Apatosaurus cervical ribs and the tyranny of 2D images

December 8, 2022

Some quick backstory: lots of sauropods have long, overlapping cervical ribs, like the ones shown here in Sauroposeidon (diagram from this old post):

These long cervical ribs are ossified tendons of ventral neck muscles, presumably longus colli ventralis. We know they’re ossified tendons because of their bone histology (Klein et al. 2012), and we suspect that they’re longus colli ventralis because those tendons look the same in birds, just less ossified, as in this rhea (same specimens as these even older posts: 1, 2):

Diplodocoids have apomorphically short cervical ribs, which never extend very far past the end of their respective centra and sometimes don’t overlap at all. Still, we assume the long ventral neck muscles were there, just without long ossified tendons. Which brings me to Apatosaurus, which has cervical ribs that are anteroposteriorly short but famously massive, extending very below and/or to the sides of the cervical centra — for a truly breathtaking example see this post. Here are C3 through C7 in CM 3018, the holotype of Apatosaurus lousiae (Gilmore 1936: plate 24):

At least for me, it’s hard to resist the temptation to mentally scoot those vertebrae together into articulation, and imagine that the very swoopy-looking and maybe even down-turned cervical ribs allowed the ventral tendon bundles to wrap around the bottom of each cervical rib protuberance, something like this:

But it’s just not so, because like all 2D images, Gilmore’s plate distorts 3D reality. If you get to see the mounted skeleton in person, it’s clear that the cervical ribs are all more or less in line, and none of them are pointed at the big protuberances, which stick way out ventrolaterally.

Here I’ve drawn in the likely trajectories of the longus colli ventralis tendons. My little red pathways don’t precisely match the cervical ribs as mounted, but there’s a lot of distortion and restoration going on. For example, comparing with Gilmore’s plate we can see that the cervical ribs of C5, which point downward compared to all the others, only do that because someone forced them to — the whole anterior portion of the rib, where the shaft would actually join to the capitulum and tuberculum, is reconstructed. Even if I’m a little off, it’s clear that the cervical ribs shafts point backward, they’re all more or less in two parallel lines, and none of them point down and out toward the ventrolateral processes. The photo contains a mountain of useful morphological information that you’d never get from the lateral views.

My takeaways from all this:

  1. If a person has only seen 2D images of a specimen, and especially if those 2D images have only been orthogonal views with no obliques, their little island of knowledge is surrounded by at least a sizeable lake of ignorance, if not a small ocean.
  2. That doesn’t mean that seeing specimens in person is the only antidote — 3D models and 3D prints are extremely useful, and for specimens that are difficult to manipulate because of their size or fragility, they may be more useful than seeing or handling the specimen, at least for some questions.
  3. For Apatosaurus specifically, those ventrolateral processes cry out for explanation. They’re fairly solid knobs of bone that stick way out past the ossified tendons of the ventral-most neck muscles. That’s a super-weird — and super-expensive — place to invest a bunch of bone if you’re not using it for something fairly important, especially in a lineage that had just spent the last 80-100 million years making their necks as light as possible.
  4. Pursuant to that last point, we’re now in — ugh-ouch-shame — our 8th year of BrontoSMASH!!, with still just the one conference presentation to show for it (Taylor et al. 2015). Prolly time we got moving on that again.


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