Our old sparring partner Cary Woodruff is a big fan of Monarobot, a Mexican artist who does all of her pieces in a Maya artistic style. So he commissioned this piece:

Anyone can tell that this is an apatosaurine cervical in anterior view — but which apatosaurine cervical? SV-POW Dollars(*) await the first person to correctly identify it.

Cary points out that one neat thing about the art is the colours: where possible, Monarobot uses colors the Mayas used. That blue in the vertebra is a special plant-based pigment they created.

As things stand, Cary owns the world’s only copy of this piece. But he points out that it’s born-digital, so anyone else who wants a copy is at liberty to order one; and he’s gracious enough not to object to the dilution of his print’s uniqueness. I don’t think there is a way to order directly online, but you can contact Monarobot in various places:

 


(*) Street value of SV-POW Dollars: zero.

 

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.

In the last post, we looked at some sauropod vertebrae exposed in cross-section at our field sites in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation. This time, we’re going to do it again! Let’s look at another of my faves from the field, with Thuat Tran’s hand for scale. And, er, a scale bar for scale:

And let’s pull the interesting bits out of the background:

Now, confession time. When I first saw this specimen, I interpeted it as-is, right-side up. The round thing in the middle with the honeycomb of internal spaces is obviously the condyle of a vertebra, and the bits sticking out above and below on the sides frame a cervical rib loop. I figured the rounded bit at the upper right was the ramus of bone heading for the prezyg, curved over as I’ve seen it in some taxa, including the YPM Barosaurus. And the two bits below the centrum would then be the cervical ribs. And with such big cervical rib loops and massive, low-hanging cervical ribs, it had to an apatosaurine, either Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus.

Then I got my own personal Cope-getting-Elasmosaurus-backwards moment, courtesy of my friend and fellow field adventurer, Brian Engh, who proposed this:

Gotta say, this makes a lot more sense. For one, the cervical ribs would be lateral to the prezygs, just as in, oh, pretty much all sauropods. And the oddly flat inward-tilted surfaces on what are now the more dorsal bones makes sense: they’re either prezyg facets, or the flat parts of the rami right behind the prezyg facets. The missing thing on what is now the right even makes sense: it’s the other cervical rib, still buried in a projecting bit of sandstone. That made no sense with the vert the other way ’round, because prezygs always stick out farther in front than do the cervical ribs. And we know that we’re looking at the vert from the front, otherwise the backwards-projecting cervical rib would be sticking through that lump of sandstone, coming out of the plane of the photo toward us.

Here’s what I now think is going on:

I’m still convinced that the bits of bone on what is now the left side of the image are framing a cervical rib loop. And as we discussed in the last post, the only Morrison sauropods with such widely-set cervical ribs are Camarasaurus and the apatosaurines. So what makes this an apatosaurine rather than a camarasaur? I find several persuasive clues:

  • If we have this thing the right way up, those prezygs are waaay up above the condyle, at a proportional distance I’ve only seen in diplodocids. See, for example, this famous cervical from CM 3018, the holotype of A. louisae (link).
  • The complexity of the pneumatic honeycombing inside the condyle is a much better fit for an apatosaurine than for Camarasaurus–I’ve never seen that level of complexity in a camarasaur vert.
  • The bump on what we’re now interpreting as the cervical rib looks suspiciously like one of the ventrolateral processes that Kent Sanders and I identified in apatosaurine cervicals back in our 2002 paper. I’ve never seen them, or seen them reported, in Camarasaurus–and I’ve been looking.
  • Crucially, the zygs are not set very far forward of the cervical ribs. By some rare chance, this is pretty darned close to a pure transverse cut, and the prezygs, condyle (at its posterior extent, anyway), and the one visible cervical rib are all in roughly the same plane. In Camarasaurus, the zygs strongly overhang the front end of the centrum in the cervicals (see this and this).

But wait–aren’t the cervical ribs awfully high for this to be an apatosaurine? We-ell, not necessarily. This isn’t a very big vert; max centrum width here is 175mm, only about a third the diameter of a mid-cervical from something like CM 3018. So possibly this is from the front of the neck, around the C3 or C4 position, where the cervical ribs are wide but not yet very deep. You can see something similar in this C2-C5 series on display at BYU:

Or, maybe it’s just one of the weird apatosaurine verts that has cervical rib loops that are wide, but not very deep. Check out this lumpen atrocity at Dinosaur Journey–and more importantly, the apatosaur cervical he’s freaking out over:

UPDATE just a few minutes later: Mike reminded me in the comments about the Tokyo apatosaurine, NSMT-PV 20375, which has wide-but-not-deep cervical ribs. In fact, C7 (the vertebra on the right in this figure) is a pretty good match for the Salt Wash specimen:

UpchurchEtAl2005-apatosaurus-plate2-C3-6-7

NSMT-PV 20375, cervical vertebrae 3, 6 and 7 in anterior and posterior views. Modified from Upchurch et al. (2005: plate 2).

UPDATE the 2nd: After looking at it for a few minutes, I decided that C7 of the Tokyo apatosaurine was such a good match for the Salt Wash specimen that I wanted to know what it would look like if it was similarly sectioned by erosion. In the Salt Wash specimen, the prezygs are sticking out a little farther than the condyle and cervical rib sections. The red line in this figure is my best attempt at mimicking that erosional surface on the Tokyo C7, and the black outlines on the right are my best guess as to what would be exposed by such a cut (or pair of cuts). I’ve never seen NSMT-PV 20375 in person, so this is just an estimate, but I don’t think it can be too inaccurate, and it is a pretty good match for the Salt Wash specimen.

Another way to put it: if this is an apatosaurine, everything fits. Even the wide-but-not-low-hanging cervical ribs are reasonable in light of some other apatosaurines. If we think this is Camarasaurus just because the cervical ribs aren’t low-hanging, then the pneumatic complexity, the height of the prezygs, and the ventrolateral process on the cervical rib are all anomalous. The balance of the evidence says that this is an apatosaurine, either a small, anterior vert from a big one, or possibly something farther back from a small one. And that’s pretty satisfying.

One more thing: can we take a moment to stand in awe of this freaking thumb-sized cobble that presumably got inside the vertebra through one its pneumatic foramina and rattled around until it got up inside the condyle? Where, I’ll note, the internal structure looks pretty intact despite being filled with just, like, gravel. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about how pneumatic vertebrae get buried and fossilized, I am blown away by this. Gaze upon its majesty, people!

This is another “Road to Jurassic Reimagined, Part 2″ post. As before, Part 1 is here, Part 2 will be going up here in the near future. As always, stay tuned.

References

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

When I visited Dinosaur National Monument in October with Brian Engh and Yara Haridy, we spent a decent amount of time checking out DNM 28, a skull and associated bits of Camarasaurus. In particular, I got some shots of the axis (the second cervical vertebra behind the head), and it got me thinking about pneumaticity in this unusual element. Why I failed to get a full set of orthogonal shots is quite beyond my capacity, but we can roll with what I have. Before we go on, you might want to revisit Tutorial 36 to brush up on the general parts of the atlas-axis complex.


Here’s the axis in left lateral view (so, anterior to the left).

And a labeled version of the same. A few things to note:

  • One oddity of sauropod axes (and of axes of most critters) is that not only are the articular facets of the prezygapophyses not set forward of the neural arch, they’re set backward, well behind the forward point of the arch.
  • The dens epistrophei or odontoid process is sticking out immediately below the neural canal. This is the tongue of bone that articulated with the atlas (first cervical vertebra) in life.
  • Check out the prominent epipophysis above the postzygapophysis, which anchored the long dorsal neck muscles. (For more on epipophyses, see these posts, and especially this one.)
  • The diapophysis and parapophysis articulated with a cervical rib, which is not shown here. In fact, I don’t remember seeing it in the drawer that this vert came from. The atlantal and axial cervical ribs are small, apparently fused late in life if they fused at all, and are easily lost through taphonomic processes.
  • At least three pneumatic features are visible in this lateral view: the lateral fossa on the centrum, which is referred to as the “pleurocoel” in a lot of older literature; a ventral fossa that lies between the parapophysis and the midline ventral keel; and a fossa on the neural arch, behind the postzygodiapophyseal lamina. In the nomenclature of Wilson et al. (2011), this is the postzygocentrodiapophyseal fossa.

“Postzygocentrodiapophyseal fossa” is a mouthful, but I think it’s the only way to go. To be unambiguous, anatomical terminology needs to references specific landmarks, and the schemes proposed by Wilson (1999) for vertebral laminae and Wilson et al. (2011) for vertebral fossae are the bee’s knees in my book.

Nomenclatural issues aside, how do we know that these fossae were all pneumatic? Well, they’re invasive, there’s no other soft-tissue system that makes invasive fossae like that in archosaur vertebrae (although crocs sometimes have shallow fossae that are filled with cartilage or fat), and the same fossae sometimes have unambiguous pneumatic foramina in other vertebrae or in other sauropods.

Most of the features labeled above are also visible on the right side of the vertebra, although the ventral fossa is a little less well-defined in this view, and I can’t make out the prezyg facet. Admittedly, some of the uncertainty here is because of my dumb shadow falling across the vertebra. Specimen photography fail!

The paired ventral fossae are more prominent in this ventral view, on either side of the midline ventral keel (anterior is to the top).

And here’s a labeled version of the same ventral view.

Finally, here’s the posterior view. It’s apparent now that the neural spine is a proportionally huge slab of bone, like a broad, tilted shield between the postzygapophyses (which are also quite large for the size of this vertebra). The back side of the neural spine is deeply excavated by a complex fossa with several subfossae (kudos again to Jeff Wilson [1999] for that eminently useful term).

Here’s the same shot with some features of interest labeled. If I’ve read Wilson et al. (2011) correctly, the whole space on the back side of the neural spine and above the postzygs could be considered the spinopostzygapophyseal fossa, but here I’ve left the interspinous ligament scar (ILS) unshaded, on the expectation that the pneumatic diverticula that created that fossa were separated on the midline by the interspinous ligament. I might have drawn the ILS too conservatively, conceivably the whole space between the large deeply-shadowed subfossae was occupied by the interspinous ligament.

I’m particularly interested in those three paired subfossae, which for convenience I’m simply calling A, B, and C. Subfossa A may just be the leftover space between the spinopostzgyapophyseal laminae laterally and the interspinous ligament medially. I think subfossa B is invading the ramus of bone that goes to the epipophysis and postzygapophysis, but I didn’t think to check and see how far it goes (that might require CT anyway).

Subfossa C is the most intriguing. Together, those paired fossae form a couple of shallow pits, just on either side of the midline, and aimed straight forward. They can’t be centropostzygapophyseal fossae, which used to be called peduncular fossae, because they’re not in the peduncles on either side of the neural canal, they’re up above the lamina that connects the two postzygapophyses. Could they be ligament attachments? Maybe, but I’m skeptical for at least four reasons:

  1. Although interspinous ligament attachments often manifest as pits in the cervical vertebrae of birds, in sauropods they usually form rugosities or even spikes of bone that stick out, not inward. Furthermore, these pits are smooth, not rough like the interspinous ligament scars of birds.
  2. The interspinous ligament in tetrapods is typically a single, midline structure, and these pits are paired.
  3. Similar pits in front of the neural spine are present in some sauropod caudals, and they appear to be pneumatic (see Wedel 2009: p. 11 and figure 9).
  4. Pits at the base of the neural spine seem to be fairly uncommon in sauropod vertebrae. If they were attachment scars from the universally-present interspinous ligaments, we should expect them to be more prominent and more widespread.

But if these paired pits are not ligament scars, what are they? Why are they present, and why are they so distinct? Sometimes (often?) subfossae and accessory laminae look like the outcome of pneumatic diverticulum and bone reacting to each other (I almost wrote ‘playing together’), in what looks like a haphazard process of adaptation to local loading. But the symmetry of these pits argues against them being incidental or random. They don’t seem to be going anywhere, so maaaybe they are the first hoofbeats of the embossed laminae and “unfossae” that we see in the vertebrae of more derived sauropods (for which see this post), but again, their symmetry in size and placement isn’t really consistent with the “developmental program gone wild” appearance of “unfossae”. I really don’t know what to make of them, but if you have ideas, arguments, or observations to bring to bear, the comment field is open.

In summary, sauropod axes are more interesting than I thought, even in a derpasaurus like Cam. I’ll have to pay more attention to them going forward.

References

 

The Man Himself, taking notes on what look like Giraffatitan caudals.

Here’s how I got my start in research. Through a mentorship program, I started volunteering at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in the spring of 1992, when I was a junior in high school. I’d been dinosaur-obsessed from the age of three, but I’d never had an anatomy course and didn’t really know what I was doing. Which is natural! I had no way of knowing what I was doing because I lacked training. Fortunately for me, Rich Cifelli took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. I started going out on digs, learned the basics of curatorial work, how to mold and cast fossils, how to screenwash matrix and then pick microfossils out of the concentrate under a dissecting microscope, and—perhaps most importantly—how to make a rough ID of an unidentified bone by going through the comparative element collection until I found the closest match.

All set, right? Ignition, liftoff, straight path from there to here, my destiny unrolling before me like a red carpet.

No.

It could have gone that way, but it didn’t. I had no discipline. I was a high-achieving high school student, but it was all to satisfy my parents. When I got to college, I didn’t have them around to push me anymore, and I’d never learned to push myself. I went off the rails pretty quickly. Never quite managed to lose my scholarships, without which I could not have afforded to be in college, period, but I skimmed just above the threshold of disaster and racked up a slate of mediocre grades in courses from calculus to chemistry. I even managed to earn a C in comparative anatomy, a fact which I am now so good at blocking out that I can go years at a time without consciously recalling it.

After three years of this, I had the most important conversation of my life. Because I was a zoology major I’d been assigned a random Zoology Dept. faculty member as an undergrad advisor. I was given to Trish Schwagmeyer, not because we got on well (we did, but that was beside the point) or had similar scientific interests, just luck of the draw. And it was lucky for me, because in the spring of 1996 Trish looked at my grades from the previous semester, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re blowing it.” She then spent the next five minutes explaining in honest and excruciating detail just how badly I was wrecking my future prospects. I’ve told this story before, in this post, but it bears repeating, because that short, direct, brutal-but-effective intervention became the fulcrum for my entire intellectual life and future career.

The holotype specimen of Sauroposeidon coming out of the ground in 1994.

Roughly an hour later I had the second most important conversation of my life, with Rich Cifelli. While I’d been lost in the wilderness my museum volunteering had petered out to zero, and Rich would have been completely justified in telling me to get lost. Not only did he not do that, he welcomed me back into the fold, in a terrifyingly precise recapitulation of the Biblical parable of the prodigal son. When I asked Rich if I could do an independent study with him in the next semester, he thought for a minute and said, “Well, we have these big dinosaur vertebrae from the Antlers Formation that need to be identified.” Which is how, at the age of 21, with a rubble pile of an academic transcript and no real accomplishments to stand on, I got assigned to work on OMNH 53062, the future holotype of Sauroposeidon proteles.

I was fortunate in four important ways beyond the forgiveness, patience, and generosity of Richard Lawrence Cifelli:

  • OMNH 53062 was woefully incomplete, just three and a half middle cervical vertebrae, which meant that the project was small enough in concept to be tractable as an independent study for an undergrad. Rich and I both figured that I’d work on the vertebrae for one semester, come up with a family-level identification, and maybe we’d write a two-pager for Oklahoma Geology Notes documenting the first occurrence of Brachiosauridae (or whatever it might turn out to be) in the vertebrate fauna of the Antlers Formation.
  • Because the specimen was so incomplete, no-one suspected that it might be a new taxon, otherwise there’s no way such an important project would have been assigned to an undergrad with a spotty-to-nonexistent track record.
  • Despite the incompleteness, because the specimen consisted of sauropod vertebrae, it held enough characters to be identifiable–and eventually, diagnosable. Neither of those facts were known to me at the time.
  • All of Rich’s graduate students were already busy with their own projects, and nobody else was about to blow months of time and effort on what looked like an unpromising specimen.

NB: this guy is not a prodigy.

There is a risk here, in that I come off looking like some kind of kid genius for grasping the importance of OMNH 53062, and Rich’s other students look like fools for not seeing it themselves. It ain’t like that. The whole point is that nobody grasped the importance of the specimen back then. It would take Rich and me a whole semester of concentrated study just to come to the realization that OMNH 53062 might be distinct enough to be diagnosable as a new taxon, and a further three years of descriptive and comparative work to turn that ‘maybe’ into a paper. People with established research programs can’t afford to shut down everything else and invest six months of study into every incomplete, garbage-looking specimen that comes down the pike, on the off chance that it might be something new. Having the good judgment to not pour your time down a rat-hole is a prerequisite for being a productive researcher. But coming up with a tentative ID of an incomplete, garbage-looking specimen is a pretty good goal for a student project: the student learns some basic comparative anatomy and research skills, the specimen gets identified, no existing projects get derailed, and no-one established wastes their time on what is most likely nothing special. If the specimen does turn out to be important, that’s gravy.

So there’s me at the start of the fall of 1996: with a specimen to identify and juuuust enough museum experience, from my high school mentorship, to not be completely useless. I knew that one identified a fossil by comparing it to known things and looking for characters in common, but I didn’t know anything about sauropods or their vertebrae. Rich got me started with a few things from his academic library, I found a lot more in OU’s geology library, and what I couldn’t find on campus I could usually get through interlibrary loan. I spent a lot of time that fall standing at a photocopier, making copies of the classic sauropod monographs by Osborn, Hatcher, Gilmore, Janensch, and others, assembling the raw material to teach myself sauropod anatomy.

The sauropod monographs live within arm’s reach of my office chair to this day.

In addition to studying sauropods, I also started going to class, religiously, and my grades rose accordingly. At first I was only keeping up with my courses so that I would be allowed to continue doing research; research was the carrot that compelled me to become a better student. There was nothing immediate or miraculous about my recovery, and Rich would have to give me a few well-deserved figurative ass-kickings over the next few years when I’d occasionally wander off course again. But the point was that I had a course. After a few months I learned—or remembered—to take pride in my coursework. I realized that I had never stopped defining myself in part by my performance, and that when I’d been adrift academically I’d also been depressed. It felt like crawling out of a hole.

(Aside: I realize that for many people, depression is the cause of academic difficulty, not the reverse, and that no amount of “just working harder” can offset the genuine biochemical imbalances that underlie clinical depression. I sympathize, and I wish we lived in a world where everyone could get the evaluation and care that they need without fear, stigma, crushing financial penalties, or all of the above. I’m also not describing any case here other than my own.)

What fresh hell is this? (Apatosaur dorsal from Gilmore 1936)

Out of one hole, into another. The biggest problem I faced back then is that if you are unfamiliar with sauropod vertebrae they can be forbiddingly complex. The papers I was struggling through referred to a pandemonium of laminae, an ascending catalog of horrors that ran from horizontal laminae and prespinal laminae through infraprezygapophyseal laminae and spinopostzygapophyseal laminae. Often these features were not labeled in the plates and figures, the authors had just assumed that any idiot would know what a postcentrodiapophyseal lamina was because, duh, it’s right there in the name. But that was the whole problem: I didn’t know how to decode the names. I had no map. SV-POW! tutorials didn’t exist. Jeff Wilson’s excellent and still-eminently-useful 1999 paper codifying the terminology for sauropod vertebral laminae was still years in the future.

Then I found this, on page 35 of Werner Janensch’s 1950 monograph on the vertebrae of what was then called Brachiosaurus brancai (now Giraffatitan):

It was in German, but it was a map! I redrew it by hand in my very first research notebook, and as I was copying down the names of the features the lightbulb switched on over my head. “Diapophyse” meant “diapophysis”, and it was the more dorsal of the two rib attachments. “Präzygapophyse” was “prezygapophysis”, and it was one of the paired articular bits sticking out the front of the neural arch. And, crucially, “Präzygodiapophysealleiste” had to be the prezygodiapophyseal lamina, which connected the two. And so on, for all of the weird bits that make up a sauropod vertebra.

It’s been 22 years and I still remember that moment of discovery, my pencil flying across the page as I made my own English translations of the German anatomical terms, my mind buzzing with the realization that I was now on the other side. Initiated. Empowered. I felt like I had pulled the sword from the stone, found Archimedes’ lever that could move the world. In the following weeks I’d go back through all of my photocopied sauropod monographs with my notebook open to the side, reading the descriptions of the vertebrae for the second or third times but understanding them for the first time, drawing the vertebrae over and over again until I could call up their basic outlines from memory. This process spilled over from the fall of 1996 into the spring of 1997, as Rich and I realized that OMNH 53062 would require more than one semester of investigation.

Interlude with a left femur of the Oklahoma apatosaurine (but not the largest individual).

My memories of those early days of my sauropod research are strongly shaped by the places and circumstances in which I was doing the work. Vicki and I had gotten married in the summer of 1996 and moved into a two-bedroom duplex apartment on the north side of Norman. The upstairs had a long, narrow bathroom with two sinks which opened at either end onto the two upstairs bedrooms, the one in which we slept and the one we used as a home office. In the mornings I could get showered and dressed in no time, and while Vicki was getting ready for work or school I’d go into the office to read sauropod papers and take notes. Vicki has always preferred to have music on while she completes her morning rituals, so I listened to a lot of Top 40 hits floating in from the other upstairs rooms while I puzzled out the fine details of sauropod vertebral anatomy.

Two songs in particular could always be counted on to play in any given hour of pop radio in the early spring of 1997: Wannabe by the Spice Girls, and Lovefool by the Cardigans. I am surely the only human in history to have this particular Pavlovian reaction, but to this day when I hear either song I am transported back to that little bedroom office where I spent many a morning poring over sauropod monographs, with my working space illuminated by the light of the morning sun pouring through the window, and my mind illuminated by Werner Janensch, who had the foresight and good grace to give his readers a map.

Figure 5 from my undergraduate thesis: OMNH 53062 in right lateral view.

If you want to know what I thought about OMNH 53062 back in 1997, you can read my undergraduate thesis—it’s a free download here. Looking back now, the most surprising thing to me about that thesis is how few mentions there are of pneumaticity. I met Brooks Britt in the summer of 1997 and had another epochal conversation, in which he suggested that I CT scan OMNH 53062 to look at the air spaces inside the vertebrae. I filed my undergrad thesis in December of 1997, and the first session CT scanning OMNH 53062 took place in January, 1998. So in late 1997 I was still a pneumaticity n00b, with no idea of the voyage I was about to embark upon.

In 2010, after I was settled in as an anatomist at Western University of Health Sciences, I wrote a long thank-you to Trish Schwagmeyer. It had been 14 years since that pivotal conversation, but when she wrote back to wish me well, she still remembered that I’d gotten a C in comparative anatomy. I’d have a chance to make amends for that glaringly anomalous grade later the same year. At ICVM in Punta del Este, Uruguay, I caught up with Edie Marsh-Matthews, who had taught my comparative anatomy course back when. I apologized for having squandered the opportunity to learn from her, and she graciously (and to my relief) shifted the conversation to actual comparative anatomy, the common thread that connected us in the past and the present.

If the story has a moral, it’s that I owe my career in large part to people who went out of their way to help me when I was floundering. And, perhaps, that the gentle approach is not always the best one. I needed to have my head thumped a few times, verbally, to get my ass in gear, when less confrontational tactics had failed. I slid easily through the classrooms of dozens of professors who watched me get subpar grades and didn’t try to stop me (counterpoint: professors are too overworked to invest in every academic disaster that comes through the door, just like paleontologists can’t study every garbage specimen). If Trish Schwagmeyer and Rich Cifelli had not decided that I was worth salvaging, and if they not had the grit to call me out on my BS, I wouldn’t be here. As an educator myself now, that thought haunts me. I hope that I will be perceptive enough to know when a student is struggling not because of a lack of ability but through a lack of application, wise enough to know when to deploy the “you’re blowing it” speech, and strong enough to follow through.

References

  • 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.
  • Janensch, Werner.  1950.  Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai.  Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3: 27-93.
  • Wedel, M.J. 1997. A new sauropod from the Early Cretaceous of Oklahoma. Undergraduate honor thesis, Department of Zoology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK. 43pp.
  • Wilson, J.A. 1999. A nomenclature for vertebral laminae in sauropods and other saurischian dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19: 639-653.

Matt with big Apato dorsal 2000

Final bonus image so when I post this to Facebook, it won’t grab the next image in line and crop it horribly to make a preview. This is me with OMNH 1670, in 2003 or 2004, photo by Andrew Lee.

Spotted this beauty in the collections at Dinosaur Journey this past summer. With the front end of the centrum blown off, taphonomy once again proves to be the poor man’s CT machine, giving us a great look at the pneumatic spaces inside the vertebra.

EDIT, Oct. 13, 2019 — WHOOPS! That ain’t a cervical. Based on the plates in Madsen (1976), it’s a dead ringer for the second dorsal vertebra.

Allosaurus fragilis cervicodorsal transition - Madsen 1976 plates 14-16

Vertebrae C7 through D3 of Allosaurus fragilis in anterior view, from plates 14-16 in Madsen (1976). Abbreviations: dp, diapophysis; li, interspinous ligament scar; nc, neural canal; ns, neural spine; pp, parapophysis; pr, prezygapophysis.

Reference

Madsen, Jr., J.H. 1976. Allosaurus fragilis: a revised osteology. Utah Geological and Mining Survey Bulletin 109: 1-163.

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/.

My talk (Taylor and Wedel 2019) from this year’s SVPCA is up!

The talks were not recorded live (at least, if they were, it’s a closely guarded secret). But while it was fresh in my mind, I did a screencast of my own, and posted it on YouTube (CC By). I had to learn how to do this for my 1PVC presentation on vertebral orientation, and it’s surprisingly straightforward on a Mac, so I’ve struck while the iron is hot.

For the conference, I spoke very quickly and omitted some details to squeeze the talk into a 20-minute slot. In this version, I go a bit slower and make some effort to ensure it’s intelligible to an intelligent layman. That’s why it runs closer to half an hour. I hope you’ll find it worth your time.

References

And so the series continues: part 9, part 10 and part 11 were not numbered as such, but that’s what they were, so I am picking up the numbering here with #12.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that Matt and I are convinced that BYU 9024, the big cervical vertebra that has been referred to Supersaurus, actually belongs to a giant Barosaurus. If we’re right about, then it means one of two things: either Supersaurus synonymous with Barosaurus, or there are two diplodocids mixed up together.

Jensen (1987:figure 8c). A rare — maybe unique? — photograph of the right side of the big “Supersaurus” cervical vertebra BYU 9024. We assume this was taken before the jacket was flipped and the presently visible side prepped out. We’d love to find a better reproduction of this image.

Which is it? Well, seventeen years ago Curtice and Stadtman (2002:39) concluded that “all exceptionally large sauropod elements from the Dry Mesa Quarry can be referred to one of two individuals, one a Supersaurus and one a Brachiosaurus […] further strengthening the suggestion that all of the large diplodocid elements belong to a single individual.” It is certainly suggestive that, of all the material that has been referred to Supersaurus, there are no duplicate elements, but there are nice left-right pairs of scapulocoracoids and ischia.

But do all those elements actually belong to the same animal? One way to address that question is to look at their relative sizes and ask whether they fit together.

Sadly, when Matt and I were at BYU we didn’t get to spend time with most of these bones, but there are published and other measurements for a few of them. Jensen (1985:701) gives the total lengths of the two scapulocoracoids BYU 9025 and BYU 12962 as 2440 and 2700 mm respectively. Curtice et al. (1996:94) give the total height of the last dorsal BYU 9044 as 1330 mm. We have measured the big cervical BYU 9024 (probably C9) ourselves and found it to measure 1370 mm in total length. Finally, while there is no published measurement for the right ischium BYU 12949 (BYU 5503 of Jensen’s usage), we can calculate it from the scalebar accompanying Jensen’s illustration (with all the usual caveats) as being 1235 mm long.

Jensen (1985:figure 7a). BYU 12946 (BYU 5503 of his usage), the right ischium assigned to Supersaurus. By measuring the bone and the scalebar, we can calculate the length as 1235 mm.

Do these measurements go together? Since we’re considering the possibility of Supersaurus being a big Barosaurus, the best way to test this is to compare the sizes of the elements with the corresponding measurements for AMNH 6341, the best known Barosaurus specimen.

For this specimen, McIntosh (2005) gives 685 mm total length for C9, 901 mm total height for D9 (the last dorsal) and 873 mm for the ischia (he only provides one measurement which I assume covers both left and right elements). The scapulocoracoids are more complex: McIntosh gives 1300 mm along the curve for the scapulae, and 297 mm for the length of the coracoids. Assuming we can add them in a straight line, that gives 1597 mm for the full scapulocoracoid.

I’ve given separate measurements, and calculated separate ratios, for the left and right Supersaurus scapulocoracoids. So here’s how it all works out:

Specimen Element Size (mm) Baro (mm) Ratio Relative
9024 Mid-cervical vertebra 1370 685 2.00 124%
9044 Last dorsal vertebra 1330 901 1.48 92%
9025 Left scapulocoracoid 2440 1597 1.53 95%
12962 Right scapulocoracoid 2700 1597 1.69 105%
12946 Right ischium 1235 873 1.41 88%

The first five columns should be self-explanatory. The sixth, “proportion”, is a little subtler. The geometric mean of the size ratios (i.e. the fifth root of their product) is 1.6091, so in some sense the Dry Mesa diplodocid — if it’s a single animal — is 1.6 times as big in linear dimension as the AMNH 6341 Barosaurus. The last column shows each element’s size ratio divided by that average ratio, expressed as a percentage: so it shows how big each element is relative to a hypothetical isometrically upsized AMNH Barosaurus.

As you can see, the cervical is big: nearly a quarter bigger than it should be in an upscaled Barosaurus. The two scaps straddle the expected size, one 5% bigger and the other 5% smaller. And the dorsal and ischium are both about 10% smaller than we’d expect.

Can these elements belong to the same animal? Maaaybe. We would expect the neck to grow with positive allometry (Parrish 2006), so it would be proportionally longer in a large individual — but 25% is a stretch (literally!). And it also seems as though the back end of the animal (as represented by the last dorsal and ischium) is growing with negative allometry.

A nice simple explanation would be that that all the elements are Supersaurus and that’s just what Supersaurus is like: super-long neck, forequarters proportionally larger than hindquarters, perhaps in a slightly more convergent-on-brachiosaurs way. That would work just fine were it were not that we’re convinced that big cervical is Barosaurus.

Here’s how that would look, if the BYU Supersaurus is a large Barosaurus with different proportions due to allometry. First, Scott Hartman’s Barosaurus reconstruction as he created it:

And here’s my crudely tweaked version with the neck enlarged 24% and the hindquarters (from mid-torso back) reduced 10%:

Does this look credible? Hmm. I’m not sure. Probably not.

So: what if we’re wrong?

We have to consider the possibility that Matt and I misinterpreted the serial position of BYU 9024. If instead of being C9 it were C14 (the longest cervical in Barosaurus) then the AMNH analogue would be 865 mm rather than 685 mm. That would make it “only” 1.58 times as long as the corresponding AMNH vertebra, which is only 3% longer than we’d expect based on a recalculated geometric mean scale of 1.5358 — easily within the bounds of allometry. We really really really don’t think BYU 9024 is a C14 — but it’s not impossible that its true position lies somewhere posterior of C9, which would mean that the allometric interpretation would become more tenable, and we could conclude that all these bones do belong to a single animal after all.

Of course, that would still leave the question of why the Supersaurus scapulocoracoids are 10% bigger than we’d expect relative to the last dorsal vertebra and the ischium. One possible explanation would be to do with preparation. As Dale McInnes explained, there’s some interpretation involved in preparing scaps: the thin, fragile distal ends shade into the cartilaginous suprascapula, and it’s at least possible that whoever prepped the AMNH 6341 scaps drew the line in a different place from Dale and his colleagues, so that the Barosaurus scaps as prepared are artificially short.

Putting it all together: it might easily be the case that all the elements really do belong to a single big diplodocid individual, provided that the big cervicals is more posterior than we thought and the AMNH scaps were over-enthusiastically prepped.

References