Storm Giant

March 12, 2020

No, not his new Brachiosaurus humerus — his photograph of the Chicago Brachiosaurus mount, which he cut out and cleaned up seven years ago:

This image has been on quite a journey. Since Matt published this cleaned-up photo, and furnished it under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC By) licence, it has been adopted as the lead image of Wikipedia’s Brachiosaurus page [archvied]:

Consequently (I assume) it has now become Google’s top hit for brachiosaurus skeleton:

Last Saturday, Fiona and I went to Birdland, a birds-only zoo in the Cotswolds, about an hour away from where we live. The admission price also includes “Jurassic Journey”, a walking tour of a dozen or so not-very-good dinosaur models. In an interpretive centre in this area, I found this Brachiosaurus skeletal reconstruction stencilled on the wall:

I immediately knew it was the Chicago mount due to the combination of Giraffatitan anterior dorsals and Brachiosaurus posterior dorsals; but I found it more hauntingly familiar than that. A quick hunt turned up Matt’s seven-year-old post, and when I told Matt about my discovery he filled me in on its use in Wikipedia.

So this is 99% of a good story: we’re delighted that this work is out there, and has resulted in a much better Brachiosaurus image at Birdland than the rather sad-looking Stegosaurus next to it. The only slight disappointment is that I couldn’t find any sign of credit, which they really should have included given that Matt put the image out under CC By rather than in the public domain.

But as Matt said: “Even though I didn’t get credited, I’m always chuffed to see my stuff out in the world.” So true.

 

Left lateral view

Have we ever posted decent photos of the Brachiosaurus altithorax caudals? Has anyone? I can’t remember either thing ever happening. When I need images of brachiosaur bits, including caudals, I usually go to Taylor (2009).

Taylor (2009: fig. 3)

Which is silly, not because Mike’s diagrams compiling old illustrations aren’t good – they definitely are – but because I’m sitting on a war chest of decent photos of the actual material. I am home sick with a sore throat today, and I can’t be arsed to (1) follow up on the “Down in Flames” post, (2) add anything thoughtful to the vertebral orientation discussion, or (3) crop or color-adjust these photos. You’re getting them just as they came out of my camera, from my trip to the Field Museum in 2012.

Here are the rest of the orthogonal views:

Right lateral view

 

Anterior view

 

Posterior view

 

Dorsal view of caudal 1

 

Dorsal view of caudal 2

And here’s a virtual walkaround using a series of oblique shots. Making a set like this is part of my standard practice now for important specimens during museum visits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, I said up top that I wasn’t going to add anything thoughtful to the vertebral orientation discussion. I have thoughts on that, but I’m tired and hopped up on cold medicine and now ain’t the time. In lieu of blather, here are a couple of relevant photos.

 

I wanted to capture for my future self the pronounced non-orthogonality of the neural canal and centrum, so I rolled up a piece of paper and stuck it through the neural canal. I haven’t run the numbers, but in terms of “angle of the articular faces away from the neural canal”, these verts look like they’re right up there with my beloved Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus.

More on that next time, I reckon. In the meantime, all these photos are yours now (CC-BY, like everything on this site [that someone else hasn’t asserted copyright over]). Go have fun.

Reference

Left side, posterolateral oblique view, wide shot.

Same thing, close up.

Right side, lateral, wide.

Same thing, close up.

For more on this and other pneumatic sauropod tails, please see Wedel and Taylor (2013, here). And for more on the currently unresolved taxonomic status of FMNH P25112, see this post.

Brontosaurus, the animal formerly known as Apatosaurus, the animal formerly known as Brontosaurus.

YPM 1980: Brontosaurus excelsus, the animal formerly known as Apatosaurus excelsus, the animal formerly known as Brontosaurus excelsus.

Today is a good day for sauropod science. Since we’re not getting this up until the afternoon, you’ve probably already seen that Emanuel Tschopp and colleagues have published a monstrous specimen-level phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocidae and, among other things, resurrected Brontosaurus as a valid genus. The paper is in PeerJ so you can read it for free (here).

I’ve already been pinged by lots of folks asking for my thoughts on this. I know that the return of Brontosaurus is what’s going to catapult this paper into the spotlight, but I hope what everyone takes away from it is just what a thorough piece of work it is. I’ve never seen so many phylogenetic characters illustrated so well. It sets a new standard, and anyone who wants to overturn this had better roll up their sleeves and bring a boatload of data. I’m also very, very happy that it’s open-access so everyone in the world can see it, use it, question it, tear it apart or build on it. Getting Brontosaurus back is just gravy. Although, being pro-brontosaur enough to have named a dinosaur in honor of Brontosaurus, I’m also pretty happy about that. If you need a quick guide to who’s who now, A. ajax and A. louisae are still Apatosaurus, and B. excelsus, B. yahnahpin (formerly Eobrontosaurus), and B. parvus (originally Elosaurus) are all Brontosaurus. For more details, go read the paper.

A louisae from Wikipedia - full

Apatosaurus lousiae CM 3018: still Apatosaurus. Photo from Wikipedia.

My personal feelings aside, a lot of people are asking how solid is this generic re-separation. I haven’t read the entire paper yet – it’s 299 pages long, for crying out loud – but the separation of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus seems solid enough. Tschopp et al. didn’t do it lightly, they justify their decision in detail. I don’t hold with the idea that just because two taxa are sisters, means that they cannot be separated generically. As usual in phylogenetic taxonomy, it comes down to what we decide as a community constitutes “diagnosably distinct”. Tschopp et al. have actually put some thought into what that might mean here, and whether you agree with them or not, they’ve at least made all of their evidence and reasoning explicit. That’s both an opportunity and a challenge for critics: an opportunity to pin down exactly where and why you may disagree, and a challenge to do exactly that. You can’t just sit back and say, “I think the analysis is flawed” or “I wouldn’t have coded that character that way” (well, you can, but if that’s all you say, no-one is obliged to take that kind of lazy, drive-by criticism seriously). There are 477 characters here, most of them illustrated, for 81 OTUs, and a lot of post-hoc discussion of the results. So whether you agree with the authors or not, in whole or in part, both fans and critics should dig in and build on this work. Is it the last word on diplodocid taxonomy? Of course not. But it does move the field forward significantly, and the Tschopp et al. should be applauded for that.

There’s a lot more in there than just bringing back Brontosaurus. “Diplodocus” hayi is elevated to its own genus, Galeamopus. Neither of those things are super surprising. There have been rumors since the 90s at least that Brontosaurus might be coming back, and everyone has known for a while that D. hayi was a bit wonky. I was also not surprised to see Australodocus returned to Diplodocidae – when I saw the type material in 2011, it looked diplodocid to me (based on some characters I’ll have to unpack in some other post). More surprising to me are the sinking of Dinheirosaurus into Supersaurus, the finding that Tornieria is not particularly close to Diplodocus, and the uncertain positions of AMNH 460, the American Museum mount, which is an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study, of FMNH 25112, the Field Museum “Apatosaurus”, which might not even be an apatosaurine at all(!). In several cases, Tschopp et al. come right out and say that X is going to need further study, so if you want to work on sauropods and you’re stuck for project ideas, go see what needs doing.

AMNH mounted Apatosaurus with Taylor for scale

AMNH 460: we don’t know who this is anymore.

As I was scanning the paper again while composing the last paragraph, I almost fell down the rabbit hole. So much interesting stuff in this paper. Even if all you care about is morphology, the hundred or so figures illustrating the phylogenetic characters ought to keep you happy for a very long time. I look forward to reading through the vertebral characters in detail and seeing what I’ve been missing all these years.

I’m contractually obliged to point out that the authors chose to publish the complete peer-review history of the paper, so you can see what the editor (Andy Farke) and reviewers had to say. As always, I think this transparency (and credit for the reviewers) is great for science, and I can’t wait until it’s the norm at more journals.

FMNH 25112 formerly Apatosaurus

FMNH 25112: what even IS that thing?

In addition to the paper, there’s also an interview with lead author Emanuel Tschopp on the PeerJ blog, and a nice shout-out for SV-POW!

Parting shot: why did Tschopp et al. get different results than anyone had previously? Because they used more specimens and more taxa – more data full stop. That’s also why their paper warrants serious consideration. It’s serious work. Let’s go stand on their shoulders.

Reference

Tschopp E, Mateus O, Benson RBJ. (2015) A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) PeerJ 3:e857 https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.857

In recent photo posts on the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton and its bones in the ground, I’ve lamented that the Field Museum’s online photo archive is so unhelpful: for example, if it has a search facility, I’ve not been able to find it.

But the good news is that there’s a Field Museum Photo Archives tumblr. Its coverage is of course spotty, but it gives us at least some chance of finding useful brachiosaur images. Like this one of the sixth presacral vertebra (i.e. probably D7 in a column of 12 dorsals):

tumblr_mlrvdcANCj1s5mxl9o1_1280

It’s instructive to compare that with Riggs’s (1904: plate LXXII) illustration of the same vertebra in the same aspect, in which he almost literally airbrushed out the jigsaw-puzzle complexity of the preserved bone surface:

Riggs1904-plate-LXXII-presacral-6.right-lateral

 

More disturbing still, compare that old photograph with my own (terrible) 2005 photo of the same vertebra:

dscn1404-rotated-cropped-enhanced

It looks very much as though the vertebra itself — not just Riggs’s illustration — has been “improved” since the older photo was taken exactly a century earlier in 1905. This is a constant problem when dealing with old fossils.

Here are three more interesting photos from the Tumblr. First, the Brachiosaurus fossils in the field:

tumblr_mkxwevwaqi1s5mxl9o1_1280

This is evidently from later in the excavation process than the previous photo of this area, since much of the material is now jacketed. That’s the femur in front of shot, here seen in anteromedial view, with the top towards the right.

Next up, this photo purports to be “Thirteen men including Security Guard unloading dorsal vertebrae of type specimen Brachiosaurus fossil”:

tumblr_mk9snb7ghp1s5mxl9o1_1280

But in fact it’s not Brachiosaurus — the neural spines are too tall and slender. I am pretty sure this is Riggs’s Apatosaurus — the rightmost dorsal has that distinctive notch on the dorsal aspect of the neural spine. And indeed, checking his monograph on that specimen (Riggs 1903: plate XLVI), I see that its dorsals were distorted in this way, and that the front-centre vert is a fine match for its D10.

Finally, there’s this one of the prep room:

tumblr_mk0kgrIURE1s5mxl9o1_1280

On the far left, we have the still-jacketed Brachiosaurus femur; next to it stands Harold W. Menke, who discovered the fossil; and to his right is Elmer S. Riggs, who wrote the description.

Those are all the Brachiosaurus-related images I’ve been able to find on the tumblr. But do let me know if you find any others.

References

  • Riggs, Elmer S. 1903. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part I: Apatosaurus Marsh. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:165-196.
  • Riggs, Elmer S. 1904. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part II, the Brachiosauridae. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:229-247.

 

Here is the wonderful Brachiosaurus altithorax mount in its original location, in the main hall of the Field Museum in Chicago. (Click through for full resolution.)

Glut1997-p215--brachiosaurus-altithorax-mount

I scanned this from Don Glut’s Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia, page 215. There must be better quality versions somewhere, because this is one of the Field Museum’s own photos — negative #GN 86962 — but I can’t find it in their singularly unhelpful online photo archive.

I’m posting it because there’s an astonishing lack photos of this mount on the Internet. As I noted last time, I was only able to find this striking image:

The Brachiosaurus mount in its original position in the main hall of the Field Museum. I can't find a higher resolution version of this photo -- can anyone help?

The Brachiosaurus mount in its original position in the main hall of the Field Museum. I can’t find a higher resolution version of this photo — can anyone help?

at the miserably low resolution shown here (358×248). More generally, almost every photo of a mounted Brachiosaurus out there seems to be from either the picnic area outside the museum, or O’Hare Airport. If anyone’s able to find decent-resolution examples of this skeleton indoors, please do drop the links into a comment.

I mentioned this to Matt, and he commented:

I think that the mount got moved outside just a bare handful of years before digital cameras went from rare to ubiquitous. If the move had happened even five years later, I’ll bet there would be loads of photos of the old mount.

I’m sure he’s right. But someone must have half-decent photos from back then?

Seriously -- is this tiny photo the best photographic record we have?

Seriously — is this tiny photo the best photographic record we have?

Of course, the real question is: why did they shove the Brachiosaurus outside? It was mounted in 1994, and taken down again in 1999, so this marvellous mount — by any objective standard the single most awesome exhibit in the museum’s history — was only actually in residence for five paltry years.

The standard explanation is that it was removed “to make space for” Sue, the vulgar overstudied theropod. But a glance at the photo above shows that there was plenty of space to put in half a dozen T. rexes without needing to move the brachiosaur. I can only assume that someone realised having a brachiosaur next door would make Sue look feeble. It’s a tragedy.

Update

Thanks to Dean for finding this one: small, but beautiful.

chi-8sue20100512120107

References

Glut, Donald F. 1997. Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. 1076 pages.