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

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

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

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

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

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

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

Literature Cited



Or, how a single lateral fossa becomes two foramina: through a finely graded series of intermediate forms. Darwin would approve. The ‘oblique lamina’ that separates the paired lateral foramina in C6 starts is absent in C2, but C3 through C5 show how it grows outward from the median septum. How do I know it grows outward, instead of being left behind during the pneumatization of the more posterior cervicals? Because with very few exceptions, all neosauropod cervicals start out with a single lateral fossa on each side, as illustrated in this post. But many of them end up with two or more foramina. Diplodocus is a nice example of this (from Hatcher 1901: plate 3):

I should clarify that the vertebrae above show that character transformation in this individual, at this point in its ontogeny. The vertebrae of CM 555 are about two-thirds the size of those of CM 3018, the holotype of A. louisae. In CM 3018, even C4 and C5 have completely divided lateral fossae, corresponding to the condition in C6 of CM 555.

As Mike and I discussed in our 2013 neural spine bifurcation paper, isolated sauropod cervicals require cautious interpretation because the morphology of the vertebrae changes so much along the series. The simple morphology of anterior cervicals reflects both earlier ontogenetic stages and more primitive character states. As Mike says, in sauropod necks, serial position recapitulates both ontogeny and phylogeny. So if you have a complete series, you can do something pretty cool: see the intermediate stages by which simple structures become complex.

If you’re thinking this might have something to do with my impending SVPCA poster, you’re right. Here’s the abstract.

For more on serially increasing complexity in sauropodomorph cervicals, see this post.


Fig. 14. Vertebrae of Pleurocoelus and other juvenile sauropods. in right lateral view. A-C. Cervical vertebrae. A. Pleurocoelus nanus (USNM 5678, redrawn fromLull1911b: pl. 15). B. Apatosaurus sp. (OMNH 1251, redrawn from Carpenter &McIntosh 1994: fig. 17.1). C. Camarasaurus sp. (CM 578, redrawn from Carpenter & McIntosh 1994: fig. 17.1). D-G. Dorsal vertebrae. D. Pleurocoelus nanus (USNM 4968, re- drawn from Lull 1911b: pl. 15). E. Eucamerotus foxi (BMNH R2524, redrawn from Blows 1995: fig. 2). F. Dorsal vertebra referred to Pleurocoelus sp. (UMNH VP900, redrawn from DeCourten 1991: fig. 6). G. Apatosaurus sp. (OMNH 1217, redrawn from Carpenter & McIntosh 1994: fig. 17.2). H-I. Sacral vertebrae. H. Pleurocoelus nanus (USNM 4946, redrawn from Lull 1911b: pl. 15). I. Camarasaurus sp. (CM 578, redrawn from Carpenter & McIntosh 1994: fig. 17.2). In general, vertebrae of juvenile sauropods are characterized by large pneumatic fossae, so this feature is not autapomorphic for Pleurocoelus and is not diagnostic at the genus, or even family, level. Scale bars are 10 cm. (Wedel et al. 2000b: fig. 14)

The question of whether sauropod cervicals got longer through ontogeny came up in the comment thread on Mike’s “How horrifying was the neck of Barosaurus?” post, and rather than bury this as a comment, I’m promoting it to a post of its own.

The short answer is, yeah, in most sauropods, and maybe all, the cervical vertebrae did lengthen over ontogeny. This is obvious from looking at the vertebrae of very young (dog-sized) sauropods and comparing them to those of adults. If you want it quantified for two well-known taxa, fortunately that work was published 16 years ago – I ran the numbers for Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus to see if it was plausible for Sauroposeidon to be synonymous with Pleurocoelus, which was a real concern back in the late ’90s (the answer is a resounding ‘no’). From Wedel et al. (2000b: pp. 368-369):

Despite the inadequacies of the type material of Pleurocoelus, and the uncertainties involved with referred material, the genus can be distinguished from Brachiosaurus and Sauroposeidon, even considering ontogenetic variation. The cervical vertebrae of Pleurocoelus are uniformly short, with a maximum EI of only 2.4 in all of the Arundel material (Table 4). For a juvenile cervical of these proportions to develop into an elongate cervical comparable to those of Sauroposeidon, the length of the centrum would have to increase by more than 100% relative to its diameter. Comparisons to taxa whose ontogenetic development can be estimated suggest much more modest increases in length.

Carpenter & McIntosh (1994) described cervical vertebrae from juvenile individuals of Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus. Measurements and proportions of cervical vertebrae from adults and juveniles of each genus are given in Table 4. The vertebrae from juvenile specimens of Apatosaurus have an average EI 2.0. Vertebrae from adult specimens of Apatosaurus excelsus and A. louisae show an average EI of 2.7, with an upper limit of 3.3. If the juvenile vertebrae are typical for Apatosaurus, they suggest that Apatosaurus vertebrae lengthened by 35 to 65% relative to centrum diameter in the course of development.

The vertebrae from juvenile specimens of Camarasaurus have an average EI of 1.8 and a maximum of 2.3. The relatively long-necked Camarasaurus lewisi is represented by a single skeleton, whereas the shorter-necked C. grandis, C. lentus, and C. supremus are each represented by several specimens (McIntosh, Miller, et al. 1996), and it is likely that the juvenile individuals of Camarasaurus belong to one of the latter species. In AMNH 5761, referred to C. supremus, the average EI of the cervical vertebrae is 2.4, with a maximum of 3.5. These ratios represent an increase in length relative to diameter of 30 to 50% over the juvenile Camarasaurus.

If the ontogenetic changes in EI observed in Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus are typical for sauropods, then it is very unlikely that Pleurocoelus could have achieved the distinctive vertebral proportions of either Brachiosaurus or Sauroposeidon.


C6 of Apatosaurus CM 555 – despite having an unfused neural arch and cervical ribs, the centrum proportions are about the same as in an adult.

A few things about this:

  1. From what I’ve seen, the elongation of the individual vertebrae over ontogeny seems to be complete by the time sauropods are 1/2 to 2/3 of adult size. I get this from looking at mid-sized subadults like CM 555 and the hordes of similar individuals at BYU, the Museum of Western Colorado, and other places. So to get to the question posed in the comment thread on Mike’s giant Baro post – from what I’ve seen (anecdata), a giant, Supersaurus-class Barosaurus would not necessarily have a proportionally longer neck than AMNH 6341. It might have a proportionally longer neck, I just haven’t seen anything yet that strongly suggests that. More work needed.
  2. Juvenile sauropod cervicals are not only shorter than those of adults, they also have less complex pneumatic morphology. That was the point of the figure at the top of the post. But that very simple generalization is about all we know so far – this is an area that could use a LOT more work.
  3. I’ve complained before about papers mostly being remember for one thing, even if they say many things. This is the canonical example – no-one ever seems to remember the vertebrae-elongating-over-ontogeny stuff from Wedel et al. (2000b). Maybe that’s an argument for breaking up long, kitchen-sink papers into two or more separate publications?


Wedel, M.J., Cifelli, R.L., and Sanders, R.K. 2000b. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45:343-388.

Clash of the Titans from above

Here’s the “Clash of the Titans” exhibit at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, featuring the reconstructed skeletons of the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus – which I guess should now be called the giant Oklahoma apatosaurine until someone sorts out its phylogenetic position – and the darn-near-T. rex-sized Saurophaganax maximus, which may be Allosaurus maximus depending on who you’re reading.

Now, I love this exhibit in both concept and execution. But one thing that is more obvious in this view from the upper level balcony is that despite its impressive weaponry, a lone 3-to-5 ton Saurophaganax had an Arctic ice cap’s chance in the Anthropocene of taking down a healthy 30-meter, 40-50 ton apatosaur (which is to say, none). I like to imagine that in the photo above, the apatosaur is laughing at the pathetically tiny theropod and its delusions of grandeur.

Clash of the Titans from behind

In this shot from behind, you get a better look at the baby apatosaur standing under the big one, and it hints at a far more likely target for Saurophaganax and other large Morrison theropods: sauropods that were not fully-grown, which was almost all of them. I am hip to the fact that golden eagles kill deer, and some lions will attack elephants – as Cookie Monster says, “Sometime food, not anytime food” – but not only were smaller sauropods easier prey, they were far more numerous given the inevitable population structure of animals that started reproducing at a young age and made more eggs the bigger they got (as essentially all egg-laying animals do).

In fact, as discussed in our recent paper on dinosaur ontogeny (Hone et al. 2016), there may have been times when the number of fully-grown sauropods in a given population was zero, and the species was maintained by reproducing juveniles. The giant Oklahoma apatosaurine is a unique specimen today – by far the largest apatosaurine we have fossils of – but it may also have been an anomaly in its own time, the rare individual that made it through the survivorship gauntlet to something approaching full size.

Amazingly enough, there is evidence that even it was not fully mature, but that’s a discussion for another day. Parting shot:

Oklahoma Apatosaurus neck and head


Zuniceratops ontogeny - Hone et al 2016 fig 2

Various methods that may be used to determine the age/ontogenetic status of a given dinosaur specimen. Central image is a reconstruction of the skeleton of an adult ceratopsian Zuniceratops, with surrounding indications of maturity (taken from multiple sources and do not necessarily relate to this taxon). (a) Development of sociosexual signals (adult left, juvenile right—modified from [9]), (b) surface bone texture (traced from [17]), (c) large size, represented here by an ilium of the same taxon that is considerably larger than that of a known adult specimen, (d) reproductive maturity, here based on the presence of medullary bone here shown below the black arrow (traced from [18]), (e) fusion of the neurocentral arch—location of the obliterated synchondrosis indicated by black arrow (traced from [19]), (f) asymptote of growth based on multiple species indicated by black arrow (based on [20]). Central image by Julius Csotonyi, used with permission. Hone et al. (2016: fig. 2).

New paper out in Biology Letters:

Hone, D.W.E., Farke, A.A., and Wedel, M.J. 2016. Ontogeny and the fossil record: what, if anything, is an adult dinosaur? Biology Letters 2016 12 20150947; DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0947.

The idea that dinosaurs had unusual life histories is not new. The short, short version is that it is usually pretty straightforward to tell which mammals and birds are adults, because the major developmental milestones that mark adulthood – reproductive maturity, cessation of growth, macro-level skeletal fusions, histological markers of maturity – typically occur fairly close together in time. This is radically untrue for most dinosaurs, which started reproducing early, often well before they were fully grown, and for which the other signals of adulthood can be wildly inconsistent.

Puny ‘pod

We don’t talk about this much in the paper, but one aspect of dinosaur life history should be of particular interest to sauropodophiles: most of the mounted sauropod skeletons in the world’s great museums belong to animals that are demonstrably not mature. They’re not the biggest individuals – witness the XV2 specimen of Giraffatitan, the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus, and Diplodocus hallorum (formerly “Seismosaurus”).* They’re not skeletally mature – see the unfused scapulocoracoids of FMNH P25107, the holotype of Brachiosaurus mounted in Chicago, and MB.R.2181, the lectotype of Giraffatitan mounted in Berlin. And histological sampling suggests that most recovered sauropods were still growing (Klein and Sander 2008).

* The Oklahoma Museum of Natural History does have a mounted (reconstructed) skeleton of the giant Apatosaurus, and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History has a mounted reconstructed skeleton of Diplodocus hallorum. But as nice as those museums are, in historical terms those mounts are brand new, and they have not shaped the public – and professional – conception of Apatosaurus and Diplodocus to anywhere near the same degree as the much smaller specimens mounted at Yale, AMNH, the Field Museum, and so on.

OMNH baby Apatosaurus

Apatosaurs large and small at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Basically, very little of what we think we know about sauropods is based on animals that were fully grown – and the same problem extends to many other groups of dinosaurs.

This is kind of a methodological nightmare – a colleague on Facebook commented that he had pulled his hair out over this problem – and in the paper we suggest some ways to hopefully alleviate it. I mean, the biology is what it is, but we can minimize confusion by being really explicit about which criteria we’re using when we assign a specimen to a bin like “juvenile”, “subadult”, and so on.

Supposed Former Evolution Junkie

Personally, I’m more excited about the possibilities that dinosaur life history weirdness open up for dinosaur population dynamics and ecology.

Confession time: I am a recovering and relatively high-functioning evolutionary theory junkie. In grad school I was on the heavy stuff – I read tons of Gould and Dawkins and admired them both without being smitten by either. I took seminars on Darwin and evolutionary morphology, and lots of courses in ecology – ever mindful of Leigh Van Valen’s definition of evolution as “the control of development by ecology”. I read a fair amount of Van Valen, too, until “Energy and evolution” (Van Valen 1976) burned out most of my higher cognitive centers.

I say “recovering” evolutionary theory junkie because after grad school I mostly went clean. The problem is that dinosaurs are good for a lot of things, but exploring the inner workings of evolution is usually not one of those things. As products of evolution, and demonstrations of what is biomechanically possible, dinosaurs are awesome, and we can look at macroevolutionary patterns in, say, body size evolution or morphospace occupation, but we almost never find dinos in sufficient numbers to be able to test hypotheses about the tempo and mode of their evolution on the fine scale. I suppose I could have switched systems and worked on critters in which the machinations of selection are more visible, but for me even the charms of evolutionary theory pale next to the virulent allure of sauropods and pneumaticity.

Anyway, keeping in mind that Van Valenian dictum that evolution stands with one foot in the organism-internal realm of genes, cells, tissue interactions, and other developmental phenomena, and the other in the organism-external world of competition, predation, resource partitioning, demographics, and other ecological interactions, then it stands to reason that if dinosaurs had weird ontogenies – and they did – then they might have had weird ecologies, and weird evolution full stop. (Where by ‘weird’ I mean ‘not what we’d expect based on modern ecosystems and our own profoundly mammal-centric point of view’.)

LACM Tyrannosaurus trio - Hone et al 2016 fig 1

Three growth stages of Tyrannosaurus on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Hone et al. (2016: fig. 1).

Actually, we can be pretty sure that the weird ontogenies and weird ecologies of dinosaurs were intimately linked (see, for example, Varricchio 2010). Like the tyrannosaurs shown here – they didn’t all fill the same ecological niche. This casts some old arguments in a new light. Was T. rex adapted for fast running? Prrrrobably – just not as a full-size adult. The skeleton of an adult tyrannosaur is that of a 500 kg cursor pressed into service hauling around 10 tons of murder. And all of this has some pretty exciting implications for thinking about dinosaurian ecosystems. Whereas mammals tend to fill up ecospace with species, dinosaurs filled up their world with ecologically distinct growth stages.

Does all of this add up to weird evolutionary dynamics for dinosaurs? Possibly. As we say in the paper,

Correct identification of life stage also is relevant to fundamentals of evolution—if the onset of sexual reproduction substantially preceded cessation of growth in dinosaurs then the ‘adult’ phenotype may not have been the primary target of selection. In fact, once juveniles or subadults are capable of reproducing, it is conceivable a population could exist with potentially no individuals making it through the survivorship gauntlet into ‘adulthood’ and close to maximum body size. The occasional hints from the fossil record of anomalously large sauropods like Bruhathkayosaurus [51], and the Broome trackmaker [52] might be explained if many sauropods were primarily ‘subadult’ reproducers, and thus extremely large adults were actually vanishingly rare.

Did that actually happen? Beats me. But it’s consistent with what we know about sauropod life history, and with the observed scarcity of skeletally mature sauropods. And it might explain some other oddities as well, such as the high diversity of sauropods in seasonally arid environments like the Morrison Formation (see Engelmann et al. 2004), and the fact that sauropods – and large dinosaurs generally – are much larger than predicted based on the land areas available to them (see Burness et al. 2001). Because the age structure of sauropod populations was so skewed toward juveniles, the average body size of most sauropod populations was probably fairly modest, even though the maximum size was immense. So maybe a continuously reproducing population didn’t require as much food or space as we’ve previously assumed.

If we can falsify that, cool, we’ll have learned something. And if we can falsify the alternatives, that will be even cooler.

I’ll stop waving my arms now, lest I achieve powered flight and really inspire controversy. Many thanks to Dave and Andy for bringing me on board for this. It was a fun project, and we hope the paper is useful. You can read Dave’s thoughts on all of this here.