August 15, 2017

Here is a fascinating sequence of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebra — AMNH FARB 291 from the”Big Bone Room” at the AMNH:

AMNH FARB 291, five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in right lateral view. The vertebrae are embedded in a plaster block, which has been desaturated in this image.

Matt and I first saw this specimen back in February 2009, when we were mostly there to look at Apatosarusminimus (and then again in 2012). As soon as our eyes lit on it, we couldn’t help but be captivated by its bizarre biconcave centra. We immediately started flippantly referring to it as “Biconcavoposeidon” — the ugliest name we could come up with — and in our subsequent discussions the name has stuck (often abbreviated to “BCP”).

  • Taxonomic note: for avoidance of doubt, “Biconcavoposeidon” is not and will never be a formal taxonomic name, only an informal specimen nickname. If at some future point we conclude that this specimen represents a new taxon, and name it, we will definitely not use the name “Biconcavoposeidon”. If you ever use the name, please do not set it in italics.

As you can see in this front view, the specimen is sheared: the upper part of the vertebrae have been displaced to their left (which is the right as we see it in this image):

AMNH FARB 291, most anterior of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in anterior view.

Apart from the shearing, though, and the truncation of the neural spines shortly above the transverse processes, the specimen is in pretty good nick. Crucially, it’s not been “restored” in plaster to conceal what is and is not real bone — unlike many specimens of that era. It came out of the Bone Cabin quarry in 1898, back when scientific information was routinely discarded in order to obtain a more beautiful-looking specimen.

This is the specimen that I’ll be presenting at SVPCA this year — though only as a poster, unfortunately: there’s no talk for me, Matt or Darren this year. We’ve posted our abstract (including the illustration above) to the nascent PeerJ collection for SVPCA 2017, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of the materials from that conference — abstracts, then manuscripts, then papers — appearing in the collection.

So far as we know, there’s no other sauropod specimen with biconcave posterior dorsal vertebrae. (And, no, Amphicoelias is not an exception, despite its name.) But have we missed any?

A bunch of stuff, loosely organized by theme.


First up, I need to thank Brian Switek, who invited me to comment on Patagotitan for his piece at Smithsonian. I think he did a great job on that, arguably the best of any of the first-day major media outlet pieces. And it didn’t go unnoticed – his article was referenced at both the Washington Post and NPR (and possibly other outlets, those are the two I know of right now). I don’t think my quotes got around because they’re particularly eloquent, BTW, but rather because reporters tend to like point-counterpoint, and I was apparently the most visible counterpoint. They probably would have done the same if I’d been talking complete nonsense (which, to be fair, some people may think I was).

Paleobiology vs Records

The most commonly reproduced quote of mine is this one, originally from Brian’s piece:

I think it would be more accurate to say that Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus and Patagotitan are so similar in size that it is impossible for now to say which one was the largest.

That may seem at odds with the, “Well, actually…[pushes glasses up nose]…Argentinosaurus was still biggest” tack I’ve taken both in my post yesterday and on Facebook. So let me elaborate a little.

There is a minor, boring point, which is that when I gave Brian that quote, I’d seen the Patagotitan paper, but not the Electronic Supplementary Materials (ESM), so I knew that Patagotitan was about the same size as the other two (and had known for a while), but I hadn’t had a chance to actually run the numbers.

The much more interesting point is that the size differences between Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan are astonishingly small. The difference between a 2.5m femur and a 2.4m one is negligible, ditto for vertebrae with centra 59cm and 60cm in diameter. OMNH 1331, the biggest centrum bit from the giant Oklahoma apatosaur, had an intact max diameter of 49cm, making it 26% larger in linear terms than the next-largest apatosaur. The centra of these giant South American titanosaurs are more than 20% bigger yet than OMNH 1331, just in linear terms. That’s crazy.

It’s also crazy that these three in particular – Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan – are so similar in size. Dinosaur developmental programs were ‘messy’ compared to those of mammals, both in having weird timings for things like onset of reproduction, and in varying a lot among closely related taxa. Furthermore, sauropod population dynamics should have been highly skewed toward juveniles and subadults. So is the near-equality in size among Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan just a coincidence, or does it mean that something weird was going on? There’s really no third option. I mean, even if some kind of internal (biomechanical or physiological) or external (ecological, food or predation) constraint forced those three to the same adult body size, it’s weird then that we’re finding only or at least mostly near-max-size adults. (If the available specimens of these three aren’t near-max-size, then any hypothesis that they’re forced to the same size by constraints is out the window, and we’re back to coincidence.)


With all that said, the title of “world’s largest dinosaur” is not handed out for effort expended, number of specimens collected, skeletal completeness, ontogenetic speculation, or anything other than “the dinosaur with the largest measured elements”. And that is currently Argentinosaurus. So although for any kind of paleobiological consideration we can currently consider Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan to all be about the same size – and Alamosaurus, Paralititan, Notocolossus, and probably others I’ve forgotten should be in this conversation – anyone wanting to dethrone Argentinosaurus needs to actually show up with bigger elements.

So, if you’re interested in paleobiology, it’s fascinating and frankly kind of unnerving that so many of these giant titanosaurs were within a hand-span of each other in terms of size. Patagotitan is one more on the pile – and, as I said yesterday, exciting because it’s so complete.

But if you want to know who holds the crown, it’s still Argentinosaurus.


In a comment on the last post, Andrea Cau made an excellent point that I am just going to copy here entire:

Even Paralititan stromeri humerus is apparently larger than Patagotitan humerus (169 cm vs 167.5 cm). I know humerus length alone is bad proxy of body size, but at least this shows that even in that bone Patagotitan is just another big titanosaur among a well known gang of titans, not a supersized one.

That made me want to start a list of the longest sauropod humeri. Here goes – if I missed anyone or put down a figure incorrectly, I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments.

  • Giraffatitan: 213cm
  • Brachiosaurus: 203cm
  • Ruyangosaurus: 190cm (estimated from 135cm partial)
  • Turiasaurus: 179cm
  • Notocolossus: 176cm
  • Paralititan: 169cm
  • Patagotitan: 167.5cm
  • Dreadnoughtus: 160cm
  • Futlognkosaurus: 156cm

Admittedly the Patagotitan humerus is from a paratype and not from the largest individual, but that is true for some others on the list, including Giraffatitan. And we have no humeri from Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and some other giants.

Dorsal Vertebrae

A couple of further thoughts on how the dorsal vertebrae of Patagotitan compare to those of Argentinosaurus. First, now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I have a hard time seeing how the dorsal polygon method used by Carballido et al. in the Patagotitan paper has any biological meaning. In their example figure, the polygon around the Puertasaurus vertebra is mostly full of bone, and the one around Patagotitan has a lot of empty space. It’s easy to imagine an alternative metric, like “area of the minimum polygon actually filled by bone”, that would lead to a different ‘winner’. But that wouldn’t mean much, either.

Something that probably does have a real and important biomechanical meaning is the surface area of the articular face of the centrum, because that’s the area of bone that has to bear the compressive load, which is directly related to the animal’s mass. The biggest Patagotitan centrum is that of MPEF-PV 3400/5, which is at least a local maximum since has smaller centra both ahead and behind. The posterior face measures 59cm wide by 42.5cm tall. Abstracted as an ellipse, which may not be perfectly accurate, those measurements give a surface area of (pi)(29.5)(21.25)=1970 cm^2. For Argentinosaurus, the largest complete centrum has a posterior face measuring 60cm wide by 47cm tall (Bonaparte and Coria 1993: p. 5), giving an elliptical surface area of (pi)(30)(23.5)=2210 cm^2. (I’d use hi-res images of the centra to measure the actual surface areas if I could, but AFAIK those images either don’t exist or at least have not yet been made public, for either taxon.) So although the Argentinosaurus dorsal seems like it is only a bit bigger in linear terms, it’s 12% larger in surface area, and that might actually be a meaningful difference.

Cervical Vertebrae

One thing I haven’t commented on yet – Patagotitan is the newest member of the “world’s longest vertebrae” club. The longest Patagotitan cervical, MPEF-PV 3400/3, is listed in the ESM as having a centrum length of 120cm, but it’s also listed as incomplete. In the skeletal recon in the paper, the centrum is colored in as present, but the neural spine is missing. So is the centrum complete in terms of length? I don’t think it’s clear right now.

Anyway, here’s the current rundown of the longest cervical centra of sauropods (and therefore, the longest vertebrae among animals):

  • BYU 9024, possibly referable to Supersaurus or Barosaurus: 137cm
  • Price River 2 titanosauriform: 129cm
  • OMNH 53062, Sauroposeidon holotype: 125cm
  • KLR1508-77-2, Ruyangosaurus giganteus referred specimen: 124cm
  • MPEF-PV 3400/3, Patagotitan holotype: 120cm (+?)
  • MPM 10002, Puertasaurus holotype: 118cm

You may be surprised to see the Price River 2 cervical in there. It was reported in an SVP abstract a few years ago (I’ll dig up that ref and update this post), and Mike and I saw it last year on the Sauropocalypse. We measured the centrum at 129cm, making it just a bit longer than the longest centrum of Sauroposeidon, and therefore the second-longest vertebra of anything ever.

Aside – I’m probably getting a reputation as a big ole meanie when it comes to debunking “world’s largest dinosaur” claims. If I’m willing to take the lead in kicking my own dinosaur down the ladder, don’t expect me to be kind to yours. I follow where the numbers lead.

Now, here’s an interesting thing – now that Sauroposeidon is coming out as a basal titanosaur, rather than a brachiosaur, it might not have been a skinny freak. The 120cm cervical of Patagotitan makes the 125cm cervical of Sauroposeidon and the 129cm cervical from Price River 2 look even more tantalizing. Maybe it’s super-giant sauropods all the way down.

“But wait, Matt”, I hear you thinking. “Every news agency in the world is tripping over themselves declaring Patagotitan the biggest dinosaur of all time. Why are you going in the other direction?”

Because I’ve been through this a few times now. But mostly because I can friggin’ read.

Maximum dorsal centrum diameter in Argentinosaurus is 60cm (specimen MCF-PVPH-1, Bonaparte and Coria 1993). In Puertasaurus it is also 60cm (MPM 10002, Novas et al. 2005). In Patagotitan it is 59cm (MPEF-PV 3400/5, Carballido et al. 2017). (For more big centra, see this post.)

Femoral midshaft circumference is 118cm in an incomplete femur of Argentinosaurus estimated to be 2.5m long when complete (Mazzetta et al. 2004). A smaller Argentinosaurus femur is 2.25m long with a circumference of 111.4cm (Benson et al. 2014). The largest reported femur of Patagotitan, MPEF-PV 3399/44, is 2.38m long and has a circumference of either 101cm (as reported in the Electronic Supplementary Materials to Carballido et al 2017) or 110cm (as reported in the media in 2014*).

TL;DR: 60>59, and 118>111>110>101, and in both cases Argentinosaurus > Patagotitan, at least a little bit.

Now, Carballido et al (2017) estimated that Patagotitan was sliiiiightly more massive than Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus by doing a sort of 2D minimum convex hull dorsal vertebra area thingy, which the Patagotitan vertebra “wins” because it has a taller neural spine than either Argentinosaurus or Puertasaurus, and slightly wider transverse processes than Argentinosaurus (138cm vs 128cm) – but way narrower transverse processes than Puertasaurus (138cm vs 168cm). But vertebrae with taller or wider sticky-out bits do not a more massive dinosaur make, otherwise Rebbachisaurus would outweigh Giraffatitan.

Now, in truth, it’s basically a three-way tie between Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan. Given how little we have of the first two, and how large the error bars are on any legit size comparison, there is no real way to tell which of them was the longest or the most massive. Still, to get to the conclusion that Patagotitan was in any sense larger than Argentinosaurus you have to physically drag yourself over the following jaggedly awkward facts:

  1. The weight-bearing parts of the anterior dorsal vertebrae are larger in diameter in both Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus than in Patagotitan. Very slightly, but still, Patagotitan is the smallest of the three.
  2. The femora of Argentinosaurus are fatter than those of Patagotitan, even at shorter length. The biggest femora of Argentinosaurus are longer, too.

So all of the measurements of body parts that have to do with supporting mass are still larger in Argentinosaurus than in Patagotitan.

Now, it is very cool that we now have a decent chunk of the skeleton of a super-giant titanosaur, instead of little bits and bobs. And it’s nice to know that the numbers reported in the media back in 2014 turned out to be accurate. But Patagotitan is not the “world’s largest dinosaur”. At best, it’s the third-largest contender among near equals.

Parting shot to all the science reporters who didn’t report the same numbers I did here: instead of getting hype-notized by assumption-laden estimates, how about doing an hour’s worth of research making the most obvious possible comparisons?

Almost immediate UPDATE: Okay, that parting shot wasn’t entirely fair. As far as I know, the measurements of Patagotitan were not available until the embargo lifted. Which is in itself odd – if someone claims to have the world’s largest dinosaur, but doesn’t put any measurements in the paper, doesn’t that make your antennae twitch? Either demand some measurements so you can make those obvious comparisons, or approach with extreme skepticism – especially if the “world’s largest dino” claim was pre-debunked three years ago!

* From this article in the Boston Globe:

Paleobiologist Paul Upchurch of University College London believes size estimates are more reliable when extrapolated from the circumference of bones.

He said this femur is a whopping 43.3 inches around, about the same as the Argentinosaurus’ thigh bone.

‘‘Whether or not the new animal really will be the largest sauropod we know remains to be seen,’’ said Upchurch, who was not involved in this discovery but has seen the bones first-hand.

Some prophetically appropriate caution from Paul Upchurch there, who has also lived through a few of these “biggest dinosaur ever” bubbles.


Matt just sent me an email entitled Are there “basal” sauropodomorphs?, in which he pointed me to Mario Bronzati’s (2017) opinion piece in Palaeontologia Electronica, “Should the terms ‘basal taxon’ and ‘transitional taxon’ be extinguished from cladistic studies with extinct organisms?”

Here’s the reply I sent Matt, which at his suggestion I am posting here essentially unedited. Note well that this is not a response to the Bronzati paper, but my own quite separate thoughts on the same issue.

I’ve not read the article, but here’s my position on This Kind Of Thing. I remember back when we used to talk about primitive and advanced taxa. Then someone managed to impose their liberal guilt on the world of vertebrate palaeontology and we all had to change to basal and derived instead. That change bought us nothing; and whatever new terminology this paper is proposing will buy us nothing, either.

The bottom line is, we all know what a basal sauropodomorph is, and when we want to talk about them we need a term for them. For myself, I reject the cladistic-police orthodoxy that says we should avoid “prosauropod” because of their irrational fear of paraphyletic taxa. “Prosauropoda” is a perfectly well-boundaried group, and can be defined (if we want a definition) as those sauropodomorphs that are not sauropods. (Note: this is a definition using phylogenetic principles.)

Ultimately terminology is there as an aid for us to talk about things, not as a political tool. “Prosauropod”, “primitive sauropodomorph” and “basal sauropodomorphs” were all perfectly good terms that named the same important group; and each them has been knocked out, one by one, by well-meaning nomenclatural puritans who could have been using their abundant energy and creativity on solving some actual problems instead.

So: how d’ya like them apples?


(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

Quick hit here: all this week there are mastodon-themed events going on at the Western Science Center in Hemet, including talks from paleontologists and an opening reception this Friday evening, August 4, before the exhibit formally opens to the public on Saturday. There’s a good overview of events at the WSC website here, and a nice post about the science and scientists behind the mastodon-fest at the PLOS Paleo Community blog here.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

I’m slapping Brian Engh’s art all over this post because one of the coolest things going this week will be the unveiling of Brian’s life-size painting of two fighting mastodons, which will cover one wall of the main paleo exhibit area at WSC (see also: Brian’s blog, Patreon page, and paleoart YouTube channel). Modern elephants use their tusks to do battle, and we have compelling evidence that fossil proboscideans did so as well, like the famous fighting mammoths of Crawford, Nebraska. One of the WSC mastodons, nicknamed Max, has several partially healed pathologies on his jaw that might be wounds from combat.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

There are loads of other mastodons at the Western Science Center, and there’s going to be a lot of mastodon science going on this week, so head on out if you are in the area and interested in big dead things. I’ll be there myself, at least on Friday evening, not as a professional paleontologist but as a fan of proboscideans, Ice Age megafauna, Inland Empire science, and awesome paleo-art. I hope to see you there.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center