I have the honor of giving the National Fossil Day Virtual Lecture for The Museums of Western Colorado – Dinosaur Journey, next Wednesday, October 13, from 7:00 to 8:00 PM, Mountain Daylight Time. The title of my talk is “Lost Giants of the Jurassic” but it’s mostly going to be about Brachiosaurus. And since I have a whole hour to fill, I’m gonna kitchen-sink this sucker and put in all the good stuff, even more than last time. The talk is virtual (via Zoom) and free, and you can register at this link.

The photo up top is from this July. That’s John Foster (standing) and me (crouching) with the complete right humerus of Brachiosaurus that we got out of the ground in 2019; that story is here. The humerus is in the prep lab at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal, and if you go there, you can peer through the tall glass windows between the museum’s central atrium and the prep lab and see it for yourself.

If you’ve forgotten what a humerus like that looks like in context, here’s the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton at the North American Museum of Ancient Life with my research student, Kaelen Kay, for scale. Kaelen is 5’8″ (173cm) and as you can see, she can just get her hand on the animal’s elbow. The humerus–in this case, a cast of the right humerus from the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype–is the next bone up the line. Kaelen came out with us this summer and helped dig up some more of our brachiosaur–more on that story in the near future.

Want more Brachiosaurus? Tune in next week. Here’s that registration link again. I hope to see you there!

Last spring I was an invited speaker at PaleoFest at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois. I meant to get these photos posted right after I got back. But I flew back from Illinois on Monday, March 9, 2020, and by the following weekend I was throwing together virtual anatomy labs for the med students. You know the rest. 

The wall of ceratopsians at the Burpee Museum. Every museum should have one of these.

I had a fantastic time at PaleoFest. The hosts were awesome, the talks were great, the Burpee is a cool museum to explore, and the swag was phenomenal.

An ontogenetic series of Triceratops skulls. Check out how the bony horn cores switch from back-curving to forward-curving. The keratin sheaths over the horn cores elongated, but they didn’t remodel, so adult trikes probably had S-curving horns.

I know I poke a lot of fun at non-sauropods around here, but the truth is that I’m a pan-dino-geek at heart. When I’m looking at theropods and ceratopsians I am mostly uncontaminated by specialist knowledge or a desire to work on them, so I can relax, and squee the good squee.

I’m a sucker for dinosaur skin. It’s just mind-blowing that we can tell more or less what it would feel like to pet a dinosaur.

Among the memorable talks last year: Win McLaughlin educated me about rhinos, which are a heck of a lot weirder than I thought; Larisa DeSantis gave a mind-expanding talk about mammalian diets, evolution, and environmental change; and Holly Woodward explained in convincing detail why “Nanotyrannus” is a juvenile T. rex.

The pride of the Burpee Museum: Jane, the juvenile T. rex.

But my favorite presentation of the conference was Susie Maidment’s talk on stegosaurs. It was one of the those great talks in which the questions I had after seeing one slide were answered on the next slide, and where by end of the presentation I had absorbed a ton of new information almost effortlessly, by  just listening to an enthusiastic person talk almost conversationally about their topic. And when I say “effortlessly”, I mean for the audience–I know from long experience that presentations like that are born from deep, thorough knowledge of one’s topic, deliberate planning, and rehearsal.

The big T. rex mount is pretty great, too.

That’s not to slight the other speakers, of course. All the talks were good, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. Full credit to Josh Matthews and the organizing committee for putting on such an engaging and inspiring conference.

Did I say the swag was phenomenal? The swag was phenomenal. Above are just a few of my favorite things: a Burpee-plated Rite-in-the-Rain field notebook, a fridge magnet, a cool sticker, and at the center, My Precious: a personalized Estwing rock hammer. Estwing makes nice stuff, and a lot of paleontologists and field geologists carry Estwing rock hammers. Estwing is also based in Rockford, and they’ve partnered with the Burpee Museum to make these personalized rock hammers for PaleoFest, which is pretty darned awesome.

I already had an Estwing hammer–one of blue-grip models–which is good, because the engraved one is going in my office, not to the field. (If you’re wondering why my field hammer looks so suspiciously unworn, it’s because my original was stolen a few years ago, and I’m still breaking this one in. By doing stuff like this.)

There’s a little Burpee logo with a silhouette of Jane down at the end of the handle, so I had to take Jane to meet Jane.

Parting shot: I grew up in a house out in the country, about 2 miles outside of the tiny town of Hillsdale, Oklahoma, which is about 20 miles north of Enid, which is about 100 miles north-northwest of Oklahoma City. Hillsdale is less than an hour from Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, where you can go dig for selenite crystals like the ones shown above. The digging is only allowed in designated areas, to avoid unexploded ordnance from when the salt plains were used as a bombing range in World War II, and at certain times of year, to avoid bothering the endangered whooping cranes that nest there.

I don’t know how many times I went to Salt Plains to dig crystals as a kid, either on family outings or school field trips, but it was a lot. I still have a tub of them out in the garage (little ones, nothing like museum-quality). And there are nice samples, like the one shown above, in the mineral hall of just about every big natural history museum on the planet. One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new museum is go cruise the mineral display and find the selenite crystals from Salt Plains. I’ve seen Salt Plains selenite in London, Berlin, and Vienna, and in most of the US natural history museums that I’ve visited for research or for fun. The farm boy in me still gets a little thrill at seeing a little piece of northwest Oklahoma, from a place that I’ve been and dug, on display in far-flung cities.

I already credited Josh Matthews for organizing a fabulous conference, but I need to thank him for being such a gracious host. He helped me arrange transportation, saw that all my needs were met, kept me plied with food and drink, and drove me to Chicago, along with a bunch of other folks, for a Field Museum visit before my flight home, which is how I got this awesome photo, and also these awesome photos. Thanks also to my fellow speakers, for many fascinating conversations, and to the PaleoFest audience, for bringing their A game and asking good questions. I didn’t know that PaleoFest 2020 would be my last conference for a while, but it was certainly a good one to go out on.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my and Matt’s paper in Qeios about why vertebral pneumaticity in sauropods is so variable. (Taylor and Wedel 2021). We were intrigued to publish on this new platform that supports post-publication peer-review, partly just to see what happened.

Taylor and Wedel (2021: figure 3). Brontosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980, caudal vertebrae 7 and 8 in right lateral view. Caudal 7, like most of the sequence, has a single vascular foramen on the right side of its centrum, but caudal 8 has two; others, including caudal 1, have none.

So what has happened? Well, as I write this, the paper has been viewed 842 times, downloaded a healthy 739 times, and acquired an altmetric score 21, based rather incestuously on two SV-POW! blog-posts, 14 tweets and a single Mendeley reader.

What hasn’t happened is even a single comment on the paper. Nothing that could be remotely construed as a post-publication peer-review. And therefore no progress towards our being able to count this as a peer-reviewed publication rather than a preprint — which is how I am currently classifying it in my publications list.

This, despite our having actively solicited reviews both here on SV-POW!, in the original blog-post, and in a Facebook post by Matt. (Ironically, the former got seven comments and the latter got 20, but the actual paper none.)

I’m not here to complain; I’m here to try to understand.

On one level, of course, this is easy to understand: writing a more-than-trivial comment on a scholarly article is work, and it garners very little of the kind of credit academics care about. Reputation on the Qeios site is nice, in a that-and-two-bucks-will-buy-me-a-coffee kind of way, but it’s not going to make a difference to people’s CVs when they apply for jobs and grants — not even in the way that “Reviewed for JVP” might. I completely understand why already overworked researchers don’t elect to invest a significant chunk of time in voluntarily writing a reasoned critique of someone else’s work when they could be putting that time into their own projects. It’s why so very few PLOS articles have comments.

On the other hand, isn’t this what we always do when we write a solicited peer-review for a regular journal?

So as I grope my way through this half-understood brave new world that we’re creating together, I am starting to come to the conclusion that — with some delightful exceptions — peer-review is generally only going to happen when it’s explicitly solicited by a handling editor, or someone with an analogous role. No-one’s to blame for this: it’s just reality that people need a degree of moral coercion to devote that kind of effort to other people’s project. (I’m the same; I’ve left almost no comments on PLOS articles.)

Am I right? Am I unduly pessimistic? Is there some other reason why this paper is not attracting comments when the Barosaurus preprint did? Teach me.

References

 

What if I told you that when Matt was in BYU collections a while ago, he stumbled across a cervical vertebra — one labelled DM/90 CVR 3+4, say — that looked like this in anterior view?

I think you would say something like “That looks like a Camarasaurus cervical, resembling as it does those illustrated in the beautiful plates of Osborn and Mook (1921)”. And then you might show me, for example, the left half of Plate LXII:

And then you might think to yourself that, within its fleshy envelope, this vertebra might have looked a bit like this, in a roughly circular neck:

Reasonable enough, right?

But when what if I then told you that in fact the vertebra was twice this wide relative to its height, and looked like this?

I’m guessing you might say “I don’t believe this is real. You must have produced it by stretching the real photo”. To which I would reply “No no, hypothetical interlocutor, the opposite is the case! I squashed the real photo — this one — to produce the more credible-seeming one at the top of the post”.

You would then demand to see proper photographic evidence, and I would respond by posting these three images (which Matt supplied from his 2019 BYU visit):

BYU specimen DM/90 CVR 3+4, cervical vertebra of ?Camarasaurus in anterior view. This is the photo from which the illustration above was extracted.

The same specimen in anteroventral view.

The same specimen in something approaching ventral view.

So what’s going on here? My first thought was that this speicmen has to have been dorsoventrally crushed — that this can’t be the true shape.

And yet … counterpoint: the processes don’t look crushed: check out the really nice 3d preservation of the neural spine metapophyses, the prezygs, the transverse processes, the nice, rounded parapophyseal rami, and even the ventral aspect of the centrum. This vertebra is actually in pretty good condition.

So is this real? Is this the vertebra more or less as it was in life? And if so, does that mean that the flesh envelope looked like this?

Look, I’m not saying it isn’t ridiculous; I’m just saying this seems to be more or less where the evidence is pointing. We’ve made a big deal about how the necks of apatosaurines were more or less triangular in cross-section, rather than round as has often been assumed; perhaps we need to start thinking about whether some camarasaur necks were squashed ovals in cross section?

Part of what’s crazy here is that this makes no mechanical sense. A cantilevered structure, such as a sauropod neck, needs to be tall rather than wide in order to attain good mechanical advantage that can take the stress imposed by the neck’s weight. A broad neck is silly: it adds mass that needs to be carried without providing high anchors for the tension members. Yet this is what we see. Evolution doesn’t always do what we would expect it to do — and it goes off the rails when sexual selection comes into play. Maybe female camarasaurus were just really into wide-necked males?

Final note: I have been playing fast and loose with the genus name Camarasaurus and the broader, vaguer term camarasaur. Matt and I have long felt (without having made any real attempt to justify this feeling) that Camarasaurus is way over-lumped, and probably contains multiple rather different animals. Maybe there is a flat-necked species in among them?

(Or maybe it’s just crushing.)

Taylor 2015: Figure 8. Cervical vertebrae 4 (left) and 6 (right) of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2180 (previously HMN SI), in posterior view. Note the dramatically different aspect ratios of their cotyles, indicating that extensive and unpredictable crushing has taken place. Photographs by author.

Here are cervicals 4 and 8 from MB.R.2180, the big mounted Giraffatitan in Berlin. Even though this is one of the better sauropod necks in the world, the vertebrae have enough taphonomic distortion that trying to determine what neutral, uncrushed shape they started from is not easy.

Wedel and Taylor 2013b: Figure 3. The caudal vertebrae of ostriches are highly pneumatic. This mid-caudal vertebra of an ostrich (Struthio camelus), LACM Bj342, is shown in dorsal view (top), anterior, left lateral, and posterior views (middle, left to right), and ventral view (bottom). The vertebra is approximately 5cm wide across the transverse processes. Note the pneumatic foramina on the dorsal, ventral, and lateral sides of the vertebra.

Here’s one of the free caudal vertebrae of an ostrich, Struthio camelus, LACM Ornithology Bj342. It’s a bit asymmetric–the two halves of the neural spine are aimed in slightly different directions, and one transverse process is angled just slightly differently than the other–but the asymmetry is pretty subtle and the rest of the vertebral column looks normal, so I don’t think this rises to the level of pathology. It looks like the kind of minor variation that is present in all kinds of animals, especially large-bodied ones.

This is a dorsal vertebra of a rhea, Rhea americana, LACM Ornithology 97479, in posteroventral view. Ink pen for scale. I took this photo to document the pneumatic foramina and related bone remodeling on the dorsal roof of the neural canal, but I’m showing it here because in technical terms this vert is horked. It’s not subtly asymmetric, it’s grossly so, with virtually every feature–the postzygapophyses, diapophyses, parapophyses, and even the posterior articular surface of the centrum–showing fairly pronounced differences from left to right.

That rhea dorsal looks pretty bad for dry bone from a recently-dead extant animal, but if it was from the Morrison Formation it would be phenomenal. If I found a sauropod vertebra that looked that good, I’d think, “Hey, this thing’s in pretty good shape! Only a little distorted.” The roughed-up surface of the right transverse process might give me pause, and I’d want to take a close look at those postzygs, but most of this asymmetry is consistent with what I’d expect from taphonomic distortion.

Which brings me to my titular question, which I am asking out of genuine ignorance and not in a rhetorical or leading way: can we tell these things apart? And if so, with what degree of confidence? I know there has been a lot of work on 3D retrodeformation over the past decade and a half at least, but I don’t know whether this specific question has been addressed.

Corollary question: up above I wrote, “It looks like the kind of minor variation that is present in all kinds of animals, especially large-bodied ones”. My anecdotal experience is that the vertebrae of large extant animals tend to be more asymmetric than those of small extant animals, but I don’t know if that’s a real biological phenomenon–bone is bone but big animals have larger forces working on their skeletons, and they typically live longer, giving the skeleton more time to respond to those forces–OR if the asymmetry is the same in large and small animals and it’s just easier to see in the big ones.

If either of those questions has been addressed, I’d be grateful for pointers in the comments, and thanks in advance. If one or both have not been addressed, I think they’re interesting but Mike and I have plenty of other things to be getting on with and we’re not planning to work on either one, hence the “Hey, you! Want a project?” tag.

References

My favorite t-shirt

February 1, 2021

If you’ve been around SV-POW! for long, you’ve seen me in this shirt:

“Retro Brontosaurus Dinosaur T-shirt” by Dinosaur Tees, modeled by Matt Wedel, cast right forelimb of Brachiosaurus for scale.

I found it on Amazon. Well, actually the first one I found was this rather dapper plesiosaur:

One of the things I like best about the recent movies in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse — Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the upcoming Godzilla vs Kong — is Monarch, the shadowy organization tasked with finding and studying giant monsters. By the time of King of the Monsters, Monarch is basically SHIELD, with bases scattered around the globe and a giant flying carrier-aircraft, the USS Argo.

I prefer the scrappier, always-on-the-verge-of-being-shut-down Monarch from the 1973-set Kong: Skull Island. And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I was instantly taken with that plesiosaur t-shirt because in my headcanon it was the official garb of Monarch’s Loch Ness division in the 1970s. I had to go with the sauropod version, though, for obvious reasons — maybe Monarch has a Mokele-mbembe division (not so far out since old M-M shows up as a dot on a map in King of the Monsters). 

I have zero stake in Dinosaur Tees, mind. I just dig their retro dinosaur shirts. Find them here.

And as for Monarch — at least in its early incarnation, as a ragtag group of underfunded folks from wildly differing backgrounds that goes to remote places to search for monsters — I flatter myself that I have a not-entirely-different job.

 

Here are some blank diagrams I whipped up for drawing in spinal cord pathways.

This one shows the whole cord, brainstem, thalamus, and cerebral cortex in coronal section, in cartoon form.

It’s for drawing in ascending sensory and descending motor pathways, as shown in this office hours sketch. DC-ML is dorsal column/medial lemniscus, which carries discriminative touch and conscious proprioception. ALS is anterolateral system, which carries pain, temperature, pressure, and itch. The lateral corticospinal tract carries fibers for voluntary control of major muscle groups. Each pathway differs in terms of where it decussates (crosses the midline, left-to-right and vice versa) and synapses (relays from one neuron to the next). The sensory pathways involve primary, secondary, and tertiary sensory neurons, and the motor pathways involve upper motor neurons (UMNs) and lower motor neurons (LMNs).

This one shows cross-sections of the cord at cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral levels, for drawing ascending and descending pathways and thinking about how patterns of somatotopy come to exist.

Somatotopy is the physical representation of the body in the central nervous system. A common abbreviation scheme is A-T-L for arm-trunk-leg, as shown here for ascending sensory and descending motor pathways.

Finally, this one shows the spinal cord and spinal nerve roots at four adjacent spinal levels, for tracking the specific fates of sensory and motor neurons at each spinal level.

This is particularly useful when working out the consequences of an injury, like the spinal cord hemisection (Brown-Sequard syndrome) shown here in pink. The little human figure only shows the zone in which pain and temperature sensation are lost. There would also be losses of discriminative touch, conscious proprioception, and voluntary motor control on the same side as the injury.

Finally, since we’ve had a bit of a sauropod drought lately, here are a couple of photos of the mounted cast skeleton of Patagotitan in Stanley Field Hall at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

I gotta say, this mount beats the one at the AMNH in every way, because it’s well lit and you can move all the way around it and even look down on it from above. In fact, in terms of getting to move all the way around it, get well back from it to see the whole thing at once, and even walk directly underneath it (without having to ask permission to hop the fence), it might be the best-mounted sauropod skeleton in the world. The Brachiosaurus outside is also pretty great (evidence), but it loses points because you can’t walk around it on an upstairs balcony. Every other mounted sauropod I know of is either in more cramped surroundings, or you can’t get underneath it, or is less well-lit, or some combination of the above. Am I forgetting any worthy contenders? Feel free to make your case in the comments.

Incidentally, the spinal cord of Patagotitan was something like 120 feet long, and the longest DC-ML primary sensory neurons ran all the way from tail-tip to brainstem before they synapsed, making them among the longest cells in the history of life.

A belated thank-you to Josh Matthews and the rest of the Burpee PaleoFest crew for a fun day at the FMNH back in March. I got home from that trip about 3 days before the pandemic quarantine started, so it’s waaaaay past time for me to blog about how awesome that trip was. Watch this space. UPDATE: hey, look, it only took me a third of a year this time! Link.

Long before Matt and others were CT-scanning sauropod vertebrae to understand their internal structure, Werner Janensch was doing it the old-fashioned way. I’ve been going through old photos that I took at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin back in 2005, and I stumbled across this dorsal centrum:

Dorsal vertebra centum of ?Giraffatitan in ventral view, with anterior to top.

You can see a transverse crack running across it, and sure enough the front and back are actually broken apart. Here there are:

The same dorsal vertebral centrum of ?Giraffatitan, bisected transversely in two halves. Left: anterior half in posterior view; right: posterior half in anterior view. I had to balance the anterior half on my shoe to keep it oriented corrrectly for the photo.

This does a beautiful job of showing the large lateral foramina penetrating into the body of the centrum and ramifying further into the bone, leaving only a thin midline septum.

But students of the classics will recognise this bone immediately as the one that Janensch (1947:abb. 2) illustrated the posterior half of in his big pneumaticity paper:

It’s a very strange feeling, when browsing in a collection, to come across a vertebra that you know from the literature. As I’ve remarked to Matt, it’s a bit like running into, say, Cameron Diaz in the corner shop.

Reference

  • Janensch, W. 1947. Pneumatizitat bei Wirbeln von Sauropoden
    und anderen Saurischien. Palaeontographica, supplement
    7:1-25.

Storm Giant

March 12, 2020

Challenge: can you spot the Iguanodon pelvis in this photo?

Big news: I will be at the Burpee Museum PaleoFest this year. I’m speaking at 10:30 AM on Sunday, March 8. The title of my talk is, “In the Footsteps of Giants: Finding and Excavating New Fossils of Brachiosaurus from the Lower Morrison Formation in Utah”. Brian Engh, John Foster, and ReBecca Hunt-Foster are all coauthors.

The main page for PaleoFest 2020 is here (link), and on the right side of that page there’s a block of quick links to the speaker list, daily schedules, and so on. If you’re in the Midwest and not already booked for the weekend of March 7-8, come on out and I’ll talk your legs off about dinosaurs.

The photo above is of me at a table at the Raymond M. Alf Museum Fossil Fest on February 8, 2020. It’s nothing to do with the Burpee PaleoFest, I just needed a photo of me talkin’ Brachiosaurus. And yes, you can have that t-shirt — objectively the greatest in the history of the universe — when you cut it off my cold, dead carcass. (Or you can order your own; this model is the “Retro Brontosaurus Dinosaur T-shirt” by Dinosaur Tees and the Amazon link is here.)