In the first installment in this series (link), we looked at a couple of weird sauropod vertebrae with neurocentral joints that were situated either entirely dorsal or ventral to the neural canals. This post has more examples of what I am calling “offset” neurocentral synchondroses.

I decided it made more sense to refer to the synchondrosis as being offset, instead of referring to the neural canal as offset. Because the neural canal in all of these vertebrae is right where it pretty much always is, just dorsal to the articular surfaces of the centrum. In an adult, fused vertebra, there’d be no sign that anything unusual had ever happened. So I think it makes more sense to talk about the neurocentral joint having migrated dorsally or ventrally relative to the canal, rather than vice versa. If you know differently, or if these weirdos have been addressed before elsewhere and I’ve just missed it, please let me know in the comments!

Here’s a plate from Marsh (1896) showing caudal vertebrae of Camarasaurus (“Morosaurus” in O.C. Marsh parlance), which echo the Alamosaurus caudal from the first post in having the neurocentral joint almost entirely ventral to the neural canal. The neural arch here doesn’t just arch over the canal dorsally, it also cuts under it ventrally, at least in part.

This plate is also nice because it shows the relationships among the arch, centrum, and caudal ribs before they fuse. Here’s the caption, from Marsh (1896):

Here’s the preceding plate, Plate 33, with illustrations of an unfused Camarasaurus sacrum.

And its caption:

This plate not only shows how the sacral ribs fuse to the arch and spine medially, and to each other laterally (forming the sacrocostal yoke), it also shows a last sacral that is very similar to the aforementioned caudals in the position of the neurocentral joint. But interestingly that neurocentral joint offset only seems to be present in the last caudal sacral – the lower figure shows widely-separated neurocentral joint surfaces in the more anterior centra, indicating that the neural arches (not figured in this dorsal view) did not wrap around the neural canal to approach the midline. (I think we’re looking at S2 through S5 here, and missing a dorso-sacral.)

So now I’m freaked out, wondering if this neural arch wrap-around in the caudals is common to most sauropods and I just haven’t looked at enough juvenile caudals to have spotted it before. As always, feel free to ablate my ignorance in the comments, particularly if you know of more published examples. I’m a collector.

The neural canal of that last sacral also has a very interesting cross-sectional shape, like a numeral 8. I have some thoughts on that, but they’ll keep for a future post in this series.


Matt and I have been looking in more detail at indications of maturity in sauropod skeletons, as we prepare the submission of the paper arising from our response to Woodruff and Fowler (2012) [part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6].  Here is an oddity.

Sacra of Haplocanthosaurus. Top, H. utterbacki holotype CM 879 in right lateral view, from Hatcher (1903:fig. 15). Bottom, H. priscus holotype CM 572 in left lateral view (reversed), from Hatcher (1903:pl. IV, part 3). To the same scale.

H. priscus is the type species of Haplocanthosaurus; H. utterbacki is the second species, named by Hatcher in the 1903 monograph that described the original material in detail.  As previously noted, the type species is based on adult material, and the referred specimen on subadult material.  This is shown by their different stages of neurocentral fusion, and corroborated by the size of the specimens as indicated in the composite illustration above.

There is a lot of fusion going on in the sacra of dinosaurs:

  1. sacral neural arches fused to their centra
  2. consecutive sacral centra fused together
  3. consecutive sacral neural spines fused together
  4. sacral lateral processes fused to ilia

As we would expect, the less mature of the two Haplocanthosaurus individuals is less fused in most respects: none of the centra were fused either to each other or their respective neural arches, and the ilium was not fused to any of the lateral processes, whereas in the adult all neural arches are fused to their centra, the five sacral centra are all fused together, and the ilium is fused to the lateral processes.

How strange, then, that the consecutive neural spines are more fused in the juvenile!  Not only are spines 1, 2 and 3 fused along their entire dorsolateral length, as in the adult, but spine 4 is similarly fused.  And more: the neurapophysis of spine 5 is fused to that of 4, even though the spines are not fused more ventrally.

What does this mean?  Hatcher (1903:27-28) took it as indicative of species-level separation.  After briefly noting that the posterior dorsal centra of H. utterbacki are more opisthocoelous than those of H. priscus, and speculating that the adult of the referred species was probably larger than that of the type, he continued:

But the most distinctive character is to be found in the sacrum which, in the present species, has the five neural spines normally coössified.  The first four are cocoössified throughout their entire length, forming a long bony plate.  The union between the fourth and fifth is limited to the extremities while medially [sic, presumably meaning half way up the spines] they are separated by an elongated foramen.  In H. priscus only the spines of the three anterior sacrals are coössified, those of the first and second [sic, presumably intending fourth and fifth] sacrals remaining free.  This difference exists notwithstanding that the type of the present species was scarcely adult, the sacral centra being neither coössified with one another nor with their neural arches. By some this character might be considered as of generic importance although I prefer to consider it as of only specific value since in all other parts of the skeleton preserved, there are no distinguishing characters which could be considered as of generic value.

At present, however, the synonymy of H. utterbacki with the type species, proposed by McIntosh and Williams (1988:22), seems to be universally accepted.  If they truly belong to the same taxon then the only realistic possibility is that we are seeing individual variation in the timing of fusion.  That certainly seems to have been the opinion of McIntosh and Williams (1988:14), writing about the sacrum of their own specimen, the H. delfsi holotype CMNH 10380:

As in CM 572 the short to moderately long spines of sacrals one through three are firmly united throughout, and those of sacrals four and five are firmly united to midheight. In CM 572 spines four and five are free, but this is probably an individual character because in the even younger CM 879 all five spines are united.

All of which means: we need to be really careful when drawing conclusions about taxonomy or ontogeny from individual observations of skeletal fusion.

Bonus Pneumaticity Observation: In the image at top, you’ll see that the centrum of sacral 4 in CM 879 has a couple of pneumatic fossae. For more than you probably wanted to know about those specific holes in that specific bone, see this post and the linked paper.


  • 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.
  • McIntosh, J.S., and Williams, M. E. 1988. A new species of sauropod dinosaur, Haplocanthosaurus delfsi sp. nov., form the Upper Jurassic Morrison Fm. of Colorado. Kirtlandia 43:3-26.
  • 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.

In the previous post in this series I looked at the some of the easily available raw data on neural spine bifurcation in Morrison sauropods. In this post I’ll explain how serial variation–that is, variation along the vertebral column in one individual–is relevant to the inferences made in the new paper by Woodruff and Fowler (2012). But first, a digression, the relevance of which will quickly become clear.

How do you recognize an adult sauropod?

There are only a handful of criteria that have been used to infer adulthood in sauropods. In rough order from least to most accurate–so far as I can tell!–they are:

  1. sheer size
  2. fusion of the neural arches to the centra
  3. fusion of the sacral vertebrae to each other, and fusion of the sacral ribs to form the sacricostal yoke
  4. fusion of the cervical ribs to the centra and neural arches
  5. fusion of the scapula to the coracoid
  6. presence of an external fundamental system in the cortices of the long bones

I’ll discuss each one in turn. (Please let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any.)

These vertebrae are rather dissimilar in size and form. Click through to find out why.

1. Size alone is pretty useless. The mounted Giraffatitan is a pretty damn big animal by anyone’s standards, but it’s demonstrably smaller than another individual from Tendaguru, and the scap-coracoid joint is unfused. On the other hand, there are things like dicraeosaurids that apparently matured at relatively small sizes (for sauropods). There is definitely some individual or low-level taxonomic variation. Marsh’s “Brontosaurusexcelsus holotype YPM 1980 is an adult but about the same size as the subadult Apatosaurus ajax holotype YPM 1860 that it ended up being generically synonymised with (see the sacra of the two taxa compared below). The giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus is about 1.4 times the size of A. louisae CM 3018 in most linear measures, but some of the neural arches and cervical ribs are unfused (the vertebra in the linked post is only a quarter bigger than the corresponding element in CM 3018, but there are other elements of the Oklahoma Apatosaurus that are proportionally even larger). On the flip side, I have seen some comparatively tiny Diplodocus material at BYU in which all of the neural arches are fused to the centra, despite the vertebrae being about half the size of those in the mounted D. carnegii CM 84/94. So I am very leery of size as a reliable indicator of age in sauropods. It is a bad criterion in general, and especially bad for cervical vertebrae, which can change so much along the column. C15 of D. carnegii CM 84/94 has a cotyle diameter almost four times that of C3 in the same animal.

Sacra of Apatosaurus excelsus YPM 1980 and A. ajax YPM 1860 at the same scale, from Ostrom and McIntosh (1966:plates 27 and 29)

2. People often cite closure of the neurocentral synostoses* as an indicator of adulthood, but again I am skeptical. There’s no doubt that the neurocentral synostoses do eventually close; my skepticism runs the other way, in that there are sauropods with closed neurocentral synostoses that do not appear to have reached full size. The HM SI** individual of Giraffatitan is one example–it’s about 75% of the size of the mounted (SII) individual, and only 66% the size of the giant HM XV2 (by cross-scaling through HM SII; SI and XV2 share no overlapping elements), and yet the neurocentral synostoses are all closed. Same deal with Apatosaurus CM 555, which has open joints as far back as C8 but is between one-half and two-thirds the size of A. louisae CM 3018. If you found a posterior cervical or anterior dorsal of CM 555 by itself, without the open joints on the more anterior vertebrae to guide you, you’d think it was full grown based on arch fusion. So it seems safest to say that neurocentral synostosis closure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for inferring adulthood.

* Hat tip to Jerry Harris, who alerted me that the term ‘sutures’ is reserved for skulls only, and that the joints between neural arches and centra are properly called synostoses. Thanks also to physical anthropologist Vicki Wedel, who confirmed this.

** Yes, I’m using the old Humboldt Museum numbers here, out of convenience, and because HM SII probably means more to more readers than the correct M.B. R. number that only six people have memorized.

3. Coalescence of the sacrum and formation of the sacricostal yoke have intuitive appeal. The sacricostal yokes are banana-shaped bars of bone formed by the union of the sacral ribs that articulate with the ilia–you can see them on either side of the apatosaur sacra in the image above, and in this post on the sacrum of Camarasaurus lewisi. Since the sacricostal yokes are the bony interfaces between the axial skeleton and the hindlimb girdles, we might expect them to be biomechanically important and for their formation to be closely related to the attainment of adult size. But I’m putting them fairly low on the list for reasons both practical and theoretical. On the practical side, fusion of the sacral vertebrae and ribs is hard to assess unless the sacrum has fallen apart. An intact sacrum might be intact because the bones were actually fused together, or because the unfused bits just happened to hang together through the process of fossilization (if that sounds unlikely, just remember that it’s true of almost every articulated fossil skull you’ve ever seen). On the theoretical side, the timing of sacral fusion seems to be variable. A. ajax YPM 1860 has fused neural arches and cervical ribs but a very incompletely fused sacrum, whereas D. carnegii CM 84/94 has the five sacral centra coossified and a sacricostal yoke uniting the ribs of S2-S5*, but some of the cervical ribs are unfused. Yes, I realize that discounting this criterion because it conflicts with other mutually conflicting criteria is a bit wonky, but (1) that’s the essential challenge of doing non-histological skeletochronology on sauropods–none of the signs seem to tell us what we want–and (2) I’m happy to fall back on the practical reason if you find the theoretical one unconvincing. Last item: I have seen both ‘sacricostal’ and ‘sacrocostal’ used in the literature–can anyone make a case for one being more correct than the other? ‘Sacrum’ is from the Latin sacer, ‘sacred’, apparently because the sacra of animals used to be sacrificed to the gods (not sacroficed–maybe there’s my answer?).

*Hatcher (1901) described an 11th dorsal and four sacral vertebrae, but he noted that the 11th dorsal “functions as a sacral” and “is coossified by the centrum with the true sacrals”. The D. carnegii holotype was one of the first nearly complete sauropod skeletons to be monographically described, and it was not yet clear that the typical number of sacrals for the North American diplodocids–and indeed for most other sauropods–is five (some primitve taxa have four, many titanosaurs have six).

4. Cervical rib fusion might be better. Giraffatitan HM SI and Diplodocus CM 84/94 both have their cervical neurocentral synostoses closed, but both have unfused cervical ribs as far back as C5. This suggests that cervical rib fusion proceeded from back to front (in at least those taxa) and that it followed neurocentral fusion. The sole exception that I have seen is a subadult Apatosaurus cervical from Cactus Park in the BYU collections, which has fused ribs but open neurocentral joints.

5. It’s hard to tell if fusion of the scapula to the coracoid is better or worse than cervical rib fusion, because the timing varies among taxa (hence the caveat that these criteria are in rough order). Giraffatitan HM SII has fused neural arches and fused cervical ribs but open scap-coracoid synostoses (yes, again, synostoses rather than sutures) ; Diplodocus CM 84/94 has a fused scap-coracoid but some unfused cervical ribs. This is probably another necessary but not sufficient condition.

6. The gold standard for determining cessation of growth is the formation of an external fundamental system (EFS) in the outer cortex of a bone. Unfortunately that requires destructive sampling (even if only drilling), is time-consuming, and has been done for few individual sauropods.

The upshot of all of the above is that the readily available ways of determining adulthood in sauropods are all inexact and frequently conflict with each other. Neural arch fusion does not indicate full growth–some sauropods appear to have fused their neurocentral joints when they were only two-thirds grown (in linear terms; 30% grown in terms of mass).

For the purposes of this post and the next, I am going to refer to the big mounted skeletons–Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018, Diplodocus carnegii CM 84/94, etc.–and individuals of like size as ‘adults’ to indicate that they had attained adult morphology, without implying that they were done growing or had EFSs, and also not implying that smaller individuals were necessarily subadult. ‘Adult’ here is used a term of convenience, not a biological fact.

Implications of serial changes in bifurcation for isolated elements

From here, this post picks up right where the last one in this series left off, so feel free to refer back to the previous post for any points that are unclear.

In the diplodocids, adults are expected to have unsplit spines as far back as C5, C6 may be only incompletely bifid (e.g., D. carnegii CM 84/94), and the spines in the posterior dorsals are expected to be either very shallowly notched at the tip or completely unsplit. Therefore it is impossible to say that an isolated vertebra belongs to a juvenile individual on the basis of neural spine bifurcation alone. Depending on how one defines “anterior cervical”, one half to one third of anterior cervicals are expected to have unsplit spines even in adults.

Serially comparable dorsal vertebrae in different Camarasaurus species or ontogenetic stages. Left: dorsal vertebra 7 (top) and dorso-sacral (= D11) (bottom) of Camarasaurus supremus AMNH 5760 and 5761 “Dorsal Series II”, both in posterior view, with unsplit neural spines. Modified from Osborn and Mook (1921: plate LXXI). Right: dorsal vertebrae 7-11 of Camarasaurus lewisi holotype BYU 9047 in posterodorsal view, with split spines. From McIntosh, Miller, et al. (1996: plate 5). Scaled so that height of D11 roughly matches that of C. supremus.

In Camarasaurus the picture is less clear. The immense C. supremus AMNH 5761 has unsplit spines in C3-C4 and in the last three or four dorsals, but some of those very posterior dorsals have extremely shallow depressions in the tips of the spines, with little consistency among the four individuals that somewhat confusingly make up that specimen. In the geriatric C. lewisi all of the post-axial presacral neural spines are at least incompletely bifid. Even in the very posterior dorsals there is still a distinct notch in the neural spine, not just a very slightly bilobed tip as in the posterior dorsals of C. supremus. Either this is an interspecific difference or some amount of ontogenetic bifurcation happened well into adulthood; current evidence is insufficient to falsify either hypothesis.  (That’s the trouble with n=1.)

A final thing to note: as I briefly mentioned in the earlier post, it is easier to detect deep bifurcations than shallow ones if the material is broken or incomplete. The neural spine tips are usually narrow, fragile, and easily broken or lost. If a vertebra is missing the top half of its spine but the bottom half is not split, it is usually impossible to say whether it would have been bifid or not. But if the spine is deeply bifurcated, even a small piece of bone from the base of the trough or one of the metapophyses is enough to confirm that it was bifid.

“Primitive” morphology can be an effect of serial position

Even in ‘adult’ sauropods like the big mounted Apatosaurus and Diplodocus skeletons, the anterior cervicals are less complex than the posterior ones. Compared to posterior cervicals, anterior cervicals tend to have simpler pneumatic fossae and foramina, fewer laminae, and unsplit rather than bifid spines. In all of these things the anterior cervicals are similar to those of juveniles of the same taxa, and to those of adults of more basal taxa. This is also true in prosauropods–in Plateosaurus, the full complement of vertebral laminae is not present until about halfway down the neck (see this subsequent post for details).

An important implication of this is that an isolated cervical might look primitive (1) because it comes from a basal taxon, or (2) because it is from a juvenile, or (3) because it is from near the front of the neck.

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 2)

In their Figure 2, Woodruff and Fowler (2012) compare an adult Mamenchisaurus cervical, an isolated cervical of a putative juvenile Diplodocus (MOR 790 8-10-96-204), and a cervical of D. carnegii CM 84/94. The point of the figure is to show that the isolated ‘juvenile’ vertebra is more similar in gross form  to the Mamenchisaurus cervical than to the adult D. carnegii cervical.

Unfortunately the figure confuses ontogenetic and serial variation. Based on the proportions of the centrum and the shape of the neural spine, the isolated MOR cervical is probably from a very anterior position in the series. No measurements are given in the paper or supplementary information (grrr), but using the scale bar in the figure I calculate a centrum length of about 28 cm, a cotyle height of 7 cm, and an elongation index (EI, centrum length divided by cotyle diameter) of 4. That EI, combined with the overall shape of the neural spine and the very long overhang of the prezygapophyses, make the vertebra most similar to C4 and C5 of D. carnegii CM 84/94. But the D. carnegii cervical included in the figure is C12. It differs from the isolated cervical in having a forward-leaning, bifurcated neural spine, a much more complicated system of laminae with many accessory laminae, and more complex pneumatic sculpturing. All of these differences are more likely to be caused by serial variation than by ontogeny–the same characters separate C12 from C4 and C5 in the same individual.

Diplodocus carnegii CM 84/94 cervicals 2-15 in right lateral view, from Hatcher (1901:pl. 3)

So here’s how that figure would have looked, had the comparable C5 of CM 84/94 been used instead of C12:

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 2), with Diplodocus carnegii CM 84/94 C12 replaced by C5.

It’s now immediately apparent B more closely resembles C than A, in the possession of overhanging prezygapophyses, non-overhanging postzygapophyses, elongation index, anterodorsal inclination of the cotyle margin, lack of anterior deflection of diapophysis, etc. The biggest differences between B and C are the shape of the neural spine and, for want of a better word, the ‘sinuosity’ of the ventral centrum margin in lateral view. Both characters are highly variably serially within an individual, among individuals in a species, and among species in Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, so it is hard to attach much weight to them.

What is MOR 790 8-10-96-204?

It gets more complicated. The isolated MOR vertebra is presented as an example of juvenile morphology. But does it actually belong to a juvenile?

Here’s what we know for certain about the vertebra:

  • it has an EI of 4 (this is a proportion, so it’s still accurate even if the scale bar is off)
  • the cervical ribs are fused to the neural arch and centrum

In addition, the figure appears to show that:

  • it has a centrum length of 28 cm, although this could be off if the scale bar is incorrectly sized (which is why I prefer measurements to scale bars)
  • the neural arch appears to be fused to the centrum. Admittedly, the image in the figure is small and I haven’t seen the specimen in person. But we know this much: the centrum and neural arch stayed together through the process of preservation and preparation, which does not usually happen unless they have at least started coossifying; the photo does not show an obvious line of fusion between the centrum and neural arch; and the cervical ribs are fused, which in almost all sauropod vertebrae happens after closure of the neurocentral synostoses.

Now, as we’ve just seen above, the morphology of MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is indistinguishable from the morphology of an anterior cervical vertebra in an adult, and it compares especially well to C4 and C5 of D. carnegii CM 84/94. The apparent centrum length (measured from the scale bar in the figure) of MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is 28 cm, compared to 29 cm and 37 cm for C4 and C5 of D. carnegii CM 84/94, respectively. So MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is roughly the same size as the adult C4 and about 80% of the size of the adult C5. Furthermore, its neural arch appears to be fused and its cervical ribs are fused to the neural arch and centrum, whereas the cervical ribs of the ‘adult’ D. carnegii CM 84/94 are not yet fused in C2-C5.

In sum, the isolated MOR vertebra shown in Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 2) is most likely a C4 or C5 of an adult Diplodocus similar in size to D. carnegii CM 84/94, and based on cervical rib fusion it may be from an individual that is actually more mature than CM 84/94. All of the differences between that vertebra and the D. carnegii C12 shown in the same figure are more easily explained as consequences of serial, rather than ontogenetic, variation.

MOR 790 8-10-96-204 and the Mother’s Day Quarry

MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is from the Mother’s Day Quarry (Woodruff and Fowler 2012:Table 1), which is supposed to only contain juvenile and subadult sauropods (Myers and Storrs 2007, Myers and Fiorillo 2009). Myers and Fiorillo (2009:99) wrote:

The quarry has a strikingly low taxonomic diversity, with one sauropod taxon and one theropod taxon present. However, the relative abundance of elements from these taxa is so uneven – diplodocoid sauropod material comprises 99% of the recovered bones – that the quarry is effectively monospecific (Myers and Storrs, 2007). The theropod material consists of isolated teeth only and is probably related to scavenging of the sauropod carcasses. All identifiable sauropod elements belong to either juvenile or subadult individuals (Fig. 2); none is attributable to a fully-adult individual (Myers and Storrs, 2007).

The Figure 2 cited in that excerpt shows two sauropod centra, a dorsal and a caudal, both with unfused neural arches. And yet here is MOR 790 8-10-96-204, similar in size and morphology to D. carnegii CM 84/94, and with at least partially closed neurocentral synostoses and fused cervical ribs. By all appearances, it belongs to an adult or nearly adult animal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Mother’s Day Quarry includes at least one adult or near-adult Diplodocus. The only alternative is that MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is a juvenile in which the neural arch and cervical ribs fused very early.* But if that were the case, what basis would we have for thinking that it belonged to a juvenile, other than that it came from a quarry that only produced juveniles up until now? I trust that the circularity of that logic is clear. It is much more parsimonious to infer that MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is just what it appears to be–an anterior cervical of an adult or near-adult Diplodocus–and that the Mother’s Day Quarry is not exclusively filled with juvenile sauropods.

* Another wrench in the gears: if MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is a juvenile that had freakishly early fusion of its various bits, then clearly its ontogeny has departed from that of Diplodocus, all bets are off about developmental timing, and we shouldn’t be using it to make inferences about the normal ontogeny of diplodocids anyway. It’s damned if you do (it’s an adult), damned if you don’t (it’s a freak).

I’m not criticizing the work of Myers and Storrs (2007) on the taphonomy of the Mother’s Day Quarry or Myers and Fiorillo (2009) on age segregation in sauropod herds, by the way. It’s possible that they never saw MOR 790 8-10-96-204, or that if they did see the specimen they mistook it for a juvenile vertebra based on its size. All it takes is one bone to show that an animal is present in a quarry, and no number of other bones can prove that said animal is absent; if they only saw juveniles, the inference that the quarry only contained juveniles was sound (the operative word is was). If MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is a C5, it’s still only 80% the size of the same vertebra in D. carnegii CM 84/94, so maybe it was the oldest one in the group, or maybe it was an adult slumming with the juveniles, or maybe groups of juvenile sauropods often had one or more adults present to keep an eye on things. Or maybe it happened along earlier or later and just got buried in the same hole. There are a host of possibilities, most of which do not contradict the general conclusions of Myers and Storrs (2007) and Myers and Fiorillo (2009).


Size matters. Size alone is a horrible, horrible criterion for inferring age, especially in a clade (Diplodocoidea) in which adult size is known to vary, and especially with vertebrae. We should expect cervical vertebrae in a single individual to differ in diameter by a factor of 4.

Serial position matters. Not all vertebrae turn out the same. Even in adults, anterior cervicals look very different from posterior cervicals, and have different character states. Anterior cervicals and cervicals of juvenile individuals often look similar. The best way to tell them apart is to rely on articulated series–which is why I went to the trouble of writing the first post in this series.

Skeletochronology matters. The fact that MOR 790 8-10-96-204 has an apparently fused arch and fused cervical ribs should have been huge red flag that maybe it wasn’t actually a juvenile.

I went through that example at length because it shows how serial changes in size and morphology can mimic or suggest ontogenetic changes. In the next post I will examine the rest of the data Woodruff and Fowler (2012) used to support the hypothesis of ontogenetic control of neural spine bifurcation.

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.
  • Myers, T.S., and Fiorillo, A.R. 2009. Evidence for gregarious behavior and age segregation in sauropod dinosaurs. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 274:96-204.
  • Myers, T.S., and Storrs, G.W. 2007. Taphonomy of the Mother’s Day Quarry, Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation, south-central Montana, U.S.A. PALAIOS 22:651–666.
  • McIntosh, J.S., Miller, W.E., Stadtman, K.L., and Gillette, D.D. 1996. The osteology of Camarasaurus lewisi (Jensen, 1988). BYU Geology Studies 41:73-115.
  • Osborn, H.F. and Mook, C.C. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias, and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 3:247-287.
  • Ostrom, John H., and John S. McIntosh.  1966.  Marsh’s Dinosaurs.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  388 pages including 65 absurdly beautiful plates.
  • 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.

In a comment on the initial Shunosaurus tail-club post, Jaime Headden pointed out the passage in the Spinophorosaurus paper (Remes et al. 2009) that discusses the club of Shunosaurus (as justification for positioning the Spinophorosaurus osteoderms on the end of its tail):

With the holotypic skeleton, two closely associated dermal  ossifications were found originating from contralateral sides  (Fig. 4A–C). These elements have a subcircular base that is  rugose and concave on its medial side, and bear a caudodorsally  projecting bony spike with a rounded tip laterally. Although these  elements were found in the pelvic region under the dislocated  scapula, we regard it as most probable that they were placed on  the distal tail in the living animal for the following reasons: First,  the close association of the contralateral elements indicates they  were originally placed near the (dorsal) midline of the body.  Second, the stiffening of the distal tail by specialized chevrons is  also found in other groups of dinosaurs that exhibit tail armor  [42,43]. Third, osteoderms of similar shape are known from the  closely related basal eusauropod Shunosaurus [26]. In the latter  form, these elements cover the middle part of a tail club formed by  coalesced distal vertebrae; however, the decreasing size of the distal-most caudal vertebrae of Spinophorosaurus indicate that such a  club was not present in this genus. The right osteoderm is slightly  larger and differs in proportions from the left element, indicating  that, as in Shunosaurus [26], originally two pairs of tail spines were  present (Fig. 5).

— Remes et al. (2009:6-8)

And this gives the reference that I needed for the Shunosaurus tail-spikes (as opposed to the club) — reference 26 is Zhang (1988), which, embarrassingly, we’ve featured here on SV-POW! in our first Shunosaurus post.  Evidently I was so focussed on preparapophyses when I looked at that monograph that I completely failed to register the tail-club spikes — but then, which of us can truly say he has not made that mistake?

Anyway, here’s what Zhang has to show us:

And here’s that tail again, this time from the poorly reproduced photographic plate 12, part 1, and in right lateral view:

It’s apparent that this really is the other side of the distal tail (rather than a reversed image of the same side) because the osteoderms are in front of the club vertebrae in the left-lateral figure, but behind them in the right-lateral plate.

It would be great to say more about these, but the English language summary of Zhang’s monograph is understandably brief, constituting six pages of the 90.  What’s not quite so understandable is that neither the diagnosis of the genus Shunosaurus nor that of the species S. lii mentions the tail-club or spikes, which are arguably the most distinctive features.  The “revised diagnosis” on pp. 78-79 does, however — just:

Posterior caudals platycoelous, with small cylindrical centra; neural spines low, rod-like.  In several last caudals swollen ralidly [sic] and forming “tail-mace”; in addition there are two pairs of little caudal spines, being analogous to that of stegosaurs.

Not much to go on, but something.  That’s all, though — there is no further description, and crucially, no indication of whether the tail elements were found articulated or whether the spikes were found isolated and subsequently moved to the end of the tail.  It may be that Remes at al. know something I don’t, of course — they might have a translation of Zhang (1988) — but if not, then it’s amusing to consider that the spikes on the tail of Shunosaurus may or may not be supported by evidence, and that the inference of tail-spikes on Spinophorosaurus might be based on dodgy premises.

The other thing that struck me forcibly, as I looked at the figure and plate above, is that the caudal vertebrae remain fairly complex all the way to the end: they retain distinct and prominent neural spines, unlike the distal caudal vertebrae of diplodocids and brachiosaurs.  I notice that the distal caudals of Spinophorosaurus also seem to be complex, based on fig. 3H-I and also on the skeletal reconstruction that is fig. 5 — both of which we’ve reproduced before, in our old Spinophorosaurus article.

So what’s going on here?  Are Shunosaurus and Spinophorosaurus unusual in having distal caudals that retain complex neural spines?  If so, is this property correlated with the possession of a tail-club and/or spines?  Is it causally related?  Or could it be that this is normal for basal eusauropods, and my ideas of sauropod tails have been too coloured by extreme neosauropodocentricity?  Clearly I ought to go and look at a lot more basal sauropods’ distal tails before publishing this post.  And prosauropods’, theropods’, ornithischians’, pterosaurs’, crocadilians’ and lizards’ distal tails.

As it happens, the one non-neosauropod group of reptiles whose distal tails I do know something about is monitor lizards, thanks to my adventures with the corpse of “Charlie”.  And those caudals do maintain astonishingly detailed structure right to the end of the tail, with even absolutely tiny caudals having distinct processes.  Here are some photographs that show this.

First, one showing all 56 caudal vertebrae (the 1st is half in frame at top right, next to the sacrum; the rest read from left to right on successive rows, like words on a page).

Now here are five representative caudals from different regions on the tail — the last ones from each row in the picture above, as it happens: caudals 1, 10, 21, 30, 42 and 56.  They are in more or less dorsal view, though caudal 1 has fallen forward onto its anterior face.  In this and subsequent pictures, caudal 10 (the second shown) is  for some reason back to front.

Now here are the same vertebrae, in the same order and orientation, but now in left dorsolateral aspect (except caudal 10 which is of course in right dorsolateral):

Finally, here are the three smallest of these vertebrae (numbers 30, 42 and 56) in close-up, again in left dorsolateral view, so you can more easily see how much structure even the distalmost caudal has:

That last caudal is about 2.5 mm long.

(It’s interesting that caudals 30 and 42 have those cute fused chevrons.)

So anyway: we know that caudal vertebrae retain distinct structure all the way down to the tip of the tail in monitor lizards at least some basal eusauropods: could it be that this is the primitive state, and that degenerate caudals are found only in neosauropods and mammals?  Gotta prep out some more animals’ skeletons and find out!


In a comment on an earlier article, What’s the deal with your wacky postparapophyses, Shunosaurus?, brian engh asked:

What’s the deal with most Shunosaur “life restorations” showing spikes on the tail club? I can’t find a picture anywhere of a skeleton with any indication of spikes, and yet almost every fleshed-out illustration of Shunosaurs has spikes on it’s tail. Anybody know what that’s about?

It seems we’ve never actually featured the famous Shunosaurus tail-club here before — an amazing oversight, and one that I’m going to remedy right now, thanks to Dong et al. (1989).  This short paper is written in Chinese, so I can’t tell you anything beyond what’s in the figures, captions and English-language abstract.

First up, though, here is his illustration of the famed tail-club:

I can’t help noticing, though, that although the fused clump of enlarged distal caudal vertebrae constitutes a nice club, it’s noticably devoid of spikes.  So it remains a mystery why so many restorations show a spiked club.  Anyone out know why?

Dong et al. (1989) also obligingly includes a figure of the tail-club of Omeisaurus:

And also a photographic plate showing both clubs (though, as is so often the case, the scan has lost a lot of details):

Now, the big question is: why do Shunosaurus and Omeisaurusand Mamenchisaurus, for that matter — have tail-clubs when they are not closely related, according to modern phylogenies such as those of Wilson (2002) and Upchurch et al. (2004)?  [To be precise, Wilson (2002:fig. 13) had Omeisaurus and Mamenchisaurus clading together, but that clade well separated from Shunosaurus; and Upchurch et al. (2004:fig. 13.18) had all three separate, though with the former two as consecutive branches on the paraphyletic sequence leading to Neosauropoda.]

One possibility is just sheer coincidence: but it’s asking a lot to believe that of the 150 or so known sauropods, the only three for which tail-clubs are known just happened to live more or less at the same time and in the same place.

Another option is some oddity in the environment that strongly encouraged the evolution of tail clubs.  Yes, this is wildly hand-wavy, but you can sort of imagine that maybe all the local theropods thought it was cool to hunt sauropods by biting their tails, and the clubs evolved in response to that.  Or something.  There’s a similar, but even more mystifying, situtation in the late Early Cretaceous Sahara, where the theropod Spinosaurus, the ornithopod Ouranosaurus and arguably even the sauropod Rebbachisaurus all evolved sails.  Why then?  When there?  No-one knows and no-one’s even advanced a hypothesis so far as I know.

Getting back to Jurassic Chinese sauropod tail-clubs, though, there is a third option: could it possibly be that Shunosaurus, Omeisaurus and Mamenchisaurus all form a clade together after all, as proposed back in the day by Upchurch (1998:fig. 19)?  Upchurch’s pioneering (1995, 1998) analyses both recovered a monophyletic “Euhelopodidae” — a clade of Chinese sauropods that included the three genera above plus the early Cretaceous Euhelopus, also from China.  The existence of this clade was one of the two major points of disagreement between Upchurch’s and Wilson’s phylogenies (the other being the position of the nemegtosaurids, Nemegtosaurus and Quaesitosaurus, which Upchurch placed basally within Diplodocoidea but Wilson recovered as titanosaurs).

Upchurch himself has abandoned the idea of the monophyletic Euhelopodidae, as seen in that 2004 analysis and also in Wilson’s and his joint (2009) reassessment of Euhelopus: everyone now agrees that Euhelopus is a basal somphospondyl, i.e. close to Titanosauria, which is a looong way from the basal position that the other Chinese sauropods hold within Sauropoda.)  And so the name Euhelopodidae is no longer used.  But could it be that Upchurch was half-right, and that when Euhelopus is removed that the group that was named after it, a clade remains?

[If so, then that clade is called Mamenchisauridae: as noted by Taylor and Naish (2007), this name was coined by Young and Zhao (1972) and so has priority over the Omeisauridae of Wilson (2002), as Wilson himself now recognises.  Mamenchisauridae was phylogenetically defined (or, as they have it, “diagnosed”) by Naish and Martill (2007:498) as “all those sauropods closer to Mamenchisaurus constructus Young, 1954 than to Saltasaurus loricatus Bonaparte”.]

As already noted, Omeisaurus and Mamenchisaurus are close together in the recent analyses of both Upchurch and Wilson, so the question becomes: how many additional steps are required to recover Shunosaurus as a member of their clade rather than in its usual more basal position (in the the case of Upchurch’s analysis, to move Omeisaurus up a node)?  And to this, I do not know the answer — to the best of my knowledge, it’s never been tested (or if it has, the result has never been published).  I’d test it myself, but I need to stop working on this post and watch Inca Mummy Girl soonest.  If , say, 20 additional steps are needed, then forget it.  But if we only need, say, three steps, then maybe someone should look at this more closely.  Back in 2004, when he was Young And Stupid, Matt Wedel wrote to me, in a private email which I now quote without permission because I am pretty sure he’s not going to sue me:

Now that I’ve defended the status quo [of using unweighted characters in cladistic analysis], there are some things I’d be happy to bend the rules for.  If an Omeisaurus pops up with a tail club, then Wilson and Sereno be damned, Omeisaurus and Shunosaurus belong in the same clade. […] So my final word is unweighted characters, please, except for sauropod tail clubs.

Food for thought.

Finally, I leave you with the skeletal reconstruction of Omeisaurus from Dong et al. (1989:fig 3).  Long-time readers will notice a more than passing resemblance to the reconstruction from He et al. (1988:fig. 63), which you can see in Omeisaurus is Just Plain Wrong.

It looks very much as though Dong et al. produced their reconstruction by flipping that of He et al. horizontally and pasting on a tail-club.  Well, we can’t hold that against them — I’d have done the same.


  • Dong Zhiming, Peng Guangzhao and Huang Daxi. 1988. The Discovery of the bony tail club of sauropods. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 27(3):219-224.
  • He Xinlu, Li Kui and Cai Kaiji. 1988. The Middle Jurassic dinosaur fauna from Dashanpu, Zigong, Sichuan, vol. IV: sauropod dinosaurs (2): Omeisaurus tianfuensis. Sichuan Publishing House of Science and Technology, Chengdu, China. 143 pp. + 20 plates.
  • Naish, Darren, and David M. Martill. 2007. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 164: 493-510. (Bicentennial Review issue.)
  • Taylor, Michael P. and Darren Naish. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50 (6): 1547-1564. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2007.00728.x
  • Upchurch, Paul. 1995. The evolutionary history of sauropod dinosaurs. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, 349: 365-390.
  • Upchurch, Paul. 1998. The phylogenetic relationships of sauropod dinosaurs. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 124: 43-103.
  • Upchurch, Paul, Paul M. Barrett and Peter Dodson. 2004. Sauropoda. pp. 259-322 in D. B. Weishampel, P. Dodson and H. Osmólska (eds.), The Dinosauria, 2nd edition. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. 861 pp.
  • Wilson, Jeffrey A. 2002. Sauropod dinosaur phylogeny: critique and cladistic analysis. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 136: 217-276.
  • Wilson, Jeffrey A. and Paul Upchurch. 2009. Redescription and reassessment of the phylogenetic affinities of Euhelopus zdanskyi (Dinosauria – Sauropoda) from the Early Cretaceous of China. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 7: 199-239. doi:10.1017/S1477201908002691
  • Young, Chung-Chien, 1954. On a new sauropod from Yiping, Szechuan, China. Acta Palaeontologica Sinica II(4):355-369.
  • Young, Chung-Chien, and X. Zhao. 1972. [Chinese title. Paper is a description of the type material of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis]. Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology Monograph Series I, 8:1-30. English translation by W. Downs.

In color, this time, with multiple views, thanks to Xing et al. (2009). They also did a finite element analysis of the tail club and concluded that it was a fairly pathetic weapon. Xing et al. closed by supporting the contention of Ye et al. (2001) that the tail club was a sensory organ. As they stated at the end of the abstract:

The tail club of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis probably also had limitations as a defense weapon and was more possibly a sensory organ to improve nerve conduction velocity to enhance the capacity for sensory perception of its surroundings.

One thing Xing et al. (2009) cite in support of this is the expanded neural canal inside the club, which they compare to the sacral enlargement in stegosaurs and to the glycogen bodies of birds. They rule out a glycogen body on the grounds that the sacral enlargement in stegosaurs is much bigger than the brain volume, whereas the neural canal enlargement in the M. hochuanensis tail club is much smaller (if you don’t follow that logic, don’t worry, neither do I).

I’m not sure what to make of this thing. On one hand, it would be nice to have more than one club available to rule out the possibility that it’s just a weird paleopathology. On the other hand, it looks oddly regular to be pathological, and the definitive clubs in Shunosaurus and Omeisaurus are at least weak support for this being a genuine feature, although the clubs of the former taxa look very different.

Furthermore, I don’t understand how the authors can rule out the presence of a glycogen body based on the size of the neural expansion alone–especially since the functions of glycogen bodies in extant taxa are very poorly understood (as you may remember from this dustup). Nor can I fathom how a titchy little nerve bundle–if such existed–down at the end of the tail could do much to improve nerve conduction velocity up the rest of the tail. Either my understanding of neuroscience is completely shot, or this hypothesis…lacks support. I am open to being enlightened either way.

Finally, I am disappointed that the authors didn’t pursue the cutting-edge pseudohead hypothesis that has figured prominently here and elsewhere in the blogosphere. There’s a Nobel lurking in there, I just know it.


  • Xing, L, Ye, Y., Shu, C., Peng, G., and You, H. 2009. Structure, orientation, and finite element analysis of the tail club of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis. Acta Geologica Sinica 83(6):1031-1040.
  • Ye, Y., Ouyang, H., and Fu, Q.-M. 2001. New material of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis from Zigong, Sichuan. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 39(4):266-271.

On the off chance that the postparapophyses of Shunosaurus weren’t enough to sate your appetite for Sino-pod rib-related weirdness, here are a couple of fused cervicals of Klamelisaurus, from the Middle Jurassic of China (from Zhao 1993:plate 1). These are weird for a couple of reasons. First, although fused caudals are pretty common in sauropods (see here), and fused dorsals turn up a lot (see discussion here), and the fusion of the atlas to the axis is not unheard of (see here and here), fusion of the middle or posterior cervicals is rare. Which makes intuitive sense–presumably fusing up your food-reaching organ is counterproductive. The only other example I know of is the pair of fused posterior cervicals in the AMNH 5761  Camarasaurus supremus (which, oddly enough, I don’t think we’ve covered yet on SV-POW!). If you know of others, please let me know.

Anyway, what’s really weird about the Klamelisaurus verts is not the fusion but the bar of bone connecting the cervical rib of the first vertebra back to one or more of the centra. I think that the weird pseudo-parapophysis-thingy is not the parapophysis of the second vert, which is hanging down just behind, but some kind of extra ossification off the postero-ventro-lateral corner of the first vert’s centrum. Admittedly, that’s a lot of interpretation to hang on one grainy photo of a specimen I’ve never seen. But I’ve seen something similar in some bird cervicals, where there is sometimes  a prong or hook of bone from that corner of the centrum sweeping down and out to brace against the longus colli ventralis tendon that comes  off the cervical rib. One of the Apatosaurus cervicals on the wall at Dinosaur National Monument has a similar pair of hooks on its posterior centrum. Irritatingly, I don’t have any digitized photos of the Apato vert, and I can’t find any photos at all that show what I’m talking about in birds. Sorry to tantalize, I learned it from Darren. When I get pix, I’ll post ’em.

In the meantime, you can amuse yourself by pondering the strangeness of the fused Klamelisaurus verts, and by watching the Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Visitor Center get demolished here.

Zhao X. 1993. A new mid-Jurassic sauropod (Klamelisaurus gobiensis gen. et sp. nov.) from Xinjiang, China. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 31(2):132-138.