchisaurus casts at the FMNH), but there is always something to criticise.  Well, almost always, it turns out.  Matt and I stared at that brachiosaur mount pretty intensely for three days, and we came up with, basically, nothing.  Kristian and RCI did a great job on it: it’s completely convincing not only as a piece of skeletal anatomy but also as an animal.  It looks alive.  (After a while I did manage to come up with one criticism: the most posterior cervical ribs are too long and thin.  But that’s all I’ve got.)

Finally, here is that whole-exhibit photograph that I promised you.  In case you need to be told, the brachiosaur is the big one, Diplodocus is to the right, and poor little Dicraeosaurus is half-hidden off to the left, behind the big fella.


(Sorry about the glass refections in this photo: it was taken from a room that has been fitted with unopenable windows, so I think this is unavoidable.  Also sorry that the head is out of focus.  To fit the whole exhibit in, I had to use a wide-angle lens, and it distorts the edges of the picture.)

In future Shedloads of Awesome posts, we’ll show you Dicraeosaurus in more detail, some of the Awesome down in the collections (including the brachiosaur skull, if we can find a way to fit something so off-topic into SV-POW!), and maybe, if you’re luckly, some of that Europasaurus material.

59 Responses to “Shedloads of Awesome, part 1: the Humboldt brachiosaur remount”

  1. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    Well, my intestines weren’t blown out my ears, but that Brachiosaurus is awesomely awesome. I’s surprised how the dynamism of the pose brings out the size to me. I guess it is that it makes it more plausible as animal and thus to be judged by those standard rather than that of human buildings.

    Oh, and it’s not just Dicraeosaurus that is “poor little”. Dipolodocus is just dwarfed. ‘Call _that_ a sauropod? _This_ is a sauropod!’

  2. Jaime A. Headden Says:

    Does Remes consider it a positive that the neck was held so vertically? I honestly do not see a vertically loaded neck, given the attenuation of the centra and the highly spondylous nature of their interiors. The neural spines and long cervical ribs simply cannot seem to function in any useful way here save that the neck was horizontal. I think Paul’s swan-neck idea is a fallacy of his desire to make it elegant, outside of any mechanical knowledge, and it would seem the idea is so fantastic that many other people simply replicate it and argue “it’s possible” rather than “it’s probable”.

  3. Zach Miller Says:

    Yes, the Stevens & Parrish papers I’ve read argue convincingly for a more horizontally-oriented neutral neck position.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jaime and Zach,

    It is true that the near-vertical neck post of the Humboldt brachiosaur remount was influenced by commercial as well as scientific considerations — for example, I believe the management were keen for the mount to be in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s tallest.

    However, having looked at that remount a lot from every angle, I don’t find the chosen pose particularly unrealistic. There is one joint (C12-C13) that is probably a little over-extended, but correcting that would still leave the neck very high. (Then again, let’s not forget that the neural arches are blown off ALL the B. brancai cervicals posterior to C8, so we’re flying blind really, with nothing but intuition to guide us.)

    Also, I (and Matt and Darren) don’t find Stevens and Parrish’s argument quite such a slam-dunk as it’s often been portrayed. I won’t say more about this for the moment.

  5. Jaime A. Headden Says:

    I can see flaws in the influence of the zyagophyseal contacts and the true ranges of motion available, but the mere nature of the postures advocated are usually in the upper ranges of dorsiflexion, anyway. The cervicals are elongated in Diplodocus, and despite this it’s not given a vertical neck.

    The brachiosaur treatment started with snorkeling, and now it’s “posh” to illustrate it this way regardless of its habitat. Does that not sound strange? I’d find out posture first before trying to continuously support verticality (like G. S. Paul seems to do) regardless of the conflict. The best Remes could have done was put the neck into a giraffe-like 45 degree-ish angle, but as you say, that would not make for a “world record height”. Sheesh.

  6. Bart Luyckx Says:

    I bet you guys took a lot more photos of this incredible animal. I’ve only seen a rather, in my opnion, bad cast of the berlin specimen. So, could you post some more photos or send some by e-mail so I can get some satisfaction until I get the oportunity to go to berlin myself? Also, I saw you guys taking some meausurements… Is there going to be some kind of report of your studies?

  7. Nathan Myers Says:

    I too find it hard to believe in the erect neck posture without seeing punishingly more-robust proximal cervicals. Actually, it’s hard to see how to hold up the the long necks at all, vertical or horizontal, without Dino’s pressurized ventral air bladders. The heavily camellate vertebra don’t seem organized to resist much longitudinal compression — although I haven’t seen inside the proximals. Has anybody?

    With ventral bladders, the vertebrae would only need to act as a scaffolding to separate the bladders from the dorsal tendons, to provide a lever arm and dimensional stability. The weight, then, would be balanced as tension in the bladder walls and in the dorsal tendons.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oy veh. Don’t get me started on pressurised ventral air bladders.

  9. Jaime A. Headden Says:

    One last thing: The radius appears to span the distal humeral condyles in the mount. Is this a perspective issue and I’m just not seeing the proper articulations due to the angle from the second level here? The forelimb appears overly pronated for the sake of making the manus palmarly-posterior without working out the articulations. I am curious, because this seems the typical way all of the sauropods in the gallery have their forearms artioculated.

  10. Nathan Myers Says:

    Mike: I may be cranky, but I’m no crackpot: a crucial credibility credential.

  11. Nathan Myers Says:

    Mike: I may be cranky, but I’m no crackpot: a crucial credibility credential.

  12. Asier Says:

    Wow! the skeleton is amazing! have you taken hips and shoulder height measures?

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    We did take those measurements, yes. Unfortunately, they are in Matt’s notebook, and so eight timezones away from me. (Nine right now, in fact, since I am currently in Denmark.) I don’t remember the numbers offhand, sorry.

  14. Graham King Says:

    Awesome it is!

    Could you send me casts of those please?

    (kidding. my attic is full enough as it is. er, overfull.)

    Seriously, there has to be scope for some up-market and accurate but not outrageously-priced skeletal models for sale. I reckon in this age of CT/laser scans and rapid prototyping it shouldn’t be unfeasible.

    As well as wanting to get my own hands on such neat things, the availability of such kits would help prepare a whole new generation of skeletoliterate kids and students, and who knows? Young creative minds playing around with bones and articulations, relatively untrammelled by presuppositions, and inspired into deeper dino-musings by hands-on contact, might come up with some fertile novel hypotheses – to the benefit of all.

  15. […] 21, 2008 In view of all the awesome that is the Humboldt Museum’s gigantic brachiosaur mount, it’s too easy to overlook another nearly-complete Tendaguru sauropod, mounted in the very […]

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Graham. What you ask may just be slowly coming true. The Brachiosaurus brancai skull on exhibit in front of the complete mounted skeleton at the Humboldt is not a cast, but a printout of a 3d scan of the nearly-complete skull T1. Presumably there are no technological reasons why RCI, who did the work, could not print out many more copies, including scaled-down ones. The issues will be commercial — I am sure the Humboldt Museum would want to work out a royalties arrangement before such a production line could roll.

    (Sadly, the skull is the only part that’s been scanned so far — none of the vertebrae.)

  17. Scott Hartman Says:

    Not to rain on your parade, but there are several errors, both in the anatomy and in the posture (to find 4 or 5 of them attempt to put the feet of the mount into any known sauropod trackway…).

    That said, I have to agree that it’s one of the better sauropod mounts done to date, and certainly the best brachiosaur. Making a mount that large look dynamic is quite a challenge!

  18. Scott Hartman Says:

    P.S. the skull is not the only part scanned…although I don’t know of any vertebrae that have been. You’d definitely want to hold our for CT scans of those.

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Scott, it’s refreshing to be contradicted every now and then :-) I’m not sure what you’re getting at regarding the position of the feet — they are proportionally closer to the midline than in any other sauropod mount I’ve seen — care to elaborate?

    It’s exciting to think that more of this specimen has been scanned thank just the skull — are you in a position to say more?

  20. Scott Hartman Says:

    Sure, to make the case related to tradckways, being “proportionately closer to the midline” than other mounts is not the same as being close enough; the hind legs are still too far from the midline, in particular the retracted left leg, as the legs do not work in a perfect parasagital plane, but rather get closer to the midline during retraction.

    Also, the manus is oriented with the palmar side facing too directly posterior (it looks to be a result of the ulnae and radii crossing too far distally), not in the 30-40 degrees off-axis position of sauropod trackways. (actually the feet should be a bit more “duck-footed” as well).

    There are a few other niggles, but they would distract from the larger point that, while not utter perfection, it’s an altogether awesome mount. And on that account I am in whole-hearted agreement with your shedload series!

  21. […] that would, some 75 million years later, give rise to familiar giants like Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus (as well as a whole panoply of less-well-known but equally fascinating […]

  22. […] while Matt and I were in Berlin last November, as part of the excursion associated with the awesome […]

  23. […] course, I am not the first to suggest that the African brachiosaurid that we know and love isn’t exactly Brachiosaurus.  Credit for that goes to Greg Paul, who more than twenty years […]

  24. […] It’s the astonishingly complete and well-preserved type specimen of a new basal sauropod, Spinophorosaurus, that came out today in a paper lead-authored by Kristian Remes, previously best known for his work on Tendaguru diplodocines (Remes 2006, 2007, 2009) and for his work on the awesome remounting of the Berlin brachiosaur. […]

  25. Graham King Says:

    Re-reading, I am puzzled by a couple of the comments above, which seem to imply that the more vertical the neck posture, the greater the loading and the more robust the vertebrae would need to be; and inferring from attenuated centra and highly-spondylous interiors of vertebrae that the neck was held more horizontally.

    Surely, on the contrary, a vertical neck would require the least-robust bones and a horizontal neck the most-robust bones? since simple leverage would increasingly multiply the compressive loads the nearer to horizontal the neck was held; especially so for the vertebrae nearest the base of the neck?

  26. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, Graham, it requires more effort to hold a neck horizontally than vertically — just as it’s harder to hold a weigh in your hand out straight in front of you than to hold it up in the air.

    But don’t forget that whatever sauropods’ habitual posture was, they had to be able to move their necks between browsing posture (above horizontal) and drinking posture (ground level), so the necks were capable of sustaining a purely horizontal pose at least transitorily. So whatever support mechanisms we propose MUST be strong enough to handle that most demanding case.

  27. Graham King Says:

    Mike, what puzzled me was not the possibilitiy of horizontal neck posture at times, but the direction in which several commenters were arguing, from the evidence of a lightly-built neck.
    It may well be that sauropods were habitual drinkers.. though it might also be argued that they may have gotten all the water they needed from their diet. Drinking from bodies of open water would be, I imagine, among their riskier activities – as it is for present-day herbivores approaching water-holes – since predators are opportunists, capable of attacking or ambushing them there. Solitary drinkers would be at most risk; groups keeping a lookout (with heads high) while taking turns to drink would reduce but not eliminate hazards (I am thinking of submerged megacrocs).
    Such danger if present would place a premium value on cautious drinking, group drinking, and ability to lower and raise the neck rapidly (and to swallow quantities fast while lowered).

    However, I think almost certainly sauropods would lower their necks and heads at times for other reasons: to browse near-ground vegetation, adjust nest material and eggs, sniff (and regurgitate to?) their young, etc.

  28. […] quite a while talking about how Sauroposeidon was different from Giraffatitan (RCI remounted the Humbolt dinos) and sketching out what the missing bits might have looked like, especially the […]

  29. […] have are from subadults, as shown by lack of fusion between scapula and coracoid in, for example, the Giraffatitan paralectotype HMN SII.  So it may be that their vertebrae were also not fully ossified.  And second, sauropods are more […]

  30. […] noted than on four separate occasions in the last eighteen months, I’ve casually referred to our old buddy HMN SII as the paralectotype specimen of Giraffatitan brancai.  (Butchering a wallaby, photographing big […]

  31. […] But the good news is, Peter’s sense of awe is not misplaced. Real brachiosaur forelimbs are actually not much less impressive than this. See for example me next to the right forelimb of the Berlin Giraffatitan mount, which is real bone — as shown in our classic post Shedloads Of Awesome: […]

  32. […] is one of the many photos from the Berlin visit that was part of the German sauropod working group‘s 2008 conference.  That conference, the […]

  33. […] MFN has a great dinosaur hall – just ask Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel! However, the public is limited to looking at the beasts from the […]

  34. […] Size alone is pretty useless. The mounted Giraffatitan is a pretty damn big animal by anyone’s standards, but it’s demonstrably smaller than […]

  35. […] Now this is pretty darned interesting, because it shows that neural arch fusion in Suuwassea was not a simple zipper that ran from back to front (as in crocs [Brochu 1996] and phytosaurs [Irmis 2007*]) or front to back. We can’t really say, based on this one specimen, what the sequence was, but we can say for certain that the anterior and middle caudals came last. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the scap-coracoid joint is also unfused (Harris 2007), but we know that that’s often the case for substantially “adult” sauropods such as the mounted Berlin Giraffatitan. […]

  36. […] new Sellers et al. (2012) paper on measuring the masses of extinct animals — in particular, the Berlin Giraffatitan — by having a CAD program generate minimal complex hulls around various body regions. Rather […]

  37. […] thing to the Platonic Ideal sauropod vertebra: it’s the eighth cervical of our old friend the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181. (previously known as “Brachiosaurus” brancai HM S II […]

  38. […] brachiosaurids–the Recapture Creek animal, the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype, and the mounted Giraffatitan brancai–that are almost exactly the same size in limb bone dimensions (although B.a. had a longer […]

  39. […] in 2008, Matt and I were at the Museum Für Naturkunde Berlin. We spent some time down in the collections, where we were particularly pleased to see the […]

  40. […] on and prepared a nice, high-resolution multiview illustration from the photos that Matt and I took back in 2008. Here it […]

  41. Thanks for this interesting blogpost about our dinosaur exhibition and a very special thanks for this huge compliment: ” This is so awesome that I have had to revise my previous opinion that the public gallery of the OUMNH is my favourite in the whole world. It is now an honourable second.” That makes us more than proud. We are curious about the next posts about your work behind the scenes. Give us a hint (maybe on twitter @mfnberlin) when it’s published!

    Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

  42. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Julianne, glad you enjoyed it! I hope you also saw the other two posts in the “Shedloads of Awesome” trilogy, on the Giraffatitan skull and Dicraeosaurus. Giraffatitan is a regular on our blog. (Just in case you didn’t know, Giraffatitan is, since 2009, the correct generic name for the species previously known as “Brachiosaurusbrancai.)

  43. […] a great mount, but 99% of all people only get to look at it from the ground up. Lucky ones get to use ladders. I used the ladder to take photos in exactly (as far as I was able to tell) anterior and posterior […]

  44. […] Skelettmontage, aber 99% aller leute bekommen sie nur von Boden aus zu sehen. Glückspilze auch von einer Leiter aus.Ich habe die Leiter dazu genutzt, Fotos vom Rumpf von genau (so gut das einzuschätzen ging) vorne […]

  45. […] part of the reason that every year since World War II, a million people have walked right past the awesome mounted brachiosaur in the Museum Für Naturkunde Berlin without noticing that it has pneumatic caudals. After all, we […]

  46. […] would have done! But in the end it fell to the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin to give us the world’s first three-sauropod combo (unless someone knows of an earlier […]

  47. Just a side comment about the glass reflection: as glass reflection light is polarized, you should be able to almost completely remove it in your next photographs by a using a good polaroid filter. This will cost you a small fraction of the available light, but nothing that cannot be compensated by a greater time of exposure.

  48. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, I’ll put that on the Things To Look Into list.

  49. […] When Gilles says “most of the skeleton of the [Berlin] mount was not original but it was not cast either”, I assume he’s referring to the presacral vertebrae, which as Janensch explained in his 1950 paper about that mount were too heavy and fragile to mount. The sculptures in Janensch’s mount were not particularly good, but they have been replaced by much better ones in the remount. […]

  50. […] (formerly known as HMN SII), the paralectotype of Giraffatitan brancai, which is the basis of the awesome mounted skeleton in […]

  51. […] represented, essentially complete specimen such as MB.R.2181 (previously known as HM S II), the giant mounted skeleton in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Peer-reviewed published estimates of the mass of that one individual have varied between 13,618 […]

  52. […] In my recent preprint on the incompleteness and distortion of sauropod neck specimens, I discuss three well-known sauropod specimens in detail, and show that they are not as well known as we think they are. One of them is the Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2181 (more widely known by its older designation HMN SII), the specimen that provides the bulk of the mighty mounted skeleton in Berlin. […]

  53. […] the holotype of Brachiosaurus mounted in Chicago, and MB.R.2181, the lectotype of Giraffatitan mounted in Berlin. And histological sampling suggests that most recovered sauropods were still growing (Klein and […]

  54. […] in the Dinosaur Hall, the mounts my esteemed colleagues M&M (Matt and Mike) called “a shedload of awesome“.  The reasons are fairly straightforward and simple: due to digiS 2015 we now […]

  55. […] realised one good way to picture it is next to the entire mounted skeleton of Giraffatitan at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. That skeleton is 13.27 m tall. At 17 m, the giant barosaur […]

  56. […] the enormous amount of help I’ve had from Heinrich Mallison, digitizer extraordinaire at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. He’s invested many, many hours building models for me from my photos, pointing me to […]

  57. […] the post is of Giraffatitan dorsal vertebrae in a case at the MfN Berlin, from Mike’s and my visit with the DfG 533 group back in late 2008. I picked that photo so I could make the following dumb […]

  58. […] the British Museum (Natural History) back in 1930, from the same Tendaguru Formation that yielded the awesome Giraffatitan specimens in the Museum für Naturkunde […]

  59. […] the day I visited the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and actually, you know, looked at the big mounted Giraffatitan skeleton in the atrium. And this is what I […]

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