If you followed along with the last post in this series, you now have some bird vertebrae to play with. Here are some things to do with them.

1. Learn the parts of the vertebrae, and compare them with those of other animals

Why are we so excited about bird vertebrae around here? Mostly because birds are reasonably long-necked living dinosaurs, and although their vertebrae differ from those of sauropods in relative proportions, all of the same bits are present in roughly the same places. If you know the parts of a bird vertebra and what each one does, you have a solid foundation for inferring the functions of sauropod vertebrae. Here’s a diagram I made for my SVP poster with Kent Sanders way back in 1999. I used an ostrich vertebra here but you should be able to find the same features in a cervical vertebra of just about any bird.

These are both middle cervical vertebrae in right lateral view. A middle cervical vertebra of a big ostrich will be between 3 and 4 inches long (7.5-10 cm), and one from a big brachiosaur like Giraffatitan will be about ten times longer.

I should do a whole post on neck muscles, but for now see this post and this paper.

2. Put the vertebrae in order, and rearticulate them

It is often useful to know where you are in the neck, and the only way to figure that out is to determine the serial position of the vertebrae. Here’s an articulated cervical series of a turkey in left lateral view, from Harvey et al. (1968: pl. 65):

Harvey’s “dorsal spine” is the neural spine or spinous process, and his “ventral spine” is the carotid process. The “alar process” is a sort of bridge of bone connecting the pre- and postzygapophyses; you can see a complete version in C3 in the photo below, and a partial version in C4.

Speaking of that photo, here’s my best attempt at rearticulating the vertebrae from the smoked turkey neck I showed in the previous post, with all of the vertebrae in left dorsolateral view.

These things don’t come with labels and it can take a bit of trial and error to get them all correctly in line. C2 is easy, with its odd articular surface for the atlas and narrow centrum with a ventral keel. Past that, C3 and C4 are usually pretty blocky, the mid-cervicals are long and lean, and then the posterior cervicals really bulk out. Because this neck section had been cut before I got it, some of the vertebrae look a little weird. Somehow I’m missing the front half of C6. The back half of C14 is also gone, presumably still stuck to the bird it went with, and C7 and C12 are both sectioned (this will come in handy later). I’m not 100% certain that I have C9 and C10 in the right order. One handy rule: although the length and neural spine height change in different ways along the column, the vertebrae almost always get wider monotonically from front to back.

And here’s the duck cervical series, in right lateral view. You can see that although the specific form of each vertebra is different from the equivalent vert in a turkey, the same general rules apply regarding change along the column.

Pro tip: I said above that these things don’t come with labels, but you can fix that. Once you have the vertebrae in a satisfactory order, paint a little dot of white-out or gesso on each one, and use a fine-point Sharpie or art pen to write the serial position (bone is porous and the white foundation will keep the ink from possibly making a mess). You may also want to put the vertebrae on a string or a wire to keep them in the correct order, but even so, it’s useful to have the serial position written on each vertebra in case you need to unstring them later.

3. Look at the air spaces

One nice thing about birds is that all of the species that are readily commercially available have pneumatic traces on and in their vertebrae, which are broadly comparable to the pneumatic vertebrae of sauropods.

The dorsal vertebrae of birds are even more obviously similar to those of sauropods than are the cervicals. These dorsal vertebrae of a duck (in left lateral view) show a nice variety of pneumatic features: lateral fossae on the centrum (what in sauropods used to be called “pleurocoels”), both with and without foramina, and complexes of fossae and foramina on the neural arches. Several of the vertebrae have small foramina on the centra that I assume are neurovascular. One of the challenges in working with the skeletal material of small birds is that it becomes very difficult to distinguish small pneumatic foramina and spaces from vascular traces. Although these duck vertebrae have small foramina inside some of the lateral fossae, the centra are mostly filled with trabecular, marrow-filled bone. In this, they are pretty similar to the dorsal vertebrae of Haplocanthosaurus, which have fossae on the neural arches and the upper parts of the centra, but for which the ventral half of each centrum is a brick of non-pneumatic bone. For more on distinguishing pneumatic and vascular traces in vertebrae, see O’Connor (2006) and Wedel (2007).

This turkey cervical, in left posterolateral view, shows some pneumatic features to nice advantage. The lateral pneumatic foramina in bird cervicals are often tucked up inside the cervical rib loops where they can be hard to see and even harder to photograph, but this one is out in the open. Also, the cervicals of this particular turkey have a lot of foramina inside the neural canal. In life these foramina are associated with the supramedullary diverticula, a set of air-filled tubes that occupy part of the neural canal in many birds — see Atterholt and Wedel (2018) for more on this unusual anatomical system. The development of foramina inside the neural canal seems to be pretty variable among individuals. In ostriches I’ve seen individuals in which almost every cervical has foramina inside the canal, and many others with no foramina. For turkeys it’s even more lopsided in my experience; this is the first turkey in which I’ve found really clear pneumatic foramina inside the neural canals. This illustrates one of the most important aspects of pneumaticity: pneumatic foramina and cavities in bones show that air-filled diverticula were present, but the absence of those holes and spaces does not mean that diverticula were absent. Mike and I coined the term “cryptic diverticula” for those that leave no diagnostic traces on the skeleton — for more on that, see the discussion section in Wedel and Taylor (2013b).

Finally, it’s worth taking a look at the air spaces inside the vertebrae. Here’s a view into C12 of the turkey cervical series shown above. The saw cut that sectioned this neck happened to go through the front end of this vertebra, and with a little clean-up the honeycomb of internal spaces is beautifully displayed. If you are working with an intact vertebra, the easiest way to see this for yourself is to get some sandpaper and sand off the front end of the vertebra. It only takes a few minutes and you’ll be less likely to damage the vertebrae or your fingers than if you cut the vertebra with a saw. Similar complexes of small pneumatic cavities are present in the vertebrae of some derived diplodocoids, like Barosaurus (see the lateral view in the middle of this figure), and in most titanosauriforms (for example).

I have one more thing for you to look for in your bird vertebrae, and that will be the subject of the next installment in this series. Stay tuned!

References

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The more I look at the problem of how flexible sauropod necks were, the more I think we’re going to struggle to ever know their range of motion It’s just too dependent on soft tissue that doesn’t fossilise. Consider for example the difference between horse necks (above) and camel necks (below).

The skeletons of both consist of vertebrae that are pronouncedly opisthocoelous (convex in front and concave behind), so you might think their necks would be similarly flexible.

But the balls of horse cevicals are deeply embedded in their corresponding sockets, while those of camels have so much cartilage around and between them that the tip of the ball doesn’t even reach the rim of the socket. As a result of this (and maybe other factors), camel necks are far more flexible than those of horses.

Which do sauropod necks resemble? We don’t currently know, and we may never know. It will help if someone gets a good handle on osteological correlates of intervertebral cartilage.

 


[This post is recycled and expanded from a comment that I left on a Tetrapod Zoology post, but since Tet Zoo ate that comment it’s just as well I kept a copy.]

A while back — near the start of the year, in fact — Szymon Górnicki interviewed me by email about palaeontology, alternative career paths, open access, palaeoart, PeerJ, scholarly infrastructure, the wonder of blogging, and how to get started learning about palaeo. He also illustrated it with this caricature of me, nicely illustrating our 2009 paper on neck posture.

For one reason and another, it’s taken a long while for me get around to linking to it — but here we are in October and I’ve finally arrived :-)

With apologies to Szymon for the delay: here is the interview!

By the way, Szymon’s also done interviews with other, more interesting people: Davide Bonadonna, Steve Brusatte, Tim Haines and Phil Currie. Check them out!

Thanks to everyone who’s engaged with yesterday’s apparently trivial question: what does it mean for a vertebra to be “horizontal”? I know Matt has plenty of thoughts to share on this, but before he does I want to clear up a couple of things.

This is not about life posture

First, and I really should have led with this: the present question has nothing to do with life posture. For example, Anna Krahl wrote on Twitter:

I personally find it more comprehensible if the measurements relate to something like eg. the body posture. This is due to my momentary biomech./functional work, where bone orientation somet is difficult to define.

I’m sympathetic to that, but we really need to avoid conflating two quite different issues here.

Taylor, Wedel and Naish (2009), Figure 1. Cape hare Lepus capensis RAM R2 in right lateral view, illustrating maximally extended pose and ONP: skull, cervical vertebrae 1-7 and dorsal vertebrae 1-2. Note the very weak dorsal deflection of the base of the neck in ONP, contrasting with the much stronger deflection illustrated in a live rabbit by Vidal et al. (1986: fig. 4). Scalebar 5 cm.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last couple of decades, it’s that life posture for extinct animals is controversial — and that goes double for sauropod necks. Heck, even the neck posture of extant animals is terribly easy to misunderstand. We really can’t go changing what we mean by “horizontal” for a vertebra based on the currently prevalent hypothesis of habitual posture.

Also, note that the neck posture on the left of the image above is close to (but actually less extreme than) the habitual posture of rabbits and hares: and we certainly wouldn’t want to illustrate vertebrae as “horizontal” when they’re oriented directly upwards, or even slightly backwards!

Instead, we need to imagine the animal’s skeleton laid out with the whole vertebral column in a straight line — sort of like Ryder’s 1877 Camarasaurus, but with the tail also elevated to the same straight line.

Ryder’s 1877 reconstruction of Camarasaurus, the first ever made of any sauropod, modified from Osborn & Mook (1921, plate LXXXII).

Of course, life posture is more important, and more interesting, question than that of what constitutes “horizontal” for an individual vertebra — but it’s not the one we’re discussing right now.

In method C, both instances are identically oriented

I’m not sure how obvious this was, but I didn’t state it explicitly. In definition C (“same points at same height in consecutive vertebrae”), I wrote:

We use two identical instances of the vertebrae, articulate them together as well as we can, then so orient them that the two vertebrae are level

What I didn’t say is that the two identical instances of the vertebrae have to be identically oriented. Here’s why this is important. Consider that giraffe C7 that we looked at last time, with its keystoned centrum. if you just “articulate them together as well as we can” without that restriction, you end up with something like this:

Which is clearly no good: there’s no way to orient that such that for any given point on one instance, the corresponding point on the other is level with it. What you need instead is something like this:

In this version, I’ve done the best job I can of articulating the two instances in the same attitude, and arranged them such that they are level with each other — so that the attitude shown here is “horizontal” in sense C.

As it happens, this is also just about horizontal in sense B — the floor of the neural canal is presumably at the same height as the top of the centrum as it meets the neural arch.

But “horizontal” in sense A (posterior articular surface vertical) fails horribly for this vertebra:

To me, this image alone is solid evidence that Method A is just not good enough. Whatever we mean by “horizontal”, it’s not what this image shows.

References

Here at SV-POW! we’re big fans of the way that animals’ neck skeletons are much more extended, and often much longer, than you would guess by looking at the complete animal, with its misleading envelope of flesh.

Here’s another fine example, from John Hutchinson’s new post A Museum Evolves:

Solitaire (flightless bird), skeleton and taxidermy at University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge (UMZC). Photo by John Hutchinson.

Looking at the stuffed bird, it seems that it could get by perfectly well with half as many cervical vertebra, if only it didn’t carry them in such a strange posture.

Well — I say strange. It seems inefficient, yet it must be doing something useful, because it’s essentially ubiquitous among birds and many mammals … including rabbits, as long-time readers will remember.

This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited

mark-and-matt-with-the-sauropod-dinosaurs

Quick heads up: Mark Hallett and I are both at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow afternoon (Friday, October 28) at 4:15 PM we’ll be signing copies of our book, The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants. If you’d like to get a copy of the book, or to have your already-purchased copy signed, please come to the Johns Hopkins University Press booth in the exhibitor/poster area tomorrow afternoon. We’re both generally happy to sign books whenever and wherever, but if you’d like to catch us both at the same time, this is a good opportunity. We’re hoping to do another joint book signing in Los Angeles before long – more info on that when we get it arranged.

In the meantime, or if you’re not at SVP, or if you just like cool things, check out this rad claymation video of fighting apatosaurs, by YouTube user Fred the Dinosaurman. I love this. My favorite thing is that if you’re familiar with the previously-produced, static visual images of neck-fighting apatosaurs (links collected here), you’ll see a lot of those specific poses and moments recreated as transient poses in the video. This was published back in June, but I’d missed it – many thanks to Brian Engh for the heads up.