Ahead by a tail

February 2, 2009

You’d think that in 100+ posts we’d be starting to exhaust the territory, but there are vast swaths of sauropod vertebral morphology that we haven’t even touched. Like fused vertebrae. Sauropods fused their vertebrae all the time. Some of those fusions are age-related, many are pathological, and some are…hard to classify.

mamenchisaurus-tail-thingy

Exhibit A: fused distal caudals in a specimen of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis described by Ye et al. (2001). In contrast to the terminal caudals comprising the tail club of Shunosaurus, the centra here are not ballooned out. The one in the middle is clearly waisted, as in “narrower in the middle than at the ends” (not the same clearly wasted as your college roommate). The neural, uh, elements are expanded and fused into something that the authors describe as resembling the comb of a rooster. I can’t improve on that metaphor so I won’t try. Here’s the full weirdness, straight from the authors (p. 39):

The posterior caudals are fused with each other, their centra are not expanded, the neural arch is remarkably expanded and the size of the neural canal  and the height of  the neural spines increased. In lateral view, the posterior caudals are cockscomb-shaped.

That’s all pretty weird. The authors go on to speculate that the expanded neural canal indicates that the tail club fin thingy served as some kind of special sense organ. I don’t think that idea is too bold. I don’t think it’s bold enough.

Hypothesis: Mamenchisaurus had a pseudohead on the end of its tail, with fused verts to form a pseudoskull and a big nerve bundle to give the pseudomouth (probably articulated chevrons) and pseudoeyes (possibly heat-sensitive like rattlesnake pits) some lifelike movements and relay thermal images up to the brain. It probably started out as a predator-confusion thing. The carnosaurs would obviously like to attack the inattentive end of the sauropod but these push-me-pull-yous were on the lookout fore and aft! And if the carnosaurs did attack, there was a 50/50 chance they’d bite off the wrong head. Then the pseudohead, which evolved to simulate attention, got so good at it that it was exapted into an actual lookout post at the individual’s farthest extremity. What an advantage those animals had!

mamenchisaurus-pseudohead-restoration

But, alas, the caudal pseudohead turned out to be a serpent in paradise. It started getting ideas. Demanding equal time to “teach the controversy” to the forebrains of juvenile conspecifics. Mamenchisaurus became a house divided. First there were pranks, as the real brain started hearing “voices” in its tail. Then outright arguments as the brain and pseudobrain struggled for control of the animal. Finally the pseudohead took over, started marching the animal around backwards. Poor Mamenchisaurus was tripping over logs, which don’t show up so well on infrared, and slipping on its own feces. Lost in delusions  of grandeur, the pseudohead chomped on ferns for hours, unwilling to admit that it couldn’t swallow and too proud to realize that it was starving the animal to death (certain political and economic parallels suggest themselves here).

mamenchisaurus-pseudohead-in-charge1

We all know what happened: Mamenchisaurus died out, the pathetic victim of a caudal takeover, and was replaced by other sauropods that, if perhaps more conservative, could at least keep their tails in line. And the world passed once again into the metaphorical hands of the heads. But even now, 140 million years later, tails the world over recall their ancient glory and plot revenge–perhaps even the tail you’re sitting on right now. If you are quiet, and cunning, you may hear your tail’s defiant murmur: the south will rise again!

Reference

  • Ye, Y., Ouyang, H., and Fu, Q.-M. 2001. New material of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis from Zigong, Sichuan. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 39(4):266-271.