The Shunosaurus tail-club, revisited: spikes, and complex distal caudals
June 21, 2010
In a comment on the initial Shunosaurus tail-club post, Jaime Headden pointed out the passage in the Spinophorosaurus paper (Remes et al. 2009) that discusses the club of Shunosaurus (as justification for positioning the Spinophorosaurus osteoderms on the end of its tail):
With the holotypic skeleton, two closely associated dermal ossifications were found originating from contralateral sides (Fig. 4A–C). These elements have a subcircular base that is rugose and concave on its medial side, and bear a caudodorsally projecting bony spike with a rounded tip laterally. Although these elements were found in the pelvic region under the dislocated scapula, we regard it as most probable that they were placed on the distal tail in the living animal for the following reasons: First, the close association of the contralateral elements indicates they were originally placed near the (dorsal) midline of the body. Second, the stiffening of the distal tail by specialized chevrons is also found in other groups of dinosaurs that exhibit tail armor [42,43]. Third, osteoderms of similar shape are known from the closely related basal eusauropod Shunosaurus . In the latter form, these elements cover the middle part of a tail club formed by coalesced distal vertebrae; however, the decreasing size of the distal-most caudal vertebrae of Spinophorosaurus indicate that such a club was not present in this genus. The right osteoderm is slightly larger and differs in proportions from the left element, indicating that, as in Shunosaurus , originally two pairs of tail spines were present (Fig. 5).
— Remes et al. (2009:6-8)
And this gives the reference that I needed for the Shunosaurus tail-spikes (as opposed to the club) — reference 26 is Zhang (1988), which, embarrassingly, we’ve featured here on SV-POW! in our first Shunosaurus post. Evidently I was so focussed on preparapophyses when I looked at that monograph that I completely failed to register the tail-club spikes — but then, which of us can truly say he has not made that mistake?
Anyway, here’s what Zhang has to show us:
And here’s that tail again, this time from the poorly reproduced photographic plate 12, part 1, and in right lateral view:
It’s apparent that this really is the other side of the distal tail (rather than a reversed image of the same side) because the osteoderms are in front of the club vertebrae in the left-lateral figure, but behind them in the right-lateral plate.
It would be great to say more about these, but the English language summary of Zhang’s monograph is understandably brief, constituting six pages of the 90. What’s not quite so understandable is that neither the diagnosis of the genus Shunosaurus nor that of the species S. lii mentions the tail-club or spikes, which are arguably the most distinctive features. The “revised diagnosis” on pp. 78-79 does, however — just:
Posterior caudals platycoelous, with small cylindrical centra; neural spines low, rod-like. In several last caudals swollen ralidly [sic] and forming “tail-mace”; in addition there are two pairs of little caudal spines, being analogous to that of stegosaurs.
Not much to go on, but something. That’s all, though — there is no further description, and crucially, no indication of whether the tail elements were found articulated or whether the spikes were found isolated and subsequently moved to the end of the tail. It may be that Remes at al. know something I don’t, of course — they might have a translation of Zhang (1988) — but if not, then it’s amusing to consider that the spikes on the tail of Shunosaurus may or may not be supported by evidence, and that the inference of tail-spikes on Spinophorosaurus might be based on dodgy premises.
The other thing that struck me forcibly, as I looked at the figure and plate above, is that the caudal vertebrae remain fairly complex all the way to the end: they retain distinct and prominent neural spines, unlike the distal caudal vertebrae of diplodocids and brachiosaurs. I notice that the distal caudals of Spinophorosaurus also seem to be complex, based on fig. 3H-I and also on the skeletal reconstruction that is fig. 5 — both of which we’ve reproduced before, in our old Spinophorosaurus article.
So what’s going on here? Are Shunosaurus and Spinophorosaurus unusual in having distal caudals that retain complex neural spines? If so, is this property correlated with the possession of a tail-club and/or spines? Is it causally related? Or could it be that this is normal for basal eusauropods, and my ideas of sauropod tails have been too coloured by extreme neosauropodocentricity? Clearly I ought to go and look at a lot more basal sauropods’ distal tails before publishing this post. And prosauropods’, theropods’, ornithischians’, pterosaurs’, crocadilians’ and lizards’ distal tails.
As it happens, the one non-neosauropod group of reptiles whose distal tails I do know something about is monitor lizards, thanks to my adventures with the corpse of “Charlie”. And those caudals do maintain astonishingly detailed structure right to the end of the tail, with even absolutely tiny caudals having distinct processes. Here are some photographs that show this.
First, one showing all 56 caudal vertebrae (the 1st is half in frame at top right, next to the sacrum; the rest read from left to right on successive rows, like words on a page).
Now here are five representative caudals from different regions on the tail — the last ones from each row in the picture above, as it happens: caudals 1, 10, 21, 30, 42 and 56. They are in more or less dorsal view, though caudal 1 has fallen forward onto its anterior face. In this and subsequent pictures, caudal 10 (the second shown) is for some reason back to front.
Now here are the same vertebrae, in the same order and orientation, but now in left dorsolateral aspect (except caudal 10 which is of course in right dorsolateral):
Finally, here are the three smallest of these vertebrae (numbers 30, 42 and 56) in close-up, again in left dorsolateral view, so you can more easily see how much structure even the distalmost caudal has:
That last caudal is about 2.5 mm long.
(It’s interesting that caudals 30 and 42 have those cute fused chevrons.)
So anyway: we know that caudal vertebrae retain distinct structure all the way down to the tip of the tail in monitor lizards at least some basal eusauropods: could it be that this is the primitive state, and that degenerate caudals are found only in neosauropods and mammals? Gotta prep out some more animals’ skeletons and find out!
- Remes, Kristian, Francisco Ortega, Ignacio Fierro, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Jose Manuel Marin Ferrer, for the Project PALDES, for the Niger Project SNHM, Oumarou Amadou Ide, and Abdoulaye Maga. 2009. A new basal sauropod dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic of Niger and the early evolution of Sauropoda. PLoS ONE 4(9):e6924. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006924
- Zhang Yihong. 1988. The Middle Jurassic dinosaur fauna from Dashanpu, Zigong, Sichuam, vol. 1: sauropod dinosaur (I): Shunosaurus. Sichuan Publishing House of Science and Technology, Chengdu, China.