We have summer-house in the garden, divided into two rooms. One of the rooms functions as a shed:

Among the many things in that shed, there’s some light scaffolding which we’ve used to paint the back of the house. The wide ladder-like object is part of this:

But we can’t use that scaffolding now — even though I need to to take the top off a tree — because birds have built a nest on the top rung, and hatched some eggs there:

Here’s the next in close-up. There are four babies in here: three that are easy to spot because of their open beaks, and one more with a closed beak to the right. (The parent has, for the moment, flown away.)

They were sitting absolutely still with open mouths, perhaps as a way to cool down on what was quite a hot day.

Can anyone tell me what kind of birds these are? And, more importantly, how close they are to maturity, so that they fly away and I can get my scaffolding back?

Since the previous installment of this epic, we’ve taken two brief digressions on how little importance we should attach the colours of bones in our photographs when trying to determine whether they’re from the same individual: cameras do lie, and in any case different bones of the same individual can age differently. Since then — newsflash! — a third reason has become apparent in the case of the two Supersaurus scaps: the object we discussed as Scap A turns out to be a cast. A really good one, sure, but still: its colour tells us little about the colour of the actual bone.

If you doubt that, consider the scapulocoracoid referred to Ultrasauros (which we’ll be meeting again in the next post). Here is the real bone, at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL), with me for scale:

BYU 9462, the scapulocoracoid referred by Jensen to Ultrasauros. Mike Taylor for scale, doing a Jensen. The signage reads: Brachiosaurus scapula and coracoid. Originally believed to belong to the genus Ultrasaurus (now invalid), this shoulder blade is from the giant herbivorous dinosaur Brachiosaurus, a replica of which is mounted in this room. The dinosaur that owned this scapula was over 65 feet long and could tower 45 feet above the ground. When collected by Jim Jensen at Dry Mesa Quarry (Colorado) in 1989, the scapula was believed to represent the largest dinosaur ever found. Note how many separate pieces are within the specimen. A tremendous amount of work is required to complete a fossil of this size. Specimen on loan from Brigham Young University’s Earth Science Museum. Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous (about 144 million years ago)

And here’s Matt with the cast of the same bone that resides in the BYU collections:

As you can see, the cast has been prepared in a darker and browner colour than the pale greenish grey of the real bone (though don’t forget that cameras lie about colours, so we shouldn’t over-interpret this difference).

Aaanyway …

We finished up last time with the observation that the holotype scapulocoracoid of Supersaurus, BYU 9025, is not obviously diagnostic; and that since the cervical BYU 9024 that has been referred to it actually belongs to Barosaurus, we can’t trust any of the other referrals of big Dry Mesa diplodocid bones to Supersaurus; and that the name must therefore be considered a nomen dubium, resting as it does on non-diagnostic material.

Can the name Supersaurus survive? I think it can, and I see four possible routes to that happening.

Method 0: Everyone ignores these blog posts

This is only a blog, after all. No-one is obliged to pay any attention to anything we say here.

That said, Matt and I do have previous in transforming series of blog posts in to actual papers. Having invested so much effort into writing these posts, I do hope that I’ll be able to do the same thing in this case, so at some stage the ideas from this series should become part of the formal scientific record. (I make no promises about how long that will take.)

So assuming that we can’t all just walk away and pretend that none of this ever happened, are there better ways to save the name Supersaurus?

Method 1. Someone finds autapomophies

Matt and I are of course primarily vertebra jockies. We are not above studying the occasional taxon based on appendicular material, but our expertise lies in the domain of the axial. It’s perfectly possible that someone who understands sauropod appendicular anatomy better than we do could isolate some autapomorphies in the holotype scap BYU 9025, and Supersaurus would then be firmly founded on a diagnostic type specimen.

Can we find hope for this outcome in the results of phylogenetic analyses?

In Whitlock’s (2011) diplodocoid analysis, Supersaurus emerges with but a single autapomophy: “Anterior caudal neural spine height less than 150% centrum height” (page 44). Based, as it is, on a referred element, that doesn’t help us much here. (Although it’s worth noting that Whitlock scored this character as 0 for Supersaurus and 1 for Barosaurus, which does very slightly suggest that the referred caudal is not Barosaurus and therefore might belong to the same individual as the Supersaurus holotype. Yes, this is weak sauce.)

Tschopp et al.’s (2015) unnumbered supplementary file Apomorphies recovered by TNT under implied weighting is difficult to interpret: for example, a heading on the first page says simply “R_iw” and its counterpart on page 8 is simply “P_iw“. But the Supersaurus-relevant entries are the same under both headings. In both cases, they read:

Supersaurus vivianae BYU
Char. 258: 1 –> 0
Char. 274: 1 –> 0
Char. 165: 1 –> 2
Char. 172: 0 –> 1
Char. 174: 0 –> 1
Char. 257: 1 –> 2

Node 137 (Supersaurus vivianae)
Char. 183: 1 –> 2

I read this as meaning that the two OTUs have autapomorphies as listed, and the node uniting them has a single synapomorphy. But all of these characters related to the presacral vertebrae (C165-C183 in the cervicals, C257-C274 in the dorsals). So again, there is nothing here to help us diagnose Supersaurus on the basis of the holotype scapulocoracoid.

Of course, that doesn’t prove that there there aren’t any diagnostic characters. Someone with a good eye for sauropod scapulocoracoids might find details missed by these phylogenetic analyses, whose remits were much broader. But the news so far is not good.

Method 2. Nominate a neotype from the BYU material

If we accept that there are probably no more than two big diplodocoids in the Dry Mesa quarry, and that one of them is Barosaurus (based in the big cervical BYU 9024), and that the “Dystylosaurus” vertebra BYU 4503 is not Barosaurus, then it must follow that it belongs to Supersaurus. Unlike the type scapulocoracoid BYU 9025, that vertebra probably is diagnostic (it’s an anterior diplodocid dorsal, yet its spine is unsplit) so perhaps Supersaurus could survive by being diagnosed on that basis.

How would this work nomenclaturally? I think it would be difficult. If I have properly understood Article 75 of the ICZN, you can only go ahead and designate a neotype “when no name-bearing type specimen (i.e. holotype, lectotype, syntype or prior neotype) is believed to be extant”. But the holotype scapulocoracoid exists (so far as we know, though we’re not sure where it is).

All is not necessarily lost, though. Paragraph 75.5 (Replacement of unidentifiable name-bearing type by a neotype) says “When an author considers that the taxonomic identity of a nominal species-group taxon cannot be determined from its existing name-bearing type (i.e. its name is a nomen dubium), and stability or universality are threatened thereby, the author may request the Commission to set aside under its plenary power [Art. 81] the existing name-bearing type and designate a neotype.” But that means writing an ICZN petition, and I’m not sure anyone wants to do that. The process is technical, picky and prolonged, and its outcome is subject to the whim of the committee. It’s quite possible someone might go to all the trouble of writing a petition, then wait five years, only to have it rejected.

The irony here is that when Curtice and Stadtman (2001) referred the “Dystylosaurus” dorsal BYU 4503 to Supersaurus, they were at liberty to sink Supersaurus into Dystylosaurus rather than vice versa. Then the unique dorsal vertebra would have become the holotype, and the surviving genus would have been nicely diagnosable. Curtice and Stadtman (2001) did not discuss this possibility; nor did Curtice et al. (1996) discuss the possibility of folding Supersaurus into Ultrasauros when determining that the holotype vertebra of the latter belongs to the same taxon as the former.

Curtice and his collaborators were likely following the principle of “page priority”: preferring Supersaurus over the other two genera as it was the first one named in Jensen’s (1985) article that named all three. However, page priority does not exist at all in the present version of the Code (see Article 24, Precedence between simultaneously published names, spellings or acts), and even in earlier versions was only a non-binding recommendation. So it was really Curtice’s and his friends’ choice which genus to retain.

But that ship has now sailed. According to the principle of first reviser (Section 24.2.1), the pubished actions of Curtice and colleagues established a new status quo, and their choice of genus stands.

Method 3. Nominate Jimbo as a neotype

We might conceivably give up on the mixed-up Dry Mesa material as too uncertain to base anything on, and nominate WDC DM-021 (“Jimbo”) as the neotype specimen instead. It may have less material in total than has been referred to Supersaurus from the Dry Mesa quarry, but the association is somewhat more solid (Lovelace et al. 2008:528).

In some ways this might be the most satisfactory conclusion: it would give us a more solid basis on which to judge whether or not subsequent specimens can be said to belong to Supersaurus. But as with method 2, it could only be done via a petition to the ICZN, and I suspect the chances of such a petition succeeding would be low because clause 75.3.6 of the Code says that neotype designation should include “evidence that the neotype came as nearly as practicable from the original type locality [of] the original name-bearing type”.

So I don’t think this is likely to work, but I mention it for completeness. (Also, I am not 100% sure how solid the association of the Jimbo elements is, as the wording in Lovelace et al. (2008:528) does hedge a little.)

In conclusion …

I think the best hope for the survival of the name Supersaurus would be the recognition of unambiguously diagnostic characters in the holotype scapulocoracoid BYU 9025. In comments on the last post, John D’Angelo has started to think about what characters might work here. We’ll see how that thread pans out.

On the other hand, do we even particularly want the name Supersaurus to survive? It’s a pretty dumb name. Maybe we should just let it die peacefully.

Next time — in what really, really, really will be the last post in this series — we’ll consider what all this means for the other two names in Jensen’s trio, Dystylosaurus and Ultrasauros.


  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33-40.
  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). M. Morales (ed.), “The continental Jurassic”. Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Lovelace, David M., Scott A. Hartman and William R. Wahl. 2008. Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527–544.
  • Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus and Roger B. J. Benson. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 2:e857. doi:10.7717/peerj.857
  • Whitlock, John A. 2011. A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161(4):872-915. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00665.x