Behold the righteous wrath of SV-POW!

March 22, 2009

Isn’t this a beauty?

Alleged "Diplodocus dorsal bone", posterior view

Alleged "Diplodocus dorsal bone", posterior view

What is it, you ask?   We will never know.  A friend of mine pointed me to a forthcoming fossil auction by I. M. Chait, and as I scrolled through all the crappy ornithopod skeletons and suchlike, my eye was caught by this bone, described as a “Diplodocus dorsal bone”, from the Bone Cabin quarry in Wyoming.  “The dorsal bone most likely came from close to the back of the head[?!]”.

Whatever it is, it ain’t Diplodocus: the metapophyses are too low, the intraspinal trough is not deep enough, the diapophyses are too high up, they’re laterally rather than ventrolaterally inclined, the hyposphene is way too big and too triangular, the centrum is subquadrangular rather than ovoid, the centropostzygapophyseal laminae are absent … I could go on.  If you don’t believe me, here is the complete set of Dipodocus carnegii dorsals, from Hatcher (1901: plate VIII): posterior to anterior running from left to right; anterior, posterior and right lateral views from top to bottom.


Hatcher 1901, plate XIII: dorsal vertebrae of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84

Not even close.

So what actually is the for-sale vertebra?  Of course there is only so much you can say from a single photograph, but it looks very much as though this is something new, as yet undescribed.  Unknown to science, in fact.  I say that largely because of the those bizarre dorsolaterally oriented struts which extend from the sides of the neural arch to meet and merge with the diapophyses.  I don’t recall ever having seen anything like that.  In general proportions, too, this vertebra is distinctly odd.

Unknown to science it is, and unknown to science it will remain — if, as seems likely, some rich idiot buys this as a trophy to sit on his cocktail bar.  Hence the righeous fury alluded to in the title: so far as the wider world is concerned, so far as our understanding of Morrison Formation ecological diversity is concerned, so far as our understanding of sauropod disparity is concerned, this vertebra might just as well have stayed in the ground.


If anyone reading this blog is a rich benefactor, then just maybe this vert could be rescued: bought by someone who appreciates its scientific significance, and donated to an accredited museum, where it can be properly reposited and scientifically studied.  So if any of you out there have $5000 to spare and fancy a decent chance at getting a sauropod named after you, you know what to do.

I’ve hestitated about publishing this post, because of the danger that it will become sufficiently widely known to push the price up.  The last thing I want is to make more money for the fossil dealers responsible for taking this thing out of the hands of scientists.  But I figured it’s worth the risk.  Let’s hope I’m right.

[To be absolutely clear: I. M. Chait did not solicit me to write this, neither do they even know about it, and I am pretty sure they would not be happy about it if they did.]


  • Hatcher, Jonathan Bell.  1901.  Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton.  Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum, 1: 1-63 and plates I-XIII.

Update (23 March 2009)

We have heard from an SV-POW! reader who is looking into buying this specimen and donating it to a museum.  Which would be awesome.  (I won’t mention his or her name at this stage until he or she authorises me to do so.)  That being so, please no-one else try the same thing — we last thing we want is for two readers to get into a bidding war!

26 Responses to “Behold the righteous wrath of SV-POW!”

  1. Abyssal Says:

    Have you tried alerting the guy who’s trying to sell it? He may not have any idea that it has any significance.

  2. clheiny Says:

    Do you happen to have a link to the auction, so the rest of us don’t have to go scrounging about on the Chait website?

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Sorry, clheiny, I thought I’d put a link in the article, but it looks like I didn’t. Now fixed.

    Abyssal, I have no idea how to track the seller, an don’t want to go wading in that world even if I did. On top of all that, if I alerted the current owner to the specimen’s scientific significance, he or she might well just jack up the price even further, making it even more unlikely that the specimen will end up as a trophy rather than the subject of study. I tell you, it’s a minefield.

  4. Abyssal Says:

    I totally get where you’re coming from, Mike. I’ve alerted the DML to the matter, see if anyone there knows anything or has any ideas. Maybe if it does get sold, the new owner would allow someone qualified to examine it?

    Then again, the specimen being privately owned might be a barrier to publication from the journal’s side, right? It may be a minefield, but we shouldn’t idly tolerate the loss of a new sauropod. To do so would make us little better than the seller.

  5. Michael Says:

    Could you perhaps look at this situation in a slightly different way? Suppose that a potential buyer DOES read this post, learns that the item might represent a new genus or species, and really splurges on it. Wouldn’t that proud new owner be even happier if he could point to an article describing his fossil, and explaining why it is so special? Why not contact the buyer and offer — for FREE! — to spend several days studying it, with a technical article (and a non-techical web post) to follow?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Abyssal, if the vertebra was sold to a private owner, that would DEFINITELY bar it from publication in a reputable venue such as a JVP, and rightly so. Unless a specimen is properly reposited in an accredited museum, access to it can’t be guaranteed, and any work that I or anyone else did on it couldn’t be validated or rebutted by subsequent workers. (Or it might be possible, depending on the owner’s mood, but the point is that it couldn’t be guaranteed.) The only way for a private individual to do this right is to buy the specimen and give it to a museum.

    And, Michael, the same response applies to your comment. If a putative buyer insisted on holding on to it, then it couldn’t be described in a reputable journal. If he or she donates it, then everything changes.

  7. Jaime A. Headden Says:

    Mike, I understand your concern. I do understand that Chait’s dryosaur fossil had to have been in some private conversation, and the collection MUST have considered less money for the sake of the purchasing museum. I wish it were lower, but whatever. On your behalf (or rather, on the behalf of science), I emailed Chait’s gallery email, so I am not sure if there will be any result:

    Dear sir,

    In regards to your lot #248, currently a “DIPLODOCUS DORSAL BONE,” you have presented us with something that appears to be fairly unique in regards to similar fossils. We do not know if this is new to science, and we cannot understand its import as many scientists are unwilling or unable to study this material as their hands are tied by the potential to publish on a privately held fossil, or even to study it since their institutions will not pay for the ability to see the fossil in the first place.

    Yet this fossil presents us with an enigma, and in the interests of progressive science, I would ask you, I. M. Chait, sir, or your responsive representative, to consider with all due concern the ability to allow this material to go to a public institution for a lower fee, something nominal and guestural, especially in the low, declining state of our economy. Such a specimen provides the ability for public institutions to publish, publicize, and make money by providing children and adults with the escape and interest in the natural world, as well as the publicity that this might bring you, the presenter. Most certainly, museums such as the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum have been cutting back on their ability to entertain the public, and such attention may help provide some moments of peace and inspiration to our public, and can certainly do no harm to YOUR repution.

    So I prevail upon your good nature and request that for whatever low fee you’d offered this fossil to anyone, that you do so again and for lower, such that a good, public museum can present this specimen to the public, and that it can be instrumental to science as a whole in describing our natural world.

  8. Michael Says:

    At the risk of taking this discussion off in a new direction, Mike Taylor’s note

    Unless a specimen is properly reposited in an accredited museum, access to it can’t be guaranteed, and any work that I or anyone else did on it couldn’t be validated or rebutted by subsequent workers.

    This implies that any item in an accredited museum must be accessible to any scientist. Is that really true? I mean, sure, it might be true in theory, but is it really true in practice? Can you write to any accredited museum and arrange (demand?) a time to examine any of their materials? Or do politics occasionally intervene?

    I’m not a paleontologist, but a scientist in a different field, and I’d be surprised, but pleasantly so, to learn that museum administrators are so accommodating.

  9. Kwan Says:

    @Michael: “Can you write to any accredited museum and arrange (demand?) a time to examine any of their materials? Or do politics occasionally intervene?”

    No, you can’t. I’ve tried. Politics almost always intervenes. You generally must belong to the elite club that sets the rules. The fossils held “in the public trust” are generally not allowed to be examined by the unwashed masses.

    Frankly, the cynical and elitist attitude expressed here by Michael does far more harm than good. The commercial collectors who own the sauropod in question are actually very accommodating and a number of their finds are published in respected journals. They have often donated valuable specimens to museums worldwide. If someone actually bothers to approach them in a friendly way it is very likely they would DONATE the vertebra, just as they have done with other specimens. Treating them like peasants will just ensure that what they find stays in private hands.

  10. Matt Christopher Says:

    I’m not 100% sure, but it looks like a sub-adult camarasaur to me, probably #2ish based on the big hyposphene.

  11. Bill Parker Says:

    Check this story out. Same auction, different fossils. No wrod here on the fate of the vertebra.

  12. David Hone Says:

    In reply to Michael this is true in theory and largely ture in practice. Anyone with with a legitamate scientific reason can in theory demand, and get, access to any specimen in a reputable museum.

    In practice it’s not always possible if the material is on loan, being reprepared / fixed / cast, is on disaply, or being studied by someone else. There are those who also do not play by the rules and deny reasonable access for no reason at all, or indeed made up reasons, but these are few and far between.

  13. Jaime A. Headden Says:

    Some institutions and some publications do ask that the material published by their researchers or are published in their pages be publically available. This should especially be true of type bearing material, as this material must be available for other researchers to update and contradict, should it be necessary.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Michael, I can only tell you that I have never been denied access to a specimen in a legitimate museum. Maybe Matt and Darren can say whether they ever have. I have on one or two reasons been told I would have to wait before getting access, for the reasons David mentions — loans, re-preparation, etc. — but in every case, I saw the material I wanted to see pretty soon. Not only that, but in many cases, museums have been fantastically accommodating in helping me to see what I need: for example, at least three museums have given me stepladders so I can get up close to the presacrals on mounts; the Field Museum dismantled a display cabinet so that Matt and I could get at the Brachiosaurus type humerus, and sent me up in a mobile cherry-picker so I could examine the dorsal surfaces of the presacrals of their Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis holotype cast — see

    (I do know of one museum that routinely denies access to legitimate researchers, but that is very much an isolated counterexample — and I would certainly never encourage private collectors to donate their specimens to that museum.)

    Kwan, I am interested that your experience seems so different. Maybe you could tell us a bit more about what material you wanted to see, and why you were told you couldn’t have access?

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Matt Christopher: I agree that it’s less unlike a camarasaur than it is unlike a diplodocid, but it’s still significantly different from Camarasaurus as I know it, and from (for example) what’s figured by Osborn and Mook (1921: plates LXX-LXXIII).

    … whatever “Camarasaurus” means …

    By the way, it’s odd that in three of those four dorsal sequences figure by O&M, D2 is totally missing, and in the other one it’s represented only by a fragment. Did camarsaurs have unusually delicious second dorsals that scavengers just couldn’t resist?

  16. Scott Hartman Says:

    I can say that once or twice I was denied access to a specimen that was undergoing research by another paleontologist (unbeknownst to me), but while this could be described as “politics” it’s also fair and not-terribly-elitist. After all, how would you feel if you’d spent 3 years working on a giant monograph just to have a talking-point scooped by someone who showed up at the end and ripped off a quick note on the same specimen?

    Mike, FWIW there are some similarities between that specimen and one collected in Montana (not described) that is thought by some to be a new camarasaurid species. Alas, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Montana specimen either. :(

  17. tracie Says:

    Guess What?
    There is a web site to publish privately held fossil specimens.
    They don’t have to be “lost to science and the world.” Just because it’s not in a public repository doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
    I think it’s time for some collaboration and cooperation between both sides.
    Check it out and let the world know about the pieces and parts you have sitting on YOUR shelves.

  18. David Hone Says:

    It doesn’t mean they don’t exist Tracie, but equally it doesn’t mean we can necessarily get access to them. We would have to take anything said about them on trust and follow up research would not necessarily be possible. This makes them just as unhelpful as if they did not exist, or indeed even worse, since there could be wild speculation and unsupported concepts based on unavailable material.

    Unless the own can absolutely gaurantee access to researchers effectively for eternity (not only will he allow access, but also whoever has the material after his death, and their deaths ad infinitum) then it is not good enough. That can only be done in a museum right now.

  19. […] and are often more concerned with how much money a specimen can make. (As the fellows at SV-POW! remind us, this can keep new and significant specimens beyond the reach of […]

  20. DinoHunter Says:

    Abyssal, if the vertebra was sold to a private owner, that would DEFINITELY bar it from publication in a reputable venue such as a JVP, and rightly so. Unless a specimen is properly reposited in an accredited museum, access to it can’t be guaranteed, and any work that I or anyone else did on it couldn’t be validated or rebutted by subsequent workers. (Or it might be possible, depending on the owner’s mood, but the point is that it couldn’t be guaranteed.) The only way for a private individual to do this right is to buy the specimen and give it to a museum.<<

    Not necessarily, there are several type fossil fish specimens that are in private hands and have been named and published in peer reviewed papers, so it is possible that the specimen could be written up and published, so I wouldn’t out right say it wouldn’t happen.

  21. DinoHunter Says:

    Michael, I can only tell you that I have never been denied access to a specimen in a legitimate museum. <<

    I have been denied. So it does happen.

  22. UZUMAKI Says:

    Awesome blog, mate!

  23. Nima Says:

    I don’t think this is either a Diplodocid or a Camarasaur. And even the claim that it’s from Bone Cabin Quarry sounds suspicious.

    Of course without some side shots it’s too hard to tell what it is, but based on the triangular diapophyses I have a hunch it could be a very early Titanosaur (think Janenschia). Or it may be a totally new family. How does this thing compare to Haplocanthosaurus doesals?

  24. Mike Taylor Says:


    Why does the claim that the verterbra is from Bone Cabin sound suspicious?

  25. tracie Says:

    In response to some earlier comments, of course commmercial collectors want to be reimbursed for their time and materials collecting, preparing and mounting specimens. Fair market value determines the price of the specimen, and hopefully this covers those out of pocket expenses for the company. Also, many of the commercial dealers are members of AAPS. Their code of ethics states that “Strive to place specimens of unique scientific interest into responsible hands for study, research and preservation.” Hmmmm, just like SVP. So, no, it’s not all about the money. And yes, you can post privately owned specimens in the AAPS journal with peer review just like SVP.

  26. Nima Says:

    It’s suspicious because there’s no telling where the bone actually came from. We don’t know what it is, or who exactly found it, etc. If they mislabel it as Diplodocus, they might also have the location wrong…. of course they had to say it’s from somewhere, to make the sell more attractive. For all I know maybe it DID come from Bone Cabin. Maybe not. But there’s no field notes from paleontologists on this thing… BTW does this thing looks like a diplodocid or a macronarian to you?

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