An important paper is out today: Carpenter (2018) names Maraapunisaurus, a new genus to contain the species Amphicoelias fragillimus, on the basis that it’s actually a rebbachisaurid rather than being closely related to the type species Amphicoelias altus.

Carpenter 2018: Figure 5. Comparison of the neural spine of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus restored as a rebbachisaurid (A), and the dorsal vertebrae of Rebbachisaurus garasbae (B), and Histriasaurus boscarollii (C). Increments on scale bars = 10 cm.

And it’s a compelling idea, as the illustration above shows. The specimen (AMNH FR 5777) has the distinctive dorsolaterally inclined lateral processes of a rebbachisaur, as implied by the inclined laminae meeting at the base of the SPOLs, and famously has the very excavated and highly laminar structure found in rebbachisaurs — hence the species name fragillimus.

Ken’s paper gives us more historical detail than we’ve ever had before on this enigmatic and controversial specimen, including extensive background to the excavations. The basics of that history will be familiar to long-time readers, but in a nutshell, E. D. Cope excavated the partial neural arch of single stupendous dorsal vertebra, very briefly described it and illustrated it (Cope 1878), and then … somehow lost it. No-one knows how or where it went missing, though Carpenter offers some informed speculation. Most likely, given the primitive stabilisation methods of the day, it simply crumbled to dust on the journey east.

Carpenter 2018: Frontispiece. E. D. Cope, the discoverer of AMNH FR 5777, drawn to scale with the specimen itself.

Cope himself referred the vertebra to his own existing sauropod genus Amphicoelias — basically because that was the only diplodocoid he’d named — and there it has stayed, more or less unchallenged ever since. Because everyone knows Amphicoelias (based on the type species A. altus) is sort of like Diplodocus(*), everyone who’s tried to reconstruct the size of the AMNH FR 5777 animal has done so by analogy with Diplodocus — including Carpenter himself in 2006, Woodruff and Foster (2014) and of course my own blog-post (Taylor 2010).

(*) Actually, it’s not; but that’s been conventional wisdom.

Ken argues, convincingly to my mind, that Woodruff and Foster (2014) were mistaken in attributing the great size of the specimen to a typo in Cope’s description, and that it really was as big as described. And he argues for a rebbachisaurid identity based on the fragility of the construction, the lamination of the neural spine, the extensive pneumaticity, the sheetlike SDL, the height of the postzygapophyses above the centrum, the dorsolateral orientation of the transverse processes, and other features of the laminae. Again, I find this persuasive (and said so in my peer-review of the manuscript).

Carpenter 2018: Figure 3. Drawing made by E.D. Cope of the holotype of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus (Cope, 1878f) with parts labeled. “Pneumatic chambers*” indicate the pneumatic cavities dorsolateral of the neural canal, a feature also seen in several rebbachisaurids. Terminology from Wilson (1999, 2011) and Wilson and others (2011).

If AMNH FR 5777 is indeed a rebbachisaur, then it can’t be a species of Amphicoelias, whose type species is not part of that clade. Accordingly, Ken gives it a new generic name in this paper, Maraapunisaurus, meaning “huge reptile” based on Maraapuni, the Southern Ute for “huge” — a name arrived at in consultation with the Southern Ute Cultural Department, Ignacio, Colorado.

How surprising is this?

On one level, not very: Amphicoelias is generally thought to be a basal diplodocoid, and Rebbachisauridae was the first major clade to diverge within Diplodocoidae. In fact, if Maraapunisaurus is basal within Rebbachisauridae, it may be only a few nodes away from where everyone previously assumed it sat.

On the other hand, a Morrison Formation rebbachisaurid would be a big deal for two reasons. First, because it would be the only known North American rebbachisaur — all the others we know are from South America, Africa and Europe. And second, because it would be, by some ten million years, the oldest known rebbachisaur — irritatingly, knocking out my own baby Xenoposeidon (Taylor 2018), but that can’t be helped.

Finally, what would this new identity mean for AMNH FR 5777’s size?

Carpenter 2018: Figure 7. Body comparisons of Maraapunisaurus as a 30.3-m-long rebbachisaurid (green) compared with previous version as a 58-m-long diplodocid (black). Lines within the silhouettes approximate the distal end of the diapophyses (i.e., top of the ribcage). Rebbachisaurid version based on Limaysaurus by Paul (2016), with outline of dorsal based on Rebbachisaurus; diplodocid version modified from Carpenter (2006).

Because dorsal vertebrae in rebbachisaurids are proportionally taller than in diplodocids, the length reconstructed from a given dorsal height is much less for rebbachisaurs: so much so that Ken brings in the new version, based on the well-represented rebbachisaur Limaysaurus tessonei, at a mere 30.3 m, only a little over half of the 58 m he previously calculated for a diplodocine version. That’s disappointing for those of us who like our sauropods stupidly huge. But the good news is, it makes virtually no difference to the height of the animal, which remains prodigious — 8 m at the hips, twice the height of a giraffe’s raised head. So not wholly contemptible.

Exciting times!

References

 

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Out today: a new Turiasaurian sauropod, Mierasaurus bobyoungi, from the Early Cretaceous Cedar Mountain formation in Utah. This comes to us courtesy of a nice paper by Royo Torres et al. (2017),

Royo-Torres et al. 2017, fig. 3. The postcranial skeleton (UMNH.VP.26004) of Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. nov, sp. nov. with the following elements: (a) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 69 h) in right lateral view; (b) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 69G1) in right lateral view; (c) anterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 165) in right lateral view; (d) anterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 69G2) in right lateral view; (e) atlas (DBGI 5I) in anterior view; (f) atlas (DBGI 5I) in right lateral view; (g) posterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 95) in right lateral view; (h) posterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 19 A) in right lateral view; (i) posterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 19 A) in ventral view; (j) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 38) in right lateral view; (k) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 38) in dorsal view; (l) middle cervical vertebra in posterior view; (m) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 38) in left lateral view; (n) right anterior cervical rib (DBGI 5D) in medial view; (o) right anterior cervical rib (DBGI 28 A) in medial view; (p) right anterior-middle cervical rib (DBGI 95 C) in medial view; (q) right middle cervical rib (DBGI 45 F) in dorsal view; (r) right middle cervical rib (DBGI 95 A) in dorsal view; (s) left anterior cervical rib (DBGI 95B) in lateral view; (t) left middle cervical rib (DBGI 95 H) in lateral view; (u) left middle cervical rib (DBGI 95D) in dorsal view; (v) right posterior cervical rib (DBGI 10) in dorsal view. A plus sign (+) indicates a diagnostic character for Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. et sp. nov. An asterisk (*) indicates an autapomorphy of Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. et sp. nov. (© Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis) in Adobe Illustrator CS5 (www.adobe.com/es/products/illustrator.html).

[Because this paper is in Nature’s Scientific Reports, it inexplicably has a big chunk of manuscript chopped out of the middle, supplied separately, not formatted properly, and for all we know not peer-reviewed. This includes such minor details as the specimen numbers of the elements that make up the holotype, and the measurements. Note to self: rant about how objectively inferior Scientific Reports is to PeerJ and PLOS ONE some time.]

Anyway, this is a nice specimen represented by lots of decent material, including plenty of presacral vertebrae, which is great.

But here’s where it gets weird. Until now, Turiasauria has been an exclusively European clade. Just like Diplodocidae used to be an exclusively North American clade until Tornieria turned up, and Dicraeosauridae used to be an exclusively Gondwanan clade until Suuwassea turned out to be a dicraeosaur, and so on.

I mentioned this in an email to Matt. His initial take was:

There is a semi-tongue-in-cheek biogeography “law” that states “Everything is everywhere, and the environment selects”.

It is kinda blowing my mind that so many taxa were shared between North America, Europe, and Africa in the Late Jurassic and yet we don’t see any turiasaurs in North America until the Cretaceous. I wonder if they are there in the Morrison and just not recognized — either some of the undescribed or undiscovered northern-Morrison weirdness, or currently lumped in with Camarasaurus.

I responded “That’s one read. Another is that we’re seeing convergence on similar eco-niches within widely different clades, and our analyses are not figuring this out.”

What I mean is this: what if our “Brachiosauridae” clade is really just a collection of not-closely-related taxa in the tall-shouldered very-high-browser ecological niche? And what if our “Dicraeosauridae” clade is just a collection of short-necked grazers, with independent evolutionary origins, but all converging on morphology that suits the same lifestyle?

And that is the thought that is currently freaking me out.

Royo-Torres et al. 2107, fig. 4. The postcranial skeleton (UMNH.VP.26004) of Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. nov, sp. nov. with the following elements: (a) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 54 A) in posterior view; (b) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 54 A) in anteroventral view; (c) neural arch of a middle dorsal vertebra (DBGI 37) in right anterolateral view; (d) posterior neural arch of a dorsal vertebra (DBGI 19 A) in posterior view; (e) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 16) in right lateral view; (f) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 16) in posterior view; (g) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 16) in anterior view; (h,i) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 100NA 1) in anterior view; (j,k) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 100NA 1) in posterior view; (l) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 100NA 1) in left lateral view; (m) middle dorsal vertebra (DBGI 11) in anterior view; (n) centrum of a posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 24B) in ventral view; (o) centrum of a posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 24B) in anterior view; (p) centrum of a posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 192) in ventral view; (q) anterior-middle caudal vertebra (DBGI 23B) in anterior view; (r) anterior-middle caudal vertebra (DBGI 23B) in right lateral view; (s) posterior neural arch of a posterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 48) in left lateral view; (t) posterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 21) in anterior view; (u) posterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 21) in right lateral view; (v) distal caudal vertebra (DBI 37-34-529) in right lateral view; (W) anterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 192) in posterior view. For abbreviations see supplementary information. (i), (k) and (l) were drafted by R.R.T. (© Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis) in Adobe Illustrator CS5 (www.adobe.com/es/products/illustrator.html).

When I mentioned this possibility to Matt, he shared my existential terror:

What haunts me is this: we know from mammals and extant reptiles that morphological analyses suck. Laurasian moles, African moles, and Australian moles all look the same, despite evolving from very different ancestors. Ditto wolves and thylacines, horses and litopterns, etc.

Matt reminded of a paper we’ve talked about before (Losos et al. 1998), showing that this is exactly what happens with Caribbean anole lizards. Each island has forms that live on the ground, on the trunks of trees, and on branches. Phylogenetic analyses based on morphology put all the ground-livers together, ditto for trunk-climbers, ditto for branch-climbers. But molecular analyses show that each island was colonized once and the ground, trunk, and branch forms evolved separately for each island.

What if “turiasaur”, “brachiosaur”, and “titanosaur” are the sauropod equivalents? For “Caribbean island” read “continent”; for “lizard species”, read “sauropod clade”.

Will we ever know?

Matt is hopeful that we will. He’s confident that in time, we’ll get molecular analyses of dinosaur relationships — that it’s just a matter of time and cleverness. When that happens, things could be upended bigtime.

References

 

Just got the APP new issue alert and there are three papers that I think readers of this blog will find particularly interesting:

That’s all for now, just popping in to let people know about these things.