On the poignancy and intimacy of history

April 4, 2022

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 it, 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 at 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.

28 Responses to “On the poignancy and intimacy of history”

  1. dale mcinnes Says:

    Have you yourself worked out the math behind this rearing barosaur ?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I have not even tried. Some day I will, but that is a different project.

  3. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    I’m building myself something like my 5th or 6th set of rollerblade frames (I keep learning more from each one), and all previous versions, I’ve done no stress analysais, just eyeballed that they’re overbuilt. This time, I’m taking a manufacturing shortcut, and had to do some mild mathematical analysis to convince myself they weren’t going to fall apart at the shortcut – and while they’re the most slender yet, I’m eyeballing the commercially available race frames to make sure I’m really way overbuilding.

    Point being, I’ve SOME familiarity with stresses in beams – and the accomplished rodentologist Mr Landry’s verbal description of vertebral loading, sounds like a bunch of baloney. My guess is, if he tried publishing something, a reviewer might have asked for an actual mechanical analysis with free body diagrams. My guess is, if he involved an actual mechanical engineer, he would have stood corrected.

    The reality is, the vertebral column is under both enormous compressive and tensile loads, and even if the monster didn’t have the muscular strength to HOLD itself up, I don’t see why it couldn’t have “jumped” with the front feet, squatted down somewhat in back, dropped the tail and flung its head up to get the front feet high enough to crash down on an attacker. The idea that the column would crush just sounds absurd. I’m reminded about someone’s post here describing the video of a full-speed running rhinoceros tripping into a full somersault, and merely shrugging off the event instead of lying dead and broken – or how “bumblebees cannot mathematically fly” … both of which illustrate that you can generate quite precise numbers, or at least baloney qualitative conclusions from a model that mathematically does not represent reality.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Brad, the main place where I part company with Landry’s abstract is that the stresses involved in holding a neck horizontal are more than those involved in holding it vertical: bendings stresses are always greater than compressive stresses. So any analysis that says necks couldn’t be held upright has to explain how they could be held horizontally.

  5. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    The idea that the top of the vertebral column (centra and discs) doesn’t already sustain at least that many tons of compressive load to keep the monster from folding in half – if anything, rearing up might actually lessen the compressive load, at least at the top, by possibly removing (some of) the tensile load from the bottom, and so allowing the compression to spread further through the entire column.

    But yeah, someone who has access to mechanical stress analysis software could take the entire skeleton into account. I don’t, or my skates would probably weigh a lot less.

  6. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    …in other words, you (Mike) agree with my hand-waving analysis of beam loads. Sorry to be wordy then!

  7. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    Occurred to me also, the backs of these sauropods are HUGE. Even if he’s right about 1.4sq meter cross section of muscle, that actually sounds like a reasonable request of a creature that size…? That’s only half a meter tall by 3m wide….

  8. Nathan Myers Says:

    This is just slightly off topic:


  9. LeeB. Says:

    This is a good example of why you should not make absolute statements about subjects outside the field you normally work in unless you are a polymath genius; and given that most people aren’t it’s also the reason that tools like mechanical stress analysis software have been invented.

  10. LeeB Says:

    Re the off topic subject posted by Nathan Myers; it would have been nice if the scientific name of each species used in showing how the wings work in flying had been given.
    There are an awful lot of slightly different hummingbird and dragonfly species.
    Other than that the graphics are great.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Great stuff in that link, Nathan, and not really off-topic — at least, not off-topic for the recent How Birds Breathe post!

  12. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    I can relate in my study of Apatodon (https://www.theropoddatabase.com/Non-theropods.htm#Apatodonmirus) where the rationale behind changing taxonomic assignments was never about morphology and it instead became an exercise in figuring out how each author a century ago misinterpreted the formatting of various papers to conclude Apatodon was being assigned to each new group.

  13. Anne Says:

    How is 1992 “History”?! Yikes.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Anne, part of me agrees. On the other hand, 1992 is more three decades ago, and most of the people who were involved in the project are retired now or even deceased. So this it the time to capture the documents and memories that remain.

  15. Leo W Sham Says:

    On the other hand I am really startled that the mount went up “only” in 1992 – I always thought it was earlier. I still vividly remember awing over a stunning paint restoration of the mount in Louie Psihoyos’s book “Hunting Dinosaurs” published in 1994. Words defies me, but I don’t realize it was then “captured” so fresh after the mount went up!

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Leo, what page is the “stunning paint restoration” on? I didn’t see it, or register it, when I was flicking through the online copy at archive.org.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oh, wait, I know what you mean, Leo: you’re talking about John Gurche’s painting of the rearing Baro, which is also included in the signage next to the mount. It’s the fifth painting down in his page http://gurche.com/anatomical-drawings

  18. Eric Snively Says:

    Well, the animal might begin to rear up if both caudofemoralis longus muscles contracted at once. We can estimate minimum muscle dimensions for exerting the necessary torque. Assume the muscle in-lever is one meter (certainly less), and the out-lever one meter (acetabulum to the center of mass; probably more). Remove the hind legs, and the mass (from Larramendi and Paul 2021) is a bit over 11.5 tonnes. For the muscles start at 32.5 N/cm^2, no pennation, long muscle fibers, and ignore cosine error. Each muscle’s radius would be about 24 cm, for a ~ half-meter diameter, assuming a circular cross section. Mike and Matt will have a sense if that’s a realistic size.

  19. Leo W Sham Says:

    Bingo Mike, and thanks for the website link! Obviously Gurche was (and still is) my Paleoart idol. And look at what I found: my folly copycat thirty years ago! (Oops hope the link works)


  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    Haha, nice!

    I’ve been doing a bit of (pretty bad) watercolor painting in the last couple of weeks. I wonder if I could take a stab at a Gurche-alike?

  21. Nathan Myers Says:

    Not that anybody cares what I think, but speaking as an engineer, by my lights the rearing back seems fine, but the crashing down afterward is, as Brits say, right out. If it does rear back, it comes down from that as gingerly as it can manage. (It might still swat at T. r. while it’s up; getting swatted with that forelimb could break things.)

    It would learn this as it grows from a hatchling. At first, skipping and jumping is fine, but as it gets bigger, shocks would start to hurt. By the time it gets past, say, elephant-size, it has learned to be careful about throwing itself around.

    We do something similar. Kids don’t need tumbling lessons, but if we try that as adults, we had better do it right, or regret it. Yet, we are no bigger than hatchlings ourselves.

  22. Matt Wedel Says:

    To follow on from what Nathan and others have said, the idea that the weight of the animal would be “dropped” from 5 meters is a pessimistic fantasy concocted by someone who knew very little about how bodies actually work. The center of mass of diplodocids is right in front of the acetabulum, and the animal would presumably set down just as gently as it lifted off. That gentle set-down would be facilitated by the caudofemoralis and back extensor muscles, which would act as brakes as the animal set down, contracting eccentrically, in exactly the same way that the anterior calf muscles of humans fire eccentrically to brake the descent of our feet after heel-strike to prevent foot-slap when we walk.

  23. brnfknennngh Says:

    Since when is it unlikely for animals to break their bones doing dynamic stuff (especially in self defense)? There are literal TONS of fractured and healed bones of sauropods & other dinosaurs in collections that need to be studied and published. Wild animals go hard.

    Also, watch this snow leopard jump/plummet off about FOUR CLIFFS while chasing a Bharal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgDHvl1wD20

    According to the observers this snow leopard survived and fed on this kill. If you watch closely you can see both, animals doing lots of clever & subtle behavioral things to buffer forces slamming into their bodies.

    Also, fwiw, if you talk to an osteologist studying bone microstructure they’re likely tell you that FEA & other bone-failure analyses should be taken with a big grain of salt. Most of those studies assume a constant bone density and weave of bone, which is based on human long bones… in other words modern osteology shows clearly that there is a huge array of bone densities and tensile strengths & directions connective tissue woven through bone across the tree of life but nobody has put much focus into quantifying this for different clades of vertebrates or parts of the skeleton. As a result virtually all paleo bone strength calculations are done with an ultra-simplified constant value based on wee flimsy primates.

    Speaking as a dude who builds dinosaur puppets: composite materials dramatically change performance. Most dinosaur biomech studies are so focused on bone failure they never seem to take into account the fact that bone/tendon/ligament/cartilage surrounding & incorporated into the skeletal system dramatically change it’s strength. Bone by itself is brittle (like epoxy resin), but bone woven into a complex system of muscle fibers and ligaments etc is an entirely different equation (like fiberglass). Every layer added to a moving structure changes it’s strength and movement.

  24. Mike Taylor Says:

    Brian, that video is INSANE.

    Hard agree on all the rest of what you write here, especially the tendency of FEA studies to do the easy part by making oversimplifying assumptions, then just publish in Nature and call it done.

  25. LeeB. Says:

    It’s worth bearing in mind that things do go wrong though; an older snow leopard that was filmed regularly was eventually found dead at the bottom of a cliff having broken it’s neck falling down a cliff while hunting prey.
    Also gibbons are phenomenally agile; one was seen swinging on a branch which snapped and it just reached out, grasped the stump of the branch and swung around it and continued on it’s way.
    Another was in mid air when a bird flew close by; it caught the bird and still landed on the branch it was initially aiming for.
    Yet a study of gibbon skeletons in museums found that about 30 percent had healed fractures presumably caused by falls; obviously some unknown percentage didn’t survive falling.
    Using modern humans as a baseline for bone strength is problematic; studies of Neanderthal bones showed them to be much more dense than modern human bones just as Aurochs bones were much more dense than domestic cattle.
    Perhaps people should study the bone density of olympic weightlifters or decathletes.

  26. dale m. Says:

    To respond to AJ Perez ….. No. It doesn’t. Just watch 2 bull elephants go at it. It isn’t so much of a stomping mash as it is a shoving match.

  27. Mike Taylor Says:

    A. J. Perez, I am not really seeing how a gentle set-down after rearing goes against BRONTOSMASH!.

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