FHPR 17108, a right humerus of Brachiosaurus, with Wes Bartlett and his Clydesdale Molly for scale. Original paleoart by Brian Engh.

Last May I was out in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation with Brian Engh and Thuat Tran, for just a couple of days of prospecting. We’d had crappy weather, with rain and lots of gnats. But temperatures were cooler than usual, and we were able to push farther south in our field area than ever before. We found a small canyon that had bone coming out all over, and as I was logging another specimen in my field book, I heard Brian shout from a few meters away: “Hey Matt, I think you better get over here! If this is what I think it is…”

What Brian had found–and what I couldn’t yet show you when I put up this teaser post last month–was this:

That’s the proximal end of a Brachiosaurus humerus in the foreground, pretty much as it was when Brian found it. Thuat Tran is carefully uncovering the distal end, some distance in the background.

Here’s another view, just a few minutes later:

After uncovering both ends and confirming that the proximal end was thin, therefore a humerus (because of its shape), and therefore a brachiosaur (because of its shape and size together), we were elated, but also concerned. This humerus–one of the largest ever found–was lying in what looked like loose dirt, actually sitting in a little fan of sediment cascading down into the gulch. We knew we needed to get it out before the winter rains came and destroyed it. And for that, we’d need John Foster’s experience with getting big jackets out of inconvenient places. We were also working out there under the auspices of John’s permit, so for many reasons we needed him to see this thing.

We managed to all rendezvous at the site in June: Brian, John, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, their kids Ruby and Harrison, and Thuat. We uncovered the whole bone from stem to stern and put on a coat of glue to conserve it. Any doubts we might have had about the ID were dispelled: it was a right humerus of Brachiosaurus.

While we were waiting for the glue to dry, Brian and Ruby started brushing of a hand-sized bit of bone showing just a few feet away. After about an hour, they had extracted the chunk of bone shown above. This proved to be something particularly exciting: the proximal end of the matching left humerus. We hiked that chunk out, along with more chunks of bone that were tumbled down the wash, which may be pieces of the shaft of the second humerus.

But we still had the intact humerus to deal with. We covered it with a tarp, dirt, and rocks, and started scheming in earnest on when, and more importantly how, to get it out. It weighed hundreds of pounds, and it was halfway down the steep slope of the canyon, a long way over broken ground from even the unmaintained jeep trail that was the closest road. Oh, and there are endangered plants in the area, so we coulnd’t just bulldoze a path to the canyon. We’d have to be more creative.

I told a few close friends about our find over the summer, and my standard line was that it was a very good problem to have, but it was actually still a problem, and one which we needed to solve before the winter rains came.

As it happened, we didn’t get back out to the site until mid-October, which was pushing it a bit. The days were short, and it was cold, but we had sunny weather, and we managed to get the intact humerus uncovered and top-jacketed. Here John Foster and ReBecca Hunt-Foster are working on a tunnel under the bone, to pass strips of plastered canvas through and strengthen the jacket. Tom Howells, a volunteer from the Utah Field House in Vernal, stands over the jacket and assists. Yara Haridy was also heavily involved with the excavation and jacketing, and Brian mixed most of the plaster himself.

John Foster, Brian Engh, Wes and Thayne Bartlett, and Matt Wedel (kneeling). Casey Cordes (blue cap) is in the foreground, working the winch. Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Here we go for the flip. The cable and winch were rigged by Brian’s friend, Casey Cordes, who had joined us from California with his girlfriend, teacher and photographer Mallerie Niemann.

Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Jacket-flipping is always a fraught process, but this one went smooth as silk. As we started working down the matrix to slim the jacket, we uncovered a few patches of bone, and they were all in great shape.

So how’d we get this monster out of the field?

From left to right: Wes Bartlett and one of his horses, Matt Wedel, Tom Howells, and Thayne Bartlett. Photo by Brian Engh.

Clydesdales! John had hired the Bartlett family of Naples, Utah–Wes, Resha, and their kids Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin–who joined us with their horses Molly and Darla. Brian had purchased a wagon with pneumatic tires from Gorilla Carts. Casey took the point on winching the jacket down to the bottom of the wash, where we wrestled it onto the wagon. From there, one of the Clydesdales took it farther down the canyon, to a point where the canyon wall was shallow enough that we could get the wagon up the slope and out. The canyon slope was slickrock, not safe for the horses to pull a load over, so we had to do that stretch with winches and human power, mostly Brian, Tom, and Thayne pushing, me steering, and Casey on the winch.

Easily the most epic and inspiring photo of my butt ever taken. Wes handles horses, Casey coils rope, Thayne pushes the cart, and Kaler looks on. Photo by Brian Engh.

Up top, Wes hooked up the other horse to pull the wagon to the jeep trail, and then both horses to haul the jacket out to the road on a sled. I missed that part–I had gone back to the quarry to grab tools before it got dark–but Brian got the whole thing on video, and it will be coming soon as part of his Jurassic Reimagined documentary series.

There’s one more bit I have to tell, but I have no photos of it: getting the jacket off the sled and onto the trailer that John had brought from the Field House. We tried winching, prybar, you name it. The thing. Just. Did. Not. Want. To. Move. Then Yara, who is originally from Egypt, said, “You know, when my people were building the pyramids, we used round sticks under the big blocks.” As luck would have it, I’d brought about a meter-long chunk of thick dowel from my scrap wood bin. Brian used a big knife to cut down some square posts into roughly-round shapes, and with those rollers, the winch, and the prybar, we finally got the jacket onto the trailer.

The real heroes of the story are Molly and Darla. In general, anything that the horses could help with went waaay faster and more smoothly than we expected, and anything we couldn’t use the horses for was difficult, complex, and terrifying. I’d been around horses before, but I’d never been up close and personal with Clydesdales, and it was awesome. As someone who spends most of his time thinking about big critters, it was deeply satisfying to use two very large animals to pull out a piece of a truly titanic animal.

Back in the prep lab at the Field House in Vernal: Matt Wedel, Brian Engh, Yara Haridy, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, and John Foster.

We’re telling the story now because the humerus is being unveiled for the public today at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal. The event will be at 11:00 AM Mountain Time, and it is open to the public. The humerus, now cataloged as FHPR 17108, will be visible to museum visitors for the rest of its time in the prep lab, before it eventually goes on display at the Field House. We’re also hoping to use the intact right humerus as a Rosetta Stone to interpet and piece back together the shattered chunks of the matching left humerus. There will be a paper along in due time, but obviously some parts of the description will have to wait until the right humerus is fully prepped, and we’ve made whatever progress we can reconstructing the left one.

Why is this find exciting? For a few reasons. Despite its iconic status, in dinosaur books and movies like Jurassic Park, Brachiosaurus is actually a pretty rare sauropod, and as this short video by Brian Engh shows, much of the skeleton is unknown (for an earlier, static image that shows this, see Mike’s 2009 paper on Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan, here). Camarasaurus is known from over 200 individuals, Apatosaurus and Diplodocus from over 100 individuals apiece, but Brachiosaurus is only known from about 10. So any new specimens are important.

A member of the Riggs field crew in 1900, lying next to the humerus of the holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus. I’m proud to say that I know what this feels like now!

If Brachiosaurus is rare, Brachiosaurus humeri are exceptionally rare. Only two have ever been described. The first one, above, is part of the holotype skeleton of Brachiosaurus, FMNH P25107, which came out of the ground near Fruita, Colorado, in 1900, and was described by Elmer S. Riggs in his 1903 and 1904 papers. The second, in the photo below, is the Potter Creek humerus, which was excavated from western Colorado in 1955 but not described until 1987, by Jim Jensen. That humerus, USNM 21903, resides at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The Brachiosaurus humerus from Potter Creek, Colorado, on display at the Smithsonian.

For the sake of completeness, I have to mention that there is a humerus on display at the LA County Museum of Natural History that is labeled Brachiosaurus, but it’s not been written up yet, and after showing photos of it to colleagues, I’m not 100% certain that it’s Brachiosaurus (I’m not certain that it isn’t, either, but further study is needed). And there’s at least one humerus with a skeleton that was excavated by the University of Kansas and sold by the quarry owner to a museum in Korea (I had originally misunderstood this; some but not all of the material from that quarry went to KU), that is allegedly Brachiosaurus, but that one seems to have fallen into a scientific black hole. I can’t say anything about its identification because I haven’t seen the material.

Happy and relieved folks the morning after the Brachstraction: Yara Haridy, Matt Wedel, John and Ruby Foster, and the Bartletts: Kaler, Wes, Cobin, Resha, Jayleigh, and Thayne. Jacketed Brachiosaurus humerus for scale. Photo by Brian Engh.

So our pair of humeri from the Salt Wash of Utah are only the 3rd and 4th that I can confidently say are from Brachiosaurus. And they’re big. Both are at least 62cm wide across the proximal end, and the complete one is 201cm long. To put that into context, here’s a list of the longest sauropod humeri ever found:

  1. Brachiosaurus, Potter Creek, Colorado: 213cm
  2. Giraffatitan, MB.R.2181/SII specimen, Tanzania: 213cm
  3. Brachiosaurus, holotype, Colorado: ~213cm (preserved length is 203cm, but the distal end is eroded, and it was probably 213cm when complete)
  4. Giraffatitan, XV3 specimen, Tanzania: 210cm
  5. *** NEW Brachiosaurus, FHPR 17108, Utah: 201cm
  6. Ruyangosaurus (titanosaur from China): ~190cm (estimated from 135cm partial)
  7. Turiasaurus (primitive sauropod from Spain): 179cm
  8. Notocolossus (titanosaur from Argentina): 176cm
  9. Paralititan (titanosaur from Egypt): 169cm
  10. Patagotitan (titanosaur from Argentina): 167.5cm
  11. Dreadnoughtus (titanosaur from Argentina): 160cm
  12. Futalognkosaurus (titanosaur from Argentina): 156cm

As far as we know, our intact humerus is the 5th largest ever found on Earth. It’s also pretty complete. The holotype humerus has an eroded distal end, and was almost certainly a few centimeters longer in life. The Potter Creek humerus was missing the cortical bone from most of the front of the shaft when it was found, and has been heavily restored for display, as you can see in one of the photos above. Ours seems to have both the shaft and the distal end intact. The proximal end has been through some freeze-thaw cycles and was flaking apart when we found it, but the outline is pretty good. Obviously a full accounting will have to wait until the bone is fully prepared, but we might just have the best-preserved Brachiosaurus humerus yet found.

Me with a cast of the Potter Creek humerus in the collections at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado. The mold for this was made from the original specimen before it was restored, so it’s missing most of the bone from the front of the shaft. Our new humerus is just a few cm shorter. Photo by Yara Haridy.

Oh, our Brachiosaurus is by far the westernmost occurrence of the genus so far, and the stratigraphically lowest, so it extends our knowledge of Brachiosaurus in both time and space. It’s part of a diverse dinosaur fauna that we’re documenting in the Salt Wash, that minimally also includes Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and either Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, just among sauropods. There are also some exciting non-sauropods in the fauna, which we’ll be revealing very soon.

A chunk of matrix from the brachiosaur quarry. The black bits are fossilized plants.

And that’s not all. Unlike most of the other dinosaur fossils we’ve found in the Salt Wash, including the camarasaur, apatosaur, and haplocanthosaur vertebrae I’ve shown in recent posts, the humeri were not in concrete-like sandstone. Instead, they came out of a sandy clay layer, and the matrix is packed with plant fossils. It was actually kind of a pain during the excavation, because I kept getting distracted by all the plants. We did manage to collect a couple of buckets of the better-looking stuff as we were getting the humerus out, and we’ll be going back for more.

As you can seen in Part 1 of Brian’s Jurassic Reimagined documentary series, we’re not out there headhunting dinosaurs, we’re trying to understand the whole environment: the dinosaurs, the plants, the depositional system, the boom-and-bust cycles of rain and drought–in short, the whole shebang. So the plant fossils are almost as exciting for us as the brachiosaur, because they’ll tell us more about the world of the early Morrison.

The Barletts: Thayne, Jayleigh, Resha, Cobin, Wes, and Kaler.

Among the folks I have to thank, top honors go to the Bartlett family. They came to work, they worked hard, and they were cheerful and enthusiastic through the whole process. Even the kids worked–Thayne was one of the driving forces keeping the wagon moving down the gulch, and the younger Bartletts helped Ruby uncover and jacket a couple of small bits of bone that were in the way of the humerus flip. So Wes, Resha, Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin: thank you, sincerely. We couldn’t have done it without you all, and Molly and Darla!

EDIT: I also need to thank Casey Cordes–without his rope and winch skills, the jacket would still be out in the desert. And actually everyone on the team was clutch. We had no extraneous human beings and no unused gear. It was a true team effort.

The full version of the art shown at the top of this post: a new life restoration of Brachiosaurus by Brian Engh.

From start to end, this has been a Brian Engh joint. He found the humerus in the first place, and he was there for every step along the way, including creating the original paleoart that I’ve used to bookend this post. When Brian wasn’t prospecting or digging or plastering (or cooking, he’s a ferociously talented cook) he was filming. He has footage of me walking up to the humerus for the first time last May and being blown away, and he has some truly epic footage of the horses pulling the humerus out for us. All of the good stuff will go into the upcoming installments of Jurassic Reimagined. He bought the wagon and the boat winch with Patreon funds, so if you like this sort of thing–us going into the middle of nowhere, bringing back giant dinosaurs, and making blog posts and videos to explain what we’ve found and why we’re excited–please support Brian’s work (link). Also check out his blog, dontmesswithdinosaurs.com–his announcement about the find is here–and subscribe to his YouTube channel, Brian Engh Paleoart (link), for the rest of Jurassic Reimagined and many more documentaries to come.

(SV-POW! also has a Patreon page [link], and if you support us, Mike and I will put those funds to use researching and blogging about sauropods. Thanks for your consideration!)

The happiest I have ever been in the field. Photo by Yara Haridy.

And for me? It’s been the adventure of a lifetime, by turns terrifying and exhilarating. I missed out on the digs where Sauroposeidon, Brontomerus, and Aquilops came out of the ground, so this is by far the coolest thing I’ve been involved with finding and excavating. I got to work with old friends, and I made new friends along the way. And there’s more waiting for us, in “Brachiosaur Gulch” and in the Salt Wash more generally. After five years of fieldwork, we’ve just scratched the surface. Watch this space!

Media Coverage

Just as I was about to hit ‘publish’ I learned that this story has been beautifully covered by Anna Salleh of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I will add more links as they become available.

References

As regular readers will know, Matt and I have recently spent ten glorious days travelling the dinosaur museums of Utah, in a once-in-a-lifetime event that we have been calling the Sauropocalypse. In that time, we visited seven different museums and — this is the truth — had an absolutely fantastic time in all of them. One of the big reasons is of course the quality of their collections and galleries. But equally important is the welcome we got from our hosts at each of these places, and the help they all generously and cheerfully gave us.

Here’s where we visited, in chronological order, with a word of thanks to each host.

1. BYU Museum of Paleontology, Provo

IMG_3392

Mike compares Jensen’s sculpture of the big Supersaurus cervical BYU 9024 with the actual fossil.

At the amazing BYU — where we spent three full days, as it has almost certainly the largest collection of sauropod fossils anywhere in the world — our host was Brooks Britt. (Matt’s mentioned Brooks previously on this blog, as one of the most formative influences on his career: the person who put him onto pneumaticity.)

Brooks set us free in his collections and gallery with no restrictions. He had specimens fork-lifted down from high shelves for us, gave us a pallet lifter so we could move them around at will, and generally did everything he could to make our stay productive. He also took us out to lunch, twice: once at a cheap but delicious taco place, and once at a Brazilian eat-all-you-want barbecue place where I could happily have spent the entire afternoon.

2. The Prehistoric Museum, Price

IMG_2464

Matt inspects the beautifully preserved and prepared anterior cervicals of a Camarasaurus in the main gallery.

Our host at Price was occasional SV-POW! commenter Ken Carpenter, who also arranged for us to give a pair of talks at the museum in the evening. (Mine: Why giraffes have short necks. Matt’s: Why elephants are so small.) Ken gave us free reign to get in among the exhibits, and we took full advantage to make a potentially important discovery (to be discussed in a future post).

Ken also took us to see the CEUM collections, and invited us to take on a huge descriptive project, working on the PR2 brachiosaur. Sadly, that project is just too big for either of us. But there are individual elements within the PR2 collection that are of interest, and no doubt we’ll be posting more about those, too.

3. Dinosaur National Monument, Jensen

IMG_2603

Matt looms ominously over an Apatosaurus cervical in ventral view — or is it Camarasaurus?

Matt has already paid tribute to Dan Chure, our host up on the wall, who came in on his day off just to help us. An extraordinary host at an astonishing venue.

4. Utah Field House of Natural History, Vernal

IMG_2719

Diplodocus butt. Wedel for scale. He likes big butts and he cannot lie.

Here, we were hosted by Mary Beth Bottomley. She went beyond the call of duty in not only allowing us access to the prep room and collections, but helping us to take apart the shelving in collections so we could get better photos of a big, difficult-to-move specimen. Mary Beth was particularly interested in what we were working on, and will (I hope) now be a regular reader of this blog.

5. Dinosaur Journey, Fruita

IMG_2940

Mike, astonished by a particularly extreme apatosaur cervical. But then aren’t they all extreme?

We were, inadvertently, sensationally rude to our host, Julia McHugh. She’d arranged to take us for lunch, but Matt was so obsessed with the transit of Mercury across the sun that he completely forgot, and sent me off to get salads from Subway instead. (Note that I am making the point here that Matt forgot this arrangement. I make no comment on my own recall.) As a result, we cheated ourselves out of a BBQ lunch.

But Julia was great about it, and once again we were given free reign in collections. Matt and I were each able to make valuable observations, one for an already-in-progress paper and one for a new one.

6. Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City

IMG_3836

Barosaurus, an Allosaurus adult and several juveniles, and Mike.

Here, our host was Carrie Levitt. She welcomed us to the museum, gave us a tour of collections, left us to it, and … we spent almost the entire day in the public gallery instead! I did get a couple of nice photos of the holotype skulls of Kosmoceratops and Diabloceratops, but the truth is that the public gallery was so awesome, it just sucked us in.

But Carrie was great about it. Rather than resenting our having wasted her time in the collections orientation, she was just glad that we got useful observations out of the museum. (And we did. Matt and I can sometimes get so wrapped up in individual vertebrae that we forget they’re part of whole animals. The many fine mounted dinosaur skeletons at UMNH helped to redress this failing.)

7. North American Museum of Ancient Life, Thanksgiving Point

IMG_4641

Matt is attacked by a Utahraptor, but is all like “Am I bovvered?”. To be honest, I suspect he was all dinosaured out by this point.

On our last day — I had to be at the airport by 6pm — we went to NAMAL, We’d not been able to make contact with staff ahead of time, as Matt’s old contact seems to be no longer at the museum. But as we walked past the prep lab near the museum entrance, we saw some beautiful Barosaurus cervicals. As we stood gawping, Rick Hunter, inside the lab, recognised Matt and invited us in.

With no prior notice at all, Rick dropped what he was doing to help us out as we inspected their gorgeous material. That’s been really helpful as we’ve firmed up our ideas on what Barosaurus is. (And I hope we’ve helped them get a better handle on the serial positions of their vertebrae, too.)

In summary, pretty much everyone we met in Utah was super-helpful and super-nice. That also includes John and ReBecca Foster, who put us up for the night in Moab, the night before we went to Arches National Park. The people are one of three reasons why Utah is now my favourite US state. (The others are the sauropods, naturally, and the landscapes.)

Museum folks of Utah, we salute you!

Utah Field House Diplodocus 1

Mounted Diplodocus at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal.

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).

DNM baby Camarasaurus

Cast of the juvenile Camarasaurus CM 11338 at Dinosaur National Monument.

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.

UMNH Barosaurus mount

Mounted Barosaurus at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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.

I need to be sleeping, not blogging, so here are just the highlights, with no touch-ups and minimal commentary.

IMG_4487

I don’t know what these real street signs were doing sitting on the ground when I walked to the museum this morning, but it was a good omen for the conference.

IMG_4490

Home base for this part of the conference. We head to Green River, Utah, on Friday for the Early Cretaceous half.

IMG_4505

I had never seen this on exhibit. This is not the Brachiosaurus scapulocoracoid formerly referred to “Ultrasauros”, this is the other big scap from Dry Mesa, from the giant diplodocid Supersaurus.

IMG_4982

Seems legit.

IMG_4829

This is not Dinosaur Baptist Church–it is a cathedral of an entirely different order.

IMG_4545

And that order is Sauropoda.

IMG_4548

The sauropod bones are entombed in a matrix consisting of super-hard sandstone and non-sauropod bits.

I got about 150 photos of the Wall, but only because I ran out of time. You probably already know what I’m going to attempt with them. (If not, here’s a hint.)

IMG_4860

Jim Kirkland (center left) literally walked us through the Morrison and Cedar Mountain Formations at this set of exposures north of the visitor center. The reddish stuff on the lower left is Morrison, and after that it’s CMF all the way up this ridge and next two behind it.

IMG_4916

A cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, signalling that we’ve come to end of this tail–er, tale.

IMG_5007

Further updates as time and opportunity allow. If you tweet about the conference, please use #MMFC14!