I was in Philadelphia and New York last week, visiting colleagues on the East Coast and getting in some collaborative research. Much more to say about that in the future – even just the touristy stuff will fill several posts.

One highlight of the trip was visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia last Friday. Ted Daeschler (of Tiktaalik fame) and Jason Poole (who illustrated this sweet book) were my generous hosts and I got to see a ton of cool stuff both out on exhibit and behind the scenes. Seriously, I could post for a month just on the Academy visit.

A personal highlight for me was seeing the cervical vertebrae of the sauropod dinosaur Suuwassea on exhibit. They are in a glass case and you can get around them pretty well to see a lot of anatomy. At first I was pumped to get nice color photos of all the vertebrae from up close and from multiple angles. Then I thought, “Huh, maybe I should just shoot a video.” So I did. Here you go, four minutes of hot sauropod vertebra action:

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Left side, posterolateral oblique view, wide shot.

Same thing, close up.

Right side, lateral, wide.

Same thing, close up.

For more on this and other pneumatic sauropod tails, please see Wedel and Taylor (2013, here). And for more on the currently unresolved taxonomic status of FMNH P25112, see this post.

Back in the spring of 1998, Kent Sanders and I started CT scanning sauropod vertebrae. We started just to get a baseline for the Sauroposeidon project, but in time the data we collected formed the basis for my MS thesis, and for a good chunk of my dissertation as well. Mostly what we had available to scan was Morrison material. Between imperfect preservation, inexpert prep (by WPA guys back in the ’30s), and several moves over the decades, most of the verts from the Oklahoma Morrison have their neural spines and cervical ribs broken off. One of the first things I had to figure out was how to tell broken vertebrae of Camarasaurus from those of Apatosaurus (at the time; Brontosaurus is back in contention now). Here’s a thing I made up to help me sort out cervical centra of Camarasaurus and whatever the Oklahoma apatosaurine turns out to be. It’s a recent production, but it embodies stuff from my notebooks from 20 years ago. Should be useful for other times and places in the Morrison as well, given the broad spatiotemporal overlap of Camarasaurus and the various apatosaurines.

For a related thing in the same vein, see Tutorial 30: how to identify Morrison sauropod cervicals.

More elephant seals soon, I promise.

UPDATE 20 Feb 2018

Ken Carpenter sent this by email, with a request that I post it as a comment. Since it includes an image, I’m appending to the post, because it makes an important point that I neglected to mention.

Camar post cerv

Ken: Sorry, Matt. Not so easy. The last cervical of Camarasaurus from the Cleveland Lloyd Quarry is more apatosaurine-like than Camarasaurus-like based on your posting. Note the position of both zygapohyses with both ends of the centrum.

My response: Yes, good catch. I meant to say in the post that my distinguishing characters break down at the cervico-dorsal transition. Even so, in this Cleveland Lloyd vert the postzyg is still forward of a line drawn directly up from the cotyle. I’ve never seen that in an apatosaurine–going into the dorsal series, the postzygs tend to be centered over a line projected up from the rim of the cotyle. (If anyone knows of counterexamples, speak up!)

For distinguishing cervico-dorsals, apatosaurines tend to have much taller neural spines than Camarasaurus, and this carries on through the rest of the dorsal series. In apatosaurine dorsals, the height of the spine above the transverse processes always equals or exceeds the height of the arch below the transverse processes. In Camarasaurus, the height of the dorsal neural spines is always less than or equal to the height of the arch. The shapes of the spines are fairly different, too. Maybe that will be the subject of a future post.

Here’s another vertebra from the big Oklahoma apatosaurine. Based on the size and shape of the transverse process, and the large pneumatic chambers on either side of the neural canal, I think this is probably a 4th caudal, but it could plausibly be a 3rd or a 5th. The centrum is 33 cm tall by 36 cm wide.

For other elements of the big Oklahoma apatosaurine, please see:

When I was nine, a copy of Don Glut’s The New Dinosaur Dictionary turned up in my local Waldenbooks. It wasn’t my first dinosaur book, by far – I’d been a dinosaurophile since the age of three. But The New Dinosaur Dictionary was different.

Up to that point, I had subsisted on a heavy diet of kids’ dino books and the occasional article in National Geographic and Ranger Rick. The kids’ books were aimed at kids and the magazine articles were pitched at an engagingly popular level. I didn’t understand every word, but they were clearly written for curious layfolk, not specialists.

A typical spread from The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982). The armored sauropod blew my young mind.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something else entirely. It had photos of actual dinosaur bones and illustrations of skeletons with cryptic captions like, “Skeleton of Daspletosaurus torosus. (After Russell)”. Okay, clearly this Russell cove was out there drawing dinosaur skeletons and this book had reproduced some of them. But nobody I knew talked like that, and the books I had access to up to that point held no comparable language.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 271)

Then there was stuff like this: “The so-called Von Hughenden sauropod restored as a brachiosaurid by Mark Hallett”. A chain of fascinating and pleasurable ideas detonated in my brain. “The so-called” – say what now? Nobody even knew what to call this thing? Somehow I had inadvertently sailed right to the edge of human knowledge of dinosaurs, and was peering out into taxa incognita. “Restored as a brachiosaurid” – so this was just one of several possible ways that the animal might have looked. Even the scientists weren’t sure. This was a far cry from the bland assurances and blithely patronizing tones of all my previous dinosaur books.

“By Mark Hallett.” I didn’t know who this Hallett guy was, but his art was all over the book, along with William Stout and some guy named Robert T. Bakker and a host of others who were exploding my conception of what paleo art could even be. Anyway, this Mark Hallett was someone to watch, not only because he got mentioned by name a lot, but because his art had a crisp quality that teetered on some hypercanny ridge between photorealism and scribbling. His sketches looked like they might just walk off the page.

In case that line about scribbling sounds dismissive: I have always preferred sketches by my favorite artists to their finished products. The polished works are frequently inhumanly good. They seem to have descended in a state of completed perfection from some divine realm, unattainable by mere mortals. Whereas sketches give us a look under the hood, and show how a good artist can conjure light, shadow, form, weight, and texture from a few pencil strokes. Put it this way: I am anatomist by temperament first, and by training and occupation second. Of course I want to see how things are put together.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 75)

Anyway, The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something completely new in my experience. It wasn’t aimed at kids and written as if by kids, like lots of kids’ books. It wasn’t even written by adults talking down (deliberately or inadvertently) to kids, or trying to reach a wide audience that might include kids. It was written by an adult, aiming at other adults. And it was admitting in plain language that we didn’t know everything yet, that there were lots of animals trembling on the outer threshold of scientific knowledge. I didn’t understand half of it – I was down in an ontogenetic trench, looking up as these packets of information exploded like fireworks over my head.

In Seeing In the Dark, the best book about why you should go out stargazing for yourself, Timothy Ferris writes about growing up on Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1960s, and watching the first generation of artificial satellites pass overhead:

I felt like an ancient lungfish contemplating the land from the sea. We could get up there.

That’s precisely the effect that The New Dinosaur Dictionary had on me: I could get up there. Maybe not immediately. But there were steps, bodies of knowledge that could be mastered piecemeal, and most of all, mysteries to be resolved. The book itself was like a sketch, showing how from isolated and broken bones and incomplete skeletons, scientists and artists reconstructed the world of the past, one hypothesis at a time. Now I take it for granted, because I’ve been behind the curtain for a couple of decades. But to my 9-year-old self, it was revolutionary.

This has all come roaring back because of something that came in the mail this week. Or rather, something that had been waiting in the mailroom for a while, that I finally picked up this week: a package from Mark Hallett, enclosing a copy of his 2018 dinosaur calendar. And also this:

 

An original sketch, which he gave to me as a Christmas present. The published version appears on one of the final pages of our book, where we discuss the boundaries between the known – the emerging synthesis of sauropod biology that we hoped to bring to a broader audience by writing the book in the first place – and the unknown – the enduring mysteries that Mark and I think will drive research in sauropod paleobiology for the next few decades. Presented without a caption or commentary, the sketch embodies sauropods as we see them: emerging from uncertainty and ignorance one hard-won line at a time, with ever-increasing solidity.

Thank you, Mark, sincerely. That sketch, what it evokes, both for me now and for my inner 9-year-old – you couldn’t have chosen a better gift. And I couldn’t be happier. Except perhaps to someday learn that our book exploded in the mind of a curious kid the way that The New Dinosaur Dictionary did for me 34 years ago, a time that now seems as distant and romantic as the primeval forests of the Mesozoic.

This post started out as a comment on this thread, kicked off by Dale McInnes, in which Mike Habib got into a discussion with Mike Taylor about the max size of sauropods. Stand by for some arm-waving. All the photos of outdoor models were taken at Dino-Park Münchehagen back in late 2008.

I think it’s all too easy to confuse how big things do get from how big they could get, assuming different selection pressures and ecological opportunities. I’m sure someone could write a very compelling paper about how elephants are as big as they could possibly be, or Komodo dragons, if we didn’t have indricotheres and Megalania to show that the upper limit is elsewhere. This is basically what Economos (1981) did for indricotheres, either forgetting about sauropods or assuming they were all aquatic.

Truly, a mammal of excellence and distinction. With Mike and some dumb rhino for scale.

In fact, I’ll go further: a lot of pop discussions of sauropod size assume that sauropods got big because of external factors (oxygen levels, etc.) but were ultimately limited by internal factors, like bone and cartilage strength or cardiovascular issues. I think the opposite is more likely: sauropods got big because of a happy, never-repeated confluence of internal factors (the Sander/et al. [2008, 2011, 2013] hypothesis, which I think is extremely robust), and their size was limited by external, ecological factors.

Take a full-size Argentinosaurus or Bruhathkayosaurus – even modest estimates put them at around 10x the mass of the largest contemporary predators. Full-grown adults were probably truly predator-immune, barring disease or senescence. So any resources devoted to pushing the size disparity higher, instead of invested in making more eggs, would basically be wasted.

If there was reproductive competition among the super-giants, could the 100-tonners have been out-reproduced by the 70-tonners, which put those extra 30 tonnes into making babies? Or would the 100-tonners make so many more eggs than the 70-tonners (over some span of years) that they’d still come out on top? I admit, I don’t know enough reproductive biology to answer that. (If you do, speak up in the comments!) But if – if – 70-tonners could out-reproduce 100-tonners, that by itself might have been enough to put a cap on the size of the largest sauropods.

Another possibility is that max-size adult sauropods were neither common nor the target of selection. In most populations most of the time, the largest individuals might have been reproductively active but skeletally-immature and still-growing subadults (keep in mind that category would encompass most mounted sauropod skeletons, including the mounted brachiosaurs in Chicago and Berlin). If such individuals were the primary targets of selection, and they were selected for a balance of reproductive output and growth, then the few max-size adults might represent the relatively rare instances in which the developmental program “overshot” the selection target.

Dave Hone and Andy Farke and I mentioned this briefly in our 2016 paper, and it’s come up here on the blog several times before, but I still have a hard time wrapping my head around what that would mean. Maybe the max-size adults don’t represent the selective optimum, but rather beneficial traits carried to extreme ends by runaway development. It seems at least conceivable that the bodies of such animals might have been heavily loaded with morphological excrescences – like 15- to 17-meter necks – that were well past the selective optimum. As long as those features weren’t inherently fatal, they could possibly have been pretty darned inefficient, riding around on big predator-immune platforms that could walk for hundreds of kilometers and survive on garbage.

What does that swerve into weird-but-by-now-well-trod ground have to do with the limits on sauropod size? This: if max-size adults were not heavy selection targets, either because the focus of selection was on younger, reproductively-active subadults, or because they’d gotten so big that the only selection pressure that could really affect them was a continent-wide famine – or both – then they might not have gotten as big as they could have (i.e., never hit any internally-imposed, anatomical or biomechanical limits) because nothing external was pushing them to get any bigger than they already were.

Or maybe that’s just a big pile of arm-wavy BS. Let’s try tearing it down, and find out. The comment thread is open.

References

Hey sports fans, as the year winds down I bring you another podcast appearance. This time out I’m rolling with Mark Hallett, and we’re talking about sauropods through the lens of our still-plausibly-somewhat-newish book, The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants, on the I Know Dino podcast. Many thanks to Sabrina and Garret for having us on the show. While you’re on that page, check out the nice preview of Mark’s 2018 dinosaur calendar, which is available at Pomegranate and Amazon.

The photo shows the Diplodocus carnegii cast mounted in the natural history museum in Vienna, one of Andrew Carnegie’s gifts to the world. A happy seasonal metaphor, sez me. Hope your new year is equally happy!