Fighting apatosaur art #1: Brian Engh

September 19, 2015

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


13 Responses to “Fighting apatosaur art #1: Brian Engh”

  1. While they are all excellent pieces of artwork, I second your preference MIke. I’d also be concerned that the less-rearing apatosaur on the right in the painting has dislocated a cervical vertebrae (which I suppose could have happened, but then he would decidedly be the loser in the competition).

  2. […] 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: […]

  3. dale Says:

    I wouldn’t worry about “dislocation.” Apparently giraffes do it all the time. It’s great to see palaeoart continually move forward like this.

  4. Dale, where on Earth did you hear that? Neck dislocation is not normal in any tetrapod that I am aware of. To be sure, there’s one or two known cases in the wild of this happening to a giraffe that didn’t die, but they are notable for their rarity, not for being common.

  5. dale Says:

    Damn! I remember reading the paper some time ago. It appears [from my recollection] that the ligaments and musculature could hold the neck in a dislocated way which surprised the researchers. I believe it was on neck neutrality in tetrapods. The authors used x-rays to actually witness how living giraffes did this. It was quite different when articulating a dead specimen. Terribly sorry. You’ll have to find the paper before believing any of this and I am not a very great help. I deleted the paper after reading it thinking that everybody would have read it by now.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    I am willing to be convinced if the paper materializes, but neither Google nor Google Scholar seem to know anything about it (not conclusive, obviously, but suggestive). I’ve found plenty of news articles about giraffes surviving with crooked necks from injuries (not necessarily received during combat), but as an anatomist I am deeply skeptical that any mammal that big could disarticulate and rearticulate its neck on a normal basis. Giraffes do have unusually opisthocoelous (ball-and-socket) articulations between their cervical vertebrae, more strongly developed than in other large ungulates, which allows them a fair degree of neck flexibility despite their small cervical count – is it possible that the paper was addressing that, and not disarticulation per se?

    If anyone knows about this paper and can point me in the right direction, I will be very grateful. Until I can see it and evaluate it for myself, I’m going to file this under “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

  7. brnngh!!! Says:

    Between the semi posterior-view foreshortening, soft tissue distortion & how little we actually know about the cartilage & ligaments in Apatosaur necks I argued to myself deep in the night while drawing scale after scale that, while perhaps on the extreme side of plausible dorsal flexion for apatosaurine necks, I do think it is still within the realm of possible without dislocation. Frame through some videos of giraffes, elephant seals, or monitors fighting and try to imagine the positions of their skeletons within their combat-contorted forms and you’ll likely find yourself scratching your head and going “how the hell…??”

    Here’s a quick and super dirty/unscientific sketch of what i was trying to illustrate in x-ray lateral view (based on your very nice A. exelseus skeletal drawing, Scott).

    I think part of the reason it looks a bit unfamiliar is because we’re so used to seeing sauropods with with skimpy neck musculature & I was attempting to illustrate something a bit more like an elk’s neck than a typically ostrich-y looking sauropod. If I have failed in this effort, i will try harder next time!

  8. […] also the previous Fighting Apatosaur Art posts: Brian Engh #1, Brian Engh #2, Bob Nicholls. More to […]

  9. […] 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. […]

  10. Thanks for the response Brian (brnngh!!! is a brilliant handle BTW). I’d like to think that I’m pretty comfortable with thick neck muscles on apatosaurines, since I’ve been reconstructing them that way for quite some time. I think you may be right about the perspective though – I was viewing the head and neck as quite a bit more retracted than in your skeletal sketch, with the head pulled back to where it’s fully over the shoulders and the base of the neck not extending as far in front of the torso (and hence scrunched up at too much of a right angle), but after looking at your sketch I think I may not have taken into account the degree to which the neck is oriented to the right of the torso’s long axis.

    I’m not 100% sold, but I’m like 85-90% sold, and frankly there’s more disagreement than that on what the maximum degree of retraction is (and what the type of intervertebral articulation is, cartilage dimension, blah blah) so don’t take it as a slight at all, I’m just pathologically unable to not try and fit skeletons and muscle into any bit of artwork I see (my own included).

    Regardless, it’s a fantastic piece art (maybe “a smashing piece of art” would be more apropos?).

  11. […] stream and finding itself swept away. (The scene incidentally owes much to the dynamic duo over at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, and their “Brontosmash” hypothesis. Essentially, the heavily-reinforced necks of Brontosaurus suggests a possible use as combat […]

  12. […] You’d have to say, though, that it owes more than a little inspiration to the third of Brian Engh’s early sketches: […]

  13. […] BRONTOSMASH! finally makes its film debut! I discuss the origins of the hypothesis in my review of Jurassic. […]

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