Estimating sauropod intervertebral cartilage thickness from CT scans
January 15, 2014
[This is part 4 in an ongoing series on our recent PLOS ONE paper on sauropod neck cartilage. See also part 1, part 2, and part 3.]
Here’s a frequently-reproduced quote from Darwin:
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!
It’s from a letter to Henry Fawcett, dated September 18, 1861, and you can read the whole thing here.
I’ve known this quote for ages, having been introduced to it at Berkeley–a copy used to be taped to the door of the Padian Lab, and may still be. It’s come back to haunt me recently, though. An even stronger version would run something like, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t make the observation in the first place!”
For example: I started CT scanning sauropod vertebrae with Rich Cifelli and Kent Sanders back in January, 1998. Back then, I was interested in pneumaticity, so that’s what I looked for, and that’s what I found–work which culminated in Wedel et al. (2000) and Wedel (2003). It wasn’t until earlier this year that I wondered if it would be possible to determine the spacing of articulated vertebrae from CT scans. So everything I’m going to show you, I technically saw 15 years ago, but only in the sense of “it crossed my visual field.” None of it registered at the time, because I wasn’t looking for it.
A corollary I can’t help noting in passing: one of the under-appreciated benefits of expanding your knowledge base is that it allows you to actually make more observations. Many aspects of nature only appear noteworthy once you have a framework in which to see them.
So anyway, the very first specimen we scanned way back when was the most anterior of the three plaster jackets that contain the four cervical vertebrae that make up OMNH 53062, which was destined to become the holotype of Sauroposeidon. I’ve written about the taphonomy of that specimen here, and you can read more about how it was excavated in Wedel and Cifelli (2005). We scanned that jacket first because, although the partial vertebrae it contains are by far the most incomplete of the four, the jacket is a lot smaller and lighter than the other two (which weigh hundreds of pounds apiece). Right away we saw internal chambers in the vertebrae, and that led to all of the pneumaticity work mentioned above.
Happily for me, that first jacket contains not only the posterior two-thirds of the first vertebra (possibly C5), but also the front end of the second vertebra. Whoever decided to plow through the second vertebra to divide the specimen into manageable chunks in the field made a savvy choice. Way back in 2004 I realized that the cut edge of the second vertebra was not obscured by plaster, and therefore the internal structure could be seen and measured directly, which is a lot cleaner than relying on the artifact-heavy CT scans. (The CT scans are noisy because the hospital machines we had access to start to pant a bit when asked to punch x-rays through specimens this large and dense.) A figure derived from that work made it into a couple of papers and this post, and appears again above.
But that’s pneumaticity, which this post is allegedly not about. The cut through the second vertebra was also smart because it left the intervertebral joint intact.
Here are a photo of the jacket and a lateral scout x-ray. The weird rectangles toward the left and right ends of the x-ray are boards built into the bottom of the jacket to strengthen it.
And here’s a closeup of the C5/C6 joint, with the relevant radiographs and tracing. The exciting thing here is that the condyle is centered almost perfectly in the cotyle, and the zygapophyses are in articulation. Together with the lack of disarticulation in the cervical rib bundle (read more about that here and in Wedel et al. 2000), these things suggest to us that the vertebrae are spaced pretty much as they were in life. If so, then the spacing between the vertebrae now tells us the thickness of the soft tissue that separated the vertebrae in life.
I should point out here that we can’t prove that the spacing between the vertebrae is still the same as it was in life. But if some mysterious force moved them closer together or farther apart, it did so (1) without decentering the condyle of C6 within the cotyle of C5, (2) without moving the one surviving zygapophyseal joint out of contact, and (3) without disarticulating the cervical ribs. The cervical ribs were each over 3 meters long in life and they formed vertically-stacked bundles on either side below the vertebrae; that’s a lot of stuff to move just through any hypothetical contraction or expansion of the intervertebral soft tissues after death. In fact, I would not be surprised if the intervertebral soft tissues did contract or expand after death–but I don’t think they moved the vertebrae, which are comparatively immense. The cartilage probably pulled away from the bone as it rotted, allowing sediment in. Certainly every nook and cranny of the specimen is packed with fine-grained sandstone now.
Anyway, barring actual preserved cartilage, this is a best-case scenario for trying to infer intervertebral spacing in a fossil. If articulation of the centra, zygs, and cervical ribs doesn’t indicate legitimate geometry, nothing ever will. So if we’re going to use the fossils to help settle this at all, we’re never going to have a better place to start.
So, by now, you know I’m a doofus. I have been thinking about this problem literally for years and the data I needed to address it was sitting on my hard drive the entire time. One of the things I pondered during those lost years is what the best shape for a concave-to-convex intervertebral joint might be. Would the best spacing be radially constant (A in the figure above), or antero-posteriorly constant (B), or some other, more complicated arrangement? The answer in this case surprised me–although the condyle is a lot smaller in diameter than the cotyle, the anteroposterior separation between them in almost constant, as you can see in part C of the above figure.
Don’t get too worked up about that, though, because the next joint is very different! Here’s the C6/C7 joint, again in a lateral scout x-ray, with the ends of the bones highlighted. Here the condyle is almost as big in diameter as the cotyle, but it is weirdly flat. This isn’t a result of overzealous prep–most of the condyle is still covered in matrix, and I only found its actual extent by looking at the x-ray. This is flatter than most anterior dorsal vertebrae of Apatosaurus–I’ve never seen a sauropod cervical with such a flat condyle. Has anyone else?
The condyle of C6 is a bit flatter than expected, too–certainly a lot flatter than the cervical condyles in Giraffatitan and the BYU Brachiosaurus vertebrae. As we said in the paper,
It is tempting to speculate that the flattened condyles and nearly constant thickness of the intervertebral cartilage are adaptations to bearing weight, which must have been an important consideration in a cervical series more than 11 meters long, no matter how lightly built.
Anyway, obviously here the anteroposterior distance between condyle and cotyle could not have been uniform because they are such different shapes. Wacky. The zygs are missing, so they’re no help, and clearly the condyle is not centered in the cotyle. Whether this posture was attainable in life is debatable; I’ve seen some pretty weird stuff. In any case, we didn’t use this joint for estimating cartilage thickness because we had no reason to trust the results.
Kent Sanders and I had also scanned several of the smaller sauropod vertebrae from the Carnegie collection (basically, the ones that would fit in the trunk of my car for the drive back to Oklahoma). Crucially, we’d scanned a couple of sets of articulated vertebrae, CM 3390 and CM 11339, both from juvenile individuals of Apatosaurus. In both cases, the condyles and cotyles are concentric (that’s what the ‘orthogonal gaps’ are all about in the above figure) and the zygs are in articulation, just as in Sauroposeidon. These are dorsals, so we don’t have any cervical ribs here to provide a third line of evidence that the articulation is legit, but all of the evidence that we do have is at least consistent with that interpretation.
So, here’s an interesting thing: in CM 3390, above, the first dorsal is cranked up pretty sharply compared to the next one, but the condyle is still centered in the cotyle and the zygs are in articulation. Now, the vertebrae have obviously been sheared by taphonomic deformation, but that seems to have affected both vertebrae to the same extent, and it’s hard to imagine some kind of taphonomic pressure moving one vertebra around relative to the next. So I think it’s at least plausible that this range of motion was achievable in life. Using various views and landmarks, we estimate the degree of extension here somewhere between 31 and 36 degrees. That’s a lot more than the ~6 degrees estimated by Stevens and Parrish (1999, 2005). And, as we mentioned in the paper, it nicely reinforces the point made by Upchurch (2000), that flexibility in the anterior dorsals should be taken into account in estimating neck posture and ROM.
Here’s our last specimen, CM 11339. No big surprises here, although if you ever had a hard time visualizing how hyposphenes and hypantra fit together, you can see them in articulation in parts C and D (near the top of the specimen). Once again, by paging through slices we were able to estimate the separation between the vertebrae. Incidentally, the condyle IS centered in the cotyle here, it just doesn’t look that way because the CT slice is at an angle to the joint–see the lateral scout in part A of the figure to see what I mean.
So, what did we find? In Sauroposeidon the spacing between C5 and C6 is 52mm. That’s pretty darn thick in absolute terms–a shade over two inches–but really thin in relative terms–only a little over 4% of the length of each vertebra. In both of the juvenile Apatosaurus specimens, the spacing between the vertebrae was about 14mm (give or take a few because of the inherent thickness of the slices; see the paper for details on these uncertainties).
Now, here’s an interesting thing: we can try to estimate the intervertebral spacing in an adult Apatosaurus in two ways–by scaling up from the juvenile apatosaurus, or by scaling sideways from Sauroposeidon (since a big Apatosaurus was in the same ballpark, size-wise)–and we get similar answers either way.
Scaling sideways from Sauroposeidon (I’m too lazy to write anymore so I’m just copying and pasting from the paper):
Centrum shape is conventionally quantified by Elongation Index (EI), which is defined as the total centrum length divided by the dorsoventral height of the posterior articular surface. Sauroposeidon has proportionally very long vertebrae: the EI of C6 is 6.1. If instead it were 3, as in the mid-cervicals of Apatosaurus, the centrum length would be 600 mm. That 600 mm minus 67 mm for the cotyle would give a functional length of 533 mm, not 1153, and 52 mm of cartilage would account for 9.8% of the length of that segment.
Scaling up from the juveniles: juvenile sauropods have proportionally short cervicals (Wedel et al. 2000). The scanned vertebrae are anterior dorsals with an EI of about 1.5. Mid-cervical vertebrae of this specimen would have EIs about 2, so the same thickness of cartilage would give 12mm of cartilage and 80mm of bone per segment, or 15% cartilage per segment. Over ontogeny the mid-cervicals telescoped to achieve EIs of 2.3–3.3. Assuming the cartilage did not also telescope in length (i.e., didn’t get any thicker than it got taller or wider), the ratio of cartilage to bone would be 12:120 (120 from 80*1.5), so the cartilage would account for 10% of the length of the segment–almost exactly what we got from the based-on-Sauroposeidon estimate. So either we got lucky here with our tiny sample size and truckloads of assumptions, or–just maybe–we discovered a Thing. At least we can say that the intervertebral spacing in the Apatosaurus and Sauroposeidon vertebrae is about the same, once the effects of scaling and EI are removed.
Finally, we’re aware that our sample size here is tiny and heavily skewed toward juveniles. That’s because we were just collecting targets of opportunity. Finding sauropod vertebrae that will fit through a medical-grade CT scanner is not easy, and it’s just pure dumb luck that Kent Sanders and I had gotten scans of even this many articulated vertebrae way back when, since at the time we were on the hunt for pneumaticity, not intervertebral joints or their soft tissues. As Mike has said before, we don’t think of this paper as the last word on anything. It is, explicitly, exploratory. Hopefully in a few years we’ll be buried in new data on in-vivo intervertebral spacing in both extant and extinct animals. If and when that avalanche comes, we’ll just be happy to have tossed a snowball.
- Stevens, K.A. and Parrish, J.M. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284: 798-800. [Free subscription required]
- Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 2005. Neck posture, dentition, and feeding strategies in Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. pp. 212-232 in: Virginia Tidwell and Ken Carpenter (eds.), Thunder Lizards: the Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. 495 pp.
- Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214 [PDF]
- Upchurch, P. 2000. Neck posture of sauropod dinosaurs. Science 287: 547b.
- Wedel, M.J. 2003b. The evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23:344-357.
- Wedel, M.J. 2007. Aligerando a los gigantes (Lightening the giants). ¡Fundamental! 12:1-84. [in Spanish, with English translation]
- Wedel, M.J., and Cifelli, R.L. 2005. Sauroposeidon: Oklahoma’s native giant. Oklahoma Geology Notes 65 (2):40-57.
- Wedel, M.J., R.L. Cifelli and R.K. Sanders. 2000. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45(4): 343-388.