Here at SV-POW! Towers, we like to show you iconic mounted skeletons from unusual perspectives. Here’s one:

Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018, mounted skeleton in the public gallery of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History: head, neck, torso and hip in right posterolateral view. Photograph by Matt Wedel, 12th March 2019 (my birthday!)

Oh, man, I love that museum. And I love that specimen. And I love the one that’s standing next to it (Diplodocus CM 82, natch.) I’ve got to find a way to get myself back out there.

That’s all: just enjoy.

I have a new article out in the Journal of Data and Information Science (Taylor 2022), on a subject that will be familiar to long-time readers. It’s titled “I don’t peer-review for non-open journals, and neither should you”, and honestly if you’ve read the title, you’ve sort of read the paper :-)

But if you want the reasons why I don’t peer-review for non-open journals, and the reasons why you shouldn’t either, you can find them in the article, which is a quick and easy read of just three pages. I’ll be happy to discuss any disagreements in the comments (or indeed any agreements!).

Reference

Long-time readers may recall that back in 2009, I was quote-mined in the television documentary series Clash of the Dinosaurs (1, 2, 3). Turns out, such misrepresentations are not that uncommon, and now there’s a whole feature-length documentary about the problem, titled Science Friction. The trailer is above, and the film’s homepage is here. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime Video and on Tubi (maaaybe for free? I don’t have a Tubi subscription but the film plays in browser for me with no payment…). Science Friction has earned a decent number of film festival accolades, and I’m proud to have been involved.

Note to my future navel-gazing self: I’m on at 0:19:40 to 0:21:21, and again from 1:22:21 to 1:22:50.

I have long intended to write a paper entitled Why Elephants Are So Small, as a companion piece to Why Giraffes Have Short Necks (Taylor and Wedel 2013). I’ve often discussed this project with Matt, usually under the acronym WEASS, and its substance has come up in the previous post, and especially Mickey Mortimer’s comment:

I think it would be interesting to read a study on that — the order in which various factors restrict body size without transformative adaptations. Similarly, what the differences would be for an aquatic animal like a whale.

That is exactly what the WEASS project was supposed to consist of: a list of many candidate limitations on how big animals can get, some rough attempt to quantify their Big-O behaviour, some discussion of which factors seems to limit the sizes of modern terrestrial animals, and how dinosaurs (especially sauropods) worked around those limitations.

(Whales are different. I have in my mind a half-formed notion for a third paper, completing the trilogy, with a title along the lines of Why Whales Are Dirty Cheaters.)

What are those candidate limitations? Off the top of my head:

Biomechanical:

  • Bone strength
  • Cartilage strength
  • Cartilage thickness
  • Muscle strength
  • Nerve length and conduction time

Metabolic:

  • Blood pressure: column height and capillary length
  • Lung capacity
  • Tracheal dead space
  • Digestive efficiency
  • Metabolic overheating

Those are just some of the physical limits. There is anecdotal evidence that elephants are not very close to their mechanical limits in their usual behaviour: they could get bigger, and still work mechanically. (Follow the link at the start of this paragraph. You will thank me.)

There are plenty of other factors that potentially limit organism size, including:

Behavioural:

  • Feeding rate
  • Ability to navigate dense environments
  • Predator avoidance with limited athleticism
  • Difficulties in mating

Ecological:

  • Territory requirement
  • Time taken to reach reproductive maturity
  • Reproductive rate
  • Birth size
  • Lack of selection pressure: when there are no predators bigger than a lion, why would elephants need to evolve larger size?

I’m sure I am missing loads. Help me out!

I am haunted by something Matt wrote a while back when we were discussing this — talking about how alien sauropods are, and how easily we slip into assuming mammal-like paradigms.

We are badly hampered by the fact that all of the 250kg+ land animals are mammals. We only get to see one way of being big, and it’s obviously not the best way of being big. Our perceptions of how hard it is to be big are shaped by the animals that are bad at it.

So having written this blog post, I am wondering whether it’s time to breathe life back into this project, started in 2009 and repeatedly abandoned.

Small and large sauropods, with cross-sections through neck and leg. Bone shown in white, gullet in yellow. Modified from Twemoji12 1f995 (CC By 4.0) from the Twitter Emoji project. Downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Twemoji12_1f995.svg

Consider a small sauropod of length x, as shown on the left above. Its mass is proportional to x cubed, it stands on leg bones whose cross-sectional area is x squared, and it ingests food through a gullet whose cross-sectional area is x squared. Now consider a larger sauropod of length 2x, as shown on the right above. Its mass is proportional to 2x cubed = 8x, it stands on leg bones whose cross-sectional area is 2x squared = 4x, and it ingests food through a gullet whose cross-sectional area is 2x squared = 4x. The bigger sauropod has to carry proportionally twice as much mass on its leg bones, and ingest proportionally twice as much food through its gullet. (Similarly, a 104-foot tall gorilla, 20 times as tall as a real one, is only 400 times as strong but 8000 times as heavy — which is why we can’t have Skull Island.)

In practice, big animals tend to have adaptations such as thicker limb bones that mean the numbers aren’t quite as bad as this, but the principal holds: the bigger an animal gets, the worse the problems imposed by scaling. It’s not possible to “solve” this problem because so many biological properties scale this way. Something is always the limiting factor. Suppose it were leg-bones or gullet. If somehow a hypothetical ultra-sauropod evolved extra thick leg-bones and gullet, scaling of respiration would suffocate it, or scaling of digestion would starve it, or scaling of heat-loss through the skin would boil it. The fundamental reason that you can’t just scale an animal up is that some parts of its function scale with volume while most — respiration, digestion, etc. — scale with surface area.

I’m currently working on a paper about the AMNH’s rearing Barosaurus mount. (That’s just one of the multiple reasons I am currently obsessed by Barosaurus.) It’s a fascinating process: more of a history project than a scientific one. It’s throwing up all sorts of things. Here’s one.

In 1992, the year after the mount went up, S. O. Landry gave a talk at the annual meeting of American Zoologist about this mount. I don’t even remember now where I saw a reference to this, or how I found, but the untitled abstract is on JSTOR, as part of the society’s abstracts volume. Here it is, in its entirety:

I thought he’d made some good points, so I wanted to figure out whether he’d ever gone on from this 31-year-old abstract and published a paper about it.

Based on the surname, initials and affiliation, I searched here and there, and turned up a few bits and pieces. I learned that he was  a Professor of Biology SUNY at Binghamton, specialising in hystricomorph rodents. I found out that his wife Helen died in 2007 after 57 years’ marriage. (That’s not just idle curiosity: it’s how I discovered that his first name was Stuart.) I found a photograph of him, taken in 1975, with Assemblyman James L. Tallon, and learned in the process that his middle name was Omer. I found that he was at one time the Graduate Dean at SUNY Binghamton, and opposed the 1972 rise in tuition fees from $800 per year to $1200–$1500. I learned that his BS was from Harvard College and his Ph.D from UC Berkeley, and that he is still listed as a professor emeritus at SUNY Binghamton. I discovered that he “pooh-poohs the idea that young students’ minds are “tabula rasas” – blank slates”. I know that in 1966 he translated C. C. Robin’s Voyage to the Interior of Louisiana from its original French. I learned that he was born in 1924 and died in 2015 at the age of 90, and served in the Battle of the Bulge.  More troublingly, I discovered that his father, also named Stuart Omer Landry, was known for writing racist tracts for the Pelican Publishing Company, but that he himself rose above that heritage and became known for his progressive politics.

I don’t know what to make of any of this. It seems that he never published anything substantive about Barosaurus, so in that sense, I have lost interest in him. But isn’t it strange that in trying to answer the simple question “Did the S. O. Landry who wrote an abstract about rearing Barosaurus write anything else on the subject?” has wound up opening the book of someone’s life like this?

And how strange that someone with 90 years of rich, complex life and numerous academic achievements should be, to me, just the guy who wrote an untitled abstract about Barosaurus that one time.

Last Thursday I gave a public lecture for the No Man’s Land Historical Society in the Oklahoma Panhandle, titled “Oklahoma’s Jurassic Giants: the Dinosaurs of Black Mesa”. It’s now on YouTube, on the No Man’s Land Museum’s channel.

There’s a point I want to make here, that I also made in the talk: we can’t predict the value of natural history collections. The first sauropod vertebrae that Rich Cifelli and Kent Sanders and I CT scanned back in the spring of 1998 belonged to what would become Sauroposeidon, but most of the ones we scanned after that were Morrison specimens collected by J. Willis Stovall’s crews from the Oklahoma Panhandle between 1934 and 1941. Those scans formed the core of the pneumaticity research that fleshed out the Sauroposeidon papers (Wedel et al. 2000a, b), and was more fully developed in my Master’s thesis and the papers that came out of that (Wedel 2003a, b).

OMNH 1094, a mid-cervical vertebra of Brontosaurus in right lateral view. If you’ve seen one of my talks or my first few papers, you’ve seen this vert. I just realized that I have almost all the photos I need to do a proper multi-view; stand by for a future post on that.

So the foundation of my career was built in large part from collections that had been made 60 years earlier, decades before CT was invented. I’ll also note here that Xenoposeidon — Mike’s fourth paper (Taylor and Naish 2007), but the one which really launched his career as a morphologist — is based on a specimen collected in the 1890s. Natural history collections are not only resources for making comparisons, but also the engines of future discovery, and building and maintaining them is one of the most significant contributions to science that we can make.

I thank a bunch of folks at the end of the talk, but I especially want to thank Brian Engh for the use of his art, and Anne Weil for inviting me to collaborate on the sauropod material from the Homestead Quarry. Looking forward to more adventures!

References