September 19, 2010
I’m just back from SVPCA 2010 (the Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy), and what an amazing meeting it was. I think it was the best I’ve been to. That’s partly because I understand more of the talks these days — it’s the first time I’ve ever listened to every single talk, even all the mammal-tooth and fish-skull talks — and I learned something interesting and new from almost every one of them.
But as is so often the case, the best thing about the meeting was, well, meeting. I met with Matt and Darren for the first time in a year, which is always excellent. And for the first time, I met horizontal-sauropod-neck advocate Kent Stevens. Kent was there to present one of two talks on horizontal necks, and UK sauropod jockey John Martin presented the other. Their talks were part of a block of seven sauropod talks — it would have been eight had Michael Pitman not changed his scheduled sauropod-tail talk to a theropod-tail talk. Matt and I both made presentations, although Darren wasn’t able to because he didn’t know that he’d be able to come to the meeting until the last moment.
After that block of talks, Matt, Darren and I went off to lunch with Kent and Martin. Despite the lighthearted attempts of session moderator John Hutchinson to build the session up as a two-way fight, it was all rather peaceful and enjoyable. After lunch we all went to have our photos taken together in front of the Zoology Museum‘s giraffe skeleton:
As you can see, we were all very civilised and well behaved.
In all seriousness, it’s no secret that we SV-POW!sketeers are very much advocates of a raised habitual posture, and so that we strongly disagree with Kent and John. We had a lot of fun talking together, but we didn’t find that they presented any compelling new evidence in their talks. (You can read the abstracts of their talks, and indeed of mine and Matt’s, in the SVPCA abstracts book.)
The case for horizontal or near-horizontal habitual pose rests on two assumptions. First, that osteological neutral pose (ONP) was habitually adopted; and second, that we can know what ONP was. We still feel that both of these assumptions are false. We can’t know ONP because there is not a single sauropod neck skeleton anywhere in the world consisting of undistorted cervicals — and even if we knew what ONP was, it wouldn’t tell us much about what I am suddenly going to call mechanical neutral pose (MNP)[*], because we don’t know anything about the intervertebral cartilage. And we know that extant animals do not habitually adopt ONP because we have X-rays that show us how they habitually rest, and we know that they don’t match what you get by articulating bones.
[* either John or Kent made the point that ONP != MNP in his talk. I think they probably used a different name for MNP, but it eludes me for now. If anyone can remind me, I will switch to their terminology.]
So, anyway, it was a bit frustrating watching John’s talk, and seeing him show many photographs of live animals and claiming that their necks were in ONP, when we knew perfectly well that they were not — because necks lie. We fear he may have been tricked by the misleading soft-tissue outlines that mask the postures adopted by the neck skeleton in nearly all tetrapods. As an example, I give you the hoatzin, which happily was on display at the Zoology Museum as both a stuffed specimen and a skeleton:
Here’s another photograph from the astounding collection of the Zoology Museum (and some day I really ought to blog about the museum itself). I took this photograph of the neck of a camel with no specific agenda, but when I looked at it again today, one aspect leapt out at me:
Notice how very dramatically the third and fourth cervical central fail to contact, and the fourth and fifth. How uncomfortable this must be for the poor camel — its neck extended (or “dorsiflexed”) far, far out of ONP, to the point where the vertebrae drastically disarticulate. And yet we all know perfectly well that habitual pose for camels is much more extended than this, and many of us have seen photos of camels leaning their necks right back so that their heads are upside down, and they can rub the top of their head against their back. Just imagine what that does to the cervical articulations.
More on this subject another time. For now, I leave you with more from the Sauropod Neck Posture Working Group summit.
November 5, 2014
Last night, I submitted a paper for publication — for the first time since April 2013. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. But, because we’re living in the Shiny Digital Future, you don’t have to wait till it’s been through review and formal publication to read it. I submitted to PeerJ, and at the same time, made it available as a preprint (Taylor 2014).
It’s called “Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs”, and frankly the results are weird. Here’s a taste:
A year back, as I was composing a blog-post about our neck-cartilage paper in PLOS ONE (Taylor and Wedel 2013c), I found myself writing down the rather trivial formula for the additional angle of extension at an intervertebral joint once the cartilage is taken into account. In that post, I finished with the promise “I guess that will have to go in a followup now”. Amazingly it’s taken me a year to get that one-pager written and submitted. (Although in the usual way of things, the manuscript ended up being 13 pages long.)
To summarise the main point of the paper: when you insert cartilage of thickness t between two vertebrae whose zygapophyses articulate at height h above the centra, the more anterior vertebra is forced upwards by t/h radians. Our best guess for how much cartilage is between the adjacent vertebrae in an Apatosaurus neck is about 10% of centrum length: the image above shows the effect of inserting that much cartilage at each joint.
And yes, it’s weird. But it’s where the data leads me, so I think it would be dishonest not to publish it.
I’ll be interested to see what the reviewers make of this. You are all of course welcome to leave comments on the preprint itself; but because this is going through conventional peer-review straight away (unlike our Barosaurus preprint), there’s no need to offer the kind of detailed and comprehensive comment that several people did with the previous one. Of course feel free if you wish, but I’m not depending on it.
Gilmore Charles W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus, with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175–300 and plates XXI–XXXIV.
Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284(5415):798–800. doi:10.1126/science.284.5415.798
Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214
November 5, 2014
- Taylor, Michael P. 2014. Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PeerJ 2:e712. doi:10.7717/peerj.712 [PDF]
The full peer-review history is available.
An earlier version of this paper was made available as PeerJ Preprint, which at that point had not yet been peer-reviewed:
- Taylor, Michael P. 2014. Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PeerJ PrePrints 2:e588v1. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.588v1
- The importance of cartilage in neck reconstructions [the post that started it all: skip down to the 3rd picture]
- Sauropods’ neutral neck postures were really weird
- Is my new sauropod-neck cartilage paper “published”?
- My neck-cartilage angle paper is out!
November 3, 2014
Just a quick post to link to all five (so far) installments of the “necks lie” series. I need this because I want to cite all the “necks lie” posts in a paper that I’ll shortly submit, and it seems better to cite a single page than four of them.
- Necks lie
- Necks lie, redux
- Sauropods still didn’t hold their necks in osteological neutral pose
- Hoatzins lie (and so do parrots)
- Herons lie (and so do shoebills)
I’ll update this post as and when we write more about lying necks.
November 3, 2013
- Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013b. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214 [PDF]
And see also the followup:
- Taylor, Michael P. 2014. Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PeerJ 2:e712. doi:10.7717/peerj.712 [PDF]
- Two SV-POW! papers in the new PLOS Collection!
- The importance of cartilage in neck reconstructions
- How thick is the cartilage in necks of extant animals?
- Did sauropod necks have intervertebral discs?
- Estimating sauropod intervertebral cartilage thickness from CT scans
- Does anyone want a project? How can we understand sauropod neck cartilage better?
The following paper are cited in the captions of the figures above:
- Frey, Eberhard. 1988. Anatomie des Körperstammes von Alligator mississippiensis Daudin [Anatomy of the body stem of Alligator mississippiensis Daudin]. Stuttgarter Beiträge zur Naturkunde 424:1–106.
- Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrae Paleontology 29(3):787-806.
- Wedel, Mathew J., and Richard L. Cifelli. 2005. Sauroposeidon: Oklahoma’s native giant. Oklahoma Geology Notes 65:40-57.
November 3, 2013
As I mentioned a few days ago, Matt and I have a couple of papers in the new PLOS ONE Sauropod Gigantism collection. We were each lead author on one and second author on the other, so for convenience’s sake we’ll refer to them as my paper (Taylor and Wedel 2013c on neck cartilage) and Matt’s paper (Wedel and Taylor 2013b on caudal pneumaticity.)
Mine is very simple in concept (although it ended up at 17 pages and 23 figures). It’s all about addressing one of the overlooked variables in reconstructing the postures of the necks of sauropods (and indeed of all tetrapods). That is, the spacing between consecutive vertebrae, and the effect this has on “neutral pose”.
The concept of “neutral pose” goes back to the DinoMorph work of Stevens and Parrish (1999). They defined it (p. 799) as follows: “We determined the neutral poses for each animal, wherein the paired articular facets of the postzygapophyses of each cervical vertebra were centered over the facets of the prezygapophyses of its caudally adjacent counterpart.”
One of the more fundamental flaws in Stevens and Parrish (1999) is the assumption that animals habitually rest their necks in neutral pose — an assumption that is unsupported by evidence and, as it turns out, false (Vidal et al. 1986, Taylor et al. 2009). But let’s leave that aside for the moment, and consider what neutral pose actually represents.
The fact that there is even such a thing as neutral articulation between two consecutive vertebrae is due to there being three points of contact between those vertebra: as with the legs of a tripod, three points is the minimum number you need to fix an object in three-dimensional space. Two of these points are at the zygapophyses, as noted in the original definition above. The third point is the articulation between the centra.
The centrum has been curiously overlooked in discussions of neutral pose, but needless to say its length is crucial in establishing what is neutral. In the image above, if the centrum was longer, then the angle between the consecutive vertebrae would need to be raised in order to keep the zygapophyses articulated.
And of course it was longer in life, because of the cartilage in between the consecutive centra. (The use of the more specific term “osteological neutral pose” goes some way to recognising that tissues other than bone have been overlooked, but the problem has not really been addressed or even properly acknowledged in published works before our paper.)
You simply can’t ignore cartilage when modelling neck postures and expect to get anything resembling a meaningful result. That is, presumably, the reason why the habitual posture of rabbits in life exceeds the most extended posture we were able to obtain when manipulating dry vertebrae of a hare: compare Vidal et al. (1986: fig. 4) with Taylor et al. (2009: fig. 1).
How big is the effect? That depends on the thickness of the cartilage and the height of the zygapophyses above the center of rotation. Here is an illustration that we should have put in the paper, but which inexplicably neither of us thought of:
Here’s some elementary trigonometry. Suppose the intervertebral cartilage is x distance thick at mid-height of the centra, and that the height of the zygs above this mid-height point (the magenta line) is y. The triangle between the middle of the condyle of the posterior vertebra, the middle of the cotyle of the anterior one and the zygapophyseal articulation is near enough a right-angled triangle as makes no odds.
Consider the angle θ between the green lines. Sin(θ) = opposite/hypotenuse = x/y, and by similarity, the additional angle of inclination of the anterior vertebra is also θ.
But for small angles (and this is generally a small angle), sin(θ) ≈ θ. So the additional inclination in radians = cartilage thickness divided by zygapophyseal height. For example, in vertebrae where the zygs are 23 cm above the mid-height of the centra, adding 4 cm of intervertebral cartilage adds about 4/23 = 0.174 radians = 10 degrees of extra inclination. (That’s pretty similar to the angle in the illustration above. Eyeballing the cartilage thickness and zyg height in the illustration suggests that 23:4 ratio is about right, which is a nice sanity-check of this method.)
At this point, I am cursing my own stupidity for not putting this diagram, and the very simple calculation, into the paper. I guess that can happen when something is written in a hurry (which to be honest this paper was). The formula is so simple — and accurate enough within tolerances of inevitable measurement error — that we really should have used it all over the place. I guess that will have to go in a followup now. [Update, 5th November 2014. It’s long overdue, but that followup paper has finally been submitted and is available as a preprint.]
Anyway — next time, we’ll address this important related question: how thick, in fact, was the cartilage between the cervicals of sauropods?
- Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck Posture and Feeding Habits of Two Jurassic Sauropod Dinosaurs. Science 284:798-800.
- Taylor, Michael P., and Matthew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214 [PDF]
- Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2):213-230. [PDF]
- Vidal, Pierre Paul, Werner Graf and Alain Berthoz. 1986. The orientation of the cervical vertebral column in unrestrained awake animals. Experimental Brain Research, 61:549-559. doi:10.1007/BF00237580
- Wedel, Mathew J., and Michael P. Taylor. 2013. Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78213. 14 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078213 [PDF]
September 21, 2010
Since I posted my photograph of the Cambridge University Zoology Museum’s dromedary camel in the last entry, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Here it is again, this time with the background removed:
You’ll remember from last time that the thing that struck me most powerfully about it was the huge disarticulations between the centra of C3, C4 and C5. [Stevens and Parrish (2005:fig. 10.1A) illustrated the articulated cervical column of a dromedary camel Camelus dromedarius in osteological neutral pose, and it comfortably approximates life posture; but its vertebrae are very different from those of this specimen. I don’t know what to make of this. Are there dromedary subspecies? If so, they are very different from each other; if not, then the individual variation is pretty amazing.]
The Cambridge mount made me wonder how the neck of that specimen would look if we moved it down into neutral pose — that is, keeping the zygapophyses maximally overlapped as they are in the mount, but bringing the centra together at the same time. I tried it in GIMP (a free equivalent to the better-known PhotoShop), and here is the result:
Let’s be clear that photoshopping vertebrae is an inexact science at best: I am working here from a single photograph taken carelessly as one among a hundred taken opportunistically in a museum too awesome not to photograph; I can see the vertebrae only from one angle; judging the maximal zygapophyseal overlap is error-prone.
Still, even taking all of these factors into account, I found this pose striking. It left me very much wanting to find a published osteology of the camel with better multi-view figures of the cervical vertebrae. Sadly, it seems like there isn’t anything like that (though if you know better, PLEASE say so in the comments!) But my search led me inevitably to tetrapod savant Darren Naish, and he pointed me to Maziersky (2010), a book review which includes the following photo:
Judging by the odd way the camel is propped up on a table, this is a dead animal being posed rather than a live one adopting a posture voluntarily, but it does appear that this is at least a pose that the mechanics of the animal allow. And that got me thinking about how the vertebrae must be arranged to allow this. Here’s the best I’ve been able to come up with:
In comparison with the mounted skeleton’s pose, this re-articulates cervicals 3 and 4; but 4 and 5 remain horribly disarticulated, and the 5-and-6 and 6-and-7 pairs are now also in this state.
(A reminder is due again here that what I am doing is an approximate and error-prone process. No doubt I got the maximal possible zygapophyseal disarticulation wrong in several places, for example. But even allowing for that, I find this pretty amazing.)
If you’re wondering why the two earlier images had so much blank space at the top and this one has so much to the right, it’s because I made them all the same size and shape. This means that if you open all three images in different browser tabs, then tab between them, you should see the neck neatly moving between the three different poses. For those of you too lazy or technophobic to do that, here is a superposition:
Habitual posture (i.e. when the animal is not eating or drinking or otherwise doing anything in particular with its head) is somewhere above the mounted pose, but less extended than the raised pose shown by Maziersky.
What does all this tell us?
Nothing very encouraging, I’m afraid. Even allowing for the vagaries of photoshopping images of museum mounts, it’s apparent that something very weird is going on in this camel’s neck, such that even a pose well below the habitual one requires extensive vertebral disarticulation. Assuming that, like me, you don’t believe the vertebrae really are disarticulating in life, we can only conclude that it is useless to try to reach conclusions about neck posture based on osteology alone. We need to understand the soft-tissue systems — especially the articular cartilage — as well.
Stevens and Parrish (1999:798) stated that “in vivo, muscles, ligaments, and fascia may have further limited movement [i.e. beyond the restrictions imposed by maintaining zygapophyseal overlap]; thus, the digital manipulations reported here represent a ‘best case’ scenario for neck mobility.” Although this seems intuitively appealing, evidence including but not limited to the Cambridge camel shows that the opposite is actually the case: in at least some taxa, and maybe all, soft tissue enables necks to be more flexible, not less, than the bones alone suggest.
Folks, we’re flying blind. Until we start to understand the soft tissues in the necks of extant critters — especially the intervertebral cartilage, but I bet that’s not the whole story — we really have no idea how to interpret the bones.
Come on, neontologists! Teach us about intervertebral cartilage!
- Maziersky, David. 2010. Anatomy of the Dromedary: Illustrating the world’s first atlas of camel anatomy. Halcyon 45:5-6 (June 2010).
- Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck Posture and Feeding Habits of Two Jurassic Sauropod Dinosaurs. Science 284:798-800.
- Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 2005. Neck posture, dentition, and feeding strategies in Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. pp. 212-232 in: Virginia Tidwell and Ken Carpenter (eds.), Thunder Lizards: the Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. 495 pp.
Special bonus archosaur-rich artwork
Check out John Conway’s obscenely brilliant infinite-zoom Jehol video. (Well, a lot of people have been calling it infinite zoom, but it’s clearly finite. Still, it’s at least Very Big Zoom.) A lot of jaws dropped at SVPCA in Cambridge when John was showing this off. While you’re at it, you might like to read the interview with John at Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings. Dave’s interviewed quite a few palaeoartists now, but John has more to say than most of them, and it’s well worth a read.
Special bonus horror story
While I was emailing with Darren about camels, he told me that John Hutchinson had recently acquired a camel at the RVC, and suggested that I ask to be present at the dissection of the neck. I contacted John only to be told: “Just got the feet; had no time to get the rest, sadly. Notice came at a bad time for my group, as it tends to do. It is now incinerated.” John also told me at SVPCA of a hippo that was recently incinerated because he couldn’t get to the zoo to collect it within 24 hours. Graaaggh! It’s a tragedy the dead animals that go to waste.
May 27, 2009
Momentous news: we SV-POW!sketeers have finally gotten off our collective duff and published something together. Here are the goods:
Freely available to the world right now, thanks to the wonder of Open Access:
Unofficial Supplementary Information Online
SV-POW! Posts About the Paper
- Sauropods held their necks erect … just like rabbits
- Sauropod neck posture: the world responds
- What heads tell us about necks
- Range of motion in intervertebral joints: why we don’t trust DinoMorph
- Necks lie
- Choosing a journal for the neck-posture paper: why open access is important
- Unstated precision and undemonstrated accuracy: two more reasons why we don’t trust DinoMorph
- Neck posture, yet again: T. rex’s neck is pathetic
- Necks, the big picture: because there are other animals besides sauropods
- What heads tell us about necks, redux
… and, well over a year later …
(The sequence of neck-posture posts led into a a broader discussion of the interaction between blog posts such as these and format publications: there’s an overview at The Shiny Digital Future.)
Mike was interviewed live on Channel 4 News at 12.20pm. At the time of writing, the video is freely available on the Channel 4 web-site, though it may not last long: anyone who can help me to download a permanent copy will earn my gratitude. Here is a larger version — though still not downloadable, only streamable.
Darren was interviewed on Radio 5 Live at 3.30pm, as part of the Simon Mayo Show, with stand-in host Richard Bacon. Listen to an MP3 of Darren [2:30].
Mike was interviewed for several BBC stations:
- BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme at 8:50am [3:07]
- BBC Radio Solent’s Jon Cuthill Show at 11.40am [7:33]
- BBC Radio Solent’s Steve Harris Show at 4:20pm [3:29]
- BBC Radio Scotland’s Newsdrive at 4:50pm [4:14] (recorded earlier)
- BBC Radio Wales’s Good Evening Wales at 4:50pm [5:57]
And two days later (28th May) by:
Online News Coverage
Anything we missed below is probably available through Google News.
- BBC News: Giant dinosaurs ‘held heads high’
- Telegraph.co.uk: Natural History Museum’s sauropod exhibit ‘anatomically wrong’
- Times Online: Long-necked dinosaurs were not the slouches we thoughts, says study
- The Independent: Dinosaurs, the giraffes of their day
- Daily Mail Online: Why dinosaurs can hold their heads high after scientists say classic portrayal is wrong
- Metro.co.uk: Dinosaurs’ posture ‘could be wrong’
- Irish Times: Proud dinosaur may have held its head high
- The Australian: Dinosaur walked with head held high
- New Zealand Herald: Experts stick necks out with dinosaur heads-up
- Science Daily: Giant dinosaur posture is all wrong
- Guardian.co.uk: Museums and TV have dinosaurs’ posture all wrong, claim scientists
- Guardian.co.uk: Experts clash in battle of posture
- RedOrbit.com: Giant sauropods held heads high and upright
- Taipei Times: Researchers say dinosaurs held heads up, not forward
- forskning.no: Holdt hodet hoyt (in Norwegian)
- Guardian.co.uk: We can’t tell whether the dinosaurs had necks like mine – they’re all dead. And that’s the beauty of it
- Rzeczpospolita (one of the biggest Polish daily newspapers): Wyciągnięte szyje wielkich dinozaurów
- Membrana: Длинношеие динозавры держали головы как жирафы (in Russian: these guys even took the trouble to re-label our cladogram in Russian.)
- Corriere della Sera (the top Italian daily newspaper): Le «giraffe» del Giurassico
- Der Spiegel (Germany’s largest weekly magazine): Riesen-Saurier könnten Schwanenhals besessen haben (includes a direct link to the paper itself: no dumbing down for the German audience!)
- The Sunday Sun (North of England): Bone of contention at Great North Museum (about the implications for the pose of their Tyrannosaurus)
- Leicester Mercury: Dinosaur finally sits up after 168 million years
- Cosmos Online (Brisbane): Dinosaur posture still wrong, says study
- Slashdot (news for nerds): Dinosaur Posture Still Wrong, Says Study —and— Mike’s response
- New Scientist: Giant dinosaurs kept heads held high
- KhoaHoc: Tư thế của khủng long cổ dài hoàn toàn sai (Vietnamese)
- The Mirror: Dinosaurs ‘misrepresented in top museums’
- The Sun: Dino soars
- Softpedia: Sauropods Held Their Heads Up High, contrary to popular theories among anthropologists (?!)
- Physorg.com: Did dinosaurs hold their heads up?
- CBBC Newsround: Dino skeletons could be all wrong
- inthenews: In Focus: Walking With Dinosaurs ‘got it wrong’
- Tetrapod Zoology: Sauropod dinosaurs held their necks in high, raised postures
- Theropoda.blogspot.com: W gli SVPoWer Rangers! [in Italian, translation button on right sidebar]
- DinoGoss reports the research.
- DinoGoss discusses separately the media reporting of the research.
- 80beats: The dilemma of the dinosaur stance: how did they hold their heads?
- Gentleman’s Choice: Dino Friday: Hesperonychus elizabethae and sauropod necks
- Stupid Dinosaur Lies: Vertical or horizontal?
- The Dragon’s Tales: Sauropods WERE the Mesozoic giraffes
- Blameless Life: Giant dinosaur posture is all wrong: sauropods held their heads high, research finds (in Korean and English)
- The Dichotomous Trekkie 2.0: Sauropod postures, and low-slung diplodocids (from Philip Kahn, who is currently preparing a paper he wrote as an undergraduate for submission to a peer-reviewed journal–best of luck, Philip!)
- ZME Science: Did sauropods walk with their necks upright?
- Everything Dinosaur: Swan neck posture of sauropods – the great debate
- Dinosaur Tracking: The sauropod posture debate, part eleventy
- Science Buzz: The dinosaur mystique
… and probably more that we’ve not got to yet.
Scans of printed newspapers that I (Mike) bought on the day. Click through for full-size scans.
May 14, 2009
Do you want to know how stupid my co-blogger Matt Wedel is? Having already discussed the ostrich Struthio camelus in Wedel et al. (2000b), that total idiot went on to misspell the trivial name as “camellus” in Wedel and Cifelli (2005:52). What a doofus.
And do you want to know how dumb my other co-blogger Darren Naish is? Throughout Naish and Dyke (2005), he consistently misspelled the species name of Elopteryx nopcsai as “nopscai“, despite extensively discussing Nopcsa, who the species was named after. What a moron.
It’s a good thing I would never do anything so stupid.
Er. Read on …
So I have this paper in press about the two “Brachiosaurus” species and how they are not really congeneric — I think we’ve mentioned it a few times. It’s now very nearly a year since I submitted it, under the title: A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1904 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai Janensch 1914. And now — now, a year on, after having re-read this manuscript some insane number of times — I finally notice my own grotesque error: Riggs of course named B. altithorax in 1903. Argh! So in the last few days, I’ve spent some crazy amount of time going through and changing this title in my dissertation (where it pops up as Chapter 2), in my CV, in my on-line publications list … and of course, making a GIGANTIC sign in flashing red neon, to be suspended before my eyeballs at all times, reminding me to fix this in the page-proof when that turns up.
(Actually, I think this error is the most astounding of all: not only did I miss it myself, but so did my Ph.D supervisor, the handling editor at SVP, both peer-reviewers, the self-invited third “reviewer” who sent his unsolicited comments, both of my examiners and the two or three people that I’ve sent preprints to. Incredible that ten or more people could all miss such a horribly obvious mistake right there in the title.)
So. You’d think that just about exhausted Matt’s, Darren’s and my doofosity, right? Oh ho ho. Not so, because we have a paper in press that we wrote together. We submitted it, revised it according to the reviews, commented on the page-proofs and told the journal it was all ready to go. And then — THEN — we noticed a horrible, stupid mistake right in the middle of the abstract. The paper is about osteological neutral pose, but we’d written “osteological neural pose”. And all three of us missed it. (Happy ending: we told the journal what we’d done, and it wasn’t too late to fix.)
So the moral of the story is: we are idiots.
Just thought you ought to know.
- Naish, Darren and Gareth J. Dyke. 2004. Heptasteornis was no ornithomimid, troodontid, dromaeosaurid or owl: the first alvarezsaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from Europe. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie Mh. 2004(7): 385-401.
- Taylor, Michael P. In press. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrae Palaeontology.
- Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. In press (2009). Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2).
- Wedel, Mathew J., and Richard L. Cifelli. 2005. Sauroposeidon: Oklahoma’s native giant. Oklahoma Geology Notes 65(2):40-57.
- Mathew J. Wedel, Richard L. Cifelli, and R. Kent Sanders. 2000b. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45(4):343-388.
February 26, 2015
Last October, Mike posted a tutorial on how to choose a paper title, then followed it up by evaluating the titles of his own papers. He invited me to do the same for my papers. I waited a few days to allow myself to forget Mike’s comments on our joint papers – not too hard during my fall anatomy teaching – and then wrote down my thoughts.
And then did nothing with them for three and a half months.
The other day I rediscovered that draft and thought, hey, I don’t remember anything I wrote back then, I should redo the experiment and see if my evaluations will be consistent. And this time without looking at Mike’s post at all, so the risk of contamination would be even lower.
BUT FIRST I thought I should write down what I admire in paper titles, so I could see whether my titles actually lived up to my ideals. So now we can compare:
- what I say I like in paper titles;
- what I actually titled my papers;
- what I had to say about my titles last October;
- what I have to say about them now;
- and, for some of my papers, what Mike had to say about them.
What I Admire In Paper Titles
Brevity. I first became consciously aware of the value of concise titles when I read Knut Schmidt-Nielsen’s autobiography, The Camel’s Nose, in 2004 or 2005. (Short-short review: most of the book is a narrative about scientific questions and it’s great, the self-congratulatory chapters near the end are much less interesting. Totally worth reading, especially since used copies can be had for next to nothing.) Schmidt-Nielsen said he always preferred short, simple titles. Short titles are usually punchy and hard to misunderstand. And I like titles that people can remember, and a short title is easier to recall than a long one.
Impact. In short, maximum information transfer using the minimum number of words. This is a separate point from sheer brevity; a paper can have a short title that doesn’t actually tell you very much. But brevity helps, because it’s difficult to compose a long title that really hits hard. Whatever impact a title might have, it will diluted by every extraneous word.
Full sentences as titles. This is taking the information-transfer aspect of the last admirable quality to its logical extreme, although often at the expense of brevity. I was heavily influenced here by two things that happened while I was at Berkeley. First, I taught for a year in an NSF GK-12 program, where graduate students went out into local elementary, middle, and high schools and taught biology enrichment classes. One thing that was drilled into us during that experience is that we were teaching concepts, which ideally would be expressed as complete sentences. Also about that same time I read James Valentine’s book On the Origin of Phyla. The table of contents of that book is several pages long, because every chapter title, heading, and subheading is a complete sentence. This has a lovely effect: once you’ve read the table of contents of the book or any of its parts, you’ve gotten the TL;DR version of the argument. Sort of like a distributed abstract. I’d like to do that more.
How Did I Do?
Time to see if my actions match my words. Full bibliographic details and PDFs are available on my publications page. I stuck with Mike’s red-blue-green color scheme for the verdicts. My October 2014 and February 2015 thoughts are labeled. For joint papers with Mike, I’ve copied his assessment in as well. Any comments in brackets are my editorializing now, comparing what I said in October to what I said a few days ago before I’d looked back at my old comments or Mike’s.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Sauroposeidon proteles, a new sauropod from the Early Cretaceous of Oklahoma. (11 words)
Oct 2014: Like it. Short, to the point, includes the taxon name.
Feb 2015: Good, gets the job done with a minimum of fuss
Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. (9 words)
Oct 2014: This title was inspired by the papers from the early 20th century
Feb 2015: It gets the job done, I suppose. I can’t help but wonder if there might have been a more elegant solution. Part of my unease is that this title is an example of the same attitude that produced the next monstrosity.
Osteological correlates of cervical musculature in Aves and Sauropoda (Dinosauria: Saurischia), with comments on the cervical ribs of Apatosaurus. (19 words)
Oct 2014: Ugh. It gets the job done, I suppose, but it’s waaaay long and just kind of ugly.
Feb 2015: Ugh. Waaay too wordy. I had a (fortunately brief) fascination with long titles, and especially the phrase, “with comments on”. Now I would cut it down to “Bony correlates of neck muscles in birds and sauropod dinosaurs” (10 words)
Vertebral pneumaticity, air sacs, and the physiology of sauropod dinosaurs. (10 words)
Oct 2014: Like it. Would be better made into a sentence, like, “Vertebral pneumaticity is evidence for air sacs in sauropod dinosaurs.”
Feb 2015: Fairly clean. Does what it says on the tin. I’m having a hard time seeing how it could be turned into a sentence and still convey so much of what the paper is about in so few words.
[Heh. As we will see again later on, I was evidently smarter last fall than I am now.]
The evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs. (8 words)
Oct 2014: Like it. It couldn’t really be any shorter without losing crucial information. Happy to have a decent title on my second-most-cited paper!
Feb 2015: Short, clean, probably my best title ever.
First occurrence of Brachiosaurus (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Oklahoma. (14 words)
Oct 2014: Yep. once you’ve read the title, you barely need to read the paper. Even better would have been, “A metacarpal of Brachiosaurus from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Oklahoma.” (12 words)
Feb 2015: Does what it says, but like my other PaleoBios pub, it’s a long title for a short paper. Now I would title it, “First record of the sauropod dinosaur Brachiosaurus from Oklahoma” (9 words)
[my October title was better!]
Postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropods and its implications for mass estimates. (11 words)
Oct 2014: It’s not elegant but it gets the job done. I wanted that paper to be one-stop shopping for sauropod PSP, but of course the real payoff there is the ASP/mass-estimate stuff, so I’m happy to have punched that up in the title.
Feb 2015: Good enough. I like it. It’s a little long–I could reasonably have just titled this, “Postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropods”, but I wanted to draw attention to the implications for mass estimates.
Sauroposeidon: Oklahoma’s native giant (4 words)
Origin of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in dinosaurs. (7 words)
Oct 2014: About all I would change now would be to add the word “early” at the beginning of the title.
Feb 2015: Great. Could not be shortened further without losing information.
What pneumaticity tells us about ‘prosauropods’, and vice versa. (9 words)
Oct 2014: Love this title. I used it for the abstract of the SVP talk that the paper was derived from, too.
Feb 2015: Kind of a gimmick title, but it’s accurate–the SVP abstract this paper was based on was built around a bullet list. And it’s still nice and short.
Evidence for bird-like air sacs in saurischian dinosaurs. (9 words)
Oct 2014: Along with Wedel (2003b) and Wedel (2006), this has a short (7-9 words apiece) title that tells you what’s in the paper, simply and directly. For once, I’m glad I didn’t turn it into a sentence. I think a declarative statement like “Saurischian dinosaurs had air sacs like those of birds” would have been less informative and come off as advertising. I wanted this paper to do what the title said: run down the evidence for air sacs in saurischians.
Feb 2015: I like it and wouldn’t change it. The “evidence for” part is key – I didn’t want to write a paper primarily about the air sacs themselves. Instead I wanted to lay out the evidence explaining why we think sauropods had air sacs.
Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. (8 words)
Oct 2014: It’s not horrible but it would be better as a declarative statement like, “Sauropod dinosaurs held their necks and heads elevated like most other tetrapods.” (12 words)
Feb 2015: Good. Reads almost telegraphically brief as it is. Does what it says on the tin.
[October Matt wins again!]
A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. (13 words)
Oct 2014: Two things about this one. First, I wish we’d been able to include the taxon name in the title, as we were allowed to do back in the day for Sauroposeidon. Second, I know some people whinge about us using the CMF in the title and in the paper instead of the Burro Canyon Fm, which is what the CMF is technically called east of the Colorado River. But srsly, how many people search for Burro Canyon Fm versus CMF? All of the relevant faunal comparisons are to be made with the CMF, so I don’t feel the least bit bad about this.
Feb 2015: Fine. About as short as it could be and still be informative.
The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology. (12 words)
Oct 2014: Perfect. The abstract and the paper expand on the title, but if all you read is the title, you know what we found. That’s a worthy goal.
Feb 2015: My first sentence title. Every word does work, so even though this is one of my longer titles, I like it. The length relative to my other titles is not a knock against this one; rather, it emphasizes how well I did at keeping my early titles short and to the point (with a couple of regrettable exceptions as noted above).
The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. (10 words)
Oct 2014: Not bad. I wonder if something like, “Widespread vertebral fossae show that pulmonary pneumaticity evolved early in sauropodomorphs” might be better. It’s hard, though, to put so many long, polysyllabic words in a title that doesn’t sound like a train wreck. At a minimum, this paper does what it says on the tin.
Feb 2015: Short and to the point. Another one that couldn’t be any shorter without losing valuable information.
A monument of inefficiency: the presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. (15 words)
Objectively: BAD to OK
Subjectively: GOOD to FREAKIN’ AWESOME
Oct 2014: I readily admit that I could have fashioned a more informative title, but I dearly love this one. It’s derived from a TV commercial for cheeseburgers (true story), and it warms my heart every time I read it.
Feb 2015: This is definitely a gimmick title that is longer than it has to be (it would be a concise 11 words without the unnecessary intro clause) BUT I love it and I’d do it exactly the same if I could do it again. So there!
Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. (11 words)
Oct 2014: This is one of those ‘draw the reader in’ titles. I like it.
Feb 2015: We both liked the even shorter, “Why giraffes have short necks” but we really felt that a paper about sauropod necks needed sauropod necks in the title. I feel about this one like I feel about my 2007 prosauropod paper: it’s a gimmick title, but it’s short, so no harm done.
Neural spine bifurcation in sauropod dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation: ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. (14 words)
Oct 2014: Blah. It’s okay, not great. Maybe better as, “No evidence for increasing neural spine bifurcation through ontogeny in diplodocid sauropods of the Morrison Formation”, or something along those lines.
Feb 2015: This one is long but I think the length is necessary. It’s also kinda boring, but it was addressing a fairly dry point. I think any attempt to shorten it or sexy it up would come off as gratuitous.
The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. (18 words)
Oct 2014: Probably better along the lines of, “Intervertebral spacing suggests a high neutral posture and broad range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs” or something like that.
Feb 2015: My second-longest title ever! Looking at it now, I think we could have titled it, “Effects of intervertebral cartilage on neck posture and range of motion in sauropod dinosaurs” and gotten it down to 14 words, but the word ‘neutral’ is doing real work in the original so maybe that’s a bust.
Mike: UGH, rubbish.
[October Matt is up by three points at least]
Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus. (12 words)
Oct 2014: Along the same lines as the previous: “Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses show that pulmonary diverticula in the tails of sauropod dinosaurs were pervasive and complex” or something.
Feb 2015: Good. Long only by comparison with some of my earlier titles. Does what it says.
Mike: NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The neck of Barosaurus was not only longer but also wider than those of Diplodocus and other diplodocines. (18 words)
Feb 2015: My second sentence-as-title, and another entry in the run of mostly long titles from 2012 onward. I like how precise it is, despite the length.
A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. (16 words)
Feb 2015: I had no say in this one (by choice, I’m sure Andy et al. would have listened if I had had any suggestions about the title, but I didn’t). If I could rewrite it, I’d probably make it even longer by adding in the word ‘new’ between A and ceratopsian
Haplocanthosaurus (Saurischia: Sauropoda) from the lower Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) near Snowmass, Colorado. (13 words)
Feb 2015: Feels a lot longer than its 13 words, mostly because so many of the words are polysyllabic. Normally I like pulling the words in parentheses out, but in this case I can’t see that doing that would actually improve the title. Sometimes descriptive papers need plain titles. It’s okay.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
First, Mike graded harder than I did. In fact, I only rated one of my titles as BAD, which seems a bit feeble. I think we were using different criteria. If a title was boring but serviceable, I gave it an OK, whereas Mike tended to flag any suboptimal title as RUBBISH. But I didn’t remember that about his post, and I deliberately avoided looking at it until I’d made my evaluations.
Second, except for the two PaleoBios papers, all of the titles from the first half of my career (2000-2007) are 12 words or fewer, including a substantial bundle from before I’d read either The Camel’s Nose or Strunk & White. I’m sure that being a Cifelli student and then a Padian student had something to do with that; Rich and Kevin made me into the word choice and grammar pedant that I am today (my rhetorical excrescences on this site are my fault, not theirs).
Third, much to my surprise and consternation, my titles have gotten longer over time, not shorter. Partly that’s because my little corner of the science ecosystem is getting increasingly subdivided, so it’s hard for me to write a paper now with a title as broad as, “The evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs.” (Possibly a prod to keep seeking out new, more open horizons?) And I suppose there is some tension between brevity, informativeness, and precision. For example, saying in the title of a descriptive paper than a specimen is “from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of [Location], [State or Country]” adds 11 words, but the title really does need those words. That could be a segue into a whole other discussion about descriptive versus analytical work, but that will be a topic for another time.
Ultimately, this has been a fun exercise and it’s made me more aware of how I title may papers. This is useful because I have some manuscripts in the works that deal with really detailed anatomy, and I need to figure out how to give them titles that are precise and informative but still punchy. It’s not easy.
Parting thought: after I posted the slides from my photography and illustration talk, Mike and I talked about posting some of our figures and dissecting them to see how they could be improved (it’s axiomatic that almost all figures could be improved in one way or another). We should really get started on that.