FHPR 17108, a right humerus of Brachiosaurus, with Wes Bartlett and his Clydesdale Molly for scale. Original paleoart by Brian Engh.

Last May I was out in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation with Brian Engh and Thuat Tran, for just a couple of days of prospecting. We’d had crappy weather, with rain and lots of gnats. But temperatures were cooler than usual, and we were able to push farther south in our field area than ever before. We found a small canyon that had bone coming out all over, and as I was logging another specimen in my field book, I heard Brian shout from a few meters away: “Hey Matt, I think you better get over here! If this is what I think it is…”

What Brian had found–and what I couldn’t yet show you when I put up this teaser post last month–was this:

That’s the proximal end of a Brachiosaurus humerus in the foreground, pretty much as it was when Brian found it. Thuat Tran is carefully uncovering the distal end, some distance in the background.

Here’s another view, just a few minutes later:

After uncovering both ends and confirming that the proximal end was thin, therefore a humerus (because of its shape), and therefore a brachiosaur (because of its shape and size together), we were elated, but also concerned. This humerus–one of the largest ever found–was lying in what looked like loose dirt, actually sitting in a little fan of sediment cascading down into the gulch. We knew we needed to get it out before the winter rains came and destroyed it. And for that, we’d need John Foster’s experience with getting big jackets out of inconvenient places. We were also working out there under the auspices of John’s permit, so for many reasons we needed him to see this thing.

We managed to all rendezvous at the site in June: Brian, John, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, their kids Ruby and Harrison, and Thuat. We uncovered the whole bone from stem to stern and put on a coat of glue to conserve it. Any doubts we might have had about the ID were dispelled: it was a right humerus of Brachiosaurus.

While we were waiting for the glue to dry, Brian and Ruby started brushing of a hand-sized bit of bone showing just a few feet away. After about an hour, they had extracted the chunk of bone shown above. This proved to be something particularly exciting: the proximal end of the matching left humerus. We hiked that chunk out, along with more chunks of bone that were tumbled down the wash, which may be pieces of the shaft of the second humerus.

But we still had the intact humerus to deal with. We covered it with a tarp, dirt, and rocks, and started scheming in earnest on when, and more importantly how, to get it out. It weighed hundreds of pounds, and it was halfway down the steep slope of the canyon, a long way over broken ground from even the unmaintained jeep trail that was the closest road. Oh, and there are endangered plants in the area, so we coulnd’t just bulldoze a path to the canyon. We’d have to be more creative.

I told a few close friends about our find over the summer, and my standard line was that it was a very good problem to have, but it was actually still a problem, and one which we needed to solve before the winter rains came.

As it happened, we didn’t get back out to the site until mid-October, which was pushing it a bit. The days were short, and it was cold, but we had sunny weather, and we managed to get the intact humerus uncovered and top-jacketed. Here John Foster and ReBecca Hunt-Foster are working on a tunnel under the bone, to pass strips of plastered canvas through and strengthen the jacket. Tom Howells, a volunteer from the Utah Field House in Vernal, stands over the jacket and assists. Yara Haridy was also heavily involved with the excavation and jacketing, and Brian mixed most of the plaster himself.

John Foster, Brian Engh, Wes and Thayne Bartlett, and Matt Wedel (kneeling). Casey Cordes (blue cap) is in the foreground, working the winch. Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Here we go for the flip. The cable and winch were rigged by Brian’s friend, Casey Cordes, who had joined us from California with his girlfriend, teacher and photographer Mallerie Niemann.

Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Jacket-flipping is always a fraught process, but this one went smooth as silk. As we started working down the matrix to slim the jacket, we uncovered a few patches of bone, and they were all in great shape.

So how’d we get this monster out of the field?

From left to right: Wes Bartlett and one of his horses, Matt Wedel, Tom Howells, and Thayne Bartlett. Photo by Brian Engh.

Clydesdales! John had hired the Bartlett family of Naples, Utah–Wes, Resha, and their kids Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin–who joined us with their horses Molly and Darla. Brian had purchased a wagon with pneumatic tires from Gorilla Carts. Casey took the point on winching the jacket down to the bottom of the wash, where we wrestled it onto the wagon. From there, one of the Clydesdales took it farther down the canyon, to a point where the canyon wall was shallow enough that we could get the wagon up the slope and out. The canyon slope was slickrock, not safe for the horses to pull a load over, so we had to do that stretch with winches and human power, mostly Brian, Tom, and Thayne pushing, me steering, and Casey on the winch.

Easily the most epic and inspiring photo of my butt ever taken. Wes handles horses, Casey coils rope, Thayne pushes the cart, and Kaler looks on. Photo by Brian Engh.

Up top, Wes hooked up the other horse to pull the wagon to the jeep trail, and then both horses to haul the jacket out to the road on a sled. I missed that part–I had gone back to the quarry to grab tools before it got dark–but Brian got the whole thing on video, and it will be coming soon as part of his Jurassic Reimagined documentary series.

There’s one more bit I have to tell, but I have no photos of it: getting the jacket off the sled and onto the trailer that John had brought from the Field House. We tried winching, prybar, you name it. The thing. Just. Did. Not. Want. To. Move. Then Yara, who is originally from Egypt, said, “You know, when my people were building the pyramids, we used round sticks under the big blocks.” As luck would have it, I’d brought about a meter-long chunk of thick dowel from my scrap wood bin. Brian used a big knife to cut down some square posts into roughly-round shapes, and with those rollers, the winch, and the prybar, we finally got the jacket onto the trailer.

The real heroes of the story are Molly and Darla. In general, anything that the horses could help with went waaay faster and more smoothly than we expected, and anything we couldn’t use the horses for was difficult, complex, and terrifying. I’d been around horses before, but I’d never been up close and personal with Clydesdales, and it was awesome. As someone who spends most of his time thinking about big critters, it was deeply satisfying to use two very large animals to pull out a piece of a truly titanic animal.

Back in the prep lab at the Field House in Vernal: Matt Wedel, Brian Engh, Yara Haridy, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, and John Foster.

We’re telling the story now because the humerus is being unveiled for the public today at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal. The event will be at 11:00 AM Mountain Time, and it is open to the public. The humerus, now cataloged as FHPR 17108, will be visible to museum visitors for the rest of its time in the prep lab, before it eventually goes on display at the Field House. We’re also hoping to use the intact right humerus as a Rosetta Stone to interpet and piece back together the shattered chunks of the matching left humerus. There will be a paper along in due time, but obviously some parts of the description will have to wait until the right humerus is fully prepped, and we’ve made whatever progress we can reconstructing the left one.

Why is this find exciting? For a few reasons. Despite its iconic status, in dinosaur books and movies like Jurassic Park, Brachiosaurus is actually a pretty rare sauropod, and as this short video by Brian Engh shows, much of the skeleton is unknown (for an earlier, static image that shows this, see Mike’s 2009 paper on Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan, here). Camarasaurus is known from over 200 individuals, Apatosaurus and Diplodocus from over 100 individuals apiece, but Brachiosaurus is only known from about 10. So any new specimens are important.

A member of the Riggs field crew in 1900, lying next to the humerus of the holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus. I’m proud to say that I know what this feels like now!

If Brachiosaurus is rare, Brachiosaurus humeri are exceptionally rare. Only two have ever been described. The first one, above, is part of the holotype skeleton of Brachiosaurus, FMNH P25107, which came out of the ground near Fruita, Colorado, in 1900, and was described by Elmer S. Riggs in his 1903 and 1904 papers. The second, in the photo below, is the Potter Creek humerus, which was excavated from western Colorado in 1955 but not described until 1987, by Jim Jensen. That humerus, USNM 21903, resides at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The Brachiosaurus humerus from Potter Creek, Colorado, on display at the Smithsonian.

For the sake of completeness, I have to mention that there is a humerus on display at the LA County Museum of Natural History that is labeled Brachiosaurus, but it’s not been written up yet, and after showing photos of it to colleagues, I’m not 100% certain that it’s Brachiosaurus (I’m not certain that it isn’t, either, but further study is needed). And there’s at least one humerus with a skeleton that was excavated by the University of Kansas and sold by the quarry owner to a museum in Korea (I had originally misunderstood this; some but not all of the material from that quarry went to KU), that is allegedly Brachiosaurus, but that one seems to have fallen into a scientific black hole. I can’t say anything about its identification because I haven’t seen the material.

Happy and relieved folks the morning after the Brachstraction: Yara Haridy, Matt Wedel, John and Ruby Foster, and the Bartletts: Kaler, Wes, Cobin, Resha, Jayleigh, and Thayne. Jacketed Brachiosaurus humerus for scale. Photo by Brian Engh.

So our pair of humeri from the Salt Wash of Utah are only the 3rd and 4th that I can confidently say are from Brachiosaurus. And they’re big. Both are at least 62cm wide across the proximal end, and the complete one is 201cm long. To put that into context, here’s a list of the longest sauropod humeri ever found:

  1. Brachiosaurus, Potter Creek, Colorado: 213cm
  2. Giraffatitan, MB.R.2181/SII specimen, Tanzania: 213cm
  3. Brachiosaurus, holotype, Colorado: ~213cm (preserved length is 203cm, but the distal end is eroded, and it was probably 213cm when complete)
  4. Giraffatitan, XV3 specimen, Tanzania: 210cm
  5. *** NEW Brachiosaurus, FHPR 17108, Utah: 201cm
  6. Ruyangosaurus (titanosaur from China): ~190cm (estimated from 135cm partial)
  7. Turiasaurus (primitive sauropod from Spain): 179cm
  8. Notocolossus (titanosaur from Argentina): 176cm
  9. Paralititan (titanosaur from Egypt): 169cm
  10. Patagotitan (titanosaur from Argentina): 167.5cm
  11. Dreadnoughtus (titanosaur from Argentina): 160cm
  12. Futalognkosaurus (titanosaur from Argentina): 156cm

As far as we know, our intact humerus is the 5th largest ever found on Earth. It’s also pretty complete. The holotype humerus has an eroded distal end, and was almost certainly a few centimeters longer in life. The Potter Creek humerus was missing the cortical bone from most of the front of the shaft when it was found, and has been heavily restored for display, as you can see in one of the photos above. Ours seems to have both the shaft and the distal end intact. The proximal end has been through some freeze-thaw cycles and was flaking apart when we found it, but the outline is pretty good. Obviously a full accounting will have to wait until the bone is fully prepared, but we might just have the best-preserved Brachiosaurus humerus yet found.

Me with a cast of the Potter Creek humerus in the collections at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado. The mold for this was made from the original specimen before it was restored, so it’s missing most of the bone from the front of the shaft. Our new humerus is just a few cm shorter. Photo by Yara Haridy.

Oh, our Brachiosaurus is by far the westernmost occurrence of the genus so far, and the stratigraphically lowest, so it extends our knowledge of Brachiosaurus in both time and space. It’s part of a diverse dinosaur fauna that we’re documenting in the Salt Wash, that minimally also includes Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and either Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, just among sauropods. There are also some exciting non-sauropods in the fauna, which we’ll be revealing very soon.

A chunk of matrix from the brachiosaur quarry. The black bits are fossilized plants.

And that’s not all. Unlike most of the other dinosaur fossils we’ve found in the Salt Wash, including the camarasaur, apatosaur, and haplocanthosaur vertebrae I’ve shown in recent posts, the humeri were not in concrete-like sandstone. Instead, they came out of a sandy clay layer, and the matrix is packed with plant fossils. It was actually kind of a pain during the excavation, because I kept getting distracted by all the plants. We did manage to collect a couple of buckets of the better-looking stuff as we were getting the humerus out, and we’ll be going back for more.

As you can seen in Part 1 of Brian’s Jurassic Reimagined documentary series, we’re not out there headhunting dinosaurs, we’re trying to understand the whole environment: the dinosaurs, the plants, the depositional system, the boom-and-bust cycles of rain and drought–in short, the whole shebang. So the plant fossils are almost as exciting for us as the brachiosaur, because they’ll tell us more about the world of the early Morrison.

The Barletts: Thayne, Jayleigh, Resha, Cobin, Wes, and Kaler.

Among the folks I have to thank, top honors go to the Bartlett family. They came to work, they worked hard, and they were cheerful and enthusiastic through the whole process. Even the kids worked–Thayne was one of the driving forces keeping the wagon moving down the gulch, and the younger Bartletts helped Ruby uncover and jacket a couple of small bits of bone that were in the way of the humerus flip. So Wes, Resha, Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin: thank you, sincerely. We couldn’t have done it without you all, and Molly and Darla!

EDIT: I also need to thank Casey Cordes–without his rope and winch skills, the jacket would still be out in the desert. And actually everyone on the team was clutch. We had no extraneous human beings and no unused gear. It was a true team effort.

The full version of the art shown at the top of this post: a new life restoration of Brachiosaurus by Brian Engh.

From start to end, this has been a Brian Engh joint. He found the humerus in the first place, and he was there for every step along the way, including creating the original paleoart that I’ve used to bookend this post. When Brian wasn’t prospecting or digging or plastering (or cooking, he’s a ferociously talented cook) he was filming. He has footage of me walking up to the humerus for the first time last May and being blown away, and he has some truly epic footage of the horses pulling the humerus out for us. All of the good stuff will go into the upcoming installments of Jurassic Reimagined. He bought the wagon and the boat winch with Patreon funds, so if you like this sort of thing–us going into the middle of nowhere, bringing back giant dinosaurs, and making blog posts and videos to explain what we’ve found and why we’re excited–please support Brian’s work (link). Also check out his blog, dontmesswithdinosaurs.com–his announcement about the find is here–and subscribe to his YouTube channel, Brian Engh Paleoart (link), for the rest of Jurassic Reimagined and many more documentaries to come.

(SV-POW! also has a Patreon page [link], and if you support us, Mike and I will put those funds to use researching and blogging about sauropods. Thanks for your consideration!)

The happiest I have ever been in the field. Photo by Yara Haridy.

And for me? It’s been the adventure of a lifetime, by turns terrifying and exhilarating. I missed out on the digs where Sauroposeidon, Brontomerus, and Aquilops came out of the ground, so this is by far the coolest thing I’ve been involved with finding and excavating. I got to work with old friends, and I made new friends along the way. And there’s more waiting for us, in “Brachiosaur Gulch” and in the Salt Wash more generally. After five years of fieldwork, we’ve just scratched the surface. Watch this space!

Media Coverage

Just as I was about to hit ‘publish’ I learned that this story has been beautifully covered by Anna Salleh of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I will add more links as they become available.

References

This past summer I did a post on my birthday card from Brian Engh, but I haven’t posted about my birthday present from him: this handmade fired-clay sculpture of Parasaurolophus.

I don’t have a ton to say about it, other than that — as you can tell from the photos — it looks pretty darned convincing. I adore the fern leaf impressions in the base.

This sits on the mantle in our living room. My eye wanders to it in stray moments. I’ve often run down ornithopods as boring, but they’re all right. They’re the clade of dinosaurs most remote from my research, so they’re about the only ones left that just signify “dinosaur” to me, without any research-related intellectual baggage. So when I’m woolgathering and my eyes land on this sculpture, it doesn’t make me think about me or now. It makes me think about them, and then. It’s a talismanic time machine. And a pretty darned great birthday present. Thanks, Brian!

This is a Galeamopus, roughly two feet long, sculpted by James Herrmann (who also made the life-size Aquilops sculpture and bust) for the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Here’s what it looks like on the other side.

From behind.

And from the front.

I dig this. I’m sure someone else must have done this half-skeletal reconstruction, half-fleshed life restoration style of sculpture before, but I can’t think of any museum-quality examples. The bronze is a nice touch.

Here’s a convincingly chunky Allosaurus.

About the sculpting process, James wrote (in an email with permission to cite):

I worked on all of the museum pieces with Glenn Storrs, Ph.D., vertebrate paleontologist with the Cincinnati Museum Center. He would tell me what he envisioned and provide me with reference material, I would sculpt it, take the clay to Glenn for his critique, take it back and make revisions. We went through several cycles of this for each piece and when I received the final approval I took each piece to the foundry.

Tyrannosaurs are to museums what roller-coasters are to amusement parks. Here’s Daspletosaurus.

My favorite thing about these sculptures is why they’re done in bronze. It’s not just for posterity. James again:

The idea was to provide a small sculpture of each skeletal reconstruction on display for people to touch and feel. It was felt that this element of touch would be particularly important to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired museum visitor. I will feel like I have achieved success when the patina is rubbed off parts of the bronze.

One more, a life-size bust of Galeamopus.

In addition to having these on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center, James will be producing these sculptures as limited editions. If you’re interested, please visit http://www.herrmannstudio.com/.

You may recall that sculptor James Herrmann did a life-size bronze of Aquilops (shown above) back in 2017. I love it, and I’d get one in a heartbeat if I had the disposable income or the space in which to display it. Since I have neither, I got in touch with James and asked if he’d be interested in doing a casting of just the bust. Happily for me, he was game, and today this sturdy wooden crate arrived in the mail:

Inside, insanely well-packed in lots of cushy foam:

That’s a t-shirt James threw in with my order. But you’re probably more interested in this, which was also in the crate:

Unpacked and plunked on the crate lid on the lawn since it was the best I could come up with on short notice:

Some nicer photos by James of the same sculpture in prettier surroundings:

The bust is mounted on a gorgeous piece of polished green marble, with thick felt on the bottom so it won’t scratch up the furniture. The max length of the base is 9.5 inches and when standing on a desk or table, the whole piece is almost exactly 12 inches tall. I haven’t weighed it but it’s heavy enough that you could knock someone out with it, no problem.

I’d say it looks nice, but that’s both redundant, in this photo-heavy post, and a gross understatement. It looks absurdly nice, like it wandered into my space from some other, classier joint. I have some serious desk-cleaning to do so it won’t look like I stole this.

Instead of doing a big run of these, James is having them cast one at a time, on demand. The cost is $500 plus shipping; mine came to $573.33 shipped. If you want one, or want to browse James’s catalogue, or commission something yourself, you can find him at http://www.herrmannstudio.com/.

Thanks, James, for your interest in ‘my’ critter, for your skill in bringing it to life, and for making this bust available. I love it.

Well, that didn’t take long. Earlier today, my subterranean hacker collective released thousands of emails exchanged by Mike Taylor and Brian Engh, which touched on numerous issues of national and global security. Of most interest to SV-POW! readers will be this correspondence from just a few hours ago:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Mike: Artwork attached. [Scroll down to see Mike’s submission.–MJW]

Brian: NAILED IT.

I haven’t been responding here to entrants but i feel pretty safe calling this one the winner already. Thank you for submitting. We can now sit back and laugh as all the other feeble entrants squabble knowing that you’ve already got this one in the bag.

Mike: Thanks, Brian. I hesitated before submitting this, thinking it might not be fair to up-and-coming artists who need the win more than I do; but in the end, I decided that was patronising. If they’re going to win the prize, they have to beat me on merit. You never know: it could happen.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

So, it looks like Brian has made his decision and the contest is effectively over. Although Mike says that someone else winning the contest “could happen”, Brian’s already signaled his intention to “laugh as all the other feeble entrants squabble”, which hardly sounds like he’s going to be giving anyone else a fair shake.

In Brian’s defense, the art that Mike submitted is glorious:

So complex and subtle is this work, so playful in its blending of traditional and cutting-edge thinking, so packed with detail, life history, and sheer emotion, that I feel certain that it will usher in a new era of paleoart as the dominant aesthetic expression on this planet.

Still, I don’t see how #TheSummonENGH2018 is going to survive the inevitable scandal of having a winner secretly chosen on the second day of the contest. I’m torn between towering admiration for my friends and colleagues, and fear for the rifts this may cause in the paleoart community.

I’ve reached out to representatives of both Mike and Brian for comment, and I’ll keep you updated on this developing story as more information becomes available.

Someone on Facebook asked whether sauropods had subcutaneous fat, and by the time my answer hit five paragraphs I thought, “The merciful thing to do here is blog this and link to it.” So here are some things to keep in mind regarding the integumentary systems of sauropods.

Emu dissection at UC Santa Cruz back in 2004. Note the fat pad on the chest and how it abruptly comes to an end.

Sauropods may have had some subcutaneous fat – we can’t rule it out – but it probably wasn’t broadly distributed as it is in mammals. In the interaction of their air sac systems with connective tissue, sauropods were probably a lot like birds. Most birds don’t have subcutaneous fat all over their bodies. Instead, they have subcutaneous air sacs (or pneumatic diverticula) over parts or all of their bodies – in pelicans these are like bubble wrap under the skin, presumably for impact padding and insulation (Richardson 1939, 1943). The diverticula go everywhere and most places they go, they replace adipose tissue, even the harmless bits of fat between muscles that are basically the body’s packing peanuts (broiler chickens don’t count here, they’ve been artificially selected to be radically unhealthy). We suspect that sauropods had subcutaneous diverticula because so many other aspects of their pneumatic systems correspond to those of living birds (see the discussion in Wedel and Taylor 2013b for more on that).

Contrast the narrow line of adipose tissue down the ventral midline with the almost-completely-lean hindlimb.

That’s not to say that birds don’t have subcutaneous fat, just that it tends to be highly localized. Back in grad school I got to help dissect an emu (link) and a rhea (one, two), and in both cases the fat was concentrated in two places: huge paired fat pads over the pelvis, like big lozenges, and a concentration over the sternum with extensions along the ventral midline from the base of the neck to the cloaca. It was weird, the fat would be present and then it would just stop, like somebody flipped a switch. We pulled 18 lbs of fat off a 102-lb emu, so it wasn’t a trivial part of the body composition. IME, even relatively fatty birds like ducks tend to have the fat start and stop abruptly, and again, the fat deposits tend to be concentrated on the breast and tummy and over the hips.

Fat-tailed gecko, borrowed from here.

A lot of lizards and crocs and even some turtles carry fat deposits in their tails, and that is one aspect of sauropod anatomy that is definitely un-bird-like. So some sauropods might have had fat tails.

We can be pretty sure that at least some sauropods had thick skin. Osteoderms (armor plates) from Madagascar show that the bits that were embedded in the skin could be up to 7cm thick, so the surrounding skin was at least that thick and possibly even thicker (Dodson et al. 1998). And that was most likely on Rapetosaurus, which was not a huge sauropod. So giant sauropods might have had even thicker skin. Maybe. Remember that big-ass-ness (here arbitrarily defined as 40+ metric tons) evolved independently in:

They probably didn’t all get there looking the same way, beyond sharing the basic sauropod bauplan.

I’m too lazy to write about the fossil evidence for scaly skin and keratinous spines in sauropods – see this post and the references therein.

One final thing to think about is scar tissue. The scar tissue on the chest of a male elephant seal can be up to 5cm thick. Some sauropods might have had calluses or patches of scar tissue in predictable places, from combat, or habitually pushing down trees with their chests or tails, or doing whatever weird things real animals do when we’re not looking.

So in the toolbox of things to play with in reconstructing the integument of sauropods, we have thick skin, keratinous spines, osteoderms, fat pads (possibly concentrated over the hips and shoulders or on the tail), subcutaneous diverticula, calluses, and scar tissue. And that’s just the stuff we have found or reasonably inferred so far, barely 150 years into our exploration of animals we know mostly from bits and bobs, whose size means they mostly got buried in big sediment-dumping events that would not preserve delicate integumentary structures. Give us a millennium of Yixian Formations and Mahajanga Basins and Howe Quarries and the picture will probably change, and the arrow of history dictates that it will change for the weirder.

Likely? Probably not. But roll the evolutionary dice for 160 million years and you’ll get stranger things than this. Recycled from this post.

Finally, and related to my observation about big-ass-ness: sauropods were a globally-distributed radiation of animals from horse-sized to whale-sized that existed from the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous. The chances that all of them had the same integumentary specializations, for display or combat or insulation or camouflage or whatever, are pretty darned low. Support weird sauropods – and vanilla ones, too.

Almost immediate update: I’ve just been reminded about Mark Witton’s excellent post on dinosaur fat from a couple of years ago. Go read that, and the rest of his blog. I’m sure I missed other relevant posts at other excellent blogs – feel free to remind me in the comments.

References

When I was nine, a copy of Don Glut’s The New Dinosaur Dictionary turned up in my local Waldenbooks. It wasn’t my first dinosaur book, by far – I’d been a dinosaurophile since the age of three. But The New Dinosaur Dictionary was different.

Up to that point, I had subsisted on a heavy diet of kids’ dino books and the occasional article in National Geographic and Ranger Rick. The kids’ books were aimed at kids and the magazine articles were pitched at an engagingly popular level. I didn’t understand every word, but they were clearly written for curious layfolk, not specialists.

A typical spread from The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982). The armored sauropod blew my young mind.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something else entirely. It had photos of actual dinosaur bones and illustrations of skeletons with cryptic captions like, “Skeleton of Daspletosaurus torosus. (After Russell)”. Okay, clearly this Russell cove was out there drawing dinosaur skeletons and this book had reproduced some of them. But nobody I knew talked like that, and the books I had access to up to that point held no comparable language.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 271)

Then there was stuff like this: “The so-called Von Hughenden sauropod restored as a brachiosaurid by Mark Hallett”. A chain of fascinating and pleasurable ideas detonated in my brain. “The so-called” – say what now? Nobody even knew what to call this thing? Somehow I had inadvertently sailed right to the edge of human knowledge of dinosaurs, and was peering out into taxa incognita. “Restored as a brachiosaurid” – so this was just one of several possible ways that the animal might have looked. Even the scientists weren’t sure. This was a far cry from the bland assurances and blithely patronizing tones of all my previous dinosaur books.

“By Mark Hallett.” I didn’t know who this Hallett guy was, but his art was all over the book, along with William Stout and some guy named Robert T. Bakker and a host of others who were exploding my conception of what paleo art could even be. Anyway, this Mark Hallett was someone to watch, not only because he got mentioned by name a lot, but because his art had a crisp quality that teetered on some hypercanny ridge between photorealism and scribbling. His sketches looked like they might just walk off the page.

In case that line about scribbling sounds dismissive: I have always preferred sketches by my favorite artists to their finished products. The polished works are frequently inhumanly good. They seem to have descended in a state of completed perfection from some divine realm, unattainable by mere mortals. Whereas sketches give us a look under the hood, and show how a good artist can conjure light, shadow, form, weight, and texture from a few pencil strokes. Put it this way: I am anatomist by temperament first, and by training and occupation second. Of course I want to see how things are put together.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 75)

Anyway, The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something completely new in my experience. It wasn’t aimed at kids and written as if by kids, like lots of kids’ books. It wasn’t even written by adults talking down (deliberately or inadvertently) to kids, or trying to reach a wide audience that might include kids. It was written by an adult, aiming at other adults. And it was admitting in plain language that we didn’t know everything yet, that there were lots of animals trembling on the outer threshold of scientific knowledge. I didn’t understand half of it – I was down in an ontogenetic trench, looking up as these packets of information exploded like fireworks over my head.

In Seeing In the Dark, the best book about why you should go out stargazing for yourself, Timothy Ferris writes about growing up on Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1960s, and watching the first generation of artificial satellites pass overhead:

I felt like an ancient lungfish contemplating the land from the sea. We could get up there.

That’s precisely the effect that The New Dinosaur Dictionary had on me: I could get up there. Maybe not immediately. But there were steps, bodies of knowledge that could be mastered piecemeal, and most of all, mysteries to be resolved. The book itself was like a sketch, showing how from isolated and broken bones and incomplete skeletons, scientists and artists reconstructed the world of the past, one hypothesis at a time. Now I take it for granted, because I’ve been behind the curtain for a couple of decades. But to my 9-year-old self, it was revolutionary.

This has all come roaring back because of something that came in the mail this week. Or rather, something that had been waiting in the mailroom for a while, that I finally picked up this week: a package from Mark Hallett, enclosing a copy of his 2018 dinosaur calendar. And also this:

 

An original sketch, which he gave to me as a Christmas present. The published version appears on one of the final pages of our book, where we discuss the boundaries between the known – the emerging synthesis of sauropod biology that we hoped to bring to a broader audience by writing the book in the first place – and the unknown – the enduring mysteries that Mark and I think will drive research in sauropod paleobiology for the next few decades. Presented without a caption or commentary, the sketch embodies sauropods as we see them: emerging from uncertainty and ignorance one hard-won line at a time, with ever-increasing solidity.

Thank you, Mark, sincerely. That sketch, what it evokes, both for me now and for my inner 9-year-old – you couldn’t have chosen a better gift. And I couldn’t be happier. Except perhaps to someday learn that our book exploded in the mind of a curious kid the way that The New Dinosaur Dictionary did for me 34 years ago, a time that now seems as distant and romantic as the primeval forests of the Mesozoic.