Here’s the last post (at least for now) in the Fighting Apatosaur Art series — and we’re back to Brian Engh, who we started with.

Early in the process of putting together artwork to illustrate our apatosaur neck combat hypothesis, Brian tried out a whole bunch of outlandish concepts. Here are two that he showed us, but which were too speculative to push forward with. First, necks as big, floppy display structures:

RearingPinkDiplodicids

As a piece of art, I really like this one: the boldness, the vivid contrasts, the alien quality of the animals. But as a palaeobiological hypothesis, it doesn’t really work: so much of the neck morphology in apatosaurs is to do with absorbing ventral forces that soft-tissue display structures down there don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Here’s the other one — which Brian titles “Apatosaur inflato-porcupine fish neck-bag”.

Porcu-Apato

I particularly like the way the theropod being rolled around on the ground and repeatedly spiked. It’s no more than it deserves.

Does the idea of an inflatable neck make sense? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were sauropods that did something like this — plenty of extant animals inflate parts of their body for display purposes, after all — but I don’t think it would have been apatosaurs. Again, the characteristic features of the neck don’t seem well matched to this scenario.

Well, that’s all the apatosaur neck-combat art we have. If there’s to be a part 7 in this series, it will be made of artwork that you, dear readers, have contributed. Fire away!

If we accept that the distinctive ventral projections of the gigantic and ventrally displaced cervical ribs of apatosaurs were likely the base of some form of soft-tissue rugosity — such as keratinous horns like those of rhinos — then does it follow that those necks were used in combat as we suggested?

Maybe, maybe not. As scientists, we are always open to other hypotheses. We’re looking for the simplest, most parsimonious model — the one which best explains the facts.

That’s why we like Mark Witton’s “neck-velcro wall-climbing” hypothesis, as shown in this actual scientific life restoration.

witton-clinging-apatosaurus

As Mark explained to me, apatosaurs may have used their neck-hooks for more than passive clinging. They may also have been used for inching up the rock-face: first one side of the neck advancing and then the next, in the manner of the “pterygoid walking” that snakes use to progressively swallow large prey.

This is why it’s important to present early-stage work at conferences (and as preprints). Otherwise, you may never hear about important alternative hypotheses like this until after the paper is out and it’s too late to include them.

I mentioned last time that, as I sat next to Bob Nicholls in an SVPCA session, I started sketching an apatosaur combat in the hope that my horrible drawing would provoke Bob to do a good one. That worked admirably, which means there is no good reason for me to subject you to my own sketch.

So here it is.

taylor-fighting-apatosaurs1

I think the main lessons to draw from this piece are:

  1. I can’t draw heads.
  2. I can’t draw limbs.
  3. I can’t draw torsos.
  4. I may be just about capable of drawing tails.

In defence of this picture, it does have something of a How And Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs quality to it, which people of a certain age may find nostalgic. (See also: How fat was Brontosaurus?)

During a break, I asked for Bob’s advice on how I can do better. I know I’ll never be an artist, but it’s fun to sketch (especially during mammal talks) and I’d like to improve a little. The main point Bob made was to think about where the light is coming from. Be consistent about that, and you get an immediate improvement in realism.

So here’s what I sketched the next day, with that in mind:

taylor-fighting-apatosaurs2

So what have we learned this time?

  1. I didn’t consciously do this, but I ended up with a composition kind of similar to what Bob came up with, but worse.
  2. In my desire to achieve the intertwined-necks pose, I made the necks too long and thin.
  3. I still can’t draw heads.
  4. Let’s just forget about the hindlimb of the one on the left.
  5. Uh, and let’s forget the torsos, too.
  6. But at least the light is coming from top right!

In short, as Stephen Sondheim put it, art isn’t easy. I wish I had more time to put into it.

The real moral of this story is: if I had a crack at drawing fighting apatosaurs, you definitely can. Let us know if you do — leave a comment. We’ll gather people’s contributions in a future post.

(See also the previous Fighting Apatosaur Art posts: Brian Engh #1, Brian Engh #2, Bob Nicholls. More to come!)

On the morning of Tuesday 1st December, on SVPCA day 1, I gave my talk about apatosaur neck combat. In one of the afternoon sessions, I sat next to Bob Nicholls, and found myself thinking how awesome it would be if he sketched some apato-combat.

But I didn’t want to come right out and say “Hey, Bob, how ’bout you spontaneously illustrate our palaeobiological hypothesis?” So instead I used a tactic that Fiona often uses when she wants me to do something: she starts to do it herself, badly, and waits for me to take over. (This is often how I find myself cooking in the evenings.) In the same spirit, sat next to Bob, I started a horrible sketch of wrestling apatosaurs. Sure enough, Bob, saw what I was doing, internally decided it ought to be done properly, and produced this:

WrestleBronto2a (c)Nicholls2015

What I love most about this (beside the casual way he knocked it out in fifteen minutes) is the sense of heft about the apatosaurs. These are big, solid animals. Someone’s gonna get hurt.

 

What is my mystery baby bird?

September 23, 2015

Here’s my newest specimen: a tiny baby bird, maybe 5 or 6 cm from wingtip to foot. This one came from my next-door neighbours: apparently it had been sitting on their car for several weeks before they thought to lift it off and give it to me.

IMG_2012-right-side

As you can see, the specimen is extraordinarily well preserved — more or less mummified, I suppose by wind-drying. Like a Chinese duck, though less appetising.

Here is the slightly flattened left side:

IMG_2014-left-side

So I have two questions:

  • What is this? Beyond the level of “a bird of some kind”.
  • How can I prep it down to just a tiny skeleton? The only idea I have, really, is to slightly moisten it, and leave it in a tub with a hole in the top for inverts to get in. Can I do better?

Help me!

The process of reassembling my cat skull continues. I now have the sphenoid and both nasals now back in place, and the time has come for the now-traditional multiview. (Previous examples: pig skull, wallaby skull, sheep skull.

Click through for seriously high resolution (9602 × 7642).

cat-skull-composite-WHITE

And here it is on a black background:

cat-skull-composite-BLACK

As though you need to be told: the top row shows the dorsal view, the middle row (from left to right) shows posterior, right lateral and anterior views, and the bottom row shows the ventral view.

Enjoy!

Last time, we looked at some of Brian Engh’s preliminary sketches of pieces to illustrate our fighting-apatosaur hypothesis. But there’s more: some way into the process, Brian also came up with this very rough sketch, illustrating a different style of combat:

ApatoNeckBreak

All the pictures in the previous post show various forms of ventral-to-ventral combat, but we’ve also been thinking about possibilities, and an important one is ventral-to-dorsal.

That could work in at least two ways. We can imagine a wresting match, where each animal tries to get its neck above its opponent’s, and to force it to the ground. There is precedent for this in the behaviour of various extant animals. (Or perhaps I should call it postcedent, since apatosaurs came first.)

But other extant animals have a much more violent combat style, based on striking blows rather than exerting steady force. Notably, giraffes do this, using their long necks as levers to crash their uncharismatic, highly fused mammalians heads into each other.

Could apatosaurs have done this? Not exactly: their heads were far too small to be effective clubs, and far too fragile to survive being used in this way. But the necks themselves would have been formidable weapons: we’re confident that apatosaurs striking blows would have done so with their necks, bringing them powerfully downwards on their adversaries.

Brian liked this idea enough to work the rough sketch above up into a completed drawing, which we also plan to include in the paper (and which, by the way, I unreservedly love):

ApatoNeckSmashRoughWeb

So what style of combat did apatosaurs use? Ventral-on-ventral shoving? Wrestling to the ground? Striking downwards blows with the neck?

My best guess (and it’s only a guess, necessarily) is that among the half-dozen or so recognised species of apatosaurine, all these styles were likely in use. And this may explain the variation in cervical morphology that we see between species (though of course ontogeny and sexual dimorphism may also be at work).

In short, I think all of these scenarios are credible — and therefore perfectly legitimate subjects for palaeo-art *hint hint*.

In putting together our thoughts on how apatosaurs used their necks, we were motivated by genuine curiosity — which in Matt’s and my case, at least, goes back many years. (We briefly discussed the problem, if only to throw our hands up in despair, in our 2013 neck-anatomy paper.) We didn’t land on the combat hypothesis because it’s cool, but because it’s where the evidence points.

That said, it is cool.

Brian Engh is on the authorship for this paper largely because of his insights into extant animal behaviour. But there’s no denying that it’s a real bonus that he’s also an awesome artist. He’s been putting together sketches to illustrate our hypothesis for some time, partly with the goal of figuring out which compositions to work up into finished pieces. Here, with Brian’s permission, are some of those preliminary sketches.

First, a really nice sketch showing a ventral-to-ventral shoving match from down at ground level.

ApatoShove-Dutch-Web2

I really like this one, and would have been happy for it to be one of the anointed ones. I like the sense of huge beasts towering over the viewer. That said, I always love pencil sketches, often more than I do finished pieces, so I’m not too unhappy that the world gets to see this one in pencil-sketch form.

Next up, sketched more roughly, is a concept for a different form of combat in a different aspect. Here, we see two animals side by side, wrestling with both necks and tails.

Tail_and_Neck_Wrastling

I like the dynamism of this one, and especially that the one on the right is in the process of being pushed over. But there’s nothing in apatosaur tail morphology that particularly says “combat”, so I guess I’m not too unhappy that this one didn’t make the cut.

The third sketch shows two individuals rearing into into ventral-to-ventral push.

FatneckShoveMatch

Matt and Brian liked this one the most, so it got worked up into a finished and coloured piece which will be one of the figures in the paper when we get around to submitting it. Here is the current version — as I understand it, Brian plans to revise it further before it’s done.

ApatoNeckinWebUnmodified

The craftsmanship here is superb, but I can’t help regretting that the dinosaurs are rearing less than in the sketch. I feel it’s lost some of the power of the concept sketch.

What you’re seeing here, folks, is a bona fide instance of co-authors disagreeing. Happens all the time, but you usually don’t see it, because it’s all resolved by the time the paper is submitted. Brian is the artist, and ultimately it’s for him to decide what to depict and how; but I’ll always be glad that we still have the pencil-sketch as well as the finished version.

 

A quick note to say that I got an email today — the University of Bristol Staff Bulletin — announcing some extremely welcome news:

bristol-oa

(Admittedly it was only the third item on the bulletin, coming in just after “Staff Parking – application deadline Friday 18 September”, but you can’t have everything.)

This is excellent, and the nitty-gritty details are encouraging, too. Although HEFCE recently wound back its own policy, as a transition-period concession, to requiring deposit only at the time of publication, Bristol has quite properly gone with the more rigorous requirement that accepted manuscripts be deposited at the time of acceptance. This is wise for the university — it’s future-proofed against HEFCE’s eventual move back towards the deposit-on-acceptance policy that it wanted — and it’s good for the wider world, too.

Hurrah!

 

Regular readers will remember that I recently fished my cat skull out of the tub where invertebrates had been hard at work defleshing it, and put it to soak — first in soapy water, then in clean water, and finally in dilute hydrogen peroxide. It was in a pretty terrible state, having either been smashed by a car, or damaged by my rather unsophisticated process of removing the head from the torso. Here’s a reminder:

IMG_1977

After bleaching in H2O2, the skull parts looked much better, but were still very delicate. Here is the main portion of the cranium, missing the braincase and the right upper jaw, upside down, in right posteroventral view.

IMG_1979

Putting it back together was difficult. I am using regular water-soluble wood glue, largely so that if I make a mistake I can just soak the wrongly-joined bits apart and try again.

I started by gluing the braincase (at the top of the plate in the first picture) onto the back of the main cranium piece. Unfortunately, as you’ll see below, I wasn’t able to get a very clean join — I can only assume that one or other part was slightly distorted by whatever force broke the skull apart. Still, having done that, I had a better platform to reattach the right upper jaw (lower left of the plate). I was then able to reattach the broken-off part of the right zygomatic arch (at about 4 o’clock on the plate, just to the right of the lower of the two dentaries, and below a vertebra). It didn’t fit quite right, but what can you do? FInally, I was able to reattach another small piece — at 6:30 pm on the plate — which I think is part of the left auditory bulla.

That gave me a workable cranium (though I have some bits left over — see below.) It was time to repair the right dentary. Its articular cylinder (not really a condyle, despite its name) had somehow got blasted off, as had its retroarticular process: it was quite satisfying to figure out how those Shards Of Mediocrity fitted onto the main part of the dentary.

With that done, I had to glue together the two dentaries. That’s hard to do: it’s awkward to brace them in position for the glue to set, and difficult to get the angle between the two bones correct so that the two articular cylinders both sit neatle in their receptacles in the cranium. Here’s the solution I came up with:

IMG_1987

I rested the cranium upside down, covered the jaw with some thin, pliant plastic (actually a sandwich bag) and used the cranium itself as a perfectly proportioned brace to hold the dentaries in place. Then I was able to glue them more or less correctly, and to reinforce the joint with more glue once the first lot had set.

I’ve still not got it quite right — the mandibular symphysis is wonky — but I think it will do. And if I change my mind, I can always soak the mandible apart and try again.

(As a matter of fact, I’d already done that once, having initially glued the dentaries together at the wrong angle, so that the assembled mandible was too narrow, and wouldn’t articulate properly with the cranium.)

So now I have a pretty good mandible and cranium, as well as the first five cervical vertebrae (all but one of the postzygs of C5, which was lost in the head-removal process.) Here is the whole thing, put together, in dorsal view:

IMG_1989

(You can see where the left zygomatic arch is damaged: the bones are not articulating correctly, as they do on the right.)

And here is the same assembly in left dorsolateral view:

IMG_1990

And finally, the skull in anterodorsal view:

IMG_1993

Note that the left canine is truncated. I am completely certain that this, at least, is not my doing, and must be damage that was done in life. Note, too, how the mandible is visibly wonky from this angle. Hmm. Maybe I will reset it again.

At the end of this process, I have a pretty nice cat skull. Unfortunately, I have seven shards left over, none of them more than about fifteen millimeters long. Here they are:

IMG_1997

I’d welcome any help in figuring out what these bits are, and where on the skull they should be reattached. I don’t want to just throw them away. Click through for much higher resolution to get a better idea of what’s what. The top right piece is such a weird shape that someone must know what it is. The two peices at bottom right seem to be pairs, but I don’t know what they are a pair of. The rest? No idea.

I leave you with the dorsal view again, but this time in glorious 3D for those of you who have been wise enough to get some red-cyan 3D glasses. (Seriously folks, they’re like fifty cents a pair. Just get some. You won’t regret it.)

cat-skull-dorsal-view-anaglyph

Some time soon: those first five cervicals in more detail.