You may remember this:

Rapetosaurus mount at Field Museum

…which I used to make this:

Rapetosaurus skeleton silhouette

…and then this:

Rapetosaurus skeleton silhouette - high neck

The middle image is just the skeleton from the top photo cut out from the background and dropped to black using ‘Levels’ in GIMP, with the chevrons scooted up to close the gap imposed by the mounting bar.

The bottom image is the same thing tweaked a bit to repose the skeleton and get rid of some perspective distortion on the limbs. The limb posture is an attempt to reproduce an elephant step cycle from Muybridge.

That neck is wacky. Maybe not as wrong as Omeisaurus, but pretty darned wrong. As I mentioned in the previous Rapetosaurus skeleton post, the cervicals are taller than the dorsals, which is opposite the condition in every other sauropod I’ve seen. All in all, I find the reposed Rapetosaurus disturbingly horse-like. And oddly slender through the torso, dorsoventrally at least. The dorsal ribs look short in these lateral views because they’re mounted at a very odd, laterally-projecting angle that I think is probably not correct. But the ventral body profile still had to meet the distal ends of the pubes and ischia, which really can’t go anywhere without disarticulating the ilia from the sacrum (and cranking the pubes down would only force the distal ends of the ilia up, even closer to the tail–the animal still had to run its digestive and urogenital pipes through there!). So the torso was deeper than these ribs suggest, but it was still not super-deep. Contrast this with Opisthocoelicaudia, where the pubes stick down past the knees–now that was a tubby sauropod. Then again, Alamosaurus has been reconstructed with a similarly compact torso compared to its limbs–see the sketched-in ventral body profile in the skeletal recon from Lehman and Coulson (2002: figure 11).

I intend to post more photos of the mount, including some close-ups and some from different angles, and talk more about how the animal was shaped in life. And hopefully soon, because history has shown that if I don’t strike while the iron is hot, it might be a while before I get back to it. For example, I originally intended this post to follow the last Rapetosaurus skeleton post by  about a week. So much for that!

Like everything else we post, these images are CC BY, so feel free to take them and use them. If you use them for the basis of anything cool, like a muscle reconstruction or life restoration, let us know and we’ll probably blog it.

I’ve measured a few necks in my time, including the neck of a baby giraffe. I can tell you from experience that necks are awkward things to measure, even if they have been conveniently divested of their heads and torsos. They have a tendency to curl up, which impedes attempts to find the straight-line length. Even when you manage to hold them straight, you want them maximally compressed end-to-end rather than stretched out, which is hard to achieve without buckling them out of the straight line. And then you need to measure between perpendiculars in a straight line.

Awkward.

Tonight, I needed to measure the mass and length of seven turkey necks. (Never mind why, all will become clear in time.) And I found a way to do it that works much better than anything I’ve done before.

Here’s the equipment:

IMG_0961-equipment

You will need:

  • Kitchen scales (for weighing the necks)
  • Small numbered labels (for the sandwich bags that the necks will go into for the freezer once they’ve been measured)
  • Pen and paper to take down the measurements
  • Translucent ruler
  • Saucepan full of turkey necks
  • Slightly less than one half of a birthday cake decorated like a map of Middle-earth [optional]
  • A Duplo baseboard (double-sized Lego) and about fifteen 4×2 bricks

Use the bricks to build an L-shaped bracket on the board — about half way back, so that can rest your hand in front of it.

IMG_0963-straightened

Now you can push the neck into the angle of the bracket. By keeping it pressed firmly against the back wall (yellow in my construction), you can keep it straight. I find the best way to get the neck exactly abutting the left (red) wall is to start with the neck in its natural position, with the anterior and posterior ends curving towards you, then sort of unroll it against the back wall, and finally push the posterior end into place with your little finger (see below). There is a satisfying moment– almost a click — as the back end pops into place and the neck slides along a little to right as necessary to accommodate the added length.

IMG_0966-blocked

Now use another brick (blue in this photo) as a bracket: slide it along the back wall from right to left until it’s solidly abutting the anteriormost vertebra. If you do this right, there is very little travel: the entire series of vertebrae is lined up and solidly abutted, with bone pushing against the left wall and your new brick. I find there’s less than half a millimeter of variation between the length under gentle-but-firm pressure (which is what I measured) and under the very strongest force you can exert without buckling the neck.

IMG_0967-measured

Once you have found the blue brick’s correct position, you need to hold it firmly in place and measure its position relative the the left wall. (It doesn’t matter if you let the neck re-curl at this point, so long as the blue brick doesn’t shift.)

You need a translucent ruler so that you can lay it across the neck and see where blue brick falls under the scale. (My ruler’s zero is, rather annoyingly, 5 mm from the end; so I needed to subtract 5 mm from the lengths I measured.)

IMG_0969-bagged

Finally, I bagged up each neck in its own sandwich bag, ready for the freezer. Each neck is labelled with a number so that when I take it out for dissection, I will be able to relate the measurements and observations that I make back to these initial measurements.

For the record, here are the measurements:

  • Neck 1: 154 g, 179.5 mm.
  • Neck 2: 122 g, 151 mm.
  • Neck 3: 154 g, 199.5 mm.
  • Neck 4: 133 g, 162.5 mm.
  • Neck 5: 142 g, 169 mm.
  • Neck 6: 80 g, 167 mm.
  • Neck 7: 70 g, 169 mm.

As expected, there is some correlation between neck mass and length; but not as much as you might expect. Naively (i.e. assuming isometric similarity) mass should be proportional to length cubed, but there is a lot of scatter about that line. I don’t know whether that is due to individual variation, or merely because the various necks — all of them incomplete — are different sections of the full neck. Hopefully I will be able to confirm or rule out that possibility when I’ve dissected down to naked vertebrae.

Having taken time to discuss at length why we posted our neck-anatomy paper on arXiv, let’s now return to the actual content of the paper. You may remember from the initial post, or indeed from the paper itself, that Table 3 of the paper summarises its conclusions:

Table 3. Neck-elongation features by taxon.

Needless to say, we puny humans lack all seven of the features that were discussed as contributing to long necks, while sauropods have them all. But it’s interesting to look at the giraffe and Paraceratherium, the two longest-necked mammals, and see what they have in common. They share quadrupedal stance; the giraffe has elongated cervical vertebrae; and Paraceratherium has absolutely large body size. But they both lack all four of the other features:

  • Small, light head
  • Numerous cervical vertebrae
  • Air-sac system
  • Vertebral pneumaticity

And they lack them for the same reason: because they are mammals. The same is true of all mammals, and the individual reasons for those four missing long-neck features are all the same: because mammals have hit local maxima, and can’t evolve away from them.

Mammals’ heads, for example, are all set up for extensive oral processing of food — certainly among large herbivores. (I think pretty much all the toothless mammals are insectivores.) They’ve got very good at it, and there’s no evolutionary pathway that can take a giraffe from its current lifestyle to a sauropod-like crop-and-swallow strategy without passing through an adaptive valley on the way. That means they are stuck with big, solid teeth and heavily engineered jaws, which means they can’t have light heads.

In the same way, mammals have much more efficient lungs than those of their reptile-like forebears, the common ancestors that they share with birds. They have evolved to a point where their lungs are too complex and effective to easily evolve into a different shape — yet by doing so, they have cut themselves off from the yet more efficient avian lung (shared by sauropods) that is capable of extracting twice as much oxygen as our lungs.

And of course in the absence of an avian-style lung, there can be no soft-tissue diverticula or air-sacs, and so no pneumatic invasion of the vertebrae.

A final nail in the coffin of mammal neck length is that we seem to be strongly wired to have exactly seven cervical vertebrae — no more, no less. The exceptions are very few and far between: sloths and sirenians, and even then they don’t vary from the seven-cervical pattern by more than one or two vertebrae.

Skull and cervical skeleton of the three-toed sloth, Bradypus tridactylus, taken at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge (UK). Note the nine cervical vertebrae — the most of any mammal.

As for why we can’t get past seven, or at most nine, cervicals — that’s harder to answer. There’s no reason why seven should be an adaptive maximum, so it seems that the reason is genetic: the instructions to produce seven cervicals are part of the same gene complex that gives us an advantage in some other way. I have vague memories of an excellent talk at the Bristol SVP suggesting that cervical-count is linked to cancer resistance, but I can’t remember any of the details.

Anyone able to elaborate?

Anyway: this is how evolution works, and why it doesn’t make organisms (including us) as perfect as we might wish. It has no goal in mind — such as a long neck — and blindly follows the path that at that moment gives the organism the best chance of reproducing successfully. That means an animal like a giraffe, even though it is clearly selecting for neck length, is trapped on an adaptive hill and can’t get down across the valley to a higher peak.

Why giraffes have short necks

September 26, 2012

Today sees the publication, on arXiv (more on that choice in a separate post), of Mike and Matt’s new paper on sauropod neck anatomy. In this paper, we try to figure out why it is that sauropods evolved necks six times longer than that of the world-record giraffe — as shown in Figure 3 from the paper (with a small version of Figure 1 included as a cameo to the same scale):

Figure 3. Necks of long-necked sauropods, to the same scale. Diplodocus, modified from elements in Hatcher (1901, plate 3), represents a “typical” long-necked sauropod, familiar from many mounted skeletons in museums. Puertasaurus modified from Wedel (2007a, figure 4-1). Sauroposeidon scaled from Brachiosaurus artwork by Dmitry Bogdanov, via commons.wikimedia.org (CC-BY-SA). Mamenchisaurus modified from Young and Zhao (1972, figure 4). Supersaurus scaled from Diplodocus, as above. Alternating pink and blue bars are one meter in width. Inset shows Figure 1 to the same scale.

This paper started life as a late-night discussion over a couple of beers, while Matt was over in England for SVPCA back in (I think) 2008. It was originally going to be a short note in PaleoBios, just noting some of the oddities of sauropod cervical architecture — such as the way that cervical ribs, ventral to the centra, elongate posteriorly but their dorsal counterparts the epipophyses do not.

As so often, the tale grew in the telling, so that a paper we’d initially imagined as a two-or-three-page note became Chapter 5 of my dissertation under the sober title of “Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs”, weighing in at 41 1.5-spaced pages. By now the manuscript had metastatised into a comparison between the necks of sauropods and other animals and an analysis of the factors that enabled sauropods to achieve so much more than mammals, birds, other theropods and pterosaurs.

(At this point we had one of our less satisfactory reviewing experiences. We sent the manuscript to a respected journal, where it wasn’t even sent out to reviewers until more than a month had passed. We then had to repeatedly prod the editor before anything else happened. Eventually, two reviews came back: one of them careful and detailed; but the other, which we’d waited five months for, dismissed our 53-page manuscript in 108 words. So two words per page, or about 2/3 of a word per day of review time. But let’s not dwell on that.)

Figure 6. Basic cervical vertebral architecture in archosaurs, in posterior and lateral views. 1, seventh cervical vertebra of a turkey, Meleagris gallopavo Linnaeus, 1758, traced from photographs by MPT. 2, fifth cervical vertebra of the abelisaurid theropod Majungasaurus crenatissimus Depéret, 1896,UA 8678, traced from O’Connor (2007, figures 8 and 20). In these taxa, the epipophyses and cervical ribs are aligned with the expected vectors of muscular forces. The epipophyses are both larger and taller than the neural spine, as expected based on their mechanical importance. The posterior surface of the neurapophysis is covered by a large rugosity, which is interpreted as an interspinous ligament scar like that of birds (O’Connor, 2007). Because this scar covers the entire posterior surface of the neurapophysis, it leaves little room for muscle attachments to the spine. 3, fifth cervical vertebra of Alligator mississippiensis Daudin, 1801, MCZ 81457, traced from 3D scans by Leon Claessens, courtesy of MCZ. Epipophyses are absent. 4, eighth cervical vertebra of Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch, 1914) paralectotype HMN SII, traced from Janensch (1950, figures 43 and 46). Abbreviations: cr, cervical rib; e, epipophysis; ns, neural spine; poz, postzygapophysis.

This work made its next appearance as my talk at SVPCA 2010 in Cambridge, under the title Why giraffes have such short necks. For the talk, I radically restructured the material into a form that had a stronger narrative — a process that involved a lot of back and forth with Matt, dry-running the talk, and workshopping the order in which ideas were presented. The talk seemed to go down well, and we liked the new structure so much more than the old that we reworked the manuscript into a form that more closely resembled the talk.

That’s the version of the manuscript that we perfected in New York when we should have been at all-you-can-eat sushi places. It’s the version that we submitted on the train from New York to New Haven as we went to visit the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. And it’s the version that was cursorily rejected from mid-to-low ranked palaeo journal because a reviewer said “The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript” — which was of course precisely what we’d intended.

Needless to say, it was deeply disheartening to have had what we were convinced was a good paper rejected twice from journals, at a cost of three years’ delay, on the basis of these reviews. One option would have been to put the manuscript back into the conventional “scientific paper” straitjacket for the second journal’s benefit. But no. We were not going to invest more work to make the paper less good. We decided to keep it in its current, more readable, form and to find a journal that likes it on that basis.

At the moment, the plan is to send it to PeerJ when that opens to submissions. (Both Matt and I are already members.) But that three-years-and-rolling delay really rankles, and we both felt that it wasn’t serving science to keep the paper locked up until it finally makes it into a journal — hence the deposition in arXiv which we plan to talk about more next time.

Table 3. Neck-elongation features by taxon.

In the paper, we review seven characteristics of sauropod anatomy that facilitated the evolution of long necks: absolutely large body size; quadrupedal stance; proportionally small, light head; large number of  cervical vertebrae; elongation of cervical vertebrae; air-sac system; and vertebral pneumaticity. And we show that giraffes have only two of these seven features. (Ostriches do the next best, with five, but they are defeated by their feeble absolute size.)

The paper incorporates some material from SV-POW! posts, including Sauropods were corn-on-the-cob, not shish kebabs. In fact, come to think of it, we should have cited that post as a source. Oh well. We do cite one SV-POW! post: Darren’s Invading the postzyg, which at the time of writing is the only published-in-any-sense source for pneumaticity invading cervical postzygapogyses from the medial surface.

As for the non-extended epipophyses that kicked the whole project off: we did illustrate how they could look, and discussed why they would seem to make mechanical sense:

Figure 10. Real and speculative muscle attachments in sauropod cervical vertebrae. 1, the second through seventeenth cervical vertebrae of Euhelopus zdanskyi Wiman, 1929 cotype specimen PMU R233a-δ(“Exemplar a”). 2, cervical 14 as it actually exists, with prominent but very short epipophyses and long cervical ribs. 3, cervical 14 as it would appear with short cervical ribs. The long ventral neck muscles would have to attach close to the centrum. 4, speculative version of cervical 14 with the epipophyses extended posteriorly as long bony processes. Such processes would allow the bulk of both the dorsal and ventral neck muscles to be located more posteriorly in the neck, but they are not present in any known sauropod or other non-avian dinosaur. Modified from Wiman (1929, plate 3).

But we found and explained some good reasons why this apparently appealing arrangement would not work. You’ll need to read the paper for details.

Sadly, we were not able to include this slide from the talk illustrating the consequences:

Anyway, go and read the paper! It’s freely available, of course, like all arXiv depositions, and in particular uses the permissive Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence. We have assembled related information over on this page, including full-resolution versions of all the figures.

In the fields of maths, physics and computer science, where deposition in arXiv is ubiquitous, standard practice is to go right ahead and cite works in arXiv as soon as they’re available, rather than waiting for them to appear in journals. We will be happy for the same to happen with our paper: if it contains information that’s of value to you, then feel free to cite the arXiv version.

Reference

  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2012. Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. arXiv:1209.5439. 39 pages, 11 figures, 3 tables. [Full-resolution figures]

In a comment on the previous post, Emily Willoughby links to an excellent post on her own blog that discusses the “necks lie” problem in herons. Most extraordinarily, here are two photos of what seems to be the same individual:

You should get over to Emily’s blog right now and read her article. (Kudos, too, for the Portal reference in the title. I’ve been playing Portal and Portal 2 obsessively for the last week. Quite brilliant, and a very rare example of true innovation in computer gaming.)

Also of interest: this composite of two shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) individuals, which I made from two of the images mentioned in a comment by AL on Emily’s post:

Oh, birds, you crazy creatures!

Back when we were at Cambridge for the 2010 SVPCA, we saw taxidermied and skeletonised hoatzins, and were struck that the cervical skeleton was so very much longer than the neck as it appears in life — because necks lie. At Oxford last week for the 2012 SVPCA, we saw a similar pair of hoatzin mounts (one adult, one juvenile) that clarified the situation:

And here is juvenile in side-view:

As you can see, it’s folding its neck way down out of the way, so that externally it appears much shorter. (And comparing with the Cambridge specimen, you can see that the neck skeleton is proportionally much longer than this in adult.)

Why does it do this? I have no idea.

But I do know it’s not unique to hoatzins. Another nice illustration of how misleading birds’ necks are when viewed in a live animal is this parrot (probably Amazona ochrocephala) in the Natuurhistorisch Museum of Rotterdam (from this Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs post):

One thing that’s not clear to me is how much of the neck the bird can extend in life. If the parrot wants to uncoil all that spare cervical skeleton to reach upwards or forwards, can it? Will the soft tissue envelope allow it? My guess is not, otherwise you’d surely see them doing it. But then … why is all that neck in there at all?

Here’s a cool skeleton of the South American pleurodire Podocnemis in the Yale Peabody Museum.

What’s that you’re hiding in your neck, Podocnemis?

Laminae! Here’s a closeup:

The laminae run from the transverse processes to the prezygapophyses and the centrum, which I reckon makes them analogues of the PRDLs and ACDLs of sauropods.

As long as I’m posting on Peabody turtles, here’s Archelon. It’s not bad, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which Mike clearly ain’t, but for a good reason, which will be revealed soon.

For more info on vertebral laminae in extant non-dinosaurs, see this post and the lower left paragraph on page 212 of this paper.

The story so far …

Nature Precedings is, or was, a preprint server, somewhat in the spirit of an arXiv for biology.  It describes, or described, itself as “a permanent, citable archive for pre-publication research and preliminary findings”.

This is a very useful thing.  In our recentish paper on how sauropod necks were not sexually selected (Taylor et al. 2011), we wanted to mention in passing (as part of a much more involved argument about sauropod feeding ecology) that the DinoMorph results should not be taken as face value because “assumptions about the mobility of intervertebral joints are probably incorrect”.  The obvious thing to cite for this is an old SV-POW! post (Taylor 2009) and so we did.  (It’s gratifying to see an SV-POW! post sitting cheerfully in the bibliography of a conventionally published paper.  There have been a few of these now.)

But what happens if SV-POW! goes away?  What if Matt, Darren and I are all simultaneously run over by buses, and WordPress cancel the blog after a period of inactivity?  For that matter, what if WordPress goes bust and shuts down its servers, or starts charging for hosting so that we decided to go elsewhere?  Anyone trying to follow the reference in our necks-for-sex paper would by stymied.  It seemed to me that the professional thing to do was to post a copy somewhere more permanent.

The answer is, or was, Nature Precedings.  So a couple of months ago I made up an PDF containing the same text and images as the blog post, and submitted it to Precedings, where it can be found now (Taylor 2012).  Matt and I were talking about doing the same for all the SV-POW! posts we know of that have been cited in formal literature, and perhaps getting into the habit of repositing PDFs of all such articles whenever we want to cite them, and then citing the Precedings version instead.

Not so fast!

I got an email three days ago from Precedings:

Subject: Nature Precedings change in service

Dear registrant:

As you are an active user of Nature Precedings, we want to let you know about some upcoming changes to this service. As of April 3rd 2012, we will cease to accept submissions to Nature Precedings. Submitted documents will be processed as usual and hosted provided they are uploaded by midnight on April 3rd. Nature Precedings will then be archived, and the archive will be maintained by NPG, while all hosted content will remain freely accessible to all.

Be assured that Nature and the Nature research journals continue to permit the posting of preprints and there is no change to this policy, which is detailed here.

Nature Precedings was launched in 2007 as NPG’s preprint server, primarily for the Life Science community. Since that date, we have learned a great deal from you about what types of content are valued as preprints, and which segments of the research community most embrace this form of publication. While a great experiment, technological advances and the needs of the research community have evolved since 2007 to the extent that the Nature Precedings site is unsustainable as it was originally conceived.

Looking forward, NPG remains committed to exploring ways to help researchers, funders, and institutions manage data and best practices in data management, and we plan to introduce new services in this area. We have truly valued your contributions as authors and users to Nature Precedings and hope that you will actively participate in this research and development with us.

Nature Publishing Group

Well, let’s pick this apart.

  • “Change in service” means “end of service”.  A really pointless and insulting euphemism.  Come on, NPG, give it to us straight!  We can take it!
  • We have a promise that “the archive will be maintained by NPG, while all hosted content will remain freely accessible to all”.
  • The reason given for shutting down is that “technological advances and the needs of the research community have evolved since 2007 to the extent that the Nature Precedings site is unsustainable as it was originally conceived”.  I can’t start to understand what, if anything, that means.
  • What to make of “we plan to introduce new services in this area”?  What kind of new service can there be in this area that isn’t a preprint server?

Now I don’t want to be too harsh here, just because NPG have withdrawn a service that was free in the first place.  They were under no obligation to keep providing it, of course.  And the most important thing is that the papers already reposited there will live on.

But it’s just sad that this is going away.  We need it, or something like it.

Now what?

The number one question is, will the archived documents really stay around?  I want to trust that they will, but it’s harder to keep trusting a no-longer-live system than one that has blood circulating.  It would be ironic indeed if the original SV-POW! post turns out to be more durable than the Precedings version!

But going forward, the question is where to reposit future citation-worthy SV-POW! posts?  What are the alternative services to Precedings?

It’s at times like these that we biologists suffer from Physics envy.  They have arXiv, which does this right and has been doing it right since forever.  We really need an arXiv for biology.  Or better still, we need arXiv to expand to cover our field.

References

Taylor, Michael P.  2009. Range of motion in intervertebral joints: why we don’t trust DinoMorph. Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, 30 May 2009. Available at https://svpow.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/range-of-motion-in-intervertebral-joints-why-we-dont-trust-dinomorph/

Taylor, Michael P.  2012.  Range of motion in intervertebral joints: why we don’t trust DinoMorph.  Nature Precedings.  doi:10.1038/npre.2012.6878.1

Taylor, Michael P., David W. E. Hone, Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285:150-161. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x

This year, I missed The Paleo Paper Challenge over on Archosaur Musings — it was one of hundreds of blog posts I missed while I was in Cancun with my day-job and then in Bonn for the 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism.  That means I missed out on my annual tradition of promising to get the looong-overdue Archbishop description done by the end of the year.

Brachiosauridae incertae sedis NMH R5937, "The Archbishop", dorsal neural spine C, probably from an anterior dorsal vertebra. Top row: dorsal view, anterior to top; middle row, left to right: anterior, left lateral, posterior, right lateral; bottom row: ventral view, anterior to bottom.

But this year, Matt and I are going to have our own private Palaeo Paper Challenge.  And to make sure we heap on maximum pressure to get the work done, we’re announcing it here.

Here’s the deal.  We have two manuscripts — one of them Taylor and Wedel, the other Wedel and Taylor — which have been sitting in limbo for a stupidly long time.  Both are complete, and have in fact been submitted once and gone through review.  We just need to get them sorted out, turned around, and resubmitted.

(The Taylor and Wedel one is on the anatomy of sauropod cervicals and the evolution of their long necks.  It’s based on the last remaining unpublished chapter of my dissertation, and turned up in a modified form as my SVPCA 2010 talk, Why Giraffes Have Such Short Necks.  The Wedel and Taylor one is on the occurrence and implications of intermittent pneumaticity in the tails of sauropods, and turned up as his SVPCA 2010 talk, Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus.)

We’re going to be realistic: we both have far too much going in (incuding, you know, families) to get these done by the end of 2011.  But we have relatively clear Januaries, so our commitment is that we will submit by the end of January 2012.  If either of us fails, you all have permission to be ruthlessly derisive of that person.

… and in other news …

Some time while we were all in Bonn, the SV-POW! hit-counter rolled over the One Million mark.  Thanks to all of your for reading!

 

Best. Conference. Ever.

December 12, 2011

I’m just back from a three-day conference in Bonn, Germany, which I unhesitatingly nominate as the best I’ve ever been to.  To begin with, the subject was a guaranteed winner: sauropod gigantism.  I can hardly overstate how awesome it was to hear 43 talks about or relevant to sauropod gigantism (sixteen on the first day, fifteen on the second and twelve on the third).  For another thing, it was one of those rare occasions where all three SV-POW!sketeers got together — I think the fourth or fifth time ever.  For yet another, I met honorary SV-POW!er Ranger Vanessa Graff and Brontomerus artist Francisco “Paco” Gasco for the first time.  And it’s always good to spend time with people like biomechanics wizard John Hutchinson and occasional SV-POW! guest-blogger Heinrich Mallison.  (Apologies to those I’ve not mentioned by name: lots of good people!)

Left to right: Mike, Darren, Matt, Paco. Note the complete lack of commitment in Paco's MYDD expression. Matt's showing how it should be done. Darren seems to have had something unfortunate happen to his nose, and (in this picture, not in real life) look like a hobgoblin. Nothing personal. Just saying.

The meeting was The 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism: a public meeting of DFG Research Unit 533 “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs”.  That’s a mostly German group, headed by Martin Sander, which has been working for nearly eight years on multiple lines towards understanding the evolution of gigantism.  Along the way, that group has produced 105 publications and counting, including a very nice hardcover volume Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants, available for the reasonable price of £40 [amazon.co.uk] or $50 [amazon.com].  (Compare with the price of £95 [amazon.co.uk] or $190 [amazon.com] for the comparably sized Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur palaeontology.  Hang your head in shame, GeolSoc.)  Maybe most importantly, the group published a big synthesis paper at Biological Reviews that is freely available, and which everyone interested in sauropod palaeobiology should read to understand the current state of the field.  Although I certainly don’t agree with everything that’s been published by the group, overall it’s done excellent work and plenty of it.  So it was a real privilege to be a part of this second public meeting.  (Matt and I were also at the first, three years ago.)

Maybe the greatest thing about this meeting was the involvement of many scientists whose usual work is not on sauropods, but who were able to bring their expertise in other fields and apply it to sauropod-related problems.  For example, Jurgen Hummel on on digestive energetics, Michael Fagan on biomechanical modelling, Tom Schanz on soil mechanism (and implications for interpreting tracks) and Jennifer McElwain on plant growth in simulated palaeoatmospheres.  The word “interdisciplinarary” is bandied around a lot, but this conference really fulfilled that description.  That’s truly helpful: for example, five minutes’ conversation with people who actually understand digestive energetics saved me weeks or months of what would have turned out to be fruitless work on the Nourishing Vomit Of Eucamerotus hypothesis.

Wedel is disappointed to discover that baby sauropods didn't need Nourishing Vomit; but Naish is delighted.

Another huge benefit of working with scientists who have other specialisations is the ability to triangulate on a problem.  For example, in my talk on how little we truly know about sauropod necks, I mentioned that we don’t know whether their intervertebral joints were fibrocartilaginous, like those of mammals and crocs, or synovial, like those of birds.  I had been hoping to get a student working on comparative dissections of birds and crocs in the hope of identifying osteological correlates that might allow us to recognise relevant indications in sauropod bones.  But Martin Sander pointed out that histological analysis of the preserved osseous articular surfaces might allow us to tell directly what kind of joint was used — an approach that would never have occurred to me.

So: scientists who know about things other than sauropods. Recommended.

Unlike most conferences, this one allowed time for discussion after each talk — something that made a huge difference.  The slots allocated were each 30 minutes long, but speakers were asked to use only half of that time.  In practice, many talks ran twenty minutes or so, but nevertheless the kind of discussion that you get in ten minutes is qualitatively different from the rather perfunctory one-quick-question-and-move-on that you get at most meetings.  It was in those intervals that a lot of important ambiguities were clarified, misunderstandings remedied, and ideas explored.  (I’d love to see this become more widespread, but of course I understand the difficulty of fitting all the talks into the programme at a larger conference like SVPCA.  Not to mention SVP.)

Unsurprisingly, highlight talks for me included those by Matt (reviewing the last three years’ developments in pneumaticity, and considering the way forward) and Darren (presenting our no-necks-for-sex work in a way that was both persuasive and funny).

The last slide of Darren's talk; original source unknown

But perhaps the talk I enjoyed most was Vanessa’s on neck support hypotheses (ligament, pneumatic stabilisation, ventral compressing bracing, muscle).  It’s only the second time she’s presented at a conference, and the first time ever in palaeo.  Having workshopped the content of the talk extensively, first with Matt, then with both of us, she then prepared the presentation within an inch of its life and did a fine job of delivering it.

Me commenting on one of Vanessa's slides. Needless to say, my comments were all helpful, constructive, and tactfully delivered.

There is good news for the 6,999,999,940 of you who missed this conference: the sessions were all recorded on video, and will hopefully become available shortly.  And there will be a proceedings volume — exact venue to be announced, but we have some good options.  Matt, Vanessa and I will all contribute to this.  (Darren won’t, of course, since his talk was describing already-published research.)

And more good news for the future: although the funding for DFG Research Unit 533 is coming towards an end — it has about a year left to run — the people who have been running it are keen to hold a 3rd International Workshop, in maybe three years’ time.  It’s not clear yet where the funding will come from, but let’s hope they come up with something!

… and a correction to Taylor et al. (2009)

One point that came up in Kent Stevens’ talk was a factual correction to something we wrote in our 2009 neck-posture paper, and it seems right that we should put it on the record.  We wrote (Taylor et al. 2009:216) that:

Physical manipulation of the mounted Diplodocus skeleton DMNH 1494, by Ken Carpenter, resulted in a mounted posture in which the neck is extended farther vertically and horizontally than is allowed by Stevens and Parrish’s digital model (personal observation).  Since the neck of this mount is a cast of the Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, the very same individual used by Stevens and Parrish (1999), it is evident that the results of such computerised studies are not as objective as they may appear.

The Denver Diplodocus mount

Regarding the provenance of the Denver Diplodocus mount, we were misled by the DMNH online catalogue.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be online any more, but this is the information it gave regarding the reconstructed portions:

Majority of specimen exhibited in Prehistoric Journey; skull cast from CM 1161, cervicals cast from CM 84, Left scapula, and L & R humeri, radii, & ulnae all cast from HMNS 175 (Houston Musuem of Natural Science), distal 6 caudals cast from Western Paleontology Laboratory specimen.

Kent has spoken to Ken Carpenter about this mount, and it turns out that while the majority of the neck is indeed a CM 84 cast, the last three or so posterior cervicals are from a different specimen — presumably DMNH 1494 itself — and are somewhat restored in plaster.  Thanks to Kent for clearing this up.

(Regarding the rest of Kent’s talk: I’ll withhold comment until Kent publishes his criticisms.)

Update (the next day)

Thanks for John H. and Heinrich, who both tweeted the conference.  You can (for now, anyway) read their comments, and a few by other people, in the saved messages under #SauroBonn.  But I don’t know how long they last, and I don’t know a good way to save them.  Can anyone help?