Last time, I showed you a photo of the head and neck of the London Diplodocus and asked what was wrong. Quite a few of you got it right (including Matt when we were chatting, but I asked him not to give it away by posting a comment). The 100 SV-POW! dollars, with their cash value of $0.00, go to Orribec, who was the first to reply that the atlas (cervical 1) is upside-down.

Here is again, from the other side:

The Natural History Museum’s Carnegie Diplodocus cast, skull and anterior cervical vertebrae in left lateral view. Photograph by Mike Taylor.

I noticed this — when it seems the people putting up the skeleton did not, unless this is a deliberate joke — because I happened to be particularly tuned into atlas ribs at the time. You can see what appears a tiny rib hanging below the atlas, but no neural arch above it projecting up and back to meet the prezygapophyses of the axis (cervical 2). In fact the “cervical rib” on this left side is the neural arch of the right side, rotated 180 degrees about the axis of the neck.

Here’s how this should look, from the Carnegie Museum’s own Diplodocus:

The Carnegie Museum’s Diplodocus mount, skull and anterior cervical vertebrae in left lateral view. Photograph by Matt Lamanna.

In this picture, the atlas seems to be pretty much fused onto the axis, as seen in Gilmore (1936: figure 6) which Matt helpfully reproduced in Tutorial 36.

(Digression 1: you might think that this atlas is the real thing, since the Carnegie’s mount is the one with the real CM 84/94/307 material in it. But no: the atlas does not belong to any of those, which all lack this element. It seems to be a sculpture, but we can’t figure out what it’s based on.)

(Digression 2: you might notice that the London and Carnegie skulls are rather different. That’s because the London cast still has the original skull supplied in 1907, which is a sculpture based on CM 622 (rear) and USNM 2673 (the rest), while the Carnegie’s mount at some point had its skull replaced by a cast of CM 11161 — though no-one knows when.)

(Digression 3: the diplodocine originally catalogued as CM 662, on which the rear of the skull was based, was named as the holotype of a new species Diplodocus hayi by Holland (1924), traded to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1956 where it was numbered CMNH 10670, then traded on the Houston Museum of Natural History in 1963 where istbecame HMNS 175, mounted in  Houston in 1975, remounted between 2013 and 2015, and finally moved to its own new genus Galeamopus by Tschopp et al. 2015. Yes, this stuff gets complicated.)

In fact, it’s amazing how much stuff we actually don’t know about these classic specimens, including the source of the atlas for both the Carnegie mount and the various casts — which are not the same. If only there was a single definitive publication that gathered everything that is known about these mounts. Oh well, maybe some day.

Now everyone knows that all the Carnegie Diplodocus mounts around the world were cast from the same molds, and so they all have the same altas <SCREEEECH> wait what?

The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle’s Carnegie Diplodocus cast, posterior part of skull and anterior cervical vertebrae in left lateral view. Photograph by Vincent Reneleau.

Here we are in Paris, and the atlas has these two honking great ribs. I have not seen these in any other Carnegie Diplodocus. I know they’re absent from the Berlin cast (thanks to Daniela Schwarz), from the Vernal re-cast (personal observation) and of course from the London cast. I would welcome observations (or even better, photos) from anyone who’s in a position to look at the Vienna, Bologna, Moscow, La Plata, Madrid or Mexico City casts.

So where did these atlas ribs come from? As with so much of this, no-one really knows. It’s especially mysterious as the Paris mount is supposed to be completely unchanged since its initial mounting. But some clue to the origin of the ribs in this mount is found in Holland (1906:249–250):

Accompanying the elements of the atlas sent to the writer for study by the kindness of Professor Osborn  [i.e. AMNH 969] are two bones, undoubtedly cervical ribs. They are both bones belonging on the right side of the centra. They are reported to have been found at the same place at which the atlas was found. The writer is inclined to think that the larger of these two bones (Fig. 20), was probably the rib of the atlas and indeed it requires but little effort to see that it might very well have served such a function, and that the smaller bone (Fig. 21) was the rib of the axis. Were the stump of the rib which remains attached to the axis in the Carnegie Museum, and which Mr. Hatcher has figured, removed, this smaller rib might take its place and would undoubtedly articulate very neatly to the facet

In case you’re too lazy to go and look at Holland’s illustrations for yourself, here they are.

The atlas rib:

The axis rib:

Holland went on:

In case the view entertained by the writer is correct, the form of the atlas and the axis with their attached ribs would be as given in the accompanying sketch (Fig. 22) rather than as given in the figure which has been published by Mr. Hatcher. Such a location of these parts has in its favor the analogy of the crocodilian skeleton.

Here is that composite atlas/axis complex:

(This arrangement with closely appressed atlas and axis ribs should ring a bell for anyone who’s looked much at croc necks, as for example in Taylor and Wedel 2013:figure 19.)

The atlas ribs on the Paris mount look a decent match for the one illustrated by Holland (1906:figure 20), so it seems a reasonable guess that they were sculpted based on that element. But that only leaves us with two more mysteries:

  1. Why do we see these atlas ribs only on the Paris cast, not in the Carnegie original or any of the other casts (that I know of)?
  2. Why does this cast have atlas ribs based on one of Holland’s elements, but not axis ribs based on the other?




Last Saturday I was at a wedding at Holy Trinity Brompton, a London church that is conveniently located a ten-minute stroll from the Natural History Museum. As I am currently working on a history paper concerning the Carnegie Diplodocus, I persuaded my wife, my eldest son and his fiancée to join me for a quick scoot around the “Dippy Returns” exhibition.

Here is a photo that I took:

Something is wrong here — and I don’t just mean the NHM exhibition’s stygian lighting.

Who can tell me what it is? $100 in SV-POW! Dollars(*) awaits the first person to get it right in the comments.


(*) Cash value: $0.00.


Back when I started writing about issues in scholarly publishing, I would sometimes write about the distinction between for-profit (bad) and non-profit (good) publishers. While I still recognise this as an issue, thinking it through over the last few years has made it clear that this distinction is largely orthogonal to the one that really matters — which is between open and non-open publishers.

In fact, all four quadrants exist:

 For-profit  Non-profit
 Open  PeerJ  PLOS
 Non-Open  Elsevier  ACS

ACS may be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and PeerJ may be a private company primarily owned by two individuals — but it’s PeerJ that’s pushing openness forward, and ACS doing quite the opposite.



Beautifully preserved cervical vertebra of Barosaurus in the prep. lab at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL).

I’ve found myself thinking about this recently for two reasons.

The first is that, like anyone who works on sauropods, I’ve had involvement with specimens at the Sauriermuseum Aathal (SMA), a privately owned museum in Switzerland that holds some astonishingly beautiful and complete specimens, including the Kaatedocus holotype, SMA 0004. In particular, I’ve been invited a few times to peer-review manuscripts describing SMA specimens, and I’ve always felt conflicted about this because of the SVP’s strong position on privately held specimens.

The second thing that’s pushed me to rethink the private-public distinction has been working on Barosaurus. Our experiences with specimens have been varied. Yale University was very helpful when we went to see the holotype YPM 429, and BYU really couldn’t have done more for us on our recent visit. This is what we would hope for, of course. But what we didn’t particularly anticipate is how generous and helpful the people at the commercial fossil hunters Western Paleo Labs would be. When, visiting the North American Museum of Ancient Life, we gazed in awe through their prep. lab window at their several gorgeous Barosaurus cervicals (see photo above), they invited us in to play with them. (The vertebrae, not the people.)

And that made me think about our much less satisfactory experience trying to photograph the presacrals of AMNH 6341 at the American Museum of Natural History — they are entombed in a glass case surmounted by a not-really-transparent walkway:


Which meant that, when trying to obtain dorsal-view photographs, I had to use this technique:


With results like these:


Now I want to be clear that everyone we dealt with at the AMNH was as helpful as they could be. No-one that we met there was in any way obstructive. Yet the fact remains, the crucially important presacral verterbrae of the most widely recognised Barosaurus in the world were essentially impossible to study.

Worse: papers that have been published about those specimens are now essentially irreproducible, because the specimens are not really available for re-study — much as though they’d been sold to Nicolas Cage to display over his mantelpiece.

Whereas the Barosaurus vertebrae at Western Paleo Labs do seem to be available for study.


Just as we were mistaken in focussing primarily on the for-profit/non-profit distinction between publishers when what we really cared about was the open/non-open distinction, could it be that we’ve been misfocussing on the public/private ownership distinction when what we really care about is availability of specimens?

Is there a way to be confident about which museums will and will not always make specifimens available for study? Here’s where my knowledge cuts out, but one would think this would be the key element in museum certification. But then no doubt museum certification is done differently in different jurisdictions. Knowing that a German museum is accredited may tell you something completely different from knowing that an American museum is accredited.

So perhaps what we need is some globally recognised statement that any museum in the world can sign up to: formally committing to keep its specimens available to researchers; and comitting never to sell them to any party that has not also signed up to the statement.


It’s worth noting the Sauriermuseum Aathal seems, as far as I’ve ever heard, to have conducted itself in every way as we would wish. They seem pretty unambiguously to be among the good guys. More: they seem to have unilaterally done more or less what I advocated above: their website declares:

Declaration Concern: Holotypes of the fossil-collection of the Sauriermuseum Aathal.

The Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (SMA), is being recognized more and more as valuable scientific institution. We hereby state publicly the SMA policy concerning holotype specimens. We recognize the importance of these reference specimens for science, and strongly agree that they have to be available for science in perpetuity. Therefore, we declare that all holotypes present at the Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (and all new holotypes that will be described in future), will always be publicly accessible to all bona fide researchers, and will never be allowed to be sold to any private collection.

Are they one step ahead of us? And if so, should we cast off our reservations about publishing on their specimens?

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.