As I mentioned a few days ago, Matt and I have a couple of papers in the new PLOS ONE Sauropod Gigantism collection. We were each lead author on one and second author on the other, so for convenience’s sake we’ll refer to them as my paper (Taylor and Wedel 2013c on neck cartilage) and Matt’s paper (Wedel and Taylor 2013b on caudal pneumaticity.)

Mine is very simple in concept (although it ended up at 17 pages and 23 figures). It’s all about addressing one of the overlooked variables in reconstructing the postures of the necks of sauropods (and indeed of all tetrapods). That is, the spacing between consecutive vertebrae, and the effect this has on “neutral pose”.

The concept of “neutral pose” goes back to the DinoMorph work of Stevens and Parrish (1999). They defined it (p. 799) as follows: “We determined the neutral poses for each animal, wherein the paired articular facets of the postzygapophyses of each cervical vertebra were centered over the facets of the prezygapophyses of its caudally adjacent counterpart.”


Taylor and Wedel (2013c: Figure 3). Articulated sauropod vertebrae. Representative mid-cervical vertebra of Giraffatitan brancai, articulating with its neighbours. The condyle (ball) on the front of each vertebra’s centrum fits into the cotyle (socket) at the back of the preceding one, and the prezygapophyses articulate with the preceding vertebra’s postzygapophyses. These vertebrae are in Osteological Neutral Pose, because the pre- and postzygapophyseal facets overlap fully.

One of the more fundamental flaws in Stevens and Parrish (1999) is the assumption that animals habitually rest their necks in neutral pose — an assumption that is unsupported by evidence and, as it turns out, false (Vidal et al. 1986, Taylor et al. 2009). But let’s leave that aside for the moment, and consider what neutral pose actually represents.

The fact that there is even such a thing as neutral articulation between two consecutive vertebrae is due to there being three points of contact between those vertebra: as with the legs of a tripod, three points is the minimum number you need to fix an object in three-dimensional space. Two of these points are at the zygapophyses, as noted in the original definition above. The third point is the articulation between the centra.

The centrum has been curiously overlooked in discussions of neutral pose, but needless to say its length is crucial in establishing what is neutral. In the image above, if the centrum was longer, then the angle between the consecutive vertebrae would need to be raised in order to keep the zygapophyses articulated.

And of course it was longer in life, because of the cartilage in between the consecutive centra. (The use of the more specific term “osteological neutral pose” goes some way to recognising that tissues other than bone have been overlooked, but the problem has not really been addressed or even properly acknowledged in published works before our paper.)


Taylor and Wedel (2013c: Figure 5). Intervertebral gaps in camel necks. Head and neck of dromedary camels. Top: UMZC H.14191, in right lateral view, posed well below habitual posture, with apparently disarticulated C3/C4 and C4/C5 joints. Photograph taken of a public exhibit at University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, UK. Bottom: OUMNH 17427, in left lateral view, reversed for consistency with Cambridge specimen. Photograph taken of a public exhibit at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, UK. Inset: detail of C4 of the Oxford specimen, showing articulations with C3 and C5. The centra are separated by thick pads of artificial ‘‘cartilage’’ to preserve spacing as in life.

You simply can’t ignore cartilage when modelling neck postures and expect to get anything resembling a meaningful result. That is, presumably, the reason why the habitual posture of rabbits in life exceeds the most extended posture we were able to obtain when manipulating dry vertebrae of a hare: compare Vidal et al. (1986: fig. 4) with Taylor et al. (2009: fig. 1).

How big is the effect? That depends on the thickness of the cartilage and the height of the zygapophyses above the center of rotation. Here is an illustration that we should have put in the paper, but which inexplicably neither of us thought of:


Influence of intervertebral cartilage on vertebral articulation angle. Consider the posterior vertebra (black) as fixed. The blue vertebra represents neutral pose of the preceding vertebra with centra abutting and zygapophyseal facets maximally overlapped. The red vertebra indicates neutral pose once intervertebral cartilage is added between the vertebra (where else?) The green lines show the angle by which the more anterior vertebra must be inclined in order to accommodate the cartilage, and the magenta line shows the height of the zygapophyseal articulation above the center of rotation between the two vertebrae.

Here’s some elementary trigonometry. Suppose the intervertebral cartilage is x distance thick at mid-height of the centra, and that the height of the zygs above this mid-height point (the magenta line) is y. The triangle between the middle of the condyle of the posterior vertebra, the middle of the cotyle of the anterior one and the zygapophyseal articulation is near enough a right-angled triangle as makes no odds.

Consider the angle θ between the green lines. Sin(θ) = opposite/hypotenuse = x/y, and by similarity, the additional angle of inclination of the anterior vertebra is also θ.

But for small angles (and this is generally a small angle), sin(θ) ≈ θ. So the additional inclination in radians = cartilage thickness divided by zygapophyseal height. For example, in vertebrae where the zygs are 23 cm above the mid-height of the centra, adding 4 cm of intervertebral cartilage adds about 4/23 = 0.174 radians = 10 degrees of extra inclination. (That’s pretty similar to the angle in the illustration above. Eyeballing the cartilage thickness and zyg height in the illustration suggests that 23:4 ratio is about right, which is a nice sanity-check of this method.)


At this point, I am cursing my own stupidity for not putting this diagram, and the very simple calculation, into the paper. I guess that can happen when something is written in a hurry (which to be honest this paper was). The formula is so simple — and accurate enough within tolerances of inevitable measurement error — that we really should have used it all over the place. I guess that will have to go in a followup now. [Update, 5th November 2014. It’s long overdue, but that followup paper has finally been submitted and is available as a preprint.]

Anyway — next time, we’ll address this important related question: how thick, in fact, was the cartilage between the cervicals of sauropods?