UPDATE 19 May 2016
I belatedly realized that I caused some confusion in the original version of this post. This will hopefully sort things out:
The ventrolateral processes (1) are nothing new. As Ken Carpenter pointed out in a comment, Hatcher noted them back in 1901 in his monograph on Diplodocus carnegii. These are the features I describe below as being, “huge in Barosaurus, big in Diplodocus, small in Apatosaurus, and nonexistent in Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and the brachiosaurids, at least from what I’ve seen.” To clarify: occasionally in camarasaurs and frequently in brachiosaurs you can trace a ridge along the ventrolateral margin of the centrum from the parapophysis to the cotyle. But these ridges are basically just the ‘corners’ of the centrum, leftover by the lateral and ventral waisting of the centrum – they do not project beyond the margin of the cotyle. In contrast, what I’ve been calling the ventrolateral flanges in diplodocids do project beyond the margins of the cotyle – they are additive structures, not just architectural leftovers. They also don’t vary much, other than to be more pronounced in more posterior cervicals.
The irregular ventral ridges (2) are a totally different thing. They’re on or near the sagittal midline of the centrum, usually restricted to the anteroposterior middle of the ventral centrum (so, about halfway between the condyle and the cotyle), and as my preferred term implies, highly variable among individuals and even among vertebrae in a series.
Hope that helps! (Original post starts below.)
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Back in 2005 I visited BYU while I was working on my dissertation. Back then I noted ventral ridges in a few diplodocine cervical vertebrae. (I hesitate to call such flimsy things ‘keels’.)
Up above is BYU 16918, a mid-to-posterior cervical vertebra of Diplodocus from the famous Dry Mesa Quarry. Here it is again in posterior view:
The things I have labeled VLF here are ventrolateral flanges, which are huge in Barosaurus, big in Diplodocus, small in Apatosaurus, and nonexistent in Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and the brachiosaurids, at least from what I’ve seen. See this post for details. I know that the left VLF here looks like a second ridge, but the cotyle is broken off in such a way that we’re seeing the fossa just dorsal to the VLF margin. The ridge itself is skewed to the right, which could be natural or a result of taphonomy – as you can see from the photo at the top of the post, this vert has seen better days.
Here’s another Dry Mesa vert, BYU 11617, this time an anterior cervical of Barosaurus and in left lateral view:
Again in right lateral view – on this side you can see the fossa in the VLF more clearly:
And here’s the ventral view showing the ridge:
I noted these things in my notebook back when, filed them under, “Huh. How about that?” and went on with life.
Then last week Mike and I were at the North American Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi, Utah, and we saw this super-nice Barosaurus cervical on display in the prep lab (left ventro-lateral view). Check out the monster ventrolateral flanges, and the ridges between them at about mid-centrum.
Here’s another view, a more square-on ventral this time:
We owe a big thank you to Rick Hunter, who let us into the prep lab at the North American Museum of Ancient Life to see the Barosaurus material up close.
So what’s the deal with these ridges? I assume that they’re caused by pneumatic diverticula remodeling the ventral surface of the centrum. We know that such diverticula were down there because there are actual foramina on the ventral centrum in Supersaurus, many apatosaurines (Lovelace et al., 2008), many brachiosaurids, and probably loads of other things that haven’t been checked. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen the ridges in any of those other taxa. It seems that you get foramina or ridges, but not both. I have no idea what’s up with that – to paraphrase Neal Stephenson, Barosaurus cervicals are confections of air and marketing, and you’d think that if any sauropod would have straight-up foramina down there, it would be Barosaurus. But Barosaurus gets ridges and clunky old Apatosaurus gets foramina (sometimes, not all the time).
It’s a sick world, I tell you.
- Lovelace, D. M., Hartman, S. A., & Wahl, W. R. (2007). Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527-544.
When I was back in Oklahoma in March, I met with Anne Weil to see some of the new Apatosaurus material she’s getting out of her Homestead Quarry. It’s nice material, but that’s a post for another day. Anne said something that really resonated with me, which was, “I love it when you guys post about vertebral morphology, because it helps me learn this stuff.” Okay, Anne, message received. This will begin to make things right.
I spent a week at BYU back in 2005, collecting data for my dissertation. One of the first things I had to do was teach myself how to identify the vertebrae of different sauropods, because BYU has just about all of the common Morrison taxa. These are the notes I made back then.
I always planned to do something with them – clean them up, get them into a more usable form. There are a lot of scribbly asides that are probably hard for others to read, and it would be more useful if I put the easily confused taxa next to each other – Barosaurus next to Brachiosaurus, for example. And I didn’t go into serial changes at all.
Still, hopefully someone will find these useful. If there are things I missed or got wrong, the comment thread is open. And if you want all four spreads in one convenient package, here’s a PDF: Wedel 2005 notes on Morrison sauropod cervicals
April 30, 2016
I love Utah. I love how much of the state is given over to exposed Mesozoic rocks. I love driving through Utah, which has a strong baseline of beautiful scenery that is frequently punctuated by the absolutely mind-blowing (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley…). I love doing fieldwork there, and I love the museums, of which there are many. It is not going too far to say that much of what I learned firsthand about sauropod morphology, I learned in Utah (the Carnegie Museum runs a close second on the dragging-Matt-out-of-ignorance scale).
There is no easy way to say this so I’m just going to get it over with: Mike has never been to Utah.
I know, right?
But we’re going to fix that. Mike’s flying into Salt Lake City this Wednesday, May 4, and I’m driving up from SoCal to meet him. After that we’re going to spend the next 10 days driving around Utah and western Colorado hitting museums and dinosaur sites. We’re calling it the Sauropocalypse.
Why am I telling you this, other than to inspire crippling jealousy?
First, Mike and I are giving a pair of public talks next Friday evening, May 6, at the USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price. The talks start at 7:00 and will probably run until 8:00 or shortly after, and there will be a reception with snacks afterward. Mike’s talk will be, “Why giraffes have such short necks”, and my own will be, “Why elephants are so small”.
Second, occasionally people leave comments to the effect of, “Hey, if you’re ever passing through X, give me a shout.” I haven’t kept track of all of those, so this is me doing the same thing in reverse. Here’s our itinerary as of right now:
May 4, Weds: MPT flies in. MJW drives up from Cali. Stay in SLC/Provo area.
May 5, Thurs: recon BYU collections in Provo. Stay in SLC/Provo area.
May 6, Fri: drive to Price, visit USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum, give evening talks. Stay in Price.
May 7, Sat: drive to Vernal, visit DNM. Stay in Vernal.
May 8, Sun: visit Utah Field House, revisit DNM if needed, drive to Fruita.
May 9, Mon: visit Rabbit Valley camarasaur in AM, visit Dinosaur Journey museum in PM. Go on to Moab.
May 10, Tues: drive back to Provo, visit BYU collections.
May 11, Weds: BYU collections.
May 12, Thurs: drive to SLC to visit UMNH collections, stay for Utah Friends of Paleontology meeting that evening.
May 13, Fri: BYU collections.
May 14, Sat: visit North American Museum of Ancient Life. MPT flies home. MJW starts drive home.
We’re planning lots of time at BYU because we’ll need it, the quantity and quality of sauropod material they have there is ridiculous. As for the rest, some of those details may change on the fly but that’s the basic plan. Maybe we’ll see you out there.
October 3, 2015
For a forthcoming minor paper, I need a good-quality scan of Hatcher’s 1901 monograph on Diplodocus carnegii — specifically, plate VI, the photographs of the cervicals in posterior view.
Here is the best scan I have of it:
(Click through for full resolution.)
If anyone has something better, please leave a comment or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
August 11, 2015
Back in 2012, when Matt and I were at the American Museum of Natural History to work on “Apatosaurus” minimus, we also photographed some other sacra for comparative purposes. One of them you’ve already seen — that of the Camarasaurus supremus holotype AMNH 5761. Here is another:
(Click through for glorious 3983 x 4488 resolution.)
This is AMNH 3532, a diplodocid sacrum with the left ilium coalesced and the right ilium helpfully missing, so we can see the structure of the sacral ribs. Top row: dorsal view, with anterior to the left; middle row, left to right: anterior, left lateral and posterior views; bottom row: right lateral view.
As a matter of fact, we’ve seen this sacrum before, too, in a photo from Matt’s much earlier AMNH visit. But only from a left dorsolateral perspective.
When we first saw this, it didn’t even occur to us that it could be anything other than good old Diplodocus. And indeed it’s a pretty good match for the same area in the CM 84/94 cast in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (this image extracted from Heinrich Mallison’s beautiful giant composite):
And the general narrowness of the AMNH sacrum says Diplodocus to me. But what is that expectation of narrowness based on? When I compared the AMNH specimen with Hatcher’s (1901) ventral-view illustration in his classic Diplodocus monograph, I had second thoughts:
That is a much wider sacrum than I’d expected from Diplodocus.
So what is going on here? Is Diplodocus a fatter-assed beast than I’d realised? I am guessing not, since my expectation of narrowness has been built up across years of looking at (if not necessarily paying much attention to) Diplodocus sacra.
So could it be that CM 94, the referred specimen that Hatcher used to make up some of the missing parts of the CM 84 mount, is not Diplodocus?
Well. That is certainly now how I expected to finish this post. Funny how blogging leads you down unexpected paths. It’s a big part of why I recommend blogging to pretty much everyone. It forces you to think down pathways that you wouldn’t otherwise wander.
- Hatcher, Jonathan B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63 and plates I-XIII.
The first hypothesis is that, contra Elk (1972), all Brontosauruses were rather fat at one end, then much fatter in the middle, then thin at the other end.
The second theory is that Diplodocus was dumb. Evidence is here presented in the form of an important new life restoration by Matthew Taylor.
- Elk, Anne. 1972. Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses. Reprinted in: Chapman, G., Cleese, J., Gilliam, T., Idle, E., Jones, T. and Palin, M. (eds). Just the Words, Volume 2. Methuen, London, 118-120.
February 22, 2015
One thing that I’ve never understood is why some people are skeptical about sauropods using their tails defensively, when lizards do this all the time. I’ve been digging through the literature on this for a current project, and there are some really great accounts out there, and by ‘great’ I mean ‘scary’.
Here’s a key passage from Murphy and Mitchell (1974: p. 95):
V. salvator uses the tail to strike repeatedly in combination with biting for defense…Captive Varanus (varius, spenceri, mertensi, and salvadorii) use the tail for defense, but only salvadorii appears to aim directly for a handler’s eye. An adult male V. salvadorii accurately struck the senior author’s eye with the tip of the tail as he was attempting to maneuver the lizard. On many subsequent occasions, the monitor tried to strike the eye of the handler with accuracy.
Not being a monitor expert, I was initially thrown by the V. salvator/V. salvadorii issue. V. salvator is the water monitor, V. salvadorii is the crocodile monitor. Both get pretty darned big; Wikipedia lists 3.21 m (10.5 ft) for V. salvator and 2.44-3.23 m (8.0-10.6 ft) for V. salvadorii.
Anyway, I’d heard of lots of anecdotal reports of lizards from many clades using their tails to lash at rivals, predators, or handlers, but I’d never read about a lizard aiming directly for the target’s eyes. It immediately made me think about (1) sauropod tails, especially the whip-lash tails of flagellicaudan diplodocoids and at least some titanosaurs (Wilson et al. 1999), and (2) the supraorbital crests and ridges in many theropods, especially big Morrison forms like Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus. Of course, supraorbital crests in theropods could serve many functions, including shading the eyes and social and sexual display, but it’s interesting to speculate that they might have had a defensive function as well. Has anyone ever proposed that in print?
Most of the papers that pooh-pooh the use of whiplash tails in defense (e.g., Myhrvold and Currie 1997) argue that the tail-tip would be too small to do any serious damage to a multi-ton attacker, and too fragile to survive an impact. This seems wrong-headed to me, like arguing that unless you find putative animal weapons broken and caked in their adversaries’ blood, they aren’t used as weapons. A structure doesn’t have to do lethal damage or any damage at all to serve as a weapon, as long as it dissuades a predator from attacking. I’d think that getting hit in the eye by a 35-foot bullwhip might convince an allosaur to go have a look at Camptosaurus instead.
Now, one could argue that if the whip-lash doesn’t do any serious damage, predators will learn to blow them off as dishonest signals (we’re assuming here that having your eye possibly knocked out doesn’t count as ‘serious damage’ to an allosaur). But it’s not like the whiplash was the only weapon a diplodocid could bring to bear: the proximal tail could probably deliver a respectable clobberin’, and then there’s the zero fun of being stomped on by an adversary massing a dozen tons or more. In that sense, the whip-lash is writing checks the rest of the body can certainly cash. It’s saying, “Getting hit with this will be no fun, and if that isn’t enough, there’s plenty more coming.”
All of this is leaving aside more obvious defensive adaptations of the tail in Shunosaurus, maybe Omeisaurus and Mamenchisaurus, and probably Spinophorosaurus (although I’d feel better about Spinophorosaurus if the association of the spikes and the tail was more secure). I suspect that all sauropod tails were useful in defense, but only some sauropod taxa used that behavior enough for a morphological enhancement (club, spikes, whiplash) to have evolved. Similarly, common snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, will wiggle their unspecialized tongues to attract fish (I’ve witnessed this myself in captive specimens) but lack the worm-shaped tongue lure found in the more ambush-specialized alligator snappers, Macrochelys temminckii. On reflection, there are probably few morphological changes in evolution that aren’t preceded by behavior. Not in a Lamarckian sense, just that certain variations aren’t useful unless the organism is already (suboptimally) performing the relevant function.
Bonus observation: Mike noted back when that Shunosaurus and Varanus retain complex caudal vertebrae all the way out to the end. Since in this case ‘complex’ means ‘having processes that muscles can attach to’, maybe that has something to do with keeping up relatively fine motor control in your bad-guy-whomping organ. Would be interesting to compare caudal morphology between tail-whomping lizards and committed caudal pacifists (assuming we can find any of the latter that we’re certain about – maybe tail-whomping just doesn’t get used very often in some taxa, like those that have caudal autotomy). Anyone know anything about that?
- Murphy, J. B., & Mitchell, L. A. (1974). Ritualized combat behavior of the pygmy mulga monitor lizard, Varanus gilleni (Sauria: Varanidae). Herpetologica, 90-97.
- Myhrvold, N. P., & Currie, P. J. (1997). Supersonic sauropods? Tail dynamics in the diplodocids. Paleobiology, 23(4), 393-409.
- Wilson, J. A., Martinez, R. N., & Alcober, O. (1999). Distal tail segment of a titanosaur (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous of Mendoza, Argentina. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 19(3), 591-594.