[I wrote this in the cafe on the ground floor of the BBC’s Millbank studios, where I spent much of yesterday, just before I headed off for Paddington and the train home.  I have lightly edited it since the original composition.]

It’s been a day spent doing publicity for the new SV-POW! paper on sauropod neck posture.

Two sauropod neck postures for the price of one: Diplodocus (foreground, low neck) and Brachiosaurus (background, high neck) at the Humboldt Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin.

Two sauropod neck postures for the price of one: Diplodocus (foreground, low neck) and Brachiosaurus (background, high neck) at the Humboldt Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin.

Overall, there’s been a little less interest than we were able to rustle up for Xenoposeidon, but we nevertheless got a live TV interview on Channel 4 News, plus radio interviews on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, BBC Scotland, BBC Radio Solent (twice) and finally BBC Wales (which turned out to be my favourite).  In the mean time, Darren was being interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live.  So a very BBC-centric day, with Channel 4 the only independent to take up the story.  (That contrasts with Xeno, when I seemed to spend the whole day doing interviews on the mobile phone for various independent radio stations as I was rushing between studios for the big boys.)

We got pretty good coverage in print, too.  I bought all the national dailies and went through looking for sauropod-neck news.  There was a good third-of-a-page story in Guardian (thanks to their fine science reporter Ian Sample who also did such a good job on Xeno), and smaller spots in the Times and Independent.  The Telegraph, oddly, included a nice photo of the NHM Diplodocus with an inset of Mark Witton’s artwork, but accompanied it with no text other than a 38-word caption. Go figure.  There were brief mentions in the early editions of the Mirror and Sun, although they dropped out in later editions; I couldn’t find anything in the Mail, the Express or the Star — I think that’s everything.  There was a nice bonus in Metro, London’s free daily, which had half a page on the story including a nice big photo of the Berlin brachiosaur, with me by its elbow for scale.

As I write this, I’ve not been able to check on the net and see what the online coverage has been like, beyond a very quick informal scan this morning before I left the house I was staying at for the first radio interview.  I did find a story in the Times that was considerably more detailed that what made it into the print edition, so the same may have been true of other papers, too.  I’ll see what Google News digs up for me when I get home.  [Update: we’re tracking Internet coverage on this page.]

A few themes emerged as the sequence of interviews progressed.  Most predictably, lots of interviewers wondered whether this meant that the NHM would have to remount its Diplodocus skeleton.  Not at all: the pose that it’s in is still a perfectly valid one, which it would have gone through in the transition between drinking and browsing poses; it’s just not what we think would have been the habitual pose.  Paul Barrett was quoted for the counter-view in several of the printed reports, and made that point (though usually it was reported in truncated form).  The BBC web-site’s coverage was unusually good in carefully reporting what we’d actually told everyone, that the mounted pose is one that would have been adopted from time to time, so hopefully no-one at the NHM will come away from thinking we were getting at them.

Another recurring theme was whether Seymour’s blood-pressure argument was good evidence that our proposed habitual posture is wrong.  I didn’t want to say too much about this, because our thoughts on the subject are still in the process of approaching their final form and are not ready to be published, but hopefully I was able to say enough to satisfy the interviewers and listeners without giving it all away.

Another point that I tried to make when given the opportunity is that we don’t see this paper as closing the debate and settling the issue of posture once and for all — as if that could ever happen for any palaeobiological controversy.  What we hope we’ve done is at least to reopen the debate and the end the unchallenged reign of the DinoMorph-compliant hangdog pose.  Needless to say, plenty of work remains to be done on the issue of neck posture, and there are now at least two published arguments in favour of each candidate posture. The time may be ripe for a review article.  For now, though, we confidently expect a published response from Kent “DinoMorph” Stevens, who we’ve discussed our work with at some length, and who has had a preprint for a few weeks now so that he could get working on it!  Ah, the cut and thrust of debate — bring it on!

Update (later the same evening)

I have finally managed to make an MP3 of the last interview — the second one with BBC Radio Solent, with Sasha Twining who was standing in on the Steve Harris Show.

And a plea for help: although the Channel 4 News interview is still available on Channel 4’s own site, I know it won’t last for long — probably no more than a week — so if anyone is able to make an MPEG, AVI, FLV or similar of these, please please do, and send it my way.  Thanks!

OMG: MPT, PHD!

April 29, 2009

If you woke up this morning and thought, “Global warming is on the rise, amphibians are in a race to see who can go extinct first, the economy is in the toilet, any day now my boss will discover that I don’t actually do anything at work,  and my blog will never have the eclectic cachet of SV-POW!, but at least Mike Taylor doesn’t have a Ph.D.,” then it is my happy duty to ruin your day. Mike defended today, successfully.

doctor-taylor-in-da-house-480

Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present Michael P. Taylor of Ruardean, Englishman, adventurer, raconteur, Doctor of Philosophy in the paleontological arts. Note that when recumbent he is approximately equal in length to 1.5 Sauroposeidon cervicals, and appears to be cradling an invisible wine glass. Don’t stare too long, or you might not be able to look away.

Congratulations, sir! Let the blogosphere ring with the happy news, and undescribed sauropods cry out for recognition.

Update (from Mike)

Thanks to Matt, and all commenters, for your kind words.  I wondered when the “Latin love god” photo was going to appear, and that day has finally come.  What Matt doesn’t know is that this photo was used for the cover of my forthcoming album:

Available wherever good music is sold

Available wherever good music is sold

sauropod-enlightenment-480

There is almost too much coolness going on right now. Here’s a brief rundown.

SV-POW! on Tour

Mike and I just got back to our respective homes from the AMNH, where we spent a crazy day in the big bone room and received illumination at the shrine of Barosaurus (above). We came back armed with a gig or so of cool pictures, some of which you’ll see here in the near future and some of which we’ll put off showing you until the relevant papers come out (hopefully!).

Sauropods on TV

When I checked e-mail Thursday night I found out that I had been on TV and not known it. The US-based Discovery Channel spinoff Animal Planet is running an 8 episode series called Animal Armageddon, about the great mass extinctions. I’m in the two episodes devoted to the KT. I expected that they would run the episodes in the same order as the extinctions occurred, but they’re not, which I would have known had I checked the handy-dandy episode guide here (there’s one at the Animal Planet website, too, but all their animated geegaws make both me and my computer nauseated). Why is this relevant here? Because some of my talking-head time was given over to Alamosaurus, which will be on this week’s episode if it survived the cutting room floor. Tune in Thursday, March 5, at 9 PM Eastern/Pacific to find out.

Free Papers That Are Actually Free

Finally, what about the titular free papers? SV-POW! and Tet Zoo regular Ville Sinkkonen turned up some goodies at the Biodiversity Heritage Library and passed them on to me, and now I am passing them on to you:

Holland, W.J. 1915. A new species of Apatosaurus. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 10:143-145. [page] [PDF]

Gilmore, C.W. 1932. On a newly mounted skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81(18)1-21. [page] [PDF]

Young, D. 1975. Brachiosaurus, the biggest dinosaur of them all. Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin 46(1):3-9. [page] [PDF]

Jensen, J.A. 1987. New brachiosaur material from the Late Jurassic of Utah and Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 47:592-608. [page] [PDF]

These are far from the only sauropod papers at the BHL; in fact, they are just the tip of the iceberg. I’m listing these four specific papers because they’re the ones Ville sent and because they exist as stand-alone PDFs. For others that you find, you can either download a PDF of the entire volume in which the paper was published, or use a nifty online PDF generator to make a PDF of just the pages you want. Click the “Download/About this book” tab on the bar above the page viewer and then “Select pages to download”. User-generated PDFs will be hosted by the BHL for a while but not forever. Ville reports that the ones listed above should be good for 30 days (through the end of March 2009); after that you’ll have to make your own. Which is not onerous at all, considering how much literature is being made available for free here. The glass is not just half full, it is running over. Go slake your thirst for obscure sauropod papers, and don’t forget to hoist a metaphorical glass to Ville, or a real one if you get the chance!

Happy Xenoposeidon day!  Today, November 15, 2008, is the one-year anniversary of the publication of Xenoposeidon Taylor and Naish 2007.

By happy coincidence, I’ve just been sent a courtesy copy of Kids Only, a new guide-book for the Natural History Museum … and there is Xenoposeidon on page 5, exemplifying dinosaur diversity.  Rock!

nhm-kids-only-p5-xenoposeidon-500px

It’s good to see our baby out there educating people!

For much more of Xeno, see Xenoposeidon week.

I just got word from the History Channel that their documentary “Evolve: Size” will air Saturday, Nov. 8. Kent Sanders, Brooks Britt, and I filmed a long segment for this back in May, covering pneumaticity in sauropods. Hopefully it didn’t all go to the cutting room floor! With any luck, you’ll see the results of this:

sauropods-the-next-generation-4801

Check local listings for showtimes.

UPDATE: IMMEDIATE REACTION

Hey, not bad. Good stuff:

  • I especially liked that they ascribed the evolution of large size in sauropods to several factors–high plant productivity, efficient food gathering (just biting, no chewing), and, yes, pneumaticity. But pneumaticity was at best an accessory adaptation for large size, and not a prime mover. I was worried that its importance would be overstated–“AIR-FILLED bones made these GIANTS into the HUGEST creatures EVAR!!1!” That’s some impressive restraint for a documentary these days.
  • The bit about pneumatic bones being light but also strong is great. I’m glad they worked in the pneumatic horns of bighorn sheep.
  • I’m really happy that they showed the process of CT scanning the vertebra, partly because It’s never been shown before on TV (to my knowledge), and partly for purely selfish reasons: it’s just cool. Too bad they didn’t have time to show Kent Sanders discussing the results of the scan.

Some clarifications:

  • Brooks Britt is not a grad student now, he’s an Associate Professor of geology at BYU. He pioneered the use of CT to study pneumaticity in dinosaurs when he was a grad student at the University of Calgary (Britt 1993). I am glad that they got the bit in about Brooks first suggesting to me that I should CT scan sauropod vertebrae. He got me into this, and it’s nice to have that recognized.
  • At one point the narrator says, “Wedel suspects that the bones were not only light and easy to lift, they also helped get oxygen directly to the muscles, fed by a system of air sacs throughout the neck, similar to birds today.” Woof–I didn’t say that! They got the ventilatory air sacs in the thorax and abdomen–the ones that blow air through the lungs–confused with the pneumatic diverticula up in the neck. There is no evidence that diverticula play any role in gas exchange for the tissues they are adjacent to, and there is strong contrary evidence. Physiologists have measured how much gas exchange goes on in the avian respiratory system, and where that gas exchange occurs. Ninety-five percent of the gas exchange happens in the lungs, and almost all of the remainder happens in the abdominal air sacs, which are immense and fairly convoluted because they enclose the viscera like a nut-shell (thanks to Wetherbee [1951] for that wonderfully accessible image). It’s a fairly minor thing, I guess, it’s just frustrating to spend so much time working on this and then have an obvious mix-up like that sneak in.
  • In the space of about ten minutes, sauropods are described as “freaks of nature” twice! This is a bit irritating–they are only freaks of nature from our limited, human point of view. Big sauropods had appeared by the late Triassic and huge ones by the Early Jurassic, and they stayed huge and successful through the Jurassic and Cretaceous. For all that they were immense and morphologically derived, sauropods were also just critters. They weren’t mutants, they were functioning and apparently successful members of their ecosystems for a long time, like any other organisms. Possibly, though, long exposure has acclimated me to the just-critters aspect of sauropods more than most folks. :-)

It seems churlish to write so much about a segment that was actually pretty great and right on target except for a few, comparatively minor missteps. Overall I’m thrilled that it turned out so well. See it if you get a chance–your own thoughts are welcome, good, bad, or otherwise.

References

  • Britt, B. B. 1993. Pneumatic postcranial bones in dinosaurs and other archosaurs. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Calgary, Calgary, 383 pp.
  • Wetherbee, D. K. 1951. Air-sacs in the English sparrow. Auk 68:242–244.

First, some horn-tooting. A few years ago I realized that I good lateral-view photos of lots of big stuff–a blue whale skeleton, a Brachiosaurus skeleton, a big bull elephant, myself–and I put together a composite picture that showed everything together and correctly scaled. Various iterations of the project, which I undertook solely for my own amusement, are here, here, and here. Here’s the final product:

From left to right by skull position those are:

  • the mounted skeleton of Balaenoptera musculus at the Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, California;
  • the mounted six-ton (not ten-ton; see the comments from June 3 and 4, below) bull Loxodonta africana from the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois;
  • the mounted skeleton of Brachiosaurus altithorax from the same museum;
  • yours truly;
  • and Mike Taylor.

Everything is scaled correctly, and none of the critters in the picture represent the maximum size attained by their species (although I come pretty close). The whale is, at 87 feet, about 80% of the size of the largest known individuals. The Brachiosaurus skeleton is about 85% of the size of the largest known specimens in the genus, and the elephant is 77% of the size of the world record (these are all in linear terms).

I often blog like I’m in a vacuum but somehow people do find out about this stuff, and the good folks at the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum asked if they could use the photo on their blue whale page. Naturally I agreed.

Then last week I was contacted by them again. The museum’s blue whale project was to be featured on the evening news and they wanted to use the photo in the story. I’m never one to turn down free publicity in the interests of science. Here’s the clip (after a brief ad).

Since it comes up frequently (for me, at least), and since we’re talking about blue whales anyway, I’ll tackle the age-old question about which is bigger, a blue whale or the largest dinosaur.

In this corner, the defending champion: Balaenoptera musculus

Everyone “knows” that blue whales are 100 feet long and weigh 100 tons, right?

Wrong. According to Wood (1982, p. 7), “The largest accurately measured blue whale on record (length taken in a straight line parallel to the body axis from the tip of the upper jaw to the notch in the tail flukes) was a female…which measured 107 Norwegian fot (= 110 ft 2 1/2 in 33.59m).” Wood also lists numerous other confirmed records of blue whales over 100 feet long. Apparently they were not that uncommon in the Antarctic before the intensive whaling of the early 20th century.

The common perception of the 100ft/100 ton whale is even farther off when it comes to maximum weight. Weighing big whales is a pain in the ass. The biggest whale that has ever been weighed intact was a 59 ft (18m) sperm whale that was picked up by three floating cranes and weighed at 58 tons (53 metric tons; all of these data are from Wood 1982). Much larger sperm whales are known; the largest possibly being 84 ft (25.6m) long and weighing perhaps 88 tons (80 metric tons). All whales larger than that 58-ton sperm whale have had to be weighed piecemeal, by chopping them up and weighing the bits. Inevitably lots of blood and fluid are lost this way, so the piecemeal weight is usually about 6% less than the true body weight.

Nevertheless, there are lots of records of big blues weighing more than 150 tons, and the heaviest one on record is a pregnant female that weighed a jaw-dropping 209 tons (190 metric tons), more than twice the commonly quoted maximum size for this animal. Surely, surely, one thinks, that is the ne plus ultra of vertebrate mass.

Not so. Wood (1982, p. 9) describes a ‘very fat’ female, 91 ft (27.7m) long, which “yielded a record 305 barrels of oil weighing 51.85 tonnes [57 English or short tons]. Unfortunately this enormous whale was not weighed piecemeal, but on the basis of its oil yield it must have scaled at least 200 tonnes [220 short tons; emphasis in the original]!

And in this corner, the contenders: sauropods!

The longest sauropod known from decent remains is Supersaurus, for which Lovelace et al. (2007) estimate a total length of 33-34 meters (108-111 ft) for Jimbo, the new specimen from Wyoming. The Dry Mesa specimen is apparently slightly larger. Seismosaurus has now been sunk into Diplodocus, and was apparently no more than 30m (98 ft) long, enthusiastic estimates to the contrary notwithstanding (see Lovelace et al. 2007 for details, and also check out Scott Hartman’s site for lots of good info and cool skeletal reconstructions). Because it was so slender, Supersaurus weighed less than you might think; Lovelace et al. estimate Jimbo’s mass at 35-40 tons.

The most massive sauropod for which a reasonably secure mass estimate is possible is Argentinosaurus, which Mazzetta et al. (2004) estimated to have weighed 80.5 tons (73 metric tons). Old estimates of up to 80 tons for Brachiosaurus are based on models that can most charitably be described as just horribly, stupidly fat; all of the recent sane estimates put the better-known big specimens of Brachiosaurus between about 30 and 45 tons, with the very largest known specimens possibly getting up to 50 or 60 tons. Irritatingly, during the 1980s a bunch of mass estimates for “Ultrasauros” came out that were based on the ridiculous 80-ton estimate for Brachiosaurus, and put the mass of “Ultrasauros” at 180 tons. As we shall see, there is no good evidence that any sauropod ever got within 40 tons of that mark.

Then there are the semi-apocryphal gigapods, Bruhathkayosaurus and Amphicoelias fragillimus. Bruhathkayosaurus is reported to have a 2-meter-long tibia, which would make it perhaps 20% larger than Argentinosaurus in linear terms, and 70% more massive (mass scales with the cube of the linear dimension, and 1.2 x 1.2 x 1.2 = 1.728). Assuming that the proposed tib is really a tib and not an eroded femur or something, and that Bruhathkayosaurus was built like the very robust Argentinosaurus and not like, say, the very slender Brachiosaurus, and that the mass estimate for Argentinosaurus is accurate, Bruhathkayosaurus may have weighed as much as 139 tons (126 metric tons).

Amphicoelias fragillimus appears to have been built like a big Diplodocus–well, okay, an extremely mind-blowingly immense Diplodocus–and assuming the sole surviving drawing is legit and correctly scaled, it was just completely nuts (way more so than Apatosaurus; see Darren’s thoughts here and here). The femur may have been anywhere from 3-4.6 meters long (Carpenter 2006), and was more likely in the upper part of that range. In the big mounted skeletons of Diplodocus, the femora are just a little over 1.5 meters long. So Amphicoelias may have been 2-3 times the size of Diplodocus in linear terms. Carpenter (2006) posited a length of 190ft (58m) and a weight of 135 tons (122.4 metric tons).

Interlude: world record animals

The biggest known whales really are probably close to being the biggest representatives of their species. The individuals listed above are the largest known from a sample of more than 300,000 blue whales killed in the early 20th century. That’s a big pool. Supersaurus and Argentinosaurus are both known from two specimens, and Bruhathkayosaurus and A. fragillimus from one specimen each. The chances that these largest-known sauropods are really the largest sauropods that ever lived is vanishingly small.

And the winner is…

For mass, no question, the blue whale. Even our most liberal estimates of the most poorly known gigapods don’t come close to the 200-ton mark, which blue whales are known to exceed.

For length, probably a sauropod. A huge sample of blue whales included none longer than 110 feet, while our comparatively pathetic sample of sauropods has already turned in one animal (Supersaurus) that may have just edged that out, and another (A. fragillimus) that–assuming it was really as big as we think–blows it out of the water (so to speak).

References

Hottt news

May 15, 2008

Mike Taylor has a loooong interview up at Laelaps. It’s sauropawesome.

The picture above has nothing to do with that, we just like to put sauropod vertebrae in every post. Here are some CT sections of a Haplocanthosaurus cervical (abbreviations: fos – fossa, lam laminae, nc neural canal, ncs neurocentral suture). I like them because they look nothing like what I expected. Not that the internal structure or laminae are unusual for sauropods, just that sauropod vertebrae themselves are unusual and sometimes the best way to be confronted with that is to see them from new vantages. I recycled this from Wedel (2007:fig. 13), and it basically just a rearrangement of Wedel (2005:fig. 7.3). The nice drawing of the Haplo cervical is from Hatcher (1903:pl. 2).

Well, now I’ve blabbed on for a paragraph and managed to cite myself twice in a post that is ostensibly about Mike. Seriously, go read the interview, it’s great.

References

Hatcher, J.B. 1903. Osteology of Haplocanthosaurus, with a description of a new species, and remarks on the probable habits of the Sauropoda, and the age and origin of Atlantosaurus beds. Mem Carn Mus 2:1-72.

Wedel, M.J. 2005. Postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropods and its implications for mass estimates; pp. 201-228 in Wilson, J.A., and Curry-Rogers, K. (eds.), The Sauropods: Evolution and Paleobiology. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Wedel, M.J. 2007. Aligerando a los gigantes (Lightening the giants). ¡Fundamental! 12:1-84. [in Spanish, with English translation]