Wheelbarrow handles for vertebrae? The cervical rib bundles of Sauroposeidon and other sauropods
September 22, 2014
We have good descriptions of the proximal parts of the cervical ribs for lots of sauropods. We also have histological cross-sections of a few, mostly thanks to the work of Nicole Klein and colleagues (Klein et al. 2012, Preuschoft and Klein 2013), although histological cross-sections of ribs were also figured as long ago as 1999, by Dalla Vecchia (1999: figs. 29 and 30), and as recently as this month, by Lacovara et al. (2014: supplementary figure 4).
What we have very, very few of is series of cross-sections that show how the cr0ss-section of a cervical rib changes along its length. There may be more out there (and if I have forgotten any, please remind me!), but at the moment I can only think of three such figures: two in Janensch (1950: figs. 83 and 85), both on Giraffatitan, and one in Klein et al. (2012: fig. 1), with cross-sections from Mamenchisaurus, Giraffatitan, and Diplodocus (shown at the top of the post).
Rarer still are images that show cross-sections of overlapped cervical ribs, stacked in situ. You could use the information in Janensch (1950: figs. 83 and 85) to generate the stacked cross-sections, but you wouldn’t know the spacing between the ribs as they were in the ground. I think the image just above, of the cervical rib bundles in the Sauroposeidon holotype, OMNH 53062, may be the first of its kind–again, if you know of any others, please let me know. I took the notes for this figure back in 2004, sitting down with the holotype and some digital calipers to make sure I could scale everything correctly, I just hadn’t ever put it into a presentable form until now. The first C6 section (blue V-shape) is from right at the root where the capitulum and tuberculum meet and the posterior shaft of the rib begins.
It is by now well-understood that the long cervical ribs of sauropods and other dinosaurs are ossified tendons of the long hypaxial neck muscles, specifically the longus colli ventralis and flexor colli lateralis. We argued this back in 200o on comparative anatomical grounds (Wedel et al. 2000b: pp. 378-379), and it has now been demonstrated histologically (Klein et al. 2012, Lacovara et al. 2014). The system of stacked tendons is also found in most birds. Here’s the bundle of stacked tendons in a rhea neck, only slightly fanned out:
And the same neck, with both the epaxial and hypaxial muscles more fully separated:
What I’d really like is an MRI of a rhea or ostrich neck, showing the stacked tendons and their associated belts of muscle, to compare with the stacked cervical ribs of Sauroposeidon and other sauropods. Anyone know of any?
Incidentally, I think the cervical ribs and cervical rib bundles of sauropods are one line of evidence for sauropod necks having been rather slenderly-muscled. The long, multi-segment muscles like the longus colli ventralis are the outermost components of the muscular envelope that surrounds the vertebrae, as you can see in the rhea dissection photos. In sauropod specimens with articulated cervical ribs, the ribs do not deviate from one another or fan out. Rather, they lie in vertically stacked bundles that run from one capitulum-tuberculum intersection to the next. So the depth of that intersection–the “root” of the cervical rib of any given vertebra–plus the thickness of the ribs stacked underneath it, is pretty much the thickness of the muscular envelope around the neck, or at least around the ventral half. And the cervical ribs are typically pretty close to the vertebral centra–only weirdos like Apatosaurus and Erketu displace them very far ventrally (see Taylor and Wedel 2013a: fig. 7 and this post). So, thin jackets of muscle around proportionally large vertebrae–or, if you like, corn-on-the-cob rather than shish-kebabs.
As for why sauropods have long cervical ribs, Mike and I discussed some possibilities in our 2013 PeerJ paper (Taylor and Wedel 2013a), and Preuschoft and Klein addressed the issue last fall in PLOS ONE (Preuschoft and Klein 2013). My favorite hypothesis is that long tendons allow an animal to shift the bulk of the muscle–and therefore the center of gravity–toward the base of the neck, but that long unossified tendons can be distorted through stretching, which wastes muscular energy. Ossifying those long tendons is like putting bony wheelbarrow handles on each vertebra, allowing the muscles to move the vertebra from a distance without so much wasted energy, and probably with finer positional control.
That’s a nifty hypothesis in need of testing, anyway. In fact, cervical ribs and their associated muscles could stand a lot more attention on both the descriptive and analytical fronts. I know that Liguo Li has some research in the works on different conformations of hypaxial muscles, tendons, and cervical ribs in birds (you know, when she’s not describing bizarre new titanosaurs like Yongjinglong — see Li et al. 2014). If you saw Peter Dodson give their talk at SVP last fall, you probably remember some stunning images of dissected bird necks. As a famous legislator once said, we shall watch her career with great interest.
- Dalla Vecchia, F.M. 1999. Atlas of the sauropod bones from the Upper Hauterivian – Lower Barremian of Bale/Valle (SW Istria, Croatia). Natura Nacosta 18:6-41.
- Janensch, Werner. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3: 27-93.
- Klein, N., Christian, A., & Sander, P. M. (2012). Histology shows that elongated neck ribs in sauropod dinosaurs are ossified tendons. Biology letters, 8(6), 1032-1035.
- Lacovara, Kenneth J.; Ibiricu, L.M.; Lamanna, M.C.; Poole, J.C.; Schroeter, E.R.; Ullmann, P.V.; Voegele, K.K.; Boles, Z.M.; Egerton, V.M.; Harris, J.D.; Martínez, R.D.; Novas, F.E. (September 4, 2014). A Gigantic, Exceptionally Complete Titanosaurian Sauropod Dinosaur from Southern Patagonia, Argentina. Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/srep06196.
- Li L-G, Li D-Q, You H-L, Dodson P (2014) A New Titanosaurian Sauropod from the Hekou Group (Lower Cretaceous) of the Lanzhou-Minhe Basin, Gansu Province, China. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85979. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085979
- Preuschoft, H., & Klein, N. (2013). Torsion and Bending in the Neck and Tail of Sauropod Dinosaurs and the Function of Cervical Ribs: Insights from Functional Morphology and Biomechanics. PloS one, 8(10), e78574.
- Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013a. Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. PeerJ 1:e36. 41 pages, 11 figures, 3 tables. doi:10.7717/peerj.36
- Wedel, M.J., Cifelli, R.L., and Sanders, R.K. 2000b. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaurSauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45(4): 343-388.