Although it would be nice to think that our site views have octupled in the last day because of Mike’s fine and funny posts about what search terms bring people to SV-POW!, the real reason is that we were blessed by incoming links from both pages of this article.

Now, as any person who has ever accomplished anything whatsoever knows, it is super-important to avoid or you’ll still be up 23 hours from now reading, “6 Mind-Blowing Ways that Comedy Writers are Secretly Destroying Your Productivity”. (I’m kidding, that article doesn’t really exist–but if it did, I’m sure it would consist entirely of descriptions and links to six other Cracked articles). But that’s only true because most of the articles there hit the sweet spot at the intersection of funny, surprisingly informative, mercifully short, and well-written. would be a more honest URL, but I assume it was taken.

Anyway, I’d like to return the favor, so here’s a list of the 6 SV-POW! Posts Most Likely to Blow the Minds of Readers. If I missed some goodies or recommended some stinkers, let me know–the comment thread is open.

Amphicoelias vert reconstruction by Mike

1.How big was Amphicoelias fragillimus? I mean, really?

Who doesn’t want to read about the bizarre real-world mystery surrounding what might have been the world’s largest dinosaur? If you’re not sold, consider that the picture above shows a single vertebra that was–or at least might have been–seven and a half feet tall.

long nerves of sauropods

2. Oblivious sauropods being eaten

The mercifully short version of this much longer post, in which I consider the consequences of the world’s largest animals having the world’s longest cells.


3. The sauropods of Star Wars

Weapons-grade anatomical pedantry.

Umbaran starfighters

4. CONFIRMED: the Umbaran Starfighter is an Apatosaurus cervical

Yes, there is a ship in Star Wars: The Clone Wars that is basically a flying dinosaur vertebra. It took us about five weeks to unravel that story–the post linked above has links to the rest of the saga.


5. SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales

Our original linkbait post. Don’t miss the shorter follow-up with more critters.

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

6. Friday phalanges: Megaraptor vs Saurophaganax

A deliberately goofy post in which I wax poetic about the largest predatory dinosaur claws ever discovered.

So, that was a big pile of superlatives and Star Wars. If you’re hungry for more substantial fare, you might start with our Tutorials page or our Things to Make and Do series on dissecting and skeletonizing modern animals. We also blog a lot about the evils of obstructive publishers and the need for open access to the scientific literature–you can find those posts on our Shiny Digital Future page.


A parting shot in my desperate quest for attention: this Star Wars ship flying around in the background in Firefly and Serenity is at least partly my fault–full story here. Oh, and my co-blogger Mike Taylor has written an insightful and affordable book about Doctor Who; read about it here.

The last time we reported on the Apatosaurus cervical-shaped Umbaran Starfight from The Clone Wars, we’d heard from the concept artist Russell G. Chong, who had done the final design on the startfighter, and who told that he wasn’t aware of a sauropod original to the design.


But Russell was not the original designer. He put me onto David Hobbins, who had generated the original rough design that he’d honed. I wrote to David early in January to find out more:

Date: 4 January 2013 22:57
From: Mike Taylor <>
To: David Hobbins
Subject: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

Hi, David. You don’t know me, but I was put onto you by Russell G. Chong. Matt Wedel and I are palaeontologists, specialising in the neck skeletons of sauropod dinosaurs. Matt noticed that the Umbaran Starfighter seems to be closely modelled on an Apatosaurus vertebra — see these four blog posts [1, 2, 3, 4] (You don’t need to read them all, the first one gives the flavour.)

We’re trying to figure out whether this is deliberate as it appears, or just a crazy coincidence. The design was finished by Russell, but he wasn’t its originator, and thinks you might be the man — or know who was.

Can you comment?

David wrote back a few days ago. Here is his message (reproduced with permission):

Date: 16 January 2013 15:58
From: David Hobbins
To: Mike Taylor <>
Subject: Re: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

Hi Mike,

I read the blog posts — interesting commentary! I remember the original design perfectly, and you are absolutely right, I was inspired by the skeletal forms of dinosaur bones. It’s pretty cool that you were able to discern that!

I’ve looked for the original photo I took of the vertebra, but it seems to be lost in the archives. I can’t confirm that it was of an Apatosaurus vertebra exactly, but it’s quite possible. I was at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and took a number of photos that day.

Nature renders complex and beautiful designs; I often find myself drawn to studying organic forms and patterns as inspiration in my vehicle designs.

And he clarified in a subsequent message:

Date: 16 January 2013 20:51
From: David Hobbins
To: Mike Taylor <>
Subject: Re: Is the Umbaran Starfighter from Clone Wars inspired by an Apatosaurus vertebra?

The bone was presented as a single vertebra on public display. I’m uncertain that the collection will be the same now. I took the photo back in 2007 just before the California Academy of Sciences moved into their present location in Golden Gate Park. I’m sure there have been a lot of changes since.

I will continue the search for the original photo. Will let you know right away if I find anything.

So this is great news! Matt’s initial hypothesis is confirmed from the horse’s mouth. All we need to wrap this investigation up is a photo of the original exhibit.

Does anyone out there have a photo of an isolated Apatosaurus vertebra that was on exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco before it moved to Golden Gate Park? Or does anyone know someone who works at CAoS that we could talk to?

Update (later the same day)

This discovery has been covered at sci-fi fan site io9!

The rest of the posts in what we’re calling the Umbaran Starfighter Saga:

Umbaran Starfighter update

January 4, 2013

A few weeks ago, we were considering the bizarre Umbaran Starfighter from The Clone Wars, and its extraordinary similarity to an Apatosaurus cervical:


In a comment, Kyle Hartshorn suggested:

The Clone Wars “Plan of Dissent” episode concept art gallery features some conceptart of the starfighter, with the artist initials “RGC”. I believe that’s Russell G. Chong, one of the show’s art designers. You can find his contact information at his website.

He might not be the one who came up with the design–that art looks too polished to be an early concept—but he would probably know who did.

Nice detective work.

Here’s some of that concept art:


I found an email address for Chong, and wrote to him:

Hi, Russell. Matt Wedel and I are palaeontologists, specialising in the neck skeletons of sauropod dinosaurs. Matt noticed that the Umbaran Starfighter seems to be closely modelled on an Apatosaurus vertebra — see these two blog posts.

We’re trying to figure out whether this is deliberate as it appears, or just a crazy coincidence. One of our commenters believes the design might be yours — can you comment?

Russell was on vacation for a while, but wrote back a couple of days ago. I quote his message with permission:

Hey Mike,

I’ve been away on vacation and I just found this email.

That’s pretty trippy that the vertebrate looks so similar.

It’s also pretty trippy that palaeontologists are watching clone wars.

I did have the final design for this ship but I didn’t do the original ‘inspirational’ sketch. George often goes thru a book of older sketches from the movies and randomly picks stuffout for us to ‘fix’ or ‘cleanup’. My input was to give it more extreme character so I sharpened some edges and made the fins more pronounced, figured out how to land it, design a working cockpit, and then gave it final color. I don’t know who did the original but I don’t recall any notation saying they based it on the Aptosaurus vertebra so I have to say, yes, it’s coincidental.

Similarities are really odd!

Russell also gave me a lead on where I might look for the original designer. I’ll follow that up, and report back in a later post.


Victory! For the full saga, check out these links:


Just sayin’:




(From here.)


The rest of the Umbaran Starfighter Saga:

Yesterday, Matt showed you this starship from the Star Wars universe:


And asked whether it’s based on a cervical vertebra of Apatosaurus.

Absolutely it is. It can’t be just a coincidence. Matt showed a lot of useful orthogonal views of various Apatosaurus cervicals in the last post, but here’s a a nice informative oblique view which is similar (though not identical) to that of the Umbaran ship:


Apatosaurus ajax holotype YPM 1860, cervical vertebra of unspecified position but probably from around the middle of the neck, in left anterolateral view. This is the same vertebra that appears in the last three photos in Matt’s post.

(Because the vertebra photo was taken from higher up than the starfighter image, the condyle/cockpit appears lower on the vertebra. That is basically an effect of perspective rather than a difference in proportions.)

The questions for me are twofold: which Apatosaurus vertebra is it based on, and who did it?

What vertebra is it based on?

In some ways, the cervical that it most resembles is this classic: C?8 of the Apatosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980:

Ostrom and McIntosh (1966:plate 12) -- Brontosaurus excelsus YPM 1980 cervical 8

This one resembles the starfighter in the very deep cervical rob loops — deep even for Apatosaurus — and in the small, high condyle. It also resembled the ship in the absence of neural-spine metapophyses (due to breakage, not taxonomically significant variation, alas). The result of their absence is that the “upper wings” (i.e. postzygapophyseal rami) are swept up, out and back, as in the ship.

But in other respects it’s very different — notably the very elongate prezyg rami (an effect exaggerated by the breakage) and the more or less parallel trajectories of the top and bottom margins of the loop.

Another candidate would be the one that appears in the top left part of figure 7 (“the freak gallery”) from our recent neck-anatomy paper on arXiv:

This on is rather bulky for a model for the ship, but does have a less wrong shape of the cervical rib loops. And the damage that blew off both the prezygs and the metapophyses leaves the isolated “wings” on the top, just as in the ship.

I think the best model I can find for the starfighter is probably C8 of the Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018, which Gilmore illustrated beautifully in his 1936 monograph but which unfortunately I only have as this bad scan:


It has good, deep cervical-rib loops; a definite bend from the fairly lateral upper part to the more ventrally inclined lateral part; a high, fairly small condyle; and a definite bulges where the parapophysis fuses with the cervical ribs, corresponding to the weapons pods of the starfighter.

And yet, and yet …

I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen another Apatosaurus vertebra somewhere that is a more or less perfect fit for the ship. But I can’t remember where I saw it. Come to that, I can’t think what specimen it could be from, if not one of those that Matt and I have shown in these posts.


Whose work is it?

The other mystery is — whose work is this design, and where did he or she get the shape from? In a comment on the last post, I said to Matt that “one can hardly help but suspect that Jarrod did it on your instruction”. (Jarrod is an old friend of Matt’s who works in digital effects for film and TV.) But  Matt insists it’s none of his doing — and I must say that if it had been in any way his work, he would have been shouting about it long before now.

So how did it happen?

Anyone know?


The Umbaran Starfighter is an Apatosaurus vertebra–check out the rest of the saga:


Update, January 21, 2013: YES, it was! Scroll down for links to the entire saga.

Because it’s doing a hell of an impression of one, if not. It’s got the huge cervical rib loops (wings), bifurcated neural spine (top fins), and even a condyle on the front of the centrum (cockpit pod). About all it’s missing are the zygapophyses and the cervical ribs themselves.

Some actual Apatosaurus cervicals for comparison, from previous posts:

Apatosaurus ajax NSMT-PV 20375, cervical vertebrae 3, 6 and 7 in anterior and posterior views. Modified from Upchurch et al. (2005: plate 2)

Apatosaurus parvus CM 563/UWGM 15556 cervicals 7, 5, 4 and 3 in anterior and right lateral views, from Gilmore (1936:pl. 31)

Various Apatosaurus cervicals–see Wedel and Sanders (2002) for specimen numbers and sources.

And of course Mike’s magisterial work photographing the Apatosaurus ajax holotype YPM 1860 cervical:

More on the Umbaran Starfighter here.

The complete Umbaran Starfighter Saga–at least as told on SV-POW!:

For other Star Wars/paleontology crossovers, please see:

The sauropods of Star Wars

The sauropods of Star Wars: Special Edition

and–mostly as shameless self-promotion since the paleo link is pretty tenuous:

Tales of the Flaming Vagabond



I ended the last post with this teaser:

There is another sauropod (sort of) in Episode IV (sort of), but I’ll wait a week before I blab about that one. I wonder if anyone will guess what it is in the meantime?

The mystery lasted all of a single comment. Several of you got it right, but the title of First (w00t w00t LOL!!1!!11!!) goes to Paul and his terse economical, “Would it be a ronto?”


It is apparently no secret that the Rontos briefly glimpsed in A New Hope: Special Edition and The Phantom Menace are morphed versions of the Brachiosaurus from Jurassic Park.


Here’s the official line, from the Star Wars Databank entry:

The rontos added into the Mos Eisley scenes for the Special Edition release of A New Hope are entirely computer-generated. It was a cousin of sorts to the digital models crafted for Jurassic Park; the ronto used a brachiosaur as a starting point with enough modification to make it distinctly Star Wars. Throughout the making of the sequence, the ILM animators referred to the otherwise nameless creature as a “bronto.” When asked to name the animal, George Lucas dropped the ‘b’ from the name, and thus the ronto was christened.

So now you know.

Rontos are apparently allergic to photography (possibly related to Nessie?), as I found just about zip for decent images in my exhaustive 10-minute web search.

I did learn that there is a competitive rib-eater named Ronto, who got a beat-down from Joey Chestnut, who ate 8.4 lbs of ribs in 12 minutes. Someday I will do a post about all the wacky search terms that bring people to SV-POW! “Basement” is always in the top 20, which must be a surprise for those folks who just want to remodel their cellar.

ANYWAY, the link to Brachiosaurus, no matter how tenuous, gives me an excuse to post this:



Next week we’ll get back to science. Almost certainly.

The sauropods of Star Wars

January 1, 2009

I’m sure Mike will deride this as sordid linkbait, but what the heck. I’ve been meaning to blog about the sauropods of Star Wars for a while now, and I was finally spurred into action by this comment over at TetZoo.


The first (and best) sauropod of Star Wars will be no surprise to anyone with reasonably sharp eyes and rudimentary knowledge of sauropod osteology: the Krayt dragon skeleton that C-3PO walks past on Tatooine is composed mainly of cast sauropod vertebrae.


You can see that the monster’s cervicals have big cervical rib loops. The deeply bifurcated neural spines mean that they are either from a diplodocid or Camarasaurus. Some of them are also fairly long and low-spined, especially those close to the head, which rules out Camarasaurus. I find the purely fictional skull pretty unconvincing next to the real (cast) sauropod vertebrae.


Moving on down the series, we see that all of the dorsals have high neural spines, some of which are deeply bifurcated, which again is consistent with diplodocids but not with Camarasaurus, whose bifurcated spines are all short (and fairly ugly).  The vertebrae also have broad transverse processes that give them a ‘t’ shape. You can see that whoever laid out the dorsals scrambled their order (perhaps deliberately) so that the deeply cleft vertebra in the middle is bordered ahead and behind by verts with little or no bifurcation of the neural spine. In articulated diplodocids, the neural spine cleft first appears in the anterior cervicals, grows larger and deeper through the rest of the neck, and then disappears around the middle of the dorsal series.


So which diplodocid is it? My vote is Diplodocus, probably a cast of the mounted Carnegie skeleton like the one shown here in London’s Natural History Museum (this particular mount turns up here at SV-POW! quite frequently). The cervical rib loops of the anterior cervicals attach near the bottoms of the centra instead of hanging far below them as in Apatosaurus. Also, you can see below that the cervical ribs loops of the posterior cervicals are narrow, as in Diplodocus, but not Apatosaurus (images of Diplodocus cervicals are from Hatcher’s 1901 monograph).


The final piece of evidence for the Diplodocus ID is a closeup of part of one of the vertebrae. According to Wookieepedia (from which I stole the Ep IV screencap I’ve used throughout this post) Lucas and crew left the prop skeleton out in the desert when they were done shooting back in the 70s, and rediscovered it when they returned to Tunisia to film the Tatooine sequences for Attack of the Clones. I don’t know if the skeleton was scavenged by prop hunters before, during, or after the ATOC filming, but pieces of the skeleton turn up on movie prop sites, including the one shown here:


This is a cervical rib of a sauropod, and it looks to me more like the slender ribs of Diplodocus than the massive ribs of Apatosaurus. I could be wrong about the genus, but if the bones in the movie don’t belong to Diplodocus they have to be Apatosaurus, and the balance of the evidence points to Diplodocus.

Oddly enough, Wikipedia states that, “The artificial skeleton used for the movie was left there after filming and still lies in the Tunisian desert. During filming of Attack of the Clones, the site was visited by the crew and the skeleton was still found there. The skull used resembles that of a Diplodocus, a herbivorous dinosaur related to the Apatosaur” (emphasis added). Good call, Wiki-trolls.

The “Krayt dragon” locality has been visited, and blogged about, by paleontologist and paleo-blogger Michael Ryan.

One more thing: Diplodocus and Apatosaurus both have 25 presacral vertebrae. The photo above is not crisp enough to determine precisely how many vertebrae are in the cervical+dorsal regions, but it’s more than 25. Also, none of the dinky anterior cervicals of Diplodocus are visible. So I think they must have gotten two sets of presacrals (possibly two whole columns) and used only the bigger vertebrae. I wonder what happened to the verts they didn’t use…I’d give a non-essential organ for a cast Diplodocus cervical.

That’s it for this one. There is another sauropod (sort of) in Episode IV (sort of), but I’ll wait a week before I blab about that one. I wonder if anyone will guess what it is in the meantime? Update: the reveal! (Which, okay, was not much of a reveal, since the answer was guessed by the first commenter!)