The stupidest head

August 21, 2019

Left: Homo sapiens, head, neck and upper trunk in right lateral view (unprepared specimen). Right: Camarasaurus sp., skull in left lateral view. Photograph at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. 2016.

First, a short personal backstory. Vicki’s and my extended families both live mostly in Oklahoma and Kansas, so they only get to see our son, London, at the holidays or at infrequent mid-year visits. Starting when London was five, every year I’ve made a photo book of his adventures through the year to give as Christmas presents to all of our relatives. These have also become cherished mementos for the three of us here in Cali. The service I use is Shutterfly, and they have yet to mis-print a book or screw up an order over the space of a decade. So I feel confident recommending them.

About 3-4 times a year I get an offer from Shutterfly for a free 8×8 hardcover photo book, usually like 20 to 26 pages unless I want to pay a little extra. Sometimes if I’ve just taken a vacation or have some other batch of good photos, I’ll burn the free photo book capturing that, but most of time I use the freebies to memorialize my talks. Here are two I had to hand in my office when I got the idea for this post. On the left is my 2014 SVPCA talk on supramedullary airways in birds and dinos, and on the right is Jessie Atterholt’s talk from last year’s SVPCA on the same topic (with loads more data).

The 2014 talk was the first one I turned into a book, and I put it together right after the conference when the logic and cadence of the talk was still in my mind. My talks tend to be very text-light, and the slides basically act as memory triggers for me to riff on at the podium. So for that book I deliberately tried to capture the essence of what I said about each slide, hoping that it would make it easier to write the paper when the time came (and the time is, er, now, since Jessie has written the first draft already).

I also tend to use a lot of slides compared to most other folks, so I doubled up the slides on each page to fit the talk into the confines of a free book. For the recent Haplocanthosaurus presentation at the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress (available here), I put a lot of text on the slides to make them self-explanatory, and used fewer slides. So when I made that talk into a book, I just made each slide a full page, with no captions.

Photo books made from talks 3

You know who appreciates these things? Anyone who wants to hear about your work, but doesn’t want to sit through a 15-minute slide presentation. It’s so much more natural and inviting to hand someone a book and say, “Here’s my talk, feel free to look through it or borrow it for a few days”. It’s like taking some 8×11 printouts of your poster to a conference: making born-digital presentations into physical artifacts may feel old-fashioned, but those artifacts are amazingly useful when you’re talking with other primates in meatspace.

You know who else appreciates these things? Coauthors who couldn’t be at the conference. So occasionally if I have a free book to burn, I’ll make an extra copy of one I already have incarnate, and send it to a coauthor as a gift.

So I recommend doing this. I don’t know how much stuff you have to order from Shutterfly to get free book offers now and then (maybe not very much since they do make some back on shipping), but I know how much your first book will cost if you’re not a Shutterfly user: nothing. The first five new users who use the link below will get a free 8×8 photo book. I’ll get one, too, for bringing people on board, but it’s not a cult, you can leave anytime. I wouldn’t, though, this stuff is too useful.

Here’s that link: https://invite-shutterfly.com/x/DvuNbO

And 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 with #12.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that Matt and I are convinced that BYU 9024, the big cervical vertebra that has been referred to Supersaurus, actually belongs to a giant Barosaurus. If we’re right about, then it means one of two things: either Supersaurus synonymous with Barosaurus, or there are two diplodocids mixed up together.

Jensen (1987:figure 8c). A rare — maybe unique? — photograph of the right side of the big “Supersaurus” cervical vertebra BYU 9024. We assume this was taken before the jacket was flipped and the presently visible side prepped out. We’d love to find a better reproduction of this image.

Which is it? Well, seventeen years ago Curtice and Stadtman (2002:39) concluded that “all exceptionally large sauropod elements from the Dry Mesa Quarry can be referred to one of two individuals, one a Supersaurus and one a Brachiosaurus […] further strengthening the suggestion that all of the large diplodocid elements belong to a single individual.” It is certainly suggestive that, of all the material that has been referred to Supersaurus, there are no duplicate elements, but there are nice left-right pairs of scapulocoracoids and ischia.

But do all those elements actually belong to the same animal? One way to address that question is to look at their relative sizes and ask whether they fit together.

Sadly, when Matt and I were at BYU we didn’t get to spend time with most of these bones, but there are published and other measurements for a few of them. Jensen (1985:701) gives the total lengths of the two scapulocoracoids BYU 9025 and BYU 12962 as 2440 and 2700 mm respectively. Curtice et al. (1996:94) give the total height of the last dorsal BYU 9044 as 1330 mm. We have measured the big cervical BYU 9024 (probably C9) ourselves and found it to measure 1370 mm in total length. Finally, while there is no published measurement for the right ischium BYU 12949 (BYU 5503 of Jensen’s usage), we can calculate it from the scalebar accompanying Jensen’s illustration (with all the usual caveats) as being 1235 mm long.

Jensen (1985:figure 7a). BYU 12946 (BYU 5503 of his usage), the right ischium assigned to Supersaurus. By measuring the bone and the scalebar, we can calculate the length as 1235 mm.

Do these measurements go together? Since we’re considering the possibility of Supersaurus being a big Barosaurus, the best way to test this is to compare the sizes of the elements with the corresponding measurements for AMNH 6341, the best known Barosaurus specimen.

For this specimen, McIntosh (2005) gives 685 mm total length for C9, 901 mm total height for D9 (the last dorsal) and 873 mm for the ischia (he only provides one measurement which I assume covers both left and right elements). The scapulocoracoids are more complex: McIntosh gives 1300 mm along the curve for the scapulae, and 297 mm for the length of the coracoids. Assuming we can add them in a straight line, that gives 1597 mm for the full scapulocoracoid.

I’ve given separate measurements, and calculated separate ratios, for the left and right Supersaurus scapulocoracoids. So here’s how it all works out:

Specimen Element Size (mm) Baro (mm) Ratio Relative
9024 Mid-cervical vertebra 1370 685 2.00 124%
9044 Last dorsal vertebra 1330 901 1.48 92%
9025 Left scapulocoracoid 2440 1597 1.53 95%
12962 Right scapulocoracoid 2700 1597 1.69 105%
12946 Right ischium 1235 873 1.41 88%

The first five columns should be self-explanatory. The sixth, “proportion”, is a little subtler. The geometric mean of the size ratios (i.e. the fifth root of their product) is 1.6091, so in some sense the Dry Mesa diplodocid — if it’s a single animal — is 1.6 times as big in linear dimension as the AMNH 6341 Barosaurus. The last column shows each element’s size ratio divided by that average ratio, expressed as a percentage: so it shows how big each element is relative to a hypothetical isometrically upsized AMNH Barosaurus.

As you can see, the cervical is big: nearly a quarter bigger than it should be in an upscaled Barosaurus. The two scaps straddle the expected size, one 5% bigger and the other 5% smaller. And the dorsal and ischium are both about 10% smaller than we’d expect.

Can these elements belong to the same animal? Maaaybe. We would expect the neck to grow with positive allometry (Parrish 2006), so it would be proportionally longer in a large individual — but 25% is a stretch (literally!). And it also seems as though the back end of the animal (as represented by the last dorsal and ischium) is growing with negative allometry.

A nice simple explanation would be that that all the elements are Supersaurus and that’s just what Supersaurus is like: super-long neck, forequarters proportionally larger than hindquarters, perhaps in a slightly more convergent-on-brachiosaurs way. That would work just fine were it were not that we’re convinced that big cervical is Barosaurus.

Here’s how that would look, if the BYU Supersaurus is a large Barosaurus with different proportions due to allometry. First, Scott Hartman’s Barosaurus reconstruction as he created it:

And here’s my crudely tweaked version with the neck enlarged 24% and the hindquarters (from mid-torso back) reduced 10%:

Does this look credible? Hmm. I’m not sure. Probably not.

So: what if we’re wrong?

We have to consider the possibility that Matt and I misinterpreted the serial position of BYU 9024. If instead of being C9 it were C14 (the longest cervical in Barosaurus) then the AMNH analogue would be 865 mm rather than 685 mm. That would make it “only” 1.58 times as long as the corresponding AMNH vertebra, which is only 3% longer than we’d expect based on a recalculated geometric mean scale of 1.5358 — easily within the bounds of allometry. We really really really don’t think BYU 9024 is a C14 — but it’s not impossible that its true position lies somewhere posterior of C9, which would mean that the allometric interpretation would become more tenable, and we could conclude that all these bones do belong to a single animal after all.

Of course, that would still leave the question of why the Supersaurus scapulocoracoids are 10% bigger than we’d expect relative to the last dorsal vertebra and the ischium. One possible explanation would be to do with preparation. As Dale McInnes explained, there’s some interpretation involved in preparing scaps: the thin, fragile distal ends shade into the cartilaginous suprascapula, and it’s at least possible that whoever prepped the AMNH 6341 scaps drew the line in a different place from Dale and his colleagues, so that the Barosaurus scaps as prepared are artificially short.

Putting it all together: it might easily be the case that all the elements really do belong to a single big diplodocid individual, provided that the big cervicals is more posterior than we thought and the AMNH scaps were over-enthusiastically prepped.

References

Darren Naish, the silent third partner in SV-POW!, alerted me to this piece by palaeoartist Steve White:

In his own words, this piece is “Not what I set to do but was an interesting excercise”.

I for one am glad it came out the way it did!

I’m loving the gnarliness of the necks. Yes, it’s overdone — but it’s a much-needed corrective to the long-established habit of artists depicting sauropod necks as tubes.

(For more on the palaeobiological hypothesis that Steve’s artwork is illustrating, see the BRONTOSMASH! index.)

Last September I spent a day in the LACM Herpetology collections with Jessie Atterholt, looking at weird features in crocs, lizards, snakes, and salamanders. I’ll have more to say about the specific things we were looking for in a month or so, after Jessie’s given her talk at SVPCA. This was just an incidental hit. We were looking at cryptobranchid (literally “hidden gill”) salamanders, because they’re big enough that you don’t need a microscope to see all their weird features. Cryptobranchids include the North American hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, and the giant salamanders of China and Japan, Andrias davidianus and Andrias japonicus, respectively, plus a raft of fossil taxa.

This is the mandible of LACM 162475, a specimen of Andrias davidianus, in right lateral view. I’d never spent quality time with the skeleton of a giant salamander, and I was impressed with how evil their teeth are. Just in terms of general outline, these little murder-sticks wouldn’t look out of place in the jaw of a dromaeosaur. Click to enfangenate.

Jessie did an Instagram post on the upper jaw of Cryptobranchus a few months ago, and as long as you’re over there, have a look at the half a pig head that she just plastinated for our colleagues in WesternU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s not the same pig as the one we hemisected last December, but I think it got cut at the same time.

It’s a bit shocking to find that SV-POW! is going on for twelve years old. (Our very first post was on 1st October 2007, so we’re about fifty days short of that anniversary.)

It’s cost us almost nothing to run the blog in that time — in financial terms, at least. We pay $18 a year for the domain svpow.com (as opposed to svpow.wordpress.com), and that’s it. We’ve been happy to pay out of our own pockets, because not taking any money from anyone means we don’t owe anyone anything and we can write what we like, on whatever subject we like, as often or as infrequently as we like. It’s a great way to do things.

But there are a couple more things we’d like to do.

One is to get rid of the adverts that infest the site. I wasn’t aware of them until recently, when I looked at the site on a new phone. They’re pretty intrusive, and I remember reading somewhere that they’ve got a lot worse recently. We can do that for $7 a month, which comes to $84 per year. That’s enough that I can’t just shrug like I do with the $18 and say “Ah, that’s the price of a round of drinks, just pay it.”

But more excitingly, Matt and I would like to get together more often for scientific trips like the 2016 Sauropocalypse and this year’s visit to the Carnegie museum. These trips are amazingly productive and generate a ton of observations, photos and videos, which we’re then able to turn into science, which in turn becomes papers. But because Matt and I are inconveniently located 5,000 miles and eight timezones apart, it’s logistically difficult and expensive for us to get together. That’s why we had a three-year gap between the Utah and Carnegie trips, and we’d like — if we can — to do something like this every year.

Here I am, in the collections of the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, earlier this year. I’m documenting the re-articulated centrum, neural arch and cervical ribs of C6 of the sub-adult apatosaurine CM 555, probably Brontosaurus parvus.

Why are these trips important to do? Because we’ve found that when both of us look at bones together, we see much more than twice as much as either of us would see alone. There seems to be a subtle alchemy at play here, like the way Lennon and McCartney achieved so much more when they were working together than they did after the Beatles split(*). Somehow, there is a sparking that happens, as each of us amplifies and re-interprets the other’s observations. (Probably the same thing happens for any two palaeontologists looking at bones together, but Matt and I have got into the habit of working together.)

To do more of this, we need more money: Matt’s travel funds are limited; mine are literally non-existent, and I have to fund all my own work out of money that I earn by the sweat of my brow (and burn up precious vacation days from my real job).

That’s why we’ve finally created a Patreon page where anyone who wants to can sign up to support the work we do here. We have no idea whether this will work out, but whatever money might accumulate, we will spend first on the basic running costs of the site ($18 + $84 = $102 per year), and then on research trips. The big-ticket items are travel (including a transatlantic flight for one of us) and accomodation. After that, it’s just food and drink, which we pay for ourselves since we’d be eating and drinking anyway.

What do you get in return for your money? Absolutely nothing. This is really important. It goes back to what I said earlier about how valuable it’s been to us that we are free to write what we want, when we want. We’re not going to sacrifice that freedom for money, and in fact the value of that freedom is exactly why we’ve never solicited any kind of donation before. We want to be 100% clear that basic-level subscribers get nothing for their money. No early access, no extra content, no physical rewards. Just the knowledge that you’re supporting a blog that you like and helping to make sauropod science happen. It will only take nine of you to subscribe at the base $1-per-month level to pay our WordPress fees.

But for anyone who chooses to support the SV-POW! research trips at the level of $5 per month or higher, there is one small reward: we’ll then consider you as a research funder, and will formally mention you as such in the acknowledgements of the first paper that comes out of the first research trip we do after you sign up. That’s a place — admittedly a small one — in the permanent scientific record. Plus of course you get our gratitude!

For those who don’t sign up, absolutely nothing will change. We’ll continue our usual erratic schedule of posting whatever happens to occur to us, when it occurs to us. You’ll still get immediate access to everything we write for the blog, just like those who do sign up.

So: if you would like to help finance the scientific mission of SV-POW!, get yourself over to https://www.patreon.com/svpow

 

 


Note

(*) “But Mike”, you say, “After the first few years, the Lennon-McCartney partnership was in name only, and they hardly contributed to each other’s songs”. And you’re right: while We Can Work It Out was a true 50-50 collaboration, lots of the later songs were essentially solo compositions. But here’s the thing: even then, the mere presence of the other partner pushed them to up their game. John Lennon may have made no concrete contribution to Hey Jude (beyond telling Paul that he should keep his placeholder lyric “The movement you need is on your shoulder”), but McCartney only landed that song as perfectly as he did because Lennon was around. If you want proof, look at his post-Beatles songwriting output. There are plenty of good songs, but almost no great ones: Maybe I’m Amazed would be the strongest contender, and it turns out (I just this moment looked it up on Wikipedia) that he wrote that before the Beatles broke up. In a similar way, I wrote all but a couple of paragraphs of the actual prose in our in-progress vertebral orientation manuscript, but it all emerged from discussion between us, and could never have happened without Matt. He’s my John Lennon. But he lives on a different continent. Dammit.

I’m a bit shocked to find it’s now more than five years since Robert Harington’s Scholarly Kitchen post Open Access: Fundamentals to Fundamentalists. I wrote a response in the comments, meaning to also post it here, but got distracted, and then half a decade passed. Here it is, finally. The indented parts are quotes from Harington.


I must admit to being rather tired of the fundamentalism that pervades discussions around open access policies and business models. On the one hand there are the advocates, and through the laws of conservation of energy, the equal and opposite reaction of anti-open access advocacy. There seems little room for rational debate about open access in the midst of such an antagonistic atmosphere.

It’s always a powerful rhetorical move to call your opponent a fundamentalist. It’s also a lazy one. It absolves you from the tedious responsibility of bothering to understand what the opponent actually wants: just dismiss him has a fundamentalist and call it done. I’d hope we’re better than that. At best, this seems like a fine demonstration of the principle that “there seems little room for rational debate about open access in the midst of such an antagonistic atmosphere”.

You want a rational debate? You want to talk about fundamentals? Fine, let’s do that. Here is the most fundamental question of all: what is research for? Our answer to this will profoundly affect every stance we adopt regarding publishing, OA, researcher evalution and more.

The greatest problem we have in discussing these issues is when person A assumes right off the bat that person B has the same answer to that fundamental question, and is then surprised to find that B disagrees over numerous implementation details. All those details flow from the fundamental mismatch. A and B are literally trying to solve two different problems — no wonder they can’t agree on the solution!

So what is research for? Here are three possible answers.

A. Some people believe (or maybe I should say assume) that research is for the world — for the betterment of the lot of society as a whole, the eradication of illness, the understanding of the environment, and generally the benefit of humanity. As pleasant side-effects, it also feeds publishing businesses and advances researchers’ careers.

B. Some people believe (or assume) that research is primarily for the benefit of the economy: that the principle purpose of the whole process is the financial benefit that accrues to publishers and related professions. As pleasant side-effects, it also advances the world’s knowledge and advances researchers’ careers.

C. Some people believe (or assume, or at least give the impression of assuming) that research is mostly about the careers of researchers — about giving them a way to prove their merit and advance up the career ladder. As pleasant side-effects, it also advances the world’s knowledge and feeds publishing businesses.

All of these fundamental positions exist. (There may be others that I missed.) We could probably all classify various individuals into these groups (but I’ll resist the temptation to throw in examples, as that would surely result in an epic sidetrack).

Notice that one can’t reach one of these three positions by any amount of thought about what happens within the research/publication ecosystem. It’s more fundamental than that. That decision has to come from somewhere outside. For example, my own position is no secret: I am an “A”, and the reason is because I feel it follows from the Golden Rule (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”, Luke 6:31) — probably the most universally agreed ethical principle in any religion (and among those who profess none).

And so when Robert Harrington asks:

The real debate here is to understand more about the motivations and needs of a researcher, who may or may not be funded directly. What is the best business model that will allow a researcher to publish work effectively and allow readers access to that work?

That is really two ——quite separate questions that may have completely different answers: 1, what business model will allow a researcher to publish work effectively?; and 2, what business model will allow readers access to that work? If you are an “A”, you’ll care most about the second question; if you’re a “C” you’ll care about the first question; and if you’re a “B” you might still be thinking about the business model mentioned at the start of the question.

It’s fruitless to expect “A”s, “B”c and “C”s to agree on an answer to a question when each group is hearing a different question.

Here’s another example:

The real story here is that the rights and desires of academics are being represented by organizations that do not reflect their needs, and that perhaps do not even understanding them. There is a form of fundamentalism that dictates to academics that this is what you need; just let us lead the way and we will make things right for you.

This statement suggests a “C” mindset: that the rights and desires of researchers are paramount. But if the organisations in question are “A”s (as for example you’d expect the Alliance for Taxpayer Access or RCUK to be), then this complaint is a non-issue. Of course they don’t reflect researchers’ desires — that’s not what they’re there for. They reflect the needs of broader society (which are often aligned with those of researchers, but by no means always).

That’s not a bug. That’s a feature.

And similarly:

I would suggest that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a subscription model.

This may be true for “B”s (who might prefer the subscription model because they think it yields the most revenue) and for “C”s (who might want to place their work in a specific paywalled journal that is well regarded in their field). But it’s much less likely for “A”s, who see great public benefit in free access, and conversely great harm in arbitrary barriers.

So there you go. Fundamentals.