Isn’t this a beauty?

Alleged "Diplodocus dorsal bone", posterior view

Alleged "Diplodocus dorsal bone", posterior view

What is it, you ask?   We will never know.  A friend of mine pointed me to a forthcoming fossil auction by I. M. Chait, and as I scrolled through all the crappy ornithopod skeletons and suchlike, my eye was caught by this bone, described as a “Diplodocus dorsal bone”, from the Bone Cabin quarry in Wyoming.  “The dorsal bone most likely came from close to the back of the head[?!]”.

Whatever it is, it ain’t Diplodocus: the metapophyses are too low, the intraspinal trough is not deep enough, the diapophyses are too high up, they’re laterally rather than ventrolaterally inclined, the hyposphene is way too big and too triangular, the centrum is subquadrangular rather than ovoid, the centropostzygapophyseal laminae are absent … I could go on.  If you don’t believe me, here is the complete set of Dipodocus carnegii dorsals, from Hatcher (1901: plate VIII): posterior to anterior running from left to right; anterior, posterior and right lateral views from top to bottom.


Hatcher 1901, plate XIII: dorsal vertebrae of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84

Not even close.

So what actually is the for-sale vertebra?  Of course there is only so much you can say from a single photograph, but it looks very much as though this is something new, as yet undescribed.  Unknown to science, in fact.  I say that largely because of the those bizarre dorsolaterally oriented struts which extend from the sides of the neural arch to meet and merge with the diapophyses.  I don’t recall ever having seen anything like that.  In general proportions, too, this vertebra is distinctly odd.

Unknown to science it is, and unknown to science it will remain — if, as seems likely, some rich idiot buys this as a trophy to sit on his cocktail bar.  Hence the righeous fury alluded to in the title: so far as the wider world is concerned, so far as our understanding of Morrison Formation ecological diversity is concerned, so far as our understanding of sauropod disparity is concerned, this vertebra might just as well have stayed in the ground.


If anyone reading this blog is a rich benefactor, then just maybe this vert could be rescued: bought by someone who appreciates its scientific significance, and donated to an accredited museum, where it can be properly reposited and scientifically studied.  So if any of you out there have $5000 to spare and fancy a decent chance at getting a sauropod named after you, you know what to do.

I’ve hestitated about publishing this post, because of the danger that it will become sufficiently widely known to push the price up.  The last thing I want is to make more money for the fossil dealers responsible for taking this thing out of the hands of scientists.  But I figured it’s worth the risk.  Let’s hope I’m right.

[To be absolutely clear: I. M. Chait did not solicit me to write this, neither do they even know about it, and I am pretty sure they would not be happy about it if they did.]


  • Hatcher, Jonathan Bell.  1901.  Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton.  Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum, 1: 1-63 and plates I-XIII.

Update (23 March 2009)

We have heard from an SV-POW! reader who is looking into buying this specimen and donating it to a museum.  Which would be awesome.  (I won’t mention his or her name at this stage until he or she authorises me to do so.)  That being so, please no-one else try the same thing — we last thing we want is for two readers to get into a bidding war!

Every year the Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis in Teruel, Spain, gives out the International Award in Palaeontology Research, a.k.a. Paleonturology. ‘Paleonturology’ is a bit of a pun–it’s actually PaleonTurology; Turol is the old Roman name for the area, from which the Turia river, Turiasaurus, and the city and province of Teruel are all derived. (The photo above shows the sun setting over the hills near the Turiasaurus quarry.)

So what’s the deal with the award? You can find full rules and guidelines here, but here’s the short version: any paleontology paper published in the calendar year 2007 is eligible, just send in an application form (1 page) and a few copies of your paper or a PDF by November 15. If you win, you get a prize of 4500 Euros, which in the current economy is roughly a million dollars. You will also be invited to travel to Teruel next December to serve on the jury for Paleonturology 09, and attend a press conference where the book version of your winning paper will be unveiled and the next year’s winner will be announced. Depending on the state of the Paleonturology war chest, your trip may be partly or wholly paid for; all I paid for last year were souvenirs.

Those are merely the on-paper blandishments. If you take the trip to Spain, you’ll also get to:

. . . knock around some gorgeous medieval cities, like the 13th century fortress valley of Albarracin;

. . . hang out with the awesome folks at Dinópolis and other museums–here I am with Francisco “Paco” Gasco of Dinópolis (left) and Senor Maria, who runs a little museum in the village of Galve;

. . . visit incredible fossil quarries and tracksites (yes, that is an IKEA paper tape I have stretched out by the sauropod tracks–I keep one folded up in my wallet, where it takes up less space than a credit card, so I am never without an English/metric yard/meter tape, which is very handy when you work on sauropods),

. . . enjoy amazing food and drink, and be put up at a very nice hotel, probably with a view of a thousand-year-old church/fortress/tower out your window (there are four such towers in Teruel, so your odds are good). I got to go last December, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

In the five years that the award has been given, winners have included grad students, young professionals, mid-career paleontologists, and near-retirees, from Spain, the US, Scotland, and Hungary, writing solo or with coauthors, on Pliocene hominins, clam shell construction, dinosaur gastralia, sauropod pneumaticity, and trilobite eyes. The point is that anyone, of any age, anywhere, writing about any paleontological subject has a chance to win.

To be as direct as possible: if you published a paper in paleontology in 2007 and don’t apply, you’re missing out on the chance of a lifetime.

That said, the recent winners have all had a few things in common. The papers have been about good-sized clades rather than single taxa, they’ve been well-illustrated and with a high general-interest factor (if I do say so myself), they’ve tended to address paleobiological questions, and none of them has been a shorty from one of the ‘high-impact’ journals (although such papers have been submitted). Still, even if your only paper from 2007 is a Nature note on a new Cambrian worm or the foot morphology of Pleistocene dragonflies, you’d be nuts not to submit, for two reasons: this year’s jury may be looking for something different, and yours might be the best paper they get.

Suppose your 2007 paper is on trilobite eyes or sauropod pneumaticity. Submit anyway. I was on the jury for Paleonturology 07, coming off two years of dinosaur papers, and a couple of dinosaur papers made it almost to the final cut. We all agreed that it didn’t matter what the paper was about, the qualities we were looking for were quality of research, broad interest, readability, and good (clear, helpful, aesthetically pleasing) illustrations. The trilobite eye paper won because it excelled in all of those areas, not because it was about trilobites rather than dinosaurs.

Did I mention that the province of Teruel is practically overrun with awesome sauropods? Aragosaurus (1987), Galveosaurus (2005), Turiasaurus (2006), and the newly-described Tastavinsaurus (2008) are just the tip of the iceberg. You will be hearing a LOT more about the Mesozoic biota of Teruel in the next few years. Here’s a dorsal vertebra of Tastavinsaurus, from Canudo et al. (2008:fig. 3).

I almost didn’t apply for Paleonturology 06. I was busy dissertating and it seemed like a long shot. But the application is one page long and I figured it would be stupid not to apply, so on the last possible day I printed it out, made copies of my paper, and dumped it all in the mail (that was back in the dark ages when you had to send paper copies; now you can apply over e-mail). When I think about how great my experience was, and how close I came to not applying, it makes me a little sick. Don’t be a doofus.


  • Canudo, J. I., Royo-Torres, R., and Cuenca-Bescós, G. 2008. A new sauropod: Tastavinsaurus sanzi gen. et sp. nov. from the Early Cretaceous (Aptian) of Spain. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 28(3):712-731.