Here’s one of those text-light photo posts that we always aspire to but almost never achieve. In the spring of 2008 I flew to Utah to do some filming for the History Channel series “Evolve”, in particular the episode on size, which aired later that year. I always intended to post some pix from that trip once the show was done and out, and I’m just now getting around to it…a bit belatedly.

Utah 2008 01 mountains from museum door

Here’s the view out the back door of the BYU Earth Sciences Museum in Provo, Utah. Not bad–the mountains actually made me drag my eyes away from sauropod vertebrae for a few seconds here and there.

Utah 2008 02 Brooks driving forklift

Here’s the view in other direction, with Brooks  Britt using a forklift to retrieve the big Supersaurus cervical.

Utah 2008 03 Supes and giraffe

And here is said cervical, with a mid-cervical of a giraffe for scale. You may remember the big cervical from this post (and if you click that link, notice how much nicer the new collections area is than the off-site barn where I first encountered the Cervical of Doom). Sauropods FTW!

Utah 2008 04 taping down Diplo vert

While the film crew were shooting Brooks and picking up some establishing shots, I was ransacking the collections for pretty vertebrae. We took our treasures up to the University of Utah med center in Salt Lake for CT scanning. Here Kent Sanders is helping me tape down a Diplodocus cervical.

Utah 2008 05 Kent in reading room

And here’s Kent in the CT reading room playing with the data. Like old times–I spent most of my Saturdays in 1998 and 1999 scanning verts with Kent when he was at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Utah 2008 06 NAMAL main drag

The next morning we went to the North American Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi. Here’s a view down the main drag, with the mounted Supersaurus on the left, mounted Brachiosaurus in the center, and original Supersaurus sacrum (on loan from BYU) in the case on the right.

Utah 2008 07 Matt in lift

The highlight of my day trip year.

I was back at BYU just a few months ago shooting another documentary, but that story will have to wait for the dramatically appropriate moment. Stay tuned!

A section of the cotyle of a presacral vertebra of Alamosaurus (Woodward and Lehman 2009:fig. 6A).

The last time we talked about Alamosaurus, I promised to explain what the arrow in the above image is all about. The image above is a section through the cotyle (the bony socket of a ball-and-socket joint) at the end of one of the presacral vertebra. The external bone surface would have been over on the left; it was either very thin (which happens) or a bit eroded, or both. The arrow is pointing at something weird–a plate of bone inside the vertebra that forms a sort of shadow cotyle deep to the articular surface.

This is weird for a couple of reasons. First, once camellate (small-chambered) vertebrae get above a certain level of complexity, it’s hard to make any sense of the orientation of individual bony struts. Possibly I haven’t seen enough vertebrae, or played with enough 3D models, to figure it out. You would certainly expect that the struts would be oriented to resist biomechanical loads, just like the struts in the long bones of your limbs; the fact that sauropod verts were filled with air whereas your long bones are filled with marrow shouldn’t make any difference. Back in the day, Kent Sanders–who is second author on that super-important paper on unidirectional air flow in croc lungs that you’ve probably heard about (Farmer and Sanders 2010)–speculated to me that the complex of laminae we see in the vertebrae of most sauropods are still there in the inflated-looking vertebrae of titanosaurs and birds, they’re just incarnated in internal struts rather than external laminae. Cool hypothesis for somebody to test.

The other reason that this is weird is that the plate of bone is parallel to the articular surface. One place where I have seen some regularity in terms of strut orientation is in zygapophyses, where in both camerae and camellate vertebrae the internal struts are oriented at right angles to the articular surfaces of the zygs, like beams propping up a wall. In this Alamosaurus section, there are indeed smaller struts that run at right angles to both the cotyle and the internal plate, but I have no idea why they’re so wimpy and the plate is so thick; a priori I would have expected the reverse.

It turns out that this isn’t even the first time that an internal “shadow” of the cotyle has been figured–check out this figure that I redrew from Powell’s (1992:fig. 16) Saltasaurus osteology. But don’t credit me with the discovery. I’d looked at this section a hundred times and even drawn it and never noticed the shadow cotyle, until it was pointed out by Woodward and Lehman (2009)–another reason to read that paper if you haven’t yet. Kudos to Holly Woodward for spotting this and making the connection.

Now that I’ve drawn attention to the weirdness and given credit where it’s due, this is one of those times I’m going to throw up my hands in confusion and open the floor for comments.


  • Farmer, C.G., and Sanders, K. 2010. Unidirectional airflow in the lungs of alligators. Science 327:338-340.
  • Powell, J.E. 1992. Osteologia de Saltasaurus loricatus (Sauropoda – Titanosauridae) del Cretacico Superior del noroeste Argentino; pp. 165-230 in J.L. Sanz and A.D. Buscalioni (editors), Los Dinosaurios y Su Entorno Biotico: Actas del Segundo Curso de Paleontologia in Cuenca. Institutio Juan de Valdes.
  • Woodward, H.N.,  and Lehman, T.M. 2009. Bone histology and microanatomy of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis (Sauropoda: Titanosauria) from the Maastrichtian of Big Bend National Park, Texas. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):807-821.

ASPs for Alamosaurus

January 4, 2010

A section of the cotyle of a presacral vertebra of Alamosaurus (Woodward and Lehman 2009:fig. 6A). The arrow will be explained in a future post!

Last year was good for sauropod pneumaticity. In the past few months we’ve had the publication of the first FEA of pneumatic sauropod vertebrae by Schwarz-Wings et al (2009), as well as a substantial section on pneumaticity in the big Alamosaurus histology paper by Woodward and Lehman (2009). I won’t repeat here everything that Woodward and Lehman have to say about pneumaticity, I just want to draw attention to a little piece of it. Their work is observant, up-to-date, and worth reading, so if you can get access to the paper, read it.

The major brake on the growth of our knowledge and understanding of pneumaticity is sample size. I harped on this in 2005 (Wedel 2005), and Mike just brought it up again in a comment on a previous post. In fact, what he had to say is so relevant that I’m going to just cut and paste it here:

How does degree of pneumatisation vary between individuals? Here are three more: how does it vary along the neck, how does it vary long the length of an individual vertebra, and how does it vary through ontogeny? Then of course there is variation between taxa across the tree. So what we have here is a five-and-half-dimensional space that we want to fill with observations so that we can start to deduce conclusions. Trouble is, there are, so far, 22 published observations (neatly summarised by Wedel 2005:table 7.2), which is not really enough to let us map out 5.5-space! That’s one reason why, at the moment, each observation is valuable — it adds 4% to the total knowledge in the world.

To be fair, there are a few more published observations. Schwarz and Fritsch (2006) published ASPs for cervicals of Giraffatitan and Dicraeosaurus, and I have a gnawing feeling that there are a couple here and there that I’ve seen but not remembered. I’ve got some more of my own data in the as-yet-unpublished fourth chapter of my diss, which I failed to get out as part of the Paleo Paper Challenge. And, getting back to the subject of the post, Woodward and Lehman (2009:819) have some tasty new data to report:

Digital images of sections of vertebrae and ribs were imported into ArcGIS 8.1 (Dangermond, 2001; for methods see Woodward, 2005). A unitless value for the total area of the image was calculated, using the outline of the bone as a perimeter. Subtracted from this was the area value taken up by bone, as determined by color differences (lighter areas are camellate cavities, darker areas are bone). Using this method, longitudinal sections of centra are estimated to be roughly 65% air filled. The amount of open space similarly calculated for the pneumatic proximal and medial rib sections is about 52%, whereas the cancellous spongiosa in distal rib transverse sections yields an average estimate of about 44% of their cross sectional area. Hence, the camellate cavities result in an appreciably lower bone volume compared to spongiosa.

The ASP of 0.65 for centra is right in line with the numbers I’ve gotten for neosauropods, and with the results of Schwarz and Fritsch (2006) for Giraffatitan (Dicraosaurus had a much lower ASP, around 0.2 IIRC). The stuff about the ribs is particularly interesting. Using densities of 0.95 for bone marrow, 1.8 for avian (and sauropod) compact bone, and 1.9 for mammalian compact bone we get the following:

  • Pneumatic Alamosaurus vertebrae – ASP of 0.65, density of 0.63 g/cm^3.
  • Pneumatic Alamosaurus ribs – ASP of 0.52, density of 0.86 g/cm^3.
  • Apneumatic Alamosaurus ribs – MSP (marrow space proportion) of 0.44, density of 1.43 g/cm^3.
  • Pneumatic bird long bones – ASP of 0.59, density of 0.74 g/cm^3.
  • Apneumatic bird long bones – MSP of 0.42, density of 1.44 g/cm^3.
  • Apneumatic mammal long bones – MSP of 0.28, density of 1.63 g/cm^3.

ASPs and MSPs of bird and mammal bones are calculated from K values reported by Cubo and Casinos (2000) for birds and Currey and Alexander (1985) for mammals. I don’t know what the in vivo density of sauropod compact bone was; changing it from the avian value of 1.8 to the mammalian value of 1.9 would have a negligible effect on the outcome.

At least with the data in hand, we can make the following generalizations:

  • The apneumatic bones of birds are thinner-walled than those of mammals, on average. (This has been known for a long time.)
  • The apneumatic ribs of Alamosaurus were more similar in density to apneumatic bird bones than to apneumatic mammal bones.
  • In both birds and Alamosaurus, pneumatization reduces the amount of bone tissue present by 15-30% in the same elements (long bones for birds, ribs for Alamosaurus). Pneumatic bones are light not just because the marrow is replaced by air, but because there is less bone tissue than in apneumatic bones, as bird people have been observing for ages.

There’s loads more work to be done on this sort of thing, so I’m going to stop blogging now and get back to it. Stay tuned!


So I finally got to see the Discovery Channel’s new series, Clash of the Dinosaurs. The show follows the common Discovery Channel MO of cutting between CGI critters and talking heads. I’m one of the talking heads, and I get a lot of air time, and I suppose I should be happy about that. But I’m not, for reasons I’ll explain.

I need to preface what follows by saying that I thought the other talking heads did a great job. My experience suggests that the scientific problems with the series didn’t originate with the scientists, infrasound weapons excepted. Tom Holtz–another of the talking heads, and a good one–nailed it on the DML:

For those going to watch the show, a warning:
The documentarians often take anything that any of the talking heads speculated about, and transformed these into declarative statements of fact. In some cases this is particularly egregious, because I strongly disagree with some of these statements and believe the facts are against some of these (say, about tyrannosaurid cranial kinesis…) and they present these as facts rather than suppositions.


In the fall of 2008 the folks  at Dangerous Ltd, a London-based film production company, asked me if I’d be interested in being part of a new documentary project, which had the working title “Dino Body” (this isn’t a trade secret or anything, that title was on the Dangerous webpage for months). The grand idea was to show how much we’ve learned about how dinosaurs actually lived.

Now, this is something I care about a lot. In the past couple of decades we’ve learned about the physiology, diets, nesting habits, growth rates, and social lives of dinosaurs, in unprecedented detail. Things no one predicted and that I would have bet heavily against, like burrowing dinosaurs, four-winged raptors, and comparative studies of dinosaur and pterosaur genomes, are backed by solid evidence. We are in a golden age of dinosaur paleobiology, and new discoveries, even new kinds of discoveries, are stacking up faster than I can really keep up. So it would be a great time to bring all this new evidence to the public.

In the late 2008 and early 2009 I spent a LOT of time with the people at Dangerous Pictures, going over all kinds of questions about dinosaur biology. I sent them papers, links to blog posts, diagrams, you name it. They seemed really keen to get the science right, and I was hopeful that we’d get a dinosaur documentary that wasn’t overly speculative sensationalized BS.

Sadly, that hope was to be mercilessly crushed.

Deja vu

The series has some obvious faults. It is incredibly repetitive, to the point that I found it hard to watch for any length of time without my attention wandering. Not just the CGI clips, but the narration as well. You’ll learn in 30 seconds why females tend to be choosier about mates than males (eggs are more expensive than sperm), and spend the next 15 minutes having that slowly beaten in your brain using as much empty verbiage as possible. Ditto every other fact on the show.

More galling are the places where animation is cleverly cut with talking head bits so that we end up describing things that were never in the script. I explained on camera about the unavoidably high mortality among juvenile sauropods, and how groups of Deinonychus could probably pick off the baby sauropods like popcorn. I had been speaking of hatchlings, but my words are cut together with a scene–which you’ll see about 15,000 times–of three Deinonychus taking down an elephant-sized subadult Sauroposeidon. In the real world, it would have pulped them. In the dramatically-lit world of Clash of the Dinosaurs, the three raptors inflict a handful of very shallow flesh wounds with their laughably tiny claws and the Sauroposeidon expires theatrically for no visible reason.

(If they really wanted to impress the audience with the implacability of Mesozoic death, they would have shown the three raptors mowing down a field of newly-hatched babies like so much wheat…)

I spent a long time explaining the evidence that sauropods buried their eggs, and at their request I mocked up diagrams showing the possible proportions of a hatchling Sauroposeidon. So naturally the program shows a mother abandoning her eggs in an exposed nest, and then a few minutes later, hatchlings that are perfect miniatures of the adults struggling up out of the ground. I guess they cut the scene in which the Sand Fairy buried the eggs, and lacked the budget to perform the simple morph of the digital model that would have made the babies look like babies, instead of ponderous adults emerging from the Sarlacc pit.

Some may complain that I am picking nits. But what the heck is the point of bringing on scientific advisors if you’re then going to ignore the stuff they tell you? Why not just make the crap up out of the whole cloth? In fact, there is far too much of that in the show. There is no evidence that Quetzalcoatlus could see dinosaur pee with its ultraviolet vision, or that a herd of hadrosaurs could knock over a predator with their concentrated infrasound blasts. Sorry, paleontologists, you’ll be fielding questions about these newly invented “facts” for the next decade at least.

It’s like I had this great working relationship with the researchers, and they were really curious and careful, and we went to great lengths to do the best work we could, and then somewhere in between my filming back in February and the airing of the completed show, all of our diligent work was flushed right down the crapper, and a fresh script was written by a hyperactive child whose only prior preparation was reading Giant-Size X-Men and getting hit on the head a few times.

Do I sound too harsh? I’m just getting started. Let me tell you about the sacral expansion in sauropods.

Back in the Back in the Day

In many sauropods and stegosaurs and a few other archosaurs, the neural canal (the bony tube that houses the spinal cord) is massively enlarged in the sacral vertebrae. This is the origin of the goofy idea that big dinosaurs had a “second brain” back there to control their hind end, because the real brain up front was (supposedly) just too darn tiny and remote. The researchers at Dangerous asked me about this sacral enlargement, and this is what I told them (quoted from an e-mail I sent November 25, 2008):

The sacro-lumbar expansion is possibly the most misunderstood thing in sauropod biology. First, there are two separate things that have been referred to as sacro-lumbar expansions. The first is the slight swelling of the spinal cord in that region in almost all vertebrates, including humans, to accomodate the neurons that help run the hind limbs (you also have a swelling in the spinal cord at the base of your neck to help run your arms). Contrary to popular belief, a lot of your stereotyped actions require little direct involvement from the brain and are instead controlled by the spinal cord. When you walk, for example, most of the motor control is handled by the spinal cord, and your brain only steps in when you have to actually worry about where to place your feet–when you step over a puddle, for example. So there would be nothing remarkable about sauropods using their spinal cords to drive many of their limb movements, this is something that pretty much all vertebrates do, it’s just not widely known to the public. [Aside: this is true. Also, I have heard it claimed that sauropods could not have reared because their brains were too small to coordinate such an action. This was claimed by a non-biologist who evidently doesn’t know how the nervous system works.]

The other sacro-lumbar expansion really is an expansion, but it’s not unique to sauropods and it has nothing to do with running the hind limbs. Most birds have a very large expansion of the spinal cord in the sacro-lumbar region called the glycogen body. As the name implies, it stores energy-rich glycogen, but the function of the glycogen body is very poorly understood. It has been hypothesized to be an accessory organ of balance, or a reservoir of compounds to support the growth and maintenance of the nervous system. Since we don’t even know what it does in birds, we’re straight out of luck when it comes to figuring out what it did in sauropods. Here’s a brief overview:

Here’s an explanatory diagram I sent with the message:

This business about the glycogen body caused some consternation and dithering in the production process. They wanted to bring up the second brain because it’s so entrenched in the popular consciousness (i.e., bad dinosaur books), but they were unhappy that the real explanation turned out to be so unsatisfying (“We don’t know what it does, but not that!”). In the end, we did discuss it briefly on camera. I said something like, “There was this old idea that the sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail. But in fact, it almost certainly contained a glycogen body, like the sacral expansions of birds. Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what the glycogen bodies of birds do.”

Somebody in the editing room neatly sidestepped the mystery of the glycogen body by cutting that bit down, so what I am shown saying in the program is this, “The sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail.” I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have a DVR, but that’s basically it. (Update: my memory was pretty good. Here’s the interview transcript.)

Do you see, do you understand, what they did there? I was explaining why an old idea was WRONG and they cut away the frame and left me presenting the discredited idea like it’s hot new science. How freaking unethical is that?

So. I don’t know if the decision to turn my words around 180 degrees was a mistake made by an individual editor, or if it was approved from someplace higher up the line. I aim to find out. Until I do, I’m boycotting Dangerous Ltd, and I encourage you to do likewise.

The Final Insult

Oh, and they spelled my name wrong, throughout. And also mispelled Sauroposeidon in one of the quiz bits at commercial time. “What does Sauroposeiden mean?” It means you don’t know the Greek pantheon, sauropods, or basic spellchecking, dumbasses.

Science journalism FAIL.

UPDATE, January 27, 2010

This is so perfect that it hurts. For “Science Channel” feel free to substitute any of the ignotainment feeds operated by Discovery Communications.

Broadly speaking, pneumatic sauropod vertebrae come in two flavors. In more primitive, camerate vertebrae, modeled here by Haplocanthosaurus, the centrum is a round-ended I-beam and the neural arch is composed of intersecting flat plates of bone called laminae (lam above; fos = fossa, nc = neural canal, ncs = neurocentral suture; Ye Olde Tyme vert pic from Hatcher 1903).

In more derived, camellate vertebrae, the centrum and neural arch are both honeycombed with many small air spaces. This inflated-looking morphology is very similar to that seen in birds, like the turkey we recently discussed. The fossae and foramina on the outside tend to be smaller and more numerous than in camerate vertebrae, as shown here in a titanosauriform axis from India (Figure 3 from Wilson and Mohabey 2006). The green arrows show that the fossae visible on the external surface are excavations or depressions into the honeycombed internal structure of the bone.

External fossae on bones can house many different soft tissues, including muscles, pads of fat or cartilage, and pneumatic diverticula (O’Connor 2006). Pneumatic fossae are often strongly lipped and internally subdivided and may contain pneumatic foramina, which makes them easier to diagnose (but they may also be simple, smooth, and “blind”, which makes them harder to diagnose as pneumatic). But in all of these cases we are usually talking about the same thing: a visible excavation into a corpus of bony tissue, which may have marrow spaces inside if it is apneumatic, or air spaces inside if it is pneumatic (the corpus of bone, not the dent). That’s probably how most of us think about fossae, and it would hardly need to be explained…except that sometimes, something much weirder happens.

Consider this cervical of Brachiosaurus (this is BYU 12866, from Dry Mesa, Colorado). Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan have an in-between form of vertebral architecture that my colleagues and I have called semicamellate (Wedel et al. 2000); the centrum does have large simple chambers (camerae), but smaller, thin-walled camellae are also variably present, especially along the midline of the vertebra and in the ends of the centrum. As in Haplocanthosaurus, the neural arch is composed of intersecting plates of bone; unlike Haplocanthosaurus, these laminae are not flat or smooth but are instead highly sculpted with lots of small fossae. Janensch (1950) called these “Aussenkaverne”, or accessory outside cavities, because and they are smaller and more variable than the large fossae and foramina that invade the centrum.

And that’s the weird thing. As the red arrows in the above image show, the “Aussenkaverne” are not excavations or depressions into anything, except the space on the other side of the lamina (which in life would have been occupied by another diverticulum). The neural arches of Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan are not excavated by fossae, they’re embossed, like corporate business cards and fancy napkins.

What’s up with that!? We tend to think of pneumaticity as reducing the mass of the affected elements, but the shortest distance between two vertebral landmarks is a smooth lamina. These embossed laminae actually require slightly more bony material than smooth ones would.

As you can see above, the outer edges of the laminae are thick but the bone everywhere else is very thin. Maybe, like the median septa in pneumatic sauropod vertebrae, the thin bone everywhere except the edges of the laminae was just not loaded very much or very often, and was therefore free to get pushed around by the diverticula on either side, in the sense of being continually and quasi-randomly remodeled into shapes that don’t strike us as being very mechanically efficient. But also like the median septa, the thin parts of the laminae are only rarely perforated (but it does happen), for possible (read: arm-wavy) reasons discussed in the recent FEA post. And maybe the amount of extra bone involved in making embossed laminae versus smooth ones was negligible even by the very light standards of sauropod vertebrae.

Another question: since these thin sheets of bone were sandwiched in between two sets of diverticula, why are the “unfossae” always embossed into them, in the medial or inferior direction? Why don’t any of them pop out laterally or dorsally, looking like domes or bubbles instead of holes, like Mount Fist-of-God from Larry Niven’s Ringworld? Did the developmental program get accustomed to making fossae that went down and into a corpus of bone, and just kept on with business as usual even when there was no corpus of bone to excavate into? I’m only half joking.

I don’t have good answers for any of these questions. I scanned this vert a decade ago and I only noticed how weird the “unfossae” were a few months ago. I’m putting all this here because “Hey, look at this weird thing that I can only wave my arms about” is not a great basis for a peer-reviewed paper, and because I’d like your thoughts on what might be going on.

In Other News

The Discovery Channel’s Clash of the Dinosaurs premiered last night. I would have given you a heads up, except that I didn’t get one myself. I only discovered it was on because of a Facebook posting (thanks, folks!).

COTD is intended to be the replacement, a decade on, for Walking With Dinosaurs. I’m happy to report that one of the featured critters is Sauroposeidon. I grabbed a couple of frames from the clips posted here.

I haven’t seen the series yet, because I don’t have cable. But I’m hoping to catch it at a friend’s place next Sunday night, Dec. 13, when the entire series will be shown again. With any luck, I’ll have more news next week.

Finally, I got to do an interview at Paw-Talk, a forum for all things animal. I’m very happy with how it turned out, so thanks to Ava for making it happen. While you’re over there, have a look around, there’s plenty of good stuff. Brian Switek, whom you hopefully know from this and this, is a contributor; check out his latest here.


More out than in

November 24, 2009

I drew a couple of these a while back, and I’m posting them now both to fire discussion and because I’m too lazy to write anything new.

Apato neck v2 480

Here’s the neck of Apatosaurus, my own reconstruction based on Gilmore (1936), showing the possible paths and dimensions of continuous airways (diverticula) outside the vertebrae.

Lovelace et al fig 4 480

Here’s figure 4 from Lovelace et al. (2007), which first got me thinking about pneumatic traces on the ventral surfaces of the centra and what they might imply. You can see pneumatic spaces between the parapophyses in Supersaurus (A) and Apatosaurus (C) but not in Barosaurus (B).

Apatosaurus-soft-tissues v3 480

This is another of my moldy oldies, again based on one of Gilmore’s pretty pictures, showing how I think the soft tissues were probably arranged. The muscles are basically the technicolor version of Wedel and Sanders (2002). Two points:

  1. How bulky you make the neck depends mainly on how much muscle you think was present (which of course depends on how heavy you think the neck was…). Here I was just trying to get the relationships right without worrying about bulk, but it’s worth considering.
  2. The volume of air inside the vertebra was dinky compared to the probable volume of air outside. In Apatosaurus, either of the canals formed by the transverse foramina has almost twice the cross-sectional area of the centrum.

A fair amount of this has been superseded with better data and prettier pictures by Schwarz et al. (2007), so don’t neglect that work in any ensuing discussion (it’s free, fer cryin’ out loud). And have a happy Thanksgiving!



Mike asked me to add the labeled version of Nima’s brachiosaur parade, so here you go. Click to embiggen.

Figure 3 from Schwarz-Wings et al. 2009. A is Diplodocus, B-D are Giraffatitan.

Figure 3 from Schwarz-Wings et al. 2009. A is Diplodocus, B-D are Giraffatitan.

Earlier this month Daniela Schwarz-Wings and colleagues published the first finite element analysis (FEA) of sauropod vertebrae (Schwarz-Wings et al. 2009). Above is one of the figures showing some of their results. Following standard convention, stresses are shown on a gradient with cooler colors indicating lower stresses and hotter colors indicating higher stresses. I’m not going to dwell on the on the nuts-n-bolts of FEA in general or of this study in particular. Instead, I want to talk about how sauropod vertebrae are built.

CT cross sections of BYU 12866, a mid-cervical of Brachiosaurus sp.

CT cross sections of BYU 12866, a mid-cervical of Brachiosaurus sp.

In cross-section, sauropod vertebrae often have thick bone at the outer edges of the laminae and in the walls and especially the floor of the centrum, as shown in this Brachiosaurus cervical. The bone everywhere else is pretty thin. If you hit one of these vertebrae with some magical forumula that would dissolve away all the bone thinner than, say, 1 cm, all that would be left would be the various apophyses, the outer margins of the laminae connecting them, and probably the bottom half of the centrum. It would be like the outline of a vertebra constructed from tent poles, or tinkertoys.

This is weird because most pneumatic sauropod vertebrae have at least something approaching an I-beam shape in cross-section. You might think that the median septum would be mechanically important, but it’s usually very thin, sometimes perforated (see Hatcher’s [1901] Diplodocus cervicals, for example), and often asymmetrically deviated to one side or the other. Not what you would expect for a piece of bone that was doing any work.

And indeed, Schwarz-Wings et al. (2009) found that:

Comparative stresses are distributed evenly around the vertebrae and mainly on the bone cortex. Peak stresses occur only at points where the tendons and muscles are inserting because the insertion areas used were small resulting in extreme localized stresses. The interior of both vertebrae is nearly stress free. Almost no stresses occur around the cavities and in their bony walls (figure 3).

This reminds me not of I-beams but of the long bones of the limbs of terrestrial vertebrates. There’s a reason why you’ve got a big honkin’ marrow cavity running through the middle of your femur: the stresses are being borne by the walls of the bone. It makes sense that vertebrae would function similarly, especially sauropod cervicals which sometimes approximate limb bones in their proportions.

So how about that median septum? Why aren’t sauropod vertebrae just hollow tubes? My guess–and it is a guess–is that they got as close to being hollow tubes as their evolutionary and developmental origins allowed. The pneumatic diverticula invaded the centra from either side and pushed in lateral-to-medial, and I think the median septum is just the wimpy little bit of bone left in between the two sets of diverticula when they almost meet up in the middle.

Even if that’s correct, there’s another mystery: why don’t the diverticula just go ahead and erode away the median septum? I can think of two possible reasons. One is that, for reasons I don’t know and I’m not sure if anyone else does either, pneumatic diverticula are good at getting into bones but pretty lousy at getting back out. There are comparatively few cases of diverticula inside bones making foramina to get out into the  surrounding tissue. It does happen–in humans, the mastoid air cells sometimes bust out and make subcutaneous pneumatocoels, basically bubbles of air under the skin (Anorbe et al. 2000)–but it seems to be rare. Maybe median septa fall under the same inscrutable rule.

(Incidentally, this makes the perforate laminae in Giraffatitan all the weirder.)

Another, more mundane possibility is that the median septa (and other oddly thin bits of bone) are not never loaded, just infrequently loaded. Not enough to make them straight, thick, or normal-lookin’, but enough to make sure they don’t get resorbed entirely.

Sauropod vertebrae are just loaded with these growth-and-form-related mysteries. Kudos to Schwarz-Wings et al. for pushing us a little farther down the road toward solving them.


Weren’t we just discussing the problem of keeping up with all the good stuff on da intert00bz? The other day Rebecca Hunt-Foster, a.k.a. Dinochick, posted a “mystery photo” that is right up our alley here at SV-POW!, but, lazy sods that we are, we missed it until just now. Here’s the pic:


I flipped it 90 degrees so that you can see more clearly what is going on. This is a cut and polished section of a pneumatic sauropod vertebra–the bottom half of the mid-centrum of a dorsal vertebra, to be precise. Cervicals usually have concave ventral surfaces, and sacrals are usually either wider and flatter or narrower and V-shaped in cross sections, so I am pretty confident that this slice is from a dorsal. Compare to the classic anchor cross-section in this Camarasaurus dorsal:

camarasaurus-internal-structure(You may remember this image from Xenoposeidon week–almost two years ago now!)

Naturally as soon as I saw ReBecca’s shard of excellence, I wondered about its ASP, so after a bit of GIMPing, voila:

IMG_7857 ASP

As usual, bone is black, air is white, and everything else is gray. And the ASP is:

461080 white pixels/(461080 white + 133049 black pixels) = 0.78

So, we know what this is, and we know the ASP of this bit of it, and we can even figure out the in vivo density of this bit. The density of cortical bone ranges from about 1.8  g/cm^3 for some birds to about 2.0 for most mammals. For the sake of this example–and so I can hurry back to writing my lecture about the arse–let’s call it 1.9. The density is then the fraction of bone multiplied by the density of bone, full stop. If it was an apneumatic bone, we’d have to add the fraction of marrow multiplied by the density of marrow, but the density of air is negligible so we can skip that step here. The answer is 0.22 x 1.9 = 0.42 g/cm^3, which is pretty darned light. Keep in mind, though, that some slices of Sauroposeidon (and ‘Angloposeidon’, as it turns out) have ASPs of 0.89, and thus had an in vivo density half that of the above slice (0.11 x 1.9 = 0.21 g/cm^3).

What’s that in real money? Well, your femora are roughly 60% bone and 40% marrow, with a density of ((0.6 x 2.0)+(0.4 x 0.93)) = 1.6 g/cm^3, four times as dense as the bit of vertebra shown above, and eight times as dense as some slices of Sauroposeidon and ‘Angloposeidon’. If that doesn’t make you self-conscious about your heavy thighs, I don’t know what will.

Yes, that was a lame joke, and yes, I’m going out on it.

Hat tip to Dinochick.

P.S. It’s the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing today. Hoist a brew for Neil and Buzz, wouldja?


By now you’ll recognize this as NHM 46870, a minor celebrity in the world of pneumatic sauropod vertebrae. Darren has covered the history of the specimen before, and in the last post he showed photographs of both this chunk and its other half. He also briefly discussed the Air Space Proportion (ASP) of the specimen, and I’ll expand on that now.

People have mentioned the weight-saving properties of sauropod vertebrae from the very earliest discoveries of sauropods. But as far as I know, no one tried to quantify just how light they might have been until 2003.

That fall I was starting my third year of PhD work at Berkeley, and I was trying to think of everything that could possibly be investigated about pneumaticity in sauropod vertebrae. I came up with a list of four things:

  • external traces of pneumaticity (foramina, fossae, tracks, laminae)
  • form and complexity of internal spaces (camerae, camellae, branching patterns)
  • ratio of bone to air space within a pneumatic element
  • distribution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity (PSP) in the body

That list of four things formed the outline for my first dissertation chapter (Wedel 2005), and for my dissertation itself. In fact, all of my papers that have anything to do with pneumaticity can be classified into one or more of those four bins:

That list is not exhaustive. It’s every aspect of PSP that I was able to think of back in 2003, but there are lots more. For example, I’ve only ever dealt with the internal complexity of sauropod vertebrae in a qualitative fashion, but the interconnections among either chambers or bony septa could be quantified, as Andy Farke has done for the frontal sinuses of hartebeests (Farke 2007). External traces on vertebrae and the distribution of PSP in the body can also be quantified, and were shortly after I drew up the list–see Naish et al. (2004) for a simple, straightforward approach to quantifying the extent of external pneumatic fossae, and O’Connor (2004, 2009) for a quantitative approach to the extent of pneumaticity in the postcranial skeletons of birds. There are undoubtedly still more parameters waiting to be thought of and measured. All of these papers are first steps, at least as applied to pneumaticity, and our work here is really just beginning.

Also, it took me an embarrassingly long time to “discover” ASPs.  I’d had CT slices of sauropod vertebrae since January, 1998, and it took me almost six years to realize that I could use them to quantify the amount of air inside the bones. I later discovered that Currey and Alexander (1985) and Casinos and Cubo (2000) had done related but not identical work on quantifying the wall thickness of tubular bones, and I was able to translate their results into ASPs (and MSPs for marrow-filled bones).


The procedure is pretty simple, as Mike has shown here before. Open up the image of interest in Photoshop (or GIMP if you’re all open-sourcey, like we are), make the bone one color, the air space a second color, and the background a third color. Count pixels, plug ’em into a simple formula, and you’ve got the ASP. I always colored the bone black, the air space white, and the background gray, so

ASP = (white pixels)/(black + white pixels)

For the image above, that’s 460442/657417 = 0.70.

Two quick technical points. First, most images are not just black, white, and one value of gray. Because of anti-aliasing, each black/white boundary is microscopically blurred by a fuzz of pixels of intermediate value. I could have used some kind of leveling threshold thing to bin those intermediate pixels into the bone/air/background columns, but I wanted to keep the process as fast and non-subjective as possible, so I didn’t. My spreadsheet has columns for black, white, gray, and everything else. The everything else typically runs 1-3%, which is not enough to make a difference at the coarse level of analysis I’m currently stuck with.

Second, I prefer transverse sections to longitudinal, because most of the internal chambers are longitudinally oriented. That means that longitudinal sections, whether sagittal or horizontal, are likely to cut through a chamber wall on its long axis, which makes the walls look unnaturally thick. For example, in the image above the median septum looks 5-10 times thicker than the outer walls of the bone, which would be a first–usually the outer walls are thicker than the internal septa, as you can see here. I don’t think the median septum really is that thick; I strongly suspect that a very thin plate of bone just happened to lie in the plane of the cut. It takes some work to get used to thinking about how a 2D slice can misrepresent 3D reality. When I first started CT scanning I was blown away by how thick the bone is below the pre- and postzygapophyses. I was thinking, “Wow, those centrozygapophyseal laminae must have been way more mechanically important than anyone thinks!” It took me a LONG time to figure out that if you take a transverse slice through a vertical plate of bone, it is going to look solid all the way up, even if that plate of bone is very thin.

Even apart from those considerations, there is still a list of caveats here as long as your arm. You may not get to choose your slice. That’s almost always true of broken or historically sectioned material, like NHM 46870. It’s even true in some cases for CT scans, because some areas don’t turn out very clearly, because of mineral inclusions, beam-hardening artifacts, or just poor preservation.

The slice you get, chosen or not, may not be representative of the ASP of the vertebra it’s from. Even if it is, other elements in the same animal may have different ASPs. Then there’s variation: intraspecific, ontogenetic, etc. So you have to treat the results with caution.

Still, there are some regularities in the data. From my own work, the mean of all ASP measurements for all sauropods is about 0.60. That was true when I had only crunched my first six images, late on the evening of October 9, 2003. It was true of the 22 measurements I had for Wedel (2005), and now that I have over a hundred measurements, it’s still true. More data is not shifting that number at all. And Woodward (2005) and Schwartz and Fritsch (2006) got very similar numbers, using different specimens.

This is cool for several reasons. It’s always nice when results are replicated–it decreases the likelihood that they’re a fluke, and in this case it suggests that although the limitations listed above are certainly real, they are not deal-killers for answering broad questions (we are at this point seeing the forest more clearly than the trees, though).

More importantly, the mean 0.60 ASP for all sauropod vertebrae is very similar to the numbers that you get from the data of Currey and Alexander (1985) and Cubo and Casinos (2000): 0.64 and 0.59, respectively. So sauropod vertebrae were about as lightly built as the pneumatic long bones of birds, on average.

Naturally, there are some deviations from average. Although I didn’t have enough data to show it in 2005, brachiosaurids tend to have higher ASPs than non-brachiosaurids. And Early Cretaceous brachiosaurids from the US and England are especially pneumatic–the mean for all of them, including Sauroposeidon, ‘Angloposeidon’, some shards of excellence from the Isle of Wight, and assorted odds and ends, is something like 0.75-0.80, higher even than Brachiosaurus. So there’s probably a combined phylogenetic/functional story in there about the highly pneumatic, hyper-long-necked brachiosaurids of the Early Cretaceous of Laurasia. Another paper waiting to be written.

Chondrosteosaurus broken face

Here’s another shard of excellence, referred to Chondrosteosaurus, NHM R96. As Mike had discussed here before, there’s no good reason to believe that it actually is Chondrosteosaurus, and the internal structure looks considerably more subdivided than in NHM 46870. This is an anterior view, and normally you’d be seeing a nice hemispherical condyle, but all of the cortical bone is gone and the internal structure is revealed. The little black traces are bone and the brownish stuff is rock matrix filling the pneumatic cavities.

Chondrosteosaurus broken face ASP

A few years ago, Mike asked me to look at that photo and guess the ASP, and then run the numbers and see how close I got. I guessed about 78%, then did the calculation, and lo and behold, the answer was 78%. So I’m pretty good at guessing ASPs.

Except I’m not, because as any of you armed with photo software can tell, that picture has 24520 black pixels and 128152 white ones, so the ASP is actually 128152/(128152+24520) = 0.84. The moral of the story is check your homework, kids! Especially if you seem to be an unnaturally good estimator.

ASP-ESP aside, I think ASP is cool and has some interesting potential at the intersection of phylogeny and biomechanics. But the method is severely limited by sample size, which is severely limited by how much of a pain in the butt preparing the images is. In most cases you can’t just play with levels or curves to get a black and white image that faithfully represents the morphology, or use the magic wand, or any of the other myriad shortcuts that modern imaging programs offer. Believe me, I’ve tried. Hard. But inevitably you get some matrix with the bone, or some bone with the matrix, and you end up spending an impossible amount of time fixing those problems (note that this is not a problem if you use perfect bones from extant animals, which is sadly not an option for sauropod workers). So almost all of my ASP images were traced by hand, which is really time-consuming. I could pile up a lot more data if I just sat around for a few weeks processing images, but every time I’ve gotten a few free weeks there has been something more important demanding my attention, and that may always be the case. Fortunately I’m not the only one doing this stuff now, and hopefully in the next few years we’ll get beyond these first few tottering steps.

Side Note: Does NHM 46870 represent a juvenile, or a dwarf?

This came up amongst the SV-POW!sketeers and we decided it should be addressed here. Darren noted that the vert at top is pretty darned small, ~23 cm for the preserved part and probably only a foot and a half long when it was complete, which is big for an animal but small for a sauropod and dinky for a brachiosaurid (if that’s what it is). Mike made the counter-observation that the internal structure is pretty complex, citing Wedel (2003b:fig. 12) and surrounding text, and suggested that it might be an adult of a small or even dwarfed taxon. And I responded:

I’m not at all certain that it is dwarfed. It matters a lot whether the complex internal structure is polycamerate or camellate. I was agnostic for a long time about how different those two conditions are, but there is an important difference that is relevant in this case: the two internal structures develop differently. Polycamerate verts really do get progressively more complex through development, as illustrated–there are at least two great series that show this, that I need to publish one of these days. But I think camellate vertebrae may be natively complex right from the get-go; i.e., instead of a big simple diverticulum pushing in from the side and making a big camera first, a bunch of smaller diverticula may remodel the small marrow spaces into small air spaces with no prior big cavities. At least, that’s how birds seem to do it. This needs more testing from sauropods–a good ontogenetic sequence from Brachiosaurus would be clutch here–but it’s my working hypothesis. In which case NHM 46870 may be a juvenile of a camellate taxon, rather than an adult of a polycamerate taxon.

The whole camerate-vs-camellate problem deserves a post of its own, and this post is already too long, so we’ll save that for another day.


It’s no secret – at least, not if you’re a regular SV-POW! reader – that the Lower Cretaceous Wealden Supergroup of southern England includes more than its fair share of enigmatic sauropod remains (see Mystery sauropod dorsals of the Wealden part 1, part 2, part 3). Poor taxonomic decisions, a dearth of adequate descriptive literature, and (perhaps) the vague concept that sauropod diversity in the Lower Cretaceous of Europe must be low have combined to prevent adequate appraisal. Recent comments on Wealden sauropods have been provided by Naish et al. (2004), Naish & Martill (2007), Taylor & Naish (2007) and Mannion (2008).


One of the most interesting Wealden sauropods – and I mean ‘interesting’ in an entirely subjective, historiographical sense – is Chondrosteosaurus gigas. This taxon has a rather confusing history that I don’t want to repeat here. The type series consists of two cervical vertebrae: BMNH R46869 and BMNH R46870 (and it is BMNH R46870, despite the occasional use in the literature of ‘46780’). We’ve looked at BMNH R46869 before. This time round I want to briefly talk about BMNH R46870. Anyone familiar with the literature on Wealden sauropods will know that this specimen was sectioned and polished. However, to date, only half of BMNH R46870 has been published (Owen 1876, plate V; Naish & Martill 2001, text-fig. 8.4), on both occasions as a mirror-image of the actual specimen. Previously unreported is that both halves of the specimen were polished, and both are in the Natural History Museum’s collection today. And here they are, shown together for the first time ever. I screwed up on the lighting, so sorry for the poor image quality [images © Natural History Museum, London].

A little bit of science has been done on this specimen. Chondrosteosaurus has had a mildly controversial history: it’s been suggested at times to be a camarasaur, but its camellate interior show that it’s a titanosauriform. Because the exact ratio of bone to air can be measured, the specimen lends itself particularly well to an Air Space Proportion analysis of the sort invented by Matt. Indeed, Matt did some ASP work on the figured half of BMNH R46870 in his thesis, finding an ASP of 0.70 (Wedel, Phd thesis, 2007). The average ASP of sampled neosauropod vertebrae is 0.61, and an ASP of 0.70 for the mid-centrum (as opposed to the condyle or cotyle) is most similar to the values present in camarasaurs and brachiosaurs. Mid-centrum ASP values of titanosaurs seem to be lower (Wedel, Phd thesis, 2007).


Anyway, more on Wealden sauropods – hopefully, a lot more – in the future.


  • Mannion, P. 2008. A rebbachisaurid sauropod from the Lower Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight, England. Cretaceous Research 30, 521-526.
  • Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. 2001. Saurischian dinosaurs 1: Sauropods. In Martill, D. M. & Naish, D. (eds) Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. The Palaeontological Association (London), pp. 185-241.
  • Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. 2007. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 164, 493-510.
  • Naish, D., Martill, D. M., Cooper, D. & Stevens, K. A. 2004. Europe’s largest dinosaur? A giant brachiosaurid cervical vertebra from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous) of southern England. Cretaceous Research 25, 787-795.
  • Owen, R. 1876. Monograph on the fossil Reptilia of the Wealden and Purbeck Formations. Supplement 7. Crocodilia (Poikilopleuron). Dinosauria (Chondrosteosaurus). Palaeontographical Society Monographs, 30, 1-7.
  • Taylor, M. P. & Naish, D. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50, 1547-1564.