So what were apatosaurs doing with their crazy necks?
September 14, 2015
We’ve noted that the Taylor et al. SVPCA abstract and talk slides are up now up as part of the SVPCA 2015 PeerJ Collection, so anyone who’s interested has probably taken a look already to see what it was about. (As an aside, I am delighted to see that two more abstracts have been added to the collection since I wrote about it.)
It was my privilege to present a talk on our hypothesis that the distinctive and bizarre toblerone-shaped necks of apatosaurs were an adaptation for intraspecific combat. This talk was based on an in-progress manuscript that Matt is lead-authoring. Also on board is the third SV-POW!sketeer, the silent partner, Darren Naish; and artist/ethologist Brian Engh.
Here is our case, briefly summarised from five key slides. First, let’s take a look at what is distinctive in the morphology of apatosaur cervicals:
Here I’m using Brontosaurus, which is among the more extreme apatosaurs, but the same features are seen developed to nearly the same extent in Apatosaurus louisae, the best-known apatosaur, and to some extent in all apatosaurs.
Now we’ll look at the four key features separately.
First, the cervicals ribs of sauropods (and other saurischians, including birds) anchored the longus colli ventralis and flexor colli lateralis muscles — ventral muscles whose job is to pull the neck downwards. By shifting the attachments points of these muscles downwards, apatosaurs enabled them to work with improved mechanical advantage — that is, to bring more force to bear.
Second, by redirecting the diapophyses and parapophyses ventrally, and making them much more robust than in other sauropods, apatosaurs structured their neck skeletons to better resist ventral impacts.
Third, because the low-hanging cervical ribs created an inverted “V” shape below the centrum, they formed a protective cradle for the vulnerable soft-tissue that is otherwise exposed on the ventral aspect of the neck: trachea, oesophagus, major blood vessels. In apatosaurus, all of these would have been safely wrapped in layers of connective tissue and bubble-wrap-like pneumatic diverticula. The presence of diverticula ventral to the vertebral centrum is not speculative – most neosauropods have fossae on the ventral surfaces of their cervical centra, and apatosaurines tend to have foramina that connect to internal chambers as well (see Lovelace et al. 2007: fig. 4, which is reproduced in this post).
Fourth, most if not all apatosaurs have distinctive ventrally directed club-like processes on the front of their cervical ribs. (It’s hard to tell with Apatosaurus ajax, because the best cervical vertebra of that species is so very reconstructed.) How did these appear in life? It’s difficult to be sure. They might have appeared as a low boss; or, as with rhinoceros horns, they might even have carried keratinous spikes.
Putting it all together, we have an animal whose neck can be brought downwards with great force; whose neck was mechanically capable of resisting impacts on its ventral aspect; whose vulnerable ventral-side soft-tissue was well protected; and which probably had prominent clubs or spikes all along the ventral aspect of the neck. And all of this was accomplished at the cost of making the neck a lot heavier than it would have been otherwise. Off the cuff, it seems likely that the cervical series alone would have massed twice as much in apatosaurines as in diplodocines of the same neck length.
Doubling the mass of the neck is a very peculiar thing for a sauropod lineage to do – by the Late Jurassic, sauropods were the leading edge of an evolutionary trend to lengthen and lighten the neck that had been running for almost 100 million years, through basal ornithodirans, basal dinosauromorphs, basal saurischians, basal sauropodomorphs, and basal sauropods. Whatever the selective pressures that led apatosaurines to evolve such robust and heavy necks, they must have been compelling.
The possibility that apatosaurs were pushing or crashing their necks ventrally in some form of combat accounts for all of the weird morphology documented above, and we know that sexual selection is powerful force that underlies a lot of bizarre structures in extant animals, and probably in extinct ornithodirans as well (see Hone et al. 2012, Hone and Naish 2013).
What form of combat, exactly? There are various possibilities, which we’ll discuss another time. But I’ll leave you with Brian Engh’s beautiful illustration of one possible form of combat: a powerful impact of one neck brought down onto the dorsal aspect of another.
We’re aware that this proposal is necessarily somewhat speculative. But we’re just not able to see any other explanation for the distinctive apatosaur neck. Even if we’re wrong about the ventrolateral processes on the cervical ribs supporting bosses or spikes, the first three points remain true, and given how they fly in the face of sauropods’ long history of making their necks lighter, they fairly cry out for explanation. If anyone has other proposals, we’ll be happy to hear them.
- Hone, D. W., Naish, D., & Cuthill, I. C. (2012). Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs?. Lethaia 45(2):139-156.
- Hone, D. W. E., & Naish, D. (2013). The ‘species recognition hypothesis’ does not explain the presence and evolution of exaggerated structures in non‐avialan dinosaurs. Journal of Zoology 290(3):172-180.
- Lovelace, D. M., Hartman, S. A., & Wahl, W. R. (2007). Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527-544.