Does anyone want a project? How can we understand sauropod neck cartilage better?

September 27, 2014

A couple of times now, I’ve pitched in an abstract for a Masters project looking at neck cartilage, hoping someone at Bristol will work on it with me co-supervising, but so far no-one’s bitten. Here’s how I’ve been describing it:

Understanding posture and motion in the necks of sauropods: the crucial role of cartilage in intervertebral joints

The sauropod dinosaurs were an order of magnitude bigger than any other terrestrial animal. Much sauropod research has concentrated on their long necks, which were crucial to their success (e.g. Sander et al. 2010). One approach to understanding neck function tries to determine neutral posture and range of motion by modelling the cervical vertebrae as a mechanical system (e.g. Stevens and Parrish 1999).

The raw material of such studies is fossilised vertebrae, but these are problematic for several reasons. The invariable incompleteness and distortion of sauropod neck fossils causes fundamental difficulties; but even given perfect fossils, the lack of preserved cartilage means that the bones are not shaped or sized as they were in life.

Ignoring cartilage has dramatic consequences for neutral posture, range of motion and even length of necks: pilot studies (Cobley 2011, Taylor 2011) found that intact bird necks are 8–12% longer than articulated sequences of their dry bones, and that figure is as high as 24% for a juvenile giraffe neck. A turkey neck postzygapophysis was 26% longer when cartilage was included than after being stripped down to naked bone.

We do not yet know how much articular cartilage sauropods had in their necks, nor even what kind of intervertebral joints they had: crocodilians have fibrocartilaginous discs like those of mammals, while birds have synovial joints, so the extant phylogenetic bracket is uninformative.

The project will involve dissection and measurement of bird and crocodilian necks, documenting the extent and shape of articular cartilage, identifying osteological correlates of fibrocartilaginous and synovial joints, and applying this data to sauropods to determine the nature of their neck joints and length of their necks, to reconstruct the lost cartilage, and to determine its effect on neutral pose and range of motion.

Following completion, we anticipate publication of the project.


Cobley, Matthew J. 2011. The flexibility and musculature of the ostrich neck: implications for the feeding ecology and reconstruction of the Sauropoda (Dinosauria: Saurischia). MSc Thesis, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. vi+64 pages.

Sander, P. Martin, Andreas Christian, Marcus Clauss, Regina Fechner, Carole T. Gee, Eva-Maria Griebeler, Hanns-Christian Gunga, Jürgen Hummel, Heinrich Mallison, Steven F. Perry, Holger Preuschoft, Oliver W. M. Rauhut, Kristian Remes, Thomas Tütken, Oliver Wings and Ulrich Witzel. 2010. Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the evolution of gigantism. Biological Reviews 86:117–155. doi:10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00137.x

Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck Posture and Feeding Habits of Two Jurassic Sauropod Dinosaurs. Science 284:798–800. doi:10.1126/science.284.5415.798

Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2011. Sauropod necks: how much do we really know?. p. 20 in Richard Forrest (ed.), Abstracts of Presentations, 59th Annual Symposium of Vertebrae Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK, September 12th–17th 2011. 37 pp.

(Obviously some part of this have since been covered by my and Matt’s first cartilage paper, but plenty has not.)

I now think there are two reasons no-one’s taken up this project: first, because I wrote it as very focussed only on the question of what type of joint was present, whereas there are plenty of related issues to be investigated along the way; and second, because I wrote it as a quest to discover a specific treasure (an osteological correlate), with the implication that if there’s no treasure to be found then the project will have been a failure.

But I do think there is still plenty of important work to be done in this area, and that there’s lots of important information to be got out of comparative dissection of extant critters.

If anyone out there fancies working in this area, I’d be delighted. I’d also be happy to offer whatever advice and help I could.

Update (18 October 2014)

Somehow I’d forgotten, when I wrote this post, that I’d previously written a more detailed post about the discs-in-sauropod-necks problem. If you’re interested in the problem, you should read that.


8 Responses to “Does anyone want a project? How can we understand sauropod neck cartilage better?”

  1. Jay Says:

    Unrelated to this, what’s the current word on the ODP?

  2. This might be a stupid question, but is it possible to use digital models of bones to correct the distortion that they’re subjected too? I guess it would be a matter of, how do you know how distorted they are, right?

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Some work has been done on what is known as retrodeformation — tweaking digital models of fossil bones to under the distortion that the physical bones have been subjected to. See for example Angielczyk and Sheets (2007). But you’re right, the fundamental issue is always figuring out how much to retrodeform. It’s tough.


    Angielczyk, Kenneth D., and H. David Sheets. 2007. Investigation of simulated tectonic deformation in fossils using geometric morphometrics. Paleobiology 33(1):125-148.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    Jay, the ODP will soon be rolling again. Andy and I got very close in the early summer, before fieldwork and summer teaching intervened. I’m giving my last lectures in gross anatomy this week, and the lab will be over in about three more weeks, so we’ll get back to it soon. I really, really want to kill that thing off this time.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for the Tschopp et al. reference — I had an Ely that there was something obvious I was missing, but couldn’t trap my hindbrain and get it to tell me what it was thinking of.

  6. Mitchell Lukens Says:

    I’m looking for a Master’s project still. I’d be very interested to pursue this idea.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    In case anyone wonders, I emailed Mitchell to follow up on the last comment. No reply yet.

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