A life-size silhouette of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, with Thierra Nalley, me, and Jessie Atterholt for scale. Photo by Jeremiah Scott.

Tiny Titan, a temporary exhibit about the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus project, opened at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California, last night. How? Why? Read on.

Things have been quieter this year on the Haplo front than they were in 2018, for many reasons. My attention was pulled away by a lot of teaching and other day-job work–we’re launching a new curriculum at the med school, and that’s eaten an immense amount of time–and by some very exciting news from the field that I can’t tell you about quite yet (but watch this space). Things are still moving, and there will be a paper redescribing MWC 8028 and all the weird and cool things we’ve learned about it, but there are a few more timely things ahead of it in the queue.

One of the things going on behind the scenes this year is that Jessie Atterholt, Thierra Nalley, and I have been working with Alton Dooley, the director of the Western Science Center, on this exhibit. Alton has had a gleam in his eye for a long time of using the WSC’s temporary exhibit space to promote the work of local scientists, and we had the honor of being his first example. He also was not fazed by the fact that the project isn’t done–he wants to show the public the process of science in all of its serendipitous and non-linear glory, and not just the polished results that get communicated at the end.

Everything’s better cut in half. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Which is not to say that the exhibit isn’t polished. On the contrary, it looks phenomenal. Thanks to a loan from Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey in Colorado, most of the real fossils are on display. We’re only missing the ribs and most of the sacrum, which is too fragmentary and fragile to come out of its jacket. As you can see from the photo up top, there is a life-size vinyl silhouette of the Snowmass Haplo, with 3D prints of the vertebrae in approximate life position. Other 3D prints show the vertebrae before and after the process of sculpting, rescanning, and retrodeformation, as described in our presentation for the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress last year (that slideshow is a PeerJ Preprint, here). The exhibit also includes panels on “What is Haplocanthosaurus” and its relationships, on pneumaticity in sauropods, on the process of CT scanning and 3D modeling, and on the unusual anatomical features of the Snowmass specimen. The awesome display shown above, with the possibly-bumpy spinal cord and giant intervertebral discs reconstructed, was all Alton–he did the modeling, printing, and assembly himself.

Haplo vs Bronto. Thierra usually works on the evolution and development of the vertebral column in primates, so I had to show her how awesome vertebrae can be when they’re done right. Photo by Brittney Stoneburg.

My favorite thing in the exhibit is this striking comparison of one the Snowmass Haplo caudals with a proximal caudal from the big Oklahoma apatosaurine. This was Alton’s idea. He asked me if I had any photos of caudal vertebrae from really big sauropods that we could print at life size to compare to MWC 8028, and my mind went immediately to OMNH 1331, which is probably the second-largest-diameter vertebra of anything from all of North America (see the list here). It was also Alton’s idea to fill in the missing bits using one of Marsh’s plates of Brontosaurus excelsus from Como Bluff in Wyoming. It’s a pretty amazing display, and it turns out to have been a vehicle for discovery, too–I didn’t realize until I saw the verts side-by-side that the neural canal of the Snowmass Haplo caudal is almost as big as the neural canal from the giant apatosaurine caudal. It’s not a perfect comparison, because the OMNH fossil doesn’t preserve the neural canal, and the Como specimen isn’t that big, but proportionally, the Snowmass Haplo seems to have big honkin’ neural canals, not just at the midpoint (which we already knew), but all the way through. Looks like I have some measuring and comparing to do.

(Oh, about the title: we don’t know if the Snowmass Haplo was fully grown or not, but not all haplocanthosaurs were small. The mounted H. delfsi in Cleveland is huge, getting into Apatosaurus and Diplodocus territory. Everything we can assess in the Snowmass Haplo is fused, for what that’s worth. We have some rib chunks and Jessie will be doing histo on them to see if we can get ontogenetic information. I’ll keep you posted.)

Brian’s new Haplocanthosaurus restoration, along with some stinkin’ mammals. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Brian Engh contributed a fantastic life restoration of Haplocanthosaurus pro bono, thanks to this conversation, which took place in John Foster’s and ReBecca Hunt-Foster’s dining room about a month ago:

Brian: What are you drawing?

Me: Haplocanthosaurus.

Brian: Is that for the exhibit?

Me: Yup.

Brian (intense): Dude, I will draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Me: I know, but you’re a pro, and pros get paid, and we didn’t include a budget for paleoart.

Brian (fired up): I’m offended that you didn’t just ask me to draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Then he went to the Fosters’ couch, sat down with his sketchbook, and drew a Haplocanthosaurus. Not only is it a stunning piece on display in the exhibit, there are black-and-white printouts for kids to take and color (or for adults to take to their favorite tattoo artists, just sayin’). [Obligatory: this is not how things are supposed to work. We should all support original paleoart by supporting the artists who create it. But Brian just makes so damn many monsters that occasionally he has to kick one out for the heck of it. Also, I support him on Patreon, and you can, too, so at a stretch you could consider this the mother of all backer rewards.]

One special perk from the opening last night: Jessica Bramson was able to attend. Who’s that, you ask? Jessica’s son, Mike Gordon, found the first piece of bone from the Snowmass Haplo on their property in Colorado over a decade ago. Jessica and her family spent two years uncovering the fossils and trying to get paleontologists interested. In time she got in touch with John Foster, and the rest is history. Jessica lives in California now, and thanks to John’s efforts we were able to invite her to the exhibit opening to see her dinosaur meet the world. Stupidly, I did not get any photos with her, but I did thank her profusely.

A restored, retrodeformed caudal of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, 3D-printed at life size for the exhibit. Photo swiped from the WSC Facebook page.

I owe a huge thanks to Alton Dooley for taking an interest in our work, and to the whole WSC crew for their hard work creating and promoting the exhibit. You all rock.

The exhibit will run through the end of March, 2020, at least. I deliberately did not show most of it, partly because I was too busy having fun last night to be diligent about taking photos, but mostly because I want you to go see it for yourself (I will do a retrospective post with more info after the exhibit comes down, for people who weren’t able to see it in person). If you make it out to Hemet, I hope you have half as much fun going through the exhibit as we did making it.

This past summer I did a post on my birthday card from Brian Engh, but I haven’t posted about my birthday present from him: this handmade fired-clay sculpture of Parasaurolophus.

I don’t have a ton to say about it, other than that — as you can tell from the photos — it looks pretty darned convincing. I adore the fern leaf impressions in the base.

This sits on the mantle in our living room. My eye wanders to it in stray moments. I’ve often run down ornithopods as boring, but they’re all right. They’re the clade of dinosaurs most remote from my research, so they’re about the only ones left that just signify “dinosaur” to me, without any research-related intellectual baggage. So when I’m woolgathering and my eyes land on this sculpture, it doesn’t make me think about me or now. It makes me think about them, and then. It’s a talismanic time machine. And a pretty darned great birthday present. Thanks, Brian!

Okay, so here on the Best Coast it’s not technically my birthday for another 3 hours, but SV-POW! runs on England time, and at the SV-POW! global headquarters bunker it’s already June 3. Oh, and tomorrow Brian and I are driving to New Mexico to look for Cretaceous monsters with Andrew McDonald and crew, and I won’t be advantageously situated for blogging. So here’s my Favorite. Card. EVAR:

Cool new paper out today by Yara Haridy and colleagues, describing the oldest known osteosarcoma in the vertebrate fossil record. The growth in question is on the proximal femur of the Triassic stem turtle Pappochelys.

Brian Engh did his usual amazing job illustrating this pervert turtle with no shell and a weird growth on its butt.

I don’t have a ton more to say about the paper, it’s short and sweet. I got to meet Yara in person at SVP last fall and learn about her research, and there is going to a LOT more weird stuff coming down the pike. She is after some really fundamental questions about where bone comes from, how it develops in the first place, and how it remodels and heals. Get ready to see some crazy jacked-up bones from other basal amniotes in the next few years, including some vertebrae that are so horked that Yara and I spent some time discussing which end was which.

On a probably inevitable and purely selfish personal note, I don’t blog nearly enough about turtles. I like turtles. Which, if you’re going to say, you gotta say like this kid:

In fact, I love turtles, and if there were no sauropods, I’d probably be working on turtles. Other people show you pictures of their cats, I’m going to show you pictures of my turtle, Easty. She’s a female three-toed box turtle, Terrapene carolina triunguis.

Here she is closing in on an unlucky roly-poly (or pill bug, if you prefer).

Having a close encounter with our cat Berkeley last summer. I think Easty kinda blew Berkeley’s mind. She’s been around our other cat, Moe, for years, so she’s completely unfazed by cats. But Berkeley is a SoCal kitty who showed up on our doorstep starving and yowling when he was about eight weeks old, so this was his first encounter with a turtle.

Berkeley batted at Easty’s shell a couple of times and then spent about half an hour having a visible existential crisis. Here was a small creature that he couldn’t frighten and couldn’t move, which was not the least bit afraid of him and either ignored him or treated him like an obstacle. Watching them interact — or rather, watching Easty act and Berkeley react — was solid entertainment for most of the afternoon.

Why have I hijacked this post to yap about my turtle? Primarily because up until now I’ve had a hard time visualizing a stem turtle. Turtles are so much their own thing, and I’ve been so interested in them for virtually my entire life, that imagining an animal that was only partly a turtle was very difficult for me. The thing I like most about Brian’s art of the tumorous Pappochelys is that it reads convincingly turtle-ish to me, especially the neck and head:

So congratulations to Yara and her coauthors for a nice writeup of a very cool find, and to Brian for another vibrant piece of paleoart. Triassic turtles sometimes had cancer on their butts. Tell the world!

Since I’ve already blown the weekly schedule here in the new year, maybe my SV-POW! resolution for 2019 will be to blog more about turtles. I’m gonna do it anyway, might as well make it a resolution so I can feel like I’m keeping up with something. Watch this space.

Reference

Please welcome Mirarce eatoni

November 13, 2018

Skeletal reconstruction of Mirarce by Scott Hartman (Atterholt et al. 2018: fig. 19). Recovered bones in white, missing bones in gray. The humerus is 95.9mm long.

Today sees the publication of the monster enantiornithine Mirarce eatoni (“Eaton’s wonderful winged messenger”) from the Kaiparowits Formation of Utah, by Jessie Atterholt, Howard Hutchinson, and Jingmai O’Connor. Not my critter, not my story, but it is SV-POW!-adjacent. (Just here for the paper? Here’s the link.)

Xiphoid process of sternum of Mirarce (Atterholt et al. 2018: fig. 5). Scale bar = 1cm.

As of this past summer, I knew that Jessie had a prehistoric monster coming out soon, and I knew that Brian Engh liked bringing prehistoric monsters to life, and I suspected that if the two reagents were combined, the rest of us might get something cool out of it.

Jessie and Brian talking about Mirarce, Utah for scale. July 13, 2018.

I did some heavy eavesdropping while the three of us were stomping around southern Utah looking for dinosaurs, so I got to hear Jessie and Brian batting ideas back and forth. By the end of our Utah trip Brian had sketches, and not long after, finished art (his post on Mirarce, including process sketches, is here). If you’ve seen one of my talks in the last month or so, you’ve gotten a teaser (with Jessie’s and Brian’s permission), and I know the piece got shown around a bit at SVP, too. You’ve waited long enough, here you go:

Not that the art is the whole story! Mirarce is a legitimately awesome find and Jessie and her coauthors poured a ton of work into the description. I’d tell you all about it, but much more capable and bird-fluent folks are on that already, and I have spinal cord and brainstem lectures to polish. So I’m gonna leave you with some links, which I’ll try to keep updated as different outlets get the story out:

Reference

Atterholt, J., Hutchinson, J.H.., and O’Connor, J.K. 2018. The most complete enantiornithine from North America and a phylogenetic analysis of the Avisauridae. PeerJ 6:e5910 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5910

Well, that didn’t take long. Earlier today, my subterranean hacker collective released thousands of emails exchanged by Mike Taylor and Brian Engh, which touched on numerous issues of national and global security. Of most interest to SV-POW! readers will be this correspondence from just a few hours ago:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Mike: Artwork attached. [Scroll down to see Mike’s submission.–MJW]

Brian: NAILED IT.

I haven’t been responding here to entrants but i feel pretty safe calling this one the winner already. Thank you for submitting. We can now sit back and laugh as all the other feeble entrants squabble knowing that you’ve already got this one in the bag.

Mike: Thanks, Brian. I hesitated before submitting this, thinking it might not be fair to up-and-coming artists who need the win more than I do; but in the end, I decided that was patronising. If they’re going to win the prize, they have to beat me on merit. You never know: it could happen.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

So, it looks like Brian has made his decision and the contest is effectively over. Although Mike says that someone else winning the contest “could happen”, Brian’s already signaled his intention to “laugh as all the other feeble entrants squabble”, which hardly sounds like he’s going to be giving anyone else a fair shake.

In Brian’s defense, the art that Mike submitted is glorious:

So complex and subtle is this work, so playful in its blending of traditional and cutting-edge thinking, so packed with detail, life history, and sheer emotion, that I feel certain that it will usher in a new era of paleoart as the dominant aesthetic expression on this planet.

Still, I don’t see how #TheSummonENGH2018 is going to survive the inevitable scandal of having a winner secretly chosen on the second day of the contest. I’m torn between towering admiration for my friends and colleagues, and fear for the rifts this may cause in the paleoart community.

I’ve reached out to representatives of both Mike and Brian for comment, and I’ll keep you updated on this developing story as more information becomes available.

My good friend, frequent collaborator, and fellow adventurer Brian Engh has won the John J. Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize for 2D paleoart (there are also categories for 3D paleoart and scientific illustration). He’s in august company; previous Lanzendorf winners include luminaries like John Gurche, Michael Skrepnick, Mark Hallett, Todd Marshall, and Julius Csotonyi (among many others–see the complete list of previous winners here). Naturally I’m happy as heck for Brian, and immensely proud of him, not only for the award, but also for what he’s doing now. Usually when we say “pay it forward” we mean metaphorically, but Brian is literally going to pay it forward. He’s created his own paleoart contest, the SummonENGH 2018, and he will award half of his October Patreon take to the winner.

He lays out the rules on his blog and in this video:

There’s a Facebook group, here, and a hashtag: #TheSummonEngh2018 (Facebook, Twitter).

Why do I think this is cool? It’s no exaggeration to say that I am a paleontologist today because I was exposed to mind-bending paleoart from a young age. Brian cares about paleoart–he cares about making better paleoart, himself, and he cares about making paleoart better, for everyone. And now he’s putting his money where his mouth his and doing something to hopefully bring more visibility to the paleoart community, and help move the field forward. That’s admirable, and I’m happy to support the cause.

Also, when we visited the Aquilops display at Dinosaur Journey this summer, we were lucky enough to capture this single frame showing a 100% real paleo-energy discharge. I definitely felt something at the time, but I didn’t know the full extent of what had happened until Brian sorted through our photos after the trip. Apparently this was all fated to happen–some kind of transdimensional chronoparticle emission linking past and future–and who am I to argue with fate?

Now, go summon monsters!