Computer programmer, essayist and venture capitalist Paul Graham writes:

In most fields, prototypes have traditionally been made out of different materials. Typefaces to be cut in metal were initially designed with a brush on paper. Statues to be cast in bronze were modelled in wax. Patterns to be embroidered on tapestries were drawn on paper with ink wash. Buildings to be constructed from stone were tested on a smaller scale in wood.

What made oil paint so exciting, when it first became popular in the fifteenth century, was that you could actually make the finished work from the prototype. You could make a preliminary drawing if you wanted to, but you weren’t held to it; you could work out all the details, and even make major changes, as you finished the painting.

You can do this in software too. A prototype doesn’t have to be just a model; you can refine it into the finished product. I think you should always do this when you can. It lets you take advantage of new insights you have along the way. But perhaps even more important, it’s good for morale.

– Paul Graham, “Design and Research

Mike and I have long been drawn by the idea that blog posts, like conference talks and posters, could be first drafts of research papers. In practice, we haven’t generated many successful examples. We basically wrote our 2013 neural spine bifurcation paper as a series of blog posts in 2012. And Mike’s 2014 neck cartilage paper grew out of this 2013 blog post, although since he accidentally ended up writing 11 pages I suppose the blog post was more of a seed than a draft.

I should also note that we are far from the first people to do the blog-posts-into-papers routine. The first example I know of in paleo was Darren’s Tet Zoo v1 post on azhdarchid paleobiology, which formed part of the skeleton of Witton and Naish (2008).

Nevertheless, the prospect of blogging as a way to generate research papers remains compelling.

And as long as I’m on about blogging and papers: sometimes people ask if blogging doesn’t get in the way of writing papers. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it goes in the opposite direction: I blog most when I am most engaged and most productive, and drops in blogging generally coincide with drops in research productivity. I think that’s because when I’m rolling on a research project, I am constantly finding or noticing little bits that are cool and new, but which aren’t germane to what I’m working on at the moment. I can’t let those findings interfere with my momentum, but I don’t want to throw them away, either. So I blog them. Also the blog gives me a place to burn off energy at the end of the day, when I can still produce words but don’t have the discipline to write technical prose.

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The photo at the top of the post is of Giraffatitan dorsal vertebrae in a case at the MfN Berlin, from Mike’s and my visit with the DfG 533 group back in late 2008. I picked that photo so I could make the following dumb off-topic observation: with its upturned transverse processes, the dorsal on the right looks like it’s being all faux melodramatic, a la:

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This post started out as a comment on this thread, kicked off by Dale McInnes, in which Mike Habib got into a discussion with Mike Taylor about the max size of sauropods. Stand by for some arm-waving. All the photos of outdoor models were taken at Dino-Park Münchehagen back in late 2008.

I think it’s all too easy to confuse how big things do get from how big they could get, assuming different selection pressures and ecological opportunities. I’m sure someone could write a very compelling paper about how elephants are as big as they could possibly be, or Komodo dragons, if we didn’t have indricotheres and Megalania to show that the upper limit is elsewhere. This is basically what Economos (1981) did for indricotheres, either forgetting about sauropods or assuming they were all aquatic.

Truly, a mammal of excellence and distinction. With Mike and some dumb rhino for scale.

In fact, I’ll go further: a lot of pop discussions of sauropod size assume that sauropods got big because of external factors (oxygen levels, etc.) but were ultimately limited by internal factors, like bone and cartilage strength or cardiovascular issues. I think the opposite is more likely: sauropods got big because of a happy, never-repeated confluence of internal factors (the Sander/et al. [2008, 2011, 2013] hypothesis, which I think is extremely robust), and their size was limited by external, ecological factors.

Take a full-size Argentinosaurus or Bruhathkayosaurus – even modest estimates put them at around 10x the mass of the largest contemporary predators. Full-grown adults were probably truly predator-immune, barring disease or senescence. So any resources devoted to pushing the size disparity higher, instead of invested in making more eggs, would basically be wasted.

If there was reproductive competition among the super-giants, could the 100-tonners have been out-reproduced by the 70-tonners, which put those extra 30 tonnes into making babies? Or would the 100-tonners make so many more eggs than the 70-tonners (over some span of years) that they’d still come out on top? I admit, I don’t know enough reproductive biology to answer that. (If you do, speak up in the comments!) But if – if – 70-tonners could out-reproduce 100-tonners, that by itself might have been enough to put a cap on the size of the largest sauropods.

Another possibility is that max-size adult sauropods were neither common nor the target of selection. In most populations most of the time, the largest individuals might have been reproductively active but skeletally-immature and still-growing subadults (keep in mind that category would encompass most mounted sauropod skeletons, including the mounted brachiosaurs in Chicago and Berlin). If such individuals were the primary targets of selection, and they were selected for a balance of reproductive output and growth, then the few max-size adults might represent the relatively rare instances in which the developmental program “overshot” the selection target.

Dave Hone and Andy Farke and I mentioned this briefly in our 2016 paper, and it’s come up here on the blog several times before, but I still have a hard time wrapping my head around what that would mean. Maybe the max-size adults don’t represent the selective optimum, but rather beneficial traits carried to extreme ends by runaway development. It seems at least conceivable that the bodies of such animals might have been heavily loaded with morphological excrescences – like 15- to 17-meter necks – that were well past the selective optimum. As long as those features weren’t inherently fatal, they could possibly have been pretty darned inefficient, riding around on big predator-immune platforms that could walk for hundreds of kilometers and survive on garbage.

What does that swerve into weird-but-by-now-well-trod ground have to do with the limits on sauropod size? This: if max-size adults were not heavy selection targets, either because the focus of selection was on younger, reproductively-active subadults, or because they’d gotten so big that the only selection pressure that could really affect them was a continent-wide famine – or both – then they might not have gotten as big as they could have (i.e., never hit any internally-imposed, anatomical or biomechanical limits) because nothing external was pushing them to get any bigger than they already were.

Or maybe that’s just a big pile of arm-wavy BS. Let’s try tearing it down, and find out. The comment thread is open.

References

As Matt recently noted, we both have a ton of photos from various expeditions that we’ve never got around to posting — not to mention a ton of specimens that we’ve seen but never got around to working on. Here is one of the most exciting:

As you can see, this is a massive cervical vertebra from a sauropod, probably a brachiosaurid, eroding right out of the ground. It’s in an undisclosed location in the Arches National Park, which we visited in May 2016. The neural arch is in amazingly good shape, though the end of the right prezygapophysis has broken off and been displaced slightly upwards. The postzygapophysesal facet is difficult to make out. Here’s a rough-and-ready interpretive drawing to get you oriented, with the completely missing parts speculatively sketched in light grey. (We don’t know how much more of this vertebra might be preserved underground.)

Apart from its size, the most striking thing about this vertebra is how very pneumatic it is — corroborating the long-standing hypothesis that pneumaticity tends to be positively allometric. If you compare with the much-loved 8th cervical vertebra of the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN SII), you can see similar “sculpted” features on the arch of that vertebra, but they are much less developed and ramified:

(This photo is in of course in left dorsolateral view, whereas the aspect of the Arches vertebra available to us is right lateral, and slightly ventral of true lateral.)

How big is the Arches vertebra? Stupidly, we didn’t have measuring equipment with us when we were visiting the park, so we don’t have an exact figure. But we can get some idea by extrapolating from the photo above. The stretched-out arm-span of an adult man is close to his height. I’m 1.8 m tall, so allowing for the downward slope of my arms, we might guess that the fingertip-to-fingertip measurement is about 1.7 m. If that’s right, measuring off the photo, the preserved portion of the vertebra is nearly twice that, at 3.3 m — and the complete length must have been somewhat longer, as the back end of the centrum is completely missing. Something in the region of 3.6 m might not be too far out. But as always, note that these are extremely speculative figures based on multiple layers of approximation.

We really need to get back out there, measure that thing properly, and of course try to find a way to have it excavated.

Amazingly (to me, anyway), SV-POW! is ten years old today. It was on 1st October 2007 that we published Hello world!, our first post, featuring a picture of what may still be our favourite single sauropod vertebra: the ?8th cervical of the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181. Of course, back then, we thought it was the type (it’s not), it was thought to belong to Brachiosaurus brancai (mea culpa), and the specimen number was HMN SII. A lot has changed in ten years, but the vertebra is still heart-breakingly beautiful.

Some other things have changed in those ten years, of course. Three of us started the blog, but one (Darren) has become a sleeping partner due to the enormous success of his other blog, Tetrapod Zoology. We began intending to be a picture blog, but we’ve ended up as a 50-50 blend of sauropod palaeontology and open-access advocacy. Along the way, I (Mike) got my Ph.D, and Matt moved from UC Merced to Western University of Health Sciences, where both he and his wife Vicki now have tenure. Darren meanwhile has carved out a unique niche for himself as a writer and consultant, and has his own cconference.

We never thought this blog would run for so long — I seem to remember the original plan was to make 52 weekly posts, then call it a day after one year. In fact, over the last ten years, we’ve posted 1160 articles, for an average of one every 3.15 days: more than twice as often as the weekly schedule that the blog title suggests. But not all those posts have included sauropod vertebrae — so, guessing that about half of them have, we’re more or less on target.

In the mean time, you have written 16820 comments, for a pretty healthy average of 14.5 per post. One of the things I’m proudest about regarding this blog is that we’ve only once had to shut a thread down because it became unproductive; and I think on only two other occasions have we had to issue a public warning. We have a fantastic community of commenters here, and my deeply felt gratitude goes out to you all.

Our most-read post at the time of writing is Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse (with 214,438 views), followed by Elsevier is taking down papers from Academia.edu (62,695), SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales (35,944) and How big was Amphicoelias fragillimus? I mean, really? (35,531). These lead a list of 35 posts that have each garnered more than 10,000 views, contributing to an overall total of 3,573,821 views (which gives us an average of 3,080 views per post). We are alternately delighted, baffled and impressed that the world has shown such interest.

We have one or two things planned for this week of the 10th anniversary, but for this post I just want to leave it like this: THANK YOU ALL for reading, commenting and engaging with this blog. Thank you, palaeontologists for putting up with the open-access posts, and thank you scholarly communication specialists for putting up with the sauropods. We hope it’s been interesting, entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking; and we hope we can continue in the same vein. (We certainly have no plans to stop any time soon.)

We love you guys.

Suppose that I and Matt were right in our SVPCA talk this year, and the
Supersaurus” cervical BYU 9024 really is the C9 of a gigantic Barosaurus. As we noted in our abstract, its total length of 1370 mm is exactly twice that of the C9 in AMNH 6341, which suggests its neck was twice as long over all — not 8.5 m but 17 m.

How horrifying is that?

I realised one good way to picture it is next to the entire mounted skeleton of Giraffatitan at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. That skeleton is 13.27 m tall. At 17 m, the giant barosaur neck would be 28% longer than the total height Giraffatitan.

Giraffatitan brancai mounted skeleton MB.R.2181 at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, with neck of Barosaurus ?lentus BYU 9024 at the same scale. Photo by Axel Mauruszat, from Wikipedia; drawing from Scott Hartman's Supersaurus skeleton reconstruction.

Giraffatitan brancai mounted skeleton MB.R.2181 at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, with neck of Barosaurus ?lentus BYU 9024 at the same scale. Photo by Axel Mauruszat, from Wikipedia; drawing from Scott Hartman’s Supersaurus skeleton reconstruction.

Yes, this looks ridiculous. But it’s what the numbers tell us. Measure the skeleton’s height and the neck length off the image yourself if you don’t believe me.

(Note, too, that the size of the C9 in that big neck is about right, compared with a previous scaled image that Matt prepared, showing the “Supersaurus” vertebra in isolation alongside the Chicago Brachiosaurus.)

In my recent preprint on the incompleteness and distortion of sauropod neck specimens, I discuss three well-known sauropod specimens in detail, and show that they are not as well known as we think they are. One of them is the Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2181 (more widely known by its older designation HMN SII), the specimen that provides the bulk of the mighty mounted skeleton in Berlin.

Giraffatitan c8 epipophyses

That photo is from this post, which is why it’s disfigured by red arrows pointing at its epipophyses. But the vertebra in question — the eighth cervical of MB.R.2181 — is a very old friend: in fact, it was the subject of the first ever SV-POW! post, back in 2007.

In the reprint, to help make the point that this specimen was found extremely disarticulated, I reproduce Heinrich (1999:figure 16), which is Wolf-Dieter Heinrich’s redrawing of Janensch’s original sketch map of Quarry S, made in 1909 or 1910. Here it is again:

Taylor 2015: Figure 5. Quarry map of Tendaguru Site S, Tanzania, showing incomplete and jumbled skeletons of Giraffatitan brancai specimens MB.R.2180 (the lectotype, formerly HMN SI) and MB.R.2181 (the paralectotype, formerly HMN SII). Anatomical identifications of SII are underlined. Elements of SI could not be identified with certainty. From Heinrich (1999: figure 16), redrawn from an original field sketch by Werner Janensch.

Taylor 2015: Figure 5. Quarry map of Tendaguru Site S, Tanzania, showing incomplete and jumbled skeletons of Giraffatitan brancai specimens MB.R.2180 (the lectotype, formerly HMN SI) and MB.R.2181 (the paralectotype, formerly HMN SII). Anatomical identifications of SII are underlined. Elements of SI could not be identified with certainty. From Heinrich (1999: figure 16), redrawn from an original field sketch by Werner Janensch.

For the preprint, as for this blog-post (and indeed the previous one), I just went right ahead and included it. But the formal version of the paper (assuming it passes peer-review) will by very explicitly under a CC By licence, so the right thing to do is get formal permission to include it under those terms. So I’ve been trying to get that permission.

What a stupid, stupid waste of time.

Heinrich’s paper appeared in the somewhat cumbersomely titled Mitteilungen aus dem Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, Geowissenschaftliche Reihe, published as a subscription journal by Wiley. Happily, that journal is now open access, published by Pensoft as The Fossil Record. So I wrote to the Fossil Record editors to request permission. They wrote back, saying:

We are not the right persons for your question. The Wiley Company holds the copyright and should therefore be asked. Unfortunately, I do not know who is the correct person.

I didn’t know who to ask, either, so I tweeted a question, and copyright guru Charles Oppenheim suggested that I email permissions@wiley.com. I did, only to get the following automated reply:

Dear Customer,

Thank you for your enquiry.

We are currently experiencing a large volume of email traffic and will deal with your request within the next 15 working days.

We are pleased to advise that permission for the majority of our journal content, and for an increasing number of book publications, may be cleared more quickly by using the RightsLink service via Wiley’s websites http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com and www.wiley.com.

Within the next fifteen working days? That is, in the next three weeks? How can it possibly take that long? Are they engraving their response on a corundum block?

So, OK, let’s follow the automated suggestion and try RightsLink. I went to the Wiley Online Library, and searched for journals whose names contain “naturkunde”. Only one comes up, and it’s not the right one. So Wiley doesn’t admit the existence of the journal.

Despite this, Google finds the article easily enough with a simple title search. From the article’s page, I can just click on the “Request Permissions”  link on the right, and …

rightslink-fail

Well, there’s lots to enjoy here, isn’t there? First, and most important, it doesn’t actually work: “Permission to reproduce this content cannot be granted via the RightsLink service.” Then there’s that cute little registered-trademark symbol “®” on the name RightsLink, because it’s important to remind me not to accidentally set up my own rights-management service with the same name. In the same vein, there’s the “Copyright © 2015 Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. All Rights Reserved” notice at the bottom — copyright not on the content that I want to reuse, but on the RightsLink popup itself. (Which I guess means I am in violation for including the screenshot above.) Oh, and there’s the misrendering of “Museum für Naturkunde” as “Museum für Naturkunde”.

All of this gets me precisely nowhere. As far as I can tell, my only recourse now is to wait three weeks for Wiley to get in touch with me, and hope that they turn out to be in favour of science.

sadness_____by_aoao2-d430zrm

It’s Sunday afternoon. I could be watching Ireland play France in the Rugby World Cup. I could be out at Staverton, seeing (and hearing) the world’s last flying Avro Vulcan overfly Gloucester Airport for the last time. I could be watching Return of the Jedi with the boys, in preparation for the forthcoming Episode VII. Instead, here I am, wrestling with copyright.

How absolutely pointless. What a terrible waste of my life.

Is this what we want researchers to be spending their time on?

Promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts, indeed.

Update (13 October 2015): a happy outcome (this time)

I was delighted, on logging in this morning, to find I had email from RIGHTS-and-LICENCES@wiley-vch.de with the subject “Permission to reproduce Heinrich (1999:fig. 16) under CC By licence” — a full thirteen working days earlier than expected. They were apologetic and helpful. Here is key part of what they said:

We are of course happy to handle your request directly from our office – please find the requested permission here:
We hereby grant permission for the requested use expected that due credit is given to the original source.
If material appears within our work with credit to another source, authorisation from that source must be obtained.
Credit must include the following components:
– Journals: Author(s) Name(s): Title of the Article. Name of the Journal. Publication  year. Volume. Page(s). Copyright Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA. Reproduced with permission.

So this is excellent. I would of course have included all those elements in the attribution anyway, with the exception that it might not have occurred to me to state who the copyright holder is. But there is no reason to object to that.

So, two cheers for Wiley on this occasion. I had to waste some time, but at least none of it was due to deliberate obstructiveness, and most importantly they are happy for their figure to be reproduced under CC By.

References

  • Heinrich, Wolf-Dieter. 1999. The taphonomy of dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Tendaguru, Tanzania (East Africa), based on field sketches of the German Tendaguru expedition (1909-1913). Mitteilungen aus dem Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, Geowissenschaftliche Reihe 2:25-61.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

DSCN0476

[Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN S II), mounted skeleton in left anteroventrolateral view. Presacral vertebrae sculpted, skull scaled and 3d-printed from specimen T1. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.]