The more I look at the problem of how flexible sauropod necks were, the more I think we’re going to struggle to ever know their range of motion It’s just too dependent on soft tissue that doesn’t fossilise. Consider for example the difference between horse necks (above) and camel necks (below).

The skeletons of both consist of vertebrae that are pronouncedly opisthocoelous (convex in front and concave behind), so you might think their necks would be similarly flexible.

But the balls of horse cevicals are deeply embedded in their corresponding sockets, while those of camels have so much cartilage around and between them that the tip of the ball doesn’t even reach the rim of the socket. As a result of this (and maybe other factors), camel necks are far more flexible than those of horses.

Which do sauropod necks resemble? We don’t currently know, and we may never know. It will help if someone gets a good handle on osteological correlates of intervertebral cartilage.


[This post is recycled and expanded from a comment that I left on a Tetrapod Zoology post, but since Tet Zoo ate that comment it’s just as well I kept a copy.]


I was lucky enough to have Phil Mannion as one of the peer-reviewers for my recent paper (Taylor 2018) showing that Xenoposeidon is a rebbachisaurid. During that process, we got into a collegial disagreement about one of the autapomorphies that I proposed in the revised diagnosis: “Neural arch slopes anteriorly 30°–35° relative to the vertical”. (This same character was also in the original Xenoposeidon paper (Taylor and Naish 2007), in the slightly more assertive form “neural arch slopes anteriorly 35 degrees relative to the vertical”: the softening to “30°–35°” in the newer paper was one of the outcomes of the peer-review.)

The reason this is interesting is because the slope of the neural arch is measured relative to the vertical, which of course is 90˚ from the horizontal — but Phil’s comments (Mannion 2018) pushed me to ask myself for the first time: what actually is “horizontal”? We all assume we know horizontality when we see it, but what precisely do we mean by it?

Three notions of “horizontal”

The idiosyncratic best-preserved caudal vertebra of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus MWC 8028, illustrating three different versions of “horizontal”. A. horizontality defined by vertical orientation of the posterior articular surface. B. horizontality defined by horizontal orientation of the roof of the neural canal (in this case, rotated 24˚ clockwise relative to A). C. horizontality defined by optimal articulation of two instances of the vertebra, oriented such the a line joining the same point of both instances is horizontal (in this case, rotated 17˚ clockwise relative to A). Red lines indicate exact orthogonality according to the specified criteria. Green line indicate similar but diverging orientations: that of the not-quite-vertical anterior articular surface (A) and of the not-quite-horizontal base of the neural canal (B).

There are at least three candidate definitions, which we can see yield noticeably different orientations in the case of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus vertebra that Matt’s been playing with so much recently.

Definition A: articular surfaces vertical

In part A, I show maybe the simplest — or, at least, the one that is easiest to establish for most vertebrae. So long as you have a reasonably intact articular surface, just rotate the vertebra until that surface is vertical. If, as is often the case, the surface is not flat but concave or convex, then ensure the top and bottom of the surface are vertically aligned. This has the advantage of being easy to do — it’s what I did with Xenoposeidon — but it conceals complexities. Most obviously, what to do when the anterior and posterior articular surfaces are not parallel, in the 7th cervical vertebra of a giraffe?

Cervical vertebra 7 of Giraffa camelopardalis FMNH 34426, in left lateral view. Note that the centrum is heavily “keystoned” so that the anterior and posterior articular surfaces are 15-20˚ away from being parallel.

Another difficulty with this interpretation of horizontality is that it can make the neural canal jagged. Consider a sequence of vertebrae oriented as in part A, all at the same height: the neural canal would rise upwards along the length of each vertebra, before plunging down again on transitioning from the front of one to the back of the next. This is not something we would expect to see in a living animal: see for example the straight line of the neural canal in our hemisected horse head(*).

Definition B: neural canal horizontal

Which leads us to the second part of the illustration above. This time, the vertebra is oriented so that the roof of the neural canal is horizontal, which gives us a straight neural canal. Nice and simple, except …

Well, how do we define what’s horizontal for the neural canal? As the Haplocanthosaurus vertebra shows nicely, the canal is not always a nice, neat tube. In this vertebra, the floor is nowhere near straight, but dishes down deeply — which is why I used to the roof, rather than the floor of the canal. Rather arbitrary, I admit — especially as it’s often easier to locate the floor of the canal, as the dorsal margin is often confluent with fossae anteriorly, posteriorly or both.

And as we can see, it makes a difference which we choose. The green line in Part B of the illustration above shows the closest thing to “horizontal” as it would be defined by the ventral margin of the neural canal — a straight line ignoring the depression and joining the anteriormost and posteriormost parts of the base of the canal. As you can see, it’s at a significantly different angle from the red line — about 6.5˚ out.

And then you have human vertebrae, where the dorsal margin of the neural canal is so convex in lateral view that you really can’t say where the anteriormost or posteriormost point is.

Left sides of hemisected human thoracic vertebrae, medial view. Note how ill-defined the dorsal margin of the neural canal is.

So can we do better? Can we find a definition of “horizontal” that’s not dependent of over-interpreting a single part of the vertebra?

Definition C: same points at same height in consecutive vertebrae

I’ve come to prefer a definition of horizontal that uses the whole vertebra — partly in the hope that it’s less vulnerable to yielding a distorted result when the vertebra is damaged. With this approach, shown in part C of the illustration above, we use two identical instances of the vertebrae, articulate them together as well as we can, then so orient them that the two vertebrae are level — that a line drawn between any point on one vertebra and its corresponding point on the other is horizontal. We can define that attitude of the vertebra as being horizontal.

Note that, while we use two “copies” of the vertebra in this method, we are nevertheless determining the horizontality of a single vertebra in isolation: we don’t need a sequence of consecutive vertebrae to have been preserved, in fact it doesn’t help if we do have them.

One practical advantage of this definition is that its unambiguous as regards what part of the vertebra is used: all of it; or any point on it, at the measurement stage. By contrast, method A requires us to choose whether to use the anterior or posterior articular surface, and method B requires a choice of the roof or floor of the neural canal.


I have three questions, and would welcome any thoughts:

  1. Which of these definitions do you prefer, and why?
  2. Can you think of any other definitions that I missed?
  3. Does anyone know of any previous attempts to formalise this? Is it a solved problem, and Matt and I somehow missed it?

Answers in the comments, please!


(*) Yes, of course we have a hemisected horse head. What do you think we are, savages?

We’ve noted that the Taylor et al. SVPCA abstract and talk slides are up now up as part of the SVPCA 2015 PeerJ Collection, so anyone who’s interested has probably taken a look already to see what it was about. (As an aside, I am delighted to see that two more abstracts have been added to the collection since I wrote about it.)

It was my privilege to present a talk on our hypothesis that the distinctive and bizarre toblerone-shaped necks of apatosaurs were an adaptation for intraspecific combat. This talk was based on an in-progress manuscript that Matt is lead-authoring. Also on board is the third SV-POW!sketeer, the silent partner, Darren Naish; and artist/ethologist Brian Engh.

Here is our case, briefly summarised from five key slides. First, let’s take a look at what is distinctive in the morphology of apatosaur cervicals:

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.22.26

Here I’m using Brontosaurus, which is among the more extreme apatosaurs, but the same features are seen developed to nearly the same extent in Apatosaurus louisae, the best-known apatosaur, and to some extent in all apatosaurs.

Now we’ll look at the four key features separately.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.22.57

First, the cervicals ribs of sauropods (and other saurischians, including birds) anchored the longus colli ventralis and flexor colli lateralis muscles — ventral muscles whose job is to pull the neck downwards. By shifting the attachments points of these muscles downwards, apatosaurs enabled them to work with improved mechanical advantage — that is, to bring more force to bear.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.23.06

Second, by redirecting the diapophyses and parapophyses ventrally, and making them much more robust than in other sauropods, apatosaurs structured their neck skeletons to better resist ventral impacts.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.23.15

Third, because the low-hanging cervical ribs created an inverted “V” shape below the centrum, they formed a protective cradle for the vulnerable soft-tissue that is otherwise exposed on the ventral aspect of the neck: trachea, oesophagus, major blood vessels. In apatosaurus, all of these would have been safely wrapped in layers of connective tissue and bubble-wrap-like pneumatic diverticula. The presence of diverticula ventral to the vertebral centrum is not speculative – most neosauropods have fossae on the ventral surfaces of their cervical centra, and apatosaurines tend to have foramina that connect to internal chambers as well (see Lovelace et al. 2007: fig. 4, which is reproduced in this post).

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.23.22

Fourth, most if not all apatosaurs have distinctive ventrally directed club-like processes on the front of their cervical ribs. (It’s hard to tell with Apatosaurus ajax, because the best cervical vertebra of that species is so very reconstructed.) How did these appear in life? It’s difficult to be sure. They might have appeared as a low boss; or, as with rhinoceros horns, they might even have carried keratinous spikes.

Putting it all together, we have an animal whose neck can be brought downwards with great force; whose neck was mechanically capable of resisting impacts on its ventral aspect; whose vulnerable ventral-side soft-tissue was well protected; and which probably had prominent clubs or spikes all along the ventral aspect of the neck. And all of this was accomplished at the cost of making the neck a lot heavier than it would have been otherwise. Off the cuff, it seems likely that the cervical series alone would have massed twice as much in apatosaurines as in diplodocines of the same neck length.

Doubling the mass of the neck is a very peculiar thing for a sauropod lineage to do – by the Late Jurassic, sauropods were the leading edge of an evolutionary trend to lengthen and lighten the neck that had been running for almost 100 million years, through basal ornithodirans, basal dinosauromorphs, basal saurischians, basal sauropodomorphs, and basal sauropods. Whatever the selective pressures that led apatosaurines to evolve such robust and heavy necks, they must have been compelling.

The possibility that apatosaurs were pushing or crashing their necks ventrally in some form of combat accounts for all of the weird morphology documented above, and we know that sexual selection is powerful force that underlies a lot of bizarre structures in extant animals, and probably in extinct ornithodirans as well (see Hone et al. 2012, Hone and Naish 2013).

What form of combat, exactly? There are various possibilities, which we’ll discuss another time. But I’ll leave you with Brian Engh’s beautiful illustration of one possible form of combat: a powerful impact of one neck brought down onto the dorsal aspect of another.


We’re aware that this proposal is necessarily somewhat speculative. But we’re just not able to see any other explanation for the distinctive apatosaur neck. Even if we’re wrong about the ventrolateral processes on the cervical ribs supporting bosses or spikes, the first three points remain true, and given how they fly in the face of sauropods’ long history of making their necks lighter, they fairly cry out for explanation. If anyone has other proposals, we’ll be happy to hear them.


  • Hone, D. W., Naish, D., & Cuthill, I. C. (2012). Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs?. Lethaia 45(2):139-156.
  • Hone, D. W. E., & Naish, D. (2013). The ‘species recognition hypothesis’ does not explain the presence and evolution of exaggerated structures in non‐avialan dinosaurs. Journal of Zoology 290(3):172-180.
  • Lovelace, D. M., Hartman, S. A., & Wahl, W. R. (2007). 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.
Cervical rib cross-sections from Mamenchisaurus Giraffatitan and Diplodocus Klein et al 2012 fig 1

Klein et al. (2012: fig. 1)

We have good descriptions of the proximal parts of the cervical ribs for lots of sauropods. We also have histological cross-sections of a few, mostly thanks to the work of Nicole Klein and colleagues (Klein et al. 2012, Preuschoft and Klein 2013), although histological cross-sections of ribs were also figured as long ago as 1999, by Dalla Vecchia (1999: figs. 29 and 30), and as recently as this month, by Lacovara et al. (2014: supplementary figure 4).

What we have very, very few of is series of cross-sections that show how the cr0ss-section of a cervical rib changes along its length. There may be more out there (and if I have forgotten any, please remind me!), but at the moment I can only think of three such figures: two in Janensch (1950: figs. 83 and 85), both on Giraffatitan, and one in Klein et al. (2012: fig. 1), with cross-sections from Mamenchisaurus, Giraffatitan, and Diplodocus (shown at the top of the post).

Sauroposeidon cervical rib cross-sections v3


Rarer still are images that show cross-sections of overlapped cervical ribs, stacked in situ. You could use the information in Janensch (1950: figs. 83 and 85) to generate the stacked cross-sections, but you wouldn’t know the spacing between the ribs as they were in the ground. I think the image just above, of the cervical rib bundles in the Sauroposeidon holotype, OMNH 53062, may be the first of its kind–again, if you know of any others, please let me know. I took the notes for this figure back in 2004, sitting down with the holotype and some digital calipers to make sure I could scale everything correctly, I just hadn’t ever put it into a presentable form until now. The first C6 section (blue V-shape) is from right at the root where the capitulum and tuberculum meet and the posterior shaft of the rib begins.

It is by now well-understood that the long cervical ribs of sauropods and other dinosaurs are ossified tendons of the long hypaxial neck muscles, specifically the longus colli ventralis and flexor colli lateralis. We argued this back in 200o on comparative anatomical grounds (Wedel et al. 2000b: pp. 378-379), and it has now been demonstrated histologically (Klein et al. 2012, Lacovara et al. 2014). The system of stacked tendons is also found in most birds. Here’s the bundle of stacked tendons in a rhea neck, only slightly fanned out:

Rhea ventral tendons stacked - full

And the same neck, with both the epaxial and hypaxial muscles more fully separated:

Rhea neck muscles fanned - full

What I’d really like is an MRI of a rhea or ostrich neck, showing the stacked tendons and their associated belts of muscle, to compare with the stacked cervical ribs of Sauroposeidon and other sauropods. Anyone know of any?

Incidentally, I think the cervical ribs and cervical rib bundles of sauropods are one line of evidence for sauropod necks having been rather slenderly-muscled. The long, multi-segment muscles like the longus colli ventralis are the outermost components of the muscular envelope that surrounds the vertebrae, as you can see in the rhea dissection photos. In sauropod specimens with articulated cervical ribs, the ribs do not deviate from one another or fan out. Rather, they lie in vertically stacked bundles that run from one capitulum-tuberculum intersection to the next. So the depth of that intersection–the “root” of the cervical rib of any given vertebra–plus the thickness of the ribs stacked underneath it, is pretty much the thickness of the muscular envelope around the neck, or at least around the ventral half. And the cervical ribs are typically pretty close to the vertebral centra–only weirdos like Apatosaurus and Erketu displace them very far ventrally (see Taylor and Wedel 2013a: fig. 7 and this post). So, thin jackets of muscle around proportionally large vertebrae–or, if you like, corn-on-the-cob rather than shish-kebabs.

As for why sauropods have long cervical ribs, Mike and I discussed some possibilities in our 2013 PeerJ paper (Taylor and Wedel 2013a), and Preuschoft and Klein addressed the issue last fall in PLOS ONE (Preuschoft and Klein 2013). My favorite hypothesis is that long tendons allow an animal to shift the bulk of the muscle–and therefore the center of gravity–toward the base of the neck, but that long unossified tendons can be distorted through stretching, which wastes muscular energy. Ossifying those long tendons is like putting bony wheelbarrow handles on each vertebra, allowing the muscles to move the vertebra from a distance without so much wasted energy, and probably with finer positional control.

That’s a nifty hypothesis in need of testing, anyway. In fact, cervical ribs and their associated muscles could stand a lot more attention on both the descriptive and analytical fronts. I know that Liguo Li has some research in the works on different conformations of hypaxial muscles, tendons, and cervical ribs in birds (you know, when she’s not describing bizarre new titanosaurs like Yongjinglong — see Li et al. 2014). If you saw Peter Dodson give their talk at SVP last fall, you probably remember some stunning images of dissected bird necks. As a famous legislator once said, we shall watch her career with great interest.



You know the drill: lotsa pretty pix, not much yap.


Our first stop of the day was the Fruita Paleontological Area, which has a fanstastic diversity of Morrison animals, including the mammal Fruitafossor and the tiny ornithopod Fruitadens.


Plus it’s a pretty epic landscape, especially with the clouds and broken light we had this morning.


I found a bone! Several bits, actually, a few meters away from the Fruitadens type quarry. I’d like to think that this proximal femur might be Fruitadens, but I don’t know the diagnostic characters and haven’t had time to look them up. Anyone know how diagnostic this honorary shard of excellence might be?


After lunch, John Foster took us on a short hike to the quarry where Elmer Riggs got the back half of the Field Museum Apatosaurus. The front half came from a site in southern Utah, several decades later.


The locals brought Riggs out in the 1930s for the dedication of two monuments–this one at the Apatosaurus quarry, and another like it at the Brachiosaurus quarry some miles away. Tragically, both monuments have the names of the dinosaurs misspelled!


In the afternoon we visited the Mygatt-Moore Quarry and the Camarasaurus site in Rabbit Valley. Can you see the articulated Camarasaurus neck in this photo?


Here’s a hint: the neural arches of two posterior cervical vertebrae in transverse horizontal cross-section.


This Camarasaurus is apparently a permanent feature. If you’re wondering why no-one has excavated it, it’s because it’s buried in sandstone that is stupid-dense. The expenditure of time and resources just isn’t worth it, when right down the hill dinosaurs are pouring out of the much softer sediments of the Mygatt-Moore Quarry like water from a hydrant. This is the lesson I am learning about the Morrison: finding dinosaurs is easy. Finding dinosaurs you can get out of the ground and prepare–that’s something else.


Our last stop of the day was Gaston Design, where Rob Gaston showed us how he molds, casts, and mounts everything from tiny teeth to good-sized skeletons.


Like this Deinosuchus that is about to chomp on Jim Kirkland. Jim doesn’t look too worried.


Here’s a nice cast of a busted sauropod dorsal, probably from Apatosaurus or Diplodocus, showing the pneumatic internal structure. Compare to similar views of dorsals in this post and this one. This is actually one half of a matched set that includes both halves of the centrum. I left with one of those sets of my own, a few dollars poorer and a whole lot happier.


The end–for now.

Illustration talk slide 47

Illustration talk slide 48

Illustration talk slide 49

Illustration talk slide 50

That last one really hurts. Here’s the original image, which should have gone in the paper with the interpretive trace next to it rather than on top of it:

Sauroposeidon C6-C7 scout

The rest of the series.

Papers referenced in these slides:

Illustration talk slide 44

Illustration talk slide 45

Illustration talk slide 46

On that last slide, I also talked about two further elaborations: figures that take up the entire page, with the caption on a separate (usually facing) page, and side title figures, which are wider than tall and get turned on their sides to better use the space on the page.

Also, if I was doing this over I’d amend the statement on the last slide with, “but it doesn’t hurt you at all to be cognizant of these things, partly because they’re easy, and partly because your paper may end up at an outlet you didn’t anticipate when you wrote it.”

And I just noticed that the first slide in this group has the word ‘without’ duplicated. Jeez, what a maroon. I’ll try to remember to fix that before I post the whole slide set at the end of this exercise.

A final point: because I am picking illustrations from my whole career to illustrate these various points, almost all fail in some obvious way. The photos from the second slide should be in color, for example. When I actually gave this talk, I passed out reprints of several of my papers and said, “I am certain that every single figure I have ever made could be improved. So as you look through these papers, be thinking about how each one could be made better.”

Previous posts in this series.