April 29, 2009

If you woke up this morning and thought, “Global warming is on the rise, amphibians are in a race to see who can go extinct first, the economy is in the toilet, any day now my boss will discover that I don’t actually do anything at work,  and my blog will never have the eclectic cachet of SV-POW!, but at least Mike Taylor doesn’t have a Ph.D.,” then it is my happy duty to ruin your day. Mike defended today, successfully.


Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present Michael P. Taylor of Ruardean, Englishman, adventurer, raconteur, Doctor of Philosophy in the paleontological arts. Note that when recumbent he is approximately equal in length to 1.5 Sauroposeidon cervicals, and appears to be cradling an invisible wine glass. Don’t stare too long, or you might not be able to look away.

Congratulations, sir! Let the blogosphere ring with the happy news, and undescribed sauropods cry out for recognition.

Update (from Mike)

Thanks to Matt, and all commenters, for your kind words.  I wondered when the “Latin love god” photo was going to appear, and that day has finally come.  What Matt doesn’t know is that this photo was used for the cover of my forthcoming album:

Available wherever good music is sold

Available wherever good music is sold


April 23, 2009


Here's your new t-shirt/sticker/desktop wallpaper. Tell the world.

OMG! WTF? Was I asleep? Had I slept? Did I miss something? Does paleontological training destroy the part of the brain that knows how to use a freakin’ tape measure? Are paleontologists incapable of imagining that others might want to make meaningful comparisons with their taxa? Has phylotardation reached the point where people think the character taxon matrix contains all relevant information? Somebody throw me a bone here–so I can measure the damn thing!

Way back when, I discussed the question, “How big was Futalognkosaurus?”, which at the time had only been described in one fairly brief publication (Calvo et al. 2007). Nothing wrong with that, lots of dinos get described that way, and little damage is done to science as long as the follow-up descriptions do eventually appear (sometimes they don’t). But Calvo et al. (2008) put out a longer description of Futalognkosaurus the very next year, for which they are to be commended.


Thar she blows, Cap'n--an actual measurement! (Calvo et al. 2008:fig. 15)

It’s not all roses, though. You’ll recall that one of the problems with the original paper was that it didn’t include many measurements, and the scale bars in the photographs and the skeletal reconstruction disagreed wildly. I was hoping that Calvo et al. (2008) would include a table of measurements; actual measurements of one of the most complete large titanosaurs would be  invaluable for those of us who are interested in body proportions, neck elongation, mass estimation, and all that good stuff. But sadly the second paper contains no table and almost no measurements; again, it’s all done with scale bars, and since many of the figures appear to be identical to those from the first paper, the precision of the scale bars is hard to determine but possibly low.

It blows my damn mind that a century ago people like Charles Whitney Gilmore and John Bell Hatcher could measure a dinosaur to within an inch of its life, and publish all of those measurements in their descriptions, and lots of folks did this and it was just part of being a competent scientist and doing your damn job. And here we are in the 21st century with CT machines, laser surface scanners, ion reflux pronabulators and the like, and using a narf-blappin’ TAPE MEASURE is apparently a lost art. This vast inexplicable deficiency is not limited to any one working group or country or continent or language, either. Nigersaurus is known from multiple specimens and has been the subject of three separate peer-reviewed papers spread out over a friggin’ decade, but good luck trying to figure out the dimensions of the individual bones.

Dammit, people! Tape measures. Tables of measurements. These are dead simple, cost almost nothing, and add measurably to the usefulness* of descriptive work.

* as in citeability, which none of us can afford to ignore

From now on, when people describe sauropods and don’t publish any measurements, said omissions will be trumpeted here and the perpetrators will be savagely mocked.

You’ve been warned.


With so many offenders, it’s a bit unfair to single out Calvo et al. for scorn. I am glad that they provided a longer description, which is more than I can say for many. And I have to give them mad props because both Futalognkosaurus papers are freely available at Proyecto Dino. But someone had to get the Wonka ticket in the MYDD! lottery, and they won because I’d been so looking forward to the follow-up paper so that I could answer the original question. Someone with a tape measure and a plane ticket to Argentina (or Beijing, or Chicago) could do a crapload of useful science. Sheesh!


Because of my work on the recent Cetiosaurus petition, I’m on the ICZN mailing list.  Apart from the brutally technical threads on specific nomenclatural cases, the favourite topics of that mailing list are electronic publication and in particular the long-term preservation on anything not printed onto compressed plant matter.  In one such recent discussion, the LOCKSS system came up as possible solution, and I found myself replying with what quickly became a tangential rant.  Here it is, in lightly edited form, for your amusement.

LOCKSS is a complete red herring here.  Although the project acronym — Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe — implies that it’s all about replication, the project really exists to keep published work locked up — to prevent people reading it, keeping it hidden away to be opened up only in the event of something catastrophic happening like the publisher going out of business.

The reality, as we surely all know from our interactions with our colleagues within our own subdisciplines, is that everything that gets published and made available in electronic form is already replicated in lots of copies; and those copies are distributed far more widely than a monolithic system such as LOCKSS could ever achieve.  Not only that, but the distribution requires (and has) no funding: individuals do it because it benefits them and their friends.

I know that for-profit publishers have reasons to pretend that closed-access publishing is still possible, but there is no reason for the rest of us to be blinded by that fantasy.  The ship has sailed, the genie is out of the bottle, the can is open and the digital worms are everywhere.  Everything is open access.  Whether a publisher makes a PDF freely available or not, it is freely available to anyone who wants it — that’s the way it is in 2009, and nothing that anyone does can change that.

We can and should plan on the basis of reality, not on the basis of either history or of a publishers’ delusions.

So: the PDFs are out there, and will stay out there.  Assuming that every personal computer in the world and every backup store isn’t simultaneously destroyed (which could only happen under circumstances that left us with much worse problems than nomenclature), what could happen to make us lose the accumulated literature available?  Software rot?

Some people worry that the software that reads PDFs will decay so that all our PDFs become useless. Sorry, but that is another red herring.  It is true that Adobe may at some point stop supporting their particular PDF-reading program, Acrobat.  But that really is not important: the specifications for PDF are open, and there are many, many implementations of those specifications, including half a dozen open-source PDF readers that I could name off the top of my head.  While there is a demand for them (i.e. while there are PDFs), these will never go away — and for the same reason the PDFs themselves will never go away: because they exist in hundreds, thousands of copies — quite likely millions, given that these readers tend to be distributed as part of operating systems.

Again, please understand: it simply does not matter if a particular proprietary PDF-handling program goes away, because the knowledge of how to read PDFs is itself distributed.  That knowledge is in the public domain.  (PDF was recently ratified as ISO 32000-1:2008).  Lots Of Copies really do Keep Stuff Safe, and they don’t need LOCKSS to do it.

So where are we?  We have PDFs, which will always be readable — and perhaps successor formats, which will also always be readable for the same reasons.  We have PDFs-reading programs, which will also always be available.  Both the publications and the software are distributed literally globally on a network which was designed to survive a direct nuclear strike.

Folks, it’s over.  The digital revolution has happened.  There is absolutely no rational reason in this day and age not to accept digital publication; in another ten years, the ICZN is going to look stupid for even having discussed this.  And let’s hope they’re still around in ten years to feel dumb — because if they’re still insisting on paper, they’ll be history long before then.  The Code is afforded legitimacy by the journals only because it serves them; if the Commission lets it become anachronistic the journals will desert it — or, if we’re lucky, they might pick and choose, following only those provisions of the code that suit them.

Let’s not be overtaken by the rush of events.  Eyes open, face into the wind.  Let’s go.

As it happens, Andy Farke has just published a list of Open Access Journals in Paleontology over on his Open Source Paleontologist web-site.  That’s ironic timing since we were just in the process of establishing such a list over here on SV-POW!, by importing Matt’s old lists from his Ask Doctor Vector site.  But better two lists than none, so we’re going ahead and published ours, too — not least because it contains links to individuals’ publication pages and miscellaneous collections as well as journals.  With three of us over here to work on it, hopefully we can keep it up to date: do let us know in the comments of anything we’re missing.  The lists are over here in the sidebar —->

Finally, here is Cervical U of Migeod’s Tendaguru brachiosaur BMNH R5973, informally known as “The Archbishop”, this time in anterior view.  Copyright the Natural History Museum.


Here’s another article in my ‘sauropods of 2008’ series. Previous entries have looked at Eomamenchisaurus and Dongyangosaurus, both of which are Asian. This time round we look at a new South American taxon: Malarguesaurus florenciae González Riga et al., 2008. In marked contrast to the majority of recent SV-POW! articles, this article really is going to be short!

While the majority of new South American sauropods are titanosaurs, Malarguesaurus is a basal titanosauriform. More specifically, González Riga et al. (2008) found it to be a non-titanosaurian somphospondylian, closer to titanosaurs that to Ligabuesaurus, Chubutisaurus or Euhelopus, and the sister-taxon to Phuwiangosaurus from Thailand. Some of these results might seem surprising, as Ligabuesaurus (itself only named in 2006) and Phuwiangosaurus have both previously been regarded as titanosaurs. However, note that González Riga et al. (2008) only found these taxa to be outside of Titanosauria because they employed a restricted, node-based version of Titanosauria that is less inclusive than the branch-based version used by some other authors. The node-based version is closer to the spirit of the name as originally employed by Bonaparte & Coria (1993). Anyway… Malarguesaurus is from an outcrop of the Turonian-Coniacian Portezuelo Formation that crops out in Mendoza Province, Argentina: it’s known from caudal vertebrae, limb bone fragments, ribs and chevrons [image below, from González Riga et al. (2008), shows proximal caudal vertebra in (A) anterior, (B) lateral and (C) posterior views. Scale bar = 50 mm].


Once upon a time it was thought that sauropod caudals were either platycoelous or amphiplatyan (as they are in brachiosaurs and camarasaurs), slightly procoelous (as they are in diplodocoids), or strongly procoelous (as they are in titanosaurs). Discoveries made over the past few decades have shown that things can be much more complicated than this, with some titanosaurs being opisthocoelous (Opisthocoelicaudia skarzynskii for one), and some possessing a combination of different articular types: in Rinconsaurus for example, the caudals are variously procoelous, amphicoelous, opisthocoelous and biconvex. Malarguesaurus also exhibits a combination of different articular types: its distal caudals are procoelous while those from elsewhere in the tail are procoelous-opisthoplatyan*. In fact, the authors regard this combination of caudal morphologies as diagnostic for the taxon: the vertically oriented neural spines on the proximal caudals, with their concave posterior borders, are also diagnostic (González Riga et al. 2008).

* These terms are all familiar, I’m sure. However, ‘procoelous-opisthoplatyan’ hasn’t been used much before, and might in fact be unique to this paper. In fact… the authors cite pers. comm. with a certain Mike P. Taylor for the invention of this term (Mike was a reviewer). It refers to a vertebra in which the anterior face is slightly concave while the posterior face is flat. Tidwell et al. (2001) referred to the same sort of morphology in the titanosauriforms Cedarosaurus and Venenosaurus, but termed it ‘procoelous/distoplatyan’.

Incidentally, the Malarguesaurus paper is another of those annoying pieces of literature that will prove problematical when it comes to citing the date of publication: the paper is dated 2009, but was actually published in 2008. I know it was definitely published in 2008 as I had a final, published version of the relevant journal issue in that year. So Malarguesaurus is a 2008 sauropod, not a 2009 one.


Bonaparte, J. F. & Coria, R. A. 1993. Un nuevo y gigantesco sauropodo titanosaurio de La Formacion Rio Limay (Albiano-Cenomaniano) de le provincia del Neuquen, Argentina. Ameghiniana 30, 271-282.

González Riga, B. J., Previtera, E. & Pirrone, C. A. 2008. Malarguesaurus florenciae gen. et sp. nov., a new titanosauriform (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous of Mendoza, Argentina. Cretaceous Research 30, 135-149.

Tidwell, V., Carpenter, K. & Meyer, S. 2001. New titanosauriform (Sauropoda) from the Poison Strip Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation (Lower Cretaceous), Utah. In Tanke, D. H. & Carpenter, K. (eds) Mesozoic Vertebrate Life. Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis), pp. 139-165.

Quick story: in 1993, Jacobs et al. described the basal titanosaur Malawisaurus based on reasonably complete material from, you guessed it, Malawi. This was kind of a big deal, in that Malawisaurus was at the time the most complete sauropod from the Cretaceous of Africa, and also provided important information on titanosaur skulls. Elizabeth Gomani monographed the beast in her dissertation, and the full description was published in Palaeontologica Electronica in 2005. Both relevant papers are freely available, at least as of this writing, just click on the links above or in the refs section at the end of the post.

I first saw the Malawisaurus material back in  1998 and even CT scanned some it, thanks to the generosity of Elizabeth, Lou Jacobs, and Dale Winkler. Kent Sanders and I always planned to write up the results of the CT scans with Elizabeth, but she has gone back to Malawi and according to rumor gotten involved in the government. In any case, she is out of touch. Which leaves me in the odd position of having some pretty data collected in collaboration with someone who has left the field and is currently unreachable. I’m not ready to do a full-on description of the CT results without some kind of blessing from Elizabeth, but I have decided to stop completely suppressing the info when it might do some good. Hence the pictures of the pneumatic caudal in the new paper (Wedel 2009:fig. 2).

ANYWAY–as always I intended this post to be the soul of brevity but find myself writing a small paper–something has always bothered me about Malawisaurus and I’ve never gotten around to either pointing it out or asking those presumably in the know (i.e., Elizabeth and Lou). Here’s the deal: in the first paper, Jacobs et al. (1993:text-fig. 1) figured “No. 89-78; cervical vertebra, right lateral view” (sorry for the too-small image, it’s all I could get out of the PDF):


This vert is not figured in any of the more recent papers on Malawisaurus, including Gomani (2005). Also, it doesn’t look anything like the cervicals figured by Gomani (2005:fig. 9):


Here are some reasons why No. 89-78 can’t be Malawisaurus:

  • The shapes of the neural spines vary a lot down the column in Malawisaurus, but at no point do any of them look like the tall, squared-off blade of No. 89-78. In fact, I’ve never seen this neural spine shape in any sauropod.
  • The parapophyses of Malawisaurus are long, thin plates, much like those of Sauroposeidon. This is in sharp contrast to the huge and nearly circular parapophyseal stump on No. 89-78.
  • Like many titanosaurs, Malawisaurus does not have big pneumatic foramina (or “pleurocoels”) on the lateral sides of the cervical centra. Instead, the centra are deeply waisted and have lots of little pneumatic foramina, again as in Sauroposeidon (hmm…I’d never given much thought to all the similarities there…). No. 89-78 doesn’t seem to have anything at all on the lateral sides of the centra, at least as drawn, which is not only in stark contrast to Malawisaurus but also to every eusauropod out there.
  • The centra of the Malawisaurus cervicals are proportionally very long and dorsoventrally waisted (meaning that the bottom of the centrum is arched in lateral view). The centrum of No. 89-78 is a straight, comparatively tubby cylinder.

So if No. 89-78 ain’t Malawisaurus, what is it? Gomani (2005) also described the new taxon Karongasaurus based on some skull bits that aren’t Malawisaurus, and No. 89-78 might belong to Karongasaurus or another, as yet undescribed sauropod. But I gotta tell ya, that vert looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The parapophysis in  particular is immense; even most Apatosaurus cervicals don’t have parapophyses that massive. Throw in the apparently apneumatic centrum and the shark-fin neural spine and you’ve got something that I’m not even 100% sure belongs to a sauropod, although if it’s not a sauropod then I don’t even know where to begin. The scale bar in the Jacobs et al. figure is 50 mm, which is 5 cm or 2 inches, so the vert is more than a foot long, which pretty much rules out a non-sauropod identity. I’m lost on this one; your ideas are welcome.

Also, where the heck is No. 89-78 now, and how come nobody has mentioned it in the past 16 years? Or has it been mentioned and I just missed it? Any help here would be hot.