Four huge beasts

March 13, 2019

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

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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.

Matt and I have completed Day 2 of our excursion to the Carnegie Musuem in Pittsburgh. Day 1 was spent in the public galleries, because collections aren’t open on Sunday, but today we got into the Big Bone room.

One of our targets was CM 555, a very nice nearly complete neck (C1-C14) from a subadult apatosaurine — quite possibly Brontosaurus excelsus, which is what John McIntosh catalogued it as, though I am not yet 100% convinced it’s the same thing as YPM 1980, the holotype of that species.

We were able to lay out the full sequence on the floor, on styroforam sheets, and spend quality time just looking at it and thinking about it. I don’t just mean documenting it for later analysis, but making use of that precious time right there with the physical specimen to think through together what it’s telling us. We have a bunch of new insights, which we’ll share when we’re not completely exhausted.

Here’s Matt with the first six cervicals. C1 (the atlas) is as usual an unprepossessing lump, but then things get interesting. C2 to C6 are all unfused, so the centra and neural arches are separate.

Behind C6, the arches are fused to the centra (though the fusion lines are still apparent in C7 and C8). This is a nice example of how, in sauropods, serial position recapitulates ontogeny — one of the great confounding factors when studying isolated vertebrae.

We’ve learned a lot already from CM 555. Tomorrow will be spent with the two big mounted diplodocids (Diplodocus carnegii CM 84 and Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018). We’ll let you know how it goes. I predict: awesome.

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.

 

Thanks to a comment from long-time reader Andrew Stuck, I realised he is also the tweeter @dinodadreviews, who pointed us to Xenoposeidon in a kids’ book. Now, a review on his website of Ted Rechlin‘s comic-book Jurassic has pointed me to what I think is the first depiction of the BRONTOSMASH! hypothesis in a kids’ book:

This is nice work: it captures the mass of the animals, and resists the nearly ubiquitous tendency to make their necks too slender and elegant. The necks do look rather too short here, but I think we can explain that away as perspective foreshortening.

You’d have to say, though, that it owes more than a little inspiration to the third of Brian Engh’s early sketches:

I suppose there are only a certain number of ways to draw two apatosaurs fighting.

Anyway, it’s great to see what we consider a solidly supported palaeobiological hypothesis out there influencing young hearts and minds. We should also take this as a well-deserved prod to get on with the actual paper, which after all was meant to follow hard on the heels of our 2015 SVPCA presentation.

By the way, folks: the spelling and punctuation is “BRONTOSMASH!”. Not “Brontosmash”, not “BRONTOSMASH”: all in capitals, with an exclamation mark. It’s “the BRONTOSMASH! hypothesis”.

 

In short, no. I discussed this a bit in the first post of the Clash of the Dinosaurs saga, but it deserves a more thorough unpacking, so we can put this dumb idea to bed once and for all.

As Marco brought up in the comments on the previous post, glycogen bodies are probably to blame for the idea that some dinosaurs had a second brain to run their back ends. The glycogen body is broadly speaking an expansion of the spinal cord, even though it is made up of glial cells rather than neurons — simply put, help-and-support cells, not sensory, motor, or integration cells. When the spinal cord is expanded, the neural canal is expanded to accommodate it; as usual, the nervous system comes first and the skeleton forms around it. This creates a cavity in the sacrum that is detectable in fossils.

avian lumbosacral specializations - glycogen body

Giffin (1991) reviewed all of the evidence surrounding endosacral enlargements in dinosaurs (primarily sauropods and stegosaurs) and concluded that the explanation that best fit the observations was a glycogen body like that of birds. I agree 100%. The endosacral cavities of sauropods and stegosaurs (1) expand dorsally, instead of in some other direction, and (2) expand and contract over just a handful of vertebrae, instead of being more spread out. Of the many weird specializations of the spinal cord in birds, the glycogen body is the only one that produces that specific signal.

If any part of the nervous system of birds and other dinosaurs might be described as a ‘second brain’, it wouldn’t be the glycogen body, it would be the lumbosacral expansion of the spinal cord, which really is made up of neurons that help run the hindlimbs and tail (more on that in this previous post). But there’s nothing special about that, it’s present in all four-limbed vertebrates, including ourselves. Interestingly, that bulk of extra neural tissue in the sacral region of birds was referred to as a sort of ‘second brain’ by Streeter way back in 1904, in reference to the ostrich, but it’s clear that he meant that as an analogy, not that’s it’s literally a second brain.

So to sum up, a gradual expansion of the spinal cord to help run the hindlimbs and tail IS present in dinosaurs — and birds, and cows, and frogs, and us. But if that qualifies as a ‘second brain’, then we also have a ‘third brain’ farther up the spinal cord to run our forelimbs: the cervical enlargement, as shown in the above figure. These spinal expansions aren’t actual brains by any stretch and referring to them as such is confusing and counterproductive.

The sharp expansion of the neural canal over just a few vertebrae in birds does not house a ‘second brain’ or even an expansion of the neural tissue of the spinal cord. It contains the glycogen body, which is not made of neurons and has no brain-like activity. The sacral cavities of non-avian dinosaurs replicate precisely the qualities associated with the glycogen bodies of birds, and there’s no reason to expect that they contained anything else. That we don’t know yet what glycogen bodies do, even in commercially important species like chickens, may make that an unsatisfying answer, but it’s what we have for now.

The next installment will be way weirder. Stay tuned!

References

  • Giffin, E.B.,1991. Endosacral enlargements in dinosaurs. Modern Geology 16: 101-112.
  • Streeter, G.L. 1904. The structure of the spinal cord of the ostrich. American J. Anatomy 3(1): 1-27.