Epipophyses, the forgotten apophyses: not just for sauropods!

February 2, 2015

Matt’s last post contained a nice overview of the occurrence of epipophyses in sauropodomorphs: that is, bony insertion points for epaxial ligaments and muscles above the postzygapophyseal facets. What we’ve not mentioned so far is that these structures are not limited to sauropods. Back when we were preparing one of the earlier drafts of the paper that eventually became Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks (Taylor and Wedel 2013a), I explored their occurrence in related groups. But that section never got written up for the manuscript, and now seems as good a time as any to fix that.

Theropods (including birds)

Most obviously, epipophyses occur in theropods, the sister group of sauropodomorphs.

Taylor and Wedel (2013a: figure 11). Archosaur cervical vertebrae in posterior view, Showing muscle attachment points in phylogenetic context. Blue arrows indicate epaxial muscles attaching to neural spines, red arrows indicate epaxial muscles attaching to epipophyses, and green arrows indicate hypaxial muscles attaching to cervical ribs. While hypaxial musculature anchors consistently on the cervical ribs, the principle epaxial muscle migrate from the neural spine in crocodilians to the epipophyses in non-avial theropods and modern birds, with either or both sets of muscles being significant in sauropods. 1, fifth cervical vertebra of Alligator mississippiensis, MCZ 81457, traced from 3D scans by Leon Claessens, courtesy of MCZ. Epipophyses are absent. 2, eighth cervical vertebra of Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype HMN SII, traced from Janensch (1950, figures 43 and 46). 3, eleventh cervical vertebra of Camarasaurus supremus, reconstruction within AMNH 5761/X, “cervical series I”, modified from Osborn and Mook (1921, plate LXVII). 4, fifth cervical vertebra of the abelisaurid theropod Majungasaurus crenatissimus,UA 8678, traced from O’Connor (2007, figures 8 and 20). 5, seventh cervical vertebra of a turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, traced from photographs by MPT.

Taylor and Wedel (2013a: figure 11). Archosaur cervical vertebrae in posterior view, Showing muscle attachment points in phylogenetic context. Blue arrows indicate epaxial muscles attaching to neural spines, red arrows indicate epaxial muscles attaching to epipophyses, and green arrows indicate hypaxial muscles attaching to cervical ribs. While hypaxial musculature anchors consistently on the cervical ribs, the principle epaxial muscle migrate from the neural spine in crocodilians to the epipophyses in non-avial theropods and modern birds, with either or both sets of muscles being significant in sauropods. 1, fifth cervical vertebra of Alligator mississippiensis, MCZ 81457, traced from 3D scans by Leon Claessens, courtesy of MCZ. Epipophyses are absent. 2, eighth cervical vertebra of Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype HMN SII, traced from Janensch (1950, figures 43 and 46). 3, eleventh cervical vertebra of Camarasaurus supremus, reconstruction within AMNH 5761/X, “cervical series I”, modified from Osborn and Mook (1921, plate LXVII). 4, fifth cervical vertebra of the abelisaurid theropod Majungasaurus crenatissimus,UA 8678, traced from O’Connor (2007, figures 8 and 20). 5, seventh cervical vertebra of a turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, traced from photographs by MPT.

In this figure from the 2013 paper, the rightmost images show cervical vertebrae of Majungasaurus (an abelisaurid theropod) and a turkey, both in posterior view. The red arrows indicate epaxial musculature pulling on the epipophyses. They are particularly prominent in Majungasaurus, rising almost a full centrum’s height above the postzygapophyseal facets.

The epipophyses are very prominent in the anterior cervicals of Tyrannosaurus, but much less so in its posterior cervicals — presumably because its flesh-tearing moves involved pulling upwards more strongly on the anterior part of the neck. Here’s a photo of the AMNH mount, from our post T. rex‘s neck is pathetic:

amnh-tyrannosaurus-is-pathetic

You can see something similar in the neck of Allosaurus, and the trend generally seems to be widespread among theropods.

Ornithischians

Note the very prominent epipophyses protruding above the postzygs in the anterior cervicals of this Heterodontosaurus in the AMNH public gallery:

Cast of AMNH 28471, Heterodontosaurus tucki, collected from the Early Jurassic Voisana, Herschel district, South Africa. Anterior to the left.

Cast of AMNH 28471, Heterodontosaurus tucki, collected from the Early Jurassic Voisana, Herschel district, South Africa. Neck in left lateral view.

Here’s the hadrosaur Corythosaurus:

AMNH 5338, Corythosaurus casuarius, from the Campanian of the Red Deer River, Alberta, Canada. Collected by Barnum Brown and P. C. Kaisen, 1914. Cervicals 1-4 in right lateral view.

AMNH 5338, Corythosaurus casuarius, from the Campanian of the Red Deer River, Alberta, Canada. Collected by Barnum Brown and P. C. Kaisen, 1914. Cervicals 1-4 in right lateral view.

The prominent vertebra is C2: note that is has both a modest blade-like neural spine and prominent epipophyses — but that already by C3 the epipophyses are gone. Here is that C2 postzyg/epipophyses complex is close-up, clearly showing anteroposteriorly directed striations on the epipophysis, presumably representing the orientation of the attaching ligaments and muscles:

As previous image: close-up of posterior part of C2.

As previous image: close-up of posterior part of C2.

Here’s a close-up of the neck of the boring ornithopod Tenontosaurus, also in the AMNH gallery. (I’m not sure of the specimen number — if anyone can clarify, please leave a comment).

AMNH ?3554, Tenontosaurus tilletti, cervcials 2-4 in right lateral view.

AMNH ?3554, Tenontosaurus tilletti, cervicals 2-4 in right lateral view.

The interesting thing here is that it its axis (C2) seems to lack epipophyses (unlike C3), and to have a tall blade-like neural spine, as seen in mammals. We don’t really see C2 spines this big in other dinosaurs — compare with the much more modest spine in Corythosaurus, above. The texture of this part of the Tenontosaurus specimen looks suspicious, and I wonder whether that neural spine is a fabrication, created back in the day by AMNH staff who were so used to mammals that they “knew” what a C2 should look like? Anyway, the epipophysis above the postzyg of C3 is very distinct and definitely real bone.

Pterosaurs

Things get much more difficult with pterosaurs, because their cervicals are so fragile and easily crushed (like the rest of their skeleton, to be fair). While it’s easy to find nice, well-preserved ornithischian necks on display, you don’t ever really see anything similar for pterosaurs.

As a result, we have to rely on specimen photographs from collections, or more often on interpretive drawings. Even high-resolution photos, such as the one in Frey and Tischlinger (2012: fig 2) tend not to show the kind of detail we need. Usually, the only usable information comes from drawings made by people who have worked on the specimens.

Here, for example, is Rhamphorhynchus, well known as the most difficult pterosaur to spell, in figure 7 from Bonde and Christiansen’s (2003) paper on its axial pneumaticity:

BondeChristiansen2003-axial-pneumaticity-of-rhamphorhynchus-fig7It’s not the main point of the illustration, but you can make out clear epipophyses extending posteriorly past the postzygapophyseal facets in at least C3 and C5 — in C4, the relevant area is obscured by a rib. (Note that the vertebrae are upside down in this illustration, so you need to be looking towards the bottom of the picture.)

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a better illustration of Rhamphorhynchus epipophyses, but as I get older my memory for Rhamphorhynchus epipophyses is no longer what it used to be and I can’t remember where. Can anyone help?

But also of interest is the azhdarchid pterosaur Phosphatodraco, here illustrated by Pereda Suberbiola et al. (2003):

Pereda Suberbiola et al. (2003: fig. 3). Phosphatodraco mauritanicus gen. et sp. nov, OCP DEK/GE 111, Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian), Morocco: (a) cervical five in two fragments, ventral and left lateral views; (b) cervical six in ventrolateral view; (c) cervical seven in ventral view; (d) cervical eight in left lateral view; (e) cervical nine in posterior view; (f) cervical six in anterior view. c, centrum; co, condyle; ct, cotyle; hyp, hypapophysis; nc, neural canal; ns, neural spine; poe, postexapophysis; poz, postzygapophysis; prz, prezygapophysis; su, sulcus; tp, transverse process.

Pereda Suberbiola et al. (2003: fig. 3). Phosphatodraco mauritanicus gen. et sp. nov, OCP DEK/GE 111, Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian), Morocco: (a) cervical five in two fragments, ventral and left lateral views; (b) cervical six in ventrolateral view; (c) cervical seven in ventral view; (d) cervical eight in left lateral view; (e) cervical nine in posterior view; (f) cervical six in anterior view. c, centrum; co, condyle; ct, cotyle; hyp, hypapophysis; nc, neural canal; ns, neural spine; poe, postexapophysis; poz, postzygapophysis; prz, prezygapophysis; su, sulcus; tp, transverse process.

The cervicals of Phosphatodraco seem to have no epipophyses. So they were not ubiquitous in pterosaurs.

What does it all mean? This post has become a bit of a monster already so I’ll save the conclusion for another time. Stay tuned for more hot epipophyseal action!

References

  • Bonde, Niels and Per Christiansen. 2003. The detailed anatomy of Rhamphorhynchus: axial pneumaticity and its implications. pp 217-232 in: E. Buffetaut and J-M Mazin (eds), Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 217. doi:10.1144/GSL.SP.2003.217.01.13
  • Frey Eberhard and Helmut Tischlinger. 2012. The Late Jurassic Pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus, a Frequent Victim of the Ganoid Fish Aspidorhynchus? PLoS ONE 7(3):e31945. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031945
  • Janensch, Werner. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica, Supplement 7 3:27-93.
  • O’Connor Patrick M. 2007. The postcranial axial skeleton of Majungasaurus crenatissimus (Theropoda: Abelisauridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. pp 127-162 in: S. D. Sampson., D. W. Krause (eds), Majungasaurus crenatissimus (Theropoda: Abelisauridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 8.
  • Osborn, Henry F., and Charles C. Mook. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, New Series 3:247-387.
  • Pereda Suberbiola, Xabier, Nathalie Bardet, Stéphane Jouve, Mohamed Iarochène, Baadi Bouya and Mbarek Amaghzaz. 2003. A new azhdarchid pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous phosphates of Morocco. pp 79-90 in: E. Buffetaut and J-M Mazin (eds), Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 217. doi:10.1144/GSL.SP.2003.217.01.08
  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013. Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. PeerJ 1:e36 doi:10.7717/peerj.36
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7 Responses to “Epipophyses, the forgotten apophyses: not just for sauropods!”

  1. Andrew Thomas Says:

    I can’t tell you, offhand, about the texture of C2 in Tenontosaurus, but I can say that the morphology of that AMNH specimen is pretty close to dead on. They really do have that massive, mammal-like spinous process.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Wow. Thanks for that, Andrew. Do you know if it’s been described and illustrated anywhere?

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    (Answers own question …) It’s in Cathy Forster’s 1990 article in JVP, The postcranial skeleton of the boring ornithopod dinosaur Tenontosaurus tilletti.

  4. Frosted Flake Says:

    I’d like to mention my appreciation of the opportunity to observe this conversation. I am always pleased when another installment appears in my mailbox.

  5. Karen Poole Says:

    To add to Andrew Thomas’s comment: that big, convex axial neural spine is present in a lot of ornithopods, including Zalmoxes, Dysalotosaurus, and most Ankylopollexians. (I’m not sure how widespread it is elsewhere in Ornithischia.)

    Thanks for this nice summary of epipophyses!


  6. […] thanks for the various people who chipped in, both in comments on the last post and in this thread on twitter, where I asked a bunch of pterosaur experts for their thoughts on […]


  7. […] there, but that for various complicated reasons it’s yet to be published. But as part of our ongoing quest for pterosaur epipophyses, I have obtained these photos of a pretty well preserved single cervical, […]


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