Early Cretaceous titanosauriform cervical UMNH 21054, or, “Hello again, beautiful”
July 13, 2015
Here at SV-POW! Towers, we’re keenly aware that some of our fans are just here for the hardcore sauropod vertebra action. These folks start to shift in their seats when we put up too many posts in a row on open access or rabbits or…okay, mostly just OA and bunnies. If that’s you – or, heck, even if it isn’t – your good day has come. Saddle up. Let’s ride.
When Brian Engh and I were at the new Natural History Museum of Utah recently, I spotted this cute little juvenile cervical in one of the display cases.
According to this sign, it’s UMNH 21054, and it was found by Frank DeCourten and prepared by Virginia Tidwell.
It shares a display case and a sign with what is probably an anterior dorsal, UMNH 21055.
Now, I don’t mean to brag (okay, maybe a little…) but the number of EKNApod* vertebrae is not large and the number of EKNApod vertebrae I’m not intimately familiar with hovers near zero. This thing was ringing bells – I knew I’d seen it before.
* Early Cretaceous North American sauropod
Here are few more views. Note the light-colored oblong spot on the top of the condyle in the image above – this may be a pneumatic foramen filled with matrix, or a spot where the cortical bone flaked away to reveal one of the internal pneumatic spaces. Also, check out the fragment of extraneous bone (probably cervical rib) stuck sideways across the top of the centrum, just behind the condyle, in the image immediately below. Both of these features will be important later.
The vert belongs to a juvenile sauropod because the neural arch is missing – it didn’t fuse to the centrum before the animal died. But it was a big baby; the centrum is maybe just a hair under 40 cm in length, meaning that a world-record giraffe might just maybe have a couple of cervicals of the same length. But basal titanosauriforms typically have 12-13 cervicals, not the whimpy 7 that almost all mammals must make do with, and all-stars like Euhelopus can have up to 17.
Also, this was not from the middle of the neck. No way. The parapophyses are huge, and the centrum is pretty stubby compared to Sauroposeidon or YPM 5294, the Sauroposeidonesque cervical from Unit VII of the Cloverly (pic here). My guess is we’re looking at something past the middle of the neck, where the cervicals start to get proportionally shorter (but sometimes max out in absolute length), maybe a C9 or C10. In Giraffatitan brancai HM SII/MB.R.2181, C10 has a centrum length of 100 cm and makes up about 12% of the 8.5-meter neck. Assuming similar proportions here, UMNH 21054 came from the roughly 3-meter neck of a sauropod about the size of a really big draft horse or a really small elephant.
But enough noodling about the animal’s size. I knew I’d seen this vert before, but where? Thank goodness for comprehensive signage – I knew the material had been discovered by Frank DeCourten and prepped by Virginia Tidwell. At one of the SVP meetings in Denver, at a reception at the Denver museum, Virginia had invited me into the prep lab to see some EKNApod material from the Long Walk Quarry in Utah. The Long Walk Quarry was Frank DeCourten’s baby – he wrote a couple of papers about it (e.g., DeCourten 1991) and included additional information in his book, Dinosaurs of Utah (1998; second edition in 2013). DeCourten had referred the material to Pleurocoelus because that’s what people did with EKNApods back in the 20th century, but I remembered seeing one cervical that, like Sauroposeidon and YPM 5294, was just too long to match any of the Pleurocoelus material. My ‘Museum Photos’ file has a subfolder titled ‘Denver 2004’ – was the mystery vert in there?
In short, yes. Here’s one of the photos I took back in 1994.
Here’s another, sans flash this time. Check out the white spot on top of the condyle, the bar of float bone stuck sideways across the centrum just behind the spot, and general pattern of breaks – it’s a perfect match for UMNH 21054. Also note the block number on the pink specimen label at the bottom of the image – LWQ8, for Long Walk Quarry.
Three mysteries remain. One, the signage says the vert is from Carbon County, Utah, but the Long Walk Quarry has always been described as being in Emery County. Just a typo, or is there a story there? Two, how much of the animal (or animals) was excavated and prepped? I saw other vertebrae, both larger and smaller, when I was in Denver back on ’04, and DeCourten figured still others that I haven’t yet seen personally. Finally, is anyone working on it? And if not…[cautiously raises hand].
For other posts on the NHMU public galleries, see:
- DeCourten, F.L. 1991. New data on Early Cretaceous dinosaurs from the Long Walk Quarry and tracksite, Emery County, Utah. In: T.C. Chidsey, Jr. (ed) Geology of East-Central Utah. Utah Geological Association Publication 19: 311-325.
- DeCourten, F.L. 1998. Dinosaurs of Utah. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 208pp.