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.

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 2002:39 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 holotype scapulocoracoid BYU 9025, 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 load 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 (2002) 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 (2002) 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 we will continue to use BYU 9025 here. It is possible that BYU 12962 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 the 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, Hang-mook. 1983. Cretaceous dinosaurs from South Korea. Journal of the Geological Society of Korea 19(3):115–126.
  • 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. 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

 

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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

 

Ten years ago today — on 15 September 2005 — my first palaeo paper was published: Taylor and Naish (2005) on the phylogenetic nomenclature of diplodocoids. It’s strange to think how fast the time has gone, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I get a bit self-indulgent and nostalgic.

TaylorNaish2005-diplodocoid-taxonomy-ABSTRACT

I’d applied to join Portsmouth University on a Masters course back in April 2004 — not because I had any great desire to earn a Masters but because back in the bad old days, being affiliated to a university was about the only way to get hold of copies of academic papers. My research proposal, hilariously, was all about the ways the DinoMorph results are misleading — something that I am still working on eleven years later.

In May of that year, I started a Dinosaur Mailing List thread on the names and definitions of the various diplodocoid clades. As that discussion progressed, it became clear that there was a lot of ambiguity, and for my own reference I started to make notes. I got into an off-list email discussion about this with Darren Naish (who was then finishing up his Ph.D at Portsmouth). By June we thought it might be worth making this into a little paper, so that others wouldn’t need to do the same literature trawl we’d done.

In September of 2004, I committed to the Portsmouth course, sending my tuition fees in a letter that ended:

tuition-fees-letter

On the way to SVPCA that year, in Leicester, I met Darren on the train, and together we worked through a printed copy of the in-progress manuscript that I’d brought with me. He was pretty happy with it, which meant a lot to me. It was the first time I’d had a legitimate palaeontologist critique my work.

At one of the evening events of that SVPCA, I fell into conversation with micro-vertebrate screening wizard Steve Sweetman, then on the Portsmouth Ph.D course, and he persuaded me to switch to the Ph.D. (It was my second SVPCA, and the first one where I gave a talk.) Hilariously, the heart of the Ph.D project was to be a description of the Archbishop, something that I have still not got done a decade later, but definitely will this year. Definitely.

On 7th October 2004, we submitted the manuscript to the Journal of Paleontology, and got an acknowledge of receipt<sarcasm>after just 18 short days</sarcasm>. But three months later (21st January 2005) it was rejected on the advice of two reviewers. As I summarised the verdict to Darren at the time:

It’s a rejection. Both reviewers (an anonymous one and [redacted]) say that the science is pretty much fine, but that there just isn’t that much to say to make the paper worthwhile. [The handling editor] concurs in quite a nice covering letter […] Although I think the bit about “I respect both of you a great deal” is another case of Wrong Mike Taylor Syndrome :-)

This was my first encounter with “not significant enough for our journal” — a game that I no longer play. It was to be very far from my last experience of Wrong Mike Taylor Syndrome.

At this point, Darren and I spent a while discussing what to do: revise and resubmit (though one of the reviewers said not to)? Try to subsume the paper into another more substantial one (as one reviewer suggested)? Invite the reviewers to collaborate with us on an improved version (as the editor suggested)? Or just revise according to the reviewers’ more helpful recommendations and send it elsewhere? I discussed this with Matt as well. The upshot was that on 20th February Darren and I decided to send the revised version to PaleoBios, the journal of the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) — partly because Matt had had good experiences there with two of his earlier papers.

[Side-note: I am delighted to see that, since I last checked, PaleoBios has now made the leap to open access, though as of yet it says nothing about the licence it uses.]

Anyway, we submitted the revised manuscript on 26th May; and we got back an Accept With Minor Revisions six weeks later, having received genuinely useful reviews from Jerry Harris and Matt. (This of course was long before I’d co-authored anything with Matt. No handling editor would assign him to review one of my papers now.) It took us two days to turn the manuscript around with the necessary minor changes made, and another nine days of back and forth with the editor before we reached acceptance. A week later I got the proof PDF to check.

Back in 2005, publication was a very different process, because it involved paper. I remember the thrill of several distinct phases in the publication process — particularly sharp the first time:

  • Seeing the page proof — evidence that I really had written a legitimate scholarly paper. It looked real.
  • The moment of being told that the paper was published: “The issue just went to the printer, so I will send the new reprints […] when I get them, probably sometime next week.”
  • Getting my copy of the final PDF.
  • The day that the physical reprints arrived — funny to think that they used to be a thing. (They’re so Ten Years Ago now that even the SVPCA auction didn’t have many available for bid.)
  • The tedious but somehow exhilarating process of sending out physical reprints to 30 or 40 people.
  • Getting a physical copy of the relevant issue of the journal — in this case, PaleoBios 25(2).

I suppose it’s one of the sadder side-effect of ubiquitous open access that many of these stages don’t happen any more. Now you get your proof, then the paper appears online, and that’s it. Bam, done.

I’m kind of glad to have lived through the tail end of the old days, even though the new days are better.

To finish, there’s a nice little happy ending for this paper. Despite being in a relatively unregarded journal, it’s turned out to be among my most cited works. According to Google Scholar, this humble little taxonomic note has racked up 28 citations: only two fewer than the Xenoposeidon description. It’s handily outperforming other papers that I’d have considered much more substantial, and which appeared in more recognised journals. It just goes to show, you can never tell what papers will do well in the citation game, and which will sink without trace.

References

We all remember Upchurch and Martin’s (2002) description of the Rutland Cetiosaurus, which remains by some distance the best British sauropod specimen in the literature; and the same authors’ (2003) survey of the genus Cetiosaurus. They concluded that nearly all of its many named species are either nomen dubia or misassigned, and that only C. oxoniensis is a valid, diagnosable species.

(Some of) the Cetiosaurus oxoniensis holotype material, on display in the public gallery of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH)

(Some of) the Cetiosaurus oxoniensis holotype material, on display in the public gallery of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH). From left to right: right femur in posterior view, scapula, right humerus in anterior view, tibia and fibula (designations by eyeballing). Above the long bones, some caudal vertebrae.

Accordingly, Upchurch and Martin informally used C. oxoniensis as the type specimen in their descriptive work, noting that this usage should be formalised by a petition to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).

Six years layer, we submitted that petition to the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature; a few months after its publication, positive comments from Paul Barrett and Pete Galton followed.

That was in 2009. Five years of silence followed, as the Commission meditated on our five-page petition. (That’s two pages plus front-matter and references). Today, finally, the results are in! The abstract says it all:

The Commission has conserved the usage of the generic name Cetiosaurus Owen, 1841 by designating Cetiosaurus oxoniensis Phillips, 1871 as the type species of Cetiosaurus in place of Cetiosaurus medius Owen, 1842.

So Cetiosaurus finally has a decent type species! Two cheers for the Commission!

I’d always assumed that ratifying the petition would be a no-brainer once the Commission got around to examining it. In fact, their report makes it clear that’s not how it was at all. 16 members voted for the proposal, eight voted against and two abstained. So I guess we were only three switched votes away from having the proposal rejected. Which would frankly have been stupid: every sauropod worker would just have carried right on using C. oxoniensis as though it were the type species anyway.

Why would anyone vote against, you ask? I asked myself the same question. Happily, the decision explains the objections in detail. They nearly all seem to come down to complaints that we didn’t clearly enough explain why C. medius was the previous type species. There’s a reason for that: the truth is that the literature is so vague and contradictory that no-one really knew what the heck the type species was — which is one of the reasons we needed to establish one. (Upchurch and Martin 2002:1053 thought C. brevis was the type; as we investigated this in more detail for the petition, we concluded that the claim of C. medius was stronger. But still very weak.)

But all of that seems like pointless pithering to me. Who cares what the type species was? The point of the petition is to establish what it is, and only one Commission member expressed any reservations about the case we’d made — which is basically that C. oxoniensis is what’s always used in comparisons.

Anyway, dissenting opinions notwithstanding, the genus Cetiosaurus now stands before us having been made an honest woman at long last.

NaishMartill2007-british-dinosaurs-fig3-cetiosaurus

The Rutland cetiosaur, reconstruction by Mark Evans (Naish and Martill 2007: fig 3)

… all of which leaves us with the question of what the Rutland cetiosaur is. It’s been assumed to be Cetiosaurus all along, and that identification has to stand until someone publishes a case to the contrary. But there do seem to be persistent rumours that someone somewhere thinks it’s something different. I wonder if anything will ever come of it?

References