Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

What if Amphicoelias fragillimus was a rebbachisaurid?

An important paper is out today: Carpenter (2018) names Maraapunisaurus, a new genus to contain the species “Amphicoelias fragillimus, on the basis that it’s actually a rebbachisaurid rather than being closely related to the type species Amphicoelias altus.

Carpenter 2018: Figure 5. Comparison of the neural spine of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus restored as a rebbachisaurid (A), and the dorsal vertebrae of Rebbachisaurus garasbae (B), and Histriasaurus boscarollii (C). Increments on scale bars = 10 cm.

And it’s a compelling idea, as the illustration above shows. The specimen (AMNH FR 5777) has the distinctive dorsolaterally inclined lateral processes of a rebbachisaur, as implied by the inclined laminae meeting at the base of the SPOLs, and famously has the very excavated and highly laminar structure found in rebbachisaurs — hence the species name fragillimus.

Ken’s paper gives us more historical detail than we’ve ever had before on this enigmatic and controversial specimen, including extensive background to the excavations. The basics of that history will be familiar to long-time readers, but in a nutshell, E. D. Cope excavated the partial neural arch of single stupendous dorsal vertebra, very briefly described it and illustrated it (Cope 1878), and then … somehow lost it. No-one knows how or where it went missing, though Carpenter offers some informed speculation. Most likely, given the primitive stabilisation methods of the day, it simply crumbled to dust on the journey east.

Carpenter 2018: Frontispiece. E. D. Cope, the discoverer of AMNH FR 5777, drawn to scale with the specimen itself.

Cope himself referred the vertebra to his own existing sauropod genus Amphicoelias — basically because that was the only diplodocoid he’d named — and there it has stayed, more or less unchallenged ever since. Because everyone knows Amphicoelias (based on the type species A. altus) is sort of like Diplodocus(*), everyone who’s tried to reconstruct the size of the AMNH FR 5777 animal has done so by analogy with Diplodocus — including Carpenter himself in 2006, Woodruff and Foster (2014) and of course my own blog-post (Taylor 2010).

(*) Actually, it’s not; but that’s been conventional wisdom.

Ken argues, convincingly to my mind, that Woodruff and Foster (2014) were mistaken in attributing the great size of the specimen to a typo in Cope’s description, and that it really was as big as described. And he argues for a rebbachisaurid identity based on the fragility of the construction, the lamination of the neural spine, the extensive pneumaticity, the sheetlike SDL, the height of the postzygapophyses above the centrum, the dorsolateral orientation of the transverse processes, and other features of the laminae. Again, I find this persuasive (and said so in my peer-review of the manuscript).

Carpenter 2018: Figure 3. Drawing made by E.D. Cope of the holotype of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus (Cope, 1878f) with parts labeled. “Pneumatic chambers*” indicate the pneumatic cavities dorsolateral of the neural canal, a feature also seen in several rebbachisaurids. Terminology from Wilson (1999, 2011) and Wilson and others (2011).

If AMNH FR 5777 is indeed a rebbachisaur, then it can’t be a species of Amphicoelias, whose type species is not part of that clade. Accordingly, Ken gives it a new generic name in this paper, Maraapunisaurus, meaning “huge reptile” based on Maraapuni, the Southern Ute for “huge” — a name arrived at in consultation with the Southern Ute Cultural Department, Ignacio, Colorado.

How surprising is this?

On one level, not very: Amphicoelias is generally thought to be a basal diplodocoid, and Rebbachisauridae was the first major clade to diverge within Diplodocoidae. In fact, if Maraapunisaurus is basal within Rebbachisauridae, it may be only a few nodes away from where everyone previously assumed it sat.

On the other hand, a Morrison Formation rebbachisaurid would be a big deal for two reasons. First, because it would be the only known North American rebbachisaur — all the others we know are from South America, Africa and Europe. And second, because it would be, by some ten million years, the oldest known rebbachisaur — irritatingly, knocking out my own baby Xenoposeidon (Taylor 2018), but that can’t be helped.

Finally, what would this new identity mean for AMNH FR 5777’s size?

Carpenter 2018: Figure 7. Body comparisons of Maraapunisaurus as a 30.3-m-long rebbachisaurid (green) compared with previous version as a 58-m-long diplodocid (black). Lines within the silhouettes approximate the distal end of the diapophyses (i.e., top of the ribcage). Rebbachisaurid version based on Limaysaurus by Paul (2016), with outline of dorsal based on Rebbachisaurus; diplodocid version modified from Carpenter (2006).

Because dorsal vertebrae in rebbachisaurids are proportionally taller than in diplodocids, the length reconstructed from a given dorsal height is much less for rebbachisaurs: so much so that Ken brings in the new version, based on the well-represented rebbachisaur Limaysaurus tessonei, at a mere 30.3 m, only a little over half of the 58 m he previously calculated for a diplodocine version. That’s disappointing for those of us who like our sauropods stupidly huge. But the good news is, it makes virtually no difference to the height of the animal, which remains prodigious — 8 m at the hips, twice the height of a giraffe’s raised head. So not wholly contemptible.

Exciting times!