Hot sauropod news, part 1: rampant pneumaticity in saltasaurines
June 28, 2012
Earlier this month I was amazed to see the new paper by Cerda et al. (2012), “Extreme postcranial pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs from South America.” The title is dramatic, but the paper delivers the promised extremeness in spades. Almost every figure in the paper is a gobsmacker, starting with Figure 1, which shows pneumatic foramina and cavities in the middle and even distal caudals of Rocasaurus, Neuquensaurus, and Saltasaurus. This is most welcome. Since the 1990s there have been reports of saltasaurs with “spongy bone” in their tail vertebrae, but it hasn’t been clear until now whether that “spongy bone” meant pneumatic air cells or just normal marrow-filled trabecular bone. The answer is air cells, loads of ’em, way farther down the tail than I expected.
Here’s why this is awesome. Lateral fossae occur in the proximal caudals of lots of neosauropods, maybe most, but only a few taxa go in for really invasive caudal pneumaticity with big internal chambers. In fact, the only other sauropod clade with such extensive pneumaticity so far down the tail are the diplodocines, including Diplodocus, Barosaurus, and Tornieria. But they do things differently, with BIG, “pleurocoel”-type foramina on the lateral surfaces of the centra, leading to BIG–but simple–camerae inside, and vertebral cross-sections that look like I-beams. In contrast, the saltasaurines have numerous small foramina on the centrum and neural arch that lead to complexes of small pneumatic camellae, giving their vertebrae honeycomb cross-sections. So caudal pneumaticity in diplodocines and saltsaurines is convergent in its presence and extent but clade-specific in its development. Pneumaticity doesn’t get much cooler than that.
But it does get a little cooler. Because the stuff in the rest of the paper is even more mind-blowing. Cerda et al. (2012) go on to describe and illustrate–compellingly, with photos–pneumatic cavities in the ilia, scapulae, and coracoids of saltasaurines. And, crucially, these cavities are connected to the outside by pneumatic foramina. This is important. Chambers have been reported in the ilia of several sauropods, mostly somphospondyls but also in the diplodocoid Amazonsaurus. But it hasn’t been clear until now whether those chambers connected to the outside. No patent foramen, no pneumaticity. It seemed unlikely that these sauropods had big marrow-filled vacuities in their ilia–as far as I know, all of the non-pneumatic ilia out there in Tetrapoda are filled with trabecular bone, and big open marrow spaces only occur in the long bones of the limbs. And, as I noted in my 2009 paper, the phylogenetic distribution of iliac chambers is consistent with pneumaticity, in that the chambers are only found in those sauropods that already have sacral pneumaticity (showing that pneumatic diverticula were already loose in their rear ends). But it’s nice to have confirmation.
So, the pneumatic ilia in Rocasaurus, Neuquensaurus, and Saltasaurus are cool because they suggest that all the other big chambers in sauropod ilia were pneumatic as well. And for those of you keeping score at home, that’s another parallel acquisition in Diplodocoidea and Somphospondyli (given the apparent absence of iliac chambers in Camarasaurus and the brachiosaurids, although maybe we should bust open a few brachiosaur ilia just to be sure*).
* I kid, I kid.**
** Seriously, though, if you “drop” one and find some chambers, call me!
But that’s not all. The possibility of pneumatic ilia has been floating around for a while now, and most of us who were aware of the iliac chambers in sauropods probably assumed that eventually someone would find the specimens that would show that they were pneumatic. At least, that was my assumption, and as far as I know no-one ever floated an alternative hypothesis to explain the chambers. But I certainly did not expect pneumaticity in the shoulder girdle. And yet there they are: chambers with associated foramina in the scap and coracoid of Saltasaurus and in the coracoid of Neuquensaurus. Wacky. And extremely important, because this is the first evidence that sauropods had clavicular air sacs like those of theropods and pterosaurs. So either all three clades evolved a shedload of air sacs independently, or the basic layout of the avian respiratory system was already present in the ancestral ornithodiran. I know where I’d put my money.
There’s loads more interesting stuff to talk about, like the fact that the ultra-pneumatic saltasaurines are among the smallest sauropods, or the way that fossae and camerae are evolutionary antecedent to camellae in the vertebrae of sauropods, so maybe we should start looking for fossae and camerae in the girdle bones of other sauropods, or further macroevolutionary parallels in the evolution of pneumaticity in pterosaurs, sauropods, and theropods. Each one of those things could be a blog post or maybe a whole dissertation. But my mind is already thoroughly blown. I’m going to go lie down for a while. Congratulations to Cerda et al. on what is probably the most important paper ever written on sauropod pneumaticity.
- Cerda, I.A., Salgado, L., and Powell, J.E. 2012. Extreme postcranial pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs from South America. Palaeontologische Zeitschrift. DOI 10.1007/s12542-012-0140-6
- Janensch, W. 1947. Pneumatizitat bei Wirbeln von Sauropoden und anderen Saurischien. Palaeontographica, Supplement 7, 3:1–25.
- Osborn, H. F. 1899. A skeleton of Diplodocus. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 1:191–214.