Brontosaurus cervical 8 … it just gets weirder

June 19, 2015

A while back, we noted that seriously, Apatosaurus is just nuts, as proven by the illustrations in Ostrom and McIntosh (1966: plate 12).

Now I’m posting those illustrations again, in a modified form, to make the same point. Here ya go:

Brontosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980, cervical vertebra 8, in anterior, left lateral and ventral views. Adapted from Marsh's plates in Ostrom & McIntosh (1966).

Brontosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980, cervical vertebra 8, in anterior, left lateral and ventral views. Adapted from Marsh’s plates in Ostrom & McIntosh (1966: plates 12-13).

Here’s what’s changed since last time:

  1. Apatosaurusexcelsus is Brontosaurus again!
  2. I cleaned up the scans of the plates, removing all the labels
  3. In the lateral view, I added a reconstruction of the missing neural spine, based on that of Apatosaurus louisae (from Gilmore 1936: plate XXIV). This reconstruction first appeared in Taylor and Wedel (2013a: figure 7).
  4. Most importantly, I added the ventral view of the vertebra from plate 13. Only now can you properly appreciate the truly bizarre shape of this bone. (The prezygs appear to project further forward than they should because the illustrated aspect is not true ventral, but slightly anteroventral.)

If only those three views were enough to construct a 3D model by photogrammetry! Sadly, it’s not possible to get photos of the whole vertebra from different angles now, as it’s tied up in the mounted Brontosaurus skeleton at the YPM:

Part of the neck of the mounted skeleton of Brontosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980, in right posterodorsolateral view (i.e. from behind, above, and to the right). The vertebra in the centre of the picture may well be the one illustrated above, but don't hold me to it.

Part of the neck of the mounted skeleton of Brontosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980, in right posterodorsolateral view (i.e. from behind, above, and to the right). The vertebra in the centre of the picture may well be the one illustrated above, but don’t hold me to it.

The bottom line: these are some crazy-ass morphologically distinctive vertebrae. Those ventrolaterally projecting processes that bear the cervical ribs are, for my money, the single most distinctive feature of apatosaurine sauropods. And they reach their zenith (or maybe their nadir, since they point downwards) in Brontosaurus. These processes are the reason that apatosaurs had Toblerone-shaped necks — triangular in cross-section, with the base flat or even concave. Any restoration that shows a tubular neck is way off base.


16 Responses to “Brontosaurus cervical 8 … it just gets weirder”

  1. Frosted Flake Says:

    That is just fabulous. But it makes me look forward to those not so far off days when data like this is just as a matter of course presented as an image that can be rotated on any desired axis and zoomed. Much the way Google Earth lets you do with the planet.

    You know, Mike. When I consider it. It might not be so very tough to get that done. I wouldn’t be too surprised if you were to look into it if you were the guy whose name goes on the patent. And you have a lot of cool 3D data to present. So you probably want this tool. Which I just described. Which seems not quite to exist yet.

  2. Frosted Flake Says:

    Edit to add:
    I just put down my guitar and note the PHOTOGRAMMETRY link. I see now you are already on it.

    I guess that’s okay.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Actually, something like what you describe does exist — the DigiMorph database at

    Problem is, it’s awkward to use, dependent on browser plugins, and not very well populated — perhaps because it gives the impression (fairly or not) of being pretty tightly controlled by UT Austin. Still there is some great stuff in there, notably three cervical vertebrae of the crazy-pneumatic rebbachisaurid Nigersaurus: see and good luck with the plugins!

  4. Chase Says:

    I have a real issue with museums placing actual fossils on display as part of a mount. Sure, it gives everyone a little taste of what an actual fossil is like, but since more people now assume the entire mounts are casts, the fossils included in the mount are just passed by. In this situation, the fossils aren’t serving much of an educational and/or scientific purpose as not only can scientists not get to them easily, but the public, not knowing that they’re even in the presence of a fossil, learns nothing more then what they would learn if the mount was 100% cast.

    If a fossil does go on display, it should be placed in a protective case or in an area where it won’t be damaged, where the fossil can be easily removed for study. The advancement of digital modeling technology will hopefully lessen the severity of this matter, which, at this present moment, isn’t as bad of an issue as it used to be.

  5. Chase Says:

    Yet, I shouldn’t be talking, as we placed a slab of trackways from the Connecticut Valley on the floor, where, even with rope around them, museum-goers still managed to touch and climb on.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Chase, I do remember the thrill of touching a real dinosaur bone as a child, and I think it’s good that museums should provide that. But the best way is to put a single robust bone in an area where touching is explicitly permitted — as for example the NMNH did with the Potter Creek Brachiosaurus humerus.

    On the matter of real bones in mounted skeletons, I’m torn really. Everything you say makes sense, and yet there is something magnificent about the Berlin brachiosaur mount that would be lost if it was all casts and sculptures.

    (That said, I think it’s a pretty unequivocal tragedy that the Brontosaurus holotype YPM 1980 is not merely all tied up in a mount, but so reconstructed with plaster and paint that it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not.)

  7. give

    not much, just until end of September ;)

  8. Chase Says:

    I too have fond memories of getting up-close-and-personal with dinosaur bones. However, museum staff should really go over what the risks of allowing the public to touch specimens are. Furthermore, if museum staff are planning to put a specimen out for the public to touch, it really shouldn’t be a fossil, which, if damaged or destroyed, could jeopardize potential research.

    The act of including fossils in mounts is definitely a gamble. Yes, I agree with you about the Berlin brachiosaur mount not being as magnificent without the inclusion of actual fossil material, but we must also think about how the near inaccessibility of these fossils affects research (the accessibility of fossils included in mounts will become greater with the ongoing development of digital technology). There’s also the matter of fossils included in mounts being more exposed then those stored on museum collection shelves, making them more likely to be damaged and/or destroyed. Sometimes these mounted specimens are even put at risk by people (anyone remember the incident with Trevor Valle and the pop star “Kesha” ?).

    With recently developed technology, we are able to digitally reconstruct and preserve specimens (Heinrich’s digiS project is an example). However, information is lost when a fossil is damaged or destroyed, no matter what we do.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    I agree with every word of that, Chase; I just find myself feeling “Yes, but …”

    It’s unquestionably better science not to have real bones in mounts. But as Brian Curtice once observed, “A mounted skeleton is not science. It’s art. Its purpose is to entertain the public, not to be a scientifically accurate specimen.”

    I think that is legitimately important. Much of palaeo actually has as much in common with the arts as it does with the hard sciences; the art of a mount is a valid output of our work.

    So there are competing desiderata to be balanced here.

  10. Chase Says:

    As I said above, the development of and rising accessibility to digital technology will allow scientists to digitally preserve specimens, which will lessen, if not completely counter, the negative impact of the destruction of fossils. But for the time being, we must be careful with our fossils. The question is not if we should include fossils in mounts, but how we can include them in the safest way possible, so as to appeal to both the artistic and scientific sides of paleontology.

  11. Chase, you’re spot on in so many respects (as is Mike). There is, however, the magic in mounting real bones! People, for some odd reason, react differently to a MOUNT of real bones than to a mount of a cast – even if the original bones are on display separately (and thus science-accessible) right next to it.

    is that logical? hell no.
    is it happening? hell yes.

    Obviously, my project and other work will have a huge impact on exhibitions, but the one thing that will never go away (I guess) is “it’s the real thing”.

    Thus, for better or worse, if museums want to stay relevant for the public’s education and entertainment in the internet and app age, we will show originals.

  12. Joseph Sullivan Says:

    Just wondering, is that dust on the fossils or is that the real color of the fossils? I’ve been to a museum that has a cast of t-rex covered with a thick layer of dust.-Joe

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    A lot of that is dust, yes. As you will readily appreciate, a mounted sauropod neck is not the easiest object to clean! (For a long while, the NHM’s cast of the Carnegie Diplodocus had a large, brightly coloured piece of litter in its intermetapophyseal trough!)

  14. […] we’ve previously noted more than once here at SV-POW!, apatosaurine cervicals really are the craziest things. For one thing, they are the […]

  15. […] posted a lot here about how crazy the cervical vertebrae of apatosaurines are (for example: 1, 2, 3), and especially the redonkulosity of their cervical ribs. But I think you will agree with me […]

  16. […] John McIntosh catalogued it as, though I am not yet 100% convinced it’s the same thing as YPM 1980, the holotype of that […]

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