Sauropod neck posture: the world responds

May 28, 2009

[I wrote this in the cafe on the ground floor of the BBC’s Millbank studios, where I spent much of yesterday, just before I headed off for Paddington and the train home.  I have lightly edited it since the original composition.]

It’s been a day spent doing publicity for the new SV-POW! paper on sauropod neck posture.

Two sauropod neck postures for the price of one: Diplodocus (foreground, low neck) and Brachiosaurus (background, high neck) at the Humboldt Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin.

Two sauropod neck postures for the price of one: Diplodocus (foreground, low neck) and Brachiosaurus (background, high neck) at the Humboldt Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin.

Overall, there’s been a little less interest than we were able to rustle up for Xenoposeidon, but we nevertheless got a live TV interview on Channel 4 News, plus radio interviews on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, BBC Scotland, BBC Radio Solent (twice) and finally BBC Wales (which turned out to be my favourite).  In the mean time, Darren was being interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live.  So a very BBC-centric day, with Channel 4 the only independent to take up the story.  (That contrasts with Xeno, when I seemed to spend the whole day doing interviews on the mobile phone for various independent radio stations as I was rushing between studios for the big boys.)

We got pretty good coverage in print, too.  I bought all the national dailies and went through looking for sauropod-neck news.  There was a good third-of-a-page story in Guardian (thanks to their fine science reporter Ian Sample who also did such a good job on Xeno), and smaller spots in the Times and Independent.  The Telegraph, oddly, included a nice photo of the NHM Diplodocus with an inset of Mark Witton’s artwork, but accompanied it with no text other than a 38-word caption. Go figure.  There were brief mentions in the early editions of the Mirror and Sun, although they dropped out in later editions; I couldn’t find anything in the Mail, the Express or the Star — I think that’s everything.  There was a nice bonus in Metro, London’s free daily, which had half a page on the story including a nice big photo of the Berlin brachiosaur, with me by its elbow for scale.

As I write this, I’ve not been able to check on the net and see what the online coverage has been like, beyond a very quick informal scan this morning before I left the house I was staying at for the first radio interview.  I did find a story in the Times that was considerably more detailed that what made it into the print edition, so the same may have been true of other papers, too.  I’ll see what Google News digs up for me when I get home.  [Update: we’re tracking Internet coverage on this page.]

A few themes emerged as the sequence of interviews progressed.  Most predictably, lots of interviewers wondered whether this meant that the NHM would have to remount its Diplodocus skeleton.  Not at all: the pose that it’s in is still a perfectly valid one, which it would have gone through in the transition between drinking and browsing poses; it’s just not what we think would have been the habitual pose.  Paul Barrett was quoted for the counter-view in several of the printed reports, and made that point (though usually it was reported in truncated form).  The BBC web-site’s coverage was unusually good in carefully reporting what we’d actually told everyone, that the mounted pose is one that would have been adopted from time to time, so hopefully no-one at the NHM will come away from thinking we were getting at them.

Another recurring theme was whether Seymour’s blood-pressure argument was good evidence that our proposed habitual posture is wrong.  I didn’t want to say too much about this, because our thoughts on the subject are still in the process of approaching their final form and are not ready to be published, but hopefully I was able to say enough to satisfy the interviewers and listeners without giving it all away.

Another point that I tried to make when given the opportunity is that we don’t see this paper as closing the debate and settling the issue of posture once and for all — as if that could ever happen for any palaeobiological controversy.  What we hope we’ve done is at least to reopen the debate and the end the unchallenged reign of the DinoMorph-compliant hangdog pose.  Needless to say, plenty of work remains to be done on the issue of neck posture, and there are now at least two published arguments in favour of each candidate posture. The time may be ripe for a review article.  For now, though, we confidently expect a published response from Kent “DinoMorph” Stevens, who we’ve discussed our work with at some length, and who has had a preprint for a few weeks now so that he could get working on it!  Ah, the cut and thrust of debate — bring it on!

Update (later the same evening)

I have finally managed to make an MP3 of the last interview — the second one with BBC Radio Solent, with Sasha Twining who was standing in on the Steve Harris Show.

And a plea for help: although the Channel 4 News interview is still available on Channel 4’s own site, I know it won’t last for long — probably no more than a week — so if anyone is able to make an MPEG, AVI, FLV or similar of these, please please do, and send it my way.  Thanks!

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16 Responses to “Sauropod neck posture: the world responds”


  1. Excellent stuff guys. Glad to see some smart media management going on for a change. A few hyperbolic headlines aside it seems like all the news stories I’ve read have done a good job at reporting on this, thanks to all the direct quotes from the authors!

  2. Brian Engh Says:

    I really like your explanation using the carton of milk in one’s outstretched arm. That makes so much sense! S curves are strong and dynamic!! And more beautiful! Hmmm… maybe we find them beautiful because we instinctively know how structurally important S curves are to organic forms…?

    Keep up the great work!

  3. William Miller Says:

    Very interesting – I’m glad to hear that sauropods did hold their necks high after all; I was never that comfortable with the “low necks” theory (high browsing just seemed way too useful for an animal with such a long neck not to develop it), but I assumed the people propounding it knew what they were about.

    As for blood pressure: is there any way to reconstruct the blood vessels of a fossil animal? Do any veins or arteries near the bones leave channels?

  4. Nathan Myers Says:

    Paleontologists get stuck for years on the oddest notions — BAND, skim-feeding, ONP. One might almost think you were all (reader excepted, of course) academics.

  5. Nathan Myers Says:

    By the way… thanks to you guys, it will get increasingly difficult for the rest of us to get a good look at cervical verts. When they were all splayed out “hang-dog” style they were right there. Now we have to bring binoculars to the museum.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Mike and I believe that the solution is to have antigravity pods available to take museum visitors up where the action is. It’s only fair.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Or in the absence of antigravity pods, at least more museums should be prepared to make one of these available to visiting researchers :-)

  8. Nathan Myers Says:

    Matt: I suggest that museums lodge a family of small primates — vervets, say — on their sauropods, each wearing a camera vest, and let visitors (and remote web browsers) flip channels between cameras for best views. Probably they should mount small speakers inconspicuously among the verts that can be triggered to emit calls that the vervets are naturally inclined, or trained, to respond to, both to keep the environment interesting and to persuade them to move on to a more interesting vert — or even (although I understand this is off-topic!) to the skull or ischium.

  9. DDeden Says:

    OT: Does any museum have a full-size skeletal display of a sleeping sauropod? Considering that giraffes will sleep with their head looped over their shoulders, and dogs will warp their long tail around to their snout, would sauropods have slept with head and tail all stretched out or wrapped around into a ball?

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Ah, sleeping sauropods — one of the great unsolved, and indeed uninvestigated, mysteries. I have no idea how to go about looking into this, and anyone who has a plan is urged to tell it to us!

  11. Nathan Myers Says:

    Last I heard, sauropods couldn’t afford the time to sleep — they had to eat 24 hours per day. Problem solved, right?

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    Does any museum have a full-size skeletal display of a sleeping sauropod? Considering that giraffes will sleep with their head looped over their shoulders, and dogs will warp their long tail around to their snout, would sauropods have slept with head and tail all stretched out or wrapped around into a ball?

    In Dinotopia, James Gurney showed a group of sauropods in a barn, asleep on their feet, each with its neck and head draped over the back of the animal in front of it. No word on how solitary sauropods slept…

    Seriously, all large terrestrial vertebrates, including ostriches, giraffes, and elephants, lay down on the ground to sleep for at least a few minutes a night, as Darren documented here. The null hypothesis would be that sauropods and other non-avian dinosaurs did likewise. And incidentally, if a sauropod could get its butt down to the ground and back up again to sleep, it wouldn’t need a WWD-style ovipositor to lay its eggs, especially since they didn’t put that many eggs in any one nest.

    On the flip side, for those big animals the few minutes spend recumbent are a small part of their total sleep time. I assume that sauropods were capable of sleeping on their feet since most big animals are, but I have no idea what they did with their necks and heads.

  13. Nathan Myers Says:

    Mike: I suggest using vervets for that, too. Vervets: is there anything they can’t do?

    It would be fun to watch a recumbent bronto try to get its feet back under itself. A prone posture might be advisable. In the old days we’d just have it wait for the tide to come back in.

  14. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    Stirring stuff! I’d been away from SV-POW! for a couple of days and only noticed these articles when I came to SV-POW! to get its URL (and that of TetZoo) to pass on to a friend who I thought would enjoy seeing science in action. Nice bit of coincidence that.

    Have some fun with the next TV interviewer and tell them that not only did sauropods likely habitually hold their necks flexed as a rabbit does, but that you’re investigating the possibility they also hopped. Should make for priceless TV if you can hold a straight face for just a few seconds.

  15. Graham King Says:

    Surely, sauropods slept vertically: all four limbs wrapped around a handy tree-trunk (the large digit I claw was obviously for just such arboreal climbing: see discussion of conclusive plaster cast), head resting atop the canopy, tail-tip dangling just touching the ground (or flicking nosy predators away.. I figure they could do that in their sleep).

  16. Graham King Says:

    Nathan Myers Says:

    May 28, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Matt: I suggest that museums lodge a family of small primates — vervets, say — on their sauropods, each wearing a camera vest, and let visitors (and remote web browsers) flip channels between cameras for best views. Probably they should mount small speakers inconspicuously among the verts that can be triggered to emit calls that the vervets are naturally inclined, or trained, to respond to, both to keep the environment interesting and to persuade them to move on to a more interesting vert — or even (although I understand this is off-topic!) to the skull or ischium.

    Trouble with your great idea, Nathan, is that they might follow a noted simian propensity for projectile ballistics when faced with an audience, and so start pulling those precious irreplaceable bones off and throwing them down, to shatter on the ground at the feet of appalled innocent bystanders..


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