It is said that, some time around 1590 AD, Galileo Galilei dropped two spheres of different masses from the Leaning Tower of Pisa[1], thereby demonstrating that they fell at the same rate. This was a big deal because it contradicted Aristotle’s theory of gravity, in which objects are supposed to fall at a speed proportional to their mass.

Aristotle lived from 384–322 BC, which means his observably incorrect theory had been scientific orthodoxy for more than 1,900 years before being overturned[2].

How did this happen? For nearly two millennia, every scientist had it in his power to hold a little stone in one hand and a rock in the other, drop them both, and see with his own eyes that they fell at the same speed. Aristotle’s theory was obviously wrong, yet that obviously wrong theory remained orthodox for eighty generations.

My take is that it happened because people — even scientists — have a strong tendency to trust respected predecessors, and not even to look to see whether their observations and theories are correct. I am guessing that in that 1,900 years, plenty of scientists did indeed do the stone-and-rock experiment, but discounted their own observations because they had too much respect for Aristotle.

But even truly great scientists can be wrong.

Now, here is the same story, told on a much much smaller scale.

Well into the 2010s, it was well known that in sauropods, caudal vertebrae past the first handful are pneumatized only in diplodocines and in saltasaurine titanosaurs. As a bright young sauropod researcher, for example, I knew this from the codings in important and respected phylogenetic analysis such as those of Wilson (2002) and Upchurch et al. (2004).

Until the day I visited the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and actually, you know, looked at the big mounted Giraffatitan skeleton in the atrium. And this is what I saw:

That’s caudal vertebrae 24–26 in left lateral view, and you could not wish to see a nicer, clearer pneumatic feature than the double foramen in caudal 25.

That observation led directly to Matt’s and my 2013 paper on caudal pneumaticity in Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus (Wedel and Taylor 2013) and clued us into how much more common pneumatic hiatuses are then we’d realised. It also birthed the notion of “cryptic diverticula” — those whose traces are not directly recorded in the fossils, but whose presence can be inferred by traces on other vertebrae. And that led to our most recent paper on pneumatic variation in sauropods (Taylor and Wedel 2021) — from which you might recognise the photo above, since a cleaned-up version of it appears there as Figure 5.

The moral

Just because “everyone knows” something is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually is true. Verify. Use your own eyes. Even Aristotle can be wrong about gravity. Even Jeff Wilson and Paul Upchurch can be wrong about caudal pneumaticity in non-diplodocines. That shouldn’t in any way undermine the rightly excellent reputations they have built. But we sometimes need to look past reputations, however well earned, to see what’s right in front of us.

Go and look at fossils. Does what you see contradict what “everyone knows”? Good! You’ve discovered something!

 

References

Notes

1. There is some skepticism about whether Galileo’s experiment really took place, or was merely a thought experiment. But since the experiment was described by Galileo’s pupil Vincenzo Viviani in a biography written in 1654, I am inclined to trust the contemporary account ahead of the unfounded scepticism of moderns. Also, Viviani’s wording, translated as “Galileo showed this by repeated experiments made from the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the presence of other professors and all the students” reads like a documentary account rather than a romanticization. And a thought experiment, with no observable result, would not have demonstrated anything.

2. Earlier experiments had similarly shown that Aristotle’s gravitational theory was wrong, including in the works of John Philoponus in the sixth century — but Aristotle’s orthodoxy nevertheless survived until Galileo.

 

 

FIGURE 7.1. Pneumatic features in dorsal vertebrae of Barapasaurus (A–D), Camarasaurus (E–G), Diplodocus (H–J), and Saltasaurus (K–N). Anterior is to the left; different elements are not to scale. A, A posterior dorsal vertebra of Barapasaurus. The opening of the neural cavity is under the transverse process. B, A midsagittal section through a middorsal vertebra of Barapasaurus showing the neural cavity above the neural canal. C, A transverse section through the posterior dorsal shown in A (position 1). In this vertebra, the neural cavities on either side are separated by a narrow median septum and do not communicate with the neural canal. The centrum bears large, shallow fossae. D, A transverse section through the middorsal shown in B. The neural cavity opens to either side beneath the transverse processes. No bony structures separate the neural cavity from the neural canal. The fossae on the centrum are smaller and deeper than in the previous example. (A–D redrawn from Jain et al. 1979:pl. 101, 102.) E, An anterior dorsal vertebra of Camarasaurus. F, A transverse section through the centrum (E, position 1) showing the large camerae that occupy most of the volume of the centrum. G, a horizontal section (E, position 2). (E–G redrawn from Ostrom and McIntosh 1966:pl. 24.) H, A posterior dorsal vertebra of Diplodocus. (Modified from Gilmore 1932:fig. 2.) I, Transverse sections through the neural spines of other Diplodocus dorsals (similar to H, position 1). The neural spine has no body or central corpus of bone for most of its length. Instead it is composed of intersecting bony laminae. This form of construction is typical for the presacral neural spines of most sauropods outside the clade Somphospondyli. (Modified from Osborn 1899:fig. 4.) J, A horizontal section through a generalized Diplodocus dorsal (similar to H, position 2). This diagram is based on several broken elements and is not intended to represent a specific specimen. The large camerae in the midcentrum connect to several smaller chambers at either end. K, A transverse section through the top of the neural spine of an anterior dorsal vertebra of Saltasaurus (L, position 1). Compare the internal pneumatic chambers in the neural spine of Saltasaurus with the external fossae in the neural spine of Diplodocus shown in J. L, An anterior dorsal vertebra of Saltasaurus. M, A transverse section through the centrum (L, position 2). N, A horizontal section (L, position 3). In most members of the clade Somphospondyli the neural spines and centra are filled with small camellae. (K–N modified from Powell 1992:fig. 16.) [Figure from Wedel 2005.]

Here’s figure 1 from my 2005 book chapter. I tried to cram as much pneumatic sauropod vertebra morphology into one figure as I could. All of the diagrams are traced from pre-existing published images except the horizontal section of the Diplodocus dorsal in J, which is a sort of generalized cross-section that I based on broken centra of camerate vertebrae from several taxa (like the ones shown in this post). One thing that strikes me about this figure, and about most of the CT and other cross-sections that I’ve published or used over the years (example), is that they’re more or less bilaterally symmetrical. 

We’ve talked about asymmetrical vertebrae before, actually going back to the very first post in Xenoposeidon week, when this blog was only a month and a half old. But not as much as I thought. Given how much space asymmetry takes up in my brain, it’s actually weird how little we’ve discussed it.

The fourth sacral centrum of Haplocanthosaurus CM 879, in left and right lateral view (on the left and right, respectively). Note the distinct fossa under the sacral rib attachment on the right, which is absent on the left.

Also, virtually all of our previous coverage of asymmetry has focused on external pneumatic features, like the asymmetric fossae in this sacral of Haplocanthosaurus (featured here), in the tails of Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus (from Wedel and Taylor 2013b), and in the ever-popular holotype of Xenoposeidon. This is true not just on the blog but also in our most recent paper (Taylor and Wedel 2021), which grew out of this post.

Given that cross-sectional asymmetry has barely gotten a look in before now, here are three specimens that show it, presented in ascending levels of weirdness.

First up, a dorsal centrum of Haplocanthosaurus, CM 572. This tracing appeared in Text-fig 8 in my solo prosauropod paper (Wedel 2007), and the CT scout it was traced from is in Fig 6 in my saurischian air-sac paper (Wedel 2009). The section shown here is about 13cm tall dorsoventrally. The pneumatic fossa on the left is comparatively small, shallow, and lacks very distinct overhanging lips of bone. The fossa on the right is about twice as big, it has a more distinct bar of bone forming a ventral lip, and it is separated from the neural canal by a much thinner plate of bone. The fossa on the left is more similar to the condition in dorsal vertebrae of Barapasaurus or juvenile Apatosaurus, where as the one on the right shows a somewhat more extensive and derived degree of pneumatization. The median septum isn’t quite on the midline of the centrum, but it’s pretty stout, which seems to be a consistent feature in presacral vertebrae of Haplocanthosaurus.

 

Getting weirder. Here’s a section through the mid-centrum of C6 of CM 555, which is probably Brontosaurus parvus. That specific vert has gotten a lot of SV-POW! love over the years: it appears in several posts (like this one, this one, and this one), and in Fig 19 in our neural spine bifurcation paper (Wedel and Taylor 2013a). The section shown here is about 10cm tall, dorsoventrally. In cross-section, it has the classic I-beam configuration for camerate sauropod vertebrae, only the median septum is doing something odd — rather than attaching the midline of the bony floor of the centrum, it’s angled over to the side, to attach to what would normally be the ventral lip of the camera. I suspect that it got this way because the diverticulum on the right either got to the vertebra a little ahead of the one on the left, or just pneumatized the bone faster, because the median septum isn’t just bent, even the vertical bit is displaced to the left of the midline. I also suspect that this condition was able to be maintained because the median septa weren’t that mechanically important in a lot of these vertebrae. We use “I-beam” as a convenient shorthand to describe the shape, but in a metal I-beam the upright is as thick or thicker than the cross bits. In contrast, camerate centra of sauropod vertebrae could be more accurately described as a cylinders or boxes of bone with some holes in the sides. I think the extremely thin median septum is just a sort of developmental leftover from the process of pneumatization.

EDIT 3 days later: John Whitlock reminded me in the comments of Zurriaguz and Alvarez (2014), who looked at asymmetry in the lateral pneumatic foramina in cervical and dorsal vertebrae of titanosaurs, and found that consistent asymmetry along the cervical column was not unusual. They also explicitly hypothesized that the asymmetry was caused by diverticula on one side reaching the vertebrae earlier than diverticula on other other side. I believe they were the first to advance that idea in print (although I should probably take my own advice and scour the historical literature for any earlier instances), and needless to say, I think they’re absolutely correct.

Both of the previous images were traced from CTs, but the next one is traced from a photo of a specimen, OMNH 1882, that was broken transversely through the posterior centrum. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what critter this vertebra is from. It is too long and the internal structure is too complex for it to be Camarasaurus. I think an apatosaurine identity is unlikely, too, given the proportional length of the surviving chunk of centrum, and the internal structure, which looks very different from CM 555 or any other apatosaur I’ve peered inside. Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus are also known from the Morrison quarries at Black Mesa, in the Oklahoma panhandle, which is where this specimen is from. Of those two, the swoopy ventral margin of the posterior centrum looks more Diplodocus-y than Brachiosaurus-y to me, and the specimen lacks the thick slab of bone that forms the ventral centrum in presacrals of Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan (see Schwarz and Fritsch 2006: fig. 4, and this post). So on balance I think probably Diplodocus, but I could easily be wrong.

Incidentally, the photo is from 2003, before I knew much about how to properly photograph specimens. I really need to have another look at this specimen, for a lot of reasons.

Whatever taxon the vertebra is from, the internal structure is a wild scene. The median septum is off midline and bent, this time at the top rather than the bottom, the thick ventral rim of the lateral pneumatic foramen is hollow on the right but not on the left, and there are wacky chambers around the neural canal and one in the ventral floor of the centrum. 

I should point out that no-one has ever CT-scanned this specimen, and single slices can be misleading. Maybe the ventral rim of the lateral foramen is hollow just a little anterior or posterior to this slice. Possibly the median septum is more normally configured elsewhere in the centrum. But at least at the break point, this thing is crazy. 

What’s it all mean? Maybe the asymmetry isn’t noise, maybe it’s signal. We know that when bone and pneumatic epithelium get to play together, they tend to make weird stuff. Sometimes that weirdness gets constrained by functional demands, other times not so much. I think it’s very seductive to imagine sauropod vertebrae as these mechanically-optimized, perfect structures, but we have other evidence that that’s not always true (for example). Maybe as long as the articular surfaces, zygapophyses, epipophyses, neural spine tips, and cervical ribs — the mechanically-important bits — ended up in the right places, and the major laminae did a ‘good enough’ job of transmitting forces, the rest of each vertebra could just sorta do whatever. Maybe most of them end up looking more or less the same because of shared development, not because it was so very important that all the holes and flanges were in precisely the same places. That might explain why we occasionally get some really odd verts, like C11 of the Diplodocus carnegii holotype.

That’s all pretty hand-wavy and I haven’t yet thought of a way to test it, but someone probably will sooner or later. In the meantime, I think it’s valuable to just keep documenting the weirdness as we find it.

References

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my and Matt’s paper in Qeios about why vertebral pneumaticity in sauropods is so variable. (Taylor and Wedel 2021). We were intrigued to publish on this new platform that supports post-publication peer-review, partly just to see what happened.

Taylor and Wedel (2021: figure 3). Brontosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980, caudal vertebrae 7 and 8 in right lateral view. Caudal 7, like most of the sequence, has a single vascular foramen on the right side of its centrum, but caudal 8 has two; others, including caudal 1, have none.

So what has happened? Well, as I write this, the paper has been viewed 842 times, downloaded a healthy 739 times, and acquired an altmetric score 21, based rather incestuously on two SV-POW! blog-posts, 14 tweets and a single Mendeley reader.

What hasn’t happened is even a single comment on the paper. Nothing that could be remotely construed as a post-publication peer-review. And therefore no progress towards our being able to count this as a peer-reviewed publication rather than a preprint — which is how I am currently classifying it in my publications list.

This, despite our having actively solicited reviews both here on SV-POW!, in the original blog-post, and in a Facebook post by Matt. (Ironically, the former got seven comments and the latter got 20, but the actual paper none.)

I’m not here to complain; I’m here to try to understand.

On one level, of course, this is easy to understand: writing a more-than-trivial comment on a scholarly article is work, and it garners very little of the kind of credit academics care about. Reputation on the Qeios site is nice, in a that-and-two-bucks-will-buy-me-a-coffee kind of way, but it’s not going to make a difference to people’s CVs when they apply for jobs and grants — not even in the way that “Reviewed for JVP” might. I completely understand why already overworked researchers don’t elect to invest a significant chunk of time in voluntarily writing a reasoned critique of someone else’s work when they could be putting that time into their own projects. It’s why so very few PLOS articles have comments.

On the other hand, isn’t this what we always do when we write a solicited peer-review for a regular journal?

So as I grope my way through this half-understood brave new world that we’re creating together, I am starting to come to the conclusion that — with some delightful exceptions — peer-review is generally only going to happen when it’s explicitly solicited by a handling editor, or someone with an analogous role. No-one’s to blame for this: it’s just reality that people need a degree of moral coercion to devote that kind of effort to other people’s project. (I’m the same; I’ve left almost no comments on PLOS articles.)

Am I right? Am I unduly pessimistic? Is there some other reason why this paper is not attracting comments when the Barosaurus preprint did? Teach me.

References

 

This is RAM 1619, a proximal caudal vertebra of an apatosaurine, in posterior view. It’s one of just a handful of sauropod specimens at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. It’s a donated specimen, which came with very little documentation. It was originally catalogued only to a very gross taxonomic level, but I had a crack at it on a collections visit in 2018, when I took these photos. I told Andy Farke and the other Alf folks right away, I just never got around to blogging about it until now.

Why do I think it’s an apatosaurine? A few reasons: 

  • it’s slightly procoelous, which is pretty common for diplodocids, whereas caudals of Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Brachiosaurus are all either amphicoelous or amphiplatyan;
  • it has big pneumatic fossae above the transverse processes, unlike Haplo, Cam, and Brachio, but it lacks big pneumatic fossae below the transverse processes, unlike Diplodocus and Barosaurus
  • and finally the clincher: the centrum is taller than wide, and broader dorsally than ventrally.

In the literature this centrum shape is described as ‘heart-shaped’ (e.g., Tschopp et al. 2015), and sometimes there is midline dorsal depression that really sells it. That feature isn’t present in this vert, but overall it’s still much closer to a heart-shape than the caudals of any non-apatosaurine in the Morrison. Hence the literal 11th-hour Valentine’s Day post (and yes, this will go up with a Feb. 15 date because SV-POW! runs on England time, but it’s still the 14th here in SoCal, at least for another minute or two).

RAM 1619 in postero-dorsal view.

Back to the pneumaticity. Occasionally an apatosaurine shows up with big lateral fossae ventral to the transverse processes–the mounted one at the Field Museum is a good example (see this post). And the big Oklahoma apatosaurine breaks the rules by having very pneumatic caudals–more on that in the future. But at least in the very proximal caudals of non-gigantic apatosaurines, it’s more common for there to be pneumatic fossae above the transverse processes, near the base of the neural arch. You can see that in caudal 3 of UWGM 15556/CM 563, a specimen of Brontosaurus parvus:

I don’t think I’d figured out this difference between above-the-transverse-process (supracostal, perhaps) and below-the-transverse-process (infracostal, let’s say) pneumatic fossae when Mike and I published our caudal pneumaticity paper back in 2013. I didn’t start thinking seriously about the dorsal vs ventral distribution of pneumatic features until sometime later (see this post). And I need to go check my notes and photos before I’ll feel comfortable calling supracostal fossae the apatosaurine norm. But I am certain that Diplodocus and Barosaurus have big pneumatic foramina on the lateral faces of their proximal caudals (see this post, for example), Haplocanthosaurus and brachiosaurids have infracostal fossae when they have any fossae at all in proximal caudals (distally the fossae edge up to the base of the neural arch in Giraffatitan), and to date there are no well-documented cases of caudal pneumaticity in Camarasaurus (if that seems like a hedge, sit tight and W4TP). 

RAM 1619 has asymmetric pneumatic fossae, which is pretty cool, and also pretty common, and we think we have a hypothesis to explain that now–see Mike’s and my new paper in Qeios.

And if I’m going to make my midnight deadline, even on Pacific Time, I’d best sign off. More cool stuff inbound real soon.

References

We’ve noted many times over the years how inconsistent pneumatic features are in sauropod vertebra. Fossae and formamina vary between individuals of the same species, and along the spinal column, and even between the sides of individual vertebrae. Here’s an example that we touched on in Wedel and Taylor (2013), but which is seen in all its glory here:

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 5). Giraffatitan brancai tail MB.R.5000, part of the mounted skeleton at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Caudal vertebrae 24–26 in left lateral view. While caudal 26 has no pneumatic features, caudal 25 has two distinct pneumatic fossae, likely excavated around two distinct vascular foramina carrying an artery and a vein. Caudal 24 is more shallowly excavated than 25, but may also exhibit two separate fossae.

But bone is usually the least variable material in the vertebrate body. Muscles vary more, nerves more again, and blood vessels most of all. So why are the vertebrae of sauropods so much more variable than other bones?

Our new paper, published today (Taylor and Wedel 2021) proposes an answer! Please read it for the details, but here’s the summary:

  • Early in ontogenly, the blood supply to vertebrae comes from arteries that initially served the spinal cord, penetrating the bone of the neural canal.
  • Later in ontegeny, additional arteries penetrate the centra, leaving vascular foramina (small holes carrying blood vessels).
  • This hand-off does not always run to completion, due to the variability of blood vessels.
  • In extant birds, when pneumatic diverticula enter the bone they do so via vascular foramina, alongside blood vessels.
  • The same was probaby true in sauropods.
  • So in vertebrae that got all their blood supply from vascular foramina in the neural canal, diverticula were unable to enter the centra from the outside.
  • So those centra were never pneumatized from the outside, and no externally visible pneumatic cavities were formed.

Somehow that pretty straightforward argument ended up running to eleven pages. I guess that’s what you get when you reference your thoughts thoroughly, illustrate them in detail, and discuss the implications. But the heart of the paper is that little bullet-list.

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 6). Domestic duck Anas platyrhynchos, dorsal vertebrae 2–7 in left lateral view. Note that the two anteriormost vertebrae (D2 and D3) each have a shallow pneumatic fossa penetrated by numerous small foramina.

(What is the relevance of these duck dorsals? You will need to read the discussion in the paper to find out!)

Our choice of publication venue

The world moves fast. It’s strange to think that only eleven years ago my Brachiosaurus revision (Taylor 2009) was in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, a journal that now feels very retro. Since then, Matt and I have both published several times in PeerJ, which we love. More recently, we’ve been posting preprints of our papers — and indeed I have three papers stalled in peer-review revisions that are all available as preprints (two Taylor and Wedels and a single sole-authored one). But this time we’re pushing on even further into the Shiny Digital Future.

We’ve published at Qeios. (It’s pronounced “chaos”, but the site doesn’t tell you that; I discovered it on Twitter.) If you’ve not heard of it — I was only very vaguely aware of it myself until this evening — it runs on the same model as the better known F1000 Research, with this very important difference: it’s free. Also, it looks rather slicker.

That model is: publish first, then filter. This is the opposite of the traditional scholarly publishing flow where you filter first — by peer reviewers erecting a series of obstacles to getting your work out — and only after negotiating that course to do get to see your work published. At Qeios, you go right ahead and publish: it’s available right off the bat, but clearly marked as awaiting peer-review:

And then it undergoes review. Who reviews it? Anyone! Ideally, of course, people with some expertise in the relevant fields. We can then post any number of revised versions in response to the reviews — each revision having its own DOI and being fixed and permanent.

How will this work out? We don’t know. It is, in part, an experiment. What will make it work — what will impute credibility to our paper — is good, solid reviews. So if you have any relevant expertise, we do invite you to get over there and write a review.

And finally …

Matt noted that I first sent him the link to the Qeios site at 7:44 pm my time. I think that was the first time he’d heard of it. He and I had plenty of back and forth on where to publish this paper before I pushed on and did it at Qeios. And I tweeted that our paper was available for review at 8:44 — one hour exactly after Matt learned that the venue existed. Now here we are at 12:04 my time, three hours and 20 minutes later, and it’s already been viewed 126 times and downloaded 60 times. I think that’s pretty awesome.

References

  • Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806. [PDF]
  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2021. Why is vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs so variable? Qeios 1G6J3Q. doi: 10.32388/1G6J3Q [PDF]
  • Wedel, Mathew J., and Michael P. Taylor 2013b. Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78213. 14 pages. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078213 [PDF]

Long before Matt and others were CT-scanning sauropod vertebrae to understand their internal structure, Werner Janensch was doing it the old-fashioned way. I’ve been going through old photos that I took at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin back in 2005, and I stumbled across this dorsal centrum:

Dorsal vertebra centum of ?Giraffatitan in ventral view, with anterior to top.

You can see a transverse crack running across it, and sure enough the front and back are actually broken apart. Here there are:

The same dorsal vertebral centrum of ?Giraffatitan, bisected transversely in two halves. Left: anterior half in posterior view; right: posterior half in anterior view. I had to balance the anterior half on my shoe to keep it oriented corrrectly for the photo.

This does a beautiful job of showing the large lateral foramina penetrating into the body of the centrum and ramifying further into the bone, leaving only a thin midline septum.

But students of the classics will recognise this bone immediately as the one that Janensch (1947:abb. 2) illustrated the posterior half of in his big pneumaticity paper:

It’s a very strange feeling, when browsing in a collection, to come across a vertebra that you know from the literature. As I’ve remarked to Matt, it’s a bit like running into, say, Cameron Diaz in the corner shop.

Reference

  • Janensch, W. 1947. Pneumatizitat bei Wirbeln von Sauropoden
    und anderen Saurischien. Palaeontographica, supplement
    7:1-25.

The new monster redescription of Dilophosaurus by Adam Marsh and Tim Rowe came out in the Journal of Paleontology last week. I’m blogging about it now because the OA link just went live yesterday. So you can get this huge, important paper for free, at this link.

There’s a lot of stuff to love here: beautiful, clear photos of every element from every specimen from multiple angles, interesting anatomical and phylogenetic findings, and of particular interest on this blog, some very cool documentation of serial variation in pneumatic features. Here in Figure 62 we see serial changes in the posterior centrodiapophyseal laminae, which in some of the vertebrae are split around an intermediate fossa, or have accessory laminae.

One thing that I’ve thought a lot about, but written not so much about (yet), is pneumatic features on the ventral surfaces of vertebrae and how they change along the column. So I was excited to see Figure 64, which shows how fossae change serially on both the lateral and the ventral surfaces of the presacral centra. As far as I know, no-one has ever done something like this for a sauropod (please correct me in the comments if I’ve forgotten any examples), but it could be done and the results would be interesting, particularly for taxa like Haplocanthosaurus or Dicraeosaurus that have both lateral and ventral fossae and keels in at least some of the vertebrae.

Here’s Figure 66, a beautiful new skull reconstruction and life restoration, both by Brian Engh. There’s a lot of Engh/Dilophosaurus stuff going on right now, including a new video for the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site museum (short version here, longer version available at the museum, and I think on Brian’s Patreon page), and, uh, another thing that will be revealed in the not-too-distant future.

I hope everyone is well and safe. When I first realized we were going into quarantine back in March, I had big plans for doing various series of posts here, but almost immediately the demand of getting med school anatomy online ate up all my time and creative energy. Just barely getting back on my feet now. I know Mike has been busier than normal, too. So please be patient with us, and we’ll try to remember to feed the blog now and then.

Reference

Marsh, Adam D., and Rowe, Timothy B. 2020. A comprehensive anatomical and phylogenetic evaluation of Dilophosaurus wetherilli (Dinosauria, Theropoda) with descriptions of new specimens from the Kayenta Formation of northern Arizona. Journal of Paleontology Volume 94, Supplement S78: 1-103. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/jpa.2020.14

Nature’s CT machine

January 28, 2020

Because I’ve worked a lot on the anatomy and evolution of air-filled bones in sauropod dinosaurs, I’ve spent most of my career looking at images like this:

CT sections through a cervical vertebra of an apatosaurine (Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus), OMNH 1094. Wedel (2003b: fig. 6). Scale bar is 10cm.

…and thinking about images like this:

Physical sections through pneumatic vertebrae of Giraffatitan. Janensch (1950: figs. 71-73).

Turns out, that’s pretty good practice for fossil prospecting in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation, where we frequently find things like this:

That’s a bit hard to read, so let’s pull it out from the background:

This is almost certainly a pneumatic vertebra of a sauropod, sectioned more-or-less randomly by the forces of erosion to expose a complicated honeycomb of internal struts and chambers. The chambers are full of sandstone now, but in life they were full of air. I say “almost certainly” because there is small chance that it could belong to a very large theropod, but it looks more sauropod-y to me (for reasons I may expand upon in the comments if anyone is curious).

I’m not 100% certain what section this is. At first I was tempted to read it as a transversely-sectioned dorsal, something like the Allosaurus dorsal shown in this post (link) but from a small, possibly juvenile sauropod. But the semi-radial, spoke-like arrangement of the internal struts going to the round section at the bottom looks very much like the inside of the condyle of a sauropod cervical or cervico-dorsal–compare to fig. 71 from Janensch (1950), shown above. And of course there is no reason to suspect that the plane of this cut is neatly in any of the cardinal anatomical directions. It is most likely an oblique cut that isn’t purely transverse or sagittal or anything else, but some combination of the above. It’s also not alone–there are bits and bobs of bone to the side and above in the same chunk of sandstone, which might be parts of this vertebra or of neighboring bones. Assuming it is a sauropod, my guess is Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus, because it looks even more complex than the sectioned cervicals and dorsals I’ve seen of Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, or the apatosaurines.

Sometimes we can do a little better. This is one of my favorite finds from the Salt Wash. This boulder, now in two parts, fell down out of a big overhanging sandstone cliff. When the boulder hit, it broke into two halves, and the downhill half rolled over 180 degrees, bringing both cut faces into view in this photo. And there in the boulder is what looks like two vertebrae, but is in fact the neatly separated halves of a single vertebra. I know I refer to erosion and breakage as “Nature’s CT machine”, but this time that’s really on the nose. Let’s take a closer look:

Here’s what I see:

It’s a proportionally long vertebra with a round ball at one end and a hemispherical socket at the other end: a cervical vertebra of a sauropod. Part of the cervical rib is preserved on the upper side, which I suspect is the left side. The parapophysis on the opposite side is angled a bit out of the rock, toward the camera. Parapophyses of sauropod cervicals tend to be angled downward, and if we’re looking at the bottom of this vertebra, then the rib on the upper side is the left. The right cervical rib was cut off when the boulder broke. All we have on this side are the wide parapophysis and the slender strut of the diapophysis aiming out of the rock toward the missing rib, which must still be embedded in the other half of the boulder–and in fact you can see a bit of it peeking out in the counterpart in the wide shot, above.

Can we get a taxonomic ID? I think so, based on the following clues:

  • The cervical ribs are set waaay out to either side of the centrum, by about one centrum diameter. Such wide-set cervical ribs occur in Camarasaurus and the apatosaurines, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, but not typically in Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, or other Morrison sauropods.
  • The cervical rib we can see the most of is pretty slender, like those of Camarasaurus, in contrast to the massive, blocky cervical ribs of the apatosaurines (for example).
  • We can see at least bits of both the left and right cervical ribs in the two slabs–along with a section right through the centrum. So the cervical ribs were set wide from the centrum but not displaced deeply below it, as in Camarasaurus, and again in contrast to the apatosaurines, in which the cervical ribs are typically displaced far below (ventral to) the centrum (see this).
  • This one is a little more loosey-goosey, but the exposed internal structure looks “about right” for Camarasaurus. There is a mix of large and small chambers, but not many small ones, and nothing approaching the coarse, regular honeycomb we’d expect in Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus, or Diplodocus, let alone the fine irregular honeycomb we’d expect in Barosaurus or Brachiosaurus (although I will show you a vert like that in an upcoming post). On the other hand, the internal structure is too complex for Haplocanthosaurus (compare to the top image here).
  • As long as Camarasaurus is on the table, I’ll note that the overall proportions are good for a mid-cervical of Cam as well. That’s not worth much, since vertebral proportions vary along the column and almost every Morrison sauropod has cervicals with this general proportion somewhere in the neck, but it doesn’t hurt.

So the balance of the evidence points toward Camarasaurus. In one character or another, every other known Morrison sauropod is disqualified.

When it’s too dark to hunt for sauropods, you can look at other things.

Now, Camarasaurus is not only the most common sauropod in the Morrison, it’s also the most common dinosaur of any kind in the formation. So this isn’t a mind-blowing discovery. Still, it’s nice to be able to get down to a genus-level ID based on a single vertebra fortuitously sectioned by Mother Nature. In upcoming posts, I’ll show some of the more exciting critters that we’ve been able to ID out of the Salt Wash, ‘we’ here including Brian Engh, John Foster, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Jessie Atterholt, and Thuat Tran. Brian will also be showing many of these same fossils in the next installment of Jurassic Reimagined. Catch Part 1 here (link), and stay tuned to Brian’s paleoart channel (here) for more in the very near future.

References

Way back in 2009–over a decade ago, now!–I blogged about the above photo, which I stole from this post by ReBecca Hunt-Foster. It’s a cut and polished chunk of a pneumatic sauropod vertebra in the collections at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado.

This is the other side of that same cut; you’ll see that it looks like a mirror image of the cut at the top, but not quite a perfect mirror image, because some material was lost to the kerf of the saw and to subsequent polishing, and the bony septa changed a bit just in those few millimeters.

And this is the reverse face of the section shown above. As you can see, it is a LOT more complex. What’s going on here? This unpolished face must be getting close to either the condyle or the cotyle, where the simple I-beam or anchor-shaped configuration of the centrum breaks up into lots of smaller chambers (as described in this even older post). It’s crazy how fast that can happen–this shard of excellence is only about 4 or 5 cm thick, and in that short space it has gone from anchor to honeycomb. I think that’s amazing, and beautiful.

It’s probably Apatosaurus–way too complex to be Camarasaurus or Haplocanthosaurus, not complex enough to be Barosaurus, no reason to suspect Brachiosaurus, and although there is other stuff in the DJ collections, the vast majority of the sauropod material is Apatosaurus. So that’s my null hypothesis for the ID.

Oh, back in 2009 I was pretty sure these chunks were from a dorsal, because of the round ventral profile of the centrum. I’m no longer so certain, now that I know that the anchor-shaped sections are so close to the end of the centrum, because almost all vertebrae get round near the ends. That said, the anchor-shaped sections are anchor-shaped because the pneumatic foramina are open, and having foramina that open, that close to the end of the vertebra still makes me think it is more likely a dorsal than anything else. I’m just less certain than I used to be–and that has been the common theme in my personal development over the last decade.

Spotted this beauty in the collections at Dinosaur Journey this past summer. With the front end of the centrum blown off, taphonomy once again proves to be the poor man’s CT machine, giving us a great look at the pneumatic spaces inside the vertebra.

EDIT, Oct. 13, 2019 — WHOOPS! That ain’t a cervical. Based on the plates in Madsen (1976), it’s a dead ringer for the second dorsal vertebra.

Allosaurus fragilis cervicodorsal transition - Madsen 1976 plates 14-16

Vertebrae C7 through D3 of Allosaurus fragilis in anterior view, from plates 14-16 in Madsen (1976). Abbreviations: dp, diapophysis; li, interspinous ligament scar; nc, neural canal; ns, neural spine; pp, parapophysis; pr, prezygapophysis.

Reference

Madsen, Jr., J.H. 1976. Allosaurus fragilis: a revised osteology. Utah Geological and Mining Survey Bulletin 109: 1-163.