I only learned about a month ago that this exists. Mike had written to Sideshow Collectibles and offered to review their Apatosaurus maquette if they’d send him a review copy. The folks at Sideshow were game, and would have sent Mike a complimentary review copy and covered the shipping. But the import fees would have been appalling, so Mike very generously suggested that they send it to me instead. And here we are.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to review the Sideshow Apatosaurus maquette, not only because it’s a nice piece of kit that looks great in my office, but also because it gives me the opportunity to discuss some aspects of sauropod anatomy and behavior that haven’t come up here at SV-POW! before. Some of these are right on the cutting edge of sauropod paleobiology, and hopefully they’ll be good fodder for discussion.

As usual, what started in my mind as a fairly brief series of comments metastasized into something ponderous, so I’m breaking up the review into a series of posts, each of which will deal with different aspects of anatomy, function, and behavior. Links to the rest of the series are at the bottom of this post.

Something that looms over any review is the problem of objectivity, especially when the reviewer has received a complimentary copy of the review item. Maybe I’m a bit paranoid about this; after all, complimentary review copies are SOP for technical reviews in many fields, including reviews of academic books. In any case, I’ve been blathering about dinosaurs in public for many years now, so anything I say in this review series can be checked against what I’ve said before on the same topics. Also, I reference a lot of published work in the upcoming posts, so you won’t have to take my word where most points are concerned. Finally, insofar as possible, I’ll try to keep my personal opinions about the Apatosaurus maquette out of the main series of posts. I’ll tell you what I personally think about it–beyond the fact that it’s “a nice piece of kit”–in the conclusion to the series.

Stay tuned!


Links to the rest of the series:

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to exhibit some more Brontomerus artwork.  Once more, as with National Geographic and indeed the original life restoration in the paper, Matt and I had the opportunity to work with the artist, feeding back on an initial draft, to help get the final version as accurate as possible.

Andy Boyles is the Science Editor for Highlights for Children magazine.  They’re planning a feature on Brontomerus, and commissioned a cartoon-style life restoration from artist Robert Squier.  Here’s his first finished draft:

When Robert sent this to the magazine, he included some helpful notes:

Attached is my sketch of Brontomerus. You’ll see some spines on my sketch; I understand that some similar sauropods had them. And it looks like paleontologists haven’t found any bones that would rule out these details.

But I’ll be happy to lose them if you’d like.

Also, I based my Brontomerus skull on the skeleton (fig. 1) in the PDF you provided. I aimed to make the head like that of the Camarasaurus, since the text says the two dinos were similar.

The head in the illustration (fig. 12 ) looks like it’s based on a different dino – Apatosaurus. I’m sure your experts will set me straight.

Also added a Utahraptor.

I look forward to your feedback!

That’s the point where Andy emailed Matt and me asking if we had any feedback.  It happened that I got to that message before Matt did, and this is what I sent back:

Hi, Andy, great to hear from you. It’s always a pleasure when our work is explained to the public, especially for kids. And I am especially delighted by the artwork. I don’t know if this statement really means anything, but it feels to me that it’s somehow captured the *spirit* of Brontomerus.

I do have some criticisms, though! I am attaching an annotated copy of the artwork, which should help to clarify these comments. All my modifications are in red, so they should be easy to pick out.

And here is the modified version that I attached:

My message explained further:

1. Maybe most important — our speculation about Brontomerus‘s kick behaviour was to do with it kicking forward like a soccer player, not backwards like an ostrich. So to be in danger zone, the Utahraptor should be in front of Brontomerus‘s poised leg, not behind. The raptor should also be a bit bigger in comparison.

2. You’ve really captured the bulk of muscle on the front of the thigh well, but the back should probably be bulging slightly.

3. There is a distinct bulge on the side of the torso where the profile of the shoulder blade is visible. This is good, but it should be further up and further back.

4. The head is a little too big. In the annotated version, I’ve scaled it to 90% of its previous size, which looks roughly right to me.

5. The classic mistake that everyone makes when illustrating sauropods is to give them a full complement of hand-claws. (It’s the first thing that smart-alec palaeontologists look for when they see a piece of sauropod art!) In reality, only the thumb would have had a (small) visible claw, and the other digits would have been fully enclosed in a sort of fleshy mitten. There’s a decent illustration showing the right forefoot of a sauropod, from the left (part 4a) and from in front (part 4b). It’s well worth reading the very good article [from Tetrapod Zoology] that this was used in:

I also replied to the artist’s comments:

The spines are perfectly possible and rather handsome. I particularly like that the adult has them and the baby does not: these would likely have been sexual display structures, so it’s appropriate that they would develop only with increasing maturity.

The head is excellent. You are quite right to base it on Camarasaurus rather than the very different skull of Apatosaurus. If I were to quibble, there is no reason to think that the regions between the bones would be very hollow, especially the one behind the eye.

Less than three weeks later, back came the modified version of the art — and I was delighted to see that every single issued I’d raised had been dealt with.  Here is the final version of the pencil sketch:

You’ll notice that the raptor has moved into the danger-zone, the rear of the thigh is more muscular, the scapular bulge has moved up and back, the head is slightly smaller and doesn’t have a visible indentation for the temporal fenestra, and the forfeet have lost all but their thumb claws.

Finally, here is the coloured version as it will appear in the Magazine in April 2012: I like the bold splashes of orange.

I’m really pleased to have permission from Highlights to exhibit both the pencil sketch and the final piece here, at high resolution.  Please note that both versions are copyright Highlights.  Many thanks to both Robert and Andy for being so responsive, helpful, and generous.

Looking again at this, I am impressed by two things.  The first is just how far palaeoart has leapt ahead in recent decades, when even an illustration for a kids’ magazine is as anatomically careful as this — note details like the pronounced ventral bulge for the distal part of the pubis, and the distinctively camarasaurian head.  We’ve come a long way from the old balloon-model sauropods.  The second is related: it’s just great that the magazine took the trouble to contact scientists over this piece, and that artist was so obliging in responding to the issues we highlighted.  It’s worth opening all four versions of the artwork in browser tabs, and switching between them to see how the piece changed from start to finish.

All of this brings me to a point that I’ve wanted to make before, but which seems particularly relevant here.  It’s very common for scientists in general, and palaeontologists in particular, to complain about their work being misrepresented in the media.  I’m sure it happens — we all remember Matt’s awful experience with Clash of the Dinosaurs — but I think it’s much more the exception than the rule.  In my own limited experience, I’ve found print journalists, artists and radio and TV people pretty much uniformly great to work with: genuinely interested, keen to get the details right, and willing to work with rather than against the scientist.  I’m sure it helps that I take the time to prepare materials for journalists ahead of time rather than just expecting them to make do with the paper and the press-release [Xenoposeidon, neck posture, Brontomerus], but that’s not rocket science.  Anyone who cares about getting their research reported right can do that.  And media people want to do their job right.

Update (4th January 2013)

Very belatedly, I am posting the final final version of the artwork, which Andy sent me back on 26th March 2012! Following a comment by Mickey Mortimer on this very post, Andy got into a discussion with Mickey about feathers. As a result he had David Justice, Highlights‘ in-house art-repair wizard, patch up Utahraptor long after the art was due and they had no time to send it back to the illustrator. Here is the result:


(Note that the colours have also been tweaked.)


This is the second post on the Wedel lab’s recently acquired skull of Ursus americanus, the American black bear. The first installment covered ended with the disinterred-but-still-filthy skull bits sitting on my dining room table. This post covers putting the teeth back in, and just enough anatomy to justify putting up more cool pictures.

About five minutes after I took the last picture from the last post, I put the cranium and mandible to soak in warm, soapy water and spent the rest of the day doing other things. Last night I got a couple of old toothbrushes and scrubbed off most of the dirt from the external surfaces of the skull. I alternated toothbrush work with running water from the bathtub faucet over and through the skull bits. I also used one of the rubber nasal aspirator bulbs (or “snot suckers”, as new parents in the real world invariably call them)–which make tremendous water guns–to sluice out some of the grimier cavities. It was fun to force water into the mandibular foramen and see it come shooting out the mental foramen, along the canal traveled by the inferior alveolar nerve and vessels.

All of the teeth were loose in their sockets, and the incisors and upper canines were either falling out or could be pulled out without too much trouble. I yanked all of the teeth that I could, figuring that it was better to yank-and-glue rather than leaving them loose. I set the loose teeth on separate plates, one upper, one lower, arranged in the same order they were in the alveoli, and let everything air dry overnight.

Shown above is my setup for replacing the teeth:

  • a trash bag for protecting the table
  • a dish towel to provide a soft surface
  • the bear skull pieces
  • loose teeth on their respective plates
  • five minute epoxy
  • toothpicks for mixing and spreading the epoxy

I had been going to use something less hardcore for the gluing, but fortunately Vicki got home and I was able to draw on her experience from reconstructing loads of human skulls from archaeological and forensic sites. She said just go with epoxy, and so I went.

Here we are about halfway through the process. A few tips, some obvious, some maybe less so:

  • Even if you’ve done a perfect job of keeping the teeth in order, test-fit them anyway. If nothing else, this will give you a visceral sense of what the tooth feels like sliding into the socket, and it will help you figure out how much glue to apply. Also, test fit adjacent teeth together so you’ll know if they have to go back in in a particular order; sometimes one tooth is at a subtle angle and blocks the next tooth from coming out or going back in.
  • Better to put the glue in the socket than on the tooth. The roots are not much smaller in diameter than the alveoli and the crowns stand out a bit from the bone (although the ‘exposed’ roots would have been covered with gums in life). If you put the glue on the tooth you’re liable to either have it bulldozed off by the alveolar rim as you slide the tooth into the socket, or you’ll put too much on and have a bunch of worthless glue on the exposed portion of the root.
  • If the teeth are worn, like the incisors are here, it’s nice to do a bunch at once so you can get all of the wear surfaces lined up as they were in life. Better than having one tooth set up completely and then realizing it was all the way forward/back/in/out and the other teeth can’t match its orientation.

Everything back in. There are a couple of incisors still AWOL, and a few premolars, but the dentition is still reasonably complete (remember that I am used to working on Early Cretaceous North American sauropods, so a little completeness goes a long way). I ran a thin bead of epoxy around the bases of all of the teeth that had not come out of the alveoli, to hopefully rein in any future wanderlust on their parts.

Sweet action. I wish I had something more intellectual to say here, but I really don’t.

Nasal turbinates. Holy crap, were these a pain to get clean. I didn’t get them completely clean, there’s probably enough dirt up in there to germinate something. But I asymptotically approached the point where removing more dirt would have meant damaging the turbinates, which are at least manilla-envelope-thin if not laser-printer-paper-thin.

A closeup of the infraorbital foramen on the right, which transmitted the infraorbital artery and vessels in life. The neurovascular tracks on the external surface of the bone are pretty sweet; you can see them on the left side, in context, two photos up.

In addition to closing our jaws in a hinge-like motion, we can slide them fore and aft and also from side to side. Those kinds of motions are fine when you’ve got comparatively weak jaws like ours, and we still occasionally get into trouble–jawbreakers are so named for a reason. But those non-hinge-like motions would be disastrous for something that can close its jaws with several hundred pounds of force. So most big carnivores have wide, almost cylindrical jaw joints that constrain the motion to being almost purely hinge-like. In mustelids (weasels and kin), which have the strongest bites for their sizes of any mammals, the condyle is so cylindrical and the fossa so deeply enclosing (imagine a Q sitting inside a very slightly larger C–that’s the jaw joint seen from the side) that sometimes you simply can’t get the jaws to disarticulate after death. This ain’t quite that extreme, but it’s closer to the mustelid condition than the human. Not surprising, since weasels are united with bears and seals in the clade Arctoidea.

And here’s why bears need those cylindrical jaw joints: check out the muscle attachment scars on the back of the mandible. These are for the temporalis and masseter muscles, the same muscles you can feel bulging out on the side of your head and the corners of your jaw when you bite down forcefully or grit your teeth. IIRC, the maximum bite force a human can exert is around 180 pounds, and lions can do something like 900 pounds. Not sure where Ursus americanus falls, but definitely on the please-don’t-bite-me end of the scale.

And here’s why those muscle attachment scars are so big. The zygomatic arches are only partly complete here, but you can see how wide is the space between the left arch and the braincase. All of that space–two full inches, mediolaterally–was filled with temporalis muscle that provided most of the power for jaw-closing. This is why pit bulls have such wide, flat-looking heads: they have normal-sized dog brains and huge, thick jaw muscles. See also: my hyena dissection photos.

Looking very dog-like here in anterior view. There are some butchery marks on the skull, most noticeably across the external nares here, and along the mandibles. Not sure what that’s all about, since I can’t reconcile the stated backstory–cop shoots dangerous bear, buries head in backyard–with a need to make repeated cuts across the snout and jaws. And no, they’re not shovel marks. I knew that already, and Vicki confirmed that the marks are peri-mortem (around the time of death, but impossible to confirm as pre- or post-mortem). Anyway, I’m not complaining. Despite the damage, the skull is still an awesome thing, and the cut marks add a touch of mystery. I’ll post more pictures when I get the left temporal region glued back on.

After three months as a paleontology grad student, this morning Vanessa I. Graff got to sink a shovel in the service of science. Now, it was a bear skull, deliberately buried in someone’s back yard, so technically today’s exploits fall under the heading of contemporary zooarcheology rather than paleontology, but we’ll take what we can get.

This story has a backstory. The guy on the right here is Hossein Aziz, one of my advisees among the DO students at Western. His landlady’s ex-husband is in law enforcement, and about a year and a half ago he had to shoot a bear that had become a threat to humans. He buried the head in the backyard and separated from his then wife. She found out from Hossein that one of his professors was a paleontologist and offered to donate the skull to science, if only we’d come dig it up. So we did. Involved in the excavation (right to left in the above photo) were Hossein, his girlfriend Lia, my son London, Vanessa, and yours truly.

Additional note: Hossein’s landlady is a British expatriate, and she served us proper English tea. It was the most civilized dig I have been on, which, admittedly, is sort of like being the least worthless Kardashian. Anyway, the tea was great, and we all had a good time.

My wife, Dr. Vicki Wedel, was out of  town, but she lent us her archaeological toolkit, so we had nice trowels and kneepads and such. Here Hossein is pretending to advise Vanessa and London on what they should be doing, which is funny because that’s usually my job (pretending, that is).

After about half an hour of digging, we found intact vertebrate remains! And there was much rejoicing.

First out of the ground was the mandible, which is in essentially perfect shape.

Ursus americanus mandible and lower dentition, Homo goofballensis for comparison and scale.

Lia and London clearing dirt from around the cranium, which looks disturbingly hominoid from this angle.

There really aren’t any words for what’s going on here. Just bask a moment in the glory and move on.

We were going for American Gothic here, but Vanessa blew it by smiling. Standard.

Lia and Hossein marveling at what is, after all, a pretty badass critter. Even a small bear has seriously impressive teeth, which you hope to never find embedded in your flesh.

Still, it can be fun to pretend otherwise.

Here’s what we have. The occipital region is just gone. The left temporal region is more intact and has a long crack leading away across the frontals. On the right, everything from the zygomatic process of the maxilla to the occiput is just gone. So I reckon the rifle bullet went in on the left and blew out an exit wound the size of an orange on the right side of the bear’s head.

After a good rinse in the tub, all the bits are now soaking in soapy water. I’ll post more pictures when I get it all cleaned up and  presentable. In the meantime, many thanks to Hossein’s landlady for the skull, the tea, and her amused tolerance at having a bunch of dirty people digging in her yard, and to Hossein, Lia, Vanessa, and London for their work. It was a pretty darned good way to start the weekend.

Update: cleaning and re-arming the bear skull.

Denver Diplodocus

November 5, 2011

Taken by me–or rather, my camera in automatic mode–earlier today, because the ole sauropod blog has been a bit light on sauropods lately.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Sauroposeidon, Supersaurus, and the like. It’s good to be reminded that even an ‘average’ sauropod like Diplodocus is still pretty awesome. And weird. I don’t know if we can be reminded often enough.