You may remember this:

Rapetosaurus mount at Field Museum

…which I used to make this:

Rapetosaurus skeleton silhouette

…and then this:

Rapetosaurus skeleton silhouette - high neck

The middle image is just the skeleton from the top photo cut out from the background and dropped to black using ‘Levels’ in GIMP, with the chevrons scooted up to close the gap imposed by the mounting bar.

The bottom image is the same thing tweaked a bit to repose the skeleton and get rid of some perspective distortion on the limbs. The limb posture is an attempt to reproduce an elephant step cycle from Muybridge.

That neck is wacky. Maybe not as wrong as Omeisaurus, but pretty darned wrong. As I mentioned in the previous Rapetosaurus skeleton post, the cervicals are taller than the dorsals, which is opposite the condition in every other sauropod I’ve seen. All in all, I find the reposed Rapetosaurus disturbingly horse-like. And oddly slender through the torso, dorsoventrally at least. The dorsal ribs look short in these lateral views because they’re mounted at a very odd, laterally-projecting angle that I think is probably not correct. But the ventral body profile still had to meet the distal ends of the pubes and ischia, which really can’t go anywhere without disarticulating the ilia from the sacrum (and cranking the pubes down would only force the distal ends of the ilia up, even closer to the tail–the animal still had to run its digestive and urogenital pipes through there!). So the torso was deeper than these ribs suggest, but it was still not super-deep. Contrast this with Opisthocoelicaudia, where the pubes stick down past the knees–now that was a tubby sauropod. Then again, Alamosaurus has been reconstructed with a similarly compact torso compared to its limbs–see the sketched-in ventral body profile in the skeletal recon from Lehman and Coulson (2002: figure 11).

I intend to post more photos of the mount, including some close-ups and some from different angles, and talk more about how the animal was shaped in life. And hopefully soon, because history has shown that if I don’t strike while the iron is hot, it might be a while before I get back to it. For example, I originally intended this post to follow the last Rapetosaurus skeleton post by  about a week. So much for that!

Like everything else we post, these images are CC BY, so feel free to take them and use them. If you use them for the basis of anything cool, like a muscle reconstruction or life restoration, let us know and we’ll probably blog it.

Brontomerus cartoon - John Trotter - paintmonkeystudios-dot-com

One of our army of field correspondents, Seth Segal, sent us a scan of this cartoon from the spring 2011 issue (#97) of Prehistoric Times (yes, we’re a bit late to the party on this one). Shifty little weasels that we are, we were entertained by it, so we tracked down John Trotter at Paintmonkey Studios. He kindly sent the nice version you see above, and gave us permission to post.

I really like the idea of undescribed dinosaurs just going about their business, and then being surprised by having new names sprung on them. I can well imagine some of them being disappointed, too.

Argentina…saurus. Lizard. From. Argentina. Seriously? You know, there’s a million dinosaurs from Argentina. Why do I get stuck with the generic name that is actually generic? Nothing about how big I am? Really? I mean, I weigh, like, two Supersauruses. What’s the Latin for double-Supersaurus-rex? And here I am with Antarctosaurus–that poser’s got a whole continent in his name, and he’s not even from there! And what about that so-called “earthquake lizard”? I heard they found him wandering around all delusionsal, claiming to be 150 feet long and the biggest thing ever, and the cops had to remind him he’s just an old-ass Diplodocus. Play some more Brain Age, grandpa! Forget it. I’m gonna go hunt up Brazilsaurus and Uruguaysaurus and get a football game together… What do you mean, they haven’t been named yet? Aw, man!”


Pre-emptive note to the etymology mafia: yes, I know that Antarctosaurus means “southern lizard”, not “lizard from Antarctica”. But in this joke, Argentinosaurus is not so well-informed.

This imaginary interlude was brought to you by Becky Crew’s habit of putting words in animals’ mouths, and by Mike’s proposed moratorium on “place-saurus” names, and by the number 11.

In a comment on a recent Guardian piece (not mine, but a response to it), Peter Morgan asked:

A separate concern is whether the OA business model is sustainable in the long term of decades or even centuries. By contract, OA content has almost no commercial value, unless it is re-published in a for-profit volume. How confident can we be that the content of an OA journal that goes bankrupt will be preserved in an openly accessible way?

Don’t worry — you can be very confident. Reputable open-access journals arrange for their content to be archived in well-trusted third-party archives such as PubMed Central and CLOCKSS. See for example PeerJ’s blog about the arrangements they’re making or this statement from PLOS ONE.

A much more serious problem is this: what happens to the content of a non-OA journal when it goes bankrupt? In general, copyright for the content of such journals is owned by the publisher. This not only means that informal archive arrangements such as BioTorrents and The Disks Of Millions can’t be used — worse, it means that content archived in PubMed Central or CLOCKSS may never become available. If a failing publisher sells its assets, that will include the copyrights — and since literally any unethical corporation might sniff an asset-stripping opportunity, that could be disastrous.

In short, you can be much more confident that PLOS’s content will still be around in 10, 20 and 100 years than you can that Elsevier’s will.

[Background for anyone who’s not been following: 1, Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. 2, Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. 3, Is it immoral to hide your research behind a paywall?]

Thank you!

First of all, I’d like to offer my profound gratitude to all of you who commented on the previous article on paywall morality. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never seem a comment thread so full of careful, detailed, thoughtful analyses. It’s gratifying, and humbling, to see all that on this blog. Many of the comments deserve to be full posts in their own right, especially (but not only) those by Paul Barrett, Richard Butler, Andy Farke, Jim Kirkland, John Hutchinson, Michael Eisen and Steve Brusatte. I note that this list of names includes many of the most productive British-based dinosaur workers, whose experiences are worth hearing.

A combination of circumstances meant that I wasn’t able to respond to the comments as they came in. But Matt has point out, and he’s right, that that turned out to be a good thing: it meant I didn’t drop speedbumps in the path of the developing exposition, derailing the conversation by chasing after some specific part of it.

There were three things that people most objected to in the original article. and I’d like to touch on all of them.

1. Cost of publication

One of those (and this is an objection mostly from Guardian readers new to the idea of open access rather than from the more informed SV-POW! audience) is fear that publication will be impossible for people without grants. I don’t want to spend a lot more words on this, as we all now know about the many free-to-publish OA journals (Acta Palaeontologica PolonicaPalaeontologia ElectronicaPalArch, etc.), and about PLOS’s no-questions-asked waivers, and about the $99-for-life pricing scheme at PeerJ.

2. The importance of “high-impact” publications

A more important objection, and one that has been near-universal in the lengthy comments here on SV-POW!, is that I was wrong to downplay the importance of “high-impact” publications, especially in Science and Nature, for career progression.

I will have much more to say about this in a future post, but before we get into details let me just say the evidence we have indicates that I was wrong about this. It seems that — at least for palaeontologists in the UK, if not for geneticists in the US — publishing in these venues does matter. I deplore that fact; but this doesn’t make it untrue.

(In my defence, I didn’t exactly tell people not to publish in these journals — only that a case has been made that you don’t need to, that the REF and RCUK both explicitly disclaim venue as a factor, and that there are high-profile OA alternatives.)

3. The morality of paywalls, redux

The third issue is that some people objected to the strap-line of the original article, “Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral”.

On mature reflection, I am inclined to stick to my guns on this one.

As I noted in the last post, it doesn’t follow that everyone who gives their work to a paywalled journal is an immoral person. We live in a complex world, where compromises are sometimes necessary. A strategy to achieve maximum openness in ten years’ time might conceivably involve taking less open routes today. (Several people suggested that if pro-OA people early in their careers refuse to take a Science or Nature opportunity when it comes up, that might prevent them from ever becoming senior people with a more influential role.)

But what I want to get out of this, and the reason I am sticking to my guns, is that I don’t want anyone to walk away from this controversy unaware of the moral dimension — or I should say the immoral dimension — of paywalls.

The path that I have come to take myself, albeit after some years of thought and several publications in paywalled journals, is never again to publish research behind them. I do understand that not everyone will take that path. What I want is that no-one here chooses a paywall without seeing clearly what it represents and making a clear-headed tactical decision. When someone publishes in Nature, there’s a reason. But for someone with a Cretaceous fossil to blithely go, “Oh, I’ll send it to Cretaceous Research” without  thinking through what that means — that’s what I want to avoid.

When the public, or a charity, pays us to make new knowledge, it is an immoral thing, considered in isolation, to put the result where the public can’t see it. If we’re going to do that at all, let’s only do it with out eyes open. Let’s only do it after properly weighing the pros and cons.

So. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make, and I’m sorry it’s taken me three attempts.

zombie tits cover

Back at the end of November I learned about the existence of Becky Crew’s new book. At the time it was not available stateside, but I wrote to Becky and asked for a review copy, and she kindly had her press guy send me one. I am finally getting my review posted, and none to soon–Andy Farke got his copy from Amazon last week. You can get the book here: Amazon, (temporarily out of stock as of this writing), New South Books.

Full disclosure: I am friends with Becky, and an admirer of her previous work (details in this post). You can decide for yourself whether my review is thereby compromised.

The book lives up to its title. There is a lot of weird stuff in here–I mean really damn weird. Most of the entries practically beg to be read aloud to an astounded audience. I kept pestering Vicki with snippets from the book until she said, with a look of profound disgust, “I no longer approve of evolution. Animals are just too gross.” Some of it, like mind-controlling flukes and 42-cm duck penises, will be familiar to many web-savvy folks interested in animals. But most of it was new to me, and will probably be new to you as well. Five of the fifty essays in the book are recycled from blog posts, but the other 90% is new material.

Each essay is three to five pages long and centers around one animal and its weirdness (or, very occasionally, two animals who share some related weirdness). Some of the weirdness is anatomical, some of it is behavioral, some of it is so weird it defies easy categorization. Helpfully, below the title of each essay is a subtitle that gives both the popular and scientific names of the subject critters (except a handful of weirdoes, either extinct or newly discovered, that have no popular names). About a fourth of the entries have an illustration of the featured critter.

Now, the book is not just a freak show of “hey, look, monkeys pee on themselves to get dates, isn’t that weird?” In every case, Becky explains why the animals do these weird things, according to our best current understanding. So the weirdness of each animal becomes a window into some other realm of science, whether it’s the physiology of neurotoxins, the ecology of estuaries, the antimicrobial properties of bat saliva, or how the geomorphology of the Guiana Highlands has influenced the escape behavior of frogs.

In these explanations, Becky cites relevant peer-reviewed research, much of it recent but some of it old, for historical background. She quotes from a 1922 paper on anglerfish, and two of the chapters are devoted to marine worms that were only discovered in 2006 and 2009. I count 114 books and papers and 27 websites in the bibliography, which is helpfully broken down by section and has the publications and websites segregated within each section.

There’s a lot of meat on these bones: in addition to literature citations, almost every essay includes direct quotes from the scientists involved in the studies. I don’t know how many of the quotes came from press-releases–certainly not all, since the former outnumber the latter by a wide margin–and how many come from Becky getting in touch with the scientists directly. Based on both the informality of the quotes and Becky’s extensive chops as a science journalist, I suspect most of the quotes are the results of her own hard work of finding these people and getting them to talk.

And that’s one of the meta-impressions I got from the book: the sheer amount of work that went into writing it. Now, I pride myself on knowing a lot of weird stuff, on keeping up with at least the broad strokes of zoological research, and on citing a decent breadth of literature in my work. But Becky blows me away on all three axes. Put simply, I have no friggin’ idea how she finds all of this stuff. In the same way that I learn about a lot of weird stuff from Darren, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an even-better-informed, reclusive super-Becky who passes Actual Becky tips on altruistic behavior in chocaholic rats, the development of marine pigbutt worms, and so on.

Okay, so who’s in the book? Here’s my very approximate, non-phylogenetic breakdown. The total adds up to 50, because some of the pieces feature more than one critter. I think the coverage is pretty even for a popular zoology book–there’s certainly no hint that Becky skewed toward charismatic megafauna.

Insects: 7
Spiders: 5
Other invertebrates: 8
Fish (i.e., non-tetrapod vertebrates): 6
Herps: 6
Birds: 4
Mammals: 9

Non-avian dinos: 5
Paleomammals: 2

Now, it’s not science all the time. As you might expect from the title, one of the hallmarks of Becky’s writing has always been her irreverent approach to her subjects. Like a sort of Miss Manners meets Dr. Ruth, Becky is prone to imagining the social lives of her animals–by which I mean, job interviews, failed dates, and awkward family get-togethers–and giving them advice. In what I’m calling the ‘informal segments’, the colossal squid is a peeping tom, Microraptor is a stripper, the naked mole rat is a Bond villain, and the male deep-sea anglerfish is a troubled teenager trying to find the whereabouts of his father. From anglerfish’s diary: “Learnt about the whole morphing-into-genitals thing in sex ed class today. Contemplating becoming a warlock whatever the male version of a nun is.” Becky’s animals text each other, suffer hangovers, blow off their friends to watch Downton Abbey, and complain about Selena Gomez. Some of the pop culture references may not age well, but I reckon by the time they’re out of date, Becky will have written another book.

The informal segments vary in length, with some critters just getting a couple of lines and others getting a page or two. They’re always clearly set off from the rest of the essay, so if they do nothing for you, they’re easy enough to skip over. Me, I think they’re hilarious, and I laughed a lot while reading the book. After digesting something technical on, say, neuroanatomy, it’s nice to laugh at the gulf pipefish getting hit on by bar skanks.

Other strong points:

– Becky is always alert to the uncertainty inherent in science, the potential for disagreements and for our current understanding to be revised in the light of new data. Reading the book, you definitely get the impression that zoology is a human enterprise, that “current knowledge” is the membrane of a human-generated bubble of understanding in an ocean of Unknown Weird. Inside the bubble, there is the curiosity, ingenuity, and sheer tenacity of zoologists, always pushing outward, building on the work of others, trying to find new things and make sense of what they find. On the other side, the uncaring universe, which pushes back in myriad ways. Animals live in environments that are fantastically inhospitable to humans, including the humans who are trying to learn about those animals. They exhibit inexplicable behaviors and their motivations and ways of life are often perversely opaque to human understanding. They are not here for us. But we can understand them anyway, if we’re clever, hard-working, and lucky.

– Becky is equally alert to the possibility inherent in science, that there are always more surprises waiting for us out there, more facts to discover and more explanations to figure out. The overall tone of the book is happy and optimistic. It’s clear that Becky loves learning about weird animals and loves telling others about them almost as much–which, of course, are among the primary joys of science.

Any cons? A few, none major. I caught a couple of typos, but only a couple, which IME is about par for a book of this length (260 pp). There were one or two bits of what I assume is Australian slang in the informal segments, but I figured them out from context and they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment at all. There are one or two points where phylogenetic terms are either misunderstood or at least oddly applied–for example, Ruminantia is not “an ancient family of ruminants”, but a huge clade encompassing many ‘families’ of extant ruminants and their fossil relatives. But again, there were only a couple such instances and neither counts for much.

There is some profanity in the book. I counted about half a dozen f-bombs, and a few other cuss words. At first I thought that was a poor decision, because it would keep me from recommending the book to, say, a precocious 12-year-old. But that’s because I was still in the first section, on predators. Once I got to the section on mating habits, I realized that I wouldn’t be recommending this book to kids anyway, what with all the forcible intercourse, extra-species sex, penis-drumming, and animals living in other animals’ buttholes. It’s all real stuff, and it’s all really interesting, and I don’t believe that this sort of material should be off-limits forever. But I also don’t think that preteens have any pressing need to learn about enthusiastic bat fellatio. Your parental control mileage may vary.

If you’re not sure if the book is for you, or you’d like a test drive, you can head over to Becky’s blog (current, classic) and check out her writing for free. It will give a pretty good sense of what you’re in for, although I got the impression that Becky was really swinging for the fences in the book–the writing’s a little tighter and the whole thing is just a bit more polished than her average blog entry.

Verdict: I loved it. Go get a copy for yourself or the (grown-up) animal lover in your life.

As noted a few days ago, I recently had an article published on the Guardian site entitled Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. The reaction to that article was fascinating, exhilarating and distressing in fairly equal parts. Fascinating because it generated a fertile stream of 156 comments, most of them substantial. Exhilarating because of some very positive responses. And distressing because some people who I like and respect absolutely hated it.

Those people’s main objections were nicely summed up by a response piece by Chris Chambers, published a few days later on the same site: Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. It’s a good, measured article, and I highly recommend it — not least because it’s apparent that while Chris thinks my tactics are all off, he makes it clear that he shares the goal of universal open access and further significant reform in scholarly communications.

So I’d like to clarify a couple of points that I didn’t make clearly enough in the original articles (but which I addressed in two separate comments on Chris’s article); and then I want to throw the floor open to see if we can hack through the more difficult issues that it raises.

A clarification

Chris wrote:

Do scientists who follow accepted publishing practices deserve to be labelled “immoral”, as Taylor claims?

The intention of my original article was not to say that the individuals who allow their work to go behind paywalls are immoral people, but that the act it itself immoral. If that feels like a fine distinction, it’s not. For a variety of pragmatic reasons, essentially moral people commit immortal acts all the time. At the trivial end of the scale, something as insignificant as not bothering to sort the recycling; at the other end, while no-one would claim dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations is an essentially moral act, many people would accept that in the context of WWII, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were justified or even necessary. (And please: no-one cite this as “Mike says publishing behind a paywall is exactly like nuking civilians”!)

So my goal in the original piece was not to castigate individuals as immoral people, but to push us all into deliberately thinking through the moral implications of our publication choices — decisions that all too many scientists still make without thought for the accessibility or otherwise of their work. I stand by my original assertion that it’s immoral to accept public funding to do research, then hide the fruits of that research from the public that paid for it. But that doesn’t mean that I am “labelling” anyone. My apologies if that distinction wasn’t clear.

To summarise the intent of my article: the decision of where to publish is a moral one. Please, all you moral people out there, make a moral choice.

The curse of  journal prestige

And so we come to the vexed subject of journal rank. First of all, it’s encouraging to see that most people seem to agree at least that the effects of journal rank are A Bad Thing — that judging scientists by what journals they have published in is at best corner cutting, if not outright dereliction. This is not controversial any more, if it ever was: the ridiculous experience of PLOS Medicine as they  negotiated (yes, negotiated) their initial impact factor tells you all you need to know about such metrics.

As Chris wrote in his article:

In many (if not most) fields, the journals in which we publish are judged to be an indicator of professional quality. […] Science is bad at being scientific: the actual quality takes second place to the perception of quality, which is so strong that journal rank creates its own biosphere.

The problem here seem to be one of wrenching an entire community out of a delusion at once. Because the things I hear over and over again are: 1. “Of course, I personally would never judge a paper by what journal it’s in, or judge a scientist by what journals her papers are in”. And 2. “I need to get my papers in glamourous journals so that people will judge me well”. Everyone is worried about being judged by the very criterion that they insist they would never judge by.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this absurd circle. Well, I do: we should all just stop it. But I don’t have a strategy for reaching that solution. One thing that is infuriating to see is that even when the REF and the Wellcome Trust so very explicitly say “We don’t care what journal your work is in”, researchers continue to disbelieve them. I would love to hear constructive thoughts on what can be done about this.

One useful contribution would for more assessment exercises, funding bodes and recruitment programs to explicitly state that they will be assessing the quality of work, not the reputation of the place where it’s published.

Who is going to make change happen?

And so we come to another disturbing circle. Chris wrote:

[Publishing only in OA journals] amounts to sacrificing career opportunities (promotions, grants, research time) for the good of the cause. […] Beyond the considerations of self-preservation, scientists are impelled to protect and support younger researchers under their wings.

I accept that there is truth in this — at least, more than I did when I wrote the original article. (That’s largely due to an email exchange behind the scenes with someone who is welcome to identify himself or herself if he or she wishes; otherwise I’ll preserve anonymity.)

But here’s what worries me about it. I hear researchers at all stages of their careers finding reasons to keep feeding paywalls. Early career researchers say “Well, I’m just getting started, I have to establish my reputation first”. People who are running their own labs say “I have to aim for prestige, for the sake of my students”. Long-established senior figures are in most cases still sceptical of this new-fangled open access thing (and indeed of anything not printed on paper).

So where is the change going to come from?

I must say it warms my heart when I read clear declarations from young researchers. Yesterday Erin McKiernan tweeted:

I wanted to cheer. And Scott Weingart commented on my original article:

Enough idealistic students like us, and maybe something will actually change, rather than just having us all live in a self-perpetuating system which we all know is flawed but are too worried about our careers to do anything about.

These are good people. I hope with all my heart that they get the careers their principled stands deserve.

Now what?

We’re in a very strange situation now. As Scott points out, none of us wants to propagate the current situation, where where you publish counts as well as — or even more than — what you publish. Yet we conspire to keep the circle unbroken. Chris’s article says that people who publish behind paywalls are victics rather than perpetrators; but if they are victims, then who are they victims of? The very same system that they are part of. They are both victims and perpetrators.

Folks, we as an academic community are doing this to ourselves.

How can we stop it?


Hemisected gator

Okay, before some wag makes this point, the gator is missing a good chunk of its tail, so this is more like the left half of the anterior two-thirds of a gator. But that would make a lousy title.

We might have more to say about this in the future, but for now, I’m going to let this 1000-word-equivalent speak for itself.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Rega for the use of the gator.

DEmic 2012 figure 5 titanosauriform phylogeny

D’Emic (2012: figure 5)

Now this is super-freakin’ cool, and I’ve been meaning to blog about it for a while. In Mike D’Emic’s recent titanosauriform phylogeny (D’Emic 2012), he (correctly) included Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan as separate OTUs, and, hey, whaddayaknow, they’re not sister taxa anymore: Brachiosaurus is more closely related to a trio of Early Cretaceous North American brachiosaurids than it is to Giraffatitan.

The potential for someone to find this result was there ever since Mike broke Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan apart, as a previously composite OTU, in his 2009 paper. It just hadn’t materialized. In fact, some authors have gone out of their way to not find this out, by keeping the old composite coding. That seems…unwise, in retrospect. Whether one agreed with Mike on the nomenclatural point of generic separation or not, not coding the two taxa as separate OTUs (especially after Mike had done that work for them) was a poor phylogenetic decision–in essence, it constrained Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan to be sister taxa in the analysis, and outlawed any more interesting results–like the one obtained by D’Emic (2012)–before the software even started crunching trees.

So anyway, back to the coolness inherent in D’Emic’s tree. Of course, like all phylogenetic results this is just a hypothesis and it is subject to revision based on new information blah blah blah…but it is really interesting that there is now some phylogenetic support for an endemic radiation of brachiosaurids in North America (bonus goofy observation–you can’t spell ‘endemic’ without D’Emic). Or perhaps Lauriasia–I would kill to know where the British brachiosaurids (or basal titanosauriforms) fit into this story, and Lusotitan, and the apparently tiny Croatian carbonate platform brachiosaurs.

Also super-interesting that, if this tree is accurate, these endemic Early Cretaceous brachiosaurids were living alongside a giant basal somphospondyl in the form of Sauroposeidon, which came from heaven knows where. Look who it’s surrounded by–Ligabuesaurus is from Argentina, Tastavinsaurus is from Spain, and the euhelopodids are from eastern Asia. Evidently there was also a global radiation of basal somphospondyls. And why are all the Early Cretaceous North American brachiosaurids small–smaller than Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan, anyway (at least until we find bigger individuals of the former)–while Sauroposeidon is so big? Or is that just an effect of tiny sample sizes, and one lucky strike in the form of the Sauroposeidon holotype?

So much cool stuff to think about. I don’t usually get this much enjoyment out of a tree unless it has lights and ornaments.


Our friends Tim and Michelle Williams moved into a local house a few months ago. In the garage, they found a jam jar containing the bones of a squirrel and the remains of its rotting flesh, dated 1985: presumably a zoologist lived in that house 28 years ago, began preparing a specimen, and moved out before finishing.

Tim was inexplicably lacking in excitement over this discovery, and passed the jar to me. I cleaned the bones (holding my nose) and am now the proud owner of a plastic tub full of tiny, tiny bones. Among the most interesting are the mandibles, and here’s why. First, I’ll show you the right mandible in medial view, with its incisor sitting in its socket as it would have done in life:


The bones were clean enough that the teeth all came out of their sockets, so here is the same mandible in the same aspect to the same scale, but with the tooth removed:


I know! It’s ridiculous! You wouldn’t think it would ever fit inside the bone of the jaw! But it does — just. Here are the tooth and the jaw juxtaposed:


So there is it: the tooth literally could not be any bigger.

Rodents: they’re not quite as dull as you think.

The last time we reported on the Apatosaurus cervical-shaped Umbaran Starfight from The Clone Wars, we’d heard from the concept artist Russell G. Chong, who had done the final design on the startfighter, and who told that he wasn’t aware of a sauropod original to the design.


But Russell was not the original designer. He put me onto David Hobbins, who had generated the original rough design that he’d honed. I wrote to David early in January to find out more:

Date: 4 January 2013 22:57
From: Mike Taylor <>
To: David Hobbins
Subject: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

Hi, David. You don’t know me, but I was put onto you by Russell G. Chong. Matt Wedel and I are palaeontologists, specialising in the neck skeletons of sauropod dinosaurs. Matt noticed that the Umbaran Starfighter seems to be closely modelled on an Apatosaurus vertebra — see these four blog posts [1, 2, 3, 4] (You don’t need to read them all, the first one gives the flavour.)

We’re trying to figure out whether this is deliberate as it appears, or just a crazy coincidence. The design was finished by Russell, but he wasn’t its originator, and thinks you might be the man — or know who was.

Can you comment?

David wrote back a few days ago. Here is his message (reproduced with permission):

Date: 16 January 2013 15:58
From: David Hobbins
To: Mike Taylor <>
Subject: Re: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

Hi Mike,

I read the blog posts — interesting commentary! I remember the original design perfectly, and you are absolutely right, I was inspired by the skeletal forms of dinosaur bones. It’s pretty cool that you were able to discern that!

I’ve looked for the original photo I took of the vertebra, but it seems to be lost in the archives. I can’t confirm that it was of an Apatosaurus vertebra exactly, but it’s quite possible. I was at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and took a number of photos that day.

Nature renders complex and beautiful designs; I often find myself drawn to studying organic forms and patterns as inspiration in my vehicle designs.

And he clarified in a subsequent message:

Date: 16 January 2013 20:51
From: David Hobbins
To: Mike Taylor <>
Subject: Re: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

The bone was presented as a single vertebra on public display. I’m uncertain that the collection will be the same now. I took the photo back in 2007 just before the California Academy of Sciences moved into their present location in Golden Gate Park. I’m sure there have been a lot of changes since.

I will continue the search for the original photo. Will let you know right away if I find anything.

So this is great news! Matt’s initial hypothesis is confirmed from the horse’s mouth. All we need to wrap this investigation up is a photo of the original exhibit.

Does anyone out there have a photo of an isolated Apatosaurus vertebra that was on exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco before it moved to Golden Gate Park? Or does anyone know someone who works at CAoS that we could talk to?

Update (later the same day)

This discovery has been covered at sci-fi fan site io9!

The rest of the posts in what we’re calling the Umbaran Starfighter Saga: