The Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus project is now a museum exhibit

November 16, 2019

A life-size silhouette of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, with Thierra Nalley, me, and Jessie Atterholt for scale. Photo by Jeremiah Scott.

Tiny Titan, a temporary exhibit about the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus project, opened at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California, last night. How? Why? Read on.

Things have been quieter this year on the Haplo front than they were in 2018, for many reasons. My attention was pulled away by a lot of teaching and other day-job work–we’re launching a new curriculum at the med school, and that’s eaten an immense amount of time–and by some very exciting news from the field that I can’t tell you about quite yet (but watch this space). Things are still moving, and there will be a paper redescribing MWC 8028 and all the weird and cool things we’ve learned about it, but there are a few more timely things ahead of it in the queue.

One of the things going on behind the scenes this year is that Jessie Atterholt, Thierra Nalley, and I have been working with Alton Dooley, the director of the Western Science Center, on this exhibit. Alton has had a gleam in his eye for a long time of using the WSC’s temporary exhibit space to promote the work of local scientists, and we had the honor of being his first example. He also was not fazed by the fact that the project isn’t done–he wants to show the public the process of science in all of its serendipitous and non-linear glory, and not just the polished results that get communicated at the end.

Everything’s better cut in half. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Which is not to say that the exhibit isn’t polished. On the contrary, it looks phenomenal. Thanks to a loan from Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey in Colorado, most of the real fossils are on display. We’re only missing the ribs and most of the sacrum, which is too fragmentary and fragile to come out of its jacket. As you can see from the photo up top, there is a life-size vinyl silhouette of the Snowmass Haplo, with 3D prints of the vertebrae in approximate life position. Other 3D prints show the vertebrae before and after the process of sculpting, rescanning, and retrodeformation, as described in our presentation for the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress last year (that slideshow is a PeerJ Preprint, here). The exhibit also includes panels on “What is Haplocanthosaurus” and its relationships, on pneumaticity in sauropods, on the process of CT scanning and 3D modeling, and on the unusual anatomical features of the Snowmass specimen. The awesome display shown above, with the possibly-bumpy spinal cord and giant intervertebral discs reconstructed, was all Alton–he did the modeling, printing, and assembly himself.

Haplo vs Bronto. Thierra usually works on the evolution and development of the vertebral column in primates, so I had to show her how awesome vertebrae can be when they’re done right. Photo by Brittney Stoneburg.

My favorite thing in the exhibit is this striking comparison of one the Snowmass Haplo caudals with a proximal caudal from the big Oklahoma apatosaurine. This was Alton’s idea. He asked me if I had any photos of caudal vertebrae from really big sauropods that we could print at life size to compare to MWC 8028, and my mind went immediately to OMNH 1331, which is probably the second-largest-diameter vertebra of anything from all of North America (see the list here). It was also Alton’s idea to fill in the missing bits using one of Marsh’s plates of Brontosaurus excelsus from Como Bluff in Wyoming. It’s a pretty amazing display, and it turns out to have been a vehicle for discovery, too–I didn’t realize until I saw the verts side-by-side that the neural canal of the Snowmass Haplo caudal is almost as big as the neural canal from the giant apatosaurine caudal. It’s not a perfect comparison, because the OMNH fossil doesn’t preserve the neural canal, and the Como specimen isn’t that big, but proportionally, the Snowmass Haplo seems to have big honkin’ neural canals, not just at the midpoint (which we already knew), but all the way through. Looks like I have some measuring and comparing to do.

(Oh, about the title: we don’t know if the Snowmass Haplo was fully grown or not, but not all haplocanthosaurs were small. The mounted H. delfsi in Cleveland is huge, getting into Apatosaurus and Diplodocus territory. Everything we can assess in the Snowmass Haplo is fused, for what that’s worth. We have some rib chunks and Jessie will be doing histo on them to see if we can get ontogenetic information. I’ll keep you posted.)

Brian’s new Haplocanthosaurus restoration, along with some stinkin’ mammals. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Brian Engh contributed a fantastic life restoration of Haplocanthosaurus pro bono, thanks to this conversation, which took place in John Foster’s and ReBecca Hunt-Foster’s dining room about a month ago:

Brian: What are you drawing?

Me: Haplocanthosaurus.

Brian: Is that for the exhibit?

Me: Yup.

Brian (intense): Dude, I will draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Me: I know, but you’re a pro, and pros get paid, and we didn’t include a budget for paleoart.

Brian (fired up): I’m offended that you didn’t just ask me to draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Then he went to the Fosters’ couch, sat down with his sketchbook, and drew a Haplocanthosaurus. Not only is it a stunning piece on display in the exhibit, there are black-and-white printouts for kids to take and color (or for adults to take to their favorite tattoo artists, just sayin’). [Obligatory: this is not how things are supposed to work. We should all support original paleoart by supporting the artists who create it. But Brian just makes so damn many monsters that occasionally he has to kick one out for the heck of it. Also, I support him on Patreon, and you can, too, so at a stretch you could consider this the mother of all backer rewards.]

One special perk from the opening last night: Jessica Bramson was able to attend. Who’s that, you ask? Jessica’s son, Mike Gordon, found the first piece of bone from the Snowmass Haplo on their property in Colorado over a decade ago. Jessica and her family spent two years uncovering the fossils and trying to get paleontologists interested. In time she got in touch with John Foster, and the rest is history. Jessica lives in California now, and thanks to John’s efforts we were able to invite her to the exhibit opening to see her dinosaur meet the world. Stupidly, I did not get any photos with her, but I did thank her profusely.

A restored, retrodeformed caudal of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, 3D-printed at life size for the exhibit. Photo swiped from the WSC Facebook page.

I owe a huge thanks to Alton Dooley for taking an interest in our work, and to the whole WSC crew for their hard work creating and promoting the exhibit. You all rock.

The exhibit will run through the end of March, 2020, at least. I deliberately did not show most of it, partly because I was too busy having fun last night to be diligent about taking photos, but mostly because I want you to go see it for yourself (I will do a retrospective post with more info after the exhibit comes down, for people who weren’t able to see it in person). If you make it out to Hemet, I hope you have half as much fun going through the exhibit as we did making it.

16 Responses to “The Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus project is now a museum exhibit”

  1. Chase Doran Brownstein Says:

    Congratulations! The exhibit is clearly really aesthetically pleasing and shows how important fragmentary specimens are.

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thank you! I couldn’t be happier with how the exhibit turned out, especially given the limitations of the specimen.

  3. dale mcinnes Says:

    Nice to C work being brought forward on this genus. It’s about time. Wonder if the little guy was proportionately much slimmer built than the Cleveland specimen.

  4. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    Wow, awesome exhibit from what you show!

    I immediately noticed that the neural canals were the same size, and I’m disappointed to learn the big one was scaled up if I understood your description of the collage correctly. This doesn’t really surprise me, in the sense that I’d guess the basic control signals are at least roughly the same, no matter the size of the muscles they eventually enervate. So the cabling you’re run those signals might well be roughly independent of size of creature, assuming roughly the same body plan.

    It sounds like I’ll be in LA again this December, but Hemet seems like quite a haul from six flags. I guess if I get an early start on the day… …because after a recent experience at our local six flags, I think i may be done with roller coasters in my life.

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    This doesn’t really surprise me, in the sense that I’d guess the basic control signals are at least roughly the same, no matter the size of the muscles they eventually enervate. So the cabling you’re run those signals might well be roughly independent of size of creature, assuming roughly the same body plan.

    If I’m following your argument correctly, I think you’re saying that the spinal cord should not scale with increasing body size for a given body plan, and a cord with diameter X should work equally well for a 5-ton Haplocanthosaurus and a 50-ton Brontosaurus. I know that’s not the case here, for two reasons.

    First, in extant animals the spinal cord definitely does scale with positive allometry for both mass of the cord and for number of neurons. This makes sense: if animals scaled up in size without increasing their number of neurons, both their sensory inputs and their motor control would become very crude at large body sizes. If you want to know more on that, Heather More has written several nice papers on sensorimotor scaling in large animals.

    Interestingly, the mass of the cord scales with body mass to the power of 0.75, like almost every metabolically important relationship. However, the number of neurons in the spinal cord seems to scale with body mass to the power of 0.33, with the length of the cord (and hence with the length of the body), and not with body surface area or mass. So in fact sensation and motor control do become more coarse in larger animals, just not as coarse as they would be with no positive allometry at all. The mass increases faster than the number of neurons because each axon has to be supported by glial cells, which are not as infinitely extensible as axons themselves. A neuron with a length of 10x requires 10 times as many glial cells as a 1x neuron, and the mass of those individual glial cells will often be larger in longer tracts, because they form a thicker myelin sheath to speed up nerve impulses in larger animals.

    Hmm, this may be the kick in the pants I need to do a post or series on “what paleontologists need to know about the spinal cord”.

    The other reason I know the spinal cord scaled up between the Snowmass Haplo and much larger sauropods is that the neural canal in the caudal vertebrae of MWC 8028 is much larger than it is in either the dorsal or sacral vertebrae. This is both not weird, and deeply weird. It’s not weird because lots of sauropods have enlargements of the neural canal (as do most birds), and it’s deeply weird because in all other known cases, those expansions are in the sacrum, not in the tail. So the expanded neural canal of the Haplo caudal is not representative of the diameter of the spinal cord in the sacral and presacral regions. That caudal expansion of the canal appears to be unique to MWC 8028, so the neural canal diameter of the Brontosaurus caudal is probably a more faithful representation of the diameter of the cord in that animal. The spinal cord never fills the entire neural canal–there is always at least a little space around the edges occupied by cerebrospinal fluid, meninges, and blood vessels–but in most cases craniocaudal changes in the diameter of the neural canal accurately reflect changes in the diameter of the cord.

    So to put a bow on all of this, I knew that the neural canals of the Haplo caudals were expanded within each vertebra–we discussed this at length in the 1PVC presentation last year. But it wasn’t until I saw the comparison to the giant Bronto caudal that I realized that the neural canals of the Haplo caudals are also huge in an absolute sense, just in barrel diameter and completely apart from their beads-on-a-string cross-sectional shape. So that’s another potentially unique character (or I could stop beating around the bush and just say autapomorphy) that I need to investigate further.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Forgot to say: Brad, gimme a holler when you’re going to be in SoCal. We’re going to be here for the holidays, so I’m sure we can put something together. I need to get back to the LACM to see the stuff they have on display, so that’s a potential rendezvous point.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    You are probably way ahead of me on this already, but …

    Is it possible that the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus has a perfectly normal sacral expansion of the spinal cord … but just happens to have it back-shifted into the tail base instead of the sacrum?

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    I wondered about that. The thing is, it would have shifted so many spinal levels that I think it would have to have been doing something completely different. It would be like moving your lumbosacral expansion up into the thoracic part of your spinal cord–whatever it would be doing up there, it wouldn’t be running the same muscles. Unless all of these neural canal expansions are glycogen bodies, the function of which is presumably less tethered to specific spinal levels, and this Haplo just put its glycogen body in an unfamiliar but perfectly cromulent place. The morphology of the neural canal expansion in the Haplo caudals is not a very good match for how glycogen bodies appear in birds, or for how presumed glycogen bodies appear in other non-avian dinos, though.

    Let me really blow your mind: the only sacral vertebra from the Snowmass Haplo that is in good enough condition that we can determine the shape of the neural canal is sacral 5, where the neural canal is normal and cylindrical. But the sacral 5 neural canal is typically normal and cylindrical even in dinos with a big sacral expansion. So it’s possible that the Snowmass Haplo had a big sacral expansion and the caudal expansions. At least, I don’t think we can rule out that possibility.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    For a specimen consisting entirely of Shards Of Excellence, this thing has certainly provoked a lot of novel ideas.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    Scary thought: what if it’s provoked a lot of novel ideas because it consists entirely of Shards of Excellence? Other than the neural canal in the anterior sacrals, everything else has been easy to evaluate because the vertebrae are reduced basically to centra and arches, and they’re small enough to pick up and examine thoroughly even before we got into scanning and 3D printing them. Did we just get stupid lucky that this specimen preserves so many interesting characters, or did the specific conditions of its preservation allow us unusually good access? Maybe we’d find a lot more weirdness if we could examine more sauropods this thoroughly.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    I think you’re onto something here. I’m going to call it “The Xenoposeidon Effect”, in honour of the countless hours I have spent thinking about the bottom half of an isolated mid-to-posterior dorsal vertebra. I have long been aware that even when I finally get around to writing up the Archbishop, none of the individual elements are going to get nearly so much love as the single Xeno bone got.

  12. engh Says:

    Regarding my (allegedly) free drawing of Haplo for Matt / Western Science Center:

    Respectfully contrary to Matt’s perhaps overly generous view, I wish this was *exactly* how paleoart worked more often. In this specific case both Matt and the Western Science Center have kept me consistently involved, creatively active, and financially supported for several years now, so I was able to afford to provide this drawing knowing that the relationship had been and would continue to be mutually beneficial. Not only that, but the collaboration of Wedel + WSC on a novel and ambitious exhibit concept with far-reaching creative, scientific and business potential is exactly the kind of thing I want to reinvest my time and energy in whenever I can afford to. In the past, both Matt and the Western Science Center have both made good use of my art, which is great because I want my art to be seen and used to educate the public. This was no exception – the art is now featured in the exhibit graphics, educational materials and even museum director Alton Dooley’s tie. I couldn’t ask for better utilization and promotional return on a ~1 hour drawing than that. Also I wanted to draw a lateral view of Haplo anyway for use in our upcoming documentary on the Morrison Formation (which is one of the big reasons yall need to subscribe to my youtube channel: ). In addition to all these reasons, I was good and tired from digging up another Morrison sauropod with Matt & the Hunt-Foster fam, and I was planning on zoning out and drawing dinosaurs anyway.

    I love you all and I will not stop.

    Brian Engh

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    All good points. I don’t have anything to add other than thanks!

  14. […] weird little duck that my destiny seems to have become intertwingled with (exhibits A, B, C, D, E, and […]

  15. […] to what we reported in our 1st Paleo Virtual Conference slide deck and preprint, and in the “Tiny Titan” exhibit at the Western Science Center, just finally out in a peer-reviewed journal, with better figures. […]

  16. […] forerunner of my project was the poster Alton Dooley made for the Western Science Center’s Tiny Titan exhibit, which features a Brontosaurus vertebra from Ostrom & McIntosh (1966) blown up to size of OMNH […]

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