Best. Conference. Ever.

December 12, 2011

I’m just back from a three-day conference in Bonn, Germany, which I unhesitatingly nominate as the best I’ve ever been to.  To begin with, the subject was a guaranteed winner: sauropod gigantism.  I can hardly overstate how awesome it was to hear 43 talks about or relevant to sauropod gigantism (sixteen on the first day, fifteen on the second and twelve on the third).  For another thing, it was one of those rare occasions where all three SV-POW!sketeers got together — I think the fourth or fifth time ever.  For yet another, I met honorary SV-POW!er Ranger Vanessa Graff and Brontomerus artist Francisco “Paco” Gasco for the first time.  And it’s always good to spend time with people like biomechanics wizard John Hutchinson and occasional SV-POW! guest-blogger Heinrich Mallison.  (Apologies to those I’ve not mentioned by name: lots of good people!)

Left to right: Mike, Darren, Matt, Paco. Note the complete lack of commitment in Paco's MYDD expression. Matt's showing how it should be done. Darren seems to have had something unfortunate happen to his nose, and (in this picture, not in real life) look like a hobgoblin. Nothing personal. Just saying.

The meeting was The 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism: a public meeting of DFG Research Unit 533 “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs”.  That’s a mostly German group, headed by Martin Sander, which has been working for nearly eight years on multiple lines towards understanding the evolution of gigantism.  Along the way, that group has produced 105 publications and counting, including a very nice hardcover volume Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants, available for the reasonable price of £40 [amazon.co.uk] or $50 [amazon.com].  (Compare with the price of £95 [amazon.co.uk] or $190 [amazon.com] for the comparably sized Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur palaeontology.  Hang your head in shame, GeolSoc.)  Maybe most importantly, the group published a big synthesis paper at Biological Reviews that is freely available, and which everyone interested in sauropod palaeobiology should read to understand the current state of the field.  Although I certainly don’t agree with everything that’s been published by the group, overall it’s done excellent work and plenty of it.  So it was a real privilege to be a part of this second public meeting.  (Matt and I were also at the first, three years ago.)

Maybe the greatest thing about this meeting was the involvement of many scientists whose usual work is not on sauropods, but who were able to bring their expertise in other fields and apply it to sauropod-related problems.  For example, Jurgen Hummel on on digestive energetics, Michael Fagan on biomechanical modelling, Tom Schanz on soil mechanism (and implications for interpreting tracks) and Jennifer McElwain on plant growth in simulated palaeoatmospheres.  The word “interdisciplinarary” is bandied around a lot, but this conference really fulfilled that description.  That’s truly helpful: for example, five minutes’ conversation with people who actually understand digestive energetics saved me weeks or months of what would have turned out to be fruitless work on the Nourishing Vomit Of Eucamerotus hypothesis.

Wedel is disappointed to discover that baby sauropods didn't need Nourishing Vomit; but Naish is delighted.

Another huge benefit of working with scientists who have other specialisations is the ability to triangulate on a problem.  For example, in my talk on how little we truly know about sauropod necks, I mentioned that we don’t know whether their intervertebral joints were fibrocartilaginous, like those of mammals and crocs, or synovial, like those of birds.  I had been hoping to get a student working on comparative dissections of birds and crocs in the hope of identifying osteological correlates that might allow us to recognise relevant indications in sauropod bones.  But Martin Sander pointed out that histological analysis of the preserved osseous articular surfaces might allow us to tell directly what kind of joint was used — an approach that would never have occurred to me.

So: scientists who know about things other than sauropods. Recommended.

Unlike most conferences, this one allowed time for discussion after each talk — something that made a huge difference.  The slots allocated were each 30 minutes long, but speakers were asked to use only half of that time.  In practice, many talks ran twenty minutes or so, but nevertheless the kind of discussion that you get in ten minutes is qualitatively different from the rather perfunctory one-quick-question-and-move-on that you get at most meetings.  It was in those intervals that a lot of important ambiguities were clarified, misunderstandings remedied, and ideas explored.  (I’d love to see this become more widespread, but of course I understand the difficulty of fitting all the talks into the programme at a larger conference like SVPCA.  Not to mention SVP.)

Unsurprisingly, highlight talks for me included those by Matt (reviewing the last three years’ developments in pneumaticity, and considering the way forward) and Darren (presenting our no-necks-for-sex work in a way that was both persuasive and funny).

The last slide of Darren's talk; original source unknown

But perhaps the talk I enjoyed most was Vanessa’s on neck support hypotheses (ligament, pneumatic stabilisation, ventral compressing bracing, muscle).  It’s only the second time she’s presented at a conference, and the first time ever in palaeo.  Having workshopped the content of the talk extensively, first with Matt, then with both of us, she then prepared the presentation within an inch of its life and did a fine job of delivering it.

Me commenting on one of Vanessa's slides. Needless to say, my comments were all helpful, constructive, and tactfully delivered.

There is good news for the 6,999,999,940 of you who missed this conference: the sessions were all recorded on video, and will hopefully become available shortly.  And there will be a proceedings volume — exact venue to be announced, but we have some good options.  Matt, Vanessa and I will all contribute to this.  (Darren won’t, of course, since his talk was describing already-published research.)

And more good news for the future: although the funding for DFG Research Unit 533 is coming towards an end — it has about a year left to run — the people who have been running it are keen to hold a 3rd International Workshop, in maybe three years’ time.  It’s not clear yet where the funding will come from, but let’s hope they come up with something!

… and a correction to Taylor et al. (2009)

One point that came up in Kent Stevens’ talk was a factual correction to something we wrote in our 2009 neck-posture paper, and it seems right that we should put it on the record.  We wrote (Taylor et al. 2009:216) that:

Physical manipulation of the mounted Diplodocus skeleton DMNH 1494, by Ken Carpenter, resulted in a mounted posture in which the neck is extended farther vertically and horizontally than is allowed by Stevens and Parrish’s digital model (personal observation).  Since the neck of this mount is a cast of the Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, the very same individual used by Stevens and Parrish (1999), it is evident that the results of such computerised studies are not as objective as they may appear.

The Denver Diplodocus mount

Regarding the provenance of the Denver Diplodocus mount, we were misled by the DMNH online catalogue.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be online any more, but this is the information it gave regarding the reconstructed portions:

Majority of specimen exhibited in Prehistoric Journey; skull cast from CM 1161, cervicals cast from CM 84, Left scapula, and L & R humeri, radii, & ulnae all cast from HMNS 175 (Houston Musuem of Natural Science), distal 6 caudals cast from Western Paleontology Laboratory specimen.

Kent has spoken to Ken Carpenter about this mount, and it turns out that while the majority of the neck is indeed a CM 84 cast, the last three or so posterior cervicals are from a different specimen — presumably DMNH 1494 itself — and are somewhat restored in plaster.  Thanks to Kent for clearing this up.

(Regarding the rest of Kent’s talk: I’ll withhold comment until Kent publishes his criticisms.)

Update (the next day)

Thanks for John H. and Heinrich, who both tweeted the conference.  You can (for now, anyway) read their comments, and a few by other people, in the saved messages under #SauroBonn.  But I don’t know how long they last, and I don’t know a good way to save them.  Can anyone help?

 

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Many meetings

December 9, 2011

Mike, Darren, rex, Vanessa, and Matt. Photo by Paco Gasco.

As previously reported, the lot of us are in Bonn for the sauropod biology workshop. Last night we met up at the welcome reception at the Goldfuss Museum. It was the first time for Mike and Darren to meet Vanessa Graff and Paco Gasco in person, and of course we all got to meet people we didn’t know previously who are here for the workshop. There is an outstanding series of talks lined up. Three days with some of the world’s best workers talking about sauropods all the time? Yeah, I reckon we can handle that.

No sauropods in the Goldfuss Museum, so we naturally hung out the biggest saurischian around (even if it is a vulgar, overstudied theropod).

This and any future posts for the next few days will necessarily be brief; gotta go learn about sauropods!

Hello again, old friend

December 5, 2011

This week the SV-POW!sketeers are off to Bonn, Germany, for the Second International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism. All three of us will be there, plus SV-POW! guest blogger Heinrich Mallison, plus Wedel Lab grad student Vanessa Graff, plus about 50 other awesome scientists from around the world. So we’ll have a ton of fun, but we probably won’t get much posted.

In the meantime, enjoy this cool encounter from the bone cellar at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin, where Mike and I fetched up at the end of the last IWSBG back in 2008. It’s a transversely-sectioned dorsal centrum of Giraffatitan, one that Janensch illustrated in his 1950 monograph on the vertebrae of Giraffatitan. Mike and I were very familiar with the cross-section image from the paper, so it was cool and a bit unreal to find the actual item.

Reference

Janensch, Werner. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3:27-93.

This is the final post reviewing the Apatosaurus maquette from Sideshow Collectibles. Previous posts in the series are:

First, the objective verdict.

PROS

The head has the right shape, shows some underlying structure without being shrink-wrapped, has plenty of soft tissue without being a meat bullet, and is nicely detailed. The same comments apply for the rest of the sculpt, except as noted below. There are lots of nice little touches that show careful attention to the evidence we have for the life appearance of sauropods, as detailed in the previous posts. The base is cool.

CONS

The problems are few, and most will escape the attention of all but the most hardcore dino anatomy fiends (OTOH, the most hardcore dino anatomy fiends are probably a big chunk of the target market). The lips or marginal scales covering the teeth are not supported by our current understanding of the available evidence. The number of visible bumps for vertebrae does not add up to the correct presacral count for Apatosaurus–it’s off by probably 2, out of a presacral count of 25. The anterior margin of the thigh does not blend with the ilium as it should. The flipped-back forefoot bothers some paleobiologists but not all. The pose is otherwise fairly orthodox–which might be pro or a con, depending on your point of view. The skull accessory is not as detailed as the maquette and suffers from the comparison, but it’s still decent and a good value for the small additional outlay.

VERDICT

I’ve seen a lot of dinosaur sculptures advertised as ‘museum quality’. This one actually is. In fact–and I am being completely honest here, as I have been throughout–I doubt if I’ve ever seen a scale model of a dinosaur in a museum that could compare to this. My compliments to the artists, sculptor Jorge Blanco and painter Steve Riojas, for an amazing job.

I remember when I first saw Jurassic Park thinking, “Okay, that whole pesky restoring T. rex problem is licked. This is what they looked like.” Eighteen years later–can it really be that long?–I still feel that way. Sure, it’s cool to dress up a rex in wattles and feathers and what have you, maybe tack on a fatter tail, but any such bodywork had better start from the chassis of a JP-style rex. Because the JP rex is built on the real bones, especially the skull. I am familiar with those bones and those skulls, from a lifetime of dino-geekery in general, and six years in the Valley Life Sciences Building at Berkeley in particular. So the JP rexes look like T. rex to me, and all other rexes just look less…real.

In the same way that Jurassic Park fixed my idea of what T. rex looked like, this sculpture crystalizes Apatosaurus for me. As far as I’m concerned, and aside from the relatively minor and unintrusive problems listed above, this is what Apatosaurus looked like, and this maquette is the Apatosaurus representation by which all others should be judged.

Want more opinions? There is a thoughtful review of this maquette at the Dinosaur Toy Blog, with a comment from Mike that was probably the genesis of this whole saga.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Have you ever wished you could give yourself a limited memory wipe and see your favorite movie again for the first time? Or read your favorite book? We value that frisson of surprise so much that we have a word for anything that preempts it: spoiler. It would be nice to be able to revisit some of our favorite things again for the first time, unspoiled.

I have been working on sauropods for a decade and a half. I am still blown away when I stand in front of a big mounted skeleton and think about what such an animal must have been like in life. I cannot help but visualize the organs that filled those immense torsos, and the muscles, vessels, and nerves that moved, plumbed, and wired their bodies. That has not ceased to be a moving experience. But I thought was beyond being surprised by the gross form of sauropods, by their bauplan. I am surrounded by sauropod representations, both 2D and 3D, including those made by others and a few that I have generated myself. How could I possibly be surprised anymore?

And yet, when I look at this sculpture, I am forcibly struck by just how friggin’ weird sauropods are. Mostly it’s the long, fat neck and tiny head, which I know are maximally exaggerated in Apatosaurus. But it just looks wrong. Some primitive mammalian circuit in me rebels at the idea that any animal could need such an immense tube of flesh to serve such a ridiculously small head. I think part of it is the faint ribbing created by the cervical ribs; it makes me think of tentacles, leeches, elephant trunks. I have to consciously remind myself that it was the neck–the neck, with vertebrae and muscles and diverticula and the rest–of a real animal, and not something outlandish invented by a sci-fi author, or moviemaker, or other artist.

And then I think, this must be what other people feel like all the time. And probably how I felt when I was four or five and really grokking sauropods for the first time. I didn’t think I’d feel anything like that about sauropods ever again. So it’s hard for me to be objective about this maquette, because it has reconnected me with the great love of my scientific life, in the most delightfully unexpected way.

I love it. I’m keeping it. Go get your own!

This is the sixth installment in a series on the Apatosaurus maquette from Sideshow Collectibles. Other posts in the series are:

Texture and color deserve discussion on two levels: biological plausibility, and level of execution.

The skin texture is wrinkled, with a few scattered warts or tubercles. The tail is crowned with a line of low spines, as previously discussed here. We know from skin impressions that sauropods had naked skin, with non-overlapping, generally hexagonal scales ranging from 1-4 cm in diameter (Czerkas 1994, Platt and Hasiotis 2006).

Would the individual scales be visible at the scale of this sculpture? The maquette is 1.1 meters long in a straight line from the right side of the mouth to the tip of the tail, and I measure it as 1.27 meters along the dorsal body margin. Most mounted apatosaurs are in the neighborhood of 70 feet long (21 meters), and the monster at the OMNH is 92 feet (28 meters). The maquette is therefore between 1/16 and 1/22 scale, depending on how big an animal it is supposed to represent (I almost wrote, “assuming it is an adult”, but most mounted sauropods are demonstrably subadult; even the monster apatosaur from Oklahoma has some elements unfused). An unusual but not unheard-of scale for dinosaur figures is 1/18, so that may have been the goal here, for a “in life” length of 75.5 feet (23 meters).

Back to the epidermal, as opposed to proportional, scales. A 4-cm scale on a real Apatosaurus would be about 2 mm on the maquette, and the more common 1-cm scales would be about 0.5 mm. Those would be pretty darned difficult to sculpt and cast in any way would that make them recognizable, so I think we can safely overlook the absence of visible scales on the maquette (warts excepted). Would scaly skin bunch and fold like the skin on the maquette? Beats me. From my experiences with turtles, some of which are pretty darned wrinkly, I wouldn’t rule it out. So I judge the texture plausible. And the level of detail in the execution is phenomenal. I said in the head post that the level of detail you see there is perpetuated through the entire sculpt, and I stand by that. The maquette invites–and withstands–close scrutiny.

The color of the maquette is interesting without being vibrant: olive green above, shading into a tannish-yellow below, with stripes on the tail and faint dark freckles on the neck, body, and limbs. The freckles remind me of the scattered dark spots sometimes seen on the skin of elephants, so that may be a deliberate homage. Finally, the dorsal surfaces of the neck, body, and proximal tail are mottled with off-white or grayish splotches that recall the spotting on some deer.

Now, I am typically an ardent proponent of flamboyant dinosaurs (see here and here). If someone had asked me to design an Apatosaurus maquette, I would have done things differently. I would have slapped on the spines and dewlaps and inflatable display sacs until this thing looked like the three-way love child of Todd Marshall’s Spinosaurus, a bird-of-paradise, and the 80s hair metal band of your choice.

That’s what I would have done, if someone asked me to design an Apatosaurus maquette. But now that I see the one that was actually produced, I would change almost nothing. Because the underlying anatomy would get lost, and the thing would become just a billboard for all the flamboyant gloop (just like some real animals). And because not every animal is a head-to-toe wack job; for every Golden Pheasant there are roughly a thousand little brown passerines.

So the color is good. Great, even. It’s really hard to convey how lifelike this thing looks, as if at any moment it might just stroll right off the end of my bookcase. Heck, I’ve seen lots of real animals that looked less alive that this maquette (some lizards, many amphibians). That the overall design and level of detail can inspire that reaction in anyone is a big win. That it can make me feel that way, when I should be maximally on guard against any mistakes, is even better.

But now I’m starting to break the bounds of objectivity, so I’ll stop here. I’ll provide a final objective verdict, and also give my subjective impressions, in the next, and final, post.

References

  • Czerkas, S. 1994. The history and interpretation of sauropod skin impressions. GAIA 10: 173-182.
  • Platt, B.F., and Hasiotis, S.T. 2006. Newly discovered sauropod dinosaur tracks with skin and foot-pad impressions from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation, Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. Palaios 21: 249-261.