We’ve noted many times over the years how inconsistent pneumatic features are in sauropod vertebra. Fossae and formamina vary between individuals of the same species, and along the spinal column, and even between the sides of individual vertebrae. Here’s an example that we touched on in Wedel and Taylor (2013), but which is seen in all its glory here:

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 5). Giraffatitan brancai tail MB.R.5000, part of the mounted skeleton at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Caudal vertebrae 24–26 in left lateral view. While caudal 26 has no pneumatic features, caudal 25 has two distinct pneumatic fossae, likely excavated around two distinct vascular foramina carrying an artery and a vein. Caudal 24 is more shallowly excavated than 26, but may also exhibit two separate fossae.

But bone is usually the least variable material in the vertebrate body. Muscles vary more, nerve more again, and blood vessels most of all. So why are the vertebrae of sauropods so much more variable than other bones?

Our new paper, published today (Taylor and Wedel 2021) proposes an answer! Please read it for the details, but here’s the summary:

  • Early in ontogenly, the blood supply to vertebrae comes from arteries penetrating the bone of the neural canal.
  • Later in ontegeny, additional arteries penetrate the centra, leaving vascular foramina (small holes carrying blood vessels).
  • This hand-off does not always run to completion, due to the variability of blood vessels.
  • In extant birds, pneumatic diverticula enter the bone via vascular foramina, alongside blood vessels.
  • The same was probaby true in sauropods.
  • So diverticula were unable to enter the centra from the outside in vertebrae that got all their blood supply from vascular foramina in the neural canal.
  • So those centra were never pneumatized from the outside, and no externally visible pneumatic cavities were formed.

Somehow that pretty straightforward argument ended up running to eleven pages. I guess that’s what you get when you reference your thoughts thoroughly, illustrate them in detail, and discuss the implications. But the heart of the paper is that little bullet-list.

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 6). Domestic duck Anas platyrhynchos, dorsal vertebrae 2–7 in left lateral view. Note that the two anteriormost vertebrae (D2 and D3) each have a shallow pneumatic fossa penetrated by numerous small foramina.

(What is the relevance of these duck dorsals? You will need to read the discussion in the paper to find out!)

Our choice of publication venue

The world moves fast. It’s strange to think that only eleven years ago my Brachiosaurus revision (Taylor 2009) was in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, a journal than now feels very retro. Since then, Matt and I have both published several times in PeerJ, which we love. More recently, we’ve been posting preprints of our papers — and indeed I have three papers stalled in peer-review revisions that are all available as preprints (two Taylor and Wedels and a single sole-authored one). But this time we’re pushing on even further into the Shiny Digital Future.

We’ve published at Qeios. (It’s pronounced “chaos”, but the site doesn’t tell you that; I discovered it on Twitter.) If you’ve not heard of it — I was only very vaguely aware of it myself until this evening — it runs on the same model as the better known F1000 Research, with this very important difference: it’s free. Also, it looks rather slicker.

That model is: publish first, then filter. This is the opposite of the traditional scholarly publishing flow where you filter first — by peer reviewers erecting a series of obstacles to getting your work out — and only after negotiating that course to do get to see your work published. At Qeios, you go right ahead and publish: it’s available right off the bat, but clearly marked as awaiting peer-review:

And then it undergoes review. Who reviews it? Anyone! Ideally, of course, people with some expertise in the relevant fields. We can then post any number of revised versions in response to the reviews — each revision having its own DOI and being fixed and permanent.

How will this work out? We don’t know. It is, in part, an experiment. What will make it work — what will impute credibility to it — is good, solid reviews. So if you have any relevant expertise, we do invite you to get over there and write a review.

And finally …

Matt noted that I first sent him the link to the Qeios site at 7:44 pm my time. I think that was the first time he’d heard of it. He and I had plenty of back and forth on where to publish this paper before I pushed on and did it as Qeios. And I tweeted that our paper was available for review at 8:44 — one hour exactly after Matt learned that the venue existed. Now here we are at 12:04 my time, three hours and 20 minutes later, and it’s already been viewed 126 times and downloaded 60 times. I think that’s pretty awesome.

References

  • 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 Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806. [PDF]
  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2021. Why is vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs so variable? Qeios 1G6J3Q. doi: 10.32388/1G6J3Q [PDF]
  • Wedel, Mathew J., and Michael P. Taylor 2013b. 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]

Accidental anaglyphs

October 16, 2020

Everyone knows that the very first thing you should do to improve your specimen photography is to use a tripod: it eliminates hand-shake and gives you much crisper photos. In most respects, my photographs have got much, much better since I’ve been habitually using a tripod.

But it has meant I’ve not been able to benefit from happy accidents like the one that gave me this 3D anaglyph of the Archbishop‘s Cervical S in dorsal view:

(Do you have red-cyan glasses? Yes? Good! You will be able to appreciate all the delicious morphological information in this photo. No? Go and order some right now — they cost literally a dollar.)

The reason I was able to make this very useful image is because back in the old pre-tripod days I would sometimes accidentally move a little bit between taking two more-or-less identical photographs. Here are the two images that I was able to composite into the anaglyph above:

Each of them is pretty uninformative alone: who can tell one nondescript area of brown bone from another? But when combined, they are extraordinarily more informative. If you don’t have 3D glasses then (A) get some! and (B) you can get some idea of how helpful the 3D information is from the crude wigglegram below, which simply switches back and forth between the two images.

And I can’t overstate how enormously helpful I have found these accidentally sourced anaglyphs as I write the descriptive part of the Archbishop manuscript. Even at this level of crudity, they have shown me several important points of morphology that I would certainly have missed if I’d been working only from my orthogonal-view photos, and saved me from more than one misinterpretation.

The moral is twofold:

  1. When taking specimen photographs, use a tripod — but deliberately get some pairs of shots where the camera is moved to the side by about 7 cm (the distance between the pupils in an average human).
  2. If you don’t have any red-cyan glasses, get some!

Well, one reason is the utterly rancid “block editor” that WordPress has started imposing with increasing insistence on its poor users. If there is one thing that world really doesn’t need, it’s a completely new way of writing text. Seriously, WordPress, that was a solved problem in 1984. As Henry Spencer very nearly said back in the eighties, “thy creativity is better used in solving problems than in creating beautiful new impediments to productivity“.

But enough pointless whining: instead, check out this bad boy:

Taylor (in prep. for 2020: Figure V). NHMUK PV R5937, “The Archbishop”, cervical vertebra V (most anterior preserved cervical vertebra, probably C6), left side still encased in plaster. A. Reconstruction of right lateral view with neural spine, prezygapophysis, diapophysis, condyle, cotyle and cervical rib restored. The prezygapophysis from the succeeding vertebra that has adhered to this element is shown in red. B. Dorsal view with anterior to the right. C. Posterior view. D. Right lateral view. E. Anterior view. F. Ventral view with anterior to the right. Scale bar 20 cm.

Yes, it’s your friend and mine, The Archbishop! It’s a big titanosauriform sauropod excavated by F. W. H. Migeod for the British Museum (Natural History) back in 1930, from the same Tendaguru Formation that yielded the awesome Giraffatitan specimens in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.

Yes, I admit I have been working on the Archbishop for more than sixteen years, and that I gave a talk about it at SVPCA 2005, and that I failed utterly to get it done as part of the Paleo Project Challenge 2010, and that as early as 2011 I was in despair about ever finishing it, and that I promised to do it by SVPCA 2016 but didn’t.

But in 2018 I did something significant, which was to actually start writing the paper in public. Now anyone can follow the progress of the project — and it’s progressing. The manuscript currently runs to about fifty printed pages, although that length is inflated by twenty-odd beautiful illustrations — of which the “Cervical V” image above is just one. (Do click through to see it in all its glory.)

So, yeah. That’s the main reason I am not blogging much. Because I am writing the paper. Finally.

You! Shall not! Pass!

August 22, 2020

OK, technically this is MB.R.3822, a dorsal vertebra of Giraffatitan brancai formerly known as HMN Ar1, in posterior view, rendered from a 3D scan provided by Heinrich Mallison.

But you can’t tell me that when you look at that you don’t see Gandalf shouting at a balrog.

Long before Matt and others were CT-scanning sauropod vertebrae to understand their internal structure, Werner Janensch was doing it the old-fashioned way. I’ve been going through old photos that I took at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin back in 2005, and I stumbled across this dorsal centrum:

Dorsal vertebra centum of ?Giraffatitan in ventral view, with anterior to top.

You can see a transverse crack running across it, and sure enough the front and back are actually broken apart. Here there are:

The same dorsal vertebral centrum of ?Giraffatitan, bisected transversely in two halves. Left: anterior half in posterior view; right: posterior half in anterior view. I had to balance the anterior half on my shoe to keep it oriented corrrectly for the photo.

This does a beautiful job of showing the large lateral foramina penetrating into the body of the centrum and ramifying further into the bone, leaving only a thin midline septum.

But students of the classics will recognise this bone immediately as the one that Janensch (1947:abb. 2) illustrated the posterior half of in his big pneumaticity paper:

It’s a very strange feeling, when browsing in a collection, to come across a vertebra that you know from the literature. As I’ve remarked to Matt, it’s a bit like running into, say, Cameron Diaz in the corner shop.

Reference

  • Janensch, W. 1947. Pneumatizitat bei Wirbeln von Sauropoden
    und anderen Saurischien. Palaeontographica, supplement
    7:1-25.

My eldest son Dan went out to visit his girlfriend Beth, shortly before the Coronavirus crisis began, during her university placement in Toulouse. While they were there, they bought me this gift:

As you can see, it’s a Lego-like self-assembly kit; but as you can also see from the mug in the background, it’s tiny. As  best I can make out, the blocks are half the length and width of Lego blocks, and about third the height. The whole model is about seven or eight inches (18-20 cm) from nose to tail.

Here’s a very quick walk-round, so you can appreciate the 3d shape.

I am properly impressed with this. It has the shape of the ribcage right, and the hips and shoulders, and the proportions are right so that it conveys with absolute conviction the quality of brachiosaurosity. It has a very posable neck that can be placed in a realistic life posture, and there are even hints of scapulae and ilia.

I made only one change from the instructions: I reoriented the forefoot so that we have a vertically oriented arcade of metacarpals rather than a plantigrade forefoot.

It was a very picky build. The instructions recommend using Nanoblock tweezers, sold separately, but I just used my big clumsy fingers, so that ribs and legs and things were constantly falling off. The process was rather like what this video shows, but much slower.

If you want one of your own, you can get it from Amazon UK or from Amazon US. I recommend it for serious sauropod lovers, but would be infuriating for children, and requires patience and precision to assemble.

Oh, and kit came with plenty of spare parts, in case you lose some of them: enough that Dan was able to make a juvenile with the leftovers.

 

Storm Giant

March 12, 2020

Challenge: can you spot the Iguanodon pelvis in this photo?

Big news: I will be at the Burpee Museum PaleoFest this year. I’m speaking at 10:30 AM on Sunday, March 8. The title of my talk is, “In the Footsteps of Giants: Finding and Excavating New Fossils of Brachiosaurus from the Lower Morrison Formation in Utah”. Brian Engh, John Foster, and ReBecca Hunt-Foster are all coauthors.

The main page for PaleoFest 2020 is here (link), and on the right side of that page there’s a block of quick links to the speaker list, daily schedules, and so on. If you’re in the Midwest and not already booked for the weekend of March 7-8, come on out and I’ll talk your legs off about dinosaurs.

The photo above is of me at a table at the Raymond M. Alf Museum Fossil Fest on February 8, 2020. It’s nothing to do with the Burpee PaleoFest, I just needed a photo of me talkin’ Brachiosaurus. And yes, you can have that t-shirt — objectively the greatest in the history of the universe — when you cut it off my cold, dead carcass. (Or you can order your own; this model is the “Retro Brontosaurus Dinosaur T-shirt” by Dinosaur Tees and the Amazon link is here.)

I swear I’m not making this up: I was recently contacted by one of our patrons, who said he’d like to support us at the SV-POW! Patreon at $10/month. We didn’t have that tier at the time, only $1/mo. and $5/mo. So to accommodate him, and any others who theoretically might like to support us at that level, we created a $10 tier. There’s a new reward to go with this tier: in addition to being acknowledged in any papers that get written as a result of a trip that you help to fund, at $10/month you’ll also get an 8×10 art print once a year, either one of my skull drawings or a photograph, signed or unsigned. Here’s the link.

Our support is up to $57/mo. That might not sound like much, but $7/mo. is $84/yr., which is what we wanted when Mike launched the Patreon so we could get rid of ads on the site. The other $50/mo. is $600/yr., which is roughly the cost of a trans-Atlantic plane ticket. So that’s already one Matt-and-Mike get-together a year to do research and write papers, in addition to any others we were going to do anyway.

What would we do with more support? More research, and more writing. I get small grants now and then, and I get a yearly travel budget from my department, but grant-writing takes time away from research and paper-writing, and the departmental travel money doesn’t cover all the things I’d like to do. For example, I skipped SVPCA in 2018 so I could visit the Carnegie last spring. That’s a tough choice, a whole conference worth of ideas and conversations that I missed out on. And Mike is basically self-funded. We’re pretty good at converting travel money into new ideas and new data, and we’re going to start doing writing retreats where we hole up someplace cheap, far from museums, field sites, and other distractions, and just write. So if you like the stuff we do, please consider supporting us–we promise not to waste your donation.

Many thanks to everyone who supports our work, and to everyone else for sitting through this post. In the spirit of giving you more than you asked for, up top is the cervicodorsal transition in Giraffatitan brancai, MB.R.2181, in my favorite, inconvenient portrait orientation. And here’s a version with the centrum lengths and posterior widths given in cm. From Janensch (1950: figs. 49 and 50).

Reference

Janensch, Werner. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3: 27-93.

No, not his new Brachiosaurus humerus — his photograph of the Chicago Brachiosaurus mount, which he cut out and cleaned up seven years ago:

This image has been on quite a journey. Since Matt published this cleaned-up photo, and furnished it under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC By) licence, it has been adopted as the lead image of Wikipedia’s Brachiosaurus page [archvied]:

Consequently (I assume) it has now become Google’s top hit for brachiosaurus skeleton:

Last Saturday, Fiona and I went to Birdland, a birds-only zoo in the Cotswolds, about an hour away from where we live. The admission price also includes “Jurassic Journey”, a walking tour of a dozen or so not-very-good dinosaur models. In an interpretive centre in this area, I found this Brachiosaurus skeletal reconstruction stencilled on the wall:

I immediately knew it was the Chicago mount due to the combination of Giraffatitan anterior dorsals and Brachiosaurus posterior dorsals; but I found it more hauntingly familiar than that. A quick hunt turned up Matt’s seven-year-old post, and when I told Matt about my discovery he filled me in on its use in Wikipedia.

So this is 99% of a good story: we’re delighted that this work is out there, and has resulted in a much better Brachiosaurus image at Birdland than the rather sad-looking Stegosaurus next to it. The only slight disappointment is that I couldn’t find any sign of credit, which they really should have included given that Matt put the image out under CC By rather than in the public domain.

But as Matt said: “Even though I didn’t get credited, I’m always chuffed to see my stuff out in the world.” So true.