Poor Dystylosaurus. Always the bridesmaid. No-one seems to care much about it, yet the one and only vertebra that bears that name is the single most diagnostic elements out of all the individual bones that have been assigned to Supersaurus over the years.

A nice drawing of the “Dystylosaurus” dorsal vertebra in anterior and right lateral views. It’s probably Tracey Ford’s work (awaiting confirmation), from the PaleoFile page on Supersaurus.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to learn a whole ton about this vertebra on the Sauropocalypse visit. We did see it, but it was flat on its back on a shelf not much taller than the anteroposterior length of the bone itself, so we weren’t able to get a good look at it in anything but dorsal and ventral views. If we’d had more time to get things arranged, I’m sure the BYU people would have been happy to get it down from the shelf for us, but we simply had so much to do in their collections that time was never made for it.

BYU 4503, the holotype and only element of Dystylosaurus edwini, an anterior dorsal vertebra. here seen in approximately dorsal view with anterior to the top. Matt Wedel for scale.

Matt actually got some rather better photos a few years ago, though (based on his comment on that post), there are probably no more than the couple in that old blog-post. (By the way, notice how very different the colour of the bone appears in Matt’s old photos from how it appears in my more recent one above.)

Why do I say so confidently that the Dystylosaurus vertebra is diagnosable? Because it has a whole suite of characters that tell us it’s an anterior dorsal vertebra from a diplodocid (dual centroprezygapophyseal laminae, anteroposteriorly compressed spine composed primarily of spinozygapophyseal rather than spinodiapophyseal laminae, drooping transverse processes), yet two features of the spine are never seen in such vertebrae: the spine is wholly unsplit without even a hint of bifurcation, even featuring macronarian-like lateral apices; and it’s hollow inside rather than being constructed from intersecting plates of bone. (You can see the internal hollow in the photo above.)

So what happens to its genus name given the doubts about Supersaurus‘s diagnosability? The general trend of comments on these posts has been that Supersaurus should stand or fall on its holotype, and I am inclined to agree that parachuting in the Dystylosaurus vertebra or Jimbo as a neotype to save the name would be a mistake. For one thing, despite its numerous appearances in kids’ books, the name Supersaurus is not that important in the technical literature: for example, no-one has named a clade Supersaurinae or similar. For another, the holotypic scapulocoracoid BYU 9025 is only questionably undiagnosable. There would always be the possibility that if someone nominated a neotype and wrestled it through the ICZN petition process, someone else would find a good solid way to diagnose the original holotype. That would be embarrassing.

The rare ventral-ish view of the Dystylosaurus dorsal vertebra BYU 4503. Sorry it’s not better. I do have 93 photos of it in this shelf, all of them individually pretty terrible, which I took in the forlorn hope that one day we’ll get photogrammetry software simple enough and clever enough to make some kind of model out of them.

So I think we need to simply accept that the name Dystylosaurus, while perfectly diagnosable based on its holotype and only specimen, is destined to remain a junior synonym for as long as Supersaurus is considered taxonomically valid.

But it does leave Dystylosaurus in a bit of a quantum superposition. When Supersaurus is considered diagnosable, it ceases to exist, like a cat in a box. When Supersaurus is considered undiagnosable, it pops back into existence, like … well, a cat in a box. It’s an unsatisfactory kind of existence, but I think that’s the way it has to be.

So Dystylosaurus has its day — and it ends up being disappointing. Despite being perfectly diagnosable, it’s dependent for its validity on our assessment of other taxa. Some fossils just can’t catch a break.

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Since the previous installment of this epic, we’ve taken two brief digressions on how little importance we should attach the colours of bones in our photographs when trying to determine whether they’re from the same individual: cameras do lie, and in any case different bones of the same individual can age differently. Since then — newsflash! — a third reason has become apparent in the case of the two Supersaurus scaps: the object we discussed as Scap A turns out to be a cast. A really good one, sure, but still: its colour tells us little about the colour of the actual bone.

If you doubt that, consider the scapulocoracoid referred to Ultrasauros (which we’ll be meeting again in the next post). Here is the real bone, at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL), with me for scale:

BYU 9462, the scapulocoracoid referred by Jensen to Ultrasauros. Mike Taylor for scale, doing a Jensen. The signage reads: Brachiosaurus scapula and coracoid. Originally believed to belong to the genus Ultrasaurus (now invalid), this shoulder blade is from the giant herbivorous dinosaur Brachiosaurus, a replica of which is mounted in this room. The dinosaur that owned this scapula was over 65 feet long and could tower 45 feet above the ground. When collected by Jim Jensen at Dry Mesa Quarry (Colorado) in 1989, the scapula was believed to represent the largest dinosaur ever found. Note how many separate pieces are within the specimen. A tremendous amount of work is required to complete a fossil of this size. Specimen on loan from Brigham Young University’s Earth Science Museum. Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous (about 144 million years ago)

And here’s Matt with the cast of the same bone that resides in the BYU collections:

As you can see, the cast has been prepared in a darker and browner colour than the pale greenish grey of the real bone (though don’t forget that cameras lie about colours, so we shouldn’t over-interpret this difference).

Aaanyway …

We finished up last time with the observation that the holotype scapulocoracoid of Supersaurus, BYU 9025, is not obviously diagnostic; and that since the cervical BYU 9024 that has been referred to it actually belongs to Barosaurus, we can’t trust any of the other referrals of big Dry Mesa diplodocid bones to Supersaurus; and that the name must therefore be considered a nomen dubium, resting as it does on non-diagnostic material.

Can the name Supersaurus survive? I think it can, and I see four possible routes to that happening.

Method 0: Everyone ignores these blog posts

This is only a blog, after all. No-one is obliged to pay any attention to anything we say here.

That said, Matt and I do have previous in transforming series of blog posts in to actual papers. Having invested so much effort into writing these posts, I do hope that I’ll be able to do the same thing in this case, so at some stage the ideas from this series should become part of the formal scientific record. (I make no promises about how long that will take.)

So assuming that we can’t all just walk away and pretend that none of this ever happened, are there better ways to save the name Supersaurus?

Method 1. Someone finds autapomophies

Matt and I are of course primarily vertebra jockies. We are not above studying the occasional taxon based on appendicular material, but out expertise lies in the domain of the axial. It’s perfectly possible that someone who understands sauropod appendicular anatomy better than we do could isolate some autapomorphies in the holotype scap BYU 9025, and Supersaurus would then be firmly founded on a diagnostic type specimen.

Can we find hope for this outcome in the results of phylogenetic analyses?

In Whitlock’s (2011) diplodocoid analysis, Supersaurus emerges with but a single autapomophy: “Anterior caudal neural spine height less than 150% centrum height” (page 44). Based, as it is, on a referred element, that doesn’t help us much here. (Although it’s worth noting that Whitlock scored this character as 0 for Supersaurus and 1 for Barosaurus, which does very slightly suggest that the referred caudal is not Barosaurus and therefore might belong to the same individual as the Supersaurus holotype. Yes, this is weak sauce.)

Tschopp et al.’s (2015) unnumbered supplementary file Apomorphies recovered by TNT under implied weighting is difficult to interpret: for example, a heading on the first page says simply “R_iw” and its counterpart on page 8 is simply “P_iw“. But the Supersaurus-relevant entries are the same under both headings. In both cases, they read:

Supersaurus vivianae BYU
Char. 258: 1 –> 0
Char. 274: 1 –> 0
WDC DMJ-021
Char. 165: 1 –> 2
Char. 172: 0 –> 1
Char. 174: 0 –> 1
Char. 257: 1 –> 2

Node 137 (Supersaurus vivianae)
Char. 183: 1 –> 2

I read this as meaning that the two OTUs have autapomorphies as listed, and the node uniting them has a single synapomorphy. But all of these characters related to the presacral vertebrae (C165-C183 in the cervicals, C257-C274 in the dorsals). So again, there is nothing here to help us diagnose Supersaurus on the basis of the holotype scapulocoracoid.

Of course, that doesn’t prove that there there aren’t any diagnostic characters. Someone with a good eye for sauropod scapulocoracoids might find details missed by these phylogenetic analyses, whose remits were much broader. But the news so far is not good.

Method 2. Nominate a neotype from the BYU material

If we accept that there are probably no more than two big diplodocoids in the Dry Mesa quarry, and that one of them is Barosaurus (based in the big cervical BYU 9024), and that the “Dystylosaurus” vertebra BYU 4503 is not Barosaurus, then it must follow that it belongs to Supersaurus. Unlike the type scapulocoracoid BYU 9025, that vertebra probably is diagnostic (it’s an anterior diplodocid dorsal, yet its spine is unsplit) so perhaps Supersaurus could survive by being diagnosed on that basis.

How would this work nomenclaturally? I think it would be difficult. If I have properly understood Article 75 of the ICZN, you can only go ahead and designate a neotype “when no name-bearing type specimen (i.e. holotype, lectotype, syntype or prior neotype) is believed to be extant”. But the holotype scapulocoracoid exists (so far as we know, though we’re not sure where it is).

All is not necessarily lost, though. Paragraph 75.5 (Replacement of unidentifiable name-bearing type by a neotype) says “When an author considers that the taxonomic identity of a nominal species-group taxon cannot be determined from its existing name-bearing type (i.e. its name is a nomen dubium), and stability or universality are threatened thereby, the author may request the Commission to set aside under its plenary power [Art. 81] the existing name-bearing type and designate a neotype.” But that means writing an ICZN petition, and I’m not sure anyone wants to do that. The process is technical, picky and prolonged, and its outcome is subject to the whim of the committee. It’s quite possible someone might go to all the trouble of writing a petition, then wait five years, only to have it rejected.

The irony here is that when Curtice and Stadtman (2001) referred the “Dystylosaurus” dorsal BYU 4503 to Supersaurus, they were at liberty to sink Supersaurus into Dystylosaurus rather than vice versa. Then the unique dorsal vertebra would have become the holotype, and the surviving genus would have been nicely diagnosable. Curtice and Stadtman (2001) did not discuss this possibility; nor did Curtice et al. (1996) discuss the possibility of folding Supersaurus into Ultrasauros when determining that the holotype vertebra of the latter belongs to the same taxon as the former.

Curtice and his collaborators were likely following the principle of “page priority”: preferring Supersaurus over the other two genera as it was the first one named in Jensen’s (1985) article that named all three. However, page priority does not exist at all in the present version of the Code (see Article 24, Precedence between simultaneously published names, spellings or acts), and even in earlier versions was only a non-binding recommendation. So it was really Curtice’s and his friends’ choice which genus to retain.

But that ship has now sailed. According to the principle of first reviser (Section 24.2.1), the pubished actions of Curtice and colleagues established a new status quo, and their choice of genus stands.

Method 3. Nominate Jimbo as a neotype

We might conceivably give up on the mixed-up Dry Mesa material as too uncertain to base anything on, and nominate WDC DM-021 (“Jimbo”) as the neotype specimen instead. It may have less material in total than has been referred to Supersaurus from the Dry Mesa quarry, but the association is somewhat more solid (Lovelace et al. 2008:528).

In some ways this might be the most satisfactory conclusion: it would give us a more solid basis on which to judge whether or not subsequent specimens can be said to belong to Supersaurus. But as with method 2, it could only be done via a petition to the ICZN, and I suspect the chances of such a petition succeeding would be low because clause 75.3.6 of the Code says that neotype designation should include “evidence that the neotype came as nearly as practicable from the original type locality [of] the original name-bearing type”.

So I don’t think this is likely to work, but I mention it for completeness. (Also, I am not 100% sure how solid the association of the Jimbo elements is, as the wording in Lovelace et al. (2008:528) does hedge a little.)

In conclusion …

I think the best hope for the survival of the name Supersaurus would be the recognition of unambiguously diagnostic characters in the holotype scapulocoracoid BYU 9025. In comments on the last post, John D’Angelo has started to think about what characters might work here. We’ll see how that thread pans out.

On the other hand, do we even particularly want the name Supersaurus to survive? It’s a pretty dumb name. Maybe we should just let it die peacefully.

Next time — in what really, really, really will be the last post in this series — we’ll consider what all this means for the other two names in Jensen’s trio, Dystylosaurus and Ultrasauros.

References

  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33-40.
  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). M. Morales (ed.), “The continental Jurassic”. Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Lovelace, David M., Scott A. Hartman and William R. Wahl. 2008. Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527–544.
  • Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus and Roger B. J. Benson. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 2:e857. doi:10.7717/peerj.857
  • Whitlock, John A. 2011. A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161(4):872-915. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00665.x

 

It’s time to revisit everyone’s favourite trio of apocryphal super-sized sauropods! (Yes, we’ve talked about this before, but only very briefly, and that was nearly eleven years ago. Things have moved on since then.)

John Sibbick’s classic artwork showing three giant sauropods, including two of Jensen’s three. On the left is Seismosaurus Gillette 1991, which is not directly relevant to today’s post. In the middle is the brachiosaur Ultrasaurus, and on the right the diplodocid Supersaurus. Poor, unloved Dystylosaurus doesn’t get a look-in — perhaps because this was drawn before that name had been announced?

Here’s the story so far …

1. Jensen’s discoveries

In a series of expeditions beginning in April 1972, following a tip from uranium prospectors Eddie and Vivian Jones, Jim Jensen found numerous massive sauropod fossils in the Dry Mesa quarry, southwest Colorado. The Supersaurus pelvis at least was still in the ground as late as August 1972 (George 1973b:51–52) and the excavations continued into 1982 (Jensen 1985:697).

Eschewing such pedestrian venues as Science, Nature or indeed the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Jensen first told the world about these finds in the popular press. The oldest published work I have that mentions them is Jean George’s (1973b) piece in Reader’s Digest, condensed from the same author’s piece in the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine earlier that year (George 1973a), which I have not been able to obtain.

“‘Supersaurus,’ as we shall call him, now awaits an official name and taxonomic classification”, wrote George (1973b:53) — but the piece does not mention the names “Ultrasaurus” or “Dystylosaurus” and I’ve not been able to determine when those informal names became known to the world. (Can anyone help?) We do know that Jensen was informally using the name “Ultrasaurus” as early as 1979 (Curtice et al. 1996:87).

Anyway, for reasons that have never been very clear, Jensen concluded that the remains represented not one, not two, but three gigantic new genera: a diplodocid, which he named “Supersaurus”; a brachiosaurid, which he named “Ultrasaurus”; and an unidentifiable which he named “Dystylosaurus”. All these names were informal at this point, like “Angloposeidon” and “The Archbishop”.

2. Kim’s accidental Ultrasaurus

After Jensen had been using these names informally for some years, Kim (1983) named an indeterminate Korean sauropod as Ultrasaurus tabriensis. Based on the abstract (the only part of the paper in English, apart from the figure captions), Kim was aware of Jensen’s dinosaurs: “Judging by the large size of the ulna the animal may belong to the sauropod dinosaur, which is much bigger than Supersaurus. A new name Ultrasaurus tabriensis is proposed for the convenience of the further study.” While this does not quite go so far as to say that Kim considered the ulna to belong to the same genus as Jensen’s brachiosaur, it seems unlikely that he was aware of Supersaurus but not of Ultrasaurus, and landed independently on the latter name by coincidence. In fact, the “ulna” is a humerus, as shown by Lee et al. (1997).

Either way, in naming his species, Kim inadvertently preoccupied Jensen’s chosen genus name, with conseqences that we shall see below. By all accounts, the material the Kim described is in any case indeterminate, and the genus is generally considered a nomen nudum (e.g. Olshevsky 1991:139, Glut 1997:1001).

Kim 1983, plate 1, parts 1-3, illustrating the proximal portion of the huge “ulna” that the name Ultrasaurus tabriensis was founded on. As is apparent, this is actually the proximal end of a humerus, meaning that the animal is rather less large than Kim supposed — although the 42 cm width across the proximal end is still nothing to be sniffed at. It is about 71% the width of the 59 cm-wide humerus of the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181 (previously HMN SII).

Two years after this, and presumably unaware of Kim’s paper or incorrectly assuming his informal use of the name “Ultrasaurus” gave him priority, Jensen published a formal account of his finds, naming them (Jensen 1985). Unfortunately, while the paper does contain formal nomenclatural acts that are valid according to the rules of the ICZN, Jensen did not explain his reasoning for the creation of the new genera, and his selection of type material was problematic, as we shall see below. Also, the specimen numbers that he used have been superseded — I do not know why, but my guess would be that he re-used numbers that were already in use for other specimens, so his own material had to be given new numbers.

3. Jensen’s three sauropods

The following three genera (with their type species) were named, in this order:

1. Supersaurus vivianae, based on the holotype BYU 9025 (BYU 5500 of his usage), a scapulocoracoid measuring 2.44 m in length. To this, he referred an even larger scapulocoracoid whose length he gives as 2.70 m (though Curtice and Stadtman 2001:39 found that this length to be due to optimistic reconstruction); an ischium; either one or two mid-caudal vertebrae (his paper contradicts itself on this); and a sequence of 12 articulated caudal vertebrae. Unfortunately, Jensen’s use of specimen numbers for most of these referred elements is inconsistent, but he is at least consistent in referring to the second scapulocoracoid as BYU 5501.

Supersaurus vivianae referred scapulocoracoid BYU 12962, photographed at the North American Museum of Natural Life. The exhibit text reads: “Supersaurus scapula and coracoid. This is the actual Supersaurus bone that the world saw when the announcement was made of the new animal’s discovery in 1972. The scapula lay in the ground for five more years, waiting for the collection of other fossils that lay in the path of excavation. The flatness of the bone presented a challenge to “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen, who had to figure out a way to get the bone safely out of the ground. He finally accomplished this by cutting the scapula into three pieces. In 1988, Cliff Miles, Brian Versey and Clark Miles prepared the bone for study. It is still one of the largest dinosaur bones known in the world. Specimen on loan from Brigham Young University’s Earth Science Museum. Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous (about 144 million years ago)

2. Ultrasaurus macintoshi, based on the holotype BYU 9044 (BYU 5000 of his usage), a dorsal vertebra measuring 1.33 m in height. To this, he referred BYU 9462 (BYU 5001 of his usage), a scapulocoracoid measuring 2.7 m in length; BYU 9024 (BYU 5003 of his usage), a huge cervical vertebra; and an anterior caudal vertebra.

Ultrasaurus macintoshi holotype dorsal vertebra BYU 9044, photographed at the North American Museum of Natural Life. (It’s incredibly hard to photograph well because it’s behind reflective glass.)

3. Dystylosaurus edwini, based on the holotype BYU 4503 (BYU 5750 of his usage), a dorsal vertebra. He did not refer any other material to this taxon, and considered it “Family indeterminate” commenting that it “no doubt represents a new sauropod family”. Poor Dystylosaurus has always been the unloved member of this group, and pretty much ignored in the literature aside from the Curtice & Stadtman (2001) synonymisation paper discussed below.

Dystylosaurus edwini holotype BYU 4503, a diplodocoid anterior dorsal vertebra.

In a subsequent paper, Jensen (1987:600–602) removed the big cervical BYU 9024 (BYU 5003 of his usage) from Ultrasauros and reassigned it to Diplodocidae. The text of this paper never refers it to Supersaurus vivianae in particular, but it is illustrated and captioned as belonging to that taxon (Jensen 1987:figures 7A-B, 8C), and this assignment is generally assumed to have been meant.

When Jensen became aware of Kim’s (1983) preoccupation of the name Ultrasaurus, he recognised that his own genus needed a new name. At his suggestion, Olshevsky (1991) erected the replacement name Ultrasauros (with a single-letter spelling difference) for Jensen’s taxon based on the dorsal vertebra BYU 9044. We will use this revised spelling hereon, and the taxon Ultrasaurus Kim 1983 is of no further interest to this story.

The relevant extract from Olshevsky (1991:139).

4. Curtice’s synonymies

This was how things stood, with Jensen’s assignment of the material to his three new genera standing unchallenged, until Brian Curtice came on the scene in the mid 1990s. In a series of three publications (two papers, one abstract), he first synonymised Ultrasauros with Supersaurus, then Dystylosaurus also with Supersaurus, and finally (tentatively) Supersaurus itself with Barosarus. If Curtice’s suggestions were all correct, then there were no new sauropods from Jensen’s work in the the Dry Mesa quarry, just a lot of Barosaurus material.

Was he right? We’ll now consider each of the three publications in turn.

First, Ultrasauros. Jensen had always considered this genus to be a brachiosaurid due to the morphology of the scapulocoracoid BYU 9462 — and indeed this element does seem to be brachiosaurid. Unfortunately, he did not found the taxon on this element, but on the dorsal vertebra BYU 9044. Curtice et al. (1996) re-examined this element, and argued convincingly that it was not an anterior dorsal from a brachiosaurid, as Jensen had thought, but a posterior dorsal from a diplodocid. Since its neural spine morphology matches that of the first preserved sacral spine (S2) of the Supersaurus sacrum, and since it was found between the two Supersaurus scapulocoracoids, Curtice et al. (1996:94) considered BYU 9044 to be a vertebra of Supersaurus (belonging to the holotype individual), and therefore concluded that Ultrasauros was a junior subjective synonym of Supersaurus. They inferred that the referred Ultrasauros scapulocoracoid BYU 9462 therefore did not belong to the same species as the type, since it was brachiosaurid, and referred it to Brachiosaurus sp.

We consider all of Curtice et al.’s (1996) arguments well-founded and convincing, and agree with their conclusions. As a result, both spellings of Jensen’s brachiosaurid genus are now discarded: Ultrasaurus as a nomen dubium, and Ultrasauros as a junior synonym.

Curtice et al. (1996:figure 2). “Uncrushed” Supersaurus vivianae caudal dorsal, BYU 9044, right lateral view.

A few years later, Curtice and Stadtman (2001) took aim at Dystylosaurus. Jensen had argued that it was unique because of the paired centroprezygapophyseal laminae that supported each prezygapophysis from below — and it was from this feature than the genus took its name. But Curtice and Stadtman pointed out that this supposedly unique feature is in fact almost ubiquitous in diplodocids. Because it, too, was found between the two Supersaurus scapulae (close to the Ultrasaurus dorsal), Curtice and Stadtman referred it, too, to Supersaurus, thereby collapsing all three of Jensen’s taxa into one. This argument, too, is well supported and has been generally accepted.

Finally, in a sole-authored abstract, Curtice (2003) hedged about whether he considered Supersaurus to be Barosaurus. I will quote directly, as the line of reasoning is vague and difficult to summarise:

The question of is Supersaurus truly a distinct genus from Barosaurus is now testable. The former Dystylosaurus dorsal vertebra provides an autapomorphy for Supersaurus, that being a strongly reduced bifid neural spine on dorsal four. This loss of bifidity is important for in all other diplodocids the neural spine is still deeply bifurcated on dorsal four. Only Barosaurus has a reduction in cleft depth that far forward in the dorsal column. Supersaurus has all but lost the cleft, more closely resembling the sixth dorsal vertebra of Barosaurus than the fourth.

It is disappointing that this abstract never became a more rigorously argued paper, because the conclusion here is highly equivocal. Curtice appears to be saying that Supersaurus is distinct from Barosaurus — but only on the basis of bifidity reducing two vertebrae more anteriorly in Supersaurus. In other words, he seems to be suggesting that the two taxa are indisinguishable aside from this rather minor difference.

At any rate, this speculation in a conference abstract has generally been ignored, and Supersaurus considered a valid and distinct genus.

5. Jimbo the WDC Supersaurus

In 2008, Lovelace et al. (2008, duh) described WDC DMJ-021, a new specimen of Supersaurus vivianae at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center that is known informally as “Jimbo”. (Confusingly, they refer to the Supersaurus holotype scapulocoracoid by yet a third specimen number, BYU 12962; but this is the revised specimen number of the referred scapulocoracoid, not the holotype.)

Lovelace et al. (2008) did not justify in detail their referral of Jimbo to Supersaurus. The closest they come is this brief passage on page 529–530:

While a scapula is not known for WDC DMJ-021, other elements are identical to axial elements referred to the type individual of Supersaurus. Referral of all material is supported by relative position within their respective quarries (Curtice and Stadtman 2001; Lovelace 2006), size of the skeletal elements, and congruence of phylogenetically significant diplodocid characters between the scapula and referred material.

All of this is kind of weaselly. What it amounts to is this: vertebrae are “identical” to those referred to the BYU Supersaurus (but not really, as we’ll see), and the elements are really big, and the Supersaurus holoype scap comes out in about the same place as Jimbo in a phylogenetic analysis if you code them up separately. This is weak sauce, and I would really have liked to see a much more explicit “Jimbo shares synapomorphies X, Y and Z with BYU Supersaurus” section.

Among the ways in which the justification for this assignment disappoints is that the presacrals that are described as “identical” to the BYU elements are not at all well preserved (Lovelace et al. 2008:figures 3D–E, 4A, 5A): in particular C13, presumably the best preserved cervicals as it is the only one illustrated, is missing the condyle, prezygapophyses and neural spine. It’s not possible to be sure in light of the small monochrome illustrations in the paper, but it does not seem likely that these elements can be reliably assessed as identical to the BYU cervical.

Lovelace et al. (2008:figure 3). Lateral views of cervical vertebrae from A, Diplodocus carnegii (Hatcher 1901); B, Barosaurus lentus (Lull 1919); C, Apatosaurus louisae (Gilmore 1936); D and E, Supersaurus vivianae; demonstrating pneumatic modifications of centra. Supersaurus has the least amount of modification with minimal size for pneumatopores. Internal structure is similar to that seen in other diplodocids (Janensch, 1947). Left lateral view of Cv.13 (D, missing the condyle, prezygapophyses and neural spine; length of incomplete centra 94cm). E, cross section through Cv.11, 5cm posterior of the diapophysis.

The big surprise in the Jimbo paper is that in the phylogenetic analysis (Lovelace et al. 2008:figure 14), the compound BYU+WDC Supersaurus is recovered as an apatosaurine, the sister taxon to Apatosaurus, rather than as a diplodocine as had been assumed in previous studies due to its resemblance to the diplodocine Barosaurus.

The huge specimen-level phylogenetic analysis of diplodocoids by Tschopp et al. (2015) corroborated Lovelace et al’s (2008) referral of the WDC specimen to Supersaurus vivianae, as the two species were sister groups in all most parsimonious trees, with quite strong character support (Tschopp et al. 2015:187). But it placed the Supersaurus clade at the base of Diplodocinae, not within Apatosaurinae as Lovelace et al. (2008) had found.

This, then, was the state of play when Matt and I started to work on Supersaurus during the 2016 Sauropocalypse: Ultrasauros and Dystylosaurus had both been sunk into Supersaurus, and the WDC specimen had been referred to the same species.

Next time, we’ll look what Matt and I found in Utah, and what we think it means for Supersaurus and its friends.

 

References

  • Curtice, Brian D. 2003. Two genera down, one to go? The potential synonomy [sic] of Supersaurus with Barosaurus. Southwest Paleontological Symposium 2003, Guide to Presentations. Mesa Southwest Museum, January 25 2003. Unpaginated.
  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33-40.
  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). M. Morales (ed.), “The continental Jurassic”. Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • George, Jean. 1973a. Supersaurus, the biggest brute ever. Denver Post, Empire Magazine. May 13, 1973.
  • George, Jean. 1973b. Supersaurus, the biggest brute ever. Reader’s Digest (June 1973):51–56.
  • Glut, Donald F. 1997. Dinosaurs: the Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson. 1076 pp.
  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Jensen, James A. 1987. New brachiosaur material from the Late Jurassic of Utah and Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 47(4):592–608.
  • Kim, Haang Mook. 1983. Cretaceous dinosaurs from South Korea. Journal of the Geological Society of Korea 19(3):115–126.
  • Lee, Yuong-Nam., S. Y. Yang and E. J. Park. 1997. Sauropod dinosaur remains from the Gyeongsang Supergroup, Korea; pp. 103–114 in S. Y. Yang, M. Huh, Y.-N. Lee and M. G. Lockley (eds.), International Dinosaur Symposium for Uhangri Dinosaur Center and Theme Park in Korea. Journal of Paleontological Society of Korea, Special Publication 2.
  • Lovelace, David M., Scott A. Hartman and William R. Wahl. 2008. Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527–544.
  • Olshevsky, George. 1991. A revision of the parainfraclass Archosauria Cope, 1869, excluding the advanced Crocodylia. Mesozoic Meanderings 2:1–196.
  • Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus and Roger B. J. Benson. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 2:e857. doi:10.7717/peerj.857

 

Matt just sent me an email entitled Are there “basal” sauropodomorphs?, in which he pointed me to Mario Bronzati’s (2017) opinion piece in Palaeontologia Electronica, “Should the terms ‘basal taxon’ and ‘transitional taxon’ be extinguished from cladistic studies with extinct organisms?”

Here’s the reply I sent Matt, which at his suggestion I am posting here essentially unedited. Note well that this is not a response to the Bronzati paper, but my own quite separate thoughts on the same issue.


I’ve not read the article, but here’s my position on This Kind Of Thing. I remember back when we used to talk about primitive and advanced taxa. Then someone managed to impose their liberal guilt on the world of vertebrate palaeontology and we all had to change to basal and derived instead. That change bought us nothing; and whatever new terminology this paper is proposing will buy us nothing, either.

The bottom line is, we all know what a basal sauropodomorph is, and when we want to talk about them we need a term for them. For myself, I reject the cladistic-police orthodoxy that says we should avoid “prosauropod” because of their irrational fear of paraphyletic taxa. “Prosauropoda” is a perfectly well-boundaried group, and can be defined (if we want a definition) as those sauropodomorphs that are not sauropods. (Note: this is a definition using phylogenetic principles.)

Ultimately terminology is there as an aid for us to talk about things, not as a political tool. “Prosauropod”, “primitive sauropodomorph” and “basal sauropodomorphs” were all perfectly good terms that named the same important group; and each them has been knocked out, one by one, by well-meaning nomenclatural puritans who could have been using their abundant energy and creativity on solving some actual problems instead.

So: how d’ya like them apples?

References

I have before me the reviews for a submission of mine, and the handling editor has provided an additional stipulation:

Authority and date should be provided for each species-level taxon at first mention. Please ensure that the nominal authority is also included in the reference list.

In other words, the first time I mention Diplodocus, I should say “Diplodocus Marsh 1878″; and I should add the corresponding reference to my bibliography.

Marsh (1878: plate VIII in part). The only illustration of Diplodocus material in the paper that named the genus.

Marsh (1878: plate VIII in part). The only illustration of Diplodocus material in the paper that named the genus.

What do we think about this?

I used to do this religiously in my early papers, just because it was the done thing. But then I started to think about it. To my mind, it used to make a certain amount of sense 30 years ago. But surely in 2016, if anyone wants to know about the taxonomic history of Diplodocus, they’re going to go straight to Wikipedia?

I’m also not sure what the value is in providing the minimal taxonomic-authority information rather then, say, morphological information. Anyone who wants to know what Diplodocus is would be much better to go to Hatcher 1901, so wouldn’t we serve readers better if we referred to “Diplodocus (Hatcher 1901)”

Now that I come to think of it, I included “Giving the taxonomic authority after first use of each formal name” in my list of
Idiot things that we we do in our papers out of sheer habit three and a half years ago.

Should I just shrug and do this pointless busywork to satisfy the handling editor? Or should I simply refuse to waste my time adding information that will be of no use to anyone?

References

  • Hatcher, Jonathan B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63 and plates I-XIII.
  • Marsh, O. C. 1878. Principal characters of American Jurassic dinosaurs, Part I. American Journal of Science, series 3 16:411-416.

 

It’s been interesting seeing the response to my comment on the ICZN petition to establish Diplodocus carnegii as the replacement type species of the genus Diplodocus. In particular, Mickey Mortimer’s opposition to the petition seems to be based primarily on this argument:

The dinosaur community has recently lost sight of the fact that the type concept was never meant to indicate the most well preserved or described specimen/species.

I find this unconvincing, on the basis that the ICZN was never designed with dinosaurs in mind in the first place. For the great majority of the species that have been named under its rules, the selection of the obvious holotype has been perfectly adequate, because extant animals — by far the majority — are nearly all represented by complete and well-preserved specimens.

Alphina nigrosignata (type specimen; photo courtesy Geert Goemans, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Connecticut; specimen loaned from Herbert Zettel from The Museum of Natural History Vienna (NHMV). From University of Delaware, College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

Alphina nigrosignata (type specimen; photo courtesy Geert Goemans, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Connecticut; specimen loaned from Herbert Zettel from The Museum of Natural History Vienna (NHMV). From University of Delaware, College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

Dinosaurs — which in many cases are represented by eroded and distorted fossils of a tiny part of the animal — are already an aberration from the perspective of the ICZN, and that is why they sometimes need special treatment.

What are type specimens for, after all? The Code itself says “The fixation of the name-bearing type of a nominal taxon provides the objective standard of reference for the application of the name it bears” (Article 61.1); and comments that type specimens “are the international standards of reference that provide objectivity in zoological nomenclature” (Article 72.10). That is a role that YPM 1920 is simply not capable of fulfilling — and, more to the point, a role that it is not filling. The Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84 is the international standard of reference that provides objectivity in Diplodocus nomenclature. Slavishly following the usual provisions of the Code to retain the fiction that YPM 1920 fulfils this role simply does not reflect reality.

Some people occasionally object to the nomination of neotype specimens or replacement type species on the grounds that the Code does not require this. Of course it doesn’t: if it did, there would be no need for petitions. The fact that the Code allows for petitions constitutes explicit recognition that its usual provisions do not always suffice to produce the “sense and stability for animal names” that the Commission’s web-site used to have as its banner before the last redesign. Petitions exist precisely to allow the setting aside of the usual rules when sense and stability is served by doing do.

If you keep an eye on the wacky world of zoological nomenclature, you’ll know that earlier this year Emanuel Tschopp and Octávio Mateus published a petition to the International Commission on Zoological Nomemclature, asking them to establish Diplodocus carnegii, represented by the ubiquitous and nearly complete skeleton CM 84, as the type species of Diplodocus.

That is because Marsh’s (1878) type species, YPM 1920, is a pair of non-diagnostic mid-caudals which no-one has paid any attention to since 1901:

Tschopp and Mateus (2016: fig. 1). More anterior of the only two reasonably complete caudal vertebrae of the type specimen of Diplodocus longus (YPM 1920) in dorsal (A), anterior (B), left (C), posterior (D), right (E), and ventral (F) views. The neural spine is lost. The estimated position within the caudal column is caudal vertebra 17â24. Note the transverse ridge between the prezygapophyses shared with AMNH 223 (1).

Tschopp and Mateus (2016: fig. 1). More anterior of the only two reasonably complete caudal vertebrae of the type specimen of Diplodocus longus (YPM 1920) in dorsal (A), anterior (B), left (C), posterior (D), right (E), and ventral (F) views. The neural spine is lost. The estimated position within the caudal column is caudal vertebra 17â24. Note the transverse ridge between the prezygapophyses shared with AMNH 223 (1).

I have now submitted a formal comment to the ICZN in support of the petition, in which I argue:

In its use as the definitive exemplar of the genus Diplodocus, as the foundation for numerous palaeobiological studies of the genus, and as the specifier for numerous important clades, the species D. carnegii is already effectively functioning as the type species of Diplodocus. Therefore the petition of Tschopp and Mateus (2016) requests only that the commission recognises de jure what is already the case de facto.

Anyone else who has strong feelings either in favour of or against the establishment of D. carnegii as a replacement type species for Diplodocus is welcome to submit their own comment to the ICZN. (I know of at least one person who has submitted a comment opposing the petition.)

The procedure is straightforward: just write your comment and email it to the Commision at iczn@nhm.ac.uk. (But it’s best also to copy your email to iczn@nus.edu.sg, as that seems to be where the ICZN is operating out of now: it took the NHM address four days to reply to my initial inquiry, but the Singaporean address responds quickly.)

References