Mike’s and Matt’s excellent adventure in Pittsburgh continues! Today was Day 4, and just as yesterday offered us a unique opportunity to see the mounted Dipodocus and Apatosaurus skeletons up close on a lift, so today we got to look the two mounts from directly above!

Thanks to our host Amy Henrici and to Calder Dudgeon, we were able to go up to the maintenance balconies above the dinosaur hall, and from there we were able to see this:

It was a little bit scary up there: here’s Matt’s vertical panorama photo of me. Just below the balcony I’m standing on you can see another, which is actually far below up but further back. Below that is the main balcony that overlooks the hall. And below that, the hall itself, showing Diplodocus from above:

We think this is a first: we don’t know of any published photos of mounted sauropods from above — but now, there are some. Let’s take a closer look at the torsos:

Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, torso, in dorsal view, anterior to right.

Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018, torso, in dorsal view, anterior to left.

You can immediately see from here that Apatosaurus is a much broader animal than Diplodocus. That much, we could have guessed. What’s more interesting is that Apatosaurus seems to be slightly broader at the shoulders than at the hips, whereas the opposite is the case in Diplodocus.

This observation left us wondering what’s known about the relative widths of the forelimb and hindlimb articulations in extant animals. What, from the modern bestiary, has hips broader than its shoulders, and what has shoulders wider than its hips? We have no idea. Does anyone know if this has been studied, or better yet summarised?

Four huge beasts

March 13, 2019

Left to right: Allosaurus fragilis, Apatosaurus louisae, Homo sapiens, Diplodocus carnegii.

Derrrrr

March 13, 2019

Separated at birth.

Left: Apatosaurus lousiae holotype CM 2018, cast skull associated with specimen. Right: Matt Wedel. Scientists have long wondered how such a bloated beast could etc. etc.

As noted in the last post, Matt and I are off to spend a week at the Carnegie Museum from 11th-15th March. We expect to see many, many fascinating specimens there: far more than we’ll be able to do proper work on in the five days we have. So our main goal is to exhaustively document the most important specimens that we see, so we can work on them later after we’ve got home. I think of this as the “harvesting” phase of research, with the grinding and baking to follow.

I was going to write a checklist for myself, to ensure that I cover all the bases and we don’t find ourselves in six months’ time looking at our records and saying “I can’t believe we forgot to do X for this specimen” — because, believe me, we have spent far too much of our lives doing this already. But then I realised I should share it with the world, in case it’s helpful to others, too.

So here’s what to do when dealing with, for example, an apatosaurine cervical like this one. Let me know in the comments if I forgot anything!

BYU 20178, cervical vertebra from an apatosaurine sauropod. ventral view, anterior to the left. Note that the scalebar is held at approximately half the height of the vertebra; and that the catalogue card is in view and legible, giving a record who collected the specimen, when, and where.

Sketch the specimen, even if (like me) you are a terrible artist. The process of sketching forces you to really look at it — at each part of it in turn — and often results in you noticing something you would otherwise have missed. It would be worth doing this even if you immediately threw the sketch away: but don’t do that, because you’re going to want to …

Measure the specimen, using a tape measure, digital calipers or both as appropriate. You want to get at least all the measurements that you’ll include in a formal description — total length, total height, width across zygapophyses, etc. — but it’s often useful to also get other, more obscure measurements, just to make sure you’ve got your head around the shape. For example, in the vertebra above, you might measure the diagonal distances from the anteriormost projection of each cervical rib to to opposite side’s posterolateralmost part of the centrum. You record measurements in a table in your notebook, but some measurements are hard to describe: so just write them straight onto your sketch. To keep things straight, it can be useful to do the sketch in one colour and the measurements in another; or the sketch in pencil and the measurements in pen.

Now we come to photography. You want a lot of different kinds of photo, so lets consider them separately.

Take photographs of the specimen with its specimen label, ideally from several different aspects. This will make it easy to remember later which specimen is which. In a typical museum visit — especially a reconnaisance visit like our upcoming Carnegie trip — you’re going to see a lot of different specimens, and when you revisit your photos in six months it’ll be hard to keep them all straight. Make it easy on yourself. Also: the specimen label often contains other  useful information such as the quarry where the specimen was found. Capture that. Get a good close-up photo of the label alone, to ensure all the text is captured cleanly.

Take photographs from the cardinal directions. To illustrate a specimen nicely in a descriptive paper, you will at minimum want photos from anterior, posterior, dorsal, ventral and left and right lateral aspects (or as many of these are possible to obtain: you can’t always turn big specimens). Since these are the photos you’re likely to use in a publication, take extra care with these. Set up a plain-coloured background when possible so it’s easier to crop out later. Set up the best lighting you can. Take each photo several times so you can keep the best one. Use a tripod if you have one. (For much more on this, see Tutorial 8 on how to photograph big bones.)

Take photographs with a scalebar. This will give you a way to sanity-check your measurements later. Think carefully about scalebar placement. If you put it on top of the specimen so it obscures part of the fossil, be sure that’s not your only photo from that aspect: you won’t want to be left without good images of the whole bone. A scalebar placed on top of the specimen will appear larger than the same scalebar placed on the floor or the bench next to the specimen, thanks to perspective, which means your measurements are more trustworthy than photos of the scalebar. If you can easily arrange for it to be raised to half the total height of the specimen, you’ll get a more honest reading.

Photograph individual features of the bone with some kind of note. The reason I say “with some kind of note” is that I have hundreds of close-up photos of bits of sauropod vertebra which I evidently took in the hope of highlighting some specific bit of morphology, but I have no idea what morphology. Get a scrap of paper and scribble something like “big nutrient foramen”, draw an arrow on it, and place the scrap on the bone so that the arrow points at the feature. Take a photo; then remove the paper and take another photo. The first one is your note to yourself; the second is the raw material for an illustration that you might prepare later, highlighting the relevant feature in a more elegant way.

Do a video walkaround with narration. For some reason, we didn’t start doing this until very recently, but it’s a great way to get a rough-and-ready reminder of important aspects of the specimen. You can just do this with a phone, moving it around the specimen, pointing to interesting bits and saying things about them. Here’s an example of Matt pointing out some features of the preserved cervical vertebrae of Suuwassea, and here he is again pointing out how pelican vertebrae are made of nothing.

Take a shedload of undifferentiated photos from every possible angle. Your goal here is that you’ll be able to use photogrammetry later to make a 3D model of the fossil. I admit to my shame that I’ve still never successfully done this — but thanks to the kindness of my good friend Heinrich Mallison, who is an expect in this area, I do have some fine models, including the Xenoposeidon model that was published as a supplementary file to my 2018 paper. Even if you don’t have access to someone as helpful as Heinrich, it’s worth getting these comprehensive photo-sets because photogrammetry software is likely to get progressively easier to use. Hopefully in a couple more years there will be nothing to it but loading a bunch of photos and pressing a button.


Up till here, we’ve been concentrating on gathering information about the specimen in a form that we’ll be able to return to later and use in comparisons and illustrations. But we can do more than that now we’re here with the physical specimen:

Look at the bone texture. Figure out how much of it is real, and how much is reconstructed — a particular problem with older specimens. Keep an eye out for rugosities for muscle and ligament attachments, smooth areas and pockets for pneumatic diverticula (or fat pads in boring mammal verts), and any odd growths that might be ossified soft tissues or pathological reactive bone growth. These kinds of things are often much easier to see in the actual specimens than in even the very best photographs.

Check for areas where the specimen is under-prepared. It’s very common for a neural canal to remain filled with matrix — and easy to spot, so in a sense not a problem. But how often is a pneumatic feature obscured because it’s still full of matrix? This is probably part of the reason that caudal pneumaticity so often goes unobserved, and it will very often obscure foramina within the neural canal. Similarly, I don’t know whether the huge club on the end of the right cervical rib of NHMUK PV R173b (formerly BMNH R173b) is pathological bone or a mineral concretion, because all I have to go from is my lame photos. I should have figured that out while I was with the actual specimen.

Discuss the specimen with a friend. I just can’t overstate how important this is. When Matt and I visit a collection together, we discover much, much more than twice as much as either of us would alone. Isaac Asimov is said to have observed “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …””. Whether or not he ever actually said it (it’s not in any of his written works) it’s certainly true that the key moment in investigating a specimen is frequently when one person says “Hey, take a look at this”. Two minds can spark off each other in a way that a single mind can’t.


Last of all, it’s worth giving a little bit of thought to the possibility that you’ll one day be doing publicity for this specimen. So:

Get someone to take photos of you with the specimen. You’ll need them for press releases and media packs. I’ve only once in my life been in physical proximity with the Brontomerus specimen: during the three-day 2007 visit when I did much of the descriptive work for the paper. Idiotically, although I was there with three colleagues (Matt, Randy Irmis and Sarah Werning), I didn’t get anyone to take a photo of me with the material. So when we needed a photo for the publicity:

The Brontomerus mcintoshi holotype specimen OMNH 27761-27800, 61248 and 66429-66432 with the authors of the paper that described it. Back row (L to R): Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel, Rich Cifelli.

There was no good way to get it. I certainly wasn’t going to fly back out to the USA just to get a photo. So we got our Emmy award-winning special-effects-wizard friend Jarrod Davis to photoshop me into a photo that the museum had been able to take of Matt and Rich. (You can see the evidence here and here if you want to see how it was done. And, yes, before he could even start composing me in, Jarrod had to rescue a ludicrously under-exposed base image.)

Much better to avoid such nonsense. Get good photos of you with the specimens, like the one at the top of the Sauropocalypse post, and then if you ever need ’em you’ve got ’em.

 

Hot news! Matt and I will be spending the week of 11th-15th March at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh: the home of the world’s two most definitive sauropods!

The Carnegie Diplodocus, CM 84, is the original from which all those Diplodocus mounts around the globe were taken, and so by far the most-seen sauropod in the world — almost certainly the most-seen dinosaur of any kind.

Diplodocus carnegii mounted holotype specimen CM 84 at the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh. Photo by Scott Robert Anselmo, CC By-SA. From Wikimedia.

Like most dinosaur-loving Brits, I grew up with this specimen, in the form of the cast that until recently graced the central hall of the Natural History Museum in London. It defined my concept of what a sauropod is. But I’ve never seen the original before, and I am stoked about it.

Also like most Brits — and American dinophiles often find this hard to believe — I never saw an Apatosaurus skeleton, or indeed any Apatosaurus material, when I was growing up, or even for several years after I started functioning as a palaeontologist. We just don’t have the material over here, so when I saw the mounted Brontosaurus holotype at the Yale Peabody Museum in 2009, it was a big moment for me.

But now, for the first time, I am going to see the definitive apatosaurine specimen, the Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018!

Apatosaurus louisae mounted holotype specimen CM 3018 at the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh. Photo by Tadek Kurpaski, CC By. From Wikimedia.

(And I know this is not exactly a new observation here on SV-POW!, but: check out that neck! it’s insane!)

And of course the two big, glamorous mounted sauropods are only the tip of the iceberg. The Carnegie Museum has a ton of awesome material in collection, including Hatcher’s Haplocanthosaurus specimens, the much-loved juvenile apatosaurine cervical sequence CM 555, the Barosaurus cervical sequence CM 1198, and much much more.

We are going to be drowning in sauropods!

I’ll have more to say about this trip shortly, but I just want to close today’s post by saying two things:

First: those of you familiar with the collections at the Carnegie, what are the things that Matt and I should definitely not miss? What will we kick ourselves if we come come without having seen?

And finally: a big thank you to my wife, Fiona, who is finishing up a masters in March and definitely doesn’t need me to be out of the country and unable to help for a week of that final month. She is a marvel, and is sending me anyway.

 

We’ve posted a lot here about how crazy the cervical vertebrae of apatosaurines are (for example: 1, 2, 3), and especially the redonkulosity of their cervical ribs. But I think you will agree with me that this is still an arresting sight:

That’s MWC 1946, a mid-cervical from the Mygatt-Moore Quarry that was figured by Foster et al. (2018: fig. 18 A-B) and referred with the rest of the Mygatt-Moore apatosaur material to Apatosaurus cf. louisae (entirely correctly, in my view). This is a ventral view, with the condyle down by the scale bar.

Here’s the same thing cropped from the background to emphasize its unbelievableness:

and mirrored and restored a bit in GIMP to give a taste of its probable appearance in life (if you had an apatosaur, an x-ray machine, and a lot of confidence about not getting stepped on):

For obvious reasons, my nickname for this specimen is the Brontosmasher.

Keep in mind that the centrum was full of air in life, whereas the cervical ribs and the bony struts that support them are just huge slabs of bone. I strongly suspect that the volume of bone in the cervical ribs and their supporting struts is vastly more than in the centrum and neural arch. I will soon have the ability to test that hypothesis–I have this specimen on loan from Dinosaur Journey for CT scanning and 3D modeling. Watch this space.

Many thanks to Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey for access to the specimen and assistance during my frequent visits.

Reference

  • Foster, J.R., Hunt-Foster, R.K., Gorman, M.A., II, Trujillo, K.C., Suarez, C.A., McHugh, J.B., Peterson, J.E., Warnock, J.P., and Schoenstein, H.E. 2018. Paleontology, taphonomy, and sedimentology of the Mygatt-Moore Quarry, a large dinosaur bonebed in the Morrison Formation, western Colorado—implications for Upper Jurassic dinosaur preservation modes: Geology of the Intermountain West 5: 23–93.

The afternoon of Day 1 at TetZooCon 2018 was split into two parallel streams: downstairs, some talks that I would have loved to see; and upstairs, a palaeoart workshop that I was even keener not to miss out on.

There were talks by Luis Rey (on how palaeoart has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting feathers and bright colours) and by Mark Witton (on the future of palaeoart — sadly, bereft of slides). Both fascinating.

But better still was the wide-ranging informal discussion between Luis, Mark, John Conway, Bob Nicholls and others on what palaeoart is actually all about. For Luis, it’s basically fun; for Mark, it’s primarily science communication; for John, it’s art first, and palaeontology only because that’s what he happens to be depicting; and for Bob, as well as all those things, it’s crucially important as a job of work, satisfying the requirements of those who commission that work. Obviously that’s a huge over-simplification: all of them have all these aspects going on in varying proportions. But that’s how I read it.

At the same time that all this was going on, we — maybe 60 or 70 of us? — were encouraged to create our own art, either attempting styles that are different to what we usually do, are using materials we’re not so familiar with. For the many excellent artists in the group, this challenge must have been interestingly novel. For non-artists like myself, it was just a chance to play.

I took the opportunity to try my hand with charcoal, in the hope of getting some suggestive or even impressionistic textures. Here’s my first work — an indeterminate brachiosaur with an inexplicably big head.

Aside from the head — I can’t do heads! — I’m reasonably happy with that. I got a decent sense of bulk in the torso, anyway.

Encouraged, I made a start on a second piece: a BRONTOSMASH!ing apatosaur that didn’t come out so well.

I’m happy with the forelimbs here, but something is dreadfully wrong with the torso and I can’t put a finger on what it is. If I’d had more time, I’d have put in the second hindlimb, which might have helped me figure out what was going wrong. The other thing I fluffed here was that I should have made the neck even fatter and more robust. Oh, and of course the head. I might return to this and see if I can sort out, if I can find some charcoal.

Anyway, it was a fascinating experience. And it’s left me with a new favourite art medium.