When I started this series, it wasn’t going to be a series at all. I thought it was going to be a single post, hence the title that refers to all three of Jensen’s 1985 sauropods even though most of the posts so far have been only about Supersaurus. The tale seems to have grown in the telling. But we really are getting towards the end now. This should be the last post that is only about Supersaurus, and then we should be able to finish with one more that covers all three animals.

Supersaurus skeletal reconstruction at NAMAL, based in part on preserved fossil material. Mike Taylor for scale, lying in front of the referred scapulocoracoid BYU 12962.

So: what actually is Supersaurus?

Is Supersaurus the same thing as Barosaurus?

As we established previously, a lot of material has been referred not only to Supersaurus in general, but to the type individual in particular: a cervical, two dorsals, four sacrals, 20 caudals, two scapulocoracoids, an ulna, a carpal, right ilium and pubis, both ischia, and a phalanx. (After Jensen’s original papers, Curtice and his collaborators did much of the work to assemble this list.) And remember, too, that Lovelace et al. (2008) described a completely separate Supersaurus specimen from Wyoming.

So: a problem arises: Matt and I are about as certain as we can be that the big cervical verebra BYU 9024 is Barosaurus. That means there are two possibilities: either the cervical been wrongly referred to the Supersaurus type individual, and our conception of Supersaurus needs to change accordingly; or it was correctly referred, which means that Supersaurus is merely a very big Barosaurus, and the name should be sunk.

I would be a lot more confident about which of these is the right thing to do if Matt and I had had time to look at all the sacral, caudal and appendicular material of Supersaurus during the Sauropocalypse. But our time was very limited (seven museums in nine days) and we had to focus on the presacrals.

What we really want is a solid assessment of all the putative Supersaurus material and a judgement of whether the differences between it and regular Barosaurus might be size- or age-related. We can’t have that (at least, not unless someone with more time on their hands than Matt or me takes it on).

But we are not left without hope. We have the published literature.

Pylogenetic analyses

Lovelace et al. (2008:figure 14). Strict consensus tree resulting from the addition of Supersaurus and “Seismosaurus” into a modified matrix from Harris & Dodson (2004).

First, Lovelace et. al’s (2008) description of Jimbo, the WDC’s referred Supersaurus specimen, included a phylogenetic analysis. This recovered Supersaurus as the sister taxon to Apatosaurus, with Suuwassea as its outgroup, and the BarosaurusDiplodocus clade sister to that broader grouping. That finding would argue against Supersaurus being Barosaurus. (They commented that “It is possible that some similarities between Supersaurus and other apatosaurines result from a size-coupled increase in robustness, but it is worth noting that apatosaurine robustness does not correlate with size, and large diplodocines like Seismosaurus do not exhibit markedly more robust pelvic or costal elements.)

Whitlock (2011:figure 7). Phylogenetic hypothesis presented in this analysis. Cladogram represents a strict consensus of three equally parsimonious trees (273 steps), labelled with relevant clade names. Decay indices reported below each node.

Whitlock’s (2011) more detailed phylogenetic analysis recovered Supersaurus is a somewhat more traditional position, closer to Barosaurus than to Apatosaurus. But still not very close. Supersaurus is here the most basal diplodocine, the outgroup to Dinheirosaurus, Torneria and the Barosaurus+Diplodocus pair. It’s not a result that would immediately make you want to synonymise Supersaurus with Barosaurus.

One problem with both Lovelace et al.’s and Whitlock’s analyses is that they took as read that the WDC specimen really is Supersaurus — the same thing as the BYU specimen. What if it isn’t? Maybe the WDC animal is something different that’s more closely related to Apatosaurus, while the BYU specimen is a big Barosaurus? Is that possible?

Enter Tschopp et al. (2015), whose monumental specimen-level analysis separated Jimbo out from BYU Supersaurus — and so they tested the hypothesis that these two specimens are the same thing, instead of assuming it. Here’s what they found:

Tschopp et al. (2015:figure 118). Reduced consensus tree obtained by implied weighting. Eight OTUs were deleted a posteriori. Numbers at the nodes indicate the number of changes between the two branches departing from the node (for the apomorphy count), where they differ from the trees under equal weights.

As you can see, BYU Supersaurus and the WDC specimen came out as sister taxa in every most parsimonious tree. And Tschopp et al.’s (2015) figure 115 shows that this is true under equal-weights parsimony as well as under implied weighting. So this gives us confidence that the WDC team’s referral of Jimbo to Supersaurus probably is correct after all.

But that Supersaurus duo comes out some way away from Barosaurus, being well outside the DiplodocusBarosaurus node.

These are the only three phylogenetic analyses I am aware of to have included Supersaurus — though if there are others, please shout in the comments. In none of them do Supersaurus and Barosaurus come out as sister taxa, and in fact they are separated by multiple nodes in all three analyses.

More compellingly, Andrea Cau re-ran Tschopp et al.’s (2015) analysis with Supersaurus and Barosaurus constrained to be sister groups (thanks, Andrea!) and found that the best resulting trees were 18 steps longer than the unenforced trees (1994 steps vs 1976). This is convincing evidence that the totality of the Supersaurus material is not Barosaurus.

Is BYU Supersaurus a chimaera?

All of this strongly suggests — it comes close to conclusively proving — that Supersaurus (as defined by all the BYU and WDC material) is not Barosaurus. But if Matt and I are right that BYU 9024 is a vertebra of Barosaurus, then it follows that this cervical doesn’t belong to Supersaurus.

And that, I think, throws the whole material list of BYU Supersaurus into question. Because if the big cervical belongs to something different, then it follows that there are (at least) two big diplodocids mixed up in the Dry Mesa quarry, contra Curtice et al.’s (2001) assertion that all the big bones there can be referred to two individuals, one diplodocid and one brachiosaur.

In which case, how can we know which of the elements belongs to which of the animals?

Are the scapulocoracoids from the same individual?

Can we even trust the assumption that the two scapulocoracoids were from the same animal? Maybe not. In favour of that possibility, the two elements are similar sizes, and were found close together. But there are reasons to be sceptical.

Based on our photos in the earlier post, I was coming to the conclusion that Scap B is much less sculpted than Scap A. But I started to change my mind once I was able to make a weak anaglyph of Scap B. Now, thanks to Heinrich Mallison and the magic of photogrammetry, my set of bad photos have become a 3D model, which is far more informative again.

Here, then, is a comparative anaglyph of the two scapulocoracoids.

Red-cyan anaglyps of both scapulocoracoids of Supersaurus from BYU’s Dry Mesa Quarry, Utah. Top: the holotype BYU 9025, left scapulocoracoid (“Scap A”); Bottom: referred specimen BYU 12962, right scapulocoracoid (“Scap B”), reversed for easier comparison. Scap B rendered from a 3D model created by Heinrich Mallison. Scaled to the same length. (We could not scale them in correct proportion, since the true current lengths of both are unknown.)

These are not obviously from the same individual, or from the same species, or even necessarily the same “subfamily”. A few of the more obvious morphological differences:

  • In Scap A, the acromion process projects posterodorsosally, whereas in Scap B it projects dorsally (i.e. at right angles to the long axis of the scap.)
  • In Scap A, the acromion process is positioned close to mid-length of the whole element, whereas in Scap B it is closer to the proximal end.
  • In Scap A, the acromion process comes to a point, whereas in Scap B is it lobe-shaped.
  • In Scap A, the ridge running running up to the acromion process is broad and becomes rugose dorsally, whereas in Scap B it is narrow and remains smooth along its whole length.
  • Scap B has a distinct ventral bump around midlength, which Scap A lacks (or at most has in a much reduced form).
  • In Scap B, the ventral border below the acromion process distinctly curves down to the glenoid, but in Scap B this ventral margin is almost straight.
  • In Scap A, the glenoid margin is gently curved, nearly straight, whereas in Scap B it has a well defined “corner”, with distinct scapular and coracoid contributions that are at right angles to each other.
  • In Scap A, the dorsal margin of the coracoid is well defined and has a low laterally protruding ridge. This is absent in Scap B, where the coracoid’s dorsal margin is poorly defined.

Now, much of this is quite possibly due to damage — as (I assume) is the excavation in the dorsal margin of the distal part of the scapular blade in Scap A. But when you put it all together, I think they really are rather different, even allowing for variation in limb-girdle bones. Certainly if you found them both in different quarries, you would not leap to the conclusion that they belong to the same species. Jensen’s (1985:701) description of Scap B (BYU 5001 of his usage) as “same as Holotype, BYU 5500” is difficult to justify.

The possibility that the two scaps are from different individuals is also weakly supported by the fact that the preservation looks very different between the two elements — dark and rough for Scap A but light and smooth for Scap B. But I don’t trust that line of evidence as much as I might for two reasons. First, different photography conditions can give strikingly different coloured casts to photos, making similar bones appear different. And second, I know from experience that bones from a single specimen can vary in colour and preservation much more than you’d expect.

At any rate, I certainly don’t think it’s a given that the two scapulae belonged to to the same individual as Curtice and Stadtman (2001) stated. And of course if they do not, then the issue of which is the holotype takes on greater importance — which is why we spent so long on figuring that out.

So what are we left with?

We know — or at least we are confident — that one of the referred BYU Supersaurus elements is Barosaurus. We don’t think the whole animal is Barosaurus, due to the evidence of three phylogenetic analyses. So we think there are at least two big diplodocoids in the BYU quarry, and we can’t know which of the elements belongs to which animal. We can’t even be confident that the two scapulocoracoids belong to the same animal.

As a result, the only bone that we can confidently state belongs to Supersaurus is the holotype — BYU 9025, which we called “Scap A”. All bets are off regarding all the other Dry Mesa diplodocoid elements. They might belong the Scap A taxon, or to Barosaurus. (Or indeed to something else, but we’ll ignore that possibility as multiplying entities without necessity.)

So to the next question: is the holotype element even diagnostic, beyond the level of “big diplodocoid”? I’m not sure it is, but this is where I’d welcome input from people who are more familiar with sauropod appendicular material than I am. At any rate, Jensen’s (1985:701) original diagnosis based on the holotype scap is useless: “Scapula long but not robust; distal end expanding moderately; shaft not severely constricted in midsection”.

The emended diagnosis of Lovelace et al. (2008:530) says of the scapulocoracoid only “scapular blade expanded dorsally; deltoid ridge perpendicular to the acromian[sic] ridge”. but they also include a more comprehensive assessment of the BYU scapulae (p. 534) as follows:

The only known pectoral elements for Supersaurus are the scapulocoracoids from Dry Mesa (Fig.10). Scapulocoracoid BYU 9025 demonstrates a deltoid ridge that is perpendicular to the acromian ridge and the scapular blade is one-half the entire length of the scapulocoracoid. Both of these features are seen in Apatosaurus but not in Diplodocus or Barosaurus, which have relatively short scapular blades, and an acute angle between the deltoid ridge and the acromian ridge. This angle is much stronger in Barosaurus than it is in Diplodocus. The apatosaurine nature of the scapulocoracoids further reinforces the referral of BYU elements to the type scapula, as well as our referral of WDC DMJ-021 to Supersaurus.

This is a helpful discussion (although note that Lovelace et al. are not consistent about which of the scaps they think is BYU 9025). But, notably, nothing here suggests any unique characters of the scapulocoracoid that could serve to diagnose Supersaurus by its holotype.

Putting it all together, it seems that BYU 9025 is the only bone in the world that unambiguously belongs to Supersaurus (because it is the the holotype, and all referrals are uncertain); and that bone is non-diagnostic. I think it must follow, then, that Supersaurus is currently a nomen dubium.

I say “currently”, because there are at least three possible ways for the name to survive. (Four, if you count everyone just ignoring this sequence of blog-posts.) Next time, we’ll talk about those options.

 

References

  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33-40.
  • Harris, Jerald D., and Peter Dodson. 2004. A new diplodocoid sauropod dinosaur from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Montana, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 49:197–210.
  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Lovelace, David M., Scott A. Hartman and William R. Wahl. 2008. Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527–544.
  • Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus and Roger B. J. Benson. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 2:e857. doi:10.7717/peerj.857
  • Whitlock, John A. 2011. A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161(4):872-915. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00665.x

 

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If you were curious about the Wedel et al. presentation on the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus at the 1st Palaeo Virtual Congress but didn’t attend the event, it is now preserved for posterity and freely available to the world as a PeerJ Preprint (as promised). Here’s the link.

I’ll have much more to say about this going forward, but for now here are slides 20 and 21 on the intervertebral joint spaces. This is obviously just the same vert cloned three times and articulated with itself. With the digital rearticulation of the reconstructed and retrodeformed caudal series still in progress, we cloned caudal 3, the only vertebra that preserves both sets of zygapophyses, to get a rough estimate of the sizes and shapes of the soft tissues that filled the intervertebral spaces and neural canal.

The reconstructed intervertebral discs (in blue) are very crude and diagrammatic. The reason I’m putting these particular slides up is to get the cited references out in the open on the blog, to start correcting the misapprehension that all non-mammalian amniotes have exclusively synovial intervertebral joints (see the discussion in the comments on this post). In the list below I’m including Banerji (1957), which is not cited in the presentation but which I did cite in that comment thread; it’s an important source and at least for now it is a free download. These refs are just the tip of a very big iceberg. One of my goals for 2019 is to do a series of posts reviewing the extensive literature on amphiarthrodial (fibrocartilaginous) intervertebral joints in living lepidosaurs and birds. Stay tuned!

And please go have a look at the presentation if you are at all interested or curious. As we said in the next to last slide, “this research is ongoing, and we welcome your input. If there are facts or hypotheses we haven’t considered but should, please let us know!”

References

Diplodocus goes digital

August 21, 2018

No time for a proper post, so here’s a screenshot from Amira of Diplodocus caudal MWC 8239 (the one you saw being CT scanned last post) about to be digitally hemisected. Trust me, you’ll want to click through for the big version. Many thanks to Thierra Nalley for the Amira help.

Further bulletins as time and opportunity allow.

John Yasmer, DO (right) and me getting ready to scan MWC 8239, a caudal vertebra of Diplodocus on loan from Dinosaur Journey, at Hemet Valley Imaging yesterday.

Alignment lasers – it’s always fun watching them flow over the bone as a specimen slides through the tube (for alignment purposes, obviously, not scanning – nobody’s in the room for that).

Lateral scout. I wonder, who will be the first to correctly identify the genus and species of the two stinkin’ mammals trailing the Diplo caudal?

A model we generated at the imaging center. This is just a cell phone photo of a single window on a big monitor. The actual model is much better, but I am in a brief temporal lacuna where I can’t screenshot it.

What am I doing with this thing? All will be revealed soon.

Preserved bits of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, MWC 8028, with me for scale. Modified from Wedel (2009: fig. 10), but not much – MWC 8028 was about the same size as CM 879.

Let’s say you had a critter with weird neural canals and super-deeply-dished-in centrum-ends, and you wanted to digitally rearticulate the vertebrae and reconstruct the spinal cord and intervertebral cartilages, in a project that would bring together a bunch of arcane stuff that you’d been noodling about for years. Your process might include an imposing number of steps, and help from a LOT of people along the way:

1. Drive to Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado, to pick up the fossils and bring them back to SoCal. (Thank you Paige Wiren, John Foster, and Rebecca Hunt-Foster for an excuse to come to the Moab area, thank you Brian Engh for the awesome road trip, and thank you Julia McHugh for access to specimens and help packing them up!).

2. Take the fossils to the Hemet Valley Medical Center for CT scanning. (Thank you John Yasmer and team.)

3. Find a colleague who would help you generate 3D models from the CT scans. (Thank you Thierra Nalley.)

4. Talk it over with your university’s 3D vizualization team, who suggest a cunning plan: (Thank you Gary Wisser, Jeff Macalino, and Sunami Chun at WesternU.)

5. They print the best-preserved vertebra at 75% scale. (50% scale resin print shown here.)

6. You and a collaborator physically sculpt in the missing bits with some Super Sculpey. (Thank you Jessie Atterholt for sculpting, and thank you Jeremiah Scott for documenting the process.)

(7.) The 3D-viz team use their fancy optical scanner (basically a photogrammetry machine) to make:

  • a second-generation digital model (digital)
  • from the sculpted-over 3D print (physical)
  • of the first-generation digital model (digital)
  • made from the CT scans (digital)
  • of the original fossil material (physical).

(8.) With some copying, pasting, and retro-deforming, use that model of the restored vert as a template for restoring the rest of the vertebrae, stretching, mirroring, and otherwise hole-filling as needed. (Prelim 2D hand-drawn version of caudal 1 shown here.)

(9.) Test-articulate the restored vertebrae to see if and how they fit, and revise the models as necessary. (Low-fi speculative 2D version from January shown here.)

(10.) Once the model vertebrae are digitally rearticulated, model the negative spaces between the centra and inside the neural canals to reconstruct the intervertebral cartilages and spinal cord.

(11.) Push the university’s 3D printers to the limit attempting to fabricate an articulated vertebral series complete with cartilages and cord in different colors and possibly different materials, thereby making a third-generation physical object that embodies the original idea you had back in January.

(12.) Report your findings, publish the CT scans and 3D models (original and restored), let the world replicate or repudiate your results. And maaaybe: be mildly astonished if people care about the weird butt of the most-roadkilled specimen of the small obscure sauropod that has somehow become your regular dance partner.

We did number 6 yesterday, so just counting the arbitrarily-numbered steps (and ignoring the fact that 7-12 get progressively more complicated and time-consuming), we’re halfway done. Yay! I’ll keep you posted on how it goes from here.

The most complete caudal vertebra of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus (Foster and Wedel 2014) in right lateral view: specimen photo, CT scout, 3D model, 3D print at 50% scale. The photos of the specimen and the 3D print probably match the worst with the others, because they are subject to perspective distortions that the digital reconstructions are free from.

Here’s one nice thing about having a 3D print of a specimen that you’re working on: you can hand it to other anatomists and paleontologists and get their take on its weird features, and it’s small enough and light enough that you can bring it halfway across the country to show in person to an entirely different set of colleagues. For all that we hear about humans being a visual species, we are also a tactile one, and in my admittedly limited experience, grokking morphology by handling 3D printed fossils is almost as good as – and for big, heavy, fragile sauropod vertebrae, sometimes better than – handling the real thing.

Many thanks to Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey for access to the specimen, John Yasmer at the Hemet Valley Medical Center for CT scanning, Thierra Nalley at Western University of Health Sciences for help with segmenting and visualization in Amira, and Gary Wisser, WesternU’s 3D visualization specialist, for the sweet print. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Reference

Foster, J.R., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. Haplocanthosaurus (Saurischia: Sauropoda) from the lower Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) near Snowmass, Colorado. Volumina Jurassica 12(2): 197–210. DOI: 10.5604/17313708 .1130144

Peter Falkingham and Nick Gardner independently put me onto Sketchfab: a website that provides a way to view and navigate 3D models without needing to download any software beyond the browser that you’re already running.

So get yourself over to the live Xenoposeidon model! Verify for yourself that the laminae are as I described them, that the posterior margin of the neural arch really does grade into the posterior articular surface of the centum, etc. Really, this is worth ten times whatever set of illustrations I might have provided.

Truly, we are living in the future!

UPDATE, 23 November 2017: see also this beautiful 3d model of the skull of Triceratops horridus, photogrammetrised from images taken at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France, by Benoît Rogez; and the same creator’s Nanotyrannus lancensis model, also from MNHN photos. And, most astonishingly, his model of the whole MNHN palaeontology gallery!