Here’s how my pig skull turned out (prep post is here).

Verdict? I’m reasonably happy with it. As Mike wrote in the post that kicked off the “Things to Make and Do” series, “a pig skull is a serious piece of kit”. It’s big and substantial and it looks awesome sitting on the shelf. I learned a lot prepping it, and in particular I learned a couple of things that I will do differently next time:

  1. From now on I will cut the meat off first and grill only that, and not put the skull through the thermal stress of getting dry-cooked. Even with indirect heat, I think smoking the whole head did adversely affect the quality of the bone. The forehead and the rami of the mandibles in particular lost a little integrity. I painted the whole skull with a mix of 50% PVA (white glue, like Elmer’s) and 50% water, so it’s solid, but the surface bone is just slightly rough, I think because of degradation of the cortical bone.
  2. Before this I had only prepped small bones–small mammal and reptile skulls, vertebrae and long bones of domestic fowl, cannon bones and hooves of cattle. Stuff like that takes maybe an hour or two max to simmer, and to whiten, and that’s how I approached the pig skull. And it took forever, because I was doing short cycles, which meant doing a lot of them. I did a sheep skull this past holiday break, which I will post about soon, and I learned that the trick with bigger bones is just time. Simmer for 12 hours, not 2 hours, whiten for 2 or 3 nights, not just one. The sheep skull probably took more time from start to finish, but it was a lot less effort, because for much of that time it was just simmering, or soaking in dilute hydrogen peroxide.

With their deep lower jaws, pig skulls look rather lumpen in lateral view. But they look awesome in anterodorsal view, like dragon skulls. Here you can see that the prenasal bone is a little darker and less crisp than the other bones of the face. That’s because it was still ossifying from a big block of cartilage. I scraped off most of the cartilage, but not all, and what remained dried and hardened into an incredibly tough, translucent, slightly yellowish shell. 

I still have two pig heads on ice. I probably won’t do anything with either of them until I get some more time off, but I am looking forward to prepping another pig skull, in part to see how much better I can do the next time. But I’m still happy to have this one. To paraphrase another line from Mike’s old post, this is something that everyone ought to do.

Edit: here are some links about cooking pig heads and prepping skulls.


This is something I did over Thanksgiving break in 2019. I meant to blog about it sooner, but you know, 2020 and all. So here I am finally getting around to it. (Yes, I know the ruler in the above photo is the worst scale bar ever. I was, uh, making a point. Which you got. So go you!)

For reasons unknown to me, the strip of skin between the mid-snout and the ear on the right side of the head was already off when I took possession from the local butcher. But it did show the ear muscles to good advantage, as well as the parotid gland–the knobbly white thing between the eye and ear that looks like grits, or eggs, or white beans. You have a parotid gland in front of each of your ears, too (par-otid = “next to ear”), each with a duct that crosses the cheek to bring saliva into your mouth. If you push your tongue into the upper-lateral “corners” of your cheeks, you can feel the little papilla where the duct opens, and if you push against the papilla with your tongue you may feel a little saliva leak out. You also have paired submandibular and sublingual salivary glands, but those will have to wait for another day.

Here’s the head from the back, after I’d gotten the right ear off. The bluish-white hyaline cartilage over the occipital condyles is clearly visible about 2/3 of the way up from the bottom, with the faintly yellowish stump of the medulla oblongata in between, going up into the braincase. Tons of neck muscles are visible here, and maybe someday I or someone else will get around to labeling them in this photo–but it is not this day.

What was I doing here? Getting off the ears, and as much skin and subcutaneous fat as possible, in preparation for brining and smoking. I like this photo, the little piggy looks positively happy about having its skull prepped.

Right, into the bag with you then. I did the same brining and smoking routine that I did for my first smoked turkey back when–see this post for details.

And here we are about 15 hours later. Note how much the color of the meat has changed from the brining.

Time to extract the brain. I already showed a version of this photo in my post on the $1 brain-extractor (a.k.a. drain rooter, see this post), but it bears repeating: the brain is mostly lipids and if you cook the head with the brain still in it, the brain will turn into liquid fat and seep into the bones and you’ll spend the rest of your days trying to degrease the skull before you die, unloved and weeping, on a pile of rags. So no matter how you’re planning to cook the head, yoink the brain first.

Onto the grill, with a drip pan underneath, foil heat shields in place to keep the heat indirect, and foil-wrapped mesquite smoke bombs visible under the grill, right on top of the coals. This is about all I do with my grill anymore; smoking is really no more work than anything else and the results are pretty much to die for. YMMV.

Same shot an hour later and the smoking is coming along nicely. I ended up smoking this head for three hours, an hour and a half on each side. 

And into the roasting pan for a few minutes’ rest at the end of the cooking. And it was cooking, not just specimen prep–we ate this pig head in lieu of a turkey for Thanksgiving, and it was amazingly delicious. One thing to note in this photo is how the temporalis fascia has pulled away from the skull at the upper left, exposing some bare bone. This would be a problem later on.

Defleshing, both to get the edible meat off, and to get as much of the rest of the soft tissue off in preparation for simmering. In this anterior view, you can see that the right side of the animal’s forehead (viewer’s upper left) got exposed during the smoking process and the bone is stained brown. 

Even with the meat cooked all the way through, disarticulating the jaw took some doing, and then some follow-up meat removal. Check out the very round, almost hemispherical mandibular condyles, which fit up into the sockets of the temporomandibular joints. Birds and other reptiles mostly do it the opposite way, with rounded quadrates on the cranium that fit into articular sockets on the lower jaw.

Ready for simmering. Pro tip: if you need a really big metal pot in which to simmer skulls or other large osteological specimens, but you don’t want to go bankrupt, look for a tamale-steaming pot. They’re comparatively thin-walled and lightweight, but still plenty sturdy for just about any application you are likely to think of. 

Our kitty, Moe, helped with the clean-up of the roasting pan.

The first simmer. At this remove, I don’t remember how many rounds of simmering I did, but it was at least two, maybe three.

Post-simmer, I put the skull into a sink-full of warm, soapy water for a defleshing. Notable bits you can see on the right side of the photo are the ridged surface of the palate (about 7:00 on the plate), the long straight cartilage of the nasal septum (going vertically up the right side of the plate), and the incisors at the extreme upper right, sitting on the edge of the sink. Most of the incisors fell out during the wash, which was fine, because most of them were horribly stained from the smoking process and would require a lot of scrubbing and bleaching to get back to a nice and natural-looking white.

The condition after the first simmer. You can see that the supraorbital foramina, on the forehead between the eyes, still have goop in them. This was true of pretty much all of the nerve and blood vessel passages. It took a lot of time, some ingenuity, bamboo barbeque skewers, and running water this way and that to flush out all of that crud. And the bones are still weird colors at this stage, pre-whitening, especially the groady dark patches on the forehead. It wasn’t the areas of bone that were directly exposed to smoke that were the problem, it was the areas just adjacent where the periosteum cooked against the bone.

Same stage, left lateral view. Note the empty sockets for the incisors, and the infraorbital foramen (above the upper teeth and about a third of the way between eye socket and the nose), which on this side is divided in two by a strut of bone. There’s another gross dark patch on the back of the zygomatic arch. All of those took pretty aggressive scrubbing to remove.

Back into the pot for another simmer. The perforated plate at the bottom sits on a lip of metal about three inches above the bottom of the pot so you can steam tamales with this thing. I used it to keep the bones off the bottom of the pot so they’d have no chance of getting scorched.

Here’s a significant jump forward in time. By this point I’d degreased and whitened the skull by soaking it in dilute hydrogen peroxide (I use the cheap stuff from the dollar store down the street, and it works fine), applied glue to several of the skull sutures that were threatening to come apart, and epoxied the prenasal bone back into position between the nasal bones above and the premaxillary bones below. The prenasal bone is a pretty cool structure, you can see it in other views (including a cross-section!) in this post. I also glued the incisors back in at this stage.

Believe it or not, this was the largest skull I had ever prepped myself–the largest osteological preparation of any kind, in fact–and it was a lot more work than I anticipated. But the effort was worth it, and now I have a really cool pig skull on my bookcase. I’ll show the finished skull in a follow-up post (no, really, I will!). 

For other posts on pig skulls, see:

This is the Jurassic World Legacy Collection Brachiosaurus. I think it might be an exclusive at Target stores here in the US. It turns up on other sites, like Amazon and eBay, but usually from 3rd-party sellers and with a healthy up-charge. Retails for 50 bucks. I got mine for Christmas from Vicki and London. Here’s the link to if you want to check it out (we get no kickbacks from this).

I thought it would be cool to leverage this thing at outreach events to talk about the new Brachiosaurus humerus that Brian Engh found last year, which a team of us got out of the ground and safely into a museum last October (full story here). But I needed a Brachiosaurus humerus, so I made one, and in this post I’ll show you how to do the same, for next to no money.

Depending on what base you start with and what materials you use, you could build a scale model of a Brachiosaurus humerus at any size. I wanted one that would match the JWLC Brach, so I started by taking some measurements of that. Here’s what I got:


  • Head: 45mm
  • Neck: 455mm (x 20 = 9.1m = 29’10”)
  • Torso: 320mm
  • Tail: 320mm
  • Total: 1140 (x 20 = 22.8m = 74’10”)


  • Max head height: 705mm (x 20 = 14.1m = 46’3″)
  • Withers height: 360mm (x 20 = 7.2m = 23’7″)

The neck length, total length, and head height are pretty close to the mounted Giraffatitan in Berlin. The withers are a little high, as is the bottom of the animal’s belly. I suspect that the limbs on the model are oversized by about 10%. Nevertheless, the numbers say this thing is roughly 1/20 scale.

The largest humeri of Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan are 213cm, which is about 3mm shy of 7 feet. So a 1/20 scale humerus should be 106.5mm, or 4.2 inches, or four-and-a-quarter if you want a nice, round number.

Incidentally, Chris Pratt is 6’2″ (74 inches), and the Owen Grady action figure is 3.75″, which is 1/20 of 6’3″. So the action figure, the Brachiosaurus toy highly detailed scientific model, and a ~4.2″ humerus model will all be more or less in scale with each other.

I used a chicken humerus for my base. The vast majority of chickens in the US are slaughtered at 5 months, so they don’t get nearly big enough for their humeri to be useful for this project. Fortunately, there’s a pub in downtown Claremont, Heroes & Legends, that has giant mutant chicken hot wings, so I went there and collected chicken bones in the guise of a date. The photo above shows three right humeri (on the left) and one left humerus (on the right) after simmering and an overnight degreasing in a pot of soapy water. I used the same bone clean-up methods as in this post.

What should you do if you don’t have access to giant mutant chicken wings? My method of Brachio-mimicry involves some sculpting, so any reasonably straight bone that bells out a bit at the ends would work. You could use a drumstick in a pinch. Here are my humeri whitening in a tub of 3% hydrogen peroxide from the dollar store down the street.

Brachiosaurid humeri vary somewhat but they all have certain features in common. Here’s the right humerus of Vouivria, modified from Mannion et al. (2017: fig. 19) to show the features of interest to brachiosaur humerus-sculptors. The arrows on the far left point to a couple of corners, one where the deltopectoral crest (dpc in the figure) meets the proximal articular surface, and the other where the articular surface meets the long sweeping curve of the medial border of the humeral shaft.

Here’s a more printer-friendly version of the same diagram. Why did I use Vouivria for this instead of one of the humeri of Brachiosaurus itself? Mostly because it’s a complete humerus for which a nice multi-view was available. Runner-up in this category would have to go to the humerus of Pelorosaurus conybeari figured by Upchurch et al. (2015: fig. 18) in the Haestasaurus paper–here’s a direct link to that figure.

I knew that I’d be doing some sculpting, and I wanted a scale template to work off of, so I made these outlines from the Giraffatitan humerus figured by Janensch (1950) and reproduced by Mike in this post (middle two), and from the aforementioned Pelorosaurus conybeari humerus shown by Mike in this post (outer two). I scaled this diagram so that when printed to fill an 8.5×11 piece of printer paper, the humerus outlines would all be 4.25″–the same nice-round-number 1/20 scale target found above. Here’s a PDF version: Giraffatitan and Pelorosaurus humeri outlines for print.

Here’s the largest of my giant mutant chicken humeri, compared to the outlines. The chicken humerus isn’t bad, but it’s too short for 1/20 scale, the angles of the proximal and distal ends are almost opposite what they should be, and the deltopectoral crest is aimed out antero-laterally instead of facing straight anteriorly. Modification will be required!

Here’s my method for lengthing the humerus: I cut the midshaft of another humerus out, and swapped it in to the middle of the prospective Brachiosaurus model humerus.

To my immense irritation, I failed to get a photo of the lengthened humerus before I started sculpting on it. In the first wave of sculpting, I built up the proximal end and the deltopectoral crest, but missed some key features. On the right, I glued the proximal and distal ends of the donor humerus together; I might make this into a Haestasaurus humerus in the future.

I should mention my tools and materials. I have a Dremel but it wasn’t charged the evening I sat down to do this, so I made all the humerus cuts with a small, cheap hacksaw. I used superglue (cyanoacrylate or CA) for quick joins, and white glue (polyvinyl acetate or PVA) to patch holes, and I put gobs of PVA into the humeral shafts before sealing them up. For additive sculpting I used spackling compound, same stuff you use to patch holes in walls and ceilings, and for reductive sculpting I used sandpaper. I got most of this stuff from the dollar store.

Here we are after a second round of sculpting. The proximal end has its corners now, and the distal end is more accurately belled out, maybe even a bit too wide. It’s not a perfect replica of either the Giraffatitan or Pelorosaurus humeri, but it got sufficiently into the brachiosaurid humerus morphospace for my taste. A more patient or dedicated sculptor could probably make recognizable humeri for each brachiosaurid taxon or even specimen. I deliberately left it a bit rough in hopes that it would read as timeworn, fractured, and restored when painted and mounted. Again, a real sculptor could make some hay here by putting in fake cracks and so on.

The cheap spackling compound I picked up did not harden as much as some other I have used in the past. I had planned on sealing anyway before I painted, and for porous materials a quick, cheap sealant is white glue mixed with water. Here that coat of diluted PVA is drying, and I’m holding up a spare chicken humerus to show how far the model humerus has come.

Before painting, I drilled into the distal end with a handheld electric drill, and used a bamboo barbeque skewer as a mounting rod and handle. I hit it with a couple of coats of gray primer, then a couple of coats of black primer the next day. I could have gotten fancier with highlights and washes and so on, but I was scrambling to get this done for a public outreach event, in an already busy week.

And here’s the finished-for-now product. A couple of gold-finished cardboard gift boxes from my spare box storage gave their lids to make a temporary pedestal. When I get a version of this model that I’m really happy with, either by hacking further on this one or starting from scratch on a second, I’d love to get a wooden or stone trophy base with a little engraved plaque that looks like a proper museum exhibit, and replace the bamboo skewer with a brass rod. But for now, I’m pretty happy with this.

The idea of making dinosaurs out of chicken bones isn’t original with me. I was inspired by the wonderful books Make Your Own Dinosaur Out of Chicken Bones and T-Rex To Go, both by Chris McGowan. Used copies of both books can be had online for next to nothing, and I highly recommend them both.

If this post helps you in making your own model Brachiosaurus humerus, I’d love to see the results. Please let me know about your model in the comments, and happy building!


  • Janensch, Werner. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3: 27-93.
  • Mannion PD, Allain R, Moine O. (2017The earliest known titanosauriform sauropod dinosaur and the evolution of BrachiosauridaePeerJ 5:e3217
  • Upchurch, Paul, Philip D. Mannion and Micahel P Taylor. 2015. The Anatomy and Phylogenetic Relationships of “Pelorosaurus” becklesii (Neosauropoda, Macronaria) from the Early Cretaceous of England. PLoS ONE 10(6):e0125819. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125819

If you followed along with the last post in this series, you now have some bird vertebrae to play with. Here are some things to do with them.

1. Learn the parts of the vertebrae, and compare them with those of other animals

Why are we so excited about bird vertebrae around here? Mostly because birds are reasonably long-necked living dinosaurs, and although their vertebrae differ from those of sauropods in relative proportions, all of the same bits are present in roughly the same places. If you know the parts of a bird vertebra and what each one does, you have a solid foundation for inferring the functions of sauropod vertebrae. Here’s a diagram I made for my SVP poster with Kent Sanders way back in 1999. I used an ostrich vertebra here but you should be able to find the same features in a cervical vertebra of just about any bird.

These are both middle cervical vertebrae in right lateral view. A middle cervical vertebra of a big ostrich will be between 3 and 4 inches long (7.5-10 cm), and one from a big brachiosaur like Giraffatitan will be about ten times longer.

I should do a whole post on neck muscles, but for now see this post and this paper.

2. Put the vertebrae in order, and rearticulate them

It is often useful to know where you are in the neck, and the only way to figure that out is to determine the serial position of the vertebrae. Here’s an articulated cervical series of a turkey in left lateral view, from Harvey et al. (1968: pl. 65):

Harvey’s “dorsal spine” is the neural spine or spinous process, and his “ventral spine” is the carotid process. The “alar process” is a sort of bridge of bone connecting the pre- and postzygapophyses; you can see a complete version in C3 in the photo below, and a partial version in C4.

Speaking of that photo, here’s my best attempt at rearticulating the vertebrae from the smoked turkey neck I showed in the previous post, with all of the vertebrae in left dorsolateral view.

These things don’t come with labels and it can take a bit of trial and error to get them all correctly in line. C2 is easy, with its odd articular surface for the atlas and narrow centrum with a ventral keel. Past that, C3 and C4 are usually pretty blocky, the mid-cervicals are long and lean, and then the posterior cervicals really bulk out. Because this neck section had been cut before I got it, some of the vertebrae look a little weird. Somehow I’m missing the front half of C6. The back half of C14 is also gone, presumably still stuck to the bird it went with, and C7 and C12 are both sectioned (this will come in handy later). I’m not 100% certain that I have C9 and C10 in the right order. One handy rule: although the length and neural spine height change in different ways along the column, the vertebrae almost always get wider monotonically from front to back.

And here’s the duck cervical series, in right lateral view. You can see that although the specific form of each vertebra is different from the equivalent vert in a turkey, the same general rules apply regarding change along the column.

Pro tip: I said above that these things don’t come with labels, but you can fix that. Once you have the vertebrae in a satisfactory order, paint a little dot of white-out or gesso on each one, and use a fine-point Sharpie or art pen to write the serial position (bone is porous and the white foundation will keep the ink from possibly making a mess). You may also want to put the vertebrae on a string or a wire to keep them in the correct order, but even so, it’s useful to have the serial position written on each vertebra in case you need to unstring them later.

3. Look at the air spaces

One nice thing about birds is that all of the species that are readily commercially available have pneumatic traces on and in their vertebrae, which are broadly comparable to the pneumatic vertebrae of sauropods.

The dorsal vertebrae of birds are even more obviously similar to those of sauropods than are the cervicals. These dorsal vertebrae of a duck (in left lateral view) show a nice variety of pneumatic features: lateral fossae on the centrum (what in sauropods used to be called “pleurocoels”), both with and without foramina, and complexes of fossae and foramina on the neural arches. Several of the vertebrae have small foramina on the centra that I assume are neurovascular. One of the challenges in working with the skeletal material of small birds is that it becomes very difficult to distinguish small pneumatic foramina and spaces from vascular traces. Although these duck vertebrae have small foramina inside some of the lateral fossae, the centra are mostly filled with trabecular, marrow-filled bone. In this, they are pretty similar to the dorsal vertebrae of Haplocanthosaurus, which have fossae on the neural arches and the upper parts of the centra, but for which the ventral half of each centrum is a brick of non-pneumatic bone. For more on distinguishing pneumatic and vascular traces in vertebrae, see O’Connor (2006) and Wedel (2007).

This turkey cervical, in left posterolateral view, shows some pneumatic features to nice advantage. The lateral pneumatic foramina in bird cervicals are often tucked up inside the cervical rib loops where they can be hard to see and even harder to photograph, but this one is out in the open. Also, the cervicals of this particular turkey have a lot of foramina inside the neural canal. In life these foramina are associated with the supramedullary diverticula, a set of air-filled tubes that occupy part of the neural canal in many birds — see Atterholt and Wedel (2018) for more on this unusual anatomical system. The development of foramina inside the neural canal seems to be pretty variable among individuals. In ostriches I’ve seen individuals in which almost every cervical has foramina inside the canal, and many others with no foramina. For turkeys it’s even more lopsided in my experience; this is the first turkey in which I’ve found really clear pneumatic foramina inside the neural canals. This illustrates one of the most important aspects of pneumaticity: pneumatic foramina and cavities in bones show that air-filled diverticula were present, but the absence of those holes and spaces does not mean that diverticula were absent. Mike and I coined the term “cryptic diverticula” for those that leave no diagnostic traces on the skeleton — for more on that, see the discussion section in Wedel and Taylor (2013b).

Finally, it’s worth taking a look at the air spaces inside the vertebrae. Here’s a view into C12 of the turkey cervical series shown above. The saw cut that sectioned this neck happened to go through the front end of this vertebra, and with a little clean-up the honeycomb of internal spaces is beautifully displayed. If you are working with an intact vertebra, the easiest way to see this for yourself is to get some sandpaper and sand off the front end of the vertebra. It only takes a few minutes and you’ll be less likely to damage the vertebrae or your fingers than if you cut the vertebra with a saw. Similar complexes of small pneumatic cavities are present in the vertebrae of some derived diplodocoids, like Barosaurus (see the lateral view in the middle of this figure), and in most titanosauriforms (for example).

I have one more thing for you to look for in your bird vertebrae, and that will be the subject of the next installment in this series. Stay tuned!


When I started working on sauropods, I thought their vertebrae were cool but they were loaded with weird structures that I didn’t understand. Then I dissected my first ostrich neck and suddenly everything made sense: this was a muscle attachment, that was a pneumatic feature, this other thing was a ligament scar. Everyone who is interested enough to read this blog should give themselves the same “Aha!” moment. You don’t even have to eat the birds yourselves, lots of people don’t like bird necks and will give them away if you ask.

If you get a whole bird, the neck is usually included with the giblets. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas you can often find bundles of spare turkey necks at your grocer or butcher.

This spring I picked up some smoked turkey necks at the grocery store. I wanted to make turkey stew and I figured I might as well get some toys in the bargain. Here are some neck segments in the crock pot.

And here they are after a few hours of cooking. Time to separate the meat from the bones. That neck segment in the middle of the above photo is a pretty good match for the ostrich neck cross-section in this post.

Here are parts of three vertebrae with the long, multi-segment muscles removed, but with the shorter single-segment muscles still connecting them. Anterior is to the right; that’s a cervical ribs sticking out at the lower right “corner”.

Here’s a single intact cervical in left lateral view with most of the meat off, but ready for a long simmer to loosen the remaining crud. This is roughly the same orientation as the lateral view of Mike’s famous turkey cervical.

Meat goes back in the pot.

Bones go on to the next stage: simmering. One of the nice things about the stepwise process of cleaning bones is that you can stop at any point, put the bones in the freezer, and come back days or months later. This bowl of bones went into the freezer in exactly the state you see here, and I didn’t pull them out and finish cleaning them until last week.

If you have a pot-sized strainer, it makes things easier, especially for rinsing. These aren’t turkey vertebrae, these are the verts from my Thanksgiving ducks. But the principle and the process are the same.

After simmering for an hour or two, it’s time to pick off the loosened muscles, ligaments, cartilage, and so on. Here are two similar turkey cervicals after simmering, in dorsal view with anterior to the right. The one on the left has not been cleaned and has all kinds of crud stuck to it, including a big chunk of intervertebral ligament sticking out between the rami of the postzygapophyses. The one on the right has been through a first-pass cleaning.

What tools should you use? Whatever you have to hand. I like old toothbrushes for scrubbing off little bits of muscle and tendon, toothpicks for shoving spinal cord bits through the neural canal and for picking bits of meat out of hard-to-reach places, and the Mark 1 thumbnail for planing off articular cartilage, as shown here with the back end of a duck cervical.

Here’s the outcome of a cleaning session: on the left, the bowl I used for cleaning the vertebrae. In the top middle, the pile of gloop I pulled off. And on the right, a bowl of cleaned turkey and duck vertebrae, ready for degreasing.

Here are the vertebrae of a couple of ducks after soaking overnight in 3% hydrogen peroxide, the ordinary stuff you get at the drugstore or dollar store.

Here’s another bowl with turkey vertebrae. They were all at the bottom of the bowl when I went to bed, floating when I got up the next morning. This is pretty common with lightweight pneumatic vertebrae: the oxygen bubbling out of the hydrogen peroxide has gotten trapped in the internal air spaces and made the vertebrae buoyant.

After a night in the hydrogen peroxide, it’s time to rinse and dry the vertebrae. I put this mixed lot of turkey and duck verts on a plate with a paper towel and left them out on the kitchen counter. In the summertime, when it’s hot and dry, I might put them outside for a bit and they’d be dry in a couple of hours. Indoors in the winter it can take a couple of days for the vertebrae to get completely dry.

Here’s the same batch of vertebrae a couple of days later, clean and dry and ready for whatever comes next.

Which bird should you use? Bigger birds have vertebrae that are easier to clean, harder to damage, and more fun to look at, but use whatever you can get your hands on. This photo shows the axis, a middle cervical, and a posterior cervical from the turkey (top) and duck (bottom). Note that the duck was so young that the cervical ribs hadn’t fused and they fell off during the cleaning process.

If you’ve been following along, you have some nice clean bird vertebrae to play with. So what now — what should you do with them? That will the subject of an upcoming post (UPDATE: this one). Stay tuned!

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

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.

Awesome things, that’s what. In a previous post I asked people to make cool things with Aquilops. And you have. In spades. Here’s a compilation of the best things so far.

Aquilops sketch by Mike Keesey

First, a blast from the past. As far as I know, the first life restoration of Aquilops was actually this sketch by Mike Keesey, which he executed while sitting in the audience for Andy Farke’s talk on our not-yet-named ceratopsian at SVP 2013. Mike kindly sat on it for over a year, and then posted it to his Flickr stream after the paper came out last month. A small adventure ensued – a site called News Maine (which I refuse to link to) used Mike’s image without his knowledge or permission in their Aquilops article. When he wrote to them and pointed out their breach, they swapped his image for one of Brian Engh’s, but still did not provide an image credit! Now their Aquilops article appears to have been taken down entirely. Good riddance.

Mike says of his Aquilops, “I’d like to make it clear that it was done from looking at a slide during a talk and not meant to be rigorous or accurate.” But I dig it (and I did get his permission to repost it!). It has character – it looks weary, maybe a little grumpy, like a pint-size curmudgeon. And it definitely wants you kids to get off its damn lawn. If you want to see more of Mike’s sketches in this style from SVP 2013 – and you should, they’re very good – go here.

Extreme Aquilops papercraft skull by Gareth Monger

Dinosaur skull or starfighter? You decide!

Second, people have taken the paper skull I posted before and used it as the raw material for significantly more awesome versions. Gareth Monger made the more-fully-3D version shown here, and posted about it at his Pteroformer blog. I think it’s totally wicked, and I’d make my own if I had the patience and skill.

Aquilops puppet - Alf museum

But I don’t. Fortunately, there is help for me: Kathy Sanders, the Director of Outreach at the Raymond M. Alf Museum here in Claremont (where Aquilops lead author Andy Farke is based), took my skull drawings and turned them into a papercraft finger puppet suitable for all ages. I know it’s suitable for all ages because at the Alf Museum’s Family Science Discovery Day last Saturday, almost every one of many children going through the museum had an Aquilops puppet on one hand. London and I each made one, and we spent a lot of time Saturday evening goofing off with them.


Alas, poor Aquilops! I knew him, readers; a fellow of minuscule crest, of most excellent beak; he hath borne my career on his head a whole month; and now, how adored in my imagination he is!

You can see a little video of the puppet in action on Ashley Hall’s Tumblr, Lady Naturalist. And you can get the files to make your own from the Alf Museum website, here. You’ll also need a couple of brads to make the jaw hinge joints, and a smaller-than-normal hole punch is handy for making the holes, but ultimately any method that produces a small, round hole will work.

Finished-Aquilops-2 by James Appleby

Heads not enough for you? Want a complete Aquilops to call your own? You are in luck – not one but two such critters have emerged from the virtual undergrowth. James Appleby, a 16-year-old who blogs at, did something that would not have occurred to me in a million years: he took the baby Aquilops (Aquilopses?) from Brian Engh’s awesomely detailed Cloverly environment scene and made a paper model. It’s a great example of how releasing something under an open license – in this case CC-BY – encourages people to do cool new things with your work. You can get the parts here.

Aquilops paper toy by Gareth Monger

Want something cuter? Try this papercraft Aquilops toy, another creation of the apparently indefatigable Gareth Monger. Post and parts here. I love Gareth’s concluding exhortation: “Edit it, share it, distribute it. Keep it fun and keep it free.” That’s practically the Aquilops motto.

I’m probably just scratching the surface here. I know there has been a flowering of awesome Aquilops restorations on DeviantART. David Orr has an adorkable ‘Pixel Aquilops t-shirt on Redbubble. Tell me what else is out there, and keep making new stuff. Let’s keep this thing rolling.

And a big thank you to Mike, Gareth, Kathy, Ashley, and James for making cool Aquilops stuff and posting it for people to see and build. You all rock.

Aquilops wants to play

December 28, 2014

Here are three fun things to do with Aquilops, in descending order of how much gear they require.

Aquilops printed fossil skull

1. Print your own Aquilops fossil.

Got access to a 3D printer? Download the 3D models of the holotype skull, OMNH 34557, that we published as supplementary info with the paper, and rock out. Here’s a test print that the guys in our scientific visualization center made for me. I gotta tell you, after 18 and a half years of sauropods, it’s very satisfying to have a holotype I can shove in my pocket. UPDATE a few weeks later: read Zach Miller’s post about his 3D-printed Aquilops holotype, it’s cool.

Want a bigger challenge? If you printed it in steel or titanium, it would probably make a decent bottle opener. Just sayin’.

Aquilops paper skull assembled2. Cut and fold your own Aquilops skull.

Got access to a regular printer? Download these files, print, cut, fold, and enjoy:

Aquilops cut-and-fold – 2 small skulls. Should print 2 skulls at about life size on regular 8.5 x 11 or A4 paper. Warning: they’re small.

Aquilops cut-and-fold – 1 large skull. Warning: still not very big.

I found that regular printer paper is too flimsy to really hold the shape, so I built mine an endoskeleton (endoskull?) out of bits of cut up file folder. Just about anything would work. Teaching a course in which Aquilops could be relevant (which is all of them)? Have your students roll their own paper skulls, and use them as a springboard for talking about dinosaurs or evolution or anatomy or current events or whatever tickles your fancy.

Want a bigger challenge? My cut-and-fold skull is the epitome of laziness: I just mirror-image duplicated my lateral view and sandwiched the dorsal view in between. You could definitely make a better one, and with all of the free Aquilops data online, you have all the raw material you need. If you come up with something good, let me know in the comments and I’ll feature it in a later post.

Aquilops reconstructed skull 3D model screenshot

This is not the model, this is just a screenshot. But when you go to the link below, the 3D model will load in a window that looks just like this. Model by Garrett Stowe, copyright and courtesy of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

3. Play with the 3D models.

No access to a printer of any sort? Well, you can still have fun with Aquilops in your browser and on your hard drive. If you want to see the holotype specimen as it looks today, there are 3D PDFs in the paper’s supplementary info. But if you haven’t been to the OMNH Aquilops page to play with the model of the complete, uncrushed skull that Garrett Stowe made, go do that now. On the same page is a 3D life restoration of Aquilops, also by Garrett Stowe. Both models are awesome, and Garrett is still working on them so they’ll be even better soon.

Want a bigger challenge? Surprise me. We made Aquilops freely available to the world, so you can take any and all of the stuff that we published – the figures from the paper, Brian Engh’s artwork, the 3D models of the fossil – and make cool new things that we haven’t thought of. C’mon, let’s play.

As I mentioned in my first post on Aquilops, I drew the skull reconstructions that appear in figure 6 of the paper (Farke et al. 2014). I’m writing this post to explain that process.

We’ve blogged here before about the back-and-forth between paleontologists and artists when it comes to reconstructing and restoring extinct animals (example 1, example 2). Until now, I’ve always been the guy making suggestions about the art, and asking for changes. But for the Aquilops project, the shoe was on the other foot: Andy Farke was my ‘client’, and he had to coach me through drawing a basal ceratopsian skull – a subject that I was definitely not familiar with.

Aquilops skull - Farke et al 2014 figure 3

I started from the specimen, OMNH 34557, which is more complete than you might think at first glance. The skull is folded over about 2/3 of the way up the right orbit, so in lateral view it looks like the top of the orbit and the skull roof are missing. They’re actually present, just bent at such a sharp angle that they’re hard to see at the same time as the lateral side of the skull.

Archaeoceratops lateral

I also used a cast skull of Archaeoceratops as a reference – it’s clear from what we have of Aquilops that the two animals were pretty similar.

Aquilops skull lateral 1 - outline

I started with this pencil outline on a piece of tracing paper.

Aquilops skull lateral 2 - rough stipple

And then I went right ahead and stippled the whole thing, without showing it to Andy until I was done. Yes, that was dumb. Noe the lack of sutures in this version.

Aquilops skull lateral 3 - rough stipple marked up

I added sutures and sent it off to Andy, who sent it back with these suggested changes. At this point I realized my error: I had already spent about a day and a half putting ink on the page, and I’d have to either start all over, or do a lot of editing in GIMP. I picked the latter course, since there were plenty of areas that were salvageable.

Aquilops skull lateral 4 - redrawn bits

Next I did something that I’d never done before, which is to redraw parts of the image and then composite them with the original in GIMP. Here’s are the redrawn bits.

Aquilops skull lateral 5 - penultimate version

With those bits composited in, and a few more tweaks to sutures, we got to this version, which was included in the submitted manuscript.

Aquilops skull lateral 6 - beak curvature issue

Then we brought Brian Engh in to do the life restorations. When Brian takes on a project, he does his homework. If you’ve seen his post on painting Aquilops, you know that all of the ferns in the Cloverly scene are based on actual fossils from the Cloverly Formation. Brian came to Claremont this summer and he and Andy and I spent most of a day at the Alf Museum looking at the specimen and talking about possible layouts for the full-body life restorations. He took a bunch of photos of the specimen while he was there, and a day or two later he sent us this diagram. He’d chopped up his photos of the skull to produce his own undistorted version to guide his painting, and in doing so he’d noticed that I had the line of the upper jaw a bit off.

Aquilops skull lateral 7 - partly revised

That required another round of digital revisions to fix. It ended up being a lot more work than the earlier round of edits in GIMP, because so many features of the skull had to be adjusted. I ended up cutting my own skull recon into about 8 pieces and then stitching them back together one by one. Here’s what the image looked like about halfway through that process. The back of the skull, orbit, and beak are all fixed here, but the snout, cheek, and maxilla don’t yet fit together.

Aquilops skull lateral 8 - final published version

After a little more work, I got the whole thing back together, and this is the final version that appears in the paper. It is not perfect – the area in front of the orbit where the frontal, nasal, maxilla, and premaxilla come together is a bit dodgy, and I’m not totally happy with the postorbital. But eventually you have to stop revising and ship something, and this is what I shipped.

Aquilops dorsal recon lineup for SV-POW

I did the dorsal view after the submitted version of the lateral view was finished. It went a lot faster, for several reasons:

  • Most of the gross proportional issues were already sorted out from doing the lateral view first.
  • The bilateral symmetry didn’t cut down on the number of dots but it did cut the conceptual workload in half.
  • I did all my roughs in pencil and didn’t start inking until after we had almost all of the details hashed out.

I did have to revise the dorsal view after getting feedback from Brian about the lateral view, but that revision was pretty minor by comparison. I stretched the postorbital region and tinkered a bit with the face and the frill, and both of those steps required putting in some new dots, but it was still just one afternoon’s worth of work. Here’s the final dorsal recon:

Aquilops dorsal skull reconstruction - final published version

In addition to the Life Lessons already noted in this post, I learned (or rather relearned) this important principle: if you do a big drawing and then shrink it down to column width, fine errors – a shaky line here, an ugly dot there – get pushed down below the threshold of perception. But there’s a cost, too, which is that uneven stippling becomes more apparent. I was skipping back and forth a lot between 25% image scale to see where the problem areas were, and 200% to revise the lines and dots accordingly.

All in all, it was a fun project. It was my most ambitious technical illustration to date, I learned a ton about ceratopsian skulls, and it was nice to get to make at least one substantial contribution to the paper.

Now, here’s the take-away: this is my reconstruction, and both of those words are important. “Reconstruction” because it has a lot of extrapolation, inference, and sheer guesswork included. “My” because you’re getting just one possible take on this. You can download the 3D files for the cranium and play with them yourselves. I hope that other artists and scientists will use those tools to produce their own reconstructions, and I fully expect that those reconstructions will differ from mine. I look forward to seeing them, and learning from them.

For other posts about my stippled technical illustrations, see:


Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055

Check out this beautiful Lego Diplodocus:


(Click through for the full image at full size.)

I particularly like the little touch of having of bunch of Lego Victorian gentleman scientists clustered around it, though they’re probably a bit too big for the skeleton.

This is the work of MolochBaal, and all rights are reserved. You can see five more views of this model in his Flickr gallery. I especially admire how he’s managed to get the vertebral transitions pretty smooth, the careful use of separate radius/ulna and tibia/fibula, and the use of a transparent brick in the skull to represent the antorbital fenestra.

The forefeet are wrong — their toes should not be splayed out — but you can’t blame MolochBaal for that, as he was copying the mounted CM 84/94 cast in the Madrid museum.