November 5, 2014
Last night, I submitted a paper for publication — for the first time since April 2013. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. But, because we’re living in the Shiny Digital Future, you don’t have to wait till it’s been through review and formal publication to read it. I submitted to PeerJ, and at the same time, made it available as a preprint (Taylor 2014).
It’s called “Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs”, and frankly the results are weird. Here’s a taste:
A year back, as I was composing a blog-post about our neck-cartilage paper in PLOS ONE (Taylor and Wedel 2013c), I found myself writing down the rather trivial formula for the additional angle of extension at an intervertebral joint once the cartilage is taken into account. In that post, I finished with the promise “I guess that will have to go in a followup now”. Amazingly it’s taken me a year to get that one-pager written and submitted. (Although in the usual way of things, the manuscript ended up being 13 pages long.)
To summarise the main point of the paper: when you insert cartilage of thickness t between two vertebrae whose zygapophyses articulate at height h above the centra, the more anterior vertebra is forced upwards by t/h radians. Our best guess for how much cartilage is between the adjacent vertebrae in an Apatosaurus neck is about 10% of centrum length: the image above shows the effect of inserting that much cartilage at each joint.
And yes, it’s weird. But it’s where the data leads me, so I think it would be dishonest not to publish it.
I’ll be interested to see what the reviewers make of this. You are all of course welcome to leave comments on the preprint itself; but because this is going through conventional peer-review straight away (unlike our Barosaurus preprint), there’s no need to offer the kind of detailed and comprehensive comment that several people did with the previous one. Of course feel free if you wish, but I’m not depending on it.
Gilmore Charles W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus, with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175–300 and plates XXI–XXXIV.
Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284(5415):798–800. doi:10.1126/science.284.5415.798
Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214
September 27, 2014
A couple of times now, I’ve pitched in an abstract for a Masters project looking at neck cartilage, hoping someone at Bristol will work on it with me co-supervising, but so far no-one’s bitten. Here’s how I’ve been describing it:
Understanding posture and motion in the necks of sauropods: the crucial role of cartilage in intervertebral joints
The sauropod dinosaurs were an order of magnitude bigger than any other terrestrial animal. Much sauropod research has concentrated on their long necks, which were crucial to their success (e.g. Sander et al. 2010). One approach to understanding neck function tries to determine neutral posture and range of motion by modelling the cervical vertebrae as a mechanical system (e.g. Stevens and Parrish 1999).
The raw material of such studies is fossilised vertebrae, but these are problematic for several reasons. The invariable incompleteness and distortion of sauropod neck fossils causes fundamental difficulties; but even given perfect fossils, the lack of preserved cartilage means that the bones are not shaped or sized as they were in life.
Ignoring cartilage has dramatic consequences for neutral posture, range of motion and even length of necks: pilot studies (Cobley 2011, Taylor 2011) found that intact bird necks are 8–12% longer than articulated sequences of their dry bones, and that figure is as high as 24% for a juvenile giraffe neck. A turkey neck postzygapophysis was 26% longer when cartilage was included than after being stripped down to naked bone.
We do not yet know how much articular cartilage sauropods had in their necks, nor even what kind of intervertebral joints they had: crocodilians have fibrocartilaginous discs like those of mammals, while birds have synovial joints, so the extant phylogenetic bracket is uninformative.
The project will involve dissection and measurement of bird and crocodilian necks, documenting the extent and shape of articular cartilage, identifying osteological correlates of fibrocartilaginous and synovial joints, and applying this data to sauropods to determine the nature of their neck joints and length of their necks, to reconstruct the lost cartilage, and to determine its effect on neutral pose and range of motion.
Following completion, we anticipate publication of the project.
Cobley, Matthew J. 2011. The flexibility and musculature of the ostrich neck: implications for the feeding ecology and reconstruction of the Sauropoda (Dinosauria: Saurischia). MSc Thesis, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. vi+64 pages.
Sander, P. Martin, Andreas Christian, Marcus Clauss, Regina Fechner, Carole T. Gee, Eva-Maria Griebeler, Hanns-Christian Gunga, Jürgen Hummel, Heinrich Mallison, Steven F. Perry, Holger Preuschoft, Oliver W. M. Rauhut, Kristian Remes, Thomas Tütken, Oliver Wings and Ulrich Witzel. 2010. Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the evolution of gigantism. Biological Reviews 86:117–155. doi:10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00137.x
Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck Posture and Feeding Habits of Two Jurassic Sauropod Dinosaurs. Science 284:798–800. doi:10.1126/science.284.5415.798
Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2011. Sauropod necks: how much do we really know?. p. 20 in Richard Forrest (ed.), Abstracts of Presentations, 59th Annual Symposium of Vertebrae Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK, September 12th–17th 2011. 37 pp. http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/dino/pubs/svpca2011/TaylorWedel2011-what-do-we-really-know.ppt
(Obviously some part of this have since been covered by my and Matt’s first cartilage paper, but plenty has not.)
I now think there are two reasons no-one’s taken up this project: first, because I wrote it as very focussed only on the question of what type of joint was present, whereas there are plenty of related issues to be investigated along the way; and second, because I wrote it as a quest to discover a specific treasure (an osteological correlate), with the implication that if there’s no treasure to be found then the project will have been a failure.
But I do think there is still plenty of important work to be done in this area, and that there’s lots of important information to be got out of comparative dissection of extant critters.
If anyone out there fancies working in this area, I’d be delighted. I’d also be happy to offer whatever advice and help I could.
Update (18 October 2014)
Somehow I’d forgotten, when I wrote this post, that I’d previously written a more detailed post about the discs-in-sauropod-necks problem. If you’re interested in the problem, you should read that.
September 15, 2014
The body mass should be considerably lower because the reconstructed column don’t match with published vertebrae centra lengths. 3D reconstruction also leaves too much space between vertebrae. The reconstruction body trunk is probably 15-20% longer than it really was. Check the supplementary material: http://www.nature.com/srep/2014/140904/srep06196/extref/srep06196-s1.pdf
So I did. The table of measurements in the supplementary material is admirably complete. For all of the available dorsal vertebrae except D9, which I suppose must have been too poorly preserved to measure the difference, Lacovara et al. list both the total centrum length and the centrum length minus the anterior condyle. Centrum length minus the condyle is what in my disseration I referred to as “functional length”, since it’s the length that the vertebra actually contributes to the articulated series, assuming that the condyle of one vertebra sticks out about as far as the cotyle is recessed on the next vertebra. Here are total lengths/functional lengths/differences for the seven preserved dorsals, in mm:
- D4 – 400/305/95
- D5 – 470/320/150
- D6 – 200/180/20
- D7 – 300/260/40
- D8 – 350/270/80
- D9 – 410/ – / –
- D10 – 330/225/105
The average difference between functional length and total length is 82 mm. If we apply that to D9 to estimate it’s functional length, we get 330mm. The summed functional lengths of the seven preserved vertebrae are then 1890 mm. What about the missing D1-D3? Since the charge is that Lacovara et al. (2014) restored Dreadnoughtus with a too-long torso, we should be as generous as possible in estimating the lengths of the missing dorsals. In Malawisaurus the centrum lengths of D1-D3 are all less than or equal to that of D4, which is the longest vertebra in the series (Gomani 2005: table 3), so it seems simplest here to assign D1-D3 functional lengths of 320 mm. That brings the total functional length of the dorsal vertebral column to 2850 mm, or 2.85 m.
At this point on my first pass, I was thinking that Lacovara et al. (2014) were in trouble. In the skeletal reconstruction that I used for the GDI work in the last post, I measured the length of the dorsal vertebral column as 149 pixels. Divided by 36 px/m gives a summed dorsal length of 4.1 m. That’s more than 40% longer than the summed functional lengths of the vertebrae calculated above (4.1/2.85 = 1.44). Had Lacovara et al. really blown it that badly?
Before we can rule on that, we have to estimate how much cartilage separated the dorsal vertebrae. This is a subject of more than passing interest here at SV-POW! Towers–the only applicable data I know of are the measurements of intervertebral spacing in two juvenile apatosaurs that Mike and I reported in our cartilage paper last year (Taylor and Wedel 2013: table 3, and see this post). We found that the invertebral cartilage thickness equaled 15-24% of the length of the centra.* For the estimated 2.85-meter dorsal column of Dreadnoughtus, that means 43-68 cm of cartilage (4.3-6.8 cm of cartilage per joint), for an in vivo dorsal column length of 3.28-3.53 meters. That’s still about 15-20% shorter than the 4.1 meters I measured from the skeletal recon–and, I must note, exactly what Asier stated in his comment. All my noodling has accomplished is to verify that his presumably off-the-cuff estimate was spot on. But is that a big deal?
Visually, a 20% shorter torso makes a small but noticeable difference. Check out the original reconstruction (top) with the 20%-shorter-torso version (bottom):
FWIW, the bottom version looks a lot more plausible to my eye–I hadn’t realized quite how weiner-dog-y the original recon is until I saw it next to the shortened version.
In terms of body mass, the difference is major. You’ll recall that I estimated the torso volume of Dreadnoughtus at 32 cubic meters. Lopping off 20% means losing 6.4 cubic meters–about the same volume as a big bull elephant, or all four of Dreadnoughtus‘s limbs put together. Even assuming a low whole-body density of 0.7 g/cm^3, that’s 4.5 metric tons off the estimated mass. So a ~30-ton Dreadnoughtus is looking more plausible by the minute.
For more on how torso length can affect the visual appearance and estimated mass of an animal, see this post and Taylor (2009).
* I asked Mike to do a review pass on this post before I published, and regarding the intervertebral spacing derived from the juvenile apatosaurs, he wrote:
That 15-24% is for juveniles. For the cervicals of adult Sauroposeidon we got about 5%. Why the differences? Three reasons might be relevant: 1, taxonomic difference between Sauroposeidon and Apatosaurus; 2, serial difference between neck and torso; 3, ontogenetic difference between juvenile and adult. By applying the juvenile Apatosaurus dorsal measurement directly to the adult Dreadnoughtus dorsals, you’re implicitly assuming that the adult/juvenile axis is irrelevant (which seems unlikely to me), that the taxonomic axis is (I guess) unknowable, and that the cervical/dorsal distinction is the only one that matter.
That’s a solid point, and it deserves a post of its own, which I’m already working on. For now, it seems intuitively obvious to me that we got a low percentage on Sauroposeidon simply because the vertebrae are so long. If the length-to-diameter ratio was 2.5 instead of 5, we’d have gotten 10%, unless cartilage thickness scales with centrum length, which seems unlikely. For a dorsal with EI of 1.5, cartilage thickness would then be 20%, which is about what I figured above.
Now, admittedly that is arm-waving, not science (and really just a wordy restatement of his point #2). The obvious thing to do is take all of our data and see if intervertebral spacing is more closely correlated with centrum length or centrum diameter. Now that it’s occurred to me, it seems very silly not to have done that in the actual paper. And I will do that very thing in an upcoming post. For now I’ll just note three things:
- As you can see from figure 15 in our cartilage paper, in the opisthocoelous anterior dorsals of CM 3390, the condyle of the posterior vertebra is firmly engaged in the cotyle of the anterior one, and if anything the two vertebrae look jammed together, not drifted apart. But the intervertebral spacing as a fraction of centrum length is still huge (20+4%) because the centra are so short.
- Transferring these numbers to Dreadnoughtus only results in 4.3-6.8 cm of cartilage between adjacent vertebrae, which does not seem unreasonable for a 30- or 40-ton animal with dorsal centra averaging 35 cm in diameter. If you asked me off the cuff what I thought a reasonable intervertebral spacing was for such a large animal, I would have said 3 or 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm), so the numbers I got through cross-scaling are actually lower than what I would have guessed.
- Finally, if I’ve overestimated the intervertebral spacing, then the actual torso length of Dreadnoughtus was even shorter than that illustrated above, and the volumetric mass estimate would be smaller still. So in going with relatively thick cartilage, I’m being as generous as possible to the Lacovara et al. (2014) skeletal reconstruction (and indirectly to their super-high allometry-derived mass estimate), which I think is only fair.
- Gomani, Elizabeth M. 2005. Sauropod dinosaurs from the Early Cretaceous of Malawi, Africa. Palaeontologia Electronica 8(1):27A (37 pp.)
- Lacovara, Kenneth J.; Ibiricu, L.M.; Lamanna, M.C.; Poole, J.C.; Schroeter, E.R.; Ullmann, P.V.; Voegele, K.K.; Boles, Z.M.; Egerton, V.M.; Harris, J.D.; Martínez, R.D.; Novas, F.E. (September 4, 2014). A Gigantic, Exceptionally Complete Titanosaurian Sauropod Dinosaur from Southern Patagonia, Argentina. Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/srep06196.
- 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.
- Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214
January 15, 2014
[This is part 4 in an ongoing series on our recent PLOS ONE paper on sauropod neck cartilage. See also part 1, part 2, and part 3.]
Here’s a frequently-reproduced quote from Darwin:
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!
It’s from a letter to Henry Fawcett, dated September 18, 1861, and you can read the whole thing here.
I’ve known this quote for ages, having been introduced to it at Berkeley–a copy used to be taped to the door of the Padian Lab, and may still be. It’s come back to haunt me recently, though. An even stronger version would run something like, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t make the observation in the first place!”
For example: I started CT scanning sauropod vertebrae with Rich Cifelli and Kent Sanders back in January, 1998. Back then, I was interested in pneumaticity, so that’s what I looked for, and that’s what I found–work which culminated in Wedel et al. (2000) and Wedel (2003). It wasn’t until earlier this year that I wondered if it would be possible to determine the spacing of articulated vertebrae from CT scans. So everything I’m going to show you, I technically saw 15 years ago, but only in the sense of “it crossed my visual field.” None of it registered at the time, because I wasn’t looking for it.
A corollary I can’t help noting in passing: one of the under-appreciated benefits of expanding your knowledge base is that it allows you to actually make more observations. Many aspects of nature only appear noteworthy once you have a framework in which to see them.
So anyway, the very first specimen we scanned way back when was the most anterior of the three plaster jackets that contain the four cervical vertebrae that make up OMNH 53062, which was destined to become the holotype of Sauroposeidon. I’ve written about the taphonomy of that specimen here, and you can read more about how it was excavated in Wedel and Cifelli (2005). We scanned that jacket first because, although the partial vertebrae it contains are by far the most incomplete of the four, the jacket is a lot smaller and lighter than the other two (which weigh hundreds of pounds apiece). Right away we saw internal chambers in the vertebrae, and that led to all of the pneumaticity work mentioned above.
Happily for me, that first jacket contains not only the posterior two-thirds of the first vertebra (possibly C5), but also the front end of the second vertebra. Whoever decided to plow through the second vertebra to divide the specimen into manageable chunks in the field made a savvy choice. Way back in 2004 I realized that the cut edge of the second vertebra was not obscured by plaster, and therefore the internal structure could be seen and measured directly, which is a lot cleaner than relying on the artifact-heavy CT scans. (The CT scans are noisy because the hospital machines we had access to start to pant a bit when asked to punch x-rays through specimens this large and dense.) A figure derived from that work made it into a couple of papers and this post, and appears again above.
But that’s pneumaticity, which this post is allegedly not about. The cut through the second vertebra was also smart because it left the intervertebral joint intact.
Here are a photo of the jacket and a lateral scout x-ray. The weird rectangles toward the left and right ends of the x-ray are boards built into the bottom of the jacket to strengthen it.
And here’s a closeup of the C5/C6 joint, with the relevant radiographs and tracing. The exciting thing here is that the condyle is centered almost perfectly in the cotyle, and the zygapophyses are in articulation. Together with the lack of disarticulation in the cervical rib bundle (read more about that here and in Wedel et al. 2000), these things suggest to us that the vertebrae are spaced pretty much as they were in life. If so, then the spacing between the vertebrae now tells us the thickness of the soft tissue that separated the vertebrae in life.
I should point out here that we can’t prove that the spacing between the vertebrae is still the same as it was in life. But if some mysterious force moved them closer together or farther apart, it did so (1) without decentering the condyle of C6 within the cotyle of C5, (2) without moving the one surviving zygapophyseal joint out of contact, and (3) without disarticulating the cervical ribs. The cervical ribs were each over 3 meters long in life and they formed vertically-stacked bundles on either side below the vertebrae; that’s a lot of stuff to move just through any hypothetical contraction or expansion of the intervertebral soft tissues after death. In fact, I would not be surprised if the intervertebral soft tissues did contract or expand after death–but I don’t think they moved the vertebrae, which are comparatively immense. The cartilage probably pulled away from the bone as it rotted, allowing sediment in. Certainly every nook and cranny of the specimen is packed with fine-grained sandstone now.
Anyway, barring actual preserved cartilage, this is a best-case scenario for trying to infer intervertebral spacing in a fossil. If articulation of the centra, zygs, and cervical ribs doesn’t indicate legitimate geometry, nothing ever will. So if we’re going to use the fossils to help settle this at all, we’re never going to have a better place to start.
So, by now, you know I’m a doofus. I have been thinking about this problem literally for years and the data I needed to address it was sitting on my hard drive the entire time. One of the things I pondered during those lost years is what the best shape for a concave-to-convex intervertebral joint might be. Would the best spacing be radially constant (A in the figure above), or antero-posteriorly constant (B), or some other, more complicated arrangement? The answer in this case surprised me–although the condyle is a lot smaller in diameter than the cotyle, the anteroposterior separation between them in almost constant, as you can see in part C of the above figure.
Don’t get too worked up about that, though, because the next joint is very different! Here’s the C6/C7 joint, again in a lateral scout x-ray, with the ends of the bones highlighted. Here the condyle is almost as big in diameter as the cotyle, but it is weirdly flat. This isn’t a result of overzealous prep–most of the condyle is still covered in matrix, and I only found its actual extent by looking at the x-ray. This is flatter than most anterior dorsal vertebrae of Apatosaurus–I’ve never seen a sauropod cervical with such a flat condyle. Has anyone else?
The condyle of C6 is a bit flatter than expected, too–certainly a lot flatter than the cervical condyles in Giraffatitan and the BYU Brachiosaurus vertebrae. As we said in the paper,
It is tempting to speculate that the flattened condyles and nearly constant thickness of the intervertebral cartilage are adaptations to bearing weight, which must have been an important consideration in a cervical series more than 11 meters long, no matter how lightly built.
Anyway, obviously here the anteroposterior distance between condyle and cotyle could not have been uniform because they are such different shapes. Wacky. The zygs are missing, so they’re no help, and clearly the condyle is not centered in the cotyle. Whether this posture was attainable in life is debatable; I’ve seen some pretty weird stuff. In any case, we didn’t use this joint for estimating cartilage thickness because we had no reason to trust the results.
Kent Sanders and I had also scanned several of the smaller sauropod vertebrae from the Carnegie collection (basically, the ones that would fit in the trunk of my car for the drive back to Oklahoma). Crucially, we’d scanned a couple of sets of articulated vertebrae, CM 3390 and CM 11339, both from juvenile individuals of Apatosaurus. In both cases, the condyles and cotyles are concentric (that’s what the ‘orthogonal gaps’ are all about in the above figure) and the zygs are in articulation, just as in Sauroposeidon. These are dorsals, so we don’t have any cervical ribs here to provide a third line of evidence that the articulation is legit, but all of the evidence that we do have is at least consistent with that interpretation.
So, here’s an interesting thing: in CM 3390, above, the first dorsal is cranked up pretty sharply compared to the next one, but the condyle is still centered in the cotyle and the zygs are in articulation. Now, the vertebrae have obviously been sheared by taphonomic deformation, but that seems to have affected both vertebrae to the same extent, and it’s hard to imagine some kind of taphonomic pressure moving one vertebra around relative to the next. So I think it’s at least plausible that this range of motion was achievable in life. Using various views and landmarks, we estimate the degree of extension here somewhere between 31 and 36 degrees. That’s a lot more than the ~6 degrees estimated by Stevens and Parrish (1999, 2005). And, as we mentioned in the paper, it nicely reinforces the point made by Upchurch (2000), that flexibility in the anterior dorsals should be taken into account in estimating neck posture and ROM.
Here’s our last specimen, CM 11339. No big surprises here, although if you ever had a hard time visualizing how hyposphenes and hypantra fit together, you can see them in articulation in parts C and D (near the top of the specimen). Once again, by paging through slices we were able to estimate the separation between the vertebrae. Incidentally, the condyle IS centered in the cotyle here, it just doesn’t look that way because the CT slice is at an angle to the joint–see the lateral scout in part A of the figure to see what I mean.
So, what did we find? In Sauroposeidon the spacing between C5 and C6 is 52mm. That’s pretty darn thick in absolute terms–a shade over two inches–but really thin in relative terms–only a little over 4% of the length of each vertebra. In both of the juvenile Apatosaurus specimens, the spacing between the vertebrae was about 14mm (give or take a few because of the inherent thickness of the slices; see the paper for details on these uncertainties).
Now, here’s an interesting thing: we can try to estimate the intervertebral spacing in an adult Apatosaurus in two ways–by scaling up from the juvenile apatosaurus, or by scaling sideways from Sauroposeidon (since a big Apatosaurus was in the same ballpark, size-wise)–and we get similar answers either way.
Scaling sideways from Sauroposeidon (I’m too lazy to write anymore so I’m just copying and pasting from the paper):
Centrum shape is conventionally quantified by Elongation Index (EI), which is defined as the total centrum length divided by the dorsoventral height of the posterior articular surface. Sauroposeidon has proportionally very long vertebrae: the EI of C6 is 6.1. If instead it were 3, as in the mid-cervicals of Apatosaurus, the centrum length would be 600 mm. That 600 mm minus 67 mm for the cotyle would give a functional length of 533 mm, not 1153, and 52 mm of cartilage would account for 9.8% of the length of that segment.
Scaling up from the juveniles: juvenile sauropods have proportionally short cervicals (Wedel et al. 2000). The scanned vertebrae are anterior dorsals with an EI of about 1.5. Mid-cervical vertebrae of this specimen would have EIs about 2, so the same thickness of cartilage would give 12mm of cartilage and 80mm of bone per segment, or 15% cartilage per segment. Over ontogeny the mid-cervicals telescoped to achieve EIs of 2.3–3.3. Assuming the cartilage did not also telescope in length (i.e., didn’t get any thicker than it got taller or wider), the ratio of cartilage to bone would be 12:120 (120 from 80*1.5), so the cartilage would account for 10% of the length of the segment–almost exactly what we got from the based-on-Sauroposeidon estimate. So either we got lucky here with our tiny sample size and truckloads of assumptions, or–just maybe–we discovered a Thing. At least we can say that the intervertebral spacing in the Apatosaurus and Sauroposeidon vertebrae is about the same, once the effects of scaling and EI are removed.
Finally, we’re aware that our sample size here is tiny and heavily skewed toward juveniles. That’s because we were just collecting targets of opportunity. Finding sauropod vertebrae that will fit through a medical-grade CT scanner is not easy, and it’s just pure dumb luck that Kent Sanders and I had gotten scans of even this many articulated vertebrae way back when, since at the time we were on the hunt for pneumaticity, not intervertebral joints or their soft tissues. As Mike has said before, we don’t think of this paper as the last word on anything. It is, explicitly, exploratory. Hopefully in a few years we’ll be buried in new data on in-vivo intervertebral spacing in both extant and extinct animals. If and when that avalanche comes, we’ll just be happy to have tossed a snowball.
- Stevens, K.A. and Parrish, J.M. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284: 798-800. [Free subscription required]
- Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 2005. Neck posture, dentition, and feeding strategies in Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. pp. 212-232 in: Virginia Tidwell and Ken Carpenter (eds.), Thunder Lizards: the Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. 495 pp.
- Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214 [PDF]
- Upchurch, P. 2000. Neck posture of sauropod dinosaurs. Science 287: 547b.
- Wedel, M.J. 2003b. The evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23:344-357.
- Wedel, M.J. 2007. Aligerando a los gigantes (Lightening the giants). ¡Fundamental! 12:1-84. [in Spanish, with English translation]
- Wedel, M.J., and Cifelli, R.L. 2005. Sauroposeidon: Oklahoma’s native giant. Oklahoma Geology Notes 65 (2):40-57.
- Wedel, M.J., R.L. Cifelli and R.K. Sanders. 2000. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45(4): 343-388.
November 8, 2013
One aspect of sauropod neck cartilage that’s been overlooked — and this applies to all non-avian dinosaurs, not just sauropods — is the configuration of the cartilage in their necks. It’s not widely appreciated that birds’ necks differ from those of all other animals in this respect, and we don’t yet know whether sauropods resembled birds or mammals.
Here’s a classic sagittal view of a mammal neck — in this case a human — from The Basics of MRI (Joseph P. Hornak, 1996-2013):
You can see two distinct kinds of structure alternating along the neck: the big, square ones are vertebral centra (slightly hollow at each end), and the narrower lens-shaped ones are the intervertebral discs.
In mammals, and most animals, we find this distinct fibrocartilaginous element, the disc, between the centra of consecutive vertebrae. These discs have a complex structure of their own, consisting of an annulus fibrosus (fibrous ring), made of several layers of fibrocartilage, surrounding a nucleus pulposus (pulpy centre) with the consistency of jelly.
But in birds, uniquely among extant animals, there is no separate cartilaginous element. Instead, the articular surfaces of the bones are covered with layers of hyaline cartilage which articulate directly with one another, and are free to slide across each other. The adjacent articular surfaces are enclosed in synovial capsules similar to those that enclose the zygapophyseal joints. You can see this in the hemisected Rhea neck from last time:
The difference between these two constructions is very apparent in dissection: in birds, adjacent vertebrae come apart easily once the surrounding soft tissue is removed; but in mammals, it is very difficult to separate consecutive vertebrae, as they are firmly attached to the intervening intervertebral disc.To complicate matters further, thin articular discs occur in the necks of some birds — for example, the ostrich (see illustration below), the swan, and the king penguin. But these discs do not occur in all birds — for example, they are absent in the turkey and the rhea. When they are present, these articular discs divide the synovial cavity and prevent the (cartilage-covered) bones on either side from ever articulating directly with each other, just like the articular discs in the human temporomandibular and sternoclavicular joints. These discs are thinner than the true intervertebral discs of mammals and crocodilians; and they are different in composition, lacking the annulus/nucleus structure and consisting of a simple sheet of fibrocartilage.
Crucially, the extant phylogenetic bracket (EPB) does not help us to establish the nature of the intervertebral articulations in sauropods, as the two extant groups most closely related to them have different articulations. As noted, birds have synovial joints; but crocodilians, like mammals, have fibrocartilaginous intervertebral discs. So their most recent common ancestor, the ur-archosaur, could equally have had either condition, and so could its various descendants.
This seems like a mystery well worth solving. For one thing, in the wholly inadequate database that we assembled for the paper, the birds had much thinner cartilage than the other animals. Since they are also the only animals with synovial neck joints, thin cartilage correlates with this kind of joint — at least across that tiny database. Is that correlation reliable? Does it hold out across a bigger sample? Is there a causation? If so, then finding out what kind of intervertebral joints sauropods had would help us to determine how thick their cartilage was, and so what their actual neutral posture was.
But we can’t tell this directly unless we find sensationally well preserved specimens that let us see the structure of the cartilage. We might speculate that since birds have unique saddle-shaped joints and sauropods have ball-and-socket joints like those of mammals and crocs, they’d be more likely to resemble the latter in this respect, too, but that’s rather hand-wavey.
Can we do better?
If we can, it will be through osteological correlates: that is, features of the bones (which are preserved in fossils) that are consistently correlated with features of the soft tissues (which are not). We’d want to find out from analysis of extant animals what correlates might exist, then go looking for them in the bones of extinct animals.
A couple of times now, I’ve pitched this as an abstract for a Masters project, hoping someone at Bristol will work on it with me as co-supervisor, but so far no-one’s bitten. Maybe next year. It would be a very specimen-based project, which I’d think would be a plus in most people’s eyes.
Anyway, the awful truth is that at the moment we know spectacularly little about the cartilage in the necks of sauropods. We don’t know whether they had true intervertebral discs. If not, we don’t know whether they had articular discs like those of ostriches. We don’t know how thick these elements, if present, were. We don’t know how thick the hyaline cartilage on the bones’ articular surfaces was, or how evenly it covered its those surfaces.
And until we know those things, we don’t really know anything about neck posture or range of movement.
There’s lots of work to be done here!
November 6, 2013
Last time, we looked at how including intervertebral cartilage changes the neutral pose of a neck — or, more specifically, of the sequence of cervical vertebrae. The key finding (which is inexplicably missing from the actual paper, Taylor and Wedel 2013c) is that adding cartilage of thickness x between vertebrae whose zygapophyses are height y above the mid-height of the centra elevates the joint’s neutral posture by x/y radians.
But how thick was the intervertebral cartilage in sauropods?
Determining the ONP of a sauropod’s cervical vertebral column given only its bones requires is necessarily speculative since the cartilage, and thus the intervertebral spacing, is unknown.
Part of the our goal in our own PLOS collection paper (Taylor and Wedel 2013c) was to take some very tentative first steps towards estimating the cartilage thickness. To do this, we used two approaches. First, we looked at CT scans of articulated vertebrae; and second, we measured the cartilage thickness in a selection of extant animals and thought about what we could extrapolate.
Since the CT scans were Matt’s domain, I’m going to pass over those for now, in the hope that he’ll blog about that part of the paper. Here, I want to look at the extant-animal survey.
The first thing to say is that our survey is inadequate in many ways. We worked with the specimens we could get hold of, in the state we had them. This means that:
- we have a very arbitrary selection of different animals,
- they are at different ontogenetic stages, and
- their cartilage thickness was measured by a variety of methods.
Our goal was not at all to reach anything like a definitive answer, but just to get the question properly asked, and so hopefully to catalyse much a more detailed survey.
With that proviso out of the way, here are our main results (from Table 4 of the paper, though here I have removed the sauropod CT-scan rows since we’ll be writing about those separately).
|Turkey||4.56%||This study||Difference in measurements of intact neck and articulated sequence of cleaned, degreased and dried vertebrae.|
|Ostrich||6.30%||Cobley et al. (2013)||Difference in measurements of individual vertebrae with and without cartilage.|
|Rhea||2.59%||This study||Measurement of in situ cartilage in bisected neck.|
|Alligator||14.90%||This study||Measurement of in situ cartilage from photograph of cross section.|
|Horse||6.90%||This study||Measurement of in situ cartilage from photograph of cross section.|
|Camel||13.00%||This study||Crude measurement from condyle margin to cotyle lip of lateral-view X-ray. This is an interim measurement, which we hope to improve on when we obtain better images.|
|Dog||17.00%||This study||Measurement of intervertebral gaps in lateral-view X-ray, uncorrected for likely concavity of cotyles.|
|Giraffe||24.00%||This study||Difference in measurement of intact neck and closely articulated sequence of cleaned vertebrae. Young juvenile specimen.|
|Muraenosaurus||14.00%||Evans (1993)||Measurement of in situ cartilage in fossils.|
|Cryptoclidus||20.00%||Evans (1993)||Measurement of in situ cartilage in fossils.|
We’ve expressed the measurements as a ratio between cartilage thickness and the length of the bone itself — that is, cartilage/bone. Another way to think of this is that the percentage is a correction factor which you need to add onto bone length to get whole-segment length. Note that this is not the same ratio as the proportion of total segment length that consists of cartilage: that would be (cartilage thickness + bone length) / bone length.
(We also tossed in some measurements of plesiosaur neck cartilage that Mark Evans made way back when. Get that thing properly published, Mark!)
Even this small survey throws up some interesting points.
First, there is a huge range of proportional cartilage thicknesses: almost an order of magnitude from the 2.59% of the Rhea up to the 24% of the juvenile giraffe — or, even if you discard that because of its ontogenetic stage, up to 17% for the dog. And note that the 17% for the dog is probably an under-estimate, since we were working from an X-ray that doesn’t show the concavity of the vertebral cotyles.
(Two reviewers expressed scepticism that this is the usual condition for dogs, but this X-ray is consistent with those of other dogs illustrated in the veterinary literature.)
The second thing to note is that the cartilage measurements for birds (average 4.5%) are are much lower than those of crocodilians (14.9%) or mammals (15.2%). What does this mean? Among these groups, sauropods are most closely related to birds; but birds and crocs form the extant phylogenetic bracket, so we can’t tell from phylogeny alone whether to expect them to more closely approach the avian or crocodilian condition. Furthermore, in being opisthocoelous (condyle in front, cotyle at the back) sauropod cervicals most closely resemble those of mammals in gross structure — and they have the thickest cartilage of all.
The third thing to note is that there is considerable variation within groups. Although the cartilage is proportionally thin for all three birds, it’s more than twice as thick in the ostrich as in the rhea (although some of this could be due to the different measurement methods used for these two birds). More interestingly, among mammals the cartilage is twice as thick in camels as in horses. In the horse, the condyles are deeply inserted into the cotyles of the preceding vertebrae; but in camels, they don’t reach even the lip of the cotyle. This should worry us, as horse and camel cervicals are grossly similar, and no osteological correlates have been identified that would allow us to determine from the bones alone how very different the cartilage is between these two mammals. So it seems possible that there were similarly dramatic differences in the neck-cartilage thickness of different sauropods.
Note: I said that no osteological correlates have been identified. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. One thing I would love to see is a serious attempt to analyse cartilage thickness across a broad range of mammals, and to examine the corresponding dry bones to see whether in fact there are correlates that could be informative in this respect. One lesson that Matt and I have learned over and over again is that there’s often plenty of data in places that are out in the open, but where no-one’s thought to look.
Next time: more on searching for osteological correlates of cartilage. Then, measurements of sauropod-neck cartilage from CT scans, and likely implications for cartilage thickness in life.
- Cobley, Matthew J., Emily J. Rayfield, and Paul M. Barrett. 2013. Inter-vertebral flexibility of the ostrich neck: implications for estimating sauropod neck flexibility. PLOS ONE 8(8):e72187. 10 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072187 [PDF]
- Evans, Mark. 1993. An investigation into the neck flexibility of two plesiosauroid plesiosaurs: Cryptoclidus eurymerus and Muraenosaurus leedsii. University College London: MSc thesis. London.
- Stevens, Kent A. 2013. The articulation of sauropod necks: methodology and mythology. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78572. 27 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078572 [PDF]
- Taylor, Michael P., and Matthew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214 [PDF]
November 3, 2013
As I mentioned a few days ago, Matt and I have a couple of papers in the new PLOS ONE Sauropod Gigantism collection. We were each lead author on one and second author on the other, so for convenience’s sake we’ll refer to them as my paper (Taylor and Wedel 2013c on neck cartilage) and Matt’s paper (Wedel and Taylor 2013b on caudal pneumaticity.)
Mine is very simple in concept (although it ended up at 17 pages and 23 figures). It’s all about addressing one of the overlooked variables in reconstructing the postures of the necks of sauropods (and indeed of all tetrapods). That is, the spacing between consecutive vertebrae, and the effect this has on “neutral pose”.
The concept of “neutral pose” goes back to the DinoMorph work of Stevens and Parrish (1999). They defined it (p. 799) as follows: “We determined the neutral poses for each animal, wherein the paired articular facets of the postzygapophyses of each cervical vertebra were centered over the facets of the prezygapophyses of its caudally adjacent counterpart.”
One of the more fundamental flaws in Stevens and Parrish (1999) is the assumption that animals habitually rest their necks in neutral pose — an assumption that is unsupported by evidence and, as it turns out, false (Vidal et al. 1986, Taylor et al. 2009). But let’s leave that aside for the moment, and consider what neutral pose actually represents.
The fact that there is even such a thing as neutral articulation between two consecutive vertebrae is due to there being three points of contact between those vertebra: as with the legs of a tripod, three points is the minimum number you need to fix an object in three-dimensional space. Two of these points are at the zygapophyses, as noted in the original definition above. The third point is the articulation between the centra.
The centrum has been curiously overlooked in discussions of neutral pose, but needless to say its length is crucial in establishing what is neutral. In the image above, if the centrum was longer, then the angle between the consecutive vertebrae would need to be raised in order to keep the zygapophyses articulated.
And of course it was longer in life, because of the cartilage in between the consecutive centra. (The use of the more specific term “osteological neutral pose” goes some way to recognising that tissues other than bone have been overlooked, but the problem has not really been addressed or even properly acknowledged in published works before our paper.)
You simply can’t ignore cartilage when modelling neck postures and expect to get anything resembling a meaningful result. That is, presumably, the reason why the habitual posture of rabbits in life exceeds the most extended posture we were able to obtain when manipulating dry vertebrae of a hare: compare Vidal et al. (1986: fig. 4) with Taylor et al. (2009: fig. 1).
How big is the effect? That depends on the thickness of the cartilage and the height of the zygapophyses above the center of rotation. Here is an illustration that we should have put in the paper, but which inexplicably neither of us thought of:
Here’s some elementary trigonometry. Suppose the intervertebral cartilage is x distance thick at mid-height of the centra, and that the height of the zygs above this mid-height point (the magenta line) is y. The triangle between the middle of the condyle of the posterior vertebra, the middle of the cotyle of the anterior one and the zygapophyseal articulation is near enough a right-angled triangle as makes no odds.
Consider the angle θ between the green lines. Sin(θ) = opposite/hypotenuse = x/y, and by similarity, the additional angle of inclination of the anterior vertebra is also θ.
But for small angles (and this is generally a small angle), sin(θ) ≈ θ. So the additional inclination in radians = cartilage thickness divided by zygapophyseal height. For example, in vertebrae where the zygs are 23 cm above the mid-height of the centra, adding 4 cm of intervertebral cartilage adds about 4/23 = 0.174 radians = 10 degrees of extra inclination. (That’s pretty similar to the angle in the illustration above. Eyeballing the cartilage thickness and zyg height in the illustration suggests that 23:4 ratio is about right, which is a nice sanity-check of this method.)
At this point, I am cursing my own stupidity for not putting this diagram, and the very simple calculation, into the paper. I guess that can happen when something is written in a hurry (which to be honest this paper was). The formula is so simple — and accurate enough within tolerances of inevitable measurement error — that we really should have used it all over the place. I guess that will have to go in a followup now. [Update, 5th November 2014. It’s long overdue, but that followup paper has finally been submitted and is available as a preprint.]
Anyway — next time, we’ll address this important related question: how thick, in fact, was the cartilage between the cervicals of sauropods?
- Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck Posture and Feeding Habits of Two Jurassic Sauropod Dinosaurs. Science 284:798-800.
- Taylor, Michael P., and Matthew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10): e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214 [PDF]
- Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2):213-230. [PDF]
- Vidal, Pierre Paul, Werner Graf and Alain Berthoz. 1986. The orientation of the cervical vertebral column in unrestrained awake animals. Experimental Brain Research, 61:549-559. doi:10.1007/BF00237580
- Wedel, Mathew J., and Michael P. Taylor. 2013. 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]