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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian: What are you drawing?

Me: Haplocanthosaurus.

Brian: Is that for the exhibit?

Me: Yup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Regular readers will remember that we followed up our 1VPC talk about what it means for a vertebra to be horizontal by writing it up as a paper, and doing it in the open. That manuscripts is now complete, and published as a preprint (Taylor and Wedel 2019).

Taylor and Wedel (2018: Figure 5). Haplocanthosaurus sp. MWC 8028, caudal vertebra ?3, in cross section, showing medial aspect of left side, cranial to the right, in three orientations. A. In “articular surfaces vertical” orientation (method 2 of this paper). The green line joins the dorsal and ventral margins of the caudal articular surface, and is oriented vertically; the red line joins the dorsal and ventral margins of the cranial articular surface, and is nearly but not exactly vertical, instead inclining slightly forwards. B. In “neural canal horizontal” orientation (method 3 of this paper). The green line joins the cranial and caudal margins of the floor of the neural canal, and is oriented horizontally; the red line joins the cranial and caudal margins of the roof of the neural canal, and is close to horizontal but inclined upwards. C. In “similarity in articulation” orientation (method 4 of this paper). Two copies of the same vertebra, held in the same orientation, are articulated optimally, then the group is rotated until the two are level. The green line connects the uppermost point of the prezygapophyseal rami of the two copies, and is horizontal; but a horizontal line could join the two copies of any point. It happens that for this vertebra methods 3 and 4 (parts B and C of this illustration) give very similar results, but this is accidental.

The preprint has all the illustrations and their captions at the back of the PDF. If you prefer to have them inline in the text, where they’re referenced — and who wouldn’t? — you can download a better version of the manuscript from the GitHub archive.

By the way, you may have noticed that what started our written in Markdown has mutated into an MS-Word document. Why? Well, because journals won’t accept submissions in Markdown. It eas a tedious and error-prone job to convert the Markdown into MS-Word, and not one I am keen to repeat. For this reason, I think I am unlikely to use Markdown again for papers.

References

  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2019. What do we mean by the directions “cranial” and “caudal” on a vertebra? PeerJ PrePrints 7:e27437v2. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.27437v2

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This awesome photo was taken in the SVPCA 2019 exhibit area by Dean Lomax (L). On the right, Jessie Atterholt, me, and Mike are checking out some Isle of Wight rebbachisaurid vertebrae prepped by Mick Green, who is juuuust visible behind Dean. Jessie’s holding a biggish (as rebbachisaurids go) dorsal or caudal centrum and partial arch, me a lovely little cervical, and Mike an astonishingly delicate and beautiful dorsal. You can see behind us more tables full of awesome fossils, and there were more still across the way, behind Dean and Mick. I was going to throw this photo into the last post to illustrate the exhibit area, but by the time the caption had hit three lines long, I realized it needed a post of its own.

Photo courtesy of Dean, and used with permission. Mark your calendars: on Sunday, Oct. 13, Dean will be speaking at TEDx Doncaster, with a talk titled, “My unorthodox path to success: how my passion for the past shaped my future”. You can follow the rest of Dean’s gradual conquest of the paleosphere through his website, http://www.deanrlomax.co.uk/.

As usual I came back from SVPCA to a mountain of un-dealt-with day-job work, which is why it’s taken me so long to get this post done and up. I wanted to get it posted as quickly as I could decently arrange, because I had a fantastic time at this year’s meeting and I wanted to document a few reasons why, both to thank this year’s hosts and to perhaps inspire the organizers of future meetings.

A shot from the back of the banquet-hall-turned-lecture-theater during Mike’s talk.

1. Space

This year’s presentation space was unlike any I can remember from previous SVPCAs. Instead of being in a lecture hall, talks were held in a big ballroom, and attendees sat in chairs at big circular banquet tables. This had a LOT of positive effects: no edging along long rows of seats to get in or out between talks, easy discussion around and between the tables at the breaks, the opportunity for a group of people to sit together as a group (vs a line or same-facing block), plenty of space to set notebooks, laptops, papers, pens, drinks, etc. I realize that meeting space is probably one of the things that conference organizers have the least control over, but at least from what I saw this year I’d say the ballroom model works even better than the lecture hall model, so that’s a possible consideration for the future.

2. Time

Owing to the smaller-than-normal number of abstract submissions — possibly a function of the meeting being on an island rather than the, uh, somewhat larger island of Great Britain — everyone who asked for a talk got one, and the talk slots were long enough for full 15-minute talks and 5 minutes for questions. So the meeting seemed decompressed. No-one really rushed through their talks (although Mike did speak very quickly), and there was usually plenty of time for questions, and the all-important coffee top-up or between-breaks bio-refresh. I know that a fuller conference is in some ways a healthier conference, and I still maintain that if talks have to be trimmed at future meetings, established players like myself should take the hit so students and early-career-researchers can have some runway, but I still appreciated the more relaxed pace of this meeting.

3. Food and drink

Food and drink service was probably the best that I have experienced at a paleo conference, full stop. I wish I had taken a photo of the ranked rows of coffee cups on saucers, because they never ran out. I don’t think we ever ran out of coffee, either. A lunch of sandwiches, crisps, veggies, and hummus (edit: and cheese, lots of beautiful cheese!) was provided on Thursday and Friday all three days of the conference, and from what I saw, the lunches ran down to a bare handful of sandwiches at the very end but didn’t quite run out — and this was after everyone had ample opportunity to go back for more. Simply an outstanding job.

If I had one quibble, it was that the bar at Cowes Yacht Haven opened about five minutes before the start of Don Henderson’s Fox Lecture on Wednesday evening, without warning and after a lot of people (Mike and me included) had brought in drinks from outside, which we were then told we couldn’t drink on the premises. I realize that the opening and closing of the yacht club bar was probably outside the control of the organizers, but it was an annoyance for those of us who wanted to have a drink with the evening lecture.

4. Exhibitors

I admit to being disappointed when I realized that the meeting would be at Cowes rather than near the Dinosaur Isle museum in Sandown. We did get to visit the museum for the Tuesday evening icebreaker, but other than that we were in a different town entirely. The organizers’ clever solution was to bring the fossils to the paleontologists: several local collectors brought fossils for us to pore over on breaks and during poster time. This was particularly great for Mike, Jessie, and me, since so many of the fossils on display were from sauropods. Jessie and I were able to recognize neural canal ridges in the vertebrae of a rebbachisaurid for the first time, and we were able to use a brachiosaur caudal to demonstrate the ridges to Femke Holwerda, who then told us she’d seen them in a cetiosaur caudal. So our research made meaningful advancements because of the specimens on display, and we made useful contacts.

Speaking of Femke, her big Patagosaurus redescription has been accepted for publication at an OA outlet, so look for that most-welcome work in the not-too-distant future.

There were also paleoartists among the exhibitors, including John Sibbick, Mark Witton, and Luis Rey, among others, including some local artists. I picked up a nice print of a hand-drawn sauropod caudal by Trudie Wilson (this Trudie Wilson, not that Trudie Wilson, although I’m sure she’s a wonderful person too), which I need to do a whole post about, and will soon. I can’t remember now who proposed it, but someone remarked in one of the open sessions about how nice it was to have so much paleoart on display, and that maybe that was something that future meetings could lean into, including having paleoartists give talks about their art. That’s not unprecedented — John Conway and Bob Nicholls have both given presentations on paleoart at previous meetings, either in regular sessions or at evening social functions — but it is a great idea, and one I heartily endorse.

5. Proximity to everything else

Mike did sterling work finding an AirBnB house for a bunch of us (Mike, Darren, Mark Evans, Femke Holwerda, Jeff Liston, Mark Witton, Georgia Witton-Maclean, and Vicki and London and me) that was 300 feet from the entrance to Cowes Yacht Haven and about 700 feet from the banquet hall where the talks were held. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a short walk between my lodgings and the talk venue, even when I’ve stayed in the hotel where the conference was being held. There was also a Sainsbury’s grocery store, a bank of ATMs, and a bunch of restaurants within, seriously, a two-minute walk of the venue. I realize that this was also a lucky circumstance, not readily repeatable for other meetings that take place in museums or university lecture halls at some remove from commercial districts, but it sure was nice. If you had ten minutes, you could legit pop out to Sainsbury’s for some crisps or a beer, and be back at your seat with time to spare.

6. Loot

This one is purely personal, and mostly outside the organizers’ control. (Although they did carelessly put those exhibitors right in the path of my wallet, which fortunately was only running at about Category 3 this trip.) I’m only listing it here to guilt me into finishing the post (or posts) about the items I acquired on the trip, but folks, I did all right. More on that later.

So, a huge thank-you to the organizers of this year’s SVPCA for pulling off such a comfortable and enjoyable meeting. It was a gem. For more on what it was like, please see this post by Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at London’s Horniman Museum. If you know of other post-SVPCA conference reviews or retrospectives, please post them in the comments.

I’ll have more to say about both of these in the near future, but for now suffice it to say that this (link):

and this (link):

are available for your perusal. Not just the abstracts, but the slide decks as well, just as Mike did for his talk on Jensen’s Big Three sauropods (link).

Jessie is also posting her talk a few slides at a time on her Instagram, with some helpful unpacking, so that’s worth a look even if you have the slides already. That stream of posts starts here.

My friend and frequent collaborator Jessie Atterholt has her office in the next building over from mine. When you walk in, you see something that looks approximately like this. Not exactly like this, because I took these photos in February and she’s changed a few things (and I’m rubbish about getting stuff posted in a timely fashion).

The last time I showed an office full of amazing stuff like this, it was Peter Dodson’s. It will come as no surprise that Jessie was Peter’s student at UPenn before she went to Berkeley for her PhD.

The far case holds mostly books and skulls. Dr. A has her own plastination setup for making preserved organs and organisms, and the snake on the second shelf here is one that she prepped herself. One side of the snake still has the skin on, the other half has been skinned to show the muscles. This is crunch week for me so I don’t have time to ID all of the stuff, but alert readers should have no problem spotting some digitally-resurrected Haplocanthosaurus bits.

Mostly skulls on the middle rack. The sirenian skull on the second shelf and the cave bear on the fourth are both casts, but almost everything else is real bone. The bighorn sheep on the middle shelf is a natural mummy.

Here’s a close-up of the top shelf. Other than some 3D-printed human skull bones sitting in front of the brain slice on the left, everything here is real bone, including the lion, baboon, and human skulls, and the giraffe cervicals winding across the top. Jessie’s been collecting since she was a kid and the African megafauna are gifts from a globe-trotting family friend.

The upper shelves here have quite a few of Jessie’s plastinated specimens, both whole organisms and things like hearts and kidneys from various critters.

A close-up of some of Jessie’s coolest anatomical preparations. In back is an internal cast of the lungs and bronchial tree of a cat. The baby rattlesnake died after eating a proportionally gigantic lizard — I was dumb and forgot to flip the snake over to show the lizard inside, plastinated along with its predator. The ground squirrel on the right is another half-fleshed, half-skinned plastinate, and the mouse up front is a classic dissection presentation, preserved forever through plastination.

I’ve heard it said that the difference between a collector and a hoarder is curation. As someone who definitely lurks more on the hoarder end of that spectrum (to paraphrase Dave Barry, if you could see my office you’d be blinded or driven insane), I’m pretty darned jealous of both the breadth of Jessie’s collection, and the skill and taste with which it is displayed. She’s featured some of these specimens on her Instagram, which I strongly recommend.