169 years of sauropod research in 26 pages

October 11, 2010

You may remember that when I wrote about Amphicoelias diplobrontobarowassea the other day, I rather ungraciously complained that “I don’t want to talk about that.  There are other things I do want to talk about”.  Well, with A. suuwatorneriosaurodocus now firmly dealt with, I can talk about what I wanted to — which is Taylor (2010), a little number that I like to call Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review.  You can download the PDF from my website (more on that subject next time) and get the high-resolution versions of the figures separately if you wish.

Taylor 2010:fig. 3. Early reconstructions of Camarasaurus. Top: Ryder’s 1877 reconstruction, the first ever made of any sauropod, modified from Osborn & Mook (1921, plate LXXXII). Bottom: Osborn & Mook’s own reconstruction. modified from Osborn & Mook (1921, plate LXXXIV).

It’s a comprehensive history of research into sauropod dinosaurs, starting in 1831 with the genera Cardiodon and Cetiosaurus, and bringing us right up to 2008 (which is when the paper was accepted — see below).  I cover this history in five stages:

  • Stage 1: early studies, isolated elements (1841-1870)
  • Stage 2: the emerging picture (1871-1896)
  • Stage 3: interpretation and controversy (1897-1944)
  • Stage 4: the dark ages (1945-1967)
  • Stage 5: the modern renaissance (1968-present)

You could say the the main part of the story begins with Phillips’s (1871) description of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis, the first reasonably complete sauropod, and really kicks into gear with the Marsh-Cope bone wars, but there are plenty of twists and turns between then and now, including — finally — the publication of the table of brachiosaur mass-estimates that I alluded to back in Xenoposeidon week.  [Executive summary: published estimates for the single individual HMN SII have varied by a factor of 5.75.  Wow.]

History of the history paper

This paper had its genesis in the one-day conference convened at the Geological Society of London on 6 May 2008.  [Announcement on Tetrapod Zoology; Tet Zoo report part 1 and part 2].  The extended abstract of my talk has been on my web-site for a long time, and was included in the rather handsome abstracts volume of the conference — which has now been superseded by the proceedings volume containing the full-length papers of which mine is one.

We’d been told to prepare 30-minute talks — a much heftier slot than the 20 minutes we get at SVPCA (or indeed the 15 allowed at SVP, though I wouldn’t know what that’s like as I have never, ever managed to get a talk accepted there).  I tend to move very quickly through my talks anyway, so I prepared a monster presentation of  76  slides (plus another 11 that I had to cut from the talk, but which I left hanging around at the end of the slideshow).  By the way, this is the very talk that my wife, Fiona, fell asleep in the middle of while I was rehearsing it at her.

So I’d prepared a thirty-minute talk that used every second of every minute.  Then on the day of the conference itself, they handed out the schedules, and … the talks were down to twenty-five minutes.  Arrrgh!  I had absolutely no fat to trim in my thirty minutes, so all I could do was talk even faster, and keep going when I reached the 25-minute mark.

Me giving my sauropod-history talk on 6 May 2008 with, apparently, only Eric Buffetaut in the audience. (It was better attended that it seems from this picture!) Photograph by Luis Rey.

So there I was, talking about how Russell and Zheng (1993) pioneered the use of cladistics in sauropod systematics, when the session moderator — our very own Darren Naish — started trying to wave me off the podium.  By the time I was talking about Sander’s (2000) work on the long-bone histology of Tendaguru-Formation sauropods, Darren was edging on to the stage, trying to bring my talk to an end by making moves for the microphone, while I was talking faster and faster in manner more than a little reminiscent of Monty Python’s microphone-stealing sketch.

Poor Darren.  I actually don’t quite recall how things ended up, but as far as I know I got through all my slides before being persuaded to retire, and here for your edification is the Conclusions slide.

Anyway, with the conference over, all of us who’d given talks were invited to contribute papers to a proceedings volume, and that’s what’s just come out.  (According to the Geological Society’s own page, the book won’t be available to buy until 19 November, but all the PDFs are available to download to those who have the relevant access rights.)

Is my paper worth reading?  For seasoned palaeontologists, much of what I cover is going to be familiar ground, though I hope most people will find one or two nuggets of interesting new information in there.  But perhaps it will be most useful as a primer for people new to the field, or first approaching sauropods having previously worked on other groups.

Edited volumes vs. journals

You know how some with papers, you submit them, they go through review and then … nothing?  I’ve heard horror stories of papers that have been in press for ten years or more, and I am relieved to say that I’ve never experienced that kind of delay.  But the reviewed, revised and resubmitted version of my sauropod-history manuscript was accepted and in press as of January 2009, so this has been the best part of two years coming.

I think this is pretty much standard for edited volumes, because they are basically stalled until all the contributing authors have got their jobs done.  To be fair to the Geological Society, who were the publishers in this case, I think they’ve done a nice job on the layout, and they got all my proof corrections done.  But still: nearly two years in press is a looong time.  And the end result is that the paper is in a book that most people will consider very expensive — $190 at amazon.com£95 at amazon.co.uk — which means that fewer people will read it than I would like.  (I will talk more about the price in a subsequent post.)

So would I do it again?  This paper is my first contribution to an edited volume, and although I’m pleased to have done it this time, I think it will take a particularly special opportunity for me to do it again: a book that I wouldn’t want not to be in, such as another of the all-sauropods-all-the-time volumes that glutted our shelves in the glorious year of 2005.

Taylor 2010:fig. 6. Two classic sauropod paintings by Knight. Left: swamp-bound ‘Brontosaurus’ (now Apatosaurus), painted in 1897, with static terrestrial Diplodocus in background. Right: athletic Diplodocus, painted in 1907.

Journals are fundamentally wired to move faster: they handle manuscripts on an individual basis, then push out a volume according to a schedule, and your work goes in as soon as there’s a free slot. That can hardly help but be a more efficient model than the edited-volume approach where, however efficiently I get my work done, it can’t be published until 21 other authors have done theirs.

For a much more distressing example, consider my two remaining in-press manuscripts, those defining the clades Sauropoda and Sauropodomorpha for the PhyloCode companion volume.  (These are multiple-author works, as we wanted to represent a consensus view among multiple sauropod/sauropodomorph workers.)

I was first invited to put together the Sauropoda entry on 5 March 2007, and told to send it “at your earliest convenience”.  I’d put together an initial draft by 11 March, which I circulated to all the co-authors on that date.  Because of the wording of the invitation, I told the co-authors that “timelines are very tight for this work — I really need to get a submission back to the editors within a week or so. So if you’re in a position to contribute, I’d appreciate it if you could do so as soon as possible.”  Then on 12 March, we were invited to contribute the Sauropodomorpha entry as well, so we worked on both of these in parallel.

All five authors worked hard and quickly on multiple drafts of both of these entries, and we bashed our way through real — though polite — disagreements about the most appropriate definitions to use.  (I’ll say right now that it was a pleasure to work with all the co-authors, and I would be delighted to work with any of them again if the opportunity arose.)  Because of the difficulties of co-ordinating the work across three continents, it took a little longer than we’d hoped to get the manuscripts finished and polished, but we submitted them both on 17 April, 43 days after the initial invitation was issued.

And now here we are, three and a half years later, and nothing has happened.  For all I know, the authors haven’t even all submitted their manuscripts yet — I know they hadn’t a year ago, we can only hope that another twelve months has been long enough for them to get their fingers out.

Really.  It makes you want to weep.


Taylor 2010:fig. 1. Historically significant isolated sauropod elements. (a) The holotype tooth of Cardiodon in labial and distal views, modified from Owen (1875a, plate IX, figs 2 and 3); (b) anterior caudal vertebra of Cetiosaurus brevis in anterior view, part of the holotype, photograph by the author; (c) holotype right humerus of Pelorosaurus in anterior view, modified from Mantell (1850, plate XXI, fig. 1b); and (d) lectotype dorsal vertebra of Ornithopsis (see Blows 1995, p. 188) in anterior view, exposing pneumatic cavities owing to erosion of the anterior articular surface, modified from Owen (1875a, plate IX, fig. 1). The scale bar is 5 cm for (a), 10 cm for (b) and (d), and 30 cm for (c).

And now, on to a happier thought:

My dissertation is 60% published!

I was very taken with Andy Farke’s recent post Crossing the Finish Line for the Dissertation on his fine blog, The Open Source Paleontologist.  In it, he celebrates the fact that all the chapters of his dissertation have now been published as peer-reviewed papers.  As I said in a comment, I like the perspective that you’re not really done with your dissertation until you’ve made it redundant.  I’ve heard too many tales about people who sit on their dissertations for years, always meaning to publish the chapters but never quite getting around to it, until they were obsolete.

So my goal is to avoid that fate.  Instead, in emulation of Andy, I want to get all five of my chapters out there in the world as soon as possible.  So here’s the score:

  • Chapter 1. Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review — published in the Geological Society special volume.
  • Chapter 2. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914) — published in JVP.
  • Chapter 3. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England — published in Palaeontology
  • Chapter 4. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, U.S.A. — in review at a journal that, once revisions are submitted, tends to get papers out pretty quickly.
  • Chapter 5. Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs — in revision after having been rejected for what I frankly thought were specious reasons, but let’s not get into that.

With a trailing wind, I could conceivably be finished by the end of the calendar year.  But realistically that would have to classified as a optimistic schedule.

Ah well.  Onward and upward.


Taylor, M. (2010). Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343 (1), 361-386 DOI: 10.1144/SP343.22

26 Responses to “169 years of sauropod research in 26 pages”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Rowan, JP – Research Lab. JP – Research Lab said: 169 years of sauropod research in 26 pages: You may remember that when I wrote about Amphicoelias diplobrontobarow… http://bit.ly/bDVvQP […]

  2. Michael Richmond Says:


    Congrats on publishing 60%, and good luck on the remaining bits!

    I teach courses nearly every day at a university, and have for (gasp) 14 years now. There have been many times when I’ve prepared material for a lecture, then realized in the middle that it’s not going to fit into the class period (perhaps the students are asking lots of questions, or perhaps I spent too much time on one topic). I’ve learned the hard way that the best thing to do in such situations is NOT to talk really fast, but to quit. Just quit when time runs out, and either cover the rest the next day — an option you don’t have at a conference, of course — or tell the students where they can find the remaining material. The students who _want_ to know more will go find it; those who don’t want to know more were already ignoring my frantic speech in class, so I haven’t lost anything when they don’t bother to go find the missing material.

    It can be very difficult, when you’ve spent a great effort putting together a good talk, to discover that you don’t have time to give it all, or to give it properly. However, if you spend more than the allotted time on the talk, the message you are sending to everyone else at the conference is “My talk is more important than yours — that’s why I’m taking some of your time and throwing the rest of you behind schedule.” I guess if you REALLY know, for a fact, that what you have to say is more important to everyone in the room than anything else another person could possibly say to any other person, you might be justified — but, um, are you REALLY sure?

  3. Shalom & Boker tov, Mike:

    The first dinosaur restoration I saw — August 1954 — were of CRK’s battling dryptosaurs … the second, that same, was, of course, his iconic brontosaur…I never recovered. A few days later, at Willis O’Brien’s home (he and my father bet on the horses together every week-end), I saw other taxa on shevles…I did not want to recover. The big-brained stump-tailed living theropods get the press attention — but, for me, the prodigious impact sauropods had on Jurassic/Cretaceous ecosystems outweighs (forgive the word choice) the cacophonous hunters. Your papers are much needed.
    Kol tuv uv’racha, Stephan

  4. chris y Says:

    Stupid ignorant question, prompted by Rey’s painting above. These days diplodocids are often reconstructed with their long vertebral spines protruding from their backs rather than covered in fat and flesh as it used to be done. How is this supposed to work? Presumably they didn’t have raw bone sticking out of their flesh, so it it envisaged that the spines had a skin covering, or a ceratinous one, or what?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Michael, thanks for your thoughts on running over time. Normally, I would agree 100% with you: when someone runs over time because they have not bothered to prepare properly, they should just suck it up and move on. However, having been told very clearly to prepare to a specific length of time, having done so carefully and meticulously, and being at the only major conference I was going to be able to attend that year, I wasn’t going to let my talk be screwed over by a last-minute organisational foul-up. I’d do the same tomorrow. Lecturing a university course is really not a comparable situation. (Also there was only one more talk following mine before a 90-minute break, so I knew it would be easy for the conference to get back on schedule.)

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Chris Y., the now ubiquitious depiction of spiny-backed diplodocids are based on diplodocid specimens briefly described by Czerkas (1992) — probably diplodocines, as they are described as “resembling Diplodocus and Barosaurus” (p. 1068). These are dermal spines, like those of iguanas, not related to the neural spines of the vertebrae. They are directly associated with the skeleton only over a part of the tail, but may well have continued along any or all of the spine.

    These spines were redescribed by Czerkas (1994) but with little or no new information. To the best of my knowledge, there the matter rests. Does anyone know if they’ve been looked at by anyone else but Czerkas?

    Czerkas, Stephen A. 1992. Discovery of dermal spines reveals a new look for sauropod dinosaurs. Geology 20:1068-1070.
    Czerkas, Stephen A. 1994. The history and interpretation of sauropod skin impressions. Gaia 10: 173-182.

  7. Darren Naish Says:

    Yes, trying to shut you up was quite a challenge. How did it end? Answer: unlike other speakers, you hadn’t ‘gotten the memo’ on the revised schedule (I don’t know why, and I don’t know why the schedule was revised anyway). We therefore decided that it was only fair to let you finish. So I sat down, arms crossed, and tried not to listen for those last five painful minutes.

    Kidding, of course. It was a great talk, and I especially liked the bit about lurkers and atomic smackdowns :)

  8. Very interesting glance inside the process. I’m looking forward to the follow-up posts about your website and the ludicrous price of the book. Honestly (to somewhat follow our exchange from the last post), these kinds of things are a good portion of what keeps me from doing anything more official with my work. The whole process is so effed up, there’s very little incentive to work my way through it. Is there any other system in place where people spend their own time (and usually money) to create work that gets reviewed by others (also on their own time and money), only to be accepted by a company that not only charges / doesn’t pay you for your contribution, but actually has the nerve to charge completely insane amounts of money to your colleagues for access to your work?

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Mickey, two words: PLoS ONE.

    It’s the future.

  10. William Miller Says:

    >>Is there any other system in place where people spend their own time (and usually money) to create work that gets reviewed by others (also on their own time and money), only to be accepted by a company that not only charges / doesn’t pay you for your contribution, but actually has the nerve to charge completely insane amounts of money to your colleagues for access to your work?

    As someone outside the field, maybe I don’t ‘get’ it, but … how did it ever get started that way? Why did scientists accept that system in the first place for it to *become* the norm?

  11. Michael Richmond Says:

    > Is there any other system in place where people spend
    > their own time (and usually money) to create work that
    > gets reviewed by others (also on their own time and
    > money), only to be accepted by a company that not only
    > charges / doesn’t pay you for your contribution,
    > but actually has the nerve to charge completely insane
    > amounts of money to your colleagues for access to your
    > work?

    The system is the same in physics and astronomy, though
    possibly not in some other sciences.

    > As someone outside the field, maybe I don’t ‘get’ it,
    > but … how did it ever get started that way? Why did
    > scientists accept that system in the first place for
    > it to *become* the norm?

    Well, back in the late 1800s and early and mid and even late 1900s, scientific journals were printed on paper and mailed to individuals across the world. The typesetting, printing and mailing cost real money. Scientific journals chose not to be supported by advertising — perhaps because they couldn’t find enough advertisers, perhaps because their editorial boards found the notion distasteful — and so they had to charge the subscribers a hefty fee in order to break even. It was just basic economics.

    Given the nature of communication and publishing at the current time, that old model doesn’t make much sense in some ways. On the other hand, it does have the attraction that it _may_ decrease the number of crackpot papers which appear in the refereed literature; only wealthy crackpots can afford to publish :-/

  12. William Miller Says:

    >>Scientific journals chose not to be supported by advertising — perhaps because they couldn’t find enough advertisers, perhaps because their editorial boards found the notion distasteful — and so they had to charge the subscribers a hefty fee in order to break even. It was just basic economics.

    Oh, that bit I understand. It’s the part of doing it through *companies*, corporations, rather than nonprofit organizations that I don’t.

  13. […] is an oddity. When the Geological Society sent my the PDF of my sauropod-history paper, their e-mail contained the following rather extraordinary assertions: We are pleased to provide […]

  14. Matt Wedel Says:

    Oh, that bit I understand. It’s the part of doing it through *companies*, corporations, rather than nonprofit organizations that I don’t.





    Somebody, please, buy this man a drink.

  15. […] 169 years of sauropod research in 26 pages and Who owns my sauropod history paper? […]

  16. […] discussion of amateurs in palaeo, and then by what was already an overdue announcement of my sauropod history paper and the attendant copyright nonsense.  So it’s been a stupidly busy time here at SV-POW! […]

  17. […] Others are just feeling their way into this field, in many cases by blogging.  They have more excuse for hestitancy, but no real reason for it.  As a success story, I could cite Brian Switek of the blog Laelaps, who took a while to warm up to the idea of academic publishing but recently placed his first major paper (“Thomas Henry Huxley and the reptile to bird transition”) in the dinosaur history volume. […]

  18. […] even then, there are other approaches to be taken.  For example, when exactly this happened with my sauropod history paper being published in a non-open and ludicrously expensive Geological Society special volume, I found […]

  19. […] Saurians: A Historical Perspective (written up at Tetrapod Zoology [part 1], [part 2]).  But as we’ve noted before, the proceedings volume is non-open and absurdly expensive: $190 at amazon.com, £95 at […]

  20. […] “Flesh” was one of the half-dozen or so stories that appeared each week in those early months of 2000 AD. It was the story of how cowboys of the future travelled back to the Mesozoic to harvest dinosaurs for their meat, and was the subject of Jeff Liston’s chapter in the recentish Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur research. […]

  21. […] Some books are crazily expensive — notably, for me, the Geological Society volume that contains my history-of-sauropod-research paper($190 at amazon.com, £95 at amazon.co.uk). Would I have let them have my paper if I’d known that […]

  22. […] or all BMC journals. It also means edited volumes that I’m invited to contribute to (though they have their own issues). It probably also means certain other journals, such as PalArch, though they don’t make it […]

  23. […] Because it’s long been recognised that, whatever this specimen might be, it ain’t Pelorosaurus, which is based on the “Cetiosaurus” brevis caudals and a much more slender […]

  24. […] to acceptance. And then … nothing. It sat in limbo for a year and nine months before it was finally published, because of course the book couldn’t be finalised until the slowest of the 50 or so authors, […]

  25. Dan Chure Says:

    Mike, Do you know if the original of Cope’s Camarsaurus skeletal reconstruction is still in existence, maybe at the AMNH?

  26. Mike Taylor Says:

    Sorry, I have no idea. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder, stupidly. Now you’ve got me thinking about it!

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