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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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:
More disturbing still, compare that old photograph with my own (terrible) 2005 photo of the same vertebra:
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:
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”:
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:
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.
- 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.)
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:
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?
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.
Thanks to Dean for finding this one: small, but beautiful.
Glut, Donald F. 1997. Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. 1076 pages.
After P.A.S.T president Gilles Danis commented on our post about the Chicago airport Brachiosaurus mount, I got into an interesting email conversation with him. Here, posted with his kind permission and only lightly edited, are his thoughts on the Brachiosaurus mount.
The story of this mount (s) is chequered. The casts of real material include the sacrum, the caudal, a number of dorsals, some rib fragments, one femur, a very badly eroded humerus and a coracoid. [Update: also the right ilium, as Gilles subsequently confirmed by email.]
On the mount that was in the museum and later was moved to the airport, we had a peculiar situation to deal with. Because museums like to have people walking under the rib cage of high sauropods, this becomes a safety hazard for two reasons. The first is that it cannot be allowed to fall on the people (obviously) and even though the cast was of light plastic, the engineers insisted in overbuilding the support (namely the legs and arms). Also because while in the Field Museum, it stood in the path of a fire exit, we had to have a certain amount of distance between the front and hind limbs (I forget the exact measurement). The only way that we could achieve that was to add two vertebrae for a total of 12 dorsals. We chose to duplicate two of real vertebrae at the lower end of the dorsal section.
The funny thing is only one person figured that one out and that was Bill Simpson the collections manager. Also to support this structure, we were asked to used way oversized steel in the limbs which meant that we had to “inflate” the real humerus and femur to accommodate the material. This is why the cast is so bad; it is half stuffing.
It is interested to see how a lie perpetuates itself. The following year, the Hayashibara museum ordered a mount of the same skeleton and they were very interested in getting the distance between the feet and manus. So we, again, had to make a Brachiosaurus limoensis.
Not satisfied with this silly situation, Disney came to us in 1996 and ordered that very same skeleton again with the stretch limo factor for another dinosaur that you walk under for the Wild Animal Kingdom park in Orlando. Up to that point, only Bill Simpson had realized the error. But I had just had it up to there with these stretch dinosaurs and revealed the problem. After that, in 1999, we replaced the skeleton in Stanley Field Hall with one on the terrace to make room for Sue the T. rex. On this Brachiosaurus, we have the normal 10 dorsals. The last Brachiosaurus we mounted is in the North American Museum of Ancient Life (N.A.M.A.L.) at Thanksgiving Point, Lehi, Utah, again a normal skeleton.
If this was not enough we restored Seismosaurus halli (now Diplodocus hallorum). This project was sponsored by a Japanese company who was to get the first mount. They took Gillette’s publication and read that the skeleton would have been 150′ long or 50 meters. We soon realized that there was a mistake, that the tail was not missing a huge section but had simply drifted away from the sacrum and the skeleton would not be even close to the predicted length. The Japanese would have none of it. After months of negotiations, we arrived at a compromise and we made the skeleton 40 meters long, 133’+ by adding some whiplash vertebrae until it was that long. By then I had had enough and threw in the towel but not before mounting another Seismosaurus for the museum is Albuquerque which is correct.
As for the Berlin brachiosaur: I spent some time in Berlin measuring, photographing and drawing (Donna Sloan did the drawing) the original material there, but they would not allow us to mould it. What I found interesting is that in 1992 when I was there, most of the skeleton of the mount was not original but it was not cast either. It was sculpted wood.
I have many more tails (pun, ha,ha) about sauropods. I should write them down sometime.
Many thanks to Gilles for allowing us to reproduce this important information.
Gilles’ list of real material that was cast for the mount includes very nearly all of the holotype FMNH P25107 — assuming that “a number of dorsals” means seven, the number that Riggs excavated and had prepared. The only fossil elements not apparently appearing are the fragmentary first caudal and the right ilium. But it seems to me from some of my photos of the airport mount (see the image at the top) that a cast of the right ilium was used. [Update: yes, Gilles confirmed by email that the right ilium was indeed cast from real material.]
Regarding the number of dorsal vertebrae: it may have been circumstances that forced P.A.S.T to give the mount 12 dorsals, but Migeod’s pre-description of the NHM’s Tendaguru brachiosaur gives good reason to think this is likely the correct count.
Similarly, although the torso was therefore longer than Gilles had intended, it might have ended up correct, as careful comparison of the lengths of the Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan dorsals suggests that the torso of the former was about 23% longer.
To my shame, I’d not realised that the Brachiosaurus at the airport has two more dorsals than the one in the Field Museum picnic area, despite Matt having posted a ventral-view photo of the airport mount that clearly shows the twelve dorsals and a lateral-view photo of the museum mount that clearly shows ten.
When Gilles says “most of the skeleton of the [Berlin] mount was not original but it was not cast either”, I assume he’s referring to the presacral vertebrae, which as Janensch explained in his 1950 paper about that mount were too heavy and fragile to mount. The sculptures in Janensch’s mount were not particularly good, but they have been replaced by much better ones in the remount.
Last time we looked at the humeri in the Field Museum’s mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton — especially the right humerus, which is a cast from the holotype, while the left is a sculpture. But Matt’s and my photos of that mount are all pretty much useless scientifically — partly because we were terrible photographers back then, but also partly because the very light background of sky tended to put the skeleton into silhouette and lose a lot of detail.
But fortunately there’s another Brachiosaurus in Chicago!
(We’ve featured this mount once before.)
This in fact the original Brachiosaurus mount that was erected in the Field Museum’s main hall in 1993. When a certain vulgar, over-studied theropod was installed in that hall in 2000, the surprising decision was made to remove the Brachiosaurus to “make room” for it (even though it’s objectively tiny). The mount was not built to be exposed to the elements, so it couldn’t just be moved outdoors. Instead, a new one was made from more suitable materials for the picnic area, and the original mount was moved to O’Hare Airport.
[Aside: what the heck were the museum thinking when they booted Brachiosaurus out of the main hall? However much you love T. rex, and I admit I do, Sue makes a feeble centrepiece compared with a brachiosaur. I can only assume there was some subtle political motivation for reducing their main hall’s Awesome Quotient so dramatically. The poor thing was only there seven years.]
Anyway, the original mount is now at Terminal 1 at O’Hare Airport, where it can be photographed less inadequately than outdoors. Here are those contrasting humeri again: the real cast on the right side of the animal (left side of photo) and the sculpture on the left (right side of photo):
And a zoom into the relevant section:
As it happens, I flew into a different terminal at O’Hare. But I knew that this mount was in Terminal 1, so before I get the transit to my hotel, I dragged my luggage across to Terminal 1 and begged the ticket clerk to let me through into the departure area so I could look at it. I don’t now remember exactly what the sequence of events was, but I do recall that phone-calls were made and supervisors were consulted. In the end, someone on staff gave me a platform ticket, and I was able to go and spend a quality hour with this glorious object.
It also meant I got to watch nearly every single traveller amble straight past Brachiosaurus giving it literally not even a single glance — see the first photo for an example. Truly depressing.
Anyway, I was able to get some slightly better photos of this cast humerus than I subsequently got of the outdoor mount. Though not very many, because — stop me if you’ve heard this — I was young and stupid then.
Anyway, here is the humerus in anterior view. Or as close to anterior as I could manage. By holding the camera above my head, I could get it nearly level with the distal margin of the mounted bone, so what we have here is really more like anterodistal:
And here is that some bone in lateral view (again, really laterodistal). From this angle, you can really see how shapeless parts of the lateral border of the cast are — which is off, because there are sharp lips on the actual fossil.
In terms of general appreciation of the bone, this next one, in anterolaterodistal view, is probably best — the light caught it in an informative way. Unfortunately, I cut off the distal margin. Sorry.
As you can see, the level of detail in the cast is mostly pretty good. For example, you can clearly make out the broken-off base of the deltopectoral crest (the tall light-coloured oval about a quarter of the way down and a third of the way across the bone). That makes the lumpenness of the distal part of the lateral aspect all the more mysterious.
Finally, here are both humeri, more or less from the left, so that the real cast is in something approaching medial view.
From this angle, you can see that the humerus is noticeably less anteroposteriorly deep than its transverse width. We’ll see this theme cropping up again with brachiosaur limb bones — stay tuned for future posts!
Also of interest: the very nice sculpted humerus on the left side has a complete deltopectoral crest — modelled, I imagine, after those of the various Giraffatitan humeri. It also has a finished distal end which is much broader than that of the cast humerus. In this, it’s probably right, as the real bone suffered from some decay.
And that, I am afraid, is all: stupidly, I neglected to photograph the humerus in posterior aspect, or any of the diagonals other than anterolateral.
Next time: exciting news about the relative breadth of humerus and femur in brachiosaurs!
As we noted yesterday, the humerus of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107 is inconveniently embedded in a plaster jacket — but it wasn’t always. That’s very strange. I have an idea about that which I’ll come to later.
Anyway, although the humerus is now half in a jacket and fully inside a cabinet, we can see it from all angles thanks to the cast that’s part of the mounted skeleton outside the Field Museum. (I can definitively state that this is the greatest picnic area in the universe).
As noted in the previous post, Matt and I were idiots back when we visited Chicago, so our photos are mostly useless. We have lots that show the mounted skeleton as art, but very few that are scientifically useful. But what you can make out from the photo above (especially if you click through) is that the textures of the two humeri are very different.
You can see it more clearly from in front:
(There I am, microscopic and easily overlooked, on the left.)
Here’s a close-up of the humeri from that photo, sharpened and contrast/brightness-balanced so you can more easily see what’s going on:
Contrast the scarred, pitted surface of the right humerus (on the left of the picture) with the much cleaner and bone-like texture of the left one (on the right of the picture). What’s going on here is that the right humerus of the mounted skeleton is a cast of the original element (bad preservation and all) whereas the left humerus is a sculpture. (Or possibly a cast of one of the Giraffatitan humeri, but I doubt that — it’s a bit too clean and seems more robust than those bones.) The real humerus is very distinctive, especially in the progressive flaking away on the lateral side of the distal end.
Of course you can walk all around the cast humerus and photograph it from every angle — both the posterior that is apparent in the jacket, and the anterior that’s face down and inaccessible.
You can walk all around the cast humerus and photograph it from every angle. But we didn’t. Because, as noted here and yesterday (and previously, come to think of it) we used to be idiots back then. As Matt has pithily observed:
“About every three or four months I realize that I’ve spent my entire life up until now being a dumbass; the problem is that ‘now’ keeps moving and every time I think I’ve finally got everything figured out, I later determine that I was/am still a moron. I distinctly remember having this feeling for the first time in third grade, age of eight, and I keep hoping it will eventually go away, but that hope seems increasingly unfounded.”
That is a hauntingly familiar feeling.
It seems that this cast-right, sculped-left humerus combo is common in Brachiosaurus mounts — I guess because they’re all cloned from the Field Museum’s original. Here, for example (from this post) is the mount at
BYU the North American Museum of Ancient Life:
Once you’ve seen that humerus mismatch, you can’t miss it.
Finally, then — what about this historical oddity that the humerus was once out of its jacket but is now back in? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I can’t really imagine why you’d do that.
So maybe that never happened? We’ve been taking it for granted that the humerus in the old Field-Museum photo is real, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it was a cast, and that cast is still somewhere in the museum (or indeed incorporated into the mount). Maybe when the fossil humerus was brought back from the field, the jacket was removed from the anterior face and that was cast; then this face was rejacketed, the bone was flipped, the posterior face was exposed (as it still is today) and that was cast. Then the two casts were joined together to make an apparently whole humerus.
If that speculation is right, then it should be possible to detect a join running down the lateral and medial faces of the cast humerus that’s in the mount (and apparently in all other mounts). That’s something I’ll look closely for the next time I’m lucky enough to be in Chicago.
I wish it was possible to know this kind of thing. I’d love it if every time a museum mounted a skeleton they published an account of how it was done, as Janensch (1950b) did for the original Giraffatitan mount in Berlin, and Remes (2011) did for the recent remount. Unfortunately I’ve never heard of such a paper regarding the Chicago mount, and I don’t even know how long ago it was done (or if anyone who was involved is still alive). The Wikipedia page says the mount went up in 1993, but gives no reference for that and doesn’t say who did it. Does anyone know?
Thanks to Ben (no surname given), whose comment below points to a useful 1993 Chicago Tribune article, “Brach To The Future“. This confirms the date of the mount as 1993, unveiled on Saturday 3rd July. The mount is the work of PAST (Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc.), who bizarrely don’t seem to have a web-site. PAST president Gilles Danis was involved in the process, so he’d be the person to contact about how it was done.
Oh, and here’s another relevant Tribune article: “Out Of The Past“. Steven Godfrey is the key player in this account, so he’s someone else to track down.
- Janensch, Werner. 1950b. Die Skelettrekonstruktion von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Supplement 7) 3:97-103, and plates VI-VIII.
- Remes, Kristian, David. M. Unwin, Nicole. Klein, Wolf-Dieter Heinrich, and Oliver Hampe. 2011. Skeletal reconstruction of Brachiosaurus brancai in the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin: summarizing 70 years of sauropod research. pp. 305-316 in: Nicole Klein, Kristian Remes, Carole T. Gee, and P. Martin Sander (eds.), Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.
In the comments on Matt’s post about the giant new Argentine titanosaur specimens, Ian Corfe wondered why Benson et al. (2014) estimated the circumference of the humerus of Brachiosaurus altithorax instead of just measuring it. (Aside: I can’t find that data in their paper. Where is it?)
Yes, the humerus is half-encased in a jacket, face down (we should post photos some time), which would make the circumference impossible to measure directly. But the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton right outside the Field Museum (and the identical one at O’Hare Airport) have casts of that humerus, so measuring the circumference shouldn’t require any equipment more exotic than a stepladder. Maybe the anterior aspect was sculpted — but I doubt it, as there certainly was a time when the humerus was out of its jacket and mounted vertically.
Here is the evidence that the humerus wasn’t always in that jacket (from Getty Images):
I have no idea why it was put back in a plaster jacket: does anyone?
Back in 2005, when Matt and I visited the Field Museum, the staff were amazingly, almost embarrassingly, helpful. They mounted a whole elaborate project to remove the humerus jacket from the cabinet that held it, so we could get a better look:
Unfortunately, Matt and I were doofuses back in the day: terrible photographers who knew embarrassingly little about appendicular material. So nearly all of our photos are worthless. Here is a rare nice one, showing the humerus in posterodistal aspect. You can see how layers have flaked away towards this end:
Here is the humerus in proximal view — something that’s relevant to my interests, as at tells us about the area of articular cartilage where it connected to the shoulder:
And finally — because it would be rude not to — here is Matt, going the Full Jensen with the humerus:
Next time: what we can learn about the humerus from the mounted skeleton outside the museum!
Benson Roger B. J., Nicolás E. Campione, Matthew T. Carrano, Philip D. Mannion, Corwin Sullivan, Paul Upchurch, and David C. Evans. (2014) Rates of Dinosaur Body Mass Evolution Indicate 170 Million Years of Sustained Ecological Innovation on the Avian Stem Lineage. PLoS Biology 12(5):e1001853. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001853