John Conway’s BRONTOSMASH!

August 4, 2020

As John himsef admits in the tweet that announced this picture, it’s five years late … but I am prepared to forgive that because IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO BRONTOSMASH!

As always, John’s art is not just scientifically accurate, but evocative. Here’s a close-up of the main action area:

As you see, he has incorporated the keratinous neck spikes that we hypothesized, based on the distinct knobs that are found at the ventrolateral ends of apatosaurine cervical rib loops.

John has also incorporated a lot of blood — which is exactly what you get when elephant seals collide:

By the way, if John’s BRONTOSMASH! art can be said to be five years late — so can the actual paper. It was of course at SVPCA 2015 that we first presented our apatosaur-neck-combat hypothesis (Taylor et al. 2015), and it’s not at all to our credit that nearly five years later, we have not even got a manuscript written. We really need to get our act together on this project, so consider this post my apology on behalf of myself, Matt, Darren and Brian.


  • Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel, Darren Naish and Brian Engh. 2015. Were the necks of Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus adapted for combat?. p. 71 in Mark Young (ed.), Abstracts, 63rd Symposium for Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, Southampton. 115 pp. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.1347v1

14 Responses to “John Conway’s BRONTOSMASH!”

  1. dale m Says:

    Late maybe but, like good music …… here to stay. A first good colour painting! Love it! Just one correction. Not against the skin folds at all, but, isn’t sauropod integument well, ummmm, scaled? And having small spikes on the dorsal side of the cervical column might lend more authenticity as well. Maybe he does have them on those animals. I’ll have to recheck that. Painting is absolutely magnificent!!!

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dale, I am seeing small spikes on the dorsal side of the cervical column … aren’t you?

    BTW., I am not super-convinced by the tendency for many or most sauropods these days to be depicted with midline spikes. Unless I missed a subsequent development, these all seem to come from that Czerkas paper that showed rather weak evidence for a few demal spines over part of the tail for one specimen of a probably diplodocoid. I mean, it’s certainly possible that many or most sauropods had hard-to-fossilise dermal spines all along their midlines, but I don’t know of any compelling evidence that it’s particularly likely.

  3. This kind of thing really fills one with wonder at what these animals must have been like.

    Dinosaur scales are centimeter-scale at most; they wouldn’t be noticeable on something as big as a sauropod. If a sauropod has visible scales and isn’t an extreme close-up, the scales are probably too big.

    In my experience, I’ve seen more people recently argue that it’s outright inaccurate to depict sauropods with a midline row of spines than I’ve seen people arguing for their presence, and I don’t really get that. We’ve got at least some evidence for their presence in one species, and no evidence against their presence, so I don’t see the harm in showing them on other sauropods. Moreover, prominent midline scales are hardly unprecedented in dinosaurs—look at Pseudolagosuchus, Ceratosaurus, or hadrosaurs for variations on the theme.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    We’ve got at least some evidence for their presence [midline spines] in one species, and no evidence against their presence

    The problem is, given the rubric “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, it’s literally impossible to accumulate evidence of absence — or, as you have it, evidence against their presence.

    That’s why I prefer the less snappy but more accurate statement “absence of evidence is weak evidence of absence, but not proof of absence”. We have no direct evidence that sauropods didn’t habitually wear hats; but the fact that we have never found a fossilised hat near any sauropod means we are confident they did not. Each additional datum of a sauropod specimen without a hat constitutes marginal additional corroboration of the hatless sauropod hypothesis (hereafter the HSH).

    In the same way, all those sauropod specimens without midline spines make me feel increasingly inclined to think that most sauropods didn’t have them, or that they did not exist along most of the midline.

  5. Aren’t the structures Czerkas described non-ossified? If so, they wouldn’t be preserved in anything without fossilized skin. That leaves us with Tehuelchesaurus and the Auca Mahuevo titanosaur embryos as the only specimens that can really be considered as evidence of absence, I think.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    I think that the single row of spiky midline scales was probably not present in all sauropods, but only because it’s hilariously conservative. The clade was around from the Late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous, on every continent, at every adult body size from pony-equivalent to fin-whale-equivalent. That they were all stamped from the same “decorative keratin” mold is pretty unlikely, as anyone who has spent any time looking at lizards or birds can attest.

    Also, sauropods fall into the same taphonomic blind spot as most big theropods, only moreso: the amount of energy it takes to bury and preserve a whole adult or even subadult animal intact is probably not going to preserve delicate, unossified integumentary structures. We’re still waiting for our sauropod Yutyrannus.

    Furthermore, even when sauropod integument is preserved, pebbly skin impressions will be easier to preserve and find than any midline or near-midline decorations, if only because there is so much more of the former to be preserved, and at more angles. The scale of taphonomic likelihood probably runs pebbly skin > big midline scales or spines > anything filamentous. So unfortunately, people who want to argue for “scales only, hold the speculation” will always have more ammo, but not necessarily for very good reasons.

    Still, these are mostly likelihoods, and on a long enough timescale, even the rare stuff will get found. I suspect that as a better picture of sauropod integument emerges (which may take another couple of centuries), the current fad of dressing up every sauropod like the tail of a Howe Quarry diplodocid will look awfully quaint, like the early-1800s illos of snake-necked plesiosaurs and dorsal-fin-less ichthyosaurs murdering each other 24-7.

    None of this takes anything away from John’s painting, of course! Particularly because he has the dorsal spikes on the neck, not the tail, and roughly mirroring the “Brontosmash” spikes. All of which is perfectly plausible.

  7. william dale McInnes Says:

    Hello Mike … I have the Jensen papers from 1973-79. Most were personal. But I have 3 here that might interest U. I can download them but to where?? I don’t think these R going to B of much help but they R historical somewhat. I visited him at that time and he reciprocated by coming up here for a while. Those were heady days around a table with Jack McIntosh, John Ostrom, Charlie Sternberg …. But I digress. I still have photos to go through. Phil and I discussed the idea of pouring resin into the impression in the matrix (that extra 10″) since the impression was so obvious. Most of that extra resin would have appeared odd to most. We should have placed some text with it to explain why we did it. Never thought at the time that anyone would “monkey” around with the original B 4 contacting us and at least asking why. One of the letters’ also point out the same lack of caution in the field by assuming too much trust in future generations. Charlie S. also talked about a similar incident that happened to him (pers. comm.).

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Dale, good to hear from you! Yes, I would love to see these! If you email them to me at, I will publish them online. I can see them being very relevant to the Supersaurus history project.

    If I understand you right on the scap, then, it was preserved with a 10″ gap in the middle that you were confident represented missing bone rather than dispacement, you filled it with resin, and the re-prep “corrected” this by making the scap shorter than it should have been. That’s disappointing, but really good to know the story after the event, at least!

    (And yes, it’s an important caution to be sure we document what we do.)

  9. oliveunicorn Says:

    I love the spines on the underside of their necks . Plus the crimson red is pretty cool too .

  10. Clarence Says:

    Would BrontoSmash events be potentially fatal for combatant Apatosaurs and/or Brontosaurus? Also, is it possible that the ventrolateral corners of their cervical ribs be topped with some other keratinous structure such as domes and/or pads rather than spikes?

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    Possibly. Although most dominance combats in animals don’t end in death, some do. At least, I can’t think of any way to rule it out.

    Also, we really have no idea if the cervical rib bumps were topped with anything at all other than skin. I think they probably did project out through the muscular envelope, for reasons that we’ll explain in the paper (which is still coming, we promise!). But there’s no evidence of anything having attached there. I think the idea of some kind of keratinous pad or spine is a reasonable speculation, for which we have no evidence for or against.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Right, I hope we’ve been clear throughout that the ventral spikes are conjectural: they are a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, but they are no more than that. Domes, pads, spikes and nothing at all are all possible.

    I also think it’s very likely that different species of apatosaurines had radically different ventral decorations/weapons, just as different species of rhino have very different keratinous horns. It’s not something we’re likely to have direct evidence for until people excavating apatosaurine sauropods (A) get very lucky as regards preservational conditions, and (B) do their excavation and prep work very carefully.

  13. Clarence Says:

    So that means I can continue painting Brontosaurus bulls with ventral domes/cups overlying the skins covering their cervical rib humps and Apatosaurus bulls with ventral blades/spikes while females of both genera have bare skins….

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Absolutely, yes!

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