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:


Last time, we saw why Haplocanthosaurus couldn’t be a juvenile of Apatosaurus or Diplodocus, based on osteology alone.  But there’s more:

Ontogenetic status of Haplocanthosaurus

Here is where is gets really surreal.  Woodruff and Fowler (2012) blithely assume that Haplocanthosaurus is a juvenile of something, but the type specimen of the type species — H. priscus CM 572 — is an adult.  As Hatcher (1903:3) explains:

The type No. 572 of the present genus consists of the two posterior cervicals, ten dorsals, five sacrals, nineteen caudals, both ilia, ischia and pubes, two chevrons, a femur and a nearly complete series of ribs, all in an excellent state of preservation and pertaining to an individual fully adult as is shown by the coössified neural spines and centra.

So far as I can see, Woodruff and Fowler are confused because the second species that Hatcher describes, H. utterbacki, is based on the subadult specimen CM 879.  Where possible in the previous post, I have used illustrations of the adult H. priscus, so that the comparisons are of adult with adult.  The exceptions are the two anterior cervicals and the first dorsal, which are known only from H. utterbacki.  And sure enough, if you look closely at the illustrations, you can see that in these vertebrae and only these vertebrae, Hatcher had the neurocentral junction illustrated — because it wasn’t yet fused.

Haplocanthosaurus posterior, mid and anterior cervical vertebrae, C14, C9 and C4, in right lateral view. C14 of adult H. priscus (from Hatcher 1903:plate I); C9 and C4 of H. utterbacki (from plate II). Red ellipses highlight neurocentral sutures.

As it happens, the difference in ontogenetic status between these two specimens is nicely illustrated by Wedel (2009), although he was only in it for the pneumaticity:

Neurocentral fusion in Haplocanthosaurus. A, B. Posterior cervical vertebra C?12 of sub-adult H. utterbacki holotype CM 879: A, X-ray in right lateral view; B, coronal CT slice showing separate ossificaton of centrum and neural arch. C, D. Mid-dorsal vertebra D6 of adult H. priscus holotype CM 572: X-rays in (A) right lateral and (B) anterior view, showing fully fused neural arch. Wedel (2009:fig. 6)

So H. utterbacki CM 879 certainly is an immature form of something; and that something is Haplocanthosaurus, most likely H. priscus.  (The characters which Hatcher used to separate the two species are not particularly convincing.)

With that out the way, we can move on to …

Phylogenetic analysis

A simple way to evaluate the parsimony or otherwise of a synonymy is to use a phylogenetic analysis. In their abstract, Woodruff and Fowler claim that “On the basis of shallow bifurcation of its cervical and dorsal neural spines, the small diplodocid Suuwassea is more parsimoniously interpreted as an immature specimen of an already recognized diplodocid taxon”.  Without getting into the subject of Suuwassea again — Matt pretty much wrapped that up in part 4 — the point here is that the word “parsimony” has a particular meaning in studies of evolution: it refers to minimising the number of character-state changes.  And we have tools for measuring those.

So let’s use parsimony to evaluate the hypothesis that Haplocanthosaurus is one of the previously known diplodocids.  Pretending for the moment that Haplocanthosaurus really was known only from subadults, how many additional steps would we need to account for if ontogeny were to change its position to make it group with one of the diplodocids?

You don’t need to be a cladistics wizard to do this.  (Which is handy, since I am not one.)  Here’s the method:

  • Start with an existing matrix, add constraints, re-run it, and see how the tree-length changes.  Since I am familiar with it, I started with the matrix from my 2009 paper on brachiosaurs.
  • Re-run the matrix to verify that you get the same result as in the published paper based on it.  This gives you confidence that you’re running it right.  In this case, I got a minimum tree length of 791 steps, just as in Taylor (2009).
  • Add extra instructions to the run-script defining and imposing constraints.  Note that you do not have to mess with the characters, taxa or codings to do this.
  • Run the matrix again, with the constraint in place, and see how the tree-length changes.
  • Repeat as needed with other constraints to evaluate other phylogenetric hypotheses.

(This is how we produced the part of the Brontomerus paper (Taylor et al. 2011:89) where we said “One further step is sufficient to place Brontomerus as a brachiosaurid, a basal (non−camarasauromorph) macronarian, a basal (non−diplodocid) diplodocoid or even a non−neosauropod. Three further steps are required for Brontomerus to be recovered as a saltasaurid, specifically an opisthocoelicaudiine”.  And that’s why we weren’t at all dogmatic about its position.)

Anyway, going through this exercise with Haplocanthosaurus constrained in turn to be the sister taxon to Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, etc., yielded the following results:

  • (no constraint) —  791 steps
  • Apatosaurus — 817 (26 extra)
  • Diplodocus — 825 (34 extra)
  • Barosaurus — 815 (24 extra)
  • Camarasaurus — 793 (2 extra)
  • Brachiosaurus — 797 (6 extra)

(I threw in the other well-known Morrisson-Formation sauropods Camarasaurus and Brachiosaurus, even though Woodruff and Fowler don’t mention them, just because it was easy to do and I was interested to see what would happen.  And when I say Brachiosaurus, I mean B. altithorax, not Giraffatitan.)

I hope you’re as shocked as I am to see that for Haplocanthosaurus to emerge as the sister taxon of any diplodocid needs a minimum of 24 additional steps — or an incredible 34 for it to be sister to Diplodocus.  In other words, the hypothesis is grossly unparsimonious.  Of course, that doesn’t in itself mean that it’s false: but it does render it an extraordinary claim, which means that it needs extraordinary evidence.  And while “the simple spines of Haplocanthosaurus might bifurcate when it grows up” is extraordinary evidence, it’s not in the way that Carl Sagan meant it.

In short, running this simple exercise — it took me about a hour, mostly to remember how to do constraints in PAUP* — would have given Woodruff and Fowler pause for thought before dragging Haplocanthosaurus into their paper.

Oh, and it’s ironic that placing Haplo as sister to Brachiosaurus requires only a quarter as many steps as the closest diplodocid, and as sister to Camarasaurus requires only two steps.  If you really want to synonymise Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus is the place to start.  (But don’t get excited, it’s not Camarasaurus either.  It’s Haplocanthosaurus.)

[By the way, anyone who’d like to replicate this experiment for themselves is welcome: all the files are available on my web-site.  You only really need the .nex file, which you can feed to PAUP*, but I threw in the log-file, the generated tree files and the summary file, too.  Extra Credit: run this same exercise to evaluate the parsimony of Suuwassea as a subadult of one of these other genera.  Report back here when you’re done to earn SV-POW! points.]


It’s a truism that we stand on the shoulders of giants.  In the case of sauropod studies, those giants are people like J. B. Hatcher, Charles Gilmore, Osborn and Mook and — bringing it up to date — John McIntosh, Paul Upchurch, Jeff Wilson and Jerry Harris.  When Hatcher described Haplocanthosaurus as a new genus rather than a subadult Diplodocus, he wasn’t naive.  He recognised the effects of ontogeny, and he was aware that one of his two specimens was adult and the other subadult.  He was also probably more familiar with Diplodocus osteology than anyone else has ever been before or since, having written the definitive monograph on that animal just two years previously (Hatcher 1901).

By the same token, people like Upchurch and Wilson have done us all a huge favour by making the hard yards in sauropod phylogenetics.  If we’re going to go challenging the standard consensus phylogeny, it’s just good sense to go back to their work (or the more recent work of others, such as Whitlock 2011), re-run the analyses with our pet hypotheses encoded as constraints, and see what they tell us.

So in the end, my point is this: let’s not waste our giants.  Let’s take the time to get up on their shoulders and survey the landscape from up there, rather than staying down at ground level and seeing how high we can jump from a standing start.

The rest of the series

Links to all of the posts in this series:

and the post that started it all:


  • Hatcher, J.B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy, and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63.
  • Hatcher, J.B. 1903. Osteology of Haplocanthosaurus with description of a new species, and remarks on the probable habits of the Sauropoda and the age and origin of the Atlantosaurus beds; additional remarks on Diplodocus. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 2:1-75.
  • Taylor, M.P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.
  • Taylor, M.P., Wedel, M.J. and Cifelli, R.L. 2011. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98. doi:10.4202/app.2010.0073
  • Wedel, M.J. 2009. Evidence for bird-like air sacs in saurischian dinosaurs. Journal of Experimental Zoology 311A:611-628.
  • Whitlock, J.A. 2011. A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161(4):872-915. doi: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00665.x
  • Woodruff, D.C, and Fowler, D.W. 2012. Ontogenetic influence on neural spine bifurcation in Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda): a critical phylogenetic character. Journal of Morphology, online ahead of print.

I don’t intend to write a comprehensive treatise on the morphology and phylogeny of Suuwassea. Jerry Harris has already done that, several times over (Harris 2006a, b, c, 2007, Whitlock and Harris 2010). Rather, I want to address the contention of Woodruff and Fowler (2012) that Suuwassea is a juvenile of a known diplodocid, building on the information presented in the first three posts in this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

In the abstract, Woodruff and Fowler (2012:1) wrote:

On the basis of shallow bifurcation of its cervical and dorsal neural spines, the small diplodocid Suuwassea is more parsimoniously interpreted as an immature specimen of an already recognized diplodocid taxon.

First of all, that’s not what ‘parsimoniously’ means. It’s just not. In a phylogenetic analysis using unweighted characters, there is no such thing as a ‘key’ character — which by the way means that the subtitle of the paper, “a critical phylogenetic character”, is wrong. All characters are equal. Even if the characters were weighted, neural spine bifurcation would have to be weighted pretty darned heavily for it to outweigh all the other characters combined, which is what the sentence quoted above suggests.

Comparisons with known diplodocids

Next problem: if Suuwassea is a juvenile of an already recognized diplodocid, it shouldn’t take long to figure out which one. There aren’t all that many candidates, and we can consider them in turn.  There are loads of characters, especially cranial and appendicular, separating Suuwassea from Apatosaurus, Diplodocus and the rest, and anyone who wants to keep track of all of them is welcome to do so. I care about vertebrae, and I’m prepared to argue that Suuwassea is a distinct taxon based on cervical morphology alone.


Here are the sixth cervical vertebrae of Suuwassea emiliae ANS 21122 (Harris 2006c:Text-fig. 7B) and Diplodocus carnegii CM 84/94 (Hatcher 1901:pl. 3, flipped left-to-right for ease of comparison). They are not to scale–I made the images the same cotyle diameter for ease of comparison.

Elongation first. C6 of S. emilieae has a centrum length of 257 mm, a cotyle diameter of 75 mm, and so an EI of 3.4. C6 of D. carnegii has a centrum length of 442 mm, a cotyle diameter of 99 mm, and an EI of 4.5. So Diplodocus is one third more elongate than Suuwassea. It is true that sauropod cervicals elongate through ontogeny, but the Suuwassea holotype is a decent-sized animal, and would be expected to have attained adult proportions even if it was not fully adult (also, ANS 21122 has more cervical ribs fused than CM 84/94). We know from the juvenile ?Sauroposeidon vertebra YPM 5294 (Wedel et al. 2000:372) that subadult sauropod cervicals attained great elongation: that element is from an animal young enough to have had an unfused neural arch but it has an EI exceeding 5.0.

Then there’s neural spine shape. Yes, it is variable in sauropods, but this is ridiculous. I strongly doubt that any non-pathological Diplodocus cervical anywhere ever has had a neural spine shaped like that of the Suuwassea vertebra.

Also note that the prezygapophyses of the D. carnegii C6 strongly overhang the condyle but are only slightly elevated, whereas those of S. emilieae are right above the condyle but strongly elevated, so that the prezygapophyseal rami might fairly be called pedestals. Such pedestaling of the prezygapophyses is present in some cervicals of Apatosaurus, although perhaps not to the same extreme. Some Apatosaurus cervicals have pretty funky, smokestack-looking neural spines, although–again–not to the same extreme as in Suuwassea. Still, from the mid-centrum on up, S. emiliae looks a bit apatosaur-ish. So let’s try that next.


Here we have C6 of Suuwassea as before, this time with Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018 (Gilmore 1936:pl. 24), again scaled to the same cotyle diameter.

C6 of A. louisae has a centrum length of 440 mm, a cotyle diameter of 150 mm, and an EI of 2.9 (I know it doesn’t look that short, but I’m going off Gilmore’s data, and I trust the measuring tape more than the drafting pen, no matter how skillfully the latter is wielded.)  So this is not a bad match with the value of 3.4 for Suuwassea.

Of course, the glaring problem with suggesting that Suuwassea is a juvenile Apatosaurus is that it has normal-sized cervical ribs, not the insane scythes of doom that hang below the centrum of every post-axial Apatosaurus cervical (see these posts [#1, #2, #3] for some crazy examples, and this post for more pictures and discussion). The giant cervical ribs are present even in very juvenile Apatosaurus cervicals, such as the large collection of juvenile apatosaurs in the BYU collection from Cactus Park (albeit unfused; the immense parapophyses still point the way even if the ribs themselves are missing).

I know, I know, I just said that there is no such thing as a key character. But all of the known species of Apatosaurus have giant cervical ribs, and indeed are often identified in the field as Apatosaurus on that basis alone. I suppose it’s not impossible that Suuwassea is nested within the other Apatosaurus species, based on some bizarre combination of as-yet undiscovered characters and intermediate specimens, and lost the giant cervical ribs along the way, but now we’re into angels dancing on the heads of non-existent pins. If Suuwassea is an apatosaurine but outside the clade of giant-cervical-rib-bearing Apatosaurus, then whether we call it a species of Apatosaurus or a separate genus–say, Suuwassea–is more a matter of taste than anything else.  Note that Lovelace et al. (2008) recovered Suuwassea as an apatosaurine, but not as Apatosaurus.

Lest anyone without access to the paper think I’m cheating by hiding serial variation, here are the other well-preserved cervicals of Suuwassea, to scale:

Suuwassea emilieae cervicals 3, 5, and 6 in left lateral view, from Harris (2006c:Text-figs. 5, 6, and 7)

So, if Suuwassea is a juvenile of a known diplodocid but it’s not Diplodocus or Apatosaurus, what’s left?


Barosaurus lentus AMNH 6341 cervicals 8-16 in left lateral view, from McIntosh (2005:fig. 2.1)

Probably not.



“Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”

“Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” cervicals 7-10 in left lateral view, from Galiano and Albersdorfer (2010:fig 10a)

Okay, now I’m just messing with you.

Is Suuwassea even a juvenile?

By now it is probably obvious, even from cervical morphology alone, that if ANS 21122 is a juvenile of anything, it’s a juvenile Suuwassea. But is it in fact a juvenile?

We-ell. The cervical neural arches are all fused, but not all of the cervical ribs are. Jerry did a fine job of describing exactly what was going on at each serial position (Harris 2006c). In C3, the left cervical rib is not attached, and the right one is attached at the parapophysis but not fused. In C5, the ribs are attached, not fused at the parapophyses, and fused at the diapophyses*. In C6, the ribs are fused at both attachment points. C7 lacks the ribs, but their absence appears to be caused by breakage rather than lack of fusion. One fragmentary posterior cervical of uncertain position is missing the diapophyses but has one rib fused at the parapophysis.

* This is cool because it is the first time that I know of that anyone has documented which of the two attachment points fused first within a single cervical rib. I wonder if other sauropods did it the same way?

So based on cervicals alone, we would infer that Suuwassea was not fully mature. However–and this is absolutely crucial for the synonymization hypothesis–the Suuwassea holotype ANS 21122 already has a greater degree of cervical element fusion than Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84/94 (which has unfused ribs back to C5) and Apatosaurus CM 555 (which has unfused arches back to C8 and unfused ribs throughout), both of which have attained essentially ‘adult’ morphology. So if Woodruff and Fowler (2012) are correct, the ontogenetic clock has to run forward from CM 555 and CM 84/94, through a Suuwassea-like stage, and then back to normal Apatosaurus or Diplodocus morphology.

But we don’t have to rely on cervicals alone, because ANS 21122 also includes some dorsals and caudals. And the caudals are very interesting in that the neural arches are not fused through most of the series. Harris (2006c:1107):

Of all the caudal vertebrae preserved in ANS 21122, only the distal, ‘whiplash’ caudals are complete. All the remaining vertebrae consist only of vertebral bodies that lack all phylogenetically informative portions of their respective arches. On the proximal and middle caudals, this absence is due to lack of fusion as evidenced by the deeply fluted articular surfaces for the arches on the bodies. In contrast, the arches on the most distal vertebrae that retain them are seamlessly fused, but everything dorsal to the bases of the corporozygapophyseal laminae are broken.

Now this is pretty darned interesting, because it shows that neural arch fusion in Suuwassea was not a simple zipper that ran from back to front (as in crocs [Brochu 1996] and phytosaurs [Irmis 2007*]) or front to back. We can’t really say, based on this one specimen, what the sequence was, but we can say for certain that the anterior and middle caudals came last. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the scap-coracoid joint is also unfused (Harris 2007), but we know that that’s often the case for substantially “adult” sauropods such as the mounted Berlin Giraffatitan.

* Relevant to this entire post series are the wise words of my homeboy and former Padian labmate Randy Irmis, who wrote in the abstract of his 2007 neurocentral fusion paper:

A preliminary survey indicates that there is considerable variation of both the sequence and timing of neurocentral suture closure in other archosaur clades. Therefore, it is unwise to apply a priori the crocodylian pattern to other archosaur groups to determine ontogenetic stage. Currently, apart from histological data, there are few if any reliable independent criteria for determining ontogenetic stage. I propose that histology be integrated with independent ontogenetic criteria (such as neurocentral suture closure) and morphometric data to provide a better understanding of archosaur ontogeny.

The unfused arches in the Suuwassea caudals are especially interesting because, for the first time that I know of, we have a sauropod with cervical neural arches and at least some cervical ribs fused, but with unfused neural arches elsewhere in the body. This is in contrast to D. carnegii CM 84/94, in which all the neural arches are fused but the anterior cervical ribs are not. So the developmental timing in Suuwassea is dramatically different than in D. carnegii, at least, which is one more problem for the synonymization hypothesis. Two more problems, actually, in that (1) Suuwassea probably isn’t Diplodocus, and (2) it doesn’t belong in the same ontogenetic series as Diplodocus, contra Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Figs. 3 and 9)–if the timing of the various fusions differs between the taxa, there is no basis for assuming that the hypothetical ontogenetic bifurcation would follow the same rules.

And speaking of ontogenetic bifurcation, a final point about the ‘bifurcations’ in Suuwassea.

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 9)

The first line of the caption is misleading. Two of these vertebrae have weakly bifurcated neural spines because they are sixth cervicals (Suuwassea in B, Apatosaurus in D), and that’s what you expect in C6 in adult diplodocids. One of them, the C5 of Suuwassea in C, isn’t bifurcated at all: it’s broken. Harris (2006c:1099):

The spinous process expands mediolaterally toward its apex, attaining maximal width just proximal to its terminus. A long, narrow crack at the distal end gives the appearance of bifurcation, but the collinear dorsal margin indicates that no true split was present.

As for the final vertebra, MOR 592 in A, who knows? Woodruff and Fowler (2012) do not say what serial position it is from. Based on the shallow notch in the spine, I’ll bet it’s either a C6 or very close to it–and if so, no deeper split is expected.

So the entire rationale for the taxonomic side of Woodruff and Fowler (2012)–that Suuwassea has incompletely bifurcated neural spines because it is a juvenile –turns out be an illusion caused by not taking serial variation into account. Suuwassea ANS 21122 probably is a subadult, based on the unfused caudal neural arches, but its cervical vertebrae already show the expected adult morphology in neural arch fusion, cervical rib fusion, and–most importantly–neural spine bifurcation.


The evidence that Suuwassea is not a juvenile of a known diplodocid is not in this post. It’s in the hard work, comprehensive descriptions, and detailed, thoughtful comparisons by Harris and Dodson (2004), Harris (2006a, b, c, 2007), Lovelace et al. (2008), Whitlock and Harris (2010), and Whitlock (2011). This post is just an arrow scratched in the dirt. Please, go read those papers. And then read all the monographs I cited in the first post in this series (and am too lazy to cite again here). Give those people their due by taking their work seriously and learning from it.

The rest of the series

Links to all of the posts in this series:

and the post that started it all: