A while back, I posted about a squirrel mandible that I’d acquired, and how ridiculously huge its incisor was.


In that post, I rather naively said “the tooth literally could not be any bigger”.

What a fool I was.

Mammal-tooth specialist Ian Corfe has started a new blog, Tetrapod Teeth & Tales, and inspired by the SV-POW! squirrel he wrote a debut post about his vole mandible. Here it is in X-ray:


As you can see, the incisor goes back almost to the posterior margin of the jaw, and in total is significantly longer than the jaw that contains it. Gotta admit, I am impressed.

Get across to Ian’s blog for the details!


Our friends Tim and Michelle Williams moved into a local house a few months ago. In the garage, they found a jam jar containing the bones of a squirrel and the remains of its rotting flesh, dated 1985: presumably a zoologist lived in that house 28 years ago, began preparing a specimen, and moved out before finishing.

Tim was inexplicably lacking in excitement over this discovery, and passed the jar to me. I cleaned the bones (holding my nose) and am now the proud owner of a plastic tub full of tiny, tiny bones. Among the most interesting are the mandibles, and here’s why. First, I’ll show you the right mandible in medial view, with its incisor sitting in its socket as it would have done in life:


The bones were clean enough that the teeth all came out of their sockets, so here is the same mandible in the same aspect to the same scale, but with the tooth removed:


I know! It’s ridiculous! You wouldn’t think it would ever fit inside the bone of the jaw! But it does — just. Here are the tooth and the jaw juxtaposed:


So there is it: the tooth literally could not be any bigger.

Rodents: they’re not quite as dull as you think.

Lots of discussion online lately about unpaid peer reviews and whether this indicates a “degraded sense of community” in academia, improper commoditization of the unwritten responsibilities of academics, or a sign that we should rethink incentives in academia. (NB: that’s my galloping sound-bite-ization of those three posts, which you should go read in full.)

Part of this “reviewers don’t get paid” thing is good, because it indicates that academics broadly are waking up to how badly they’ve been had by commercial publishers. It’s part of that necessary anger that Scott Aaronson wrote about back when. But I can also understand why people are pushing back and saying, “Oh, if you don’t review you’re not supporting the academic community that (in part) makes your career possible. We should all pitch in and do the work.” Until recently, there was no way to separate those two strands: in doing peer reviews (and editing, etc.), one was both supporting the community as a good citizen, and also, unavoidably, helping commercial publishers line their pockets. But now that previously single path has bifurcated (no, not that way). Now it’s possible to be a good citizen for the community by editing and reviewing for OA journals, and stick it to the barrier-based publishers by not editing and reviewing for them (here’s how to politely decline, and see more discussion here).

Here’s how jacked the situation is: if you edit or review for a barrier-based publisher whose journals you also subscribe to or otherwise pay for, then in effect you are paying them for the privilege of reviewing. Put like that, it sounds insane. In any normal transaction, I give you X and you give me Y in return, because we’ve jointly agreed that these things are of roughly equal worth. In barrier-based publishing, academics give publishers (1) their papers, which publishers then exert copyright over, (2) their effort as editors and reviewers, and (3) their money, in subscriptions or other access fees, individually or collectively as institutions. And publishers sell the work back to us, retaining the copyright, and reap massive profits. There is no part of that sequence where academics – and indeed humanity at large – are getting the upside of the deal. The publishers are running the table on us, because for a long time, there were no other options. That’s not true anymore.

In his post on community, Zen Faulkes wrote, “I think people are refusing to do reviews in part because they don’t feel connected to the academic community.” Possibly. But maybe people are refusing to do reviews because they’re tired of being had. Has anyone done any work that would allow us to test those hypotheses? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

TL;DR: The separation of community goals and corporate profits shouldn’t be a fine theoretical point of discussion. It should be what we lead with. Yes, I will support the academic community. No, I won’t donate my time and effort to rapacious barrier-based publishers. It’s possible to achieve both of those things at once. And we should.

Cryptic Aquilops, by Brian Engh. Available as a poster print – see below.

One of the many nice things about getting to help name new taxa is that once you let them out into the world, other people can unleash their considerable talents on ‘your’ critters. Which means that every now and then, something cool pops up that you have a deep personal connection to. Things have been fairly quiet on the Aquilops front for a while, and all of a sudden I have news.

I’m still waiting for a plush Aquilops – c’mon, Homo sapiens, how has this not happened already? – but if you’d like a life-size Aquilops in bronze, sculptor James Herrmann has you covered. James got in touch with me last fall when the project was just in the planning stages. His timing was excellent – I’d just seen the presentation on camouflage in Psittacosaurus at SVPCA, and the paper by Vinther et al. was out a week or two later. I sent James some papers and photos of dead animals, he sent back photos of the work in progress, and now his Aquilops is done.

About the sculpture, James writes:

I am offering the sculpture for sale as a limited edition of 25.  The sculpture is life sized, it is approximately 60 lbs and is 33″L x 14”H x 11”W.  The price I am asking for it is $4500.  I am getting a slab of green soapstone for the base although it does display well without the stone so it will be bolted on from below and not epoxied. […] The gingko leaves and log part of the sculpture were made from molds taken from plants growing locally.

I dig it. If you’re interested in getting one, please visit his website, HerrmannStudio.com.

Aquilops ’14. I was there, man. It was crazy. A Brian Engh joint.

Next item: back in 2014, Brian Engh created the public face of Aquilops with the wonderful graphic art he did for the paper and the press release. Now he’s gone back to the well and reimagined Aquilops, based in part on what we know of its paleoecology – that’s the image at the top of the post. He explains his new view of Aquilops in a thoughtful and wide-ranging video on his paleoart YouTube channel. (If you miss his rap videos set in the Daikaijucene, he also has a YouTube channel for music and monsters. And a blog. And a Patreon page. You get the picture.) You should also check out the two-part interview with Brian at the PLOS Paleo Community blog (part 1, part 2).

Here’s the aforementioned video:

Poster prints of Aquilops Classic and Next Gen can be purchased through Brian’s website, DontMessWithDinosaurs.com.

Finally, a couple of older Aquilops-themed art things that I didn’t cover when they happened. Lead author Andy Farke is also an award-winning homebrewer and he concocted his Eagle Face Oatmeal Stout in honor of our little buddy. He has lots more beer-and-dinosaur crossover goodness on his brewing blog – check it out.

Last fall artist Natalie Metzger did a bunch of drawings of extant animals wearing the skulls of extinct animals for Inktober. In the very first batch was this awesome squirrel looking unexpectedly badass in an Aquilops skull. I don’t know what it means, but I would totally play that D&D campaign. Natalie has a bunch more cool stuff on her blog and Patreon page, and she’ll be at the Rose City Comic Con in Portland this September, so go say hi and buy her art.

Really finally, I am not on Twitter – trust me, I don’t need less of a filter between my occasional stupidity and the world – but for all the rest of you, keep an eye on #Aquilops and, if you’re a heartless jerk, #Aquilopsburrito.

Have more Aquilops stuff I haven’t covered but should? The comment field is open.


Mummified mouse - closeup

Here’s a nice thing: friends and relatives just assume (correctly) that I will want whatever dead animals they find. So I was not completely surprised when I got a call from my brother Ryan (pillager of the Earth) asking if I wanted a dead mouse he’d found mummified at the back of an unused cupboard. Happily this was over the holidays so I could get the specimen in person and not have to deal with mailing it.

This was not destined to be my mummified mouse, however. My son, London, has started a collection of his own. One of the first real skulls in his collection was that of a rat that we found dead in our front yard last year. I cut off its head and we boiled and cleaned the skull together (I still need to post about that). Then we mounted it in a clear plastic bottle that had previously contained toothpicks, so he could take it for show-and-tell. Last fall a second rat turned up dead in the yard; that one is still in the freezer, awaiting complete skeletonization. The mystery of the plague of dead rats was solved when we got home one evening and found our cat, Moe, in the front yard with only the hind leg of a third rat hanging out of his mouth. If I could just train him to kill them and not eat them, we could make a rat army

Funny side-note: we keep Skulls Unlimited catalogs around for leisure reading. London was looking through one not long after we prepped his rat skull and he saw that you could get a fully-prepared natural bone skull for about twenty bucks. That price seems about right to me, given the amount of work and care that has to go into cleaning, but London was outraged: “Why would people pay TWENTY DOLLARS for a rat skull when they could just clean their own!?”

That’s my boy! I didn’t have the heart to tell him that some people don’t have a ready supply of rats lying around. He’s not old enough to understand that level of deprivation.

Mummified mouse - in box

So, obviously the mummified mouse was going to show-and-tell. But I didn’t want it to get destroyed. My cheap and low-tech solution was to get a rigid plastic display box from the local hobby store ($5.99 for a two-pack) and stuff it with cotton balls. We cleared some of the cotton around the skull first so it would be more visible. Knowing how third-graders can be when exciting things get passed around, I also glued the lid on. The mouse and the cotton balls are completely immobile even when violently shaken, and hopefully they’ll stay that way indefinitely. I forgot to include a scale bar in either of these photos or to measure my damned murine, but the box lid is 5 inches on side. HeroClix Knifehead showed up because kaiju are notorious attention hogs.

Now, to see if Mousenkhamun can survive the rigors of third grade. I’ll keep you posted.

MoO 2013 - pathological rodent teethAnother nice display from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City (previous MoO posts here and here). Check out the really gnarly ones that are indeed growing right through the bones of the face. That must have sucked.

We’ve covered rodent teeth here a few times before (one, two)–more than is probably right, for a blog ostensibly about sauropod vertebrae. Sherlock Holmes said, “Life is a great chain, the nature of which can be determined by the discovery of a single link.” I’d amend that to, “Life is a great tree, the inherent fascination of which flows through every tiny twig.”

Back when we started SV-POW!, Mike predicted that the technical niche blog was the wave of the future. That prediction does seem to be coming true, albeit more slowly than I thought it would. Nevertheless, if you are susceptible to the inherent fascination of rodent teeth, get yourself over to Ian Corfe’s Tetrapod Teeth & Tales for more geeky goodness.

Now, in a move that will possibly enrage one segment of the audience but hopefully delight another, I am going to forge even further away from the ostensible raison d’être of the blog and talk about monsters. Specifically Cthulhu–in my experience, in the Venn diagram of life, the “interested in paleo” and “interested in Lovecraft” circles overlap almost entirely. Over at my everything-except-paleontology-and-astronomy blog, I’ve been thinking about Lovecraftiana and wrestling with what a Cthulhu idol, such as those described in Lovecraft’s stories, ought to look like. If you’d like to contribute, get on over there and leave a comment. If you send* me a picture (drawing, painting, 3D render, photo of sculpture, whatever) or leave a link, I’ll include it in an upcoming post. Cthulhu fhtagn!

* Send to mathew.wedel@gmail.com, please include Cthulhu in the subject line.

Cthulhu sketch 1

Open peer-review at PeerJ

February 14, 2013

There are a lot of things to love about PeerJ, which of course is why we sent our neck-anatomy paper there. I’ll discuss another time how its pricing scheme changes everything for Gold OA in the sciences, and maybe another time write about how well its papers display on mobile devices, or about the quick turnaround or 21st-century graphical design of the PDFs.

But among the most interesting things about PeerJ is its use of open peer review: reviewers are encouraged (though not required) to disclose their identity, and authors are encouraged (but also not required) to make the review history publicly available along with the final papers.

Uptake of open peer-review

Uptake of this option on the initial batch of 30 papers has been OK: 12 papers (40%) have had reviews posted:

# Title Reviews
1 How long is a piece of loop? Reviews
2 Malleable ribonucleoprotein machine: protein intrinsic disorder in the Saccharomyces cerevisiae spliceosome Reviews
3 The roles of STP and LTP in synaptic encoding Reviews
5 Bacterial curli protein promotes the conversion of PAP248-286 into the amyloid SEVI: cross-seeding of dissimilar amyloid sequences Reviews
6 Soil carbon determination by thermogravimetrics
7 Mutations changing tropomodulin affinity for tropomyosin alter neurite formation and extension
8 Dealing with the unexpected: consumer responses to direct-access BRCA mutation testing Reviews
9 The effects of fixation target size and luminance on microsaccades and square-wave jerks
10 Influence of the experimental design of gene expression studies on the inference of gene regulatory networks: environmental factors
11 Assessing insect responses to climate change: What are we testing for? Where should we be heading? Reviews
12 Novel control of lactate dehydrogenase from the freeze tolerant wood frog: role of posttranslational modifications
13 Dissecting the mechanisms of squirrel monkey (Saimiri boliviensis) social learning
14 Simultaneous recordings of ocular microtremor and microsaccades with a piezoelectric sensor and a video-oculography system
15 Fluorescent protein tagging confirms the presence of ribosomal proteins at Drosophila polytene chromosomes Reviews
16 Na+/Ca2+ selectivity in the bacterial voltage-gated sodium channel NavAb Reviews
17 Timing of molt of barn swallows is delayed in a rare Clock genotype
19 Perceptual elements in Penn & Teller’s “Cups and Balls” magic trick Reviews
21 Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase regulation in the hepatopancreas of the anoxia-tolerant marine mollusc, Littorina littorea
22 Poorer verbal working memory for a second language selectively impacts academic achievement in university medical students Reviews
25 Repeated hands-and-knees positioning during labour: a randomized pilot study
26 Organ homologies in orchid flowers re-interpreted using the Musk Orchid as a model
27 Novel enzyme-polymer conjugates for biotechnological applications
28 Reduced expression of glycolate oxidase leads to enhanced disease resistance in rice
29 Anti-apoptotic signaling as a cytoprotective mechanism in mammalian hibernation
30 A practical implementation of de-Pake-ing via weighted Fourier transformation
31 Analysis of innate and acquired resistance to anti-CD20 antibodies in malignant and nonmalignant B cells
33 A perfusion study of the handling of urea and urea analogues by the gills of the dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias)
34 Coronatine inhibits stomatal closure and delays hypersensitive response cell death induced by nonhost bacterial pathogens Reviews
36 Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks Reviews
37 Pain assessment in children undergoing venipuncture: the Wong-Baker faces scale versus skin conductance fluctuations

(Articles 4, 18, 20, 23, 24, 32 and 35 do not exist — presumably they didn’t make it through review, typesetting and proofing in time for the launch. Or maybe they were rejected after having been assigned numbers.)

It’s interesting to see that most of the earliest papers did elect to publish reviews, but few of the later ones. This may reflect that the “early adopters” — the people who were quickest to get their submissions in after PeerJ opened its doors — also tend to be the more open-oriented people in other respects. It would be great if the authors of some of those other 18 papers were to make their reviews open, too: I’m sure it’s not too late.

What’s the value of open peer-review?

First, it improves transparency. In standard peer-review, three people (and editor and two reviewers) make a decision on behalf of the entire community, and no-one else can see what was done or why. In our case, John Hutchinson was our handling editor. We’ve often said on this blog how much we like and respect him, and it would be easy for someone on the outside to suspect that he’d been tempted to give us an easy ride. Anyone who reads the review history can see for themselves that he didn’t.

Second, it gives credit where it’s due. Reviewers who do a good job often plough in many hours of time that they could be spending on their own work, and it’s right that they should be recognised. In this case, Heinrich Mallison did a careful line-by-line critique of the whole 50-page manuscript and sent up a marked-up copy which was invaluable in making revisions. That sort of work should be acknowledged. [At the moment, that marked-up manuscript is not on the PeerJ review-history page. I’ve been told they’re going to fix that.]

Third, it gives blame where it’s due. Some reviewers who are excessively critical, or criticise in a non-constructive way that can’t be addressed in a revision; others are positive about the manuscript but make no real contribution to improve it. It’s right that reviewers who don’t do their job properly should be called out on that. (Of course anonymity can go some way towards shielding bad reviewers, but even then it’s often quite obvious who’s responsible for a given review.)

Fourth, it encourages good behaviour from reviewers. When they know their good work will receive credit and their bad work will reflect on them, they will have more incentive to do their best. Too often, reviews are seen as a tax on researchers’ time. Making them visible helps to bring them into the mainstream.

Fifth, it avoids wasted effort. Sometimes a review is a serious piece of work in its own right — Matt tells me that for one manuscript we was refereeing, he wrote a detailed critical review that was longer than the  manuscript itself. Of course, no-one ever saw that work but the original author and his handling editor, which is a terrible waste. Publishing reviews fixes that.

Sixth, and this is crucial, open peer-review is a fantastic teaching tool. Matt has already explained how showing his Western students real reviews in a real process is going to help them much more than made up ones.

What are the drawbacks of open peer-review?

Search me. I sure as heck can’t think of any.

Changing peer-review culture

PeerJ didn’t invent open peer-review — far from it. It’s been around for a while, practiced by some BMC journals and also adopted more recently by eLIFE — another of the new breed of born-digital open-access journals. Another new publishing initiative, F1000 Research, is built entirely on the concept of open review.

The importance of PeerJ doing the same is that it helps to bring open peer-review into the mainstream. PeerJ’s going to be a big journal — its explicit goal is to be a PLOS ONE-scale megajournal. One of the many things it can achieve is to help shift the default reviewing culture to open.

Photo copyright Derek Bromhall, borrowed from ARKive.

Let’s say you want to paint an elephant. Where will you locate your elephant, and what will it be doing?

If you depict an elephant standing on a glacier at 14,000 feet, your depiction is accurate, because elephants have been caught doing that. Elephant, standing in a dunescape with no water or vegation in sight: accurate, for the same reason. Elephant, swimming in the ocean out of sight of land: accurate. Elephant, scraping salt out of the wall of a cave: accurate. Elephant, rearing to pull down otherwise unreachable vegetation: accurate. Elephant beating the hell out of a monitor lizard for no apparent reason: accurate. Depictions of elephants doing these things might not be familiar–at least to those of us who don’t live around elephants and therefore don’t get to see them doing all the wacky stuff that real animals do–but they are all accurate, in that elephants actually do these things. A lot, apparently, given that all of the above behaviors were documented in the space of just a few decades. Who knows what you might see if you could watch all the elephants, all the time, for a million years or so.

Is there any reason to think that extinct animals were any less versatile?

On the other hand, just because elephants occasionally go for strolls on glaciers or voluntarily rear up on their hind legs to reach higher does not mean that glaciers are their usual habitat or that rearing is a big part of their behavioral repertoire. So these things are accurate, in that they do happen, unfamiliar, in that they are not widely known by most laypeople*, and unusual, in that they are in the long tail of elephant behavior.

* Before you flood the comment section with, “I knew that about elephants!”, consider the implicit possibility that you are not most laypeople. Does your grandmother know that elephants do all this weird stuff?

So we’ve got three potentially orthogonal axes: accuracy, familiarity, usualness. If this was xkcd, at this point I’d draw a Venn diagram. But it’s not and I’m lazy, so I’m just going to pick three possibilities that illustrate an ascending scale of weirdness. First, the most vanilla (by behavioral weirdness, not artistic achievement) wildlife art depicts animals doing things that they actually do (accurate), frequently (usual), that are known to most people (familiar): giraffes eating out of trees, lions with bloody faces crowded around a dead zebra. Second, art that depicts animals doing things that they actually do (accurate), frequently (usual), that are not known to most people (unfamiliar): hummingbirds eating dirt, mud turtles (kinosternids) climbing trees. Third, art that depicts animals doing things that they actually do (accurate), infrequently (unusual), that are not known to most people (unfamiliar): mammals raising the adopted offspring of other species that are their typical predators or prey, grey whales in the Mediterranean Sea.

The question is, what expectations do we have for paleoart or wildlife art in general? Do paleoartists have a responsibility to only depict extinct animals doing things that are accurate, usual, and familiar? Maybe, if an art director for a book or documentary requested a vanilla dinosaur doing vanilla stuff, but outside of that situation?

Tree-climbing Protoceratops by John Conway, inspired by tree-climbing goats, borrowed from Tetrapod Zoology.

As will probably come as no surprise, I skew pretty hard in the other direction. Paleoartists are vastly more important to paleontology than wildlife artists are to zoology, because they have to do everything that artists of extant wildlife do–and one more crucial thing. If, say, a mammalogist needs to be reminded of the complexity and sheer otherness of her study animals, she can usually go out and observe them for a while, and see herbivores eating meat and carnivores eating plants and interspecies sex and all kinds of crazy stuff that real animals do. Paleontologists do not have the same luxury. It is all too easy to slip into the trap of thinking that we know what our animals were like in life. Consider, for example, the difference in temperament between black and white rhinos, or African and Asian elephants, and then consider Morrison sauropods or Two Medicine ceratopsians, and tell me you know anything about the behavioral differences between Apatosaurus and Diplodocus and their ecological ramifications. We need to be periodically shaken out of our comfortable assumptions and creeping anthropomorphizing (sensu Witton–not just attributing human traits to animals, but casting them in standard roles). We need to be confronted with the essential weirdness–and indeed unknowability–of our study animals. And we need paleoartists to do at least some of this shaking and confronting.

I’m not saying that paleoartists have a responsibility to deliver the unfamiliar or unusual in their art, any more than they have a responsibility to only draw vanilla stuff. I don’t think that paleoartists have a responsibility to anything but accuracy, and I mean accuracy in the inclusive, “not directly contradicted by the fossil record” sense* instead of the exclusive, “only what the evidence will support” sense. I’m saying that we–paleontologists, dino enthusiasts, science writers, museum docents, interested citizens–need the unfamiliar and unusual in paleoart as much or more than we need the comfortable and familiar, and we can only ask for it and be grateful when it appears.

* Hat tip to John Conway for this very useful turn of phrase.

Now, on the flip side, just because there is a huge amount that we will never know about extinct animals does not mean that we should give up trying, or that we should play down the reasonable inferences that we can make. Triceratops probably fought each other more than Centrosaurus, for example, or at least inflicted more damage on the squamosals of their conspecifics (evidence, discussion, link to paper). Would a painting showing two Centrosaurus beating the hell out of each other with their horns and doing all kinds of gnarly damage to each others’ heads therefore be inaccurate? Of course not–I am certain that at some point in the multi-million-year history of centrosaurs, two of them did in fact beat the hell out of each other in just that way. But neither would that painting show their usual mode of settling differences, so far as we can tell from our current interpretation of the available fossils (count the caveats there). That’s what the usualness axis is all about–getting comfortable with the  distinction between what animals occasionally do and what they commonly do.

Scavenging Styracosaurus by Mark Witton–go here for the full-size version and Mark’s thoughts on ceratopsian carnivory.

There is a lot that we simply won’t ever know. Which is why I advise caution in assessing accuracy. As long as whatever the animal is doing doesn’t violate the laws of physics, I think it’s hard to rule out that it could have happened, somewhere, at least once. So the interesting discussions will probably center not around accuracy but around usualness. It’s hard to argue that a styracosaur never scavenged a carcass, but do we think that scavenging and even predation were common behaviors for ceratopsians? Given that squirrels are notorious for killing and eating chipmunks, and that deer apparently eat the eggs and nestlings of ground-nesting birds as often as they can get them, the possibility that carnivory was a usual feature of ceratopsian behavior is worthy of serious consideration. At least, we can say that (1) it is consistent with the behavior of many extant herbivores, and (2) it is something that ceratopsians were  well-equipped to carry out. And given those antecedents, it is a difficult hypothesis to falsify. Then again, “difficult to falsify” does not mean “true”–so there is room for interesting discussions.

And that’s really what this post is all about: fostering productive conversations. I have seen and been part of many paleobiology conversations that went nowhere because accuracy, familiarity, and usualness were all scrambled up–often in my own mind. I’m not saying that this particular parsing of the issues is the best possible–indeed, I hope that it inspires someone else to come up with something better. But I also think that it is better than nothing, and that couching things in these terms might help us zero in on our points of genuine disagreement, and thereby make some progress, whether we’re talking about paleobiology, paleoart, or both.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Dave Hone has blogged on this sort of “what if” stuff, at least thrice: here, here, and here. That last post includes more of John Conway’s art from his “All Yesterdays” slideshow at the SVPCA 2011 icebreaker, which was awesome.

Pimp my ‘pod

December 10, 2010

These are happy times for me. Dinosaur rap god and burgeoning paleoartist Brian Engh, AKA The Historian Himself, has finished a new life restoration of Sauroposeidon. Here’s a smallish view, just to give you a taste; for the high resolution awesomeness, check out Brian’s post here. While you’re over there, check out his line of mini-brachiosaur sculptures–the perfect gift for the sauropod-lover in your life (the a black one is already mine).

As you might guess from the quality of the finished product, this was a project with a long gestation. Brian got in touch with me back in the summer of 2009 and we started swapping ideas on doing life restorations of sauropods. Brian incorporated some of that discussion in his blog post.

Did Sauroposeidon really look like this? Probably not. There’s no direct evidence for inflatable display structures in sauropods or in any other non-avian dinosaurs that I know of. But any life restoration of a dinosaur involves going out on a limb and positing things for which we have little or no direct evidence. So no life restoration is going to show exactly how Sauroposeidon looked. In my view, if you know you’re going to be wrong anyway, you might as well be interestingly wrong, and put in the kinds of plausible-but-not-fossilized structures that extant animals are replete with.

The larger, slightly more serious question then becomes, were big sauropods more likely to be visually flamboyant or big gray pachyderms? I think there is a case to be made for flamboyant sauropods, and I made it in the cover description for this paper (that illustration, by Brian Ford, is below). You can get the PDF for the full argument, but Brian Engh (hmm, just noticed the high correlation between Sauroposeidon life restorations and paleoartists named ‘Brian’) summarized it in eight words: “Brachiosaurs were big. Maybe too big for camouflage.”

The idea of flamboyant sauropods is a hypothesis, and for now a mostly untestable one. I could be wrong. I don’t have a lot invested in it. Flamboyant sauropods would be awesome, and there are already plenty of sauropod life restorations  from the Big Gray Pachyderm school, so I’m happy to camp out the other end of the spectrum just for the heck of it. If doing so emboldens those who are trying to kick us in the brainpans with their paleoart, that’s a win-win. I’m not trying to take any credit here–far from it–just happy that the Brians and I have gotten to make common cause.

To make a clean sweep with this post, there is one other Sauroposeidon life restoration that I’ve had the good fortune to be involved with. That one is part of the “Cretaceous Coastal Environment” mural that Karen Carr painted for the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, an excerpt of which appears below (from this paper again, or see the full version on Karen’s website). While she was working on the mural, Karen sent me a draft illustration of Sauroposeidon for comment. My reply was basically, “Looks awesome. How about some spines?” Given the presence of dermal spines in diplodocids and armor in some titanosaurs, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to infer some kind of dermal ornamentation even in those sauropod taxa for which we have no direct evidence of it. I like Karen’s ground-level shot of the distant sauropods (that’s a squirrel-sized Gobiconodon in the foreground) because they look vast, like gods, and I think that’s how they would strike us if we could stand near them today.

Those aren’t all of the Sauroposeidon life restorations out there–Bob Nicholls has done a very sharp one, which unfortunately does not seem to be currently available on his webpage, and there are others–those are just the three I’ve had some small part in. It’s been a thrill, every time, to work with smart, talented, and hardworking people who can do something special that I can’t, which is bring the vanished world to life. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to just learn about dinosaurs, I wanted to see dinosaurs. I wanted to be a chrononaut. I ended up as a paleontologist because that’s the closest you can get to exploring in time.

So, thank you, Brian (and Brian, and Karen, and Bob, and others) for gracing Sauroposeidon with your skill. It’s phenomenal to get to see my favorite dinosaur with fresh eyes. And thanks to all the rest of you paleoartists out there, paid or unpaid, for your service as our eyes and ears in the past, for letting the rest of  us get our mental boots muddy in worlds that we often approach only clinically. Keep those dispatches coming–we can’t wait to see where you’re going to take us next.