It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to regular readers that PeerJ is Matt’s and my favourite journal. Reasons include its super-fast turnaround, beautiful formatting that doesn’t look like a facsimile of 1980s printed journals, and its responsiveness to authors and readers. But the top reason is undoubtedly its openness: not only are the article open access, but the peer-review process is also (optionally) open, and of course PeerJ preprints are inherently open science.

During open access week, PeerJ now publishes this paper (Farke et al. 2013), describing the most open-access dinosaur in the world.


It’s a baby Parasaurolophus, but despite being a stinkin’ ornithopod it’s a fascinating specimen for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s the most complete known Parasaurolophus. For another, its young age enables new insights into hadrosaur ontogeny. It’s really nicely preserved, with soft-tissue preservation of both the skin and the beak. The most important aspect of the preservation may be that C-scanning shows the cranial airways clearly:


This makes it possible for the new specimen to show us the ontogenetic trajectory of Parasaurolophus — specifically to see how its distinctive tubular crest grew.


But none of this goodness is the reason that we at SV-POW! Towers are excited about this paper. The special sauce is the ground-breaking degree of openness in how the specimen is presented. Not only is the paper itself open access (and the 28 beautiful illustrations correspondingly open, and available in high-resolution versions). But best of all, CT scan data, surface models and segmentation data are freely available on FigShare. That’s all the 3d data that the team produced: everything they used in writing the paper is free for us all. We can use it to verify or falsify their conclusions; we can use it to make new mechanical models; we can use it to make replicas of the bones on 3d printers. In short: we can do science on this specimen, to a degree that’s never been possible with any previously published dinosaur.

This is great, and it shows a generosity of spirit from Andy Farke and his co-authors.

But more than that: I think it’s a great career move. Not so long ago, I might have answered the question “should we release our data?” with a snarky answer: “it depends on why you have a science career: to advance science, or to advance your career”. I don’t see it that way any more. By giving away their data, Farke’s team are certainly not precluding using it themselves as the basis for more papers — and if others use it in their work, then Farke et al. will get cited more. Everyone wins.

Open it up, folks. Do work worthy of giants, and then let others stand freely on your shoulders. They won’t weigh you down; if anything, they’ll lift you up.


Farke, Andrew A., Derek J. Chok, Annisa Herrero, Brandon Scolieri, and Sarah Werning. 2013. Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ 1:e182.

OMNH baby Apatosaurus

I was at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in March to look at their Apatosaurus material, so I got to see the newly-mounted baby apatosaur in the “Clash of the Titans” exhibit (more photos of that exhibit in this post). How much of this is real (i.e., cast from real bones, rather than sculpted)? Most of the vertebral centra, a few of the neural arches, some of the limb girdle bones, and most of the long bones of the limbs. All of the missing elements–skull, neural arches, ribs, appendicular bits–were sculpted by the OMNH head preparator, Kyle Davies. Kyle is one of those frighteningly talented people who, if they don’t have what they need, will just freaking build it from scratch. Over the years he has helped me out a LOT with the OMNH sauropod material–including building a clamshell storage jacket for the referred scapula of Brontomerus so we could photograph it from the lateral side–so it’s about time I gave him some props.

Atlas-axis model with Kyle

Case in point: this sweet atlas-axis complex that Kyle sculpted for the juvenile Apatosaurus mount.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies

Most fish, amphibians, and other non-amniote tetrapods only have a single specialized vertebra for attaching to the skull. But amniotes have two: a ring- or doughnut-shaped first cervical vertebra (the atlas) that articulates with the occipital condyle(s) of the skull, and a second cervical vertebra (the axis) that articulates with the atlas and sometimes with the skull as well. Mammals have paired occipital condyles on the backs or bottoms of our skulls, so our skulls rock up and down on the atlas (nodding “yes” motion), and our skull+atlas rotates around a peg of bone on the axis called the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (shaking head “no” motion). As shown in the photos and diagrams below, the dens of the axis is actually part of the atlas that fuses to the second vertebra instead of the first. Also, reptiles, including dinosaurs and birds, tend to have a single ball-shaped occipital condyle that fits into the round socket formed by the atlas, so their “yes” and “no” motions are less segregated by location.

Anyway, the whole shebang is often referred to as the atlas-axis complex, and that’s the reconstructed setup for a baby Apatosaurus in the photo above.  In addition to making a dull-colored one for the mount, Kyle made this festive version for the vert paleo teaching collection. Why so polychromatic?

Atlas-axis model key

Because in fact he built two: the fully assembled one two photos above, and a completely disassembled one, some of which is shown in this photo (I had to move the bigger bits out of the tray so they wouldn’t block the key card at the back). I originally composed this post as a tutorial. But frankly, since Kyle did all of the heavy lifting of (a) making the thing in the first place, (2) making a color-coded key to it, and (d) giving me permission to post these photos, it would be redundant to walk through every element. So think of this as a self-study rather than a tutorial.

UPDATE in December, 2019: oh heck with it, I’m very belatedly renaming this a tutorial, so I can tag on a follow-up post as Tutorial 36b and curate this where it belongs, on our Tutorials page. The URL will stay the same, like a digital fossil.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies - labeled

Oh, all right, here’s a labeled version. Note that normally in an adult animal the single piece of bone called the atlas would consist of the paired atlas neural arches (na1) and single atlas intercentrum (ic1), and would probably have a pair of fused cervical ribs (r1). Everything else would be fused together to form the axis, including the atlas pleurocentrum (c1), which forms the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (etymologically the “tooth” of the axis).

Romer 1956 fig 119 atlas-axis complex

Here’s the complete Romer (1956) figure from the key card, with a mammalian atlas-axis complex  for comparison. Incidentally, the entire book this is drawn from, Osteology of the Reptiles, is freely available online.

Apatosaurus axis-atlas complex Gilmore 1936 figs 5 and 6

And here’s the complete Gilmore (1936) figure. Sorry for the craptastic scan–amazingly, this one is NOT freely available online as far as I can tell, and Mike and I have been trying to get good scans of the plates for years. Getting back on topic, single-headed atlantal cervical ribs have been found in several sauropods, especially Camarasaurus where several examples are known, so they were probably a regular feature, even though they aren’t always preserved.

Also, as noted in this post, it is odd that in this specimen of Apatosaurus the cervical ribs had not fused to the first two vertebrae, even though they normally do, and despite the fact that the vertebrae had fused to each other, even though they normally don’t. Further demonstration, if any were needed, that sauropod skeletal fusions were wacky.

Varanops atlas-axis complex Campione and Reisz 2011 fig 2C3

For comparison to the above images, here is the atlas-axis complex in the synapsid Varanops, from Campione and Reisz (2011: fig. 2C).

Those proatlas thingies are present in some sauropods, but that’s about all I know about them, so I’ll say no more for now.

There is a good overview of the atlas-axis complex with lots of photos of vertebrae of extant animals on this page.

Previous SV-POW! posts dealing with atlantes and axes (that’s right) include:


Fuzzy Apato Juvenile by Niroot

Well, this is rad. And adorable. Brian Switek, whom we adore, commissioned a fuzzy juvenile sauropod from Niroot, whom we adore, for his (Brian’s) upcoming book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, which I am gearing up to adore. And here is the result, which I adore, borrowed with permission from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.

There is much to like here. Here’s my rundown:

  • Small forefeet that are the correct shape: good. Maybe too small, given that young animals often have big feet. But better too small than too big, given how often people screw this up.
  • Pronounced forelimb-hindlimb disparity: win.
  • Fat neck: pretty good.

In fact, let me interrupt the flow of praise here to put in Brant Bassam’s dorsal view of his mounted Phil Platt model Apatosaurus skeleton. I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while now and haven’t gotten to it, so now’s a good time: just look at how friggin’ FAT that neck is, and how it blends in with the body, and how the tail gets a lot skinnier a lot quicker (and, yeah, caudofemoralis, but not that much).  Now, go look at a bunch of life restorations of Apatosaurus–drawings, paintings, sculptures, toys, whatever–and see how many people get this wrong, by giving Apatosaurus a too-skinny neck. The answer is, damn near everyone.

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in dorsal view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in dorsal view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of

Okay, back to Niroot’s baby:

  • Proportionally shorter neck and tail because it’s a juvenile: win.
  • Neck wrinkles possibly corresponding to vertebrae: okay, just this once.
  • Greenish fuzz possibly functioning as camouflage: We-ell

Yes, it’s true that all of the known sauropod skin impressions show scales, not fuzz. But. We don’t have anything like full-body coverage. And I suspect that there is a collection bias against fuzzy skin impressions. Scaly skin impressions are probably easier to recognize than 3D feathery skin impressions (as opposed to feathers preserved flat as at Liaoning and Solnhofen) because the latter probably just look like wavy patterns on rock, and who is looking for feather impressions when swinging a pickaxe at a sauropod’s back end? And how many sauropods get buried in circumstances delicate enough to preserve dinofuzz anyway? Also, some kind of fuzz is probably primitive for Ornithodira, and scales do not necessarily indicate that feathers were absent because owl legs. So is this speculative? Yes. Is it out of the question? I think not. In the spirit of Mythbusters, I’m calling it ‘plausible’.

Oh, one more thing: Niroot posted this in honor of Brian Switek’s birthday. Happy birthday, Brian! (You owe me a book!)

You may remember this:

Rapetosaurus mount at Field Museum

…which I used to make this:

Rapetosaurus skeleton silhouette

…and then this:

Rapetosaurus skeleton silhouette - high neck

The middle image is just the skeleton from the top photo cut out from the background and dropped to black using ‘Levels’ in GIMP, with the chevrons scooted up to close the gap imposed by the mounting bar.

The bottom image is the same thing tweaked a bit to repose the skeleton and get rid of some perspective distortion on the limbs. The limb posture is an attempt to reproduce an elephant step cycle from Muybridge.

That neck is wacky. Maybe not as wrong as Omeisaurus, but pretty darned wrong. As I mentioned in the previous Rapetosaurus skeleton post, the cervicals are taller than the dorsals, which is opposite the condition in every other sauropod I’ve seen. All in all, I find the reposed Rapetosaurus disturbingly horse-like. And oddly slender through the torso, dorsoventrally at least. The dorsal ribs look short in these lateral views because they’re mounted at a very odd, laterally-projecting angle that I think is probably not correct. But the ventral body profile still had to meet the distal ends of the pubes and ischia, which really can’t go anywhere without disarticulating the ilia from the sacrum (and cranking the pubes down would only force the distal ends of the ilia up, even closer to the tail–the animal still had to run its digestive and urogenital pipes through there!). So the torso was deeper than these ribs suggest, but it was still not super-deep. Contrast this with Opisthocoelicaudia, where the pubes stick down past the knees–now that was a tubby sauropod. Then again, Alamosaurus has been reconstructed with a similarly compact torso compared to its limbs–see the sketched-in ventral body profile in the skeletal recon from Lehman and Coulson (2002: figure 11).

I intend to post more photos of the mount, including some close-ups and some from different angles, and talk more about how the animal was shaped in life. And hopefully soon, because history has shown that if I don’t strike while the iron is hot, it might be a while before I get back to it. For example, I originally intended this post to follow the last Rapetosaurus skeleton post by  about a week. So much for that!

Like everything else we post, these images are CC BY, so feel free to take them and use them. If you use them for the basis of anything cool, like a muscle reconstruction or life restoration, let us know and we’ll probably blog it.

Thanks to the kind offices of the folks at the Field Museum, especially Fossil Vertebrates collection manager Bill Simpson, on Wednesday I got to hop the fence and spend some quality time with FMNH PR 2209, the mounted holotype specimen of Rapetosaurus krausei. I took a tape measure with me, to get some dimensions from the mounted skeleton. Of course I have the detailed descriptive paper (Curry-Rogers 2009), but mounted skeletons are three-dimensional objects and it is often surprisingly difficult to get a sense of a how a skeleton goes together in three dimensions from pictures and measurements of the individual elements. And if these dimensions are not precisely those of the animal in life, because of assumptions made during mounting–concerning, say, cartilage thickness between bones, or the angles of the ribs–at least they’re a starting point for understanding the whole-body proportions of Rapetosaurus.

This is valuable because AFAIK this specimen is the only mounted titanosaur in North America, and maybe the only one outside of South America and China. [UPDATE: Alert commenters pointed out that I forgot about the Opisthocoelicaudia in Warsaw, which is almost entirely real, and the Argentinosaurus in Georgia, which is almost entirely fake.] And because Rapetosaurus is far out, man. ALL of the neural arches are unfused, even in the distal caudals–even the Arundel Astrodon (formerly Pleurocoelus) material has fused arches in the distal caudals (Wedel et al. 2000: fig. 15). So it’s a very young juvenile, but the neck is already more than twice the length of the body. I say ‘already’ because there is pretty good evidence that the cervical vertebrae grew proportionally longer over the course of ontogeny in at least some sauropods (Wedel et al. 2000:368-369). The neck is 336 cm long, and the femora are 69 cm long. If we isometrically scaled this animal up to have a 2-meter femur, the neck would be 10 meters long, without any such ontogenetic telescoping of the vertebrae. The implications of this for possible neck lengths in the supergiant titanosaurs are pretty darned interesting. The vertebrae of Rapetosaurus don’t really look anything like those of Argentinosaurus. Nevertheless, a sauropod with an Argentinosaurus-sized femur (2.5 meters for the largest known) and Rapetosaurus proportions would have a 12-meter neck–again, that’s assuming this very young Rapetosaurus already has adult proportions, when in fact it may be ontogenetically short-necked (now there’s a thought). In Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus, the cervicals grew in proportional length (i.e., relative to diameter) by 30-50% over ontogeny, but that’s starting from tiny baby vertebrae. The Rapetosaurus vertebrae are already very long, proportionally, but it is interesting to consider the possibilities that they might have been even longer in adults, and that that scaling might have been shared with other titanosaurs.

The tail in this mount is oddly short. Only about every third vertebra is real, with the rest sculpted, so the tail length inevitably depends on how many intermediary vertebrae were added. But unless there are a LOT of missing vertebrae, it’s probably not far off. I can tell you that when I first saw the mount I looked at the tail and said, “No way”. But up close, seeing the real vertebrae and the interspersed intermediates, it looked pretty reasonable, in part because the individual caudal vertebrae are proportionally short. This is one of those things where we may just have to wait for more and better material–although that might be a long wait, because this skeleton is already freakin’ gorgeous. For someone who is used to dealing with hideously incomplete and groadily distorted fossils, this Rapetosaurus material is just mouth-wateringly beautiful.

There’s loads more weird stuff to talk about, like how the cervical vertebrae are taller than the dorsals, which is opposite the condition in every other sauropod I’ve gotten to look at, and the shape of the ilium, and the conformation of the rib cage, but those will all have to wait for future posts. This one is already much longer than I intended it to be (standard).

For the curious, here are all of my measurements. Neck length, dorsal length, etc. are lengths of those sections of the column as mounted–that is, including both the vertebrae and the spaces between them. I haven’t compared any of these to the published measurements, these are straight from the tape measure to my notebook to you. I’m giving them in mm, because that’s what I naturally think in, but they’re all rounded to the nearest cm because given my methods–hand-holding a physical tape measure up next to a bone while I crouch contorted under a fragile mounted skeleton–giving measurements to the nearest mm would be illusory precision.

  • Skull length: 290
  • Neck length: 3360
  • Dorsal length: 1210
  • Sacrum length: 480
  • Tail length: 1720
  • Total length of skeleton, snout to tip of tail (sum of above): 7060
  • Glenoid height (ground to top of socket): L – 1110 (forefoot off floor by a few cm), R – 1080
  • Acetabular height (ground to top of socket): 1320 on both sides
  • Max height of body (ground to top of 5th sacral spine): 1630
  • Gleno-acetabular distance: L – 1500, R – 1440
  • Width across acetabula: 440 between weight-bearing centers, 470 to outer margins of ilia
  • With across glenoids (at bottom of scap-coracoid joints): 710
  • Femur length: 690 on both sides
  • Tib/fib length: 470 on both sides
  • Vertical height of foot: L – 90, R – 120 (different poses)
  • Humerus length: L – 530, R – 500
  • Radius/ulna length (between articular surfaces, not including olecranons): L – 370, R – 360
  • Metacarpus length (MT3): 190 on both sides


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.

This is the third post in a series on neural spine bifurcation in sauropods, inspired by Woodruff and Fowler (2012). In the first post, I looked at neural spine bifurcation in Morrison sauropod genera based on the classic monographic descriptions. In the second post, I showed that size is an unreliable criterion for assessing age and that serial variation can mimic ontogenetic change in sauropod cervicals. In this post I look at the evidence for ontogenetic changes in neural spine bifurcation presented by Woodruff and Fowler (2012). This posts builds on the last two, so please refer back to them as needed.

Another opening digression, on the OMNH baby sauropod material this time

Nearly all of the Morrison Formation material in the OMNH collections comes from Black Mesa in the Oklahoma panhandle. It was collected in the 1930s by WPA crews working under the direction of J. Willis Stovall. Adequate tools and training for fossil preparation were in short supply. A lot of the prep was done by unskilled laborers using hammers, chisels, pen-knives, and sandpaper (apologies if you have experience with fossil preparation and are now feeling a bit ill). Uncommonly for the Morrison, the bones are very similar in color to the rock matrix, and the prep guys sometimes didn’t realize that they were sanding through bone until they got through the cortex and  into the trabeculae. Consequently, a lot of interesting morphology on the OMNH Morrison material has been sanded right off, especially some of the more delicate processes on the vertebrae. This will become important later on.

Do the ‘ontogenetic’ series in Woodruff and Fowler (2012) actually show increasing bifurcation through development?

In the Materials and Methods, Woodruff and Fowler (2012:2) stated:

Study specimens comprise 38 cervical, eight dorsal, and two caudal vertebrae from 18 immature and one adult diplodocid (Diplodocus sp., Apatosaurus sp., and Barosaurus sp.), and two immature macronarians (both Camarasaurus sp.).

However, their Table 1 and Supplementary Information list only 15 specimens, not 18. Of the 15, one is probably not a diplodocid (SMA 0009 ‘Baby Toni’) — a fact that, oddly, the authors knew, as stated in the Supplementary Information.  Of the remaining 14 specimens, 11 are isolated vertebrae, so only three represent reasonably complete probably-diplodocoid series (MOR 592, AMNH 7535, and CM 555). From CM 555 they discuss only one vertebra, the C6; and AMNH 7535 is not mentioned at all outside of Table 1 and a passing mention the Supplementary Information, so the subadult data actually used in the paper consist of isolated vertebrae and one articulated series, MOR 592. (For the sake of comparison, in the first post on this topic I looked up 10 articulated series, only two of which–Diplodocus carnegii CM 84/94 and Camarasaurus lentus CM 11338–are even mentioned in Woodruff and Fowler [2012].)

In light of the previous post, on serial variation, the dangers of using isolated vertebrae should by now be apparent. Recall that even adult diplodocids are expected to have completely unsplit spines as far back as C5 (Apatosaurus) or C8 (Barosaurus) and as far forward as D7 (Apatosaurus) or D6 (Barosaurus), and only partially split spines in the adjacent positions. Furthermore, size is a notoriously unreliable criterion of age; MOR 790 8-10-96-204 from Figure 2 in Woodruff and Fowler (2012) also appears in their Figure 3 as the second-smallest vertebra in this ‘ontogenetic’ series, despite most likely coming from a well-fused adult approximately the same size as the D. carnegii individual that represents the end of the series. So without any evidence other than sheer size (if that size overlaps with the adult size range) and degree of neural spine bifurcation (which cannot help but overlap with the adult range, since the adult range encompasses all possible states), simply picking small vertebrae with unsplit spines and calling them juvenile is at best circular and at worst completely wrong–as in the case of MOR 790 8-10-96-204 examined in the last post.

Unfortunately it is not possible to tell what criteria Woodruff and Fowler (2012) used to infer age in their specimens, because they don’t say. Neural arch fusion is discussed in general terms in the Supplementary Information, but in the text and in the figures everything is discussed simply in terms of size. For example:

In the next largest specimen (MOR 790 7-26-96-89, vertebral arch 9.9 cm high), the neural spine is relatively longer still and widens at the apex…

The Supplementary Information provides more evidence that Woodruff and Fowler (2012) did not consider the confounding effects of size, serial position, and ontogenetic stage. In the section on the Mother’s Day Quarry in the Supplementary Information, they wrote:

Because of this size distribution it is not surprising that there are also different ontogenetic stages present which result in cervical centrum lengths varying between 12 and 30 cm.

Now, there may be different ontogenetic stages present in the quarry, and the cervicals in the quarry may vary in length by a factor of 2.5, but the latter does not demonstrate the former. In D. carnegii CM 84/94 the longest postaxial cervical (C14, 642 mm) is 2.6 times the length of the shortest (C3, 243 mm; data from Hatcher 1901). The size range reported as evidence of multiple ontogenetic stages by Woodruff and Fowler (2012) turns out to be slightly less than that expected in a single individual.

With that in mind, let’s look at each of the putative ontogenetic sequences in Woodruff and Fowler (2012):

Anterior cervical vertebrae

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:fig. 3)

The proposed ontogenetic series used by Woodruff and Fowler (2012) for anterior cervical vertebrae consists of:

  • CMC VP7944, an isolated ?Diplodocus vertebra from the Mother’s Day site, which is described in the text but not pictured;
  • MOR 790 7-30-96-132, an isolated vertebra from the same site;
  • MOR 790 8-10-96-204, another isolated vertebra from the same site;
  • MOR 592, from a partial cervical series of a subadult Diplodocus but with the serial position unspecified;
  • ANS 21122, C6 of Suuwassea (included in Fig. 3, but not discussed as evidence in the accompanying text)
  • CM 555, C6 of a nearly complete (C2-C14) cervical series of a subadult Apatosaurus;
  • CM 84/94, C7 of Diplodocus carnegii

CMC VP7944 is not pictured, but from the description in the text it’s perfectly possible that it represents a C3, C4, or C5, all of which have undivided spines even in adult diplodocids. It therefore contributes no information: the hypothesis that the spine is undivided because of ontogeny is not yet demonstrated, and the hypothesis that the spine is undivided because of serial position is not yet falsified.

MOR 790 7-30-96-132 is shown only from the front, so the centrum proportions and the shape of the neural spine cannot be assessed. The neural arch appears to be fused, but the cervical ribs are not. Again, we cannot rule out the possibility that it comes from an very anterior cervical and therefore its undivided spine could be an artifact of its serial position. It therefore contributes no information on possible ontogenetic changes in neural spine bifurcation.

As shown in the previous post, MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is probably a C4 or C5 of an adult or near-adult Diplodocus about the same size as or only slightly smaller than D. carnegii CM 84/94. It is small and has an undivded spine because it is an anterior cervical, not because it is from a juvenile. It therefore contributes no support to the ontogenetic bifurcation hypothesis.

The pictured vertebra of MOR 592 has a shallow notch in the tip of the spine, which is expected in C6 in Apatosaurus and Diplodocus and in C9 and C10 in Barosaurus. The serial position of the vertebra is not stated in the paper, but about half of the anterior cervicals even in an adult diplodocid are expected to have unsplit or shallowly split spines based on serial position alone. Based on the evidence presented, we cannot rule out the possibility that the shallow cleft in the pictured vertebra is an artifact of serial position rather than ontogeny. It therefore contributes no support to the ontogenetic bifurcation hypothesis.

ANS 21122 has an incompletely divided neural spine, which is in fact expected for the sixth cervical in adult diplodocids as shown by A. parvus CM 563/UWGM (in which C6 is missing but C5 has an unsplit spine and C7 a deeply bifid spine) and D. carnegii CM 84/94 (in which C6 is also shallowly bifid). A. ajax NMST-PV 20375 has a wider split in the spine of C6, but the exact point of splitting appears to vary by a position or two among diplodocids. The hypothesis that the spine of ANS 21122 C6 is already as split as it would ever have gotten cannot be falsified on the basis of the available evidence.

CM 555 C6: see the previous paragraph. Note that in ANS 21122 the neural arch and cervical ribs are fused in C6, and in C6 of CM 555 they are not.

CM 84/94 C7 has a deeply split spine, but this expected at that position. C6 of the same series has a much more shallow cleft, and C5 would be predicted to have no cleft at all (recall from the first post that the neural spines of C3-C5 of this specimen are sculptures). So any trend toward increasing bifurcation is highly dependent on serial position; if serial position cannot be specified then it is not possible to say anything useful about the degree of bifurcation in a given vertebra.

Summary. CMC VP7944 and MOR 790 7-30-96-132 could be very anterior vertebrae, C3-C5, in which bifurcation is not expected even in adults. Since they are isolated elements, that hypothesis is very difficult to falsify. MOR 790 8-10-96-204 is almost certainly a C4 or C5 of an adult or near-adult Diplodocus. ANS 21122 and CM 555 C6 are incompletely divided, as expected for vertebrae in that position even in adults. CM 84/94 has a shallowly divided spine in C6 and more deeply bifid spines from C7 onward, just like CM 555.

Verdict: no ontogenetic change has been demonstrated.

Posterior cervical vertebrae

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 4A)

The proposed ontogenetic series includes:

  • OMNH 1267 and 1270
  • MOR 790 7-26-96-89
  • MOR 592
  • CM 84/94

OMNH 1267 and 1270 are isolated neural arches of baby sauropods from the Black Mesa quarries. OMNH 1267 does not appear to be bifurcated, but it has a very low neural spine and it was probably sanded during preparation, so who knows what might have been lost. OMNH 1270 actually shows a bifurcation–Woodruff and Fowler (2012:3) describe it as having “a small excavated area”–but again it is not clear that the spines are as intact now as they were in life. More seriously,  since these are isolated elements (you can all join in with the refrain) their serial position cannot be determined with any accuracy, and therefore they are not much use in determining ontogenetic change. Although they are anteroposteriorly short, that does not necessarily make them posterior cervicals. The cervical vertebrae of all sauropods start out proportionally shorter and broader than they end up (Wedel et al. 2000:368-369), and the possibility that these are actually from anterior cervicals–not all of which are expected to have bifurcations–is difficult to rule out.

The other three vertebrae in the series have deeply bifurcated spines. In the text, Woodruff and Fowler (2012:3) make the case that the bifurcation in MOR 592 is deeper than in the preceding vertebra, MOR 790 7-26-96-89. However, the proportions of the two vertebrae are very different, suggesting that they are from different serial positions, and the centrum of MOR 790 7-26-96-89 is actually larger in diameter than that of the representative vertebra from MOR 592. So unless centrum size decreased through ontogeny, these vertebrae are not comparable. As usual, we don’t know where in the neck the isolated MOR 790 vertebra belongs, and we only see it in anterior view. Nothing presented in the paper rules out possibility that is actually an anterior cervical, and in fact the very low neural spines suggest that that is the case.

Allowing for lateral crushing, the vertebra from MOR 592 (again, we are not told which one it is) looks very similar to the D. carnegii CM 84/94 vertebra (C15–again, I had to look it up in Hatcher), and is probably from a similar position in the neck. In comparing the two, Woodruff and Fowler (2012:4) say that in CM 84/94, “the bifurcated area has broadened considerably”, but this clearly an illusion caused by the lateral compression of the MOR 592 vertebra — its centrum is also only half as wide proportionally as in the CM 84/94 vertebra.

Summary. The OMNH vertebrae are of unknown serial position and probably lost at least some  surface bone during preparation, so their original degree of bifurcation is hard to determine. The other three vertebrae in the series all have deeply bifid spines, but they are out of order by centrum size, MOR 790 7-26-96-89 might be an anterior cervical based on its low neural spines, and the “broadening” of the trough between MOR 792 and CM 84/94 is an artifact of crushing.

Verdict: no ontogenetic change has been demonstrated.

Anterior dorsal vertebrae

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 5A)

The ontogenetic series here consists of:

  • MOR 790 7-17-96-45
  • MOR 592
  • CM 84/94

As usual, the serial positions of the MOR 592 and CM 84/94 vertebrae are presumably known but not stated in the paper. The D. carnegii CM 84/94 vertebra is D4. Comparisons to the MOR 592 vertebra are not helped by the fact that it is shown in oblique posterior view. Nevertheless, the two vertebrae are very similar and, based on the plates in Hatcher (1901), the MOR 592 vertebra is most likely a D4 or D5 of Diplodocus. The spines in the larger two vertebrae are equally bifurcated, so the inference of ontogenetic increase in bifurcation rests on the smallest of the three vertebrae, MOR 790 7-17-96-45.

MOR 790 7-17-96-45 is an isolated unfused neural arch, clearly from a juvenile. Its serial position is hard to determine, but it is probably not from as far back as D4 or D5 because it appears to lack a hypantrum and shows no sign of the parapophyses, which migrate up onto the neural arch through the cervico-dorsal transition. The element is only figured in anterior view, so it is hard to tell how long it is proportionally. Still, based on the single photo in the paper (which is helpfully shown at larger scale in Fig. 5B), it seems to be reasonably long, with the prezygapophyses, transverse processes, neural spines, and postzygapophyses well separated from anterior to posterior. In fact, I see no strong evidence that it is a dorsal neural arch at all–the arch of a posterior cervical would look the same in anterior view.

Given that MOR 7-17-96-45 lacks a hypantrum and parapophyses, it is not directly comparable to the two larger vertebrae. Although we cannot determine its position in the presacral series, its spine is shallowly bifurcated, to about half the distince from the metapophyses to the postzygapophyses. In Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018, the notch in D3 is about equally deep, and in C15 it is only slightly deeper, still ending above the level of postzygapophyses. So there is some variation in the depth of the bifurcation in the posterior cervicals and anterior dorsals in the North American diplodocids. Without knowing the precise serial position of MOR 7-17-96-45, it is difficult to derive inferences about the ontogeny of neural spine bifurcation.

Diplodocid anterior dorsal vertebrae. Left and right, dorsal vertebrae 3 and 4 of adult Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018, from Gilmore (1936: plate XXV). Center, juvenile neural arch MOR 7-17-96-45, modified from Woodruff and Fowler (2012: fig. 5B), corrected for shearing and scaled up.

What this element does conclusively demonstrate is that the neural arches of posterior cervicals or anterior dorsals in even small, unfused juvenile diplodocids were in fact bifurcated to to a degree intermediate between  D3 and D4 in the large adult Apatosaurus louisae CM3018 — in fact, so far as neural cleft depth is concerned, it makes rather a nice intermediate between them.  (It differs in other respects, most notable that it is proportionally broad, lacks a hypantrum and parapophyses, etc.)

Summary. The two larger specimens in the ‘ontogenetic series’ are from similar serial positions and show the same degree of bifurcation. MOR 7-17-96-45 is from a more anterior position, based on its lack of hypantrum and parapophyses.  Although it is a juvenile, its degree of bifurcation is similar to that of anterior dorsal vertebrae in adult Apatosaurus (and that of C15 in A. louisae CM 3018, if MOR 7-17-96-45 is, in fact, a cervical).

Verdict: no ontogenetic change has been demonstrated.

Posterior dorsal vertebrae

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 6A)

The ontogenetic series consists of:

  • OMNH 1261
  • MOR 592
  • CM 84/94

The D. carnegii CM 84/94 vertebra is D6, and based on its almost identical morphology the MOR 592 vertebra is probably from the same serial position. They show equivalent degrees of bifurcation.

OMNH 1261 is another isolated juvenile neural arch. The portion of the spine that remains is unbifurcated. However, the spine is very short and it is possible that some material is missing from the tip. More importantly, the last 3-4 dorsals in Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Barosaurus typically have extremely shallow notches in the neural spines or no notches at all. If OMNH 1261 is a very posterior dorsal, it would not be expected to show a notch even when fully mature.

Verdict: no ontogenetic change has been demonstrated.

Woodruff and Fowler (2012:Fig. 7)

Caudal vertebrae

The ontogenetic series here consists of:

  • MOR 592
  • CM 84/94

The first thing to note is that the ‘bifurcation’ in MOR 592 is at right angles to that in the proximal caudals of D. carnegiiCM 84/94, so the one can hardly be antecedent to the other.

More importantly, antero-posterior ‘bifurcations’ like that in MOR 592 are occasionally seen in the caudal vertebrae of adult sauropods. Below are two examples, caudals 7 and 8 of A. parvus CM 563/UWGM 15556. In other words, in this character MOR 592 already displays adult morphology.

Verdict: no ontogenetic change has been demonstrated.

A. parvus CM 563/UWGM 15556 caudals 8 and 7 in right lateral view, from Gilmore (1936:pl.. 33)


The ontogenetic series here consists of:

  • OMNH 1417
  • AMNH 5761

OMNH 1417 is an isolated cervical neural spine, and the pictured vertebra of Camarasaurus supremus AMNH 5761 is a posterior cervical. In C. grandis and C. lewisi, all of the cervical vertebrae eventually develop at least a shallow notch in the tip of the neural spine, but as shown in the previous post there seems to be some variation between Camarasaurus species, and, likely, between individuals. In the absence of information about its serial position and the species to which it belonged, the lack of bifurcation in OMNH 1417 is uninformative; it could belong to an anterior cervical of C. supremus that would not be expected to develop a bifurcation.

Verdict: no ontogenetic change has been demonstrated. There is evidence that neural spine bifurcation developed ontogenetically in Camarasaurus, but it comes from the juvenile C. lentus CM 11338, described by Gilmore (1925), and the geriatric C. lewisi, described by McIntosh, Miller et al. (1996)–see the first post in this series for discussion.


The ‘ontogenetic’ series of Woodruff and Fowler (2012) are not really ontogenetic series. In all of the diplodocid presacral vertebrae and in Camarasaurus, the smallest elements in the series are isolated vertebrae or neural arches for which the serial position is almost impossible to determine (and for the reader, completely impossible given the limited information in the paper) and even the taxonomic identifications are suspect (e.g., the OMNH material–how one reliably distinguishes the Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus neural arches is beyond me). The larger vertebrae in the presacral series are all compromised in various ways: one includes an adult masquerading as a juvenile (MOR 790 8-10-96-204 in the anterior cervicals), one is out of order by centrum size (MOR 790 7-26-96-89 and MOR 592 in the posterior cervicals), and two show no change in degree of bifurcation from the middle of the series to the upper end (MOR 592 and CM 84/94 in the anterior and posterior dorsals). The shallow longitudinal bifurcation in the MOR 592 caudal vertebra is similar to those found in caudal vertebrae of adult diplodocids, and is not antecedent to the transverse bifurcations discussed in the rest of the paper.

Crucially, when information on size and serial position is taken into account, none of the ‘ontogenetic series’ in the paper show any convincing evidence that neural spine bifurcation increases over ontogeny. The best evidence that bifurcation does increase over ontogeny comes from Camarasaurus, specifically the juvenile C. lentus CM 11338 described by Gilmore (1925) and geriatric C. lewisi BYU 9047 described by McIntosh et al. (1996), it was already recognized prior to Woodruff and Fowler (2012), and it has not caused any taxonomic confusion.

There is an asymmetry of interference here. To call into question the conclusions of Woodruff and Fowler (2012), all one has to do is show that the evidence could be explained by serial, intraspecific, or interspecific variation, taphonomy, damage during preparation, and so on. But to demonstrate that bifurcation develops over ontogeny, one has to falsify all of the competing hypotheses. I know of only one way to do that: find a presacral vertebral column that is (1) articulated, (2) from an individual that is clearly juvenile based on criteria other than size and degree of bifurcation, which (3) can be confidently referred to one of the known genera, and then show that it has unbifurcated spines in the same serial positions where adult vertebrae have bifurcated spines. Isolated vertebrae are not enough, bones from non-juveniles are not enough, and juvenile bones that might pertain to new taxa are not enough. It may be that this is not yet possible because the necessary fossils just haven’t been found yet. I am not suggesting that we stop doing science, or that the ontogenetic hypothesis of neural spine bifurcation is unreasonable. It’s perfectly possible that it’s true (though MOR 7-17-96-45 ironically suggests otherwise). But it’s not yet been demonstrated, at least for diplodocids, and to the extent that the taxonomic hypotheses of Woodruff and Fowler (2012) rely on an ontogenetic increase in bifurcation in diplodocids, they are suspect. That will be the subject of the next post.

The rest of the series

Links to all of the posts in this series:

and the post that started it all:


  • Gilmore, C.W. 1925. A nearly complete articulated skeleton of Camarasaurus, a saurischian dinosaur from the Dinosaur National Monument. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 10:347-384.
  • Gilmore, C.W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175-300.
  • 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., Miller, W.E., Stadtman, K.L., and Gillette, D.D. 1996. The osteology of Camarasaurus lewisi (Jensen, 1988). BYU Geology Studies 41:73-115.
  • Wedel, M.J., Cifelli, R.L., and Sanders, R.K. 2000. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45(4):343-388.
  • 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.

Since we’ve been a bit light on sauropods lately, here’s CM 11338, the juvenile Camarasaurus from Dinosaur National Monument, in Plate 15 from Gilmore’s 1925 monograph. It’s probably the nicest single sauropod skeleton ever found, and required only minor restoration and reposing for this wall mount at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The same thing in a fake antique finish suitable for printing at 8×10″ and framing. Yes, I have done this. Make one for the sauropodophile in your life, or the non-sauropodophile you’re trying to convert.


Gilmore, Charles W.  1925.  A nearly complete articulated skeleton of Camarasaurus, a saurischian dinosaur from the Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.  Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 10:347-384.


February 19, 2012

Re-posted with permission.

Of course, these these days John is better known for this work on the evolution of musculature on the line to birds, tyrannosaur hindlimb mechanics, and elephant anatomy.  But it seems the world lost a promising novelist.

[Originally posted on Twitter, by John.]

See also: Acaren and the Evil Wizards.