Turns out that if Mike and I don’t post about sauropods for a while, people start doing it for us! This very interesting project by Tom Johnson of Loveland, Colorado, first came to my attention when Tom emailed Mark Hallett about it and Mark kindly passed it on to me. I got in touch with Tom and asked if he’d be interested in writing it up for SV-POW!, and here it is. Many thanks to Tom for his willingness to share his work with us. Enjoy! – Matt Wedel

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The sauropod formerly known as Apatosaurus in the American Museum of Natural History was the first permanently mounted sauropod dinosaur in the world, and for many years, the most famous (Brinkman 2010). The greater part of the skeleton consists of the specimen AMNH 460 from the Nine Mile Crossing Quarry north of Como Bluff, Wyoming, supplemented with bones from other AMNH specimens from Como Bluff, Bone Cabin Quarry, and with plaster casts of the forelimbs of the holotype specimen of Brontosaurus excelsus (YPM 1980) at the Yale Peabody Museum.

A herd of Brontosaurus skeleton models parading before four box covers issued between the 1950s and 1990s.

Like many aging boomer dinophiles, my dinosaur epiphany was the result of books, movies, and toys available in the 1950s, but especially a series of plastic model dinosaur skeletons that appeared around 1958. The Brontosaurus was my personal favorite, and, like the Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus models in the series, was very obviously based on the AMNH mount. The models were reissued at least three times over the years and can still be found either “mint in box” or more often in various stages of completion.

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of BrantWorks.com.

The crème de la crème today, of course, is the 1:12 scale Apatosaurus skeleton model by Phil Platt, available from Gaston Design in Fruita, Colorado. A particularly nice example is the one completed and mounted by Brant Bassam of BrantWorks. The Platt skeleton is a replica in the true sense of the word. The plastic models are pretty crude in comparison, as cool as they appeared to us as kids.

I was interested in skeletal illustrations I have seen of Tyrannosaurus rex, which compare the completeness of various specimens by showing the actual bones included by coloring them red. A 2005 study of Apatosaurus by Upchurch et. al. examined eleven of the most complete Apatosaurus individuals, and I was interested to see the actual bones known for each specimen. Using published descriptions, red markers, and copies of a skeletal silhouette of Apatosaurus (permission obtained from the artist), I prepared a comparison of the most completely known Apatosaurus specimens. It was clear, of course, that Apatosaurus louisae (CM 3018) is the most complete specimen of the Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus group. But it also was apparent that old AMNH 460 included a substantial portion of the skeleton, even if it is a composite.

I grabbed some additional markers and, using the illustration of the mount in William Diller Matthew’s popular book Dinosaurs (Matthew 1915, fig. 20, which I trust is in the public domain by now), I color-coded the bones according to the composition as listed in Matthew’s (1905) article:

  • AMNH 460, Nine-Mile Crossing Quarry: 5th, 6th, 8th to 13th cervical vertebrae; 1st to 9th dorsal; 3rd to 19th caudal; all ribs; both coracoids; “parts of” sacrum and ilia; both ischia and pubes; left femur and astragalus; and “part of” the left fibula. RED
  • AMNH 222, Como Bluff: right scapula, 10th dorsal vertebra, right femur and tibia. GREEN
    (Visitors to AMNH: you can see the rest of AMNH 222 under the feet of the hunched-over Allosaurus)
  • AMNH 339, Bone Cabin Quarry: 20th to 40th caudal vertebrae. LIGHT BLUE
  • AMNH 592, Bone Cabin Quarry: metatarsals of the right hind foot. VIOLET
  • YPM 1980, Como Bluff: left scapula, forelimb long bones (casts). YELLOW
  • The remaining parts of the skeleton are either modeled in plaster or are unspecified (“a few toe bones”). BLACK

It occurred to me that I might have sufficient spare parts of old ITC and Glencoe Brontosaurus models to create a three-dimensional version. I did, and painting prior to assembly definitely made the job easier.

There are obviously limitations to using Matthew’s (1915) reconstruction (e.g., only 13 cervicals) and the model (12 cervicals). It is also not clear from Matthew’s description how much of the sacrum and ilia were restored. Nevertheless, the painted model does provide a colorful, if crude, visualization of the composition of the composite.

Here are some more photos of the finished product:

A view from the front of the model, compared with a historical AMNH photo of the forelimbs and pelvic girdle.

Long considered a specimen of Brontosaurus excelsus or Apatosaurus excelsus, AMNH 460 was referred to Apatosaurus ajax by Upchurch et. al. in 2005. In the most comprehensive analysis of diplodocid phylogeny to date, Tschopp et. al. (2015) found AMNH 460 to be an “indeterminate apatosaurine” pending a “detailed analysis of the specimen.” What to call it? Oh, yeah, that’s been covered in another post!

This is a nostalgia shot for the old brontophiles. Notice that the Triceratops is entering the lake for a swim!

Tom Johnson with the mounted skeleton of Amphicyon, a Miocene “bear-dog”,
in the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California.


  • Brinkman , Paul D. (2010). The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Matthew, William Diller, (1905). “The Mounted Skeleton of Brontosaurus,” The American Museum Journal, Vol. V, No. 2, April.
  • Matthew, W.D. (1915). Dinosaurs, With Special Reference to the American Museum Collections, American Museum of Natural History, New York.
  • Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus, and Roger Benson. (2015). “A Specimen-Level Phylogenetic Analysis and Taxonomic Revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda).” Ed. Andrew Farke. PeerJ 3 (2015): e857.
  • Upchurch, P., Tomida, Y., Barrett, P.M. (2005). “A new specimen of Apatosaurus ajax (Sauropoda: Diplodocidae) from the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) of Wyoming, USA”. National Science Museum Monographs (Tokyo) 26 (118): 1–156.


Quick heads up: Mark Hallett and I are both at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow afternoon (Friday, October 28) at 4:15 PM we’ll be signing copies of our book, The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants. If you’d like to get a copy of the book, or to have your already-purchased copy signed, please come to the Johns Hopkins University Press booth in the exhibitor/poster area tomorrow afternoon. We’re both generally happy to sign books whenever and wherever, but if you’d like to catch us both at the same time, this is a good opportunity. We’re hoping to do another joint book signing in Los Angeles before long – more info on that when we get it arranged.

In the meantime, or if you’re not at SVP, or if you just like cool things, check out this rad claymation video of fighting apatosaurs, by YouTube user Fred the Dinosaurman. I love this. My favorite thing is that if you’re familiar with the previously-produced, static visual images of neck-fighting apatosaurs (links collected here), you’ll see a lot of those specific poses and moments recreated as transient poses in the video. This was published back in June, but I’d missed it – many thanks to Brian Engh for the heads up.

I’d hoped that we’d see a flood of BRONTOSMASH-themed artwork, but that’s not quite happened. We’ve seen a trickle, though, and that’s still exciting. Here are the ones I know about. If anyone knows of more, please let me know and I will update this post.

First, in a comment on the post with my own awful attempts, Darius posted this sketch of a BROTOSMASH-themed intimidation display:


And in close-up:


Very elegant, and it’s nice to see an extension of our original hypothesis into other behaviours.

The next thing I saw was Mark Witton’s beautiful piece, described on his own site (in a post which coined the term BRONTOSMASH):

BRONTOSMASH Witton low res

And in close-up:

BRONTOSMASH Witton low res-closeup

I love the sense of bulk here — something of the elephant-seal extant analogue comes through — and the subdued colour scheme. Also, the Knight-style inclusion in the background of the individual in the swamp. (No, sauropods were not swamp-bound; but no doubt, like elephants, they spent at least some time in water.)

And finally (for now, at least) we have Matthew Inabinett’s piece, simply titled BRONTOSMASH:


I love the use of traditional materials here — yes, it still happens! — and I like the addition of the dorsal midline spike row to give us a full on TOBLERONE OF DOOM. (Also: the heads just look right. I wish I could do that. Maybe one day.)

Update (Monday 26 October)

Here is Oliver Demuth’s sketch, as pointed out by him in a comment.


Thanks, Oliver! Nice to see the ventral-on-dorsal combat style getting some love.

So that’s where we are, folks. Did I miss any? Is anyone working on new pieces on this theme? Post ’em in the comments!


Here’s the last post (at least for now) in the Fighting Apatosaur Art series — and we’re back to Brian Engh, who we started with.

Early in the process of putting together artwork to illustrate our apatosaur neck combat hypothesis, Brian tried out a whole bunch of outlandish concepts. Here are two that he showed us, but which were too speculative to push forward with. First, necks as big, floppy display structures:


As a piece of art, I really like this one: the boldness, the vivid contrasts, the alien quality of the animals. But as a palaeobiological hypothesis, it doesn’t really work: so much of the neck morphology in apatosaurs is to do with absorbing ventral forces that soft-tissue display structures down there don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Here’s the other one — which Brian titles “Apatosaur inflato-porcupine fish neck-bag”.


I particularly like the way the theropod being rolled around on the ground and repeatedly spiked. It’s no more than it deserves.

Does the idea of an inflatable neck make sense? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were sauropods that did something like this — plenty of extant animals inflate parts of their body for display purposes, after all — but I don’t think it would have been apatosaurs. Again, the characteristic features of the neck don’t seem well matched to this scenario.

Well, that’s all the apatosaur neck-combat art we have. If there’s to be a part 7 in this series, it will be made of artwork that you, dear readers, have contributed. Fire away!

If we accept that the distinctive ventral projections of the gigantic and ventrally displaced cervical ribs of apatosaurs were likely the base of some form of soft-tissue rugosity — such as keratinous horns like those of rhinos — then does it follow that those necks were used in combat as we suggested?

Maybe, maybe not. As scientists, we are always open to other hypotheses. We’re looking for the simplest, most parsimonious model — the one which best explains the facts.

That’s why we like Mark Witton’s “neck-velcro wall-climbing” hypothesis, as shown in this actual scientific life restoration.


As Mark explained to me, apatosaurs may have used their neck-hooks for more than passive clinging. They may also have been used for inching up the rock-face: first one side of the neck advancing and then the next, in the manner of the “pterygoid walking” that snakes use to progressively swallow large prey.

This is why it’s important to present early-stage work at conferences (and as preprints). Otherwise, you may never hear about important alternative hypotheses like this until after the paper is out and it’s too late to include them.

I mentioned last time that, as I sat next to Bob Nicholls in an SVPCA session, I started sketching an apatosaur combat in the hope that my horrible drawing would provoke Bob to do a good one. That worked admirably, which means there is no good reason for me to subject you to my own sketch.

So here it is.


I think the main lessons to draw from this piece are:

  1. I can’t draw heads.
  2. I can’t draw limbs.
  3. I can’t draw torsos.
  4. I may be just about capable of drawing tails.

In defence of this picture, it does have something of a How And Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs quality to it, which people of a certain age may find nostalgic. (See also: How fat was Brontosaurus?)

During a break, I asked for Bob’s advice on how I can do better. I know I’ll never be an artist, but it’s fun to sketch (especially during mammal talks) and I’d like to improve a little. The main point Bob made was to think about where the light is coming from. Be consistent about that, and you get an immediate improvement in realism.

So here’s what I sketched the next day, with that in mind:


So what have we learned this time?

  1. I didn’t consciously do this, but I ended up with a composition kind of similar to what Bob came up with, but worse.
  2. In my desire to achieve the intertwined-necks pose, I made the necks too long and thin.
  3. I still can’t draw heads.
  4. Let’s just forget about the hindlimb of the one on the left.
  5. Uh, and let’s forget the torsos, too.
  6. But at least the light is coming from top right!

In short, as Stephen Sondheim put it, art isn’t easy. I wish I had more time to put into it.

The real moral of this story is: if I had a crack at drawing fighting apatosaurs, you definitely can. Let us know if you do — leave a comment. We’ll gather people’s contributions in a future post.

(See also the previous Fighting Apatosaur Art posts: Brian Engh #1, Brian Engh #2, Bob Nicholls. More to come!)

On the morning of Tuesday 1st December, on SVPCA day 1, I gave my talk about apatosaur neck combat. In one of the afternoon sessions, I sat next to Bob Nicholls, and found myself thinking how awesome it would be if he sketched some apato-combat.

But I didn’t want to come right out and say “Hey, Bob, how ’bout you spontaneously illustrate our palaeobiological hypothesis?” So instead I used a tactic that Fiona often uses when she wants me to do something: she starts to do it herself, badly, and waits for me to take over. (This is often how I find myself cooking in the evenings.) In the same spirit, sat next to Bob, I started a horrible sketch of wrestling apatosaurs. Sure enough, Bob, saw what I was doing, internally decided it ought to be done properly, and produced this:

WrestleBronto2a (c)Nicholls2015

What I love most about this (beside the casual way he knocked it out in fifteen minutes) is the sense of heft about the apatosaurs. These are big, solid animals. Someone’s gonna get hurt.