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

Since the previous installment of this epic, we’ve taken two brief digressions on how little importance we should attach the colours of bones in our photographs when trying to determine whether they’re from the same individual: cameras do lie, and in any case different bones of the same individual can age differently. Since then — newsflash! — a third reason has become apparent in the case of the two Supersaurus scaps: the object we discussed as Scap A turns out to be a cast. A really good one, sure, but still: its colour tells us little about the colour of the actual bone.

If you doubt that, consider the scapulocoracoid referred to Ultrasauros (which we’ll be meeting again in the next post). Here is the real bone, at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL), with me for scale:

BYU 9462, the scapulocoracoid referred by Jensen to Ultrasauros. Mike Taylor for scale, doing a Jensen. The signage reads: Brachiosaurus scapula and coracoid. Originally believed to belong to the genus Ultrasaurus (now invalid), this shoulder blade is from the giant herbivorous dinosaur Brachiosaurus, a replica of which is mounted in this room. The dinosaur that owned this scapula was over 65 feet long and could tower 45 feet above the ground. When collected by Jim Jensen at Dry Mesa Quarry (Colorado) in 1989, the scapula was believed to represent the largest dinosaur ever found. Note how many separate pieces are within the specimen. A tremendous amount of work is required to complete a fossil of this size. Specimen on loan from Brigham Young University’s Earth Science Museum. Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous (about 144 million years ago)

And here’s Matt with the cast of the same bone that resides in the BYU collections:

As you can see, the cast has been prepared in a darker and browner colour than the pale greenish grey of the real bone (though don’t forget that cameras lie about colours, so we shouldn’t over-interpret this difference).

Aaanyway …

We finished up last time with the observation that the holotype scapulocoracoid of Supersaurus, BYU 9025, is not obviously diagnostic; and that since the cervical BYU 9024 that has been referred to it actually belongs to Barosaurus, we can’t trust any of the other referrals of big Dry Mesa diplodocid bones to Supersaurus; and that the name must therefore be considered a nomen dubium, resting as it does on non-diagnostic material.

Can the name Supersaurus survive? I think it can, and I see four possible routes to that happening.

Method 0: Everyone ignores these blog posts

This is only a blog, after all. No-one is obliged to pay any attention to anything we say here.

That said, Matt and I do have previous in transforming series of blog posts in to actual papers. Having invested so much effort into writing these posts, I do hope that I’ll be able to do the same thing in this case, so at some stage the ideas from this series should become part of the formal scientific record. (I make no promises about how long that will take.)

So assuming that we can’t all just walk away and pretend that none of this ever happened, are there better ways to save the name Supersaurus?

Method 1. Someone finds autapomophies

Matt and I are of course primarily vertebra jockies. We are not above studying the occasional taxon based on appendicular material, but our expertise lies in the domain of the axial. It’s perfectly possible that someone who understands sauropod appendicular anatomy better than we do could isolate some autapomorphies in the holotype scap BYU 9025, and Supersaurus would then be firmly founded on a diagnostic type specimen.

Can we find hope for this outcome in the results of phylogenetic analyses?

In Whitlock’s (2011) diplodocoid analysis, Supersaurus emerges with but a single autapomophy: “Anterior caudal neural spine height less than 150% centrum height” (page 44). Based, as it is, on a referred element, that doesn’t help us much here. (Although it’s worth noting that Whitlock scored this character as 0 for Supersaurus and 1 for Barosaurus, which does very slightly suggest that the referred caudal is not Barosaurus and therefore might belong to the same individual as the Supersaurus holotype. Yes, this is weak sauce.)

Tschopp et al.’s (2015) unnumbered supplementary file Apomorphies recovered by TNT under implied weighting is difficult to interpret: for example, a heading on the first page says simply “R_iw” and its counterpart on page 8 is simply “P_iw“. But the Supersaurus-relevant entries are the same under both headings. In both cases, they read:

Supersaurus vivianae BYU
Char. 258: 1 –> 0
Char. 274: 1 –> 0
WDC DMJ-021
Char. 165: 1 –> 2
Char. 172: 0 –> 1
Char. 174: 0 –> 1
Char. 257: 1 –> 2

Node 137 (Supersaurus vivianae)
Char. 183: 1 –> 2

I read this as meaning that the two OTUs have autapomorphies as listed, and the node uniting them has a single synapomorphy. But all of these characters related to the presacral vertebrae (C165-C183 in the cervicals, C257-C274 in the dorsals). So again, there is nothing here to help us diagnose Supersaurus on the basis of the holotype scapulocoracoid.

Of course, that doesn’t prove that there there aren’t any diagnostic characters. Someone with a good eye for sauropod scapulocoracoids might find details missed by these phylogenetic analyses, whose remits were much broader. But the news so far is not good.

Method 2. Nominate a neotype from the BYU material

If we accept that there are probably no more than two big diplodocoids in the Dry Mesa quarry, and that one of them is Barosaurus (based in the big cervical BYU 9024), and that the “Dystylosaurus” vertebra BYU 4503 is not Barosaurus, then it must follow that it belongs to Supersaurus. Unlike the type scapulocoracoid BYU 9025, that vertebra probably is diagnostic (it’s an anterior diplodocid dorsal, yet its spine is unsplit) so perhaps Supersaurus could survive by being diagnosed on that basis.

How would this work nomenclaturally? I think it would be difficult. If I have properly understood Article 75 of the ICZN, you can only go ahead and designate a neotype “when no name-bearing type specimen (i.e. holotype, lectotype, syntype or prior neotype) is believed to be extant”. But the holotype scapulocoracoid exists (so far as we know, though we’re not sure where it is).

All is not necessarily lost, though. Paragraph 75.5 (Replacement of unidentifiable name-bearing type by a neotype) says “When an author considers that the taxonomic identity of a nominal species-group taxon cannot be determined from its existing name-bearing type (i.e. its name is a nomen dubium), and stability or universality are threatened thereby, the author may request the Commission to set aside under its plenary power [Art. 81] the existing name-bearing type and designate a neotype.” But that means writing an ICZN petition, and I’m not sure anyone wants to do that. The process is technical, picky and prolonged, and its outcome is subject to the whim of the committee. It’s quite possible someone might go to all the trouble of writing a petition, then wait five years, only to have it rejected.

The irony here is that when Curtice and Stadtman (2001) referred the “Dystylosaurus” dorsal BYU 4503 to Supersaurus, they were at liberty to sink Supersaurus into Dystylosaurus rather than vice versa. Then the unique dorsal vertebra would have become the holotype, and the surviving genus would have been nicely diagnosable. Curtice and Stadtman (2001) did not discuss this possibility; nor did Curtice et al. (1996) discuss the possibility of folding Supersaurus into Ultrasauros when determining that the holotype vertebra of the latter belongs to the same taxon as the former.

Curtice and his collaborators were likely following the principle of “page priority”: preferring Supersaurus over the other two genera as it was the first one named in Jensen’s (1985) article that named all three. However, page priority does not exist at all in the present version of the Code (see Article 24, Precedence between simultaneously published names, spellings or acts), and even in earlier versions was only a non-binding recommendation. So it was really Curtice’s and his friends’ choice which genus to retain.

But that ship has now sailed. According to the principle of first reviser (Section 24.2.1), the pubished actions of Curtice and colleagues established a new status quo, and their choice of genus stands.

Method 3. Nominate Jimbo as a neotype

We might conceivably give up on the mixed-up Dry Mesa material as too uncertain to base anything on, and nominate WDC DM-021 (“Jimbo”) as the neotype specimen instead. It may have less material in total than has been referred to Supersaurus from the Dry Mesa quarry, but the association is somewhat more solid (Lovelace et al. 2008:528).

In some ways this might be the most satisfactory conclusion: it would give us a more solid basis on which to judge whether or not subsequent specimens can be said to belong to Supersaurus. But as with method 2, it could only be done via a petition to the ICZN, and I suspect the chances of such a petition succeeding would be low because clause 75.3.6 of the Code says that neotype designation should include “evidence that the neotype came as nearly as practicable from the original type locality [of] the original name-bearing type”.

So I don’t think this is likely to work, but I mention it for completeness. (Also, I am not 100% sure how solid the association of the Jimbo elements is, as the wording in Lovelace et al. (2008:528) does hedge a little.)

In conclusion …

I think the best hope for the survival of the name Supersaurus would be the recognition of unambiguously diagnostic characters in the holotype scapulocoracoid BYU 9025. In comments on the last post, John D’Angelo has started to think about what characters might work here. We’ll see how that thread pans out.

On the other hand, do we even particularly want the name Supersaurus to survive? It’s a pretty dumb name. Maybe we should just let it die peacefully.

Next time — in what really, really, really will be the last post in this series — we’ll consider what all this means for the other two names in Jensen’s trio, Dystylosaurus and Ultrasauros.

References

  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33-40.
  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). M. Morales (ed.), “The continental Jurassic”. Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Lovelace, David M., Scott A. Hartman and William R. Wahl. 2008. Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527–544.
  • Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus and Roger B. J. Benson. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 2:e857. doi:10.7717/peerj.857
  • Whitlock, John A. 2011. A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161(4):872-915. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00665.x

 

Here’s a bit of light relief, in the middle of all those looong posts about Supersaurus and its buddies. When Matt and I were at NAMAL on the last day of the 2016 Sauropocalypse, we took a bunch of tourist shots. Two of them were of a skull and first three cervical vertebrae from what I take to be Diplodocus or something close, and happened to be from sufficiently close angles that they make a pretty good anaglyph. Here it is!

(If you don’t have the 3D glasses that you need to see this, get some. Seriously, how many times do I have to tell you?)

If anyone out there is familiar with NAMAL (on indeed with diplodocid skulls) and can confirm or contradict my identification, I’d appreciate it. Best of all would be a photo of the signage associated with this specimen, such as I should have taken.

By the way, if you’re not used to the ways of sauropods, you might be thinking “Mike, you dummy, there are only two vertebrae there”. But in saropods, the atlas (1st cervical) is a tiny, inconsequential element that frequently fuses to the axis (2nd cervical). So what looks like the first cervical here is really 1+2. If you look closely, you can see the blades of the atlas projecting backwards and upwards, across the surface of the axis.

Having surveyed what we know from the published literature about Jensen’s Big Three sauropods, and what Matt and I concluded about its big cervical BYU 9024, and having thought a bit more about the size of the BYU 9024 animal, we’re getting to the point where we can consider what all this means for Jensen’s taxa.

The Supersaurus pelvis BYU 13018 in right lateral view, at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL). Signage reads: “Supersaurus pelvis. In 1988 the pelvis of Supersaurus was discovered at Dry Mesa Quarry. Brian Versey, Cliff Miles and Ken Stadtman of Brigham Young University’s Earth Science Museum found the pelvis while they were trying to close the quarry for the season. The discovery generated a huge media event, making headlines around the world. This pelvis is the largest dinosaur bone complex ever discovered. It is on display here for the very first time. Specimen on loan from Brigham Young University’s Earth Science Museum. Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous (about 144 million years ago)

As Curtice and Stadtman (2001:36-39) pointed out, Supersaurus is actually known from quite a lot of material, all assigned to the holotype individual. I’ll quote them at length rather than paraphrasing, but if you want a tabular summary, you can skip the quote and pick up down below.

Supersaurus vivianae roll call

The name “Supersaurus” first appeared in a Reader’s Digest article (George, 1973) describing a pair of 8′ long scapulocoracoids uncovered from Dry Mesa Dinosaur Quarry near Delta, Colorado. When formally described (Jensen, 1985) a number of elements were referred to the holotype including the left scapulocoracoid discovered in 1972 (BYU 9025), a right scapulocoracoid (BYU 12962), a right ischium (BYU 12946), a distal proximal caudal vertebra (BYU 12843) and 12 articulated mid-caudal vertebrae (BYU 9084). An additional caudal vertebra (BYU 9077) is referred to (and figured as) Supersaurus in the text of Jensen (1985). The specimen numbers used in Jensen (1985), no longer valid, have created confusion in the literature (e.g., Paul, 1988) and thus current BYU specimen numbers are used here throughout.

Jensen (1987) later referred a mid-cervical vertebra (BYU 9024) and Curtice and Curtice (1996) a proximal caudal vertebra (BYU 9045), both originally assigned to Ultrasauros, to Supersaurus. Numerous additional elements belong to Supersaurus, including a left ischium (BYU 12555), which is clearly the mate to the referred right ischium (BYU 12946), a right pubis (BYU 12424), a carpal (BYU 12390), a phalanx (BYU 9000), a left ulna (BYU 13744), at least five caudal vertebrae (BYU 4839, 9045, 12639, 12819, 12843) and a pelvis (BYU 13018) consisting of a left ilium and four sacral vertebrae.

Jensen never referred the two Supersaurus scapulocoracoids to the same individual due to a 260 mm discrepancy in length. Stripping away the paint and resin on BYU 9025 revealed the proximal end had been inadvertently lengthened during preservation. Close examination of the actual bone surface nets a total scapulocoracoid length less than 50 mm longer than BYU 12962, an amount easily accounted for by scapular variation and thus here both are referred to the same individual. Concerning the large brachiosaur scapulocoracoid (BYU 9462) Jensen (1985) listed as part of the material belonging to Ultrasauros, it is demonstrably smaller than the largest Tendaguru scapula and has been referred to Brachiosaurus sp. (Curtice and Curtice, 1996; Curtice et al., 1996). As such all exceptionally large sauropod elements from Dry Mesa Dinosaur Quarry can be referred to one of two individuals, one a Supersaurus and one a Brachiosaurus.

A dorsal vertebra (BYU 9044) referred to Supersaurus (Curtice and Curtice, 1996; Curtice et al., 1996) results in Ultrasaurus macintoshi becoming a junior synonym of Supersaurus vivianae, as BYU 9044 was the type specimen of Ultrasauros. A second dorsal vertebra, BYU 12814, is also here referred to Supersaurus based on its similarities to BYU 9044. All of the three large dorsal vertebrae mentioned herein were found within the confines of the paired Supersaurus scapulae further strengthening the suggestion all of the large diplodocid elements belong to a single individual.

(Yes, it really does say “a distal proximal caudal vertebra”.)

Curtice and Stadtman say that the pelvis consists of left ilium plus four sacral vertebrae; but as the photo above clearly shows, it is the right ilium that is preserved.

Here is a summary table, in standard anatomical order:

Specimen Element Referred by
9024 Mid-cervical vertebra Jensen 1987
4503 Anterior dorsal vertebra Curtice & Stadtman 2001
9044 Posterior dorsal vertebra Curtice et al. 1996
12814 Posterior dorsal vertebra Curtice & Stadtman 2001
13018 Pelvis (right ilium, four sacral vertebrae) Curtice & Stadtman 2001
9045 Proximal caudal vertebra Curtice & Curtice 1996
12843 “Distal proximal” caudal vertebra Jensen 1985
9084 Twelve articulated mid-caudal vertebrae Jensen 1985
9077 Caudal vertebra Jensen 1985
4839 Caudal vertebra Curtice & Stadtman 2001
9045 Caudal vertebra Curtice & Stadtman 2001
12639 Caudal vertebra Curtice & Stadtman 2001
12819 Caudal vertebra Curtice & Stadtman 2001
12843 Caudal vertebra Curtice & Stadtman 2001
9025 Left scapulocoracoid Holotype
12962 Right scapulocoracoid Jensen 1985
13744 Left ulna Curtice & Stadtman 2001
12390 Carpal Curtice & Stadtman 2001
12424 Right pubis Curtice & Stadtman 2001
12946 Right ischium Jensen 1985
12555 Left ischium Curtice & Stadtman 2001
9000 Phalanx Curtice & Stadtman 2001

This is an impressively complete specimen — especially for a giant sauropod, as these tend only to survive in the form of isolated elements.

But is it really one specimen? That’s the subject of the next post.

(This post is rather slender by recent standards. That’s because I accidentally hit Publish when it was only half written. Rather than leave it to slowly change as I write more, I think it’s better to let this first half stand as its own post, and write the rest as its own post next time.)

References

  • Curtice, Brian D. and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. Death of a dinosaur: a reevaluation of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen 1985). Journal of Vertebrae Paleontology 16(3):26A.
  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33-40.
  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). M. Morales (ed.), “The continental Jurassic”. Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Jensen, James A. 1987. New brachiosaur material from the Late Jurassic of Utah and Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 47(4):592–608.

In part 2, we concluded that BYU 9024, the large cervical vertebra assigned by Jensen to the Supersaurus holotype individual, is in fact a perfectly well-behaved Barosaurus cervical — just a much, much bigger one than we’ve been used to seeing. Although we heavily disclaimered our size estimates, Andrea Cau quite rightly commented:

Thanks for the disclaimer: unfortunately, it is going to be ignored by the Internet.
[…]
So, my boring-conservative mind asks: what is the smallest size that is a valid alternative explanation? I mean, if we combine all possible factors (position misinterpretation, deformation effects, allometry and so on) what could be the smallest plausible size? Only the latter should be taken as “the size” of this animal, pending more material.

Andrea is right that we should take a moment to think a bit more about the possible size implications of BYU 9024.

BYU 9024, the huge cervical vertebra assigned to Supersaurus but which is actually Barosaurus, in left dorsolateral view, lying on its right side with anterior to the right. In front of it, for scale, a Diplodocus cervical from about the same serial position. (Note that the Diplodocus vertebra here appears proportionally bigger than it really is, due to being much closer to the camera.)

What we know for sure is that the vertebra is 1380 mm long (give or take a centimeter or two due to the difficulties of measuring big complex bones in an objective way, something we should write about separately some time.)

We are 99% certain that the bone is a Barosaurus cervical.

We are much less certain about the serial position of that bone. When we were at BYU, we concluded that it most resembled C9 of the AMNH specimen, but I honestly can’t remember the detail of our reasoning (can you, Matt?) and our scanned notebooks don’t offer much in the way of help. We know from McIntosh (2005) that the neural spine of C8 is unsplit and that C9 has the first hint of a cleft.  How does that compare with BYU 9024? Here’s a photo to help you decide:

BYU 9024, large cervical vertebra in left dorsolateral view, inverted (i.e. with dorsal towards us and anterior to the right). Note the shallow cleft between metapophyses at bottom left.

And here’s an anaglyph, to help you appreciate the 3D structure. (Don’t have any red-cyan glasses? GET SOME!)

BYU 9024, oriented similarly to the previous photograph.

The morphology around the crown of the neural spine is difficult to interpret, partly just because the fossil itself is a bit smashed up and partly because the bone, the (minimal) restoration and the matrix are such similar colours. But here’s my best attempt to draw out what’s happening, zoomed in from last non-anaglyph photo:

As you start at the prezygapophyses and work backwards, the SPRLs fade out some way before you reach the crown, and disappear at or before what appears to be an ossified midline ligament scar projecting anteriorly from very near the top of the vertebra. Posterior to that are two small, tab-like metapophyses that appear almost like separate osteological features.

Now this is a very strange arrangement. Nothing like it occurs in any of the cervicals of Diplodocus, where all the way from C3 back to the last cervical, the SPRLs run continuously all the way up from the prezygs to the metapophyses:

Hatcher (1901:plate V). Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, cervical vertebra 2-15 in anterior view.

What we’d love to do of course is compare this morphology with a similar plate of the AMNH Barosaurus cervicals in anterior view, but no such plate exists and no such photos can be taken due to the ongoing entombment of the vertebrae. So we’re reduced to feeding on scraps. McIntosh (2005:47) says:

The neural spine of cervical 8 is flat across the top, and that of cervical 9 shows the first trace of a divided spine (Fig. 2.2A). This division increases gradually in sequential vertebrae, being moderately developed in cervicals 12 and 13, and as a deep V-shape in cervicals 15 and 16.

Sadly, McIntosh illustrates only cervicals 8 and 13 in anterior view: Fig 2.2A does not illustrate C9, as the text implies. And neither of the illustrated vertebrae much resembles what we see in BYU 9024.

So while in 2016 we interpreted BYU 9024 is having “the first trace of a divided spine”, we do hold open the possibility that what we’re seeing is a vertebra in which the spine bifurcation is a little more developed than we’d realised, but with strange morphology that does not correspond closely to any well-preserved vertebra we’ve seen of any sauropod. (Most Barosaurus cervicals are either crushed and damaged; the well preserved ones outside of the AMNH walkway tomb are from a more anterior part of the neck where there is no bifurcation of the spine.)

There is one more possibility. Here is a truly lovely (privately owned) Barosaurus cervical in the prep lab at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL):

Uncrushed Barosaurus cervical vertebra, serial position uncertain, in the NAMAL prep lab.

In this blessedly undistorted vertebra, we can see that the summit of the neural spine is flared, with laterally projecting laminae that are likely homologous with metapophyses. (The vertebra is symmetrical in this respect.) Might it be possible that the tab-like metapophyses of BYU 9024 were like this in life, but have been folded upwards post-mortem?

All of this leaves the serial position of the vertebra far from certain. But what we can do is compare it with the lengths of all the known AMNH Barosaurus vertebrae. Columns 1 and 2 in the table below show the serial position and total length of the AMNH cervicals. Column 3 shows the factor by which the 1370 mm length of BYU 9024 exceeds the relevant cervical, and column 4 shows the corresponding estimate for total neck length, based on 8.5 m (Wedel 2007:206–207) for AMNH Barosaurus.

Cv# Length (mm) BYU 9224 ratio BYU 9024 neck length
8 618 2.217 18.84
9 685 2.000 17.00
10 737 1.859 15.80
11 775 1.768 15.03
12 813 1.685 14.32
13 850 1.612 13.70
14 865 1.584 13.46
15 840 1.631 13.86
16 750 1.827 15.53

So to finally answer Andrea’s question from waaay back at the start of this post, the smallest possible interpretation of the BYU 9024 animal gives it a neck 1.584 times as long as that of the AMNH individual, which comes out around 13.5 m (and implies a total length of maybe 43 m).

But I don’t at all think that’s right: I am confident that the serial position of BYU 9024 is some way anterior to C14, likely no further back than C11 — which gives us a neck at least 15 m long (and a total length of maybe 48 m and a mass of maybe 12 × 1.768^3 = 66 tonnes).

 

References

  • 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.
  • McIntosh, John S. 2005. The genus Barosaurus Marsh (Sauropoda, Diplodocidae). pp. 38-77 in: Virginia Tidwell and Ken Carpenter (eds.), Thunder Lizards: the Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. 495 pp.
  • Wedel, Mathew J. 2007. Postcranial pneumaticity in dinosaurs and the origin of the avian lung. Ph.D dissertation, Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA. Advisors: Kevin Padian and Bill Clemens. 290 pages.

Last time, we reviewed what’s known about Jensen’s three giant sauropods based on published papers (and one abstract). This time, I want to talk a bit about what Matt and I have discovered, and intend to publish when we get around to it.

The Three Baro Jacket

It all followed on from our work on Barosaurus (which for now remains available only as a preprint, becalmed as it is in the peer-review doldrums — mostly my fault). Because of that, we were on the alert for Barosaurus material when we were travelling around Utah in Spring of 2016, and one of the first things we locked onto at the Brigham Young University’s Museum of Paleontology (BYU) was this:

We’ve been informally calling this “Three Baro Jacket”, or “3BJ” for short. But if we’re being formal, it’s specimen BYU 20815, being field jacket 3GR from BYU Locality 601 (The Jensen/Jensen quarry at Jensen, Utah), excavated in 1966. It also has an accession number, JJ/66 (which I didn’t realise was different from the specimen number).

Here it is being winched out of the ground at the Jensen/Jensen quarry, back in 1966 (photo courtesy of Brooks Britt):

This jacket contains — as our name for it suggests — three Barosaurus cervicals. The easiest way to see them is in 3D, using this red-cyan anaglyph, which shows the structure of the block much more informatively than the flat photo above:

(Do you have red-cyan anaglyph glasses? If not get some. They are dirt cheap, and will show you a whole world of morphology. For example, Amazon will send you ten pairs for $3.26, so you can keep two at home and two at work, and give half a dozen to your friends.)

For those stuck in the 2D world, these interpretive drawings should help to pick out the vertebrae from the matrix: they show individually the three vertebrae that we arbitrarily designated as A, B and C in that order.

Characters of Barosaurus cervicals

We spent some time looking pretty closely at these vertebra to figure out what they were — after all, the jacket wasn’t presented to us as “Here are some Barosaurus cervicals”. As we did so, we kept comparing the 3BJ vertebrae with photos we’d taken of the YPM and AMNH Barosaurus cervicals, and published illustrations. And as we did this, we discovered a whole set of distinctive characteristics of Barosaurus cervicals. We will properly describe and illustrate these characters another time, but to briefly summarise:

  • 1. Centra very long relative to vertebral height (measured at the posterior articular surface). This one will come as no surprise.
  • 2. Neural spine low and fairly smooth in profile.
  • 3. Postzygapophyses set forward slightly from posterior margin of centrum — as opposed to set well forward in brachiosaurs, or overhanging the posterior margin in apatosaurs.
  • 4. Parapophysis set much further forward than diapophysis, so that the cervical rib loop projects anteroventrally from the diapophysis.
  • 5. Cervical rib loop very thin anteroventrally (and lateromedially).
  • 6. Distinct hollow “thumb groove” between prezygapophyseal facet and pre-epipophysis.
  • 7. “U”-shaped notch in dorsal view where prezygapophyseal rami meet.
  • 8. Prezygapophyseal rami have two “faces” at right angles: one facing dorsomedially (bearing the prezgapophyseal facet), one facing dorsolaterally.
  • 9. Prezyagpophyseal rami very broad.
  • 10. Process projecting posteriorly from diapophysis.
  • 11. Prezyadiapophyseal lamina sweeps out smoothly to diaphophysis in dorsal view.

(These characters are all illustrated in our 2016 SVPCA talk: check the slides if you want to get a better handle on what we’re describing here. The reason I listed them in the slightly odd order above is so you can easily match them up with the slides.)

Now these vertebrae are well worthy of proper study and description in their own right, and we do plan to give them the attention they deserve. But for today’s story, they have done their part.

What is BYU 9024?

Now, here’s the thing. Literally a couple of yards away from the Three Baro Jacket in BYU collections sits the single longest vertebra of anything ever discovered: our old friend BYU 9024 (what Jensen called BYU 5003), which was originally assigned to Ultrasaurus (Jensen 1985), then reassigned to Supersaurus (Jensen 1987).

Mike compares Jensen’s sculpture of the big Supersaurus cervical BYU 9024 with the actual fossil.

And the more we looked at Barosaurus cervicals, then looked at BYU 9024, then looked back at Barosaurus, the more convinced we became that BYU 9024 is itself a Barosaurus cervical.

You would not immediately think this to look at the bone, as it’s pretty smashed up, and very difficult to interpret from photos, but this anaglyph will help:

As we discussed before, the posterior end looks much taller dorsoventrally than it should, because the postzygapophysis is folded upwards and the ventrolateral processes folded down.

Here’s what we see in BYU 9024 in terms of the characters we picked out from the 3BJ vertebrae. First, in left lateral view, with the characters highlighted in green:

  • 1. Centra very long relative to vertebral height (measured at the posterior articular surface).
  • 2. Neural spine low and fairly smooth in profile.
  • 3. Postzygapophyses set forward slightly from posterior margin of centrum.
  • 4. Parapophysis set much further forward than diapophysis, so that the cervical rib loop projects anteroventrally from the diapophysis.
  • 10. Process projecting posteriorly from diapophysis.

Now in anterodorsal view, with dorsal to the left:

  • 7. “U”-shaped notch in dorsal view where prezygapophyseal rami meet.
  • 8. Prezygapophyseal rami have two “faces” at right angles: one facing dorsomedially (bearing the prezgapophyseal facet), one facing dorsolaterally.
  • 9. Prezyagpophyseal rami very broad.

(It’s not easy to tell from this photo, but the broken-off area of flattish bone highlighted in the circle is part of the dorsolaterally-facing aspect of the prezygapophyseal ramus, where is it merging into the prezygadiapophyseal lamina.)

Three of the characters we saw in 3BJ we couldn’t determine in BYU 9024, due to breakage:

  • 5. Cervical rib loop very thin anteroventrally (and lateromedially).
  • 6. Distinct hollow “thumb groove” between prezygapophyseal facet and pre-epipophysis.
  • 11. Prezyadiapophyseal lamina sweeps out smoothly to diaphophysis in dorsal view.

But the morphology that’s preserved is certainly compatible with all of these. There are also a couple more characters in this vertebra that indicate that it’s Barosaurus, which we were not able to isolate in any of the 3BJ vertebrae:

  • A pair of posteroventrally directed accessory laminae radiating from the part of the centrum surface medial to the diapophysis. (These may be homologous with PCDLs but they seem to come out from under the PODL.)
  • It lacks paired foramina on the ventral surface separated by a midline ridge, as seen in Apatosaurus and WDC Supersaurus. (Thanks to David Lovelace from drawing our attention to that one in a comment on the last post!)

No one or two of these characters is a slam-dunk in isolation. But when you put them all together, they leave us pretty much 100% satisfied that BYU 9024 is a Barosaurus cervical.

How big was the BYU 9024 animal?

Before we say anything at all about this, please first hear our standard disclaimer: any size estimate based on a single bone is necessarily going to be wildly speculative, and could easily be a long way out in either direction.

That said, here’s the thinking behind our best guess.

First, what is the serial position of BYU 9024? We’d like to determine this by comparing with the cervical series of AMNH 6341, which is pretty well preserved — but unfortunately it has never been adequately illustrated and is now impossible to photograph as it is entombed below a walkway in the AMNH public gallery. Here’s the best published illustration, from McIntosh (2005:figure 2.1):

We judge it most similar to C9 or maybe C10, based largely on neural spine bifurcation and general proportions when corrected for distortion.

In AMNH, C9 is 685 mm long and C10 is 737 mm long (McIntosh 2005:table 2.1). Since BYU 9024 is 1370 mm in length, it is exactly twice as long as the C9 and 1.86 times as long as the C10.

I think I speak for all right-thinking people when I say holy crap.

If our identification of BYU 9024 as a C9 of Barosaurus is correct, then we are talking about an animal twice as large in linear dimension as the AMNH specimen whose cast looms over the rotunda (and the one at the Natural History Museum of Utah, which by eye is about the same size). Since the neck of the AMNH specimen is 8.5 m long (Wedel 2007:206–207), that would mean that the neck alone of BYU 9024 would have been 17 m long: longer than most complete sauropods and substantially taller than the mounted Giraffatitan skeleton in Berlin. The length of the whole animal is harder to predict, even if we assume isometry, but if Paul’s (2010:189) length estimate of 27 m for regular Barosaurus is correct, we’re probably looking at a total length exceeding 50 m.

This animal would, other things being equal, be eight times as massive (2 × 2 × 2) as the AMNH Barosaurus. There aren’t a lot of Barosaurus mass estimates out there, but Wedel (2005:217–221) did a lot of careful work to arrive at about 12 tonnes for the Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, which is about the same size as the AMNH Barosaurus. If that’s right, then the BYU 9024 animal might have massed about 8 × 12 = 96 tonnes, which puts it right up there among the heaviest known sauropods: probably the heaviest represented by extant fossils, as the other strong contenders for that title are Maraapunisaurus and Bruhathkayosaurus, both known only from illustrations of now-destroyed specimens.

[UPDATE, the next day: see the next post for more on the serial position of the vertebra and the size of the animal.]

We presented most of this reasoning in our 2016 SVPCA talk, whose abstract and slides are online. (Sadly, there is no recording of the actual talk.)

Tune in for the post after that as we (finally!) reach the part promised by the title of this series, and consider where Jensen’s Big Three genera stand today.

 

References

  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Jensen, James A. 1987. New brachiosaur material from the Late Jurassic of Utah and Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 47(4):592–608.
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