Back in June, I saw a series of tweets by sculptor and digital artist Ruadhrí Brennan, showing off the work he’d been doing on sculpting brachiosaurid skulls: Giraffatitan, Brachiosaurus (based on the Felch Quarry skull USNM 5730) and Europasaurus. Impressed, I asked if he would send a Giraffatitan skull, and here it is!

Right lateral view

You can immediately see two things: one, it’s good. (I’ll have more to say about this.) And second, it’s small, It’s leaned up against a stack of smallish coins in this photo, to give me the true lateral perspective I wanted, and those coins (10p, 20p, 20p, 5p) also make a decent ad-hoc scalebar.

In fact, it’s sculpted at 1:10 scale — about 9 cm from the tip of the premaxilla to the rearmost projection of the parietals, implying about 90 cm total length for the skull MB.R.2223.1 (“t 1”) — a figure surprisingly difficult to find in the literature (can anyone help?) but consonant with how big it seems in real life.

Anterior view

At that scale, the detail is pretty amazing. Its not just that the overall proportions of the skull are so true, but the visible junctions between the bones — as for example between the paired ascending processes of the two premaxilae, as apparent in anterior view — but the texture of the bone, including things like vascular foramina for the lips but also just straight-up bone surface. It’s a lovely job.

Right anterodorsolateral view

This view is a pretty good match for what we used in the second Shedloads of Awesome post back in 2008 — in fact, let’s just put them side by side so we can compare more easily.

As you can see, I slightly muffed the photography of the model — I could do a better job of matching the aspect I tried. But we’re in the ballpark, and it’s easy to see from this angle how much the model skull really couldn’t be anything other than what it is. That said, there are a few places where it seems the bone junctions don’t quite match those of the real skull. Most obviously, in the real skull the lacrimal seems to laterally overlap the nasal dorsally and the maxilla/jugal ventrally, whereas in the model it fits in more neatly with both. But I am inclined to think this is not so much a mistake as a correction to allow for poor articulation and distortion in the original — a restoration, in other words.

Here’s a different oblique view:

Left anterodorsolateral view, from a rather more dorsal and less lateral perspective than the previous image.

The story here really is just what an odd shape this familiar skull is when viewed in this perspective, and a valuable reminder that we should all try to avoid getting too suckered in by the over-familiar lateral views of various things. 3D objects are weird. They trick you. That’s why, for example, two scapulae that look very different in photos might actually be very similar in reality: the difference is in the angle of the photograph, not in the photographed bones.

Anyway, moving on from that cautionary tale …

The key takeaway is really just that this Giraffatitan skull is very nice, and it leaves me wishing I also had the Camarsaurus one for comparison … even though camarsaurs are ugly and stupid.

Oh, what’s that you say? You want a Giraffatitan skull of your very own? Well, you can have one: get it from the Scaled Beasts shop!

Various Internet rumours have suggested that the Archbishop is a super-giant sauropod one third larger than the mounted Giraffatitan specimen MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN SII). This is incorrect.

Figure E. Skeletal inventory of NHMUK PV R5937, “The Archbishop”, showing which bones were excavated by Migeod’ expedition. Based on a skeletal reconstruction of Giraffatitan brancai kindly provided by Scott Hartman: note that this image does not illustrate the shapes or proportions of the Archbishop material. Bones prepared and available for study are shown in white; those still in jackets awaiting preparation in light grey; those excavated by Migeod but apparently lost or destroyed in dark grey.

Migeod’s assessment of the size of the animal was based on the vertebrae: “The [neck] vertebrae found give a 20-foot [6.10 m] length […] The length of the back including the sacral region was about 15 feet [4.57 m]. The eight or nine caudal vertebrae cover about 6 feet [1.83 m]” (Migeod 1931a:90). This gives the total preserved length of the skeleton as 41 feet (12.50 m). By comparison, Janensch (1950b:102) gives lengths of portions of the mounted skeleton of MB.R.2181 as 8.78m (neck), 3.92m (torso) and 1.07m (sacrum) for a torso-plus-sacrum length of 4.99m. On this basis, the preserved neck of NHMUK PV R5937 is only 69% as long as that of MB.R.2181, but since the first four vertebrae were missing and omitted from Migeod’s measurement, this factor cannot be taken at face value. More informative is the torso-plus-sacrum length, which in NHMUK PV R5937 is 92% the length of MB.R.2181.

This is consonant with measurements of individual elements, which compare as follows:

Table 4. Comparative measurements of Archbishop and Giraffatitan elements

ElementMeasurement (cm)ArchbishopGiraffatitanRatio
Torso plus sacrumtotal length4574990.916
C10 (mC4)centrum length991000.990
C11 (mC3)centrum length104100[1]1.040
D4 (mD3)centrum length27360.750
Longest riblength over curve2352630.894
Left scapulocoracoidlength over curve221238[2]0.929
Right humeruslength1462130.685
Right humeruswidth51590.864
Right iliumlength98123[3]0.797
Right iliumheight7996[4]0.823
Femurlength122196[5]0.622
Average0.846

Archbishop measurements taken from Migeod (1931a) and converted from imperial; Giraffatitan measurements are for MB.R.2181 except where noted, and are taken from Janensch (1950a:44) and Janensch (1961).
Notes.
[1] Janensch (1950a) did not report a total centrum length for C11, as its condyle had not been removed from the cotyle of C10; but since the length of its centrum omitting the condyle was, at 87 cm, identical to that of C10, it is reasonable to estimate its total length as also equal to that of C10.
[2] Janensch (1961:181) did not include measurements for the right scapula of MB.R.2181, which is incorporated into the mounted skeleton, but does give the proximodistal length of its right coracoid as 45 cm. Using the 193 cm length given for the similarly sized scapula Sa 9, we can deduce a reasonable total estimate of 238 cm for the scapulocoracoid.
[3] Estimated by Janensch (1950b:99) based on cross-scaling from the fibula and ilium of Find J from the Upper Saurian Marl.
[4] This is the measurement provided by Janensch (1961:199) for the ilium Ma 2, which is incorporated into the mounted skeleton, and which Janensch (1950b:99) considered to match MB.R.2181 very precisely.
[5] Based on a restoration of the midshaft which Janench (1950b:99) calcuated based on other finds.

Individual lines of this table should each be treated with caution: Migeod’s measurements may have been unreliable, and in any case are underspecified: for example, we do not know whether, when he gave a vertebra’s length, he included overhanging prezygapophyses or the condyle. Similarly, we know that Migeod (1931:96) wrote that a rib “was as much as 92.5 inches long”, but we do not know for certain that, like Janensch, he measured the length over the curve rather than the straight-line distance between the ends. And when Migeod says that the ilium “measured 38.5 by 31 inches” we do not know that the height was measured “at the public process”, as Janensch (1961:199) specified.

With those caveats in place, nevertheless, a picture emerges of a sauropod somewhat smaller than MB.R.2181, though by no means negligible. On average, the measurements come out about 15% smaller than those of Giraffatitan.

But this average conceals a great deal of variation. The cervical vertebrae are comparable in length to those of MB.R.2181 (The total of 203 cm for C10 and C11 in the Archbishop, only 1.5% longer than 200 cm for MB.R.2181, is a difference well within the margin of measurement error). The Archbishop’s scapulocoracoid may have been 93% as long as in MB.R.2181. But the limb bones are signficantly shorter (87% for the humerus and a scarcely credible 62% for the femur), and the humeri at least bseem to be have been proportionally more robust in the Archbishop: only 2.86 times as long as wide, whereas the ratio is 3.61 in MB.R.2181. If Migeod’s measurements can be trusted, we have here an animal whose neck is as long as that of Giraffatitan, but whose limbs are noticably shorter. These proportions corroborate the hypothesis that the Archbishop is not a specimen of Giraffatitan.

It is said that, some time around 1590 AD, Galileo Galilei dropped two spheres of different masses from the Leaning Tower of Pisa[1], thereby demonstrating that they fell at the same rate. This was a big deal because it contradicted Aristotle’s theory of gravity, in which objects are supposed to fall at a speed proportional to their mass.

Aristotle lived from 384–322 BC, which means his observably incorrect theory had been scientific orthodoxy for more than 1,900 years before being overturned[2].

How did this happen? For nearly two millennia, every scientist had it in his power to hold a little stone in one hand and a rock in the other, drop them both, and see with his own eyes that they fell at the same speed. Aristotle’s theory was obviously wrong, yet that obviously wrong theory remained orthodox for eighty generations.

My take is that it happened because people — even scientists — have a strong tendency to trust respected predecessors, and not even to look to see whether their observations and theories are correct. I am guessing that in that 1,900 years, plenty of scientists did indeed do the stone-and-rock experiment, but discounted their own observations because they had too much respect for Aristotle.

But even truly great scientists can be wrong.

Now, here is the same story, told on a much much smaller scale.

Well into the 2010s, it was well known that in sauropods, caudal vertebrae past the first handful are pneumatized only in diplodocines and in saltasaurine titanosaurs. As a bright young sauropod researcher, for example, I knew this from the codings in important and respected phylogenetic analysis such as those of Wilson (2002) and Upchurch et al. (2004).

Until the day I visited the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and actually, you know, looked at the big mounted Giraffatitan skeleton in the atrium. And this is what I saw:

That’s caudal vertebrae 24–26 in left lateral view, and you could not wish to see a nicer, clearer pneumatic feature than the double foramen in caudal 25.

That observation led directly to Matt’s and my 2013 paper on caudal pneumaticity in Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus (Wedel and Taylor 2013) and clued us into how much more common pneumatic hiatuses are then we’d realised. It also birthed the notion of “cryptic diverticula” — those whose traces are not directly recorded in the fossils, but whose presence can be inferred by traces on other vertebrae. And that led to our most recent paper on pneumatic variation in sauropods (Taylor and Wedel 2021) — from which you might recognise the photo above, since a cleaned-up version of it appears there as Figure 5.

The moral

Just because “everyone knows” something is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually is true. Verify. Use your own eyes. Even Aristotle can be wrong about gravity. Even Jeff Wilson and Paul Upchurch can be wrong about caudal pneumaticity in non-diplodocines. That shouldn’t in any way undermine the rightly excellent reputations they have built. But we sometimes need to look past reputations, however well earned, to see what’s right in front of us.

Go and look at fossils. Does what you see contradict what “everyone knows”? Good! You’ve discovered something!

 

References

Notes

1. There is some skepticism about whether Galileo’s experiment really took place, or was merely a thought experiment. But since the experiment was described by Galileo’s pupil Vincenzo Viviani in a biography written in 1654, I am inclined to trust the contemporary account ahead of the unfounded scepticism of moderns. Also, Viviani’s wording, translated as “Galileo showed this by repeated experiments made from the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the presence of other professors and all the students” reads like a documentary account rather than a romanticization. And a thought experiment, with no observable result, would not have demonstrated anything.

2. Earlier experiments had similarly shown that Aristotle’s gravitational theory was wrong, including in the works of John Philoponus in the sixth century — but Aristotle’s orthodoxy nevertheless survived until Galileo.

 

Taylor 2015: Figure 8. Cervical vertebrae 4 (left) and 6 (right) of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2180 (previously HMN SI), in posterior view. Note the dramatically different aspect ratios of their cotyles, indicating that extensive and unpredictable crushing has taken place. Photographs by author.

Here are cervicals 4 and 8 from MB.R.2180, the big mounted Giraffatitan in Berlin. Even though this is one of the better sauropod necks in the world, the vertebrae have enough taphonomic distortion that trying to determine what neutral, uncrushed shape they started from is not easy.

Wedel and Taylor 2013b: Figure 3. The caudal vertebrae of ostriches are highly pneumatic. This mid-caudal vertebra of an ostrich (Struthio camelus), LACM Bj342, is shown in dorsal view (top), anterior, left lateral, and posterior views (middle, left to right), and ventral view (bottom). The vertebra is approximately 5cm wide across the transverse processes. Note the pneumatic foramina on the dorsal, ventral, and lateral sides of the vertebra.

Here’s one of the free caudal vertebrae of an ostrich, Struthio camelus, LACM Ornithology Bj342. It’s a bit asymmetric–the two halves of the neural spine are aimed in slightly different directions, and one transverse process is angled just slightly differently than the other–but the asymmetry is pretty subtle and the rest of the vertebral column looks normal, so I don’t think this rises to the level of pathology. It looks like the kind of minor variation that is present in all kinds of animals, especially large-bodied ones.

This is a dorsal vertebra of a rhea, Rhea americana, LACM Ornithology 97479, in posteroventral view. Ink pen for scale. I took this photo to document the pneumatic foramina and related bone remodeling on the dorsal roof of the neural canal, but I’m showing it here because in technical terms this vert is horked. It’s not subtly asymmetric, it’s grossly so, with virtually every feature–the postzygapophyses, diapophyses, parapophyses, and even the posterior articular surface of the centrum–showing fairly pronounced differences from left to right.

That rhea dorsal looks pretty bad for dry bone from a recently-dead extant animal, but if it was from the Morrison Formation it would be phenomenal. If I found a sauropod vertebra that looked that good, I’d think, “Hey, this thing’s in pretty good shape! Only a little distorted.” The roughed-up surface of the right transverse process might give me pause, and I’d want to take a close look at those postzygs, but most of this asymmetry is consistent with what I’d expect from taphonomic distortion.

Which brings me to my titular question, which I am asking out of genuine ignorance and not in a rhetorical or leading way: can we tell these things apart? And if so, with what degree of confidence? I know there has been a lot of work on 3D retrodeformation over the past decade and a half at least, but I don’t know whether this specific question has been addressed.

Corollary question: up above I wrote, “It looks like the kind of minor variation that is present in all kinds of animals, especially large-bodied ones”. My anecdotal experience is that the vertebrae of large extant animals tend to be more asymmetric than those of small extant animals, but I don’t know if that’s a real biological phenomenon–bone is bone but big animals have larger forces working on their skeletons, and they typically live longer, giving the skeleton more time to respond to those forces–OR if the asymmetry is the same in large and small animals and it’s just easier to see in the big ones.

If either of those questions has been addressed, I’d be grateful for pointers in the comments, and thanks in advance. If one or both have not been addressed, I think they’re interesting but Mike and I have plenty of other things to be getting on with and we’re not planning to work on either one, hence the “Hey, you! Want a project?” tag.

References

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 25, but may also exhibit two separate fossae.

But bone is usually the least variable material in the vertebrate body. Muscles vary more, nerves 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 that initially served the spinal cord, 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, when pneumatic diverticula enter the bone they do so via vascular foramina, alongside blood vessels.
  • The same was probaby true in sauropods.
  • So in vertebrae that got all their blood supply from vascular foramina in the neural canal, diverticula were unable to enter the centra from the outside.
  • 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 that 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 our paper — 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 at 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]

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.

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.

Nature’s CT machine

January 28, 2020

Because I’ve worked a lot on the anatomy and evolution of air-filled bones in sauropod dinosaurs, I’ve spent most of my career looking at images like this:

CT sections through a cervical vertebra of an apatosaurine (Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus), OMNH 1094. Wedel (2003b: fig. 6). Scale bar is 10cm.

…and thinking about images like this:

Physical sections through pneumatic vertebrae of Giraffatitan. Janensch (1950: figs. 71-73).

Turns out, that’s pretty good practice for fossil prospecting in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation, where we frequently find things like this:

That’s a bit hard to read, so let’s pull it out from the background:

This is almost certainly a pneumatic vertebra of a sauropod, sectioned more-or-less randomly by the forces of erosion to expose a complicated honeycomb of internal struts and chambers. The chambers are full of sandstone now, but in life they were full of air. I say “almost certainly” because there is small chance that it could belong to a very large theropod, but it looks more sauropod-y to me (for reasons I may expand upon in the comments if anyone is curious).

I’m not 100% certain what section this is. At first I was tempted to read it as a transversely-sectioned dorsal, something like the Allosaurus dorsal shown in this post (link) but from a small, possibly juvenile sauropod. But the semi-radial, spoke-like arrangement of the internal struts going to the round section at the bottom looks very much like the inside of the condyle of a sauropod cervical or cervico-dorsal–compare to fig. 71 from Janensch (1950), shown above. And of course there is no reason to suspect that the plane of this cut is neatly in any of the cardinal anatomical directions. It is most likely an oblique cut that isn’t purely transverse or sagittal or anything else, but some combination of the above. It’s also not alone–there are bits and bobs of bone to the side and above in the same chunk of sandstone, which might be parts of this vertebra or of neighboring bones. Assuming it is a sauropod, my guess is Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus, because it looks even more complex than the sectioned cervicals and dorsals I’ve seen of Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, or the apatosaurines.

Sometimes we can do a little better. This is one of my favorite finds from the Salt Wash. This boulder, now in two parts, fell down out of a big overhanging sandstone cliff. When the boulder hit, it broke into two halves, and the downhill half rolled over 180 degrees, bringing both cut faces into view in this photo. And there in the boulder is what looks like two vertebrae, but is in fact the neatly separated halves of a single vertebra. I know I refer to erosion and breakage as “Nature’s CT machine”, but this time that’s really on the nose. Let’s take a closer look:

Here’s what I see:

It’s a proportionally long vertebra with a round ball at one end and a hemispherical socket at the other end: a cervical vertebra of a sauropod. Part of the cervical rib is preserved on the upper side, which I suspect is the left side. The parapophysis on the opposite side is angled a bit out of the rock, toward the camera. Parapophyses of sauropod cervicals tend to be angled downward, and if we’re looking at the bottom of this vertebra, then the rib on the upper side is the left. The right cervical rib was cut off when the boulder broke. All we have on this side are the wide parapophysis and the slender strut of the diapophysis aiming out of the rock toward the missing rib, which must still be embedded in the other half of the boulder–and in fact you can see a bit of it peeking out in the counterpart in the wide shot, above.

Can we get a taxonomic ID? I think so, based on the following clues:

  • The cervical ribs are set waaay out to either side of the centrum, by about one centrum diameter. Such wide-set cervical ribs occur in Camarasaurus and the apatosaurines, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, but not typically in Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, or other Morrison sauropods.
  • The cervical rib we can see the most of is pretty slender, like those of Camarasaurus, in contrast to the massive, blocky cervical ribs of the apatosaurines (for example).
  • We can see at least bits of both the left and right cervical ribs in the two slabs–along with a section right through the centrum. So the cervical ribs were set wide from the centrum but not displaced deeply below it, as in Camarasaurus, and again in contrast to the apatosaurines, in which the cervical ribs are typically displaced far below (ventral to) the centrum (see this).
  • This one is a little more loosey-goosey, but the exposed internal structure looks “about right” for Camarasaurus. There is a mix of large and small chambers, but not many small ones, and nothing approaching the coarse, regular honeycomb we’d expect in Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus, or Diplodocus, let alone the fine irregular honeycomb we’d expect in Barosaurus or Brachiosaurus (although I will show you a vert like that in an upcoming post). On the other hand, the internal structure is too complex for Haplocanthosaurus (compare to the top image here).
  • As long as Camarasaurus is on the table, I’ll note that the overall proportions are good for a mid-cervical of Cam as well. That’s not worth much, since vertebral proportions vary along the column and almost every Morrison sauropod has cervicals with this general proportion somewhere in the neck, but it doesn’t hurt.

So the balance of the evidence points toward Camarasaurus. In one character or another, every other known Morrison sauropod is disqualified.

When it’s too dark to hunt for sauropods, you can look at other things.

Now, Camarasaurus is not only the most common sauropod in the Morrison, it’s also the most common dinosaur of any kind in the formation. So this isn’t a mind-blowing discovery. Still, it’s nice to be able to get down to a genus-level ID based on a single vertebra fortuitously sectioned by Mother Nature. In upcoming posts, I’ll show some of the more exciting critters that we’ve been able to ID out of the Salt Wash, ‘we’ here including Brian Engh, John Foster, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Jessie Atterholt, and Thuat Tran. Brian will also be showing many of these same fossils in the next installment of Jurassic Reimagined. Catch Part 1 here (link), and stay tuned to Brian’s paleoart channel (here) for more in the very near future.

References

Two professionals, hard at work.

After this year’s SVPCA, Vicki and London and I spent a few days with the Taylor family in the lovely village of Ruardean. It wasn’t all faffing about with the Iguanodon pelvis, the above photo notwithstanding. Mike and I had much to discuss after the conference, in particular what the next steps might be for the Supersaurus project. Mike has been tracking down early mentions of Supersaurus, and in particular trying to determine the point at which Jensen decided that it might be a diplodocid rather than a brachiosaurid. I recalled that Gerald Wood discussed Supersaurus in his wonderful 1982 book, The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. While on the track of Supersaurus, I stumbled across this amazing claim in the section on Diplodocus (Wood 1982: p. 209):

According to De Camp and De Camp (1968) these giant sauropods may have been able to regenerate lost parts, and they mention another skeleton collected in Wyoming which appeared to have lost about 25 per cent of its tail to a carnosaur and then regrown it — along with 21 new vertebrae!

De Camp and De Camp (1968) is a popular or non-technical book, The Day of the Dinosaur. Used copies can be had for a song, so I ordered one online and it was waiting for me when I got back to California.

The Day of the Dinosaur is an interesting book. L. Sprague De Camp and Catherine Crook De Camp embodied the concept of the “life-long learner” before there was a buzzword to go with it. He had been an aerospace engineer in World War II, and she had been an honors graduate and teacher, before they turned to writing full time. Individually and together, they produced a wide range of science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction books over careers that spanned almost six decades. The De Camps’ writing in The Day of the Dinosaur is erudite in range but conversational in style, and they clearly kept up with current discoveries. They also recognized that science is a human enterprise and that, like any exploratory process, it is marked by wildly successful leaps, frustrating wheel-spinning, and complete dead ends. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the authors were completely up to speed on plate tectonics, an essentially brand-new science in 1968, and they explain it as an alternative to older theories about immensely long land bridges or sunken continents.

At the same time, the book arrived just before the end-of-the-1960s publications of John Ostrom and Bob Bakker that kicked off the Dinosaur Renaissance, so there’s no mention of warm-blooded dinosaurs. The De Camps’ sauropods and duckbills are still swamp-bound morons, “endlessly dredging up mouthfuls of soft plant food and living out their long, slow, placid, brainless lives” (p. 142), stalked by ‘carnosaurs’ that were nothing more than collections of teeth relentlessly driven by blind instinct and hunger. The book is therefore an artifact of a precise time; there was perhaps a year at most in the late 1960s when authors as technically savvy as the De Camps would have felt obliged to explain plate tectonics and its nearly-complete takeover of structural geology (which had just happened), but not to comment on the new and outrageous hypothesis of warm-blooded, active, terrestrial dinosaurs (which hadn’t happened yet).

The book may also appeal to folks with an interest in mid-century paleo-art, as the illustrations are a glorious hodge-podge of Charles R. Knight, Neave Parker, photos of models and mounted skeletons from museums, life restorations reproduced from the technical literature, and original art produced for the book, including quite a few line drawings by one L. Sprague De Camp. Roy Krenkel even contributed an original piece, shown above (if you don’t know Krenkel, he was a contemporary and sometime collaborator of Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta, and his art collection Swordsmen and Saurians is stunning and still gettable at not-completely-ruinous prices; I’ve had mine since about 1997).

ANYWAY, as entertaining as The Day of the Dinosaur is, it doesn’t do much to help us regenerate the tale of the regenerated tail. Here’s the entire story, from page 114:

Sauropods, some students think, had great powers of regenerating lost parts. One specimen from Wyoming is thought to have lost the last quarter of its tail and regrown it, along with twenty-one new tail vertebrae. That is better than a modern lizard can do; for the lizard, in regenerating its tail, grows only a stumpy approximation of the original, without new vertebrae.

That’s it. No sources mentioned or cited, so no advance over Wood in terms of tracking down the origin of the story.

Massospondylus tail with traumatic amputation at caudal 25 (Butler et al. 2013: fig. 1A).

To be clear, I don’t really think there is a sauropod that regrew its tail, especially since we have evidence for traumatic tail amputation without regeneration in the basal sauropodomorph Massospondylus (Butler et al. 2013), in the theropod Majungasaurus (Farke and O’Connor 2007), and in a hadrosaur (Tanke and Rothschild 2002). But I would love to learn how such a story got started, what the evidence was, how it was communicated, and most importantly, how it took on a life of its own.

If anyone knows any more about this, I’d be very grateful for any pointers. The comment thread is open.

References

  • Butler, R. J., Yates, A. M., Rauhut, O. W., & Foth, C. 2013. A pathological tail in a basal sauropodomorph dinosaur from South Africa: evidence of traumatic amputation? Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 33(1): 224-228.
  • De Camp, L. S., and De Camp, C. C. 1968. The Day of the Dinosaur. Bonanza Books, New York, 319 pp.
  • Farke, A. A., & O’Connor, P. M. 2007. Pathology in Majungasaurus crenatissimus (Theropoda: Abelisauridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 27(S2): 180-184.
  • Krenkel, R. G. 1989. Swordsmen and Saurians: From the Mesozoic to Barsoom. Eclipse Books, 152 pp.
  • Tanke, D. H., & Rothschild, B. M. 2002. DINOSORES: An annotated bibliography of dinosaur paleopathology and related topics—1838-2001. Bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, vol. 20.
  • Wood, G. L. 1982. The Guinness Book of Animals Facts & Feats (3rd edition). Guinness Superlatives Ltd., Enfield, Middlesex, 252 pp.