“Biconcavoposeidon”

August 15, 2017

Here is a fascinating sequence of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebra — AMNH FARB 291 from the”Big Bone Room” at the AMNH:

AMNH FARB 291, five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in right lateral view. The vertebrae are embedded in a plaster block, which has been desaturated in this image.

Matt and I first saw this specimen back in February 2009, when we were mostly there to look at Apatosarusminimus (and then again in 2012). As soon as our eyes lit on it, we couldn’t help but be captivated by its bizarre biconcave centra. We immediately started flippantly referring to it as “Biconcavoposeidon” — the ugliest name we could come up with — and in our subsequent discussions the name has stuck (often abbreviated to “BCP”).

  • Taxonomic note: for avoidance of doubt, “Biconcavoposeidon” is not and will never be a formal taxonomic name, only an informal specimen nickname. If at some future point we conclude that this specimen represents a new taxon, and name it, we will definitely not use the name “Biconcavoposeidon”. If you ever use the name, please do not set it in italics.

As you can see in this front view, the specimen is sheared: the upper part of the vertebrae have been displaced to their left (which is the right as we see it in this image):

AMNH FARB 291, most anterior of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in anterior view.

Apart from the shearing, though, and the truncation of the neural spines shortly above the transverse processes, the specimen is in pretty good nick. Crucially, it’s not been “restored” in plaster to conceal what is and is not real bone — unlike many specimens of that era. It came out of the Bone Cabin quarry in 1898, back when scientific information was routinely discarded in order to obtain a more beautiful-looking specimen.

This is the specimen that I’ll be presenting at SVPCA this year — though only as a poster, unfortunately: there’s no talk for me, Matt or Darren this year. We’ve posted our abstract (including the illustration above) to the nascent PeerJ collection for SVPCA 2017, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of the materials from that conference — abstracts, then manuscripts, then papers — appearing in the collection.

So far as we know, there’s no other sauropod specimen with biconcave posterior dorsal vertebrae. (And, no, Amphicoelias is not an exception, despite its name.) But have we missed any?

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Here is a vertebra that Matt and I saw on our recent travels through Utah:

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I will explain in a subsequent post where we saw it, who gave us access, where and when it is from, and so on.

For now, I want people’s gut reactions: what is it?

Re-reading an email that Matt sent me back in January, I see this:

One quick point about [an interesting sauropod specimen]. I can envision writing that up as a short descriptive paper, basically to say, “Hey, look at this weird thing we found! Morrison sauropod diversity is still underestimated!” But I honestly doubt that we’ll ever get to it — we have literally years of other, more pressing work in front of us. So maybe we should just do an SV-POW! post about the weirdness of [that specimen], so that the World Will Know.

Although as soon as I write that, I think, “Screw that, I’m going to wait until I’m not busy* and then just take a single week* and rock out a wiper* on it.”

I realize that this way of thinking represents a profound and possibly psychotic break with reality. *Thrice! But it still creeps up on me.

(For anyone not familiar with the the “wiper”, it refers to a short paper of only one or two pages. The etymology is left as an exercise to the reader.)

It’s just amazing how we keep on and on falling for this delusion that we can get a paper out quickly, even when we know perfectly well, going into the project, that it’s not going to work out that way. To pick a recent example, my paper on quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture was intended to be literally one page, an addendum to the earlier paper on cartilage: title, one paragraph of intro, diagram, equation, single reference, DONE! Instead, it landed up being 11 pages long with five illustrations and two tables.

I think it’s a reasonable approximation to say that any given project will require about an order of magnitude more work than we expect at the outset.

Even as I write this, the top of my palaeo-work priority list is a paper that I’m working on with Matt and two other colleagues, which he kicked off on 6 May, writing:

I really, really want to kill this off absolutely ASAP. Like, seriously, within a week or two. Is that cool? Is that doable?

To which I idiotically replied:

IT SHALL BE SO!

A month and a bit later, the answers to Matt’s questions are clear. Yes, it’s cool; and no, it’s not doable.

The thing is, I think that’s … kind of OK. The upshot is that we end up writing reasonably substantial papers, which is after all what we’re meant to be trying to do. If the reasonably substantial papers that end up getting written aren’t necessarily the ones we thought they were going to be, well, that’s not a problem. After all, as I’ve noted before, my entire Ph.D dissertation was composed of side-projects, and I never got around to doing the main project. That’s fine.

In 2011, Matt’s tutorial on how to find problems to work on discussed in detail how projects grow and mutate and anastamose. I’m giving up on thinking that this is a bad thing, abandoning the idea that I ought to be in control of my own research program. I’m just going to keep chasing whatever rabbits look good to me at the time, and see what happens.

Onwards!

Who owns journals?

September 14, 2013

Suppose you’re working on a Wealden sauropod — for example, the disturbingly Camarasaurus-like isolated dorsal vertebra NHM R2523 — and for some reason you desperately want to publish your work in Cretaceous Research.

bmnh-r2523-orthogonal

But it’s published by Elsevier, which means that if you’re committed to open access, you have to find an exorbitant $3300 for the APC. Since Elsevier’s profit margin is 37.3%, you know that $1230.90 of your APC is going to be sliced right off the top. I’ve heard it said (but don’t have a reference for this) that barrier-based publishers spend something like 40% of their costs on marketing subscriptions. So there goes another $827.64. And because legacy publishers have to spend a fortune on paywalls, authentication systems, lawyers, spin-doctors, lobbyists and the like, that could well account for, say, half of the remainder. If that’s correct, then only $620.73 of your APC — 19% of what you give them — is actually paying for publishing services such as copy-editing, typesetting, Web hosting and archiving.

You could be forgiven for thinking that’s not the best way to spend your $3300.

it would of course be much cheaper to publish in PLOS ONE, or PeerJ, or eLife, or F1000 Research, or one of the relevant BMC journals. But let’s suppose that your heart is set on Cretaceous Research.

I don’t know how common it is for people to find themselves in this situation, but I’m guessing it crops up more often than somewhat. Often enough, maybe, that the editors wish that the journal they run was published by someone other than Elsevier.

So my question is this: who “owns” journals? For example, we know JVP could move away from T&F if they wanted — at least, when its four-year contract expires — but could Cretaceous Research move from Elsevier? Do the editorial board “own” it? Or does Elsevier? If the CR editors hypothetically wanted to keep running their journal but as (say) an open access Ubiquity Press journal with a £250 APC, would they be forced to start The New Journal of Cretaceous Research, leaving the old one to wither with no editors?

And just to be clear: this isn’t a question about Cretaceous Research, Elsevier and Ubiquity. They’re just examples. It’s about the broader problem of who controls what journals, and what the people who actually run those journals can do about it.

From the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, I give you the sacrum and fused ilia of “Apatosaurusminimus AMNH 675, as correctly identified by Steve P in a comment to the previous post:

"Apatosaurus" minimus sacrum with fused ilium, right lateral view

As Steve P rightly pointed out, AMNH 675 was designated as Brontosaurus sp. by Osborn (1904), and made the type of Apatosaurus minimus by Mook (1917).

It’s been known for some time that whatever this is, it’s not Apatosaurus — see for example McIntosh (1990a:398), McIntosh (1990b:59) and Upchurch et al. (2004:298). But what actually is it? Well, at the moment, no-one knows. Matt and I now have a manuscript in prep that we hope will somewhat elucidate this question. More to come on this specimen, most likely.

References

McIntosh, John S. 1990a. Sauropoda. In The Dinosauria, pp. 345–401. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

McIntosh, John S. 1990b. Species Determination in Sauropod Dinosaurs with Tentative Suggestions for the Their Classification. In Dinosaur Systematics: Approaches and Perspectives, pp. 53–69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mook, Charles C. 1917. Criteria for the determination of species in the Sauropoda, with description of a new species of Apatosaurus. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 38:355-360.

Osborn, Henry F. 1904. Manus, sacrum, and caudals of Sauropoda. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 20:181-190.

Upchurch, Paul, Paul M Barrett, and Peter Dodson. 2004. Sauropoda” In The Dinosauria, 2nd Edition, pp. 259–322. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

A couple of posts back, when Matt was talking about turtle laminae, he included a photo of me in front of the skeleton of the giant turtle Archelon. Also in that photo is the tripod I was using — if you want to call it that — a tripod of altogether startling inadequacy. Here it is again, this time in the collections of the AMNH:

(Bonus SV-POW! points for anyone who can tell me what taxon or specimen I am working on. Sorry, Heinrich, you’re disqualified, since you already know.)

Why did we use such a poor tripod? Matt was planning to bring a proper one, but at the last minute decided to downsize his luggage by taking one small enough to fit into a smaller bag — in fact, it’s the tripod that came free with a telescope he recently bought. Not a good move: it was too short for many of the shots we wanted to take, too flimsy to properly stabilise the camera in many situations, and didn’t have enough degrees of freedom to let us get every shot we wanted from the best position.

Still, it was better than nothing, and we did contrive to get all the specimen photos we needed.

At the end of the week, when we finished up in collections and went to catch our taxi to the airport, Matt left the tripod behind. I emailed our AMNH host Carl Mehling to explain:

Matt deliberately left behind his tripod — it’s on the desk where we had the pelvic elements. He has much better tripods at home, and regrets the false economy of bringing that lighter and less stable one. But we figured it would be better than nothing for the use of anyone who turns up in collections with no tripod at all, so please feel free to make it available to visitors. Matt asks only that it be known as “The Mathew J. Wedel Memorial Tripod”.

Carl replied:

Thanks so much for the tripod – I KNOW it will come in handy!

My response:

Ah, sorry about this but my client insists that it must be known by its full title The Mathew J. Wedel Memorial Tripod at all times. If necessary, you may abbreviate it to TMJWMT on second and subsequent mentions.

Carl’s reply:

I can engrave it in the Lab and apply a B72/India Ink/B72 sandwich acronym/monogram on it. I will also construct an archival museum mount for it and put a security chip in its brain.

That’s when Matt himself weighed in:

Oh, and be sure that when the tripod is not in use it is stored in an airtight positive pressure chamber full of an inert gas. It should also be polished twice daily with the down of a hatchling bald eagle (fresh down each time, naturally). Finally, the tripod itself should be listed as an author on any publications that include photos taken with it. Please send a runner to my office in California to confirm that these instructions will be carried out to the letter.

The runner hasn’t arrived yet (to my knowledge) but I think we can take it as read that Carl will comply with these very reasonable conditions.

So, folks! If ever you’re working in the AMNH big-bone room, and you find you’ve forgotten your tripod … you might just be lucky enough to be allowed use of the Mathew J. Wedel Memorial Tripod!

Sorry to have written so much about publishing politics recently, and so little about sauropod vertebrae!  That stuff is important, and I give you fair warning I will be returning to it soon.  But for now, here is a quiz:

[Click through for a much bigger version.]

This is one of the figures from the as-yet last unpublished last chapter of my dissertation, slightly modified for its forthcoming submission to Palaeontologia Electronica.  As you can see, it shows five sauropod cervicals, each one in left lateral and either posterior or anterior view.

But can you tell me what they all are?  Points will be awarded for getting the right taxon, the particular specimen, and the serial position, for an available total of fifteen points.  I will award fractional marks as and when necessary (e.g. right genus but wrong species; serial position close but not quite right).  And I might give bonuses for interesting and relevant historical asides.

Do not look at other peoples’ answers before deciding on your own!

I will leave some blank space at the end of this article, before the comments, so that you don’t see them inadvertently before you make your choices.

Enjoy!

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(Spoiler space ends)