Sauropod neural canals are weird, part 1c: unfused Giraffatitan dorsal

May 22, 2018

Remember this broken Giraffatitan dorsal vertebra, which Janensch figured in 1950?

It is not only cracked in half, anteroposteriorly, it’s also unfused.

Here’s a better view of the broken face, more clearly showing that the neural canal is (a) much taller than wide – unlike all vertebrate spinal cords – and (b) almost entirely situated ventral to the neurocentral joint, getting close to the condition in the perverted Camarasaurus figured by Marsh.

Here’s a dorsal view, anterior to the top, with Mike’s distal forelimbs for scale.

Left lateral view.

Right lateral view – note the subtle asymmetries in the pneumatic foramen/camera. A little of that might be taphonomic distortion but I think much of it is real (and expected, most pneumatic systems produce asymmetries).

And postero-dorsal view, really showing the weird neural canal to good advantage. In this photo and in the pure dorsal view, you can see that the two platforms for the “neural arch” – which, as in the aforementioned Camarasaurus, is neither neural nor an arch – converge so closely as to leave only a paper-thin gap.

A few points arise. As explained in this post, it makes more sense to talk about the neurocentral joint migrating up or down relative to the neural canal, which is right where it always is, just dorsal to the articular faces of the centrum.

So far, in verts I’ve seen with “offset” neurocentral joints, the joint tends to migrate dorsally in dorsal vertebrae, putting the canal inside the developmental domain of the centrum (which now includes a partial or total arch in an architectural sense, even though the chunk of bone we normally call the neural arch develops as a separate bit) – as shown in the first post in this series. In sacral and caudal vertebrae, the situation is usually reversed, with the joint shifted down into what would normally be the centrum, and the canal then mostly or completely surrounded by the arch – as shown in the second post in the series. This post then doesn’t really add any new concepts, just a new example.

Crucially, we can only study this in the vertebrae of juveniles and subadults, because once the neurocentral joints are fused and remodeled, we usually can’t tell where the old joint surface was. So it’s like cervicodorsal and caudal dorsal pneumatic hiatuses, in that the feature of interest only exists for part of the ontogeny of the animal, and our sample size is therefore inherently limited. Not necessarily limited by material – most museums I’ve visited have a fair amount of juvenile and subadult material in the collections – but limited in published visibility, in that for many sauropods only the largest and most complete specimens have been monographically described.

So once again, the answer is simply to visit collections, look at lots of fossils, and stay alert for weird stuff – happily, a route that is open to everyone with a legitimate research interest.

Reference

  • Janensch, W. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3:27-93.
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10 Responses to “Sauropod neural canals are weird, part 1c: unfused Giraffatitan dorsal”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    “Visit collections, look at lots of fossils, and stay alert for weird stuff.”

    We should adopt that as the official SV-POW! motto.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    “So once again, the answer is simply to visit collections, look at lots of fossils, and stay alert for weird stuff – happily, a route that is open to everyone with a legitimate research interest.”

    I agree with the sentiment but unfortunately I have to disagree with the idea that it’s a route open to everyone with a legitimate research interest. Most museums nowadays will not let you look at collections unless you are an accredited researcher at a museum or a college student. Many collections require you to disclose the instution you work at as part of the vetting process and, if you are a student, require vetting from your advisor beforehand. There are exceptions but they mostly seem to involve the curators in question making the personal decision to let them in. One has to wonder what it would be like for former graduate students who are no longer associated with institutions even as associates and do not have Ph.Ds (i.e., M.S. students). And that’s not even getting into the politics that can get institutional paleontologists barred from collections. This isn’t just true for paleontology (it’s true of most specimen-driven sciences), but paleontology has it the worst.

    This, combined with things like paywalls, are part of the reason why some people (especially the amateur paleontologist community) are dissatisfied with the professional paleontology community. They constantly hear that fossils are a piece of collective heritage yet most fossils end up squirreled away in places where only a select few will ever see them and most people will not even be able to read descriptions of the fossils due to most papers being behind paywalls (though this is changing). Most people who are interested in fossils will likely only get go see them in museums or their own efforts. And now you get some people saying the original fossils should NEVER be on display or we need to thin the current heard of graduate students wanting to go into paleontology (the actual question of too many students/not enough jobs is a different but related issue). Many people are driven out of paleontology by academia politics, and unlike many other fields there is no “intermediate level expert” job for paleo specialists like, say, park rangers or environmental quality managers are for biologists (there are some, as Andy Farke likes to point out, but they’re hard to find).

    Regardless of one’s position on amateur collecting of fossils and similar issues (one can hardly say getting a fossil out of the ground and into the public trust with as much data as possible is a bad thing) this is something that has to be considered when dealing with how paleontology is presented to the public.

    Speaking of Andy Farke, he said something sort of similar in a recent Old Bones post
    http://vertpaleo.org/Society-News/Blog/Old-Bones-SVP-s-Blog/November-2017/Whose-fossils.aspx

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    Those points are all well-taken. I am saddened to hear about people without credentials being turned away from collections. That hasn’t been my personal experience – in most of the cases I have personal knowledge of, the lay researcher has been let in – but I am open to the possibility that my anecdata does not represent the mean or mode for all who desire to see fossils but lack credentials.

    The problem of fossils supposedly held in public trust by institutions whose policies regarding access, photography, data, etc., don’t reflect that ideal is an increasingly vexing one. It’s late and I’m too tired to say anything more intelligent about it right now, but it’s something that both Mike and I feel passionately about, and you’ll definitely be hearing more about it here in the future.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Anonymous, your complaint is a legitimate one. Museums do have a duty to ensure that unique and fragile specimens are not simply made available for any old body to play with, but some of them have surely erred too far in that direction, barring access to serious researchers (including serious amateurs) who lack formal credentials or affiliation. In fact, gaining access to collection and to published papers was the main reason I sought affiliation with a university myself — that I ended up getting a Ph.D out of it was a sort of accident.

    I’m not sure what can be done about this, though, or even what should be done. Curators need some kind of a rule to decide who does and doesn’t get to play in collections: if they’re not going to use rules of thumb like “has relevant postgradudate degree” or “is affiliated with a university where supervisor will endorse” then what should they do instead?

    So: I recognise that there’s a problem, but I’m not seeing a solution.

    (Of course, free availability of 3d photogrammetric scans of all specimens would go a long way to mitigating this problem.)

  5. Kenneth Carpenter Says:

    I guess I am in the best position to respond to Anonymous with regards to access to museum collections and seeming closed world of paleontology, because I am both museum director and curator of paleontology. In addition, I was a major force in the citizen scientist program at the Denver Museum for two decades.

    Your complaint Anonymous is not new. There have been many saying pretty much the same known to me back to the 1970s when I first started as an undergraduate. I admit fumbling badly the first time I had a chance to make a difference, but yielded to outside pressure. In 1986, Phil Currie and I co-hosted the Dinosaur Systematics Symposium at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The speakers ranged from some old timers in VP, such as Wann Langston, to enthusiastic amateurs such as George Olshevsky. The plan was to publish a volume (Carpenter and Currie 1990) and I asked for abstracts from all the speakers, which wwere then compiled as a chapter-by-chapter synopsis for the publisher, Cambridge University Press. They sent that book proposal to two reviewers, one which was quite harsh because of the inclusion of a chapter by Olshevsky (I actually know who that person was and have little respect for him). In order to get the book published, I yielded to dropping Olshevsky and have regretted it ever since. I feel that I should have stood my ground and let Olshevsky’s work stand or fall on its own. If the science is good, what matter does it make that it was written by a amateur? In later years I would not budge on Peter Larson being a coeditor of “Tyrannosaurus rex, the Tyrannt King”, which is why Indiana U. Press published the book, rather than Johns Hopkins Press (years later the JHP editor admitted it was a mistake on their part).

    You are right Anonymous that there are those who close the door to amateurs. There are those in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology who act like holy priests guarding sacred truths and sacred relics (I picture these few bad apples in medieval monks’ cowls carrying the SVP logo high on a staff as they march along chanting slowly the song “Its a long way from amphioxus” – think Monty Python, & look up the song on YouTube). Interestingly, invertebrate paleontologists are more accepting of amateurs in their midst. It was partly in reaction to that snobbishness or elitism that I opened doors for my volunteers at Denver to publish. Despite that, I had a NSF grant for work in the Cedar Mountain Formation shot down by a moron reviewer who wrote that amateurs could not possible contribute anything scientifically. How does one respond to such a narrow minded moron? These amateurs that were dished included a PhD who studied cloud formation at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a MA who was division chief for the radio spectral group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, three MDs, a retired engineer from the Bureau of Reclamation, two retired petroleum geologists with MA, etc. My response was to thumb my nose at NSF, and my disparaged amateur volunteers and I published several books and numerous peer-reviewed papers naming and describing various dinosaurs. I gave a presentation at SVP regarding this work with volunteers. The original title was “How to use volunteers to crush the opposition,” but that was too cheeky, so I changed the title when submitted.

    For you, Anonymous, it would help to get yourself associated with someone supportive in either a museum or university. Karl Hirsch, who many consider the “Father of the Study of Fossil Eggs” (paleo-oology) was an amateur. When I first met him in 1974, he was a machinist at Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility, shaping plutonium for hydrogen bombs (he said it was to get even with the Soviets who had kept him in a Siberian Concentration Camp for two years after the War). He collected fossils as a hobby, and in the early 1970s happened upon a fossil egg in the White River Formation. No one could tell him anything about the egg. Fossil eggs were in fact treated as curios by museums. Undaunted, he set out to determine what the egg was and in the process founded the field of fossil egg study and egg parataxonomy. His support was Dr. Judith Van Couvering at the University of Colorado (who was also my undergrad mentor). He worked the night shift so that he could work on manuscripts during his breaks. He would periodically bring what he had handwritten to Judith in the morning on his way home (about a 20 miles detour). I used to hear them with raised voices because he was a stubborn and crusty old German (got drafted into the Wehrmacht) and had a hard time changing his thinking and writing style to be more scientific. I should mention that Karl never got beyond a high school degree.

    You should understand Anonymous that museums have a social and ethical responsibility for the collections in their care and that is spelled out by various museum accreditation organizations (such as the American Alliance of Museums, or the Arts Council in England) . Like it or not, there does have to be a gatekeeper. You obviously would not open your home to anyone knocking on your door. Likewise, museums have the same approach (but not always for the same reason – some are just protectionist “stamp collectors”). You may know you have good and honorable intentions, but then that person at your door may say the same. Want access? Then write a research design spelling out what you need to see, why you need to see it, and what seeing it will allow you to do (oddly, archaeologists have to do that all the time). Guardianship is not an option for museums. Theft from collections is the biggest cause of collections loss, not fire, earthquakes, etc. When someone shows up here asking to see collections, accommodating them is sometimes possible IF I have the staff to spare: “so and so wants to see his grandfather’s dinosaur bone/arrowheads” are the most common requests. I cannot simply say, “here are the keys” anymore than you would to a stranger at your door.

    So, anonymous, what are your motives? Spell it out. Get someone to take you under their wing and who can put in a good word for you until you have established a reputation to go it alone. Prove to me you are not a fruitcake wasting my time with your collections access request. You see, you have to take some responsibility.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I completely agree that there has to be some kind of gatekeeper in place for determining who does and doesn’t get access to collections. As Mike, Matt, and Ken say, fossils are unique and fragile things, and having worked with specimens in collections firsthand I can attest to that as well. I also agree with Mike that although its clear there is a problem it’s not at all clear what should or even could be done. Going the opposite route and letting every person into the collections no questions asked is clearly impratical. If curators didn’t make decisions on who is and who isn’t responsible enough to play in the collections then they wouldn’t be doing their job as curators. I don’t think many people would disagree with this sentiment.

    My point I was trying to make is that if we are going to have a system where access to fossils is limited to a select few people, we have to accept that there are going to be unintended consequences to these decisions. If we as paleontologists as a whole say that fossils are everyone’s heritage yet put most fossils away where most people can never see them or even the descriptions of them, we shouldn’t be surprised when people percieve this sentiment as hypocritical (even if that is not the intention). Research in paleontology, unfortunately, is not something that is open to everyone. This isn’t saying that the opposite policy wouldn’t have consequences, and indeed the consequences of unfettered access to collections are likely worse (broken fossils).

    I am a former amateur paleontologist who was fortunate enough to graduate into academia. Before that I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to get a volunteer position as a field hand and fossil preparator at a museum. I have been to several SVPs and other meetings and have had the chance to present my research at several of them. Indeed, that is part of my reason for not posting under my real name. A significant number of the paleontologists (disclaimer: not all) I have met both in person and online (by which I mean actual paleontologists who are known in the field, not random yahoos) have been extremely aggressive and quick to anger (not just about this issue specifically, which I understand is very controversial, but over just about anything), and I fear expressing sentiments such as these will get me blacklisted by the paleo community.

    The reasons for my concern are not necessarily about my opportunities, but regarding vertebrate paleontology’s image as a whole. As a graduate student, when discussing career opportunities with other people in my department, people asked me why I did not try to pursue a non-academic but still science related career that would allow research, like being a zookeeper or working for a conservation organization would be for them. I had to very awkwardly explain that the vertebrate paleontology community in general seems to hate citizen scientists (again, in terms of general atmosphere, not all involved individuals), as opposed to fields like entomology or herpetology (and invert. paleontology, as Ken points out).

    The collection issue is also something that is not limited to non-professionals. I have put in proposals to visit collections, had them accepted, and then when I showed up found the curator had taken the material out on loan specifically because they had heard someone had put a request in to look at it. Talking with other colleagues showed this was not an isolated occurence. That said, I have also met many collections managers who have been nothing but helpful and whose efforts should be applauded.

    I think Ken’s policy of having potential visitors spell out their motivations and intentions and take some responsibility for justifying their visit sounds like a good policy given the limited time and resources of most curators.

  7. Kenneth Carpenter Says:

    Ah, well, now that I have more information to go on…

    I understand both sides of the coin regarding access to specific specimens. On the one hand, certain specimens have remained undescribed because curators have sat on them. For example, Alan Charig of the Natural History Museum (UK) sat on the holotype of Scelidosaurus after it was acid prepared because he was going to describe it in great detail (great!) after he retired when he could devote himself to it. He died still sitting on it. It then passed to David Norman who was going to pick up where Charig left off. To prod Norman, I have published snippets of the specimen over the years and still nothing (probably because he is too busy snipping at me for daring to publish on “his” iguanodontids – again because he was sitting on the specimens and I got tired of waiting for him. Two decades and counting).

    On the other hand, if I have started describing a specimen, I would not like having someone “beat me to the punch.” That has happened and I now keep my cards very, very close. But I am also aware that it is not fair for me to sit on specimens for years and years. What is a fair time? 5 years? 10? I leaning towards 10, but only because I am biased towards myself :-D

    So, why has it taken me so long to finish certain projects? For example, the redescription of Diplodocus has simmered for almost a decade, not for lack of interest, but because other obligations and other interruptions. Why have I not published on my flume-based study of bone burial despite having completed the data gathering 2 years ago? Again, other obligations. I was asked by Peter Galton to take the lead on a summary of bipedal ornithischians from the Morrison Formation. Sure, I thought, a quick and dirty. Wrong! That project grew and grew so that it became a photo-documentation of 32 figures with multiple images (one figure had images A-Z, AA-TT) AND 51 pages of text. It is due out later this year as part the SVP symposium articles on the Morrison (https://www.utahgeology.org/publications/geology-of-the-intermountain-west/giw/). This themed series also gave me the opportunity to complete a manuscript started in the early 1990s on the Morrison Formation of the Canon City area. But again, that pushed back the bone burial manuscript. It was pushed back yet further because of the new information on Amphicoelias that I had to write up (also in the same series). The point here is that despite my best intentions, projects get pushed back and I am sure that was the problem with Charig and Norman and I do want to protect my investments (at least for a few years).

    As for being concerned about what people think regarding your reputation, it probably isn’t anywhere as bad as you think. Most people are too busy worrying about how they come across to worry about how you come across. And if they do, it is a reflection on them, not on you. Your mission, Anonymous, should you choose to accept it, is to do paleontology to the best of your ability and build your reputation internationally that way. What is said about you does not have the endurance of what you write. How many people remember that Earl Douglass considered William Holland an arrogant asshole? John Hatcher fully agreed with Douglass. Instead, we remember Holland as the person who described the skulls of Diplodocus, who named Apatosaurus louisae, etc.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Great to see such an interesting thread has started up on this post!

    Ken:

    Interestingly, invertebrate paleontologists are more accepting of amateurs in their midst.

    I imagine this is because they have so many more specimens that no single specimen is of great scientific value. Invertebrate palaeotologists can afford to be more laissez faire about amateur collectors.

    Write a research design spelling out what you need to see, why you need to see it, and what seeing it will allow you to do.

    This is an excellent plan. Looking back, it seems crazy that I’ve never done this. I wouldn’t think it needs to be long: a single page should suffice to lay out your intentions in a form that allows someone to judge how serious you are.

    So, anonymous, what are your motives? Spell it out. Get someone to take you under their wing and who can put in a good word for you until you have established a reputation to go it alone.

    By the way, part of this is not being anonymous. You can’t acquire a reputation if you don’t have an identity. If you want to remain cloaked, that’s fine, but at least adopt a consistent pseudonym, so you can be recognised from among all the other anonymouses.

    Anonymous:

    If we as paleontologists as a whole say that fossils are everyone’s heritage yet put most fossils away where most people can never see them or even the descriptions of them, we shouldn’t be surprised when people percieve this sentiment as hypocritical.

    Yes. I want to point out once more (since no-one picked up on it before) that the ubiquitous open availability of digital specimens is going to be key here. We’re now getting close to the stage where we can and should be photogrammetrising essentially every specimen we work on, and where descriptive papers that don’t include 3D models in the supplementary information are considered deficient.

    A significant number of the paleontologists (disclaimer: not all) I have met both in person and online (by which I mean actual paleontologists who are known in the field, not random yahoos) have been extremely aggressive and quick to anger (not just about this issue specifically, which I understand is very controversial, but over just about anything)

    I just want to note that this is not been my experience at all. I can think of two or three people tops who I think have treated me unfairly, and even then it’s primarily been a general sort of coldness rather then anything more concrete. 99% of the palaeontologists I’ve encountered have been great, and they include some of the very best people I know.

    I fear expressing sentiments such as these will get me blacklisted by the paleo community.

    I wouldn’t worry about that. This entire blog pretty much consists of me expressing unpopular opinions, and it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm. On the whole people evaluate opinions based on how well they’re justified, not on whose they are — which is as it should be in science. On occasions where I’ve expressed opinions here that have been simply wrong, people have showed me that, and I’ve withdrawn them. Simple.

    Finally …

    Ken again:

    As for being concerned about what people think regarding your reputation, it probably isn’t anywhere as bad as you think. Most people are too busy worrying about how they come across to worry about how you come across.

    I think this is great advice, not only for palaontology, but for life.

  9. Kenneth Carpenter Says:

    Mike wrote: “I imagine this is because they have so many more specimens that no single specimen is of great scientific value. Invertebrate palaeotologists can afford to be more laissez faire about amateur collectors.”

    Actually, no. The Paleontology Society has the annual Strimple Award as described on their website: “The Strimple Award recognizes outstanding achievement in paleontology by amateurs (someone who does not make a living full-time from paleontology). Contributions may be an outstanding record of research and publication, making outstanding collections, safeguarding unique paleontological materials through public service, teaching activities in the area of paleontology, and collaborations with others working in paleontology.” https://paleosoc.org/grants-and-awards/strimple-award/

    So you see, it is an active acceptance of amateurs. Not surprisingly, most of the award winners are in the realm of non-vertebrate paleontology.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks, all, for a very civil and interesting discussion. Anonymous, you’ve done an admiral job of articulating your points reasonably and without bitterness – better than I would have if our circumstances were reversed.


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