Supersaurus timeline

July 17, 2019

The history of Supersaurus — and its buddies Ultrasauros and Dystylosaurus — is pretty complicated, and there seems to be no one source for it. But having read a lot about these animals in the process of writing eleven mostly pretty substantial posts about them, I feel like I’m starting to put it all together. This post is an attempt at recognising the landmarks in this history, in chronological order. Please leave a comment if you find a mistake or if I missed anything.


1943 — Sawmill operator Eddie Jones and his wife Vivian are prospecting for uranium during WWII. They find a brachiosaur skeleton in an advanced state of erosion at Potter Creek in the Uncompahgre Upwarp (Jensen 1987:592). (Jensen 1985a:697 says the humerus was also collected in this year, but that is contradicted by other accounts.)

1955 — Eddie and Vivian Jones collect the brachiosaur humerus and donate it to the Smithsonian Institition (George 1873b:53), where it is accessioned as USNM 21903 and put on display some time before March 1959 (Anonymous 1959).

USNM 21903, a left humerus of ?Brachiosaurus altithorax, discovered by Eddie and Vivian Jones. From the NMNH’s specimen gallery page, which gives the collection date as 1955. When I first saw this specimen, my gut reaction was that it was not slender enough to be Brachiosaurus, but note that the midshaft is very extensively restored. It may be that the intact bone was longer than the version we now see.

1958 — Jensen sees the Smithsonian humerus and finds the Jones family, who take him to the humerus location in Potter Creek and to three other Uncompahgre fossil localities (Jensen 1985a:697).

1964 — Jensen makes his first collection from the Uncompahgre Upwarp (Jensen 1985b:710).

1971 — Jensen sees a theropod toe bone at the Joneses’ home and asks where they found it. They tell him “On the Uncompahgre” (George 1973b:53), i.e. probably specifically from Dry Mesa, awakening his interest in that quarry.

1972 — In April (George 1973b:53), Jensen makes his first collection of material from Dry Mesa, one of the Uncompahgre localities found by the Joneses (Jensen 1985a:697).

In August (George 1973b:51-52) a large sauropod pelvis is found. This seems to have been the first element found that hinted at a very large sauropod at Dry Mesa (George 1973b:52-53).

Jensen displays the first Dry Mesa pelvis, still in the ground, in a frame from the 1976 version of The Great Dinosaur Discovery [13m53s].

Later this year, the first large Dry Mesa scapulocoracoid is found (Jensen 1985b:717). This would later be referred to as the “first specimen” of Supersaurus (e.g. Jensen 1985a:figure 8), but it was the subsequently discovered “second specimen” that would become the holotype when the genus was formally named (Jensen 1985a:701).

[NOTE. I am increasingly concerned that this might be wrong, and that the first scapulocoracoid found might after all have become the holotype. How to establish this? I sense yet another blog-post incoming.]

This is also the date given in the Dystylosaurus systematic palaeontology of Jensen (1985a:707). This may be an error as it is seven years before the date given for Supersaurus and Ultrasaurus, both of which names were known long before that of Dystylosaurus. but Curtice and Stadtman (2001:33) corroborate this early date for the discovery of the Dystylosaurus vertebra, and the relatively low specimen number BYU 4503 perhaps also suggests early collection and accessioning.

1973 — First published accounts of the giant sauropod material from Dry Mesa. The earliest may be that of Jean George (1973a) in the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine, on May 13. This is subsequently condensed into an account (George 1973b) in Reader’s Digest for June (not August as stated by Jensen 1985b:717, who also mis-cites the title). This latter account may be responsible for coining the informal name “Supersaurus” (Jensen 1985b:717), which would later be confirmed as the scientific name. (“There ‘Supersaurus,’ as we will call him, now awaits an official name and taxonomic classification.” — George 1973b:53.)

On Tuesday 13 November, a one-hour film about the dinosaurs of Dry Mesa, The Great Dinosaur Discovery, premieres in Delta, Colorado (Herald 1973). It is to be aired on 225 public TV stations across the USA.

Brigham Young University publishes an eight-page pamphlet, also titled The Great Dinosaur Discovery (House et al. 1973) to introduce the documentary. In it, Jensen is said to refer to the giant sauropod as “Big George”, but this nickname never caught on. “Both of Big George’s eight-foot-long shoulder blades were uncovered at the quarry” by this stage. The large pelvis is now considered probably not to belong to Big George. Jensen thinks the new specimen “will not only require a new genus and species, but also a new family and perhaps even a new infra-order”.

1974 — Jensen hopes that the Dry Mesa Quarry will be developed as a tourist destination along the lines of Dinosaur National Monument, “with provisions for public access and viewing while the scientific work continues” (Barnes 1974:40) — a dream that would never come to pass.

1976 — A shortened version of The Great Dinosaur Discovery is made available for schools. (At present, this is the only version we have access to.) In this version of the film (and presumably in the 1973 original, if the 1976 version was made only by cutting), the name “Supersaurus” is used informally, and a reconstruction of the animal [20 minutes in] shows it modelled after Brachiosaurus rather than a diplodocid.

A newspaper report about a large sauropod humerus (Anonymous 1976:1) suggests that Jensen believes belongs to “Supersaurus”. But no Supersaurus humerus is subsequently mentioned, and the bone probably belongs to another taxon. Its slenderness suggests it may belong to a brachiosaur: it is probably the Potter Creek humerus or more likely a cast of it, misreported.

1977 — Jensen is informally referring to the giant sauropod as “Supersaurus jenseni” (Look 1977:37). It is still felt that “it is a good guess that the big animal looked something like a cousin to the Brachiosaurus“.

“Late 1970s” — Dale McInnes prepares the “2nd specimen” Supersaurus scapulocoracoid, probably referring to the second to be discovered, which we believe is BYU 9025, eventually to become the holotype. (The “1st specimen” has already been prepared by this point.) In the 11-foot-long jacket, they find 9’2″ of bone, which they reduce to an 8’10” scapulocoracoid by closing cracks.

1978 — John Ostrom’s (1978) popular account of new ideas about dinosaurs in National Geographic mentions Supersaurus, and still considers it probably “built along the lines of Brachiosaurus“. He says that “a pair of shoulder blades eight feet long” have been dug up, so both of the elements that might be the holotype were known by this point.

1978 — Olshevsky (1991:139) gives this as the date of Jensen’s first informal use of the name “Ultrasaurus”, but this must be considered suspect as other sources say the key specimen of this genus was not discovered until 1979.

1979 — The brachiosaurid scapulocoracoid BYU 9462 (BYU 5001 of Jensen’s usage) is discovered and collected from the Dry Mesa Quarry (Jensen 1987:603 — although in this passage he incorrectly says the specimen number is BYU 5000). The discovery is witnessed by a Japanese film crew that is making a documentary about the Dry Mesa dinosaurs (Jensen 1985b:717). Jensen begins to refer to the specimen informally as “Ultrasaurus”.

Miller et al. (1991: figure 4b). “Loading plaster-jacketed bones at the Dry Mesa quarry, 1979. Left to right, Richard Jensen, Jim Jensen, Japanese TV crew.” It’s obvious from the shape of the plaster jacket that this is the “Ultrasaurus” scapulocoracoid BYU 9462.

The earliest reports of “Ultrasaurus” appear in the media (Webster 1979, Whitney 1979, Martin 1979).

At the climax of an eleven-day lecture tour in Japan, Jensen presents casts of three bones to the the people of Japan (Anonymous 1979): the “Ultrasaurus” scapulocoracoid BYU 9462, the Potter Creek humerus USNM 21903 and a large rib referred to Brachiosaurus sp.

This is the date given in the Ultrasaurus systematic palaeontology of Jensen (1985a:704).

This is also the date given in the Supersaurus systematic palaeontology of Jensen (1985a:701): “COLLECTOR.—James A. Jensen 1979”. This late date is surprising, as Supersaurus material was known as early as 1972 and both scapulocoracoids had been excavated by the time of Ostrom’s (1978) account.

1982 — Last collection of material considered for 1985 descriptive paper (Jensen 1985a:697).

Wilford (1982), in a popular article in the New York Times apparently written with Jensen’s collaboration, says that Supersaurus “may be an enlarged variation of brachiosaurus” and that Ultrasaurus “must have been even larger”, indicating that Supersaurus may still have been thought of as brachiosaurid well after the discovery of Ultrasaurus.

1983 — As of this date, approximately 100 tons of material collected by Jensen for BYU remains unprepared (Jensen 1985a:709).

Kim (1983) names a Korean sauropod Ultrasaurus tabriensis, intending it to be a new species of Jensen’s genus. However, since the name Ultrasaurus has not previously been formally published, Kim inadvertently preoccupies the name. (The Korean sauropod was thought enormous because of the size of its “ulna”; however, this bone is clearly a humerus, and of only moderate size for a sauropod. The taxon is generally considered undiagnosable, and the name therefore a nomen dubium.)

1985 — Jensen’s main descriptive paper (Jensen 1985a) is published, formally naming three new sauropod genera. Supersaurus (now considered to be of indeterminate family) is based on the scapulocoracoid BYU 9025 (BYU 5500 of his usage); Ultrasaurus (considered to be a brachiosaurid) is based on the posterior dorsal vertebra BYU 9044 (BYU 5000 of his usage) rather than the scapulocoracoid; and Dystylosaurus (which “no doubt represents a new sauropod family”) is based on the anterior dorsal vertebra BYU 4503 (BYU 5750 of his usage). This paper is accompanied by a broader overview of the Uncompahgre dinosaur fauna (Jensen 1985b) in which he says of the second Supersaurus scapulocoracoid that “it displays diplodocid affinities” (p717).

1987 — Jensen’s second descriptive paper removes the large Dry Mesa cervical vertebra BYU 9024 (BYU 5003 of his usage) from Ultrasaurus and refers it to Supersaurus (Jensen 1987:600-602). It seems from this paper that he may have intended the Ultrasaurus scapulocoracoid BYU 9462 (BYU 5001) to be the holotype of that genus (Jensen 1987:603). By this point, Supersaurus seems to have been recognised as diplodocid: “two unusually large scapulocoracoids … were referrable to the Diplodocidae. One of these (BYU 5500, Fig. 9B) is the holotype of Supersaurus vivianae” (p602).

1988 — A second large pelvis, BYU 13018, is found in Dry Mesa quarry (Wakley 1988, Wilford 1988, Miller et al. 1991:40). This is quickly recognised as belonging to Supersaurus, and will later be formally referred to that genus (Curtice and Stadtman 2001:38-39). It is now on display at the North American Museum of Ancient Life.

1990 — In the landmark encyclopaedia The Dinosauria, McIntosh (1990) describes Supersaurus as a diplodocid (p391), Ultrasaurus (Jensen) as “a very large brachiosaurid” based on the type vertebra and referred scapulocoracoid (p384), and the Dystylosaurus vertebra as “clearly brachiosaurid” (p384).

1991 — McGowan (1991:118) originates the idea that Ultrasaurus massed 180 tonnes, based on its restoration as a brachiosaurid 1.32 times as large in linear dimension as the Berlin Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN SII) whose mass Colbert (1962) had grossly overestimated at 78 tons.

Olshevsky (1991:139), recognising the preoccupation of the name Ultrasaurus by Kim’s (1983) genus, raises the replacement name Ultrasauros for Jensen’s genus, with Jensen’s blessing. He had originally suggested the replacement name Jensenosaurus, but Jensen disliked this and suggested the variant spelling that was used instead (Curtice et al. 1996:87-88).

Miller et al. (1991:40) suggest that the holotype dorsal vertebra of Ultrasaurus (i.e. Ultrasauros) might by diplodocid, due to its similarity to the sacral vertebrae of the 1988 pelvis whose tall neural spines “most closely resemble the diplodocids”.

1994John Sibbick’s classic artwork of Supersaurus and Ultrasaurus, with Seismosaurus, is published in David Norman’s Prehistoric Life: The Rise of the Vertebrates.

1995 — Curtice (1995), in an SVP abstract, reassigns to Supersaurus the clearly diplodocid caudal vertebra BYU 9045 (BYU 5002 of Jensen’s usage), which Jensen had assigned to Ultrasaurus.

The caudal vertebra BYU 9045 (BYU 5002 of Jensen’s usage), in (from left to right) posterior, right lateral, and anterior views. Modified from Jensen (1985a:figures 2E, 3E and 2D respectively), an including his original scalebars. These are consistent between the photos in posterior and lateral views, and if accurate indicate that the vertebra is 1.18 m in total height.

1996 — Curtice et al. (1996) persuasively show that the holotype of Ultrasauros, BYU 9044 (BYU 5000 of Jensen’s usage) is diplodocid, and conclude that it belongs to Supersaurus, making Ultrasauros a junior synonym.

2001 — Curtice and Kenneth (2001) show that the holotype of Dystylosaurus, BYU 4503 (BYU 5750 of Jensen’s usage) is diplodocid, and conclude that it, too, belongs to Supersaurus, making Dystylosaurus another junior synonym.

2003 — Curtice (2003), in a conference abstract, suggests tentatively that Supersaurus (into which he has already sunk Ultrasauros and Dystylosaurus) may itself be synonymous with Barosaurus.

2005 — A team from a the Wyoming Dinosaur Center announce in an SVP abstract and poster (Lovelace et al. 2005) a new specimen WDC DMJ-021 (“Jimbo”), which they refer to Supersaurus vivianae.

McIntosh (2005:73), in revising Barosaurus, is persuaded that Supersaurus is indeed a valid genus rather than merely a large species of Barosaurus. (He mentions “the type specimen, the right scapulocoracoid” — another puzzle piece to help determine which element is the type.)

2008 — The WDC team formally describe their referred Supersaurus specimen WDC DMJ-201 (“Jimbo”), providing a phylogenetic analysis that recovers Supersaurus (based on a compound BYU+WDC taxon) as more closely related to Apatosaurus than to Barosaurus.

2011 — Whitlock’s phylogenetic analysis of diplodocoids recovers Supersaurus as the most basal diplodocine (Whitlock 2011:figure 7), i.e. closer to Barosaurus than to Apatosaurus, but not very close to either.

2015 — Tschopp et al.’s phylogenetic analysis of diplodocoids codes the BYU and WDC Supersaurus individuals as separate OTUs and finds that they emerge as sister taxa (Tschopp et al. 2015:figure 118), corroborating Lovelace et al.’s referral of the WDC specimen to Supersaurus. They recover Supersaurus in a small clade with Australodocus and Dinheirosaurus near the base of diplodocinae: again, closer to Barosaurus than to Apatosaurus, but not very close to either.

2016 — In an SVPCA talk and abstract, Taylor and Wedel (2016) argue that BYU 9024, the large cervical vertebra usually considered to be part of the Dry Mesa Supersaurus, actually belongs to a large Barosaurus. If this is correct, then the concept of Supersaurus requires further revision.

2019 — In a seemingly endless series of blog-posts, Taylor and Wedel consider the history of Supersaurus and co., and the taxonomic implications of the BYU cervical belonging to Barosaurus.

References

Note: this is a unified bibliography for all the posts in the present series. It therefore includes references not cited in this post.

 

19 Responses to “Supersaurus timeline”

  1. LeeB. Says:

    Tschopp et al. have just put a spreadsheet on line with a lot of Morrison Formation material information including specimen numbers.
    The BYU numbers are designed to drive people nuts; as well as the number alone and Jensens numbers they have the numbers again with 725- prefixed.
    Also the numbers generally agree with yours although they also list quite a lot of caudals under the Supersaurus material.
    However they list BYU 5502 as the ischium, 5503 as the caudals and list BYU 12962 as the holotype.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Interesting, Lee. Where is this spreadsheet?

    BTW., I recently learned from Ray Wilhite that the “725-” prefix represents the Dry Mesa quarry. It can be discarded.

  3. LeeB Says:

    The link was on the archives of the dinosaur mailing list yesterday; it is :
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1OazMLgm6rZe7SaNP3YexbqS9Vo-FsqFyFoJktcr2H8Q/edit#gid=1900326837

  4. Alex Downs Says:

    A photo of the Smithsonian humerus USNM 21903 before restoration is in Nicholas Hotton’s 1963 paperback “Dinosaurs” available on Amazon for $3.50 US.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Alex, that would be really interesting to see. Is there any chance of you scanning the relevant page and sending to me at dino@miketaylor.org.uk? (I don’t really want to acquire an entire book.)

  6. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    Hi, I’m studying/hoping to be a paleontologist and I’m going to go to Dinosaur National Monument with my family this week and I was wondering, is there anything nearby that you’d suggest seeing while I’m there?

  7. Alex Downs Says:

    Mike, Unfortunately that book is packed away in one of many boxes of misc books preparing for a move that hasn’t happened yet. But…I did a search for Brachiosaurus humerus image and found the same photo on the Wikipedia Brachiosaurus page, down at the bottom with the caption “Child with Potter Creek humerus, 1959” At that time it was serving as the Smithsonian’s touchable dinosaur bone. Note the right front foot (restored) of the Diplodocus mount in the background. Alex Downs

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Rugosidens, while you are in Vernal definitely go to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (yes, that is its full name). Their exhibits are top notch and they have a mounted cast skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii that you can walk all the way around and under. Also very nice mounted Stegosaurus and Allosaurus, the Bilbey Haplocanthosaurus laid out more or less as it was found, and just loads of other interesting things to see.

    Have a great time at the Monument, it is the closest thing paleontology has produced to a cathedral.

  9. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    Thanks so much, Matt, will do!

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Also, it’s worth driving around the little town of Dinosaur, Colorado, just to wonder at the street signs and the Dinosaur Baptist Church.

  11. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    Wow, that actually sounds pretty cool, thanks, Mike!

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    If you are lucky, when you drive past the city offices of Dinosaur, Colorado, the black SUV with “Dinosaur Marshal” on the side will be parked out front. Despite what others might tell you, that is actually the highest office to which a paleontologist can aspire.


  13. […] so the series continues: part 9, part 10 and part 11 were not numbered as such, but that’s what they were, so I am picking up the numbering here […]

  14. Bruce Schumacher Says:

    Mike Said: [NOTE. I am increasingly concerned that this might be wrong, and that the first scapulocoracoid found might after all have become the holotype. How to establish this? I sense yet another blog-post incoming.]

    It’s Super-confusing, it’s Ultra-confusing . . . . Jensen (1985a:fig. 8) figures the 1st and 2nd Supersaurus scap-coracoids from the same perspective. The 1st specimen (that pictured extensively in Empire Magazine and Readers Digest, 1973; a right element), is figured in medial view – weird. Perhaps it’s because the medial surface is that which was strata up and pictured so many times in the quarry. Or perhaps the lateral surface of the bone had not been prepared at the time the figure was sketched. The proximodorsal rim of element is shown as dashed, which I think indicates it may be from a field sketch. Anyway, Jensen (1985:p. 701) states the holotype is “right scapulocoracoid”. Regardless of the discrepancy of printed measurements, and various numbers, seems murkily plain to me that the 1st specimen (right) is the Holotype. This is also the specimen which hangs on display in the US Forest Service Yates Building, Washington DC, provided to Forest Service historically by staff of BYU as the holotype specimen (Dry Mesa Quarry is on National Forest System land).

    Is there a picture of the 2nd specimen (left) while it was in the quarry ? I’ve not seen one.

    Bruce

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Bruce, the more I look at the question of which scap is the holotype, the contradictory and confusing it appears. I am clearly going to have to understake a fairly substantial project just to establish that one fact. It’s a pretty wretched state of affairs.

  16. Tyler H Says:

    Hey Mike, I found some decent colored pictures of the Supersaurus and Ultrasaurus material Jensen dig site while looking through an odd dinosaur encyclopedia I found at work. I took a a few pictures ’cause the book was too big to scan. I can send them to you if you’re interested.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    Tyler, absolutely I am interested! Yes, please! dino@miketaylor.org.uk

  18. Tyler H Says:

    They’ve been sent!


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