I made this for my own amusement, and thought you guys may as well get to benefit from it, too.

Melstrom et al. (2016:figure 4). Pectoral vertebrae of a juvenile specimen of Barosaurus sp. (DINO 2921) from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Utah, U.S.A., in right lateral view (red-cyan anaglyph made from stereopair).



  • Melstrom, Keegan M., Michael D. D’Emic, Daniel Chure and Jeffrey A. Wilson. 2016. A juvenile sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of Utah, U.S.A., presents further evidence of an avian style air-sac system. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 36(4):e1111898. doi:10.1080/02724634.2016.1111898


For reasons that would be otiose, at this moment, to rehearse, I recently found myself in need of a hemisected turkey cervical. Happily, I own five skeletonised turkey necks, so it was with me the work of a moment to select a candidate. But now what? How to hemisect it? We have  discussed plenty of hemisected things here at SV-POW!, but they tend to have been produced using heavy machinery such as a band saw: something that I singularly lack.

SPOILER: I found a way. Here is a domestic turkey Meleagris gallopavo domesticus, 9th cervical vertebra, hemisected, in right medial view. Read on to discover the extremely high-tech approach that yielded this prize. It’s propped up on some kind of turkey bone to help me get a good medial perspective, I am thinking maybe the pygostyle?

One idea was to use an angle-grinder: not to cut down the midline of the vertebra — it would be much too blunt and powerful for a small, delicate vertebra — but to use as a sanding surface, locking the grinder in place and holding the vertebra up against the spinning plate. That might work well, assuming I could find a way to secure the angle grinder safely, but as it happened my need for a hemisected vertebra came up during a power cut. (Thanks, Storm Eunice!)

So I did it the way the Amish do their vertebral hemisections: by hand, simply by rubbing the vertebra against a sheet of sandpaper:

CT scanning: the Amish method.

This is not as laborious as you might think. I used a single sheet of medium-grade sandpaper, and it took maybe 15–20 minutes. And I just rubbed back and forth while exerting downward pressure. Initially I worked my way only through the prezygapophyseal ramus, which is the part of the turkey cervical that extends the furthest laterally. Once I was satisfied that the plane between eroded prezyg and the intact postzyg was parasagittal, I just kept the vertebra parallel to the sandpaper and kept rubbing. (Sorry I didn’t think to get a photo at this stage.)

One thing that took me by surprise is that there was so very much bone dust. I mean, I am an idiot that this surprised me, since the whole purpose of this exercise was to reduce one half of this vertebra to bone dust. But the lesson to be learned here is to do it on the easily-cleaned bathroom floor — not on the desk next to the computer keyboard and above a carpet. Learn from my mistakes, folks!

Anyway, after some work on the prezyg/postzyg pair, here’s how the vertebra was looking:

You can see straight away that the prezyg ramus, postzyg ramus and parapophyseal ramus are extensively pneumatized, honeycombed with small, irregular air-spaces. In this image it looks like the region of bone between the pre- and postzygs is much more solid, but this is an illusion: what we’re seeing here is a section through the cortical  bone of the neural arch, cut parallel to the surface. Let this be a warning not to over-interpret individual slices of CT-scans!

Once we get a little deeper, we see that the whole wall of the neural arch — and indeed the centrum and the neural spine — is honeycombed, just like the zyg rami:

Now we have another area of what I’m going to call Phantom Apneumaticity: the posterior part of the centrum looks like solid bone, apart from a few pneumatic spaces in the posteroventral extremity. Again, this is an illusion.

Here’s the next place I stopped:

Here, the Phantom Apneumaticity is even more striking: seeing just this as a CT slice could easily mislead someone into thinking that almost the whole of the posteroventral part of the centrum is solid bone. But again, it’s just that we’re very close to the surface of the bone, and seeing a slice parallel to that surface.

This last image also shows an important point of technique: there is a low convex ridge running across the phantom apneumatic area from the top of the cotyle to the base of the centrum. This is where I had changed the angle I was holding the vertebra at, so I accidentally sanded the posteroventral part of the vertebra more than the rest. I found that it was important during this process to keep checking the angles, and to adjust: making sure I wasn’t sanding more from the front than the back, or from the top than the bottom, or leaving a ridge like this.

Also in this last photo you can see that I was just beginning to break through into the neural canal: the anterior part of it is now exposed, between the anterior part of the neural spine and the anterior articular surface. At this stage I sighted along from in front to get a sense of how much further I had to go:

Domestic turkey Meleagris gallopavo domesticus, 9th cervical vertebra, most of right side removed, in anterior view with dorsal to the right. Propped up on the coracoid of a different, larger, turkey.

Quite a way, I guess. Here it is rotated and cropped, so you can more easily recognise it:

Domestic turkey Meleagris gallopavo domesticus, 9th cervical vertebra, most of right side removed, in anterior view. You can see that the neural canal is still mostly intact.

More sanding was required. I sanded some more.

You’ve already seen the final result up at the top of the page, but here is a cleaned-up version of that image, oriented according to Definition 3 of Taylor and Wedel (2019):

Domestic turkey Meleagris gallopavo domesticus, 9th cervical vertebra, hemisected, in right medial view.

And if that isn’t beautiful, what is?

The exciting thing is, anyone can make one of these. Matt’s already explained how to extract and clean up bird vertebrae and given you some ideas of what to do with them. Prepare out some turkey vertebrae and get going with the sandpaper!

I leave you with one more image: the hemisected vertebra in anterior view, oriented with dorsal to the top, and mirrored so it make up a complete vertebra once more. Enjoy!



Matt and I are writing a paper about Barosaurus cervicals (yes, again). Regular readers will recall that the best Barosaurus cervical material we have ever seen was in a prep lab for Western Paleo Labs. We have some pretty good photos, such as this one:

Barosaurus cervical vertebra lying on its right side in anterodorsal view (i.e. with dorsal to the left), showing the distinctive shape of the prezygapophyseal rami.

The problem is that this specimen was privately owned at the time we saw it, and so far as we know it still is. So according to all standard procedures, we should consider it unavailable to science until such time as it is deposited in an accredited museum. (I was pretty sure the SVP has an explicit policy to this effect, but I couldn’t find it on the site. Can anyone?)

So what should we do? All the possible courses of action seem unfortunate.

1. We could go ahead and include photos, drawings and descriptions of these vertebrae in the paper — but that would violate community norms by building an argument on observations that cannot be in general be replicated by other researchers. (For all we know, these vertebrae are now decorating Nicolas Cage’s pool room.)

2. We could omit these vertebrae from the paper, but use the information we gained from examining them in formulating our diagnostic criteria for Barosaurus cervicals — but this would also not really be replicable, plus it would have that horrible “we know something that you don’t” quality.

3. We could act as though these vertebrae do not exist, or as though we had never seen them, writing the paper based only on our observations of inferior material and of the good AMNH 6341 that is not accessible for study or photography — but that would make our characterisation of Barosaurus cervical morphology less helpful than it could be.

4. We could refrain from publishing on Barosaurus cervicals at all until such time as these vertebrae, or similarly well-preserved ones, are available to study at accredited institutions — but that would simply deprive the world of an interesting and exciting study.

Is there a fifth path that we have not seen? And if not, which of these four is the least objectionable?

Okay, this is cool: with the help of Ryan Ridgely, my coauthor* Larry Witmer used the CT scans of the two best infected vertebrae of Dolly to create 3D models, which are now viewable on Sketchfab. (See the announcement post about Dolly here, and our open-access paper on her pathological vertebrae here.)

*Yes, it is super-awesome to have Larry as a coauthor, after almost a quarter-century of admiring his work and standing on his shoulders.

The lesions are pretty subtle, and I intend to update this post with screenshots of the models with the infected bone highlighted, but I didn’t want to hold up getting the models out. UPDATE a couple of hours later: Cary kindly gave me a hand figuring out which bits of the vertebrae are infected. It’s not super-obvious at the resolution of these models, and not all of the infected bone is bubbling outward like cauliflower. More information is coming! Also, I tagged the vertebrae with their serial positions. C7 is in front of C6 because that’s how they went through the CT scanner. 

We’ve deliberately been a bit vague about what, exactly, Dolly is, beyond a diplodocid from the Morrison Formation of Montana. The answer is that Cary Woodruff is leading a team on a very well-illustrated monographic description of Dolly, which will be along in due time. So expect even more goodies in the future. Follow Cary on Twitter (@DoubleBeam, a reference to Diplodocus) for updates on all kinds of interesting stuff.

In the meantime, go have fun with the new toys!



I was at the SVP meeting in Albuquerque in 2018 when Cary Woodruff called me over and said he had something cool to show me. “Something cool” turned out to be photos of infected sauropod vertebrae from the Morrison Formation of Montana. Specifically, some gross, cauliflower-looking bony lesions bubbling up in the air spaces on the sides of the vertebrae.

Pathologic pneumatic tissue in MOR 7029. (A) Schematic map of the neck of Diplodocus (Hatcher 1901; bones not present in grey), with the pathologic structures denoted in red. (B) Cervical 5 of MOR 7029 with red box highlighting the pathologic structure; close up in (C) with interpretative drawing in (D) (by DCW) (pathology in red). Woodruff et al. (2022: fig. 1).

I was stoked, because I’ve been working on air-filled bones in sauropods since 1998, and in that time I’ve gotten countless versions of this question: “Do you ever see any evidence of respiratory infections in those air spaces?” For 20 years, the answer had been ‘no’, but now Cary was showing me a likely ‘yes’.

Better still, Cary asked me if I wanted to collaborate on writing up the case. He could have done it on his own, but right out of the gate he wanted to assemble a collaborative team. He also got paleopathologist and veterinarian Ewan Wolff, veterinary radiologist Sophie Dennison, and anatomist and paleontologist Larry Witmer. It was my first time collaborating with all of those folks, and it was really cool firing around ideas, observations, and references. Cary coined the clever title “Sauro-Throat” when we presented our preliminary results at SVP (Woodruff et al. 2020), and you’ll probably see it a lot in conjunction with this paper.

The elaborate and circuitous pulmonary complex of the sauropod, with the hypothetical route of infectious pathway in MOR 7029. Skeletal reconstruction of the diplodocine Galeamopus pabsti by and copyright of Francisco Bruñén Alfaro to scale with MOR 7029. Human scale bar is the exemplar of pandemic education and rationalism, Dr. Anthony Fauci, at his natural height of 170 cm. Woodruff et al. (2022: fig. 3).

A little over three years after our meet-up in Albuquerque, one global pandemic notwithstanding, our results are out this morning in Scientific Reports (Woodruff et al. 2022). Normally I’d write a mini-dissertation about our findings, but I decided to do a little video explainer instead. That’s the video linked up top — many thanks to Fiona Taylor (music), Brian Engh (paleoart), and Jennifer Adams (filming and editing) for the timely help in getting it done.

I’ll have more to say about this in the future. For now, the paper is a free download at this link. Go have fun!

UPDATE later the same day:

Woo-hoo! Dolly is the top science story on Google News:

Google News UK:

The Guardian — with fabulous quotes by Steve Brusatte and, especially, Mike Benton:

…and probably others, but that’s enough navel-gazing for one afternoon.


In mammals — certainly the most-studied vertebrates — regional differentiation of the vertebral column is distinct and easy to spot. But things aren’t so simple with sauropods. We all know that the neck of any tetrapod is made up of cervical vertebrae, and that the trunk is made up of dorsal vertebrae (subdivided into thoracic and lumbar vertebrae in the case of mammals). But how do we tell whether a given verebra is a posterior cervical or an anterior dorsal?

Here two vertabrae: a dorsal vertebra (D3) and a cervical vertebra (C13) from CM 84, the holotype of Diplodocus carnegii, modified from Hatcher (1901: plates III and VII):

It’s easy to tell these apart, even when as here we have only lateral-view images: the dorsal vertebra is tall, its centrum is short, its neural spine is anteroposteriorly compressed and its parapophysis is up on the dorsal half of the centrum; but the cervical vertebra is relatively low, its centrum is elongated, its neural spine is roughly triangular and its parapophysis hangs down well below the centrum (and has a cervical rib fused to it and the diapophysis).

But things get trickier in the shoulder region because, in sauropods at least, the transition through the last few cervicals to the first few dorsals is gradual — the vertebrae become shorter, taller and broader — and tends to have no very obvious break point. In this respect, they differ from mammals, in which the regional differentiation of the spinal column is more abrupt. (Although even here, things may not be as simple as generally assumed: for example, Gunji and Endo (2016) argued that the 1st thoracic vertebra of the giraffe behaves functionally like an 8th cervical.)

So here are those two vertebrae in context: the sequence D3 D2 D1 C15 C14 C13 in CM 84, the holotype of Diplodocus carnegii, modified from Hatcher (1901: plates III and VII):

Given that the leftmost is obviously a dorsal and the rightmost obviously a cervical, where would you place the break-point?

The most usual definition seems to be that the first dorsal vertebra is the first one that has a free rib, i.e. one not fused to the vertebra: in the illustration above, you can see that the three cervicals on the right all have their cervical ribs fused to their diapophyses and parapophyses, and the three dorsals on the left do not. This definition of the cervical/dorsal distinction seems to be widely assumed, but it is rarely explicitly asserted. (Does anyone know of a paper that lays it out for sauropods, or for dinosaurs more generally?)

But wait!

Hatcher (1903:8) — the same dude — in his Haplocanthosaurus monograph, writes:

The First Dorsal (Plate I., Fig. 1). […] That the vertebra now under consideration was a dorsal is conclusively shown not by the presence of tubercular and capitular rib facets showing that it supported on either side a free rib, for there are in our collections of sauropods, skeletons of other dinosaurs fully adult but, with the posterior cervical, bearing free cervical ribs articulating by both tubercular and capitular facets as do the ribs of the dorsal region. The character in this vertebra distinguishing it as a dorsal is the broadly expanded external border of the anterior branch of the horizontal lamina [i.e. what we would now call the centroprezygapophyseal lamina]. This element has been this modified in this and the succeeding dorsal, no doubt, as is known to be the case in Diplodocus to give greater surface for the attachment of the powerful muscles necessary for the support of the scapula.

Hatcher’s illustrations show this feature, though they don’t make it particularly obvious: here are the last two cervicals and the first dorsal, modified from Hatcher (1903:plate I), with the facet in question highlighted in pink: right lateral view at the top, then anterior, and finally posterior view at the bottom. (The facet is only visible in lateral and anterior views):

Taken at face value, Hatcher’s words here seem to imply that he considers the torso to begin where the scapula first lies alongside the vertebral column. Yet if you go back to the Diplodocus transition earlier in this post, a similar scapular facet is not apparent in the vertebra that he designated D1, and seems to be present only in D2.

Is this scapular-orientation based definition a widespread usage? Can anyone point me to other papers that use it?

Wilson (2002:226) mentions a genetic definition of the cervical/dorsal distinction

Vertebral segment identity may be controlled by a single Hox gene. The cervicodorsal transition in many tetrapods, for instance, appears to be defined by the expression boundary of the Hoxc-6 gene.

But this of course is no use in the case of extinct animals such as sauropods.

So what’s going on here? In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in describing his threshold test for obscenity, famously said “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Is that all we have for the definition of what makes a vertebra cervicals as opposed to dorsal? We know it when we see it?

Help me out, folks! What should the test for cervical-vs-dorsal be?


  • Gunji, Mego, and Hideki Endo. 2016. Functional cervicothoracic boundary modified by anatomical shifts in the neck of giraffes. Royal Society Open Science 3:150604. doi:10.1098/rsos.150604
  • Hatcher, Jonathan B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63 and plates I-XIII.
  • Hatcher, J. B. 1903b. Osteology of Haplocanthosaurus with description of a new species, and remarks on the probable habits of the Sauropoda and the age and origin of the Atlantosaurus beds; additional remarks on Diplodocus. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 2:1-75 and plates I-VI.
  • Wilson, Jeffrey A. 2002. Sauropod dinosaur phylogeny: critique and cladistic analysis. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 136:217-276.

I have several small ordered sequences of data, each of about five to ten elements. For each of them, I want to calculate a metric which captures how much they vary along the sequence. I don’t want standard deviation, or anything like it, because that would consider the sequences 1 5 2 7 4 and 1 2 4 5 7 equally variable, whereas for my purposes the first of these is much more variable.

Here is a matric that I think does what I want, and will allow me to compare different sequences for variability-along-the-sequence.

For the n-1 pairs along the sequence of n elements, I take the difference (absolute value, so always positive) between elements i and i+1. Then I average all those differences. Then I divide the result by the average of the values themselves, to normalise for magnitude.

Some example calculations:

  • For the sequence 1 5 2 7 4, the differences are 4 3 5 3, for a total of 15 and an average of 3.75. The average of the values is 1+5+2+7+4 = 19/5 = 3.8, which gives me a metric of 3.75/3.8 = 0.987.
  • For the sequence 1 2 4 5 7, the differences are 1 2 1 2, for a total of 6 and an average of 1.5. The average of the values is again 3.8, which gives me a metric of 1.5/3.8 = 0.395.
  • So the first sequence is 0.987/0.395 = 2.5 times as sequentially variable as the second sequence.
  • And for the sequence 10 20 40 50 70 (which is the same as the previous one, but all values ten times greater), the differences are 10 20 10 20, for a total of 60 and an average of 15. The average of the values is 38, which gives me a metric of 15/38 = 0.395, the same as before — which is as it should be.

And now, my question! Does this metric, or something similar, already exist? If so, what is it called? Or if I should be using something else instead, what is it?

(It happens that my sequences are the aspect ratios of the cotyles of consecutive vertebrae, but that’s not important: whatever metric we land on should work for any sequences.)

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


FIGURE 7.1. Pneumatic features in dorsal vertebrae of Barapasaurus (A–D), Camarasaurus (E–G), Diplodocus (H–J), and Saltasaurus (K–N). Anterior is to the left; different elements are not to scale. A, A posterior dorsal vertebra of Barapasaurus. The opening of the neural cavity is under the transverse process. B, A midsagittal section through a middorsal vertebra of Barapasaurus showing the neural cavity above the neural canal. C, A transverse section through the posterior dorsal shown in A (position 1). In this vertebra, the neural cavities on either side are separated by a narrow median septum and do not communicate with the neural canal. The centrum bears large, shallow fossae. D, A transverse section through the middorsal shown in B. The neural cavity opens to either side beneath the transverse processes. No bony structures separate the neural cavity from the neural canal. The fossae on the centrum are smaller and deeper than in the previous example. (A–D redrawn from Jain et al. 1979:pl. 101, 102.) E, An anterior dorsal vertebra of Camarasaurus. F, A transverse section through the centrum (E, position 1) showing the large camerae that occupy most of the volume of the centrum. G, a horizontal section (E, position 2). (E–G redrawn from Ostrom and McIntosh 1966:pl. 24.) H, A posterior dorsal vertebra of Diplodocus. (Modified from Gilmore 1932:fig. 2.) I, Transverse sections through the neural spines of other Diplodocus dorsals (similar to H, position 1). The neural spine has no body or central corpus of bone for most of its length. Instead it is composed of intersecting bony laminae. This form of construction is typical for the presacral neural spines of most sauropods outside the clade Somphospondyli. (Modified from Osborn 1899:fig. 4.) J, A horizontal section through a generalized Diplodocus dorsal (similar to H, position 2). This diagram is based on several broken elements and is not intended to represent a specific specimen. The large camerae in the midcentrum connect to several smaller chambers at either end. K, A transverse section through the top of the neural spine of an anterior dorsal vertebra of Saltasaurus (L, position 1). Compare the internal pneumatic chambers in the neural spine of Saltasaurus with the external fossae in the neural spine of Diplodocus shown in J. L, An anterior dorsal vertebra of Saltasaurus. M, A transverse section through the centrum (L, position 2). N, A horizontal section (L, position 3). In most members of the clade Somphospondyli the neural spines and centra are filled with small camellae. (K–N modified from Powell 1992:fig. 16.) [Figure from Wedel 2005.]

Here’s figure 1 from my 2005 book chapter. I tried to cram as much pneumatic sauropod vertebra morphology into one figure as I could. All of the diagrams are traced from pre-existing published images except the horizontal section of the Diplodocus dorsal in J, which is a sort of generalized cross-section that I based on broken centra of camerate vertebrae from several taxa (like the ones shown in this post). One thing that strikes me about this figure, and about most of the CT and other cross-sections that I’ve published or used over the years (example), is that they’re more or less bilaterally symmetrical. 

We’ve talked about asymmetrical vertebrae before, actually going back to the very first post in Xenoposeidon week, when this blog was only a month and a half old. But not as much as I thought. Given how much space asymmetry takes up in my brain, it’s actually weird how little we’ve discussed it.

The fourth sacral centrum of Haplocanthosaurus CM 879, in left and right lateral view (on the left and right, respectively). Note the distinct fossa under the sacral rib attachment on the right, which is absent on the left.

Also, virtually all of our previous coverage of asymmetry has focused on external pneumatic features, like the asymmetric fossae in this sacral of Haplocanthosaurus (featured here), in the tails of Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus (from Wedel and Taylor 2013b), and in the ever-popular holotype of Xenoposeidon. This is true not just on the blog but also in our most recent paper (Taylor and Wedel 2021), which grew out of this post.

Given that cross-sectional asymmetry has barely gotten a look in before now, here are three specimens that show it, presented in ascending levels of weirdness.

First up, a dorsal centrum of Haplocanthosaurus, CM 572. This tracing appeared in Text-fig 8 in my solo prosauropod paper (Wedel 2007), and the CT scout it was traced from is in Fig 6 in my saurischian air-sac paper (Wedel 2009). The section shown here is about 13cm tall dorsoventrally. The pneumatic fossa on the left is comparatively small, shallow, and lacks very distinct overhanging lips of bone. The fossa on the right is about twice as big, it has a more distinct bar of bone forming a ventral lip, and it is separated from the neural canal by a much thinner plate of bone. The fossa on the left is more similar to the condition in dorsal vertebrae of Barapasaurus or juvenile Apatosaurus, where as the one on the right shows a somewhat more extensive and derived degree of pneumatization. The median septum isn’t quite on the midline of the centrum, but it’s pretty stout, which seems to be a consistent feature in presacral vertebrae of Haplocanthosaurus.


Getting weirder. Here’s a section through the mid-centrum of C6 of CM 555, which is probably Brontosaurus parvus. That specific vert has gotten a lot of SV-POW! love over the years: it appears in several posts (like this one, this one, and this one), and in Fig 19 in our neural spine bifurcation paper (Wedel and Taylor 2013a). The section shown here is about 10cm tall, dorsoventrally. In cross-section, it has the classic I-beam configuration for camerate sauropod vertebrae, only the median septum is doing something odd — rather than attaching the midline of the bony floor of the centrum, it’s angled over to the side, to attach to what would normally be the ventral lip of the camera. I suspect that it got this way because the diverticulum on the right either got to the vertebra a little ahead of the one on the left, or just pneumatized the bone faster, because the median septum isn’t just bent, even the vertical bit is displaced to the left of the midline. I also suspect that this condition was able to be maintained because the median septa weren’t that mechanically important in a lot of these vertebrae. We use “I-beam” as a convenient shorthand to describe the shape, but in a metal I-beam the upright is as thick or thicker than the cross bits. In contrast, camerate centra of sauropod vertebrae could be more accurately described as a cylinders or boxes of bone with some holes in the sides. I think the extremely thin median septum is just a sort of developmental leftover from the process of pneumatization.

EDIT 3 days later: John Whitlock reminded me in the comments of Zurriaguz and Alvarez (2014), who looked at asymmetry in the lateral pneumatic foramina in cervical and dorsal vertebrae of titanosaurs, and found that consistent asymmetry along the cervical column was not unusual. They also explicitly hypothesized that the asymmetry was caused by diverticula on one side reaching the vertebrae earlier than diverticula on other other side. I believe they were the first to advance that idea in print (although I should probably take my own advice and scour the historical literature for any earlier instances), and needless to say, I think they’re absolutely correct.

Both of the previous images were traced from CTs, but the next one is traced from a photo of a specimen, OMNH 1882, that was broken transversely through the posterior centrum. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what critter this vertebra is from. It is too long and the internal structure is too complex for it to be Camarasaurus. I think an apatosaurine identity is unlikely, too, given the proportional length of the surviving chunk of centrum, and the internal structure, which looks very different from CM 555 or any other apatosaur I’ve peered inside. Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus are also known from the Morrison quarries at Black Mesa, in the Oklahoma panhandle, which is where this specimen is from. Of those two, the swoopy ventral margin of the posterior centrum looks more Diplodocus-y than Brachiosaurus-y to me, and the specimen lacks the thick slab of bone that forms the ventral centrum in presacrals of Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan (see Schwarz and Fritsch 2006: fig. 4, and this post). So on balance I think probably Diplodocus, but I could easily be wrong.

Incidentally, the photo is from 2003, before I knew much about how to properly photograph specimens. I really need to have another look at this specimen, for a lot of reasons.

Whatever taxon the vertebra is from, the internal structure is a wild scene. The median septum is off midline and bent, this time at the top rather than the bottom, the thick ventral rim of the lateral pneumatic foramen is hollow on the right but not on the left, and there are wacky chambers around the neural canal and one in the ventral floor of the centrum. 

I should point out that no-one has ever CT-scanned this specimen, and single slices can be misleading. Maybe the ventral rim of the lateral foramen is hollow just a little anterior or posterior to this slice. Possibly the median septum is more normally configured elsewhere in the centrum. But at least at the break point, this thing is crazy. 

What’s it all mean? Maybe the asymmetry isn’t noise, maybe it’s signal. We know that when bone and pneumatic epithelium get to play together, they tend to make weird stuff. Sometimes that weirdness gets constrained by functional demands, other times not so much. I think it’s very seductive to imagine sauropod vertebrae as these mechanically-optimized, perfect structures, but we have other evidence that that’s not always true (for example). Maybe as long as the articular surfaces, zygapophyses, epipophyses, neural spine tips, and cervical ribs — the mechanically-important bits — ended up in the right places, and the major laminae did a ‘good enough’ job of transmitting forces, the rest of each vertebra could just sorta do whatever. Maybe most of them end up looking more or less the same because of shared development, not because it was so very important that all the holes and flanges were in precisely the same places. That might explain why we occasionally get some really odd verts, like C11 of the Diplodocus carnegii holotype.

That’s all pretty hand-wavy and I haven’t yet thought of a way to test it, but someone probably will sooner or later. In the meantime, I think it’s valuable to just keep documenting the weirdness as we find it.


A sauropod on Mars

February 24, 2021

This is old news, for those who have been following NASA’s Perseverance rover since before it left Earth, and it’s also not my find–my friend, colleague, and sometime co-author Brian Kraatz send me a heads-up about it this morning.

NASA posted the image above a couple of days ago, in a post called “Mastcam-Z looks at its calibration target“. If you zoom in, you can just make out a tiny silhouette of a sauropod on the ring around the MarsDial (what we call a sundial on Mars).

Here’s a much clearer pre-launch image from the Planetary Society (link), which helped design the calibration targets. Starting at about 7:00 and going around clockwise, there’s an image of the inner Solar System, with the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, then DNA, bacteria, a fern, a sauropod, humans (same silhouettes as on the Pioneer probes), a retro-style rocket ship, and finally a motto, “Two worlds, one beginning”, which may be a sly nod to the hypothesis that life in the inner Solar System started on Mars and was later seeded to Earth on meteorites–or possibly vice versa.

What’s with all this bling? It’s all about calibrating the cameras on Perseverance. The MarsDial gives the position and angle of the sun, and the colored dots help calibrate the color output of the cameras. There are other calibration targets for other cameras on board Perseverance, as well as some other technological ‘Easter eggs’ from the folks who designed and built the rover–read more about them here (link).

Perseverance is up there to explore “the potential of Mars as a place for life” (source), both past and future. Its four science objectives are:

  1. Looking for Habitability: Identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
  2. Seeking Biosignatures: Seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time.
  3. Caching Samples: Collect core rock and “soil” samples and store them on the Martian surface. [For a future sample-return mission.–MJW]
  4. Preparing for Humans: Test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.

Personally, I have my fingers firmly crossed that Perseverance finds something like this sticking out of a Martian rock:

(That one is actually from Utah, not Mars–see this post.) I don’t see any other way that my particular skill set is going to contribute to the exploration of the Solar System, which I’d really like to do. So I’ll wait, and watch Perseverance send back pictures, and wait some more. Sigh.

Anyway, there’s at least one sauropod on Mars, and that will have to do (for now!).

Bonus: if you haven’t watched the video of the rocket skycrane delivering the car-sized Perseverance to the surface of Mars, you need to. And if you have watched it, who cares, watch it again:

Figure 3. BIBE 45854, articulated series of nine mid and posterior cervical vertebrae of a large, osteologically mature Alamosaurus sanjuanensis. Series is estimated to represent the sixth to fourteenth cervical vertebrae. A, composite photo-mosaic of the cervical series in right lateral view; identification of each vertebra indicated by C6 to C14, respectively. B, line drawing based on the photo-mosaic in A. C, line drawing in B with labels shown and vertebral fossae indicated by solid grey fill; cross-hatching represents broken bone surfaces and reconstructive material. Abbreviations: C, cervical vertebra; cdf, centrodiapophyseal fossa; clf, centrum lateral fossa; pocdf, postzygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; prcdf, prezygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; prcdf1, dorsal prezygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; prcdf2, ventral prezygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; sdf, spinodiapophyseal fossa; spof, spinopostzygapophyseal fossa; sprf, spinoprezygapophyseal fossa. (Tykoski and Fiorillo 2016)

Have you been reading Justin Tweet’s series, “Your Friends the Titanosaurs“, at his awesomely-named blog, Equatorial Minnesota? If not, get on it. He’s been running the series since June, 2018, so this notice is only somewhat grotesquely overdue. The latest installment, on Alamosaurus from Texas and Mexico, is phenomenal. I have never seen another summary or review that pulled together so much of the relevant literature and explained it all so well. Seriously, that blog post deserves to be a review paper; it could be submitted pretty much as-is, although it would be even better with his two other Alamosaurus posts integrated (this one, and this one). It’s great work, is what I’m saying, and it needs to be acknowledged.

In particular, I was struck by the note by Anonymous in 1941 on the discovery of a cervical vertebra 1.2 meters long. I’d never heard of that ref, and I’ve never seen that vert, but at 120cm it would be in the top 7 longest cervical vertebrae on the planet (see the latest version of the list in this post), narrowly beating out the 118-cm cervical of Puertasaurus. In fairness, the preserved cervical of Puertasaurus is probably a posterior one, and more anterior cervicals might have been longer. Then again, in the big Alamosaurus neck the longest verts are pretty darned posterior, so…we need more Puertasaurus.

EDIT a few hours later: Thanks to the kind offices of Justin Tweet, I’ve now seen Anonymous (1941), and the exact wording is, “A single vertebra, or neck joint bone, is three feet across, only two inches less than four feet long, and in its present fossilized state weighs 600 pounds.” ‘Two inches less than four feet long’ is 46 inches or a hair under 117cm, which puts the supposed giant cervical just behind Puertasaurus after all, but still firmly in the top 10. And depending on how one interprets the passage in Anonymous (1941), it might not have been any bigger than BIBE 45854–see this comment for details.

Big cervical showdown. From the top left: BYU 9024, originally referred to Supersaurus but more likely representing a giant Barosaurus (137cm); the single available cervical of Puertasaurus (118cm); a world-record giraffe neck (2.4m); Alamosaurus referred cervical series BIBE 45854, longest centra are ~81cm; Sauroposeidon holotype OMNH 53062, longest centrum is 125cm. This image makes it very clear that whatever Sauroposeidon was doing, it was a way different thing from Alamosaurus.

Crucially, the longest vertebrae in the BIBE 45854 series are about 80 or 81 cm long, which means that a 1.2-meter cervical would be half again as large. That is a pretty staggering thought, and that individual of Alamosaurus–assuming it was the same taxon as BIBE 45854, and not some other, longer-necked critter–would definitely be a contender for the largest sauropod of all time.

Illustrations here are of the big Alamosaurus cervical series from Big Bend, which was comprehensively described by Ron Tykoski and Tony Fiorillo in 2016, and which we have covered in these previous posts:


  • Anonymous. 1941. Find dinosaur neck bone nearly four feet long. The Science News-Letter 39(1):6–7.
  • Tykoski, R.S. and Fiorillo, A.R. 2016. An articulated cervical series of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis Gilmore, 1922 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from Texas: new perspective on the relationships of North America’s last giant sauropod. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 15(5):339-364.