April 30, 2016
I love Utah. I love how much of the state is given over to exposed Mesozoic rocks. I love driving through Utah, which has a strong baseline of beautiful scenery that is frequently punctuated by the absolutely mind-blowing (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley…). I love doing fieldwork there, and I love the museums, of which there are many. It is not going too far to say that much of what I learned firsthand about sauropod morphology, I learned in Utah (the Carnegie Museum runs a close second on the dragging-Matt-out-of-ignorance scale).
There is no easy way to say this so I’m just going to get it over with: Mike has never been to Utah.
I know, right?
But we’re going to fix that. Mike’s flying into Salt Lake City this Wednesday, May 4, and I’m driving up from SoCal to meet him. After that we’re going to spend the next 10 days driving around Utah and western Colorado hitting museums and dinosaur sites. We’re calling it the Sauropocalypse.
Why am I telling you this, other than to inspire crippling jealousy?
First, Mike and I are giving a pair of public talks next Friday evening, May 6, at the USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price. The talks start at 7:00 and will probably run until 8:00 or shortly after, and there will be a reception with snacks afterward. Mike’s talk will be, “Why giraffes have such short necks”, and my own will be, “Why elephants are so small”.
Second, occasionally people leave comments to the effect of, “Hey, if you’re ever passing through X, give me a shout.” I haven’t kept track of all of those, so this is me doing the same thing in reverse. Here’s our itinerary as of right now:
May 4, Weds: MPT flies in. MJW drives up from Cali. Stay in SLC/Provo area.
May 5, Thurs: recon BYU collections in Provo. Stay in SLC/Provo area.
May 6, Fri: drive to Price, visit USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum, give evening talks. Stay in Price.
May 7, Sat: drive to Vernal, visit DNM. Stay in Vernal.
May 8, Sun: visit Utah Field House, revisit DNM if needed, drive to Fruita.
May 9, Mon: visit Rabbit Valley camarasaur in AM, visit Dinosaur Journey museum in PM. Go on to Moab.
May 10, Tues: drive back to Provo, visit BYU collections.
May 11, Weds: BYU collections.
May 12, Thurs: drive to SLC to visit UMNH collections, stay for Utah Friends of Paleontology meeting that evening.
May 13, Fri: BYU collections.
May 14, Sat: visit North American Museum of Ancient Life. MPT flies home. MJW starts drive home.
We’re planning lots of time at BYU because we’ll need it, the quantity and quality of sauropod material they have there is ridiculous. As for the rest, some of those details may change on the fly but that’s the basic plan. Maybe we’ll see you out there.
February 27, 2016
Here’s the “Clash of the Titans” exhibit at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, featuring the reconstructed skeletons of the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus – which I guess should now be called the giant Oklahoma apatosaurine until someone sorts out its phylogenetic position – and the darn-near-T. rex-sized Saurophaganax maximus, which may be Allosaurus maximus depending on who you’re reading.
Now, I love this exhibit in both concept and execution. But one thing that is more obvious in this view from the upper level balcony is that despite its impressive weaponry, a lone 3-to-5 ton Saurophaganax had an Arctic ice cap’s chance in the Anthropocene of taking down a healthy 30-meter, 40-50 ton apatosaur (which is to say, none). I like to imagine that in the photo above, the apatosaur is laughing at the pathetically tiny theropod and its delusions of grandeur.
In this shot from behind, you get a better look at the baby apatosaur standing under the big one, and it hints at a far more likely target for Saurophaganax and other large Morrison theropods: sauropods that were not fully-grown, which was almost all of them. I am hip to the fact that golden eagles kill deer, and some lions will attack elephants – as Cookie Monster says, “Sometime food, not anytime food” – but not only were smaller sauropods easier prey, they were far more numerous given the inevitable population structure of animals that started reproducing at a young age and made more eggs the bigger they got (as essentially all egg-laying animals do).
In fact, as discussed in our recent paper on dinosaur ontogeny (Hone et al. 2016), there may have been times when the number of fully-grown sauropods in a given population was zero, and the species was maintained by reproducing juveniles. The giant Oklahoma apatosaurine is a unique specimen today – by far the largest apatosaurine we have fossils of – but it may also have been an anomaly in its own time, the rare individual that made it through the survivorship gauntlet to something approaching full size.
Amazingly enough, there is evidence that even it was not fully mature, but that’s a discussion for another day. Parting shot:
In a recent post I showed some photos of the mounted apatosaurine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, AMNH 460, which Tschopp et al. (2015) regarded as an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study.
A lot of museums whose collections and exhibits go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries have scale model skeletons and sculptures that were used to guide exhibit design. I have always been fascinated by these models, partly because they’re windows into another era of scientific research and science communication, and partly because they’re just cool – basically the world’s best dinosaur toys – and I covet them. In my experience, it is very, very common to find these treasures of history buried in collections, stuck up on top of specimen cabinets, or otherwise relegated to some out-of-the-way corner where they won’t be in the way. I know that exhibit space is always limited, and these old models often reflect ideas about anatomy, posture, or behavior that we now know to be mistaken. But I am always secretly thrilled when I see these old models still on exhibit.
The AMNH has a bunch of these things, because Henry Fairfield Osborn was crazy about ’em. He not only used 2D skeletal reconstructions and 3D model skeletons to guide exhibit design, he published on them – see for example his 1898 paper on models of extinct vertebrates, his 1913 paper on skeleton reconstructions of Tyrannosaurus, and his 1919 paper with Charles Mook on reconstructing Camarasaurus. That genre of scientific paper seems to have disappeared. I wonder if the time is right for a resurgence.
So in a glass case at the feet of AMNH 460 is a model – I’d guess about 1/12 or 1/15 scale – of that very skeleton. You can tell that it’s a model of that particular skeleton and not just some average apatosaur by looking carefully at the vertebrae. Apatosaurines weren’t all stamped from quite the same mold and the individual peculiarities of AMNH 460 are captured in the model. It’s an amazing piece of work.
The only bad thing about it is that – like almost everything behind glass at the AMNH – it’s very difficult to photograph without getting a recursive hell of reflections. But at least it’s out where people can see and marvel at it.
Oh, and those are the cervical vertebrae of Barosaurus behind it – Mike and I spent more time trying to look and shoot past this model than we did looking at it. But that’s not the model’s fault, those Barosaurus cervicals are just ridiculously inaccessible.
So, memo to museums: at least some of us out here are nuts about your old dinosaur models, and where there’s room to put them on exhibit, they make us happy. They also give us views of the skeletons that we can’t get otherwise, so they serve a useful education and scientific purpose. More, please.
Osborn, H. F. (1898). Models of extinct vertebrates. Science, New Series, 7(192): 841-845.
Osborn, H.F. (1913). Tyrannosaurus, restoration and model of the skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 32: 91-92, plates 4-6.
Osborn, H. F., & Mook, C. C. (1919). Characters and restoration of the sauropod genus Camarasaurus Cope. From type material in the Cope Collection in the American Museum of Natural History. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 58(6): 386-396.
Apatosaurines on the brain right now.
I’ve been thinking about the question raised by Jerry Alpern, a volunteer tour guide at the AMNH, regarding the recent Tschopp et al. (2015) diplodocid phylogeny. Namely, if AMNH 460 is now an indeterminate apatosaurine, pending further study, what should the museum and its docents tell the public about it?
Geez, Apatosaurus, it’s not like we’re married!
I think it’s a genuinely hard problem because scientific and lay perspectives on facts and hypotheses often differ. If I say, “This animal is Apatosaurus“, that’s a fact if I’m talking about YPM 1860, the genoholotype of Apatosaurus ajax; it would continue to be a fact even if Apatosaurus was sunk into another genus (as Brontosaurus was for so long). We might call that specimen something else, but there would always be a footnote pointing out that it was still the holotype of A. ajax, even if the A. part was at least temporarily defunct – the scientific equivalent of a maiden name.* For every other specimen in the world, the statement, “This animal is Apatosaurus” is a hypothesis about relatedness, subject to further revision.
* This is going to sound kinda horrible, but when one partner in a marriage takes the other’s surname, that’s a nomenclatural hypothesis about the future of the relationship.
Things that look fairly solid and unchanging from a distance – specifically, from the perspective of the public – often (always?) turn out to be fairly fuzzy or even arbitrary upon closer inspection. Like what is Apatosaurus (beyond the holotype, I mean) – or indeed, what is a planet.** There is no absolute truth to quest for here, only categories and hypotheses that scientists have made up so that we can have constructive conversations about the crazy spectrum of possibilities that nature presents us. We try to ground those categories and hypotheses in evidence, but there will always be edge cases, and words will always break down if you push them too hard. Those of us who work on the ragged frontier of science tend to be fairly comfortable with these inescapable uncertainties, but I can understand why people might get frustrated when they just want to know what the damned dinosaur is called.
** Triton, the largest body orbiting Neptune, is almost certainly a captured Kuiper Belt object, and it’s bigger than Pluto. Moon or planet? Probably best to say a former dwarf planet currently operating as a satellite of Neptune – but that’s a mouthful (and a mindful, if you stop to think about it), not a short, convenient, easily-digestible label. Any short label is going to omit important information. This is related to the problem of paper title length – below some threshold, making something shorter means making it incomplete.
What I would say
I suppose the short version that is most faithful to the Tschopp et al. results is:
This skeleton (AMNH 460) might be Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus or a third, new thing – scientists aren’t sure yet.
A reasonable follow-up sentence – and an answer to the inevitable “Why not?” – would be:
They have to look at 477 anatomical details for lots of skeletons and weigh all the evidence, and that takes time.
Personally, if I was talking to museum visitors I would lean in conspiratorially and say:
If you want to call it Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, go ahead – those are both ‘live’ hypotheses, and even the world’s experts on this problem can’t tell you that you’re guessing the wrong way – at least not yet.
And if there was a kid in the group, I’d add:
Maybe you’ll be the one to figure it out!
What would you say?
P.S. I wouldn’t change the signage. It could still turn out to be Apatosaurus, and the Tschopp et al. results do not lend themselves to easy label-ification.
P.P.S. With some modification for taxonomy, all of this applies to the Field Museum diplodocid FMNH P25112 as well.
April 30, 2015
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
[Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN S II), mounted skeleton in left anteroventrolateral view. Presacral vertebrae sculpted, skull scaled and 3d-printed from specimen T1. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.]
February 10, 2015
Go to Google and do a picture search for “natural history museum”. Here are the results I get. (I’m searching the UK, where that term refers to the British museum of that name — results in the USA may very.)
In the top 24 images, I see that half of them are of the building itself — rightly so, as it’s a beautiful and impressive piece of architecture that would be well worth visiting even if it was empty. Of the rest, ten are of specimens inside the museum: and every single one of them is of the Diplodocus in the main hall. (The other two photos are from the French natural history museum, so don’t really belong in this set. Not coincidentally, they are both primarily photos of the French cast of the same Diplodocus.)
The NHM’s Diplodocus — I can’t bring myself to call it “Dippy” is the icon of the museum. It’s what kids go to see. It’s what the museum used as the basis of the logo for the 2005 SVPCA meeting that was held there. It’s essentially the museum mascot — the thing that everyone thinks of when they think of the NHM.
And rightly so: it’s not just a beautiful specimen, it’s not just sensational for the kids. As the first cast ever made of the Carnegie specimen CM 84, it’s a historically important object in its own right. It was the first mounted Diplodocus ever, being presented in 1905 before the the original material was even on display in Pittsburgh.
As a matter of fact, this cast was the very first mounted sauropod to be publicly displayed: that honour is usually given to the AMNH Apatosaurus, but as museum-history expert Ilja Nieuwland points out:
The London ‘Dippy’ was in fact the first sauropod on public display, if only for three days in early July of 1904, in the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall.
There you have the Natural History Museum Diplodocus: the symbol of the museum, an icon of evolution, a historical monument, a specimen of great scientific value and unparalleled symbolism.
So naturally the museum management want to tear it down. They want to convert the Diplodocus hall into a blue whale hall. Because the museum doesn’t already have a blue whale hall.
Or, no — wait — it does already have a blue whale hall. That’s it. That’s what I meant to say. And very impressive it is, too.
I don’t mind admitting that the whale hall is my second favourite room in the museum. Whenever I go there as a tourist (rather than as a scientist, when I spend all my time in the basement), I make sure I see it. It’s great.
The thing is, it’s already there. A museum with a whale hall does not need another whale hall.
Obviously anticipating the inevitable outcry, the museum got all its ducks in a row on this. They released some admittedly beautiful concept artwork, and arranged to have opinion pieces written in support of the change — some by people who I would have expected to know better.
One of the more breathtaking parts of this planned substitution is the idea that Diplodocus is no longer relevant. The NHM’s director, Sir Michael Dixon says the change is “about asking real questions of contemporary relevance”. He says “going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do”. This “relevance” rhetoric is everywhere. The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”, writes Henry Nicholls in the Guardian.
There was a time when Diplodocus was relevant, you know: waaay back in the 1970s. But time has moved on, and now that’s 150,000,035 years old, it’s become outdated.
Conversely, the rationale for the whale seems to be that they want to use it as a warning about extinction. But could there ever be a more powerful icon of extinction than a dinosaur?
The thing is, the right solution is so obvious. Here’s what they want to do:
Clearly the solution is, yes, hang the whale from the ceiling — but don’t remove the Diplodocus. Because, seriously, what could be a better warning about extinction than the juxtaposition of a glorious animal that we lost with one that we could be about to lose?
All this argument about which is better, a Diplodocus or a blue whale: what a waste of energy. Why should we have to choose? Let’s have both.
I’ve even had an artist’s impression made, at great expense, to show how the combination exhibit would look. Check it out.
(If anyone would like to attempt an even better rendering, please by my guest. Let me know, and I’ll add artwork to this page.)
So that’s my solution. Keep the museum’s iconic, defining centrepiece — and add some more awesome instead of exchanging it. Everyone wins.
January 29, 2015
There’s a new mamenchisaurid in town! It’s called Qijianglong (“dragon of Qijiang”), and it’s the work of Xing et al. (2015).
As far as I can make out, the life restoration is also due to Xing Lida: at least, every instance of the picture I’ve seen says “Credit: Xing Lida”. If that’s right, it’s an amazing display of dual expertise to produce both the science and the art! We could quibble with details, but it’s a hundred times better than I could ever do. [Update: no, it’s by Cheung Chungtat, but being uniformly mis-attributed in the media. Thanks to Kevin for the correction in the comment below.]
There’s a mounted skeleton of this new beast in the museum local to where it was found, though I don’t know how much of the material is real, or cast from the real material. Here it is:
A new sauropod is always great news, of course, and it’s a source of shame to us that we cover so few of them here on SV-POW!. (Just think of some of the ones we’ve missed recently … Leikupal, for example.)
But as is so often the case, the most interesting thing about this new member of the club is its vertebrae — specifically the cervicals. Here they are:
(At first, I couldn’t figure out what this pocdl abbreviation meant. Then I realised it was a vanilla posterior centrodiapophyseal lamina. Come on, folks. That element has had a standard abbreviation since 1999. Let’s use our standards!)
The hot news in these cervicals is the presence of what the authors call “a distinct finger-like process extending from the postzygapophyseal process beside a zygapophyseal contact”. They don’t give a name to these things, but I’m going to call them parapostzygapophyses since they’re next to the postzygapophyses. [Update: see the comment from Matt below.]
You can get some sense of this morphology from the figure above — although it doesn’t help that we’re looking at tiny greyscale images which really don’t convey 3d structure at all. The best illustration is part J of the figure:
What are these things? The paper itself says disappointingly little about them. I quote from page 9:
From the axis to at least the 14th cervical vertebra, a finger- like process extends posteriorly above the postzygapophysis and overlaps onto the dorsolateral surface of the prezygapophysis of the next vertebra (Fig. 11I, J). These processes are unique to Qijianglong, unlike all previously known mamenchisaurids that are preserved with cervical vertebrae (e.g., Chuanjiesaurus, Mamenchisaurus spp., Omeisaurus spp., Tonganosaurus). Therefore, the neck of Qijianglong presumably had a range of motion restricted in sideways.
So what are these things? The authors — who after all have seen the actual fossils, not just the rather inadequate pictures — seem to assume that they are a stiffening adaptation, but don’t discuss their reasoning. My guess — and it’s only a guess — it that they assumed that this is what was going on with these processes because it’s what people have assumed about extra processes on xenarthrous vertebrae. But as best as I can determine, that’s not been demonstrated either, only assumed. Funny how these things seem to get a pass.
So what are these processes? It’s hard to say for sure without having seen the fossils, or at least some better multi-view photos, but the obvious guess is that they are our old friends epipophyses, in extreme form. That is, they are probably enlarged attachment points for posteriorly directed dorsal muscles, just as the cervical ribs are attachment points for posteriorly directly ventral muscles.
It’s a shame that Xing et al. didn’t discuss this (and not only because it would probably have meant citing our paper!) Their new beast seems to have some genuinely new and interesting morphology which is worthy of a bit more attention than they gave it, and whose mechanical implications could have been discussed in more detail. Until more is written about these fossils (or better photographs published) I think I am going to have to suspend judgement on the as-yet unjustified assumption that the parapostzygs were there to make the neck rigid against transverse bending.
A final thought: doesn’t JVP seem terribly old-fashioned now? It’s not just the paywall — apologies to those many of you who won’t be able to read the paper. The greyscaling of the figures is part of it — something that makes no sense at all in 2015. The small size and number of the illustrations is also a consequence of the limited page-count of a printed journal — it compares poorly with, for example, the glorious high-resolution colour multiview illustrations in Farke et al.’s (2013) hadrosaur description in PeerJ. Seems to me that, these days, all the action is over at the OA journals with infinite space — at least when it comes to descriptive papers.
- 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. doi:10.7717/peerj.182
- Xing Lida, Tetsuto Miyashita, Jianping Zhang, Daqing Li, Yong Ye, Toru Sekiya, Fengping Wang & Philip J. Currie. 2015. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of China and the diversity, distribution, and relationships of mamenchisaurids. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi:10.1080/02724634.2014.889701