Early Brachiosaurus art

April 8, 2010

Most people think of Janensch’s (1950b) plate VIII as being the first skeletal reconstruction of “Brachiosaurus” (although Janensch’s species “Brachiosaurusbrancai is now referred to the separate genus Giraffatitan).  And it certainly is a classic:

"Brachiosaurus" brancai (i.e. Giraffatitan) classic skeletal reconstruction (Janensch 1950b: plate VIII)

But the reconstruction published in 1950 is modelled on the physical mount of the specimen HMN SII, which not only was constructed much earlier, but was even published as a photograph in Janensch’s (1938) earlier paper on the mass of his species.  Comparing the drawing (above) with the photograph (below), it’s easy to see how closely they resemble each other, not only in proportions but in pose:

"Brachiosaurus" brancai (i.e. Giraffatitan) mounted skeleton in the Humboldt Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin; photograph from Janensch (1938: fig 1)

Yet less well known is that when the mount was completed, shortly before the start of World War II, it was unveiled against a backdrop of Nazi banners.  I have not been able to find a photograph of this (and if anyone has one, please do let me know), but I do have this drawing of the event, taken from an Italian magazine and dated 23rd December 1937.  Since the date stamp is marked “Zoolog. Museum Berlin”, I guess that is the date that a museum artist executed the drawing, or maybe when a copy was released by the museum to the magazine.  Once again, I don’t know, and would welcome clarification.  Anyway, here it is:

So we have a published photograph and a published drawing of a brachiosaur skeleton that predate Janensch’s (1950b) reconstruction, but was there an earlier actual skeletal reconstruction?  Indeed there was: Matthew’s (1915) popular book included what I believe was the first ever brachiosaur reconstruction, and here it is:

Composite Brachiosaurus skeletal reconstruction, from Matthew (1915: fig. 24)

Matthew’s caption to this figure says that it is “from specimens in the Field Museum in Chicago and the Natural History Museum in Berlin”, i.e. it incorporates elements from both Brachiosaurus proper (B. altithorax) and the Tanzanian species “Brachiosaurusbrancai.  And if you’re familiar with the fossils in question, that’s evidently the case: for example, the scapula is clearly based on HMN Sa 9, and the posterior dorsals are unmistakably those of FMNH P25107.  [The inclusion of those dorsals fulfils our weekly sauropod-vertebra picture mandate, in case you were wondering.]

This is pretty impressive work, especially given that it was published one year after Janensch’s (1914) preliminary short paper on the Tendaguru Formation’s fossils.  Since that initial report did not figure the scapula Sa 9, it’s tempting to imagine that Matthew or his artist must have visited Berlin and seen the material in person; but as this was in the middle of World War I, that seems unlikely.  Does anyone know the story here?

And finally, we come to what is probably the first life restoration of Brachiosaurus or any brachiosaur.  It’s the work of Abel, and I found it in Young (1975: page 4):

Abel's restoration of Brachiosaurus, undated, from Young (1975) page 4

Infuriatingly, Young does not say anything whatsoever about the provenance of this restoration — for all I know, it might have been done in 1974 by a talentless artist who ignored the previous sixty years’ work.  But it seems more likely that it’s very early work, and therefore of great historical importance.  Once more (and believe me, I am getting embarrassed at how often I’ve said this), I welcome any further information.

And in other news …

Many of you will have used PDFs downloaded from the O. C. Marsh archive at http://sauroposeidon.net/marsh.html.  That address will become inoperative at the end of this month, and the archive is now hosted at http://marsh.dinodb.com/ — Please update your bookmarks, links, etc.


  • Janensch, Werner.  1914.  Ubersicht uber der Wirbeltierfauna der Tendaguru-Schichten nebst einer kurzen Charakterisierung der neu aufgefuhrten Arten von Sauropoden.  Archiv fur Biontologie, Berlin, III, 1 (1), pp. 81-110.
  • Janensch, Werner.  1938.  Gestalt und Grösse von Brachiosaurus und anderen riesenwüchsigen Sauropoden.  Biologe 7: 130-134, 2 figs.
  • Janensch, Werner.  1950b.  Die Skelettrekonstruktion von Brachiosaurus brancai.  Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3: 97-103.
  • Matthew, W. D.  1915.  Dinosaurs, with special reference to the American Museum collections.  American Museum of Natural History, New York.  164 pages.
  • Young, D.  1975.  Brachiosaurus, the biggest dinosaur of them all. Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin 46(1):3-9.

24 Responses to “Early Brachiosaurus art”

  1. neil Says:

    Alright well I’m bound to eff up these hyperlinks but I trolled Google Books for other pre-1940 depictions of Brachiosaurus:
    Here is another early life restoration from Lull’s Organic Evolution, 1920. The caption says “modified from Matthew” though it doesn’t bear a very close resemblance to the Matthew’s 1915 reconstruction.

    Here is the original (I think) version of the Abel restoration from Lehrbuch der Paläozoologie Abel, 1920.

  2. Andrea Cau Says:

    For those interested, the translation of the Italian page showed is:
    “The skeleton of the largest terrestrial animal ever existed, the brachiosaur, has been discovered by a scientist in Africa, in Tanganika, and, carefully rebuilt, is now visible in a museum in Berlin. The monster, lived in an age believed to be anterior to the origin of man, was long 23 meters from head to tail, almost 12 meters tall. Its neck was long about 9 meters!”

  3. emanuel tschopp Says:

    Thx a lot for the link to Marsh’s papers, I didn’t know that! Nice to start the day with good news :)

    I guess Brachiosaurus-Abel was the same Abel who published a reconstruction on Diplodocus (of which I only have the reference: Abel, O. 1910. Die Rekonstrucktion des Diplodocus. Abh. K. K. Zool.-Bot. Ges. Vienna, 5: 1-60.)
    So it is actually a historic drawing :)


  4. emanuel tschopp Says:

    by the way: I just found this page, listing Brachiosaurus references (including some of Abel…)

    Maybe you can find the right reference for this reconstruction in one of these (if you manage to get them!)

  5. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    Nice finds, especially the Abel one. It looks like it is by Othenio Abel, and thus probably about as old as the Matthew one.

    Abel was the founder of paleobiology, btw.

    Also, I’d like to point out that Janensch’s 1950 reconstruction drawing is much older, it probably dates in its original form from just before or the early years of the war. However, the plates were destroyed twice, IIRC, and after the war the new plates were stuck in the East and new ones had to be made for printing in the West. Still, the drawing is much ‘younger’ than the photos of from the exhibition.

  6. Zach Miller Says:

    Impressive reconstructions, given their history. I especially like the elephant for scale. It looks something like Babar.

  7. Neil Says:

    Looking at it again, it seems that Lull’s restoration owes at least as much to Gertie as it does to Matthew.

  8. Neil Says:

    Another contender for earliest (?) Brachiosaurus life restoration, From Osborn’s Origin and Evolution of Life published 1917. Again he credits Matthew, but there are a few differences in posture from Matthew’s 1915 reconstruction.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Neil, do you have a scan of the relevant parts of Osborn 1917? I would be VERY interested to see!

    Heinrich, thanks for the reminder that Janensch’s publication dates do not reflect the authorship dates! There is a long and heroic story to be told here, which deserves more space than we can give it in comments.

    Thanks to all for thoughts on Abel — if anyone can find out definitively where that drawing is from, that would be a real bonus.

  10. Neil Says:

    Do you have access to Google Books in the UK (I iknow there has been some legal troubles between the two).
    If so, check the links in my comments

    here are the URLs

    Abel’s original drawing from Abel 1920:


    Osborn 1917:


    If those don’t work for you Mike, let me know I can make screen shots and e-mail them to you.


  11. Jamie Stearns Says:

    I do note that Matthew seems to have based the torso of his skeletal after B. altithorax and the rest off Giraffatitan. It’s similar to Taylor’s except that it has a short Giraffatitan tail and the skull appears to be from Camarasaurus, suggesting the Tendaguru finds had not yet turned up any skulls.

  12. Thought I recognised the Abel drawing: it’s also reprinted in Herbert Wendt’s Before the Deluge (1968 translation of 1965 Ehe die Sintflut kam) with the following caption:

    Marsh crowned his lifework with the discovery of such gigantic saurians as these in the Atlantosaurus strata of Wyoming. (After a reconstruction drawn by Othenio Abel.)

    Unfortunately there’s no detailed picture credits, but lots of other Abel drawings are used in the same book.

    Not sure if html works here, let’s see.

  13. Nima Says:

    Nice info on the early Brachiosaurus art.

    I hadn’t known of the Nazi-era connection before. I had heard that HMN-SII was mounted in 1920, not right before the start of WWII. Maybe that’s when the first remount took place (which switched the semi-sprawling arm pose in the old photo – sort of reminds me of Moschops or some other big therapsid’s stance – to the bowlegged posture in the drawing, which had become famous in the postwar years).

    Matthew’s skeletal is especially interesting, given how much detail it has since it is so old. The head is unusual, is that the skull that resembled a Camarasaur skull? (I’ve seen one pic long ago of an Apatosaurus with the “wrong head” that is not the lame sculpted “wrong head” commonly seen in old photos, but one that actually looks like a real macronarian skull somewhat different from that of Camarasaurus). And is the fabled “camarasaur-like” Brachiosaurus skull different from the Felch Quarry skull?

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    The Berlin brachiosaur was not mounted in 1920, no — it took a lot longer than that. You can find details in Gerhard Maier’s fantastically comprehensive book African Dinosaurs Unearthed, which I highly recommend. No remount until very recently, unless you count putting the stored bit back up after WWII, but that was just restoring the original mount in the same pose.

    At the time of Matthew’s reconstruction, few sauropod skulls were known, and the Camarasaurus-like one was as good a guess as any. The “camarasaur”-like skull used in Marsh’s “Brontosaurus” reconstruction was indeed the Felch Quarry skull currently referred to Brachiosaurus sp., but reconstructed very different from how it now is.

  15. Nima Says:

    hmmm…. thanks Mike, that was very informative. I do recall however, seeing old photos of two somewhat different arm poses for the Berlin mount – one with splayed Moschops-like arms, hands wide apart in mid-stride – and one with the classic bowlegged posture with lined up hands that persisted until the excellent remount job a few years back. Up until now I thought that the bowlegged posture was first adopted after WWII, but the Italian pre-war illustration shows it already being in that bowlegged pose, with hands next to each other…

    This photo also from 1937 backs up the Italian illustration: http://www.wvup.edu/ecrisp/jan1m.jpg

    While this one shows what appears to be a more sprawling posture with the hands clearly spaced wide apart and in a stride:

    Here’s an even more alarming old photo of the same Moschops-like sprawl:

    And an old black and white photo of the same sprawling mount:

    And what looks to be an exceptionally wide-gauge Janensch sketch.

    A lot of these photos are in color but somewhat faded brown, which seems to indicate early postwar dates. So it actually looks like it was initially mounted with the bowlegged stance in the Nazi era, then with the striding Moschops stance in early postwar times, then again the familiar bowlegged stance, then the current erect stance. This thing has a strange history, no doubt.

  16. Nima Says:

    Thanks very much.

    There was however a sprawling Moschops-like posture used at some point:

    Any idea when this happened? It looks like an early postwar era photograph…

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    That is the same pose as the mounted skeleton had until the remount a couple of years ago.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    In reply to Nima’s message of April 18, 2010 at 12:04 am:

    Thanks for the links. Having spent a lot of time with the Humboldt brachiosaur mount before the recent remount, I can confirm that all these photos are of the same mount in the same posture — perspective can play funny tricks. I might do a post with some of my own photos of that mount to illustrate this.

  19. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    A photograph from a slightly more elevated position than the Janensch 1938 one you show can be found in another Janensch 1938:

    Janensch, W. 1938: Brachiosaurus, der größte sauropode
    Dinosaurier aus dem oberen Jura von
    Deutsch-Ostafrika. Forschung und Fortschritte 14(12): 140-141.

    It is a pop-sci description, listing all the important details, including measurements of the mount, the claim that it is the largest volume(!) dinosaur (and any other terrestrial vertebrate) mount in the world, and a remark that it was not fully grown.


  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    That is really disturbing. Shame there doesn’t seem to be a higher-resolution version.

  21. iljajj Says:

    The drawing you posted is made by the Italian artist Achille Beltrame in the Domenico del Corriere (of Milan) in November 1937. I’m trying to get the original magazine to see if there is more than just the drawing.

  22. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, iljajj, that’s really helpful. Do report back!

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