Norwescon 41 Guests of Honor: Ken Liu, Galen Dara, and, er, me. Mike would like to remind you that you can get your own ‘Kylo Stabbed First’ t-shirt here.

The week before last I was fortunate to be the Science Guest of Honor at Norwescon 41 in Seattle (as threatened back when). I had a fantastic time. I got to give talks on binocular stargazing and the sizes of the largest sauropods and whales (ahem), participate on panels on alien biology and creature drawing, and meet a ton of cool people, including my fellow Guests of Honor, multiple-award-winning author Ken Liu and multiple-award-winning artist Galen Dara, both of whom turned out to be humble, easygoing, regular folks (if frighteningly talented).

I also had a lot of great conversations with folks who were attending the con, which is exactly what I wanted. One of the most interesting was a hallway conversation with a fellow DM named Shawn Connor. He had a great question for me, which I liked so much I wanted to answer it here on the blog. Here’s his question, copied with permission from a follow-up email:

I run tabletop RPGs, and in my current game one of the characters is a caveman type who naturally grew up hunting dinosaurs. As one does. His weapon is a dinosaur bone, customized and used as a club. I have attached the picture that he came up with [below]. Now understanding the picture is obviously not of a real dinosaur bone – it’s probably a chicken bone or a cow bone or something – let’s assume for the sake of this exercise that it is and that it is four feet long stem to stern. Given that, two questions: discounting the extra bling attached how heavy would such a bone be, and what kind of dinosaur could it have come from?

I’m going to answer those questions out of order. Advance warning: this will be a loooong post that will go down several rabbit holes that are likely of more intense interest to me, personally, than to anyone else on the planet. Read on at your own risk.

Whose femur is in the image?

First, Shawn is correct in noting that the femur in the image provided by his player is not a dinosaur femur. The prominent trochanters and spherical head offset on a narrow neck clearly make it a mammal femur, and if it’s four feet long, it could only have come from an elephant or an indricothere. Or a giant humanoid, I suppose, which is what the anatomy of the bone in the image most closely resembles. (It also appears to be foreshortened to make the distal end look bigger, or deliberately distorted to enhance the clubby-ness.)

Mounted elephant at the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City, with Tyler Hunt for scale.

But let’s play along and assume it’s from a non-human mammal. How big? Back in 2016 I was fortunate to get to measure most of the mounted large mammal skeletons at the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City, along with Tyler Hunt, then a University of Oklahoma undergrad and now finishing up his MS thesis under my mentor, Rich Cifelli.* The mounted elephant at the Museum of Osteology has a shoulder height of 254 cm (8 ft, 4 in) and a femur length of 102 cm (3 ft, 4 in). Assuming isometric scaling, a world record elephant with a shoulder height of 366 cm (12 ft) would have a femur length of 147 cm (4 ft, 10 in). So a four-foot (122 cm) femur would belong to an elephant roughly in the middle of that range, about ten feet (3 m) tall at the shoulder. That’s the size of the big bull elephant mounted at the Field Museum in Chicago.

The big mounted bull elephant at the Field Museum is 10 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed 6 tons in life. Note Mike for scale on the lower right. He and the elephant are about equidistant from the camera, so he should make a roughly accurate scale bar. Photo from our visit in 2005!

* Two further notes: first, I have roughly a zillion awesome photos from that 2016 visit to the Museum of Osteology, both of the specimens and of Tyler and me measuring them – not having posted them yet is one of the things I was whingeing about in the post that kicked off our return-to-weekly-posting thing this year. And second, I owe a belated and public thanks to the folks at the Museum of Osteology for accommodating Tyler and me. They helped us with ladders and so on and basically gave us free rein to play with collect data from their mounted skeletons, which was incredibly generous and helpful, and fortunately reflects the pro-research and pro-researcher attitude of most museums.

Which dinos had four-foot femora?

As for what kind of dinosaur a four-foot femur could have come from, we can rapidly narrow it down to a handful of clades: sauropods, ornithopods, theropods, and stegosaurs.

  • Sauropods. The longest complete femora of Patagotitan are 238 cm (7 ft, 10 in; Carballido et al. 2017), and an incomplete femur of Argentinosaurus has an estimated complete length of 250 cm (8 ft, 2 in; Mazzetta et al. 2004). So a four-foot femur would not be from a particularly large sauropod – something about elephant-sized, as you might expect from the elephant comparison above. Our old friend Haplocanthosaurus will fit the bill, as we’ll see in a bit.
  • Ornithopods. Femora of 172 cm (5 ft, 8 in) are known for the hadrosaurs Shantungosaurus (Hone et al. 2014) and Huaxiaosaurus (Zhao and Li 2009), and Zhao et al. (2007) reported a 170 cm (5 ft, 7 in) femur for Zhuchengosaurus (Huaxiaosaurus and Zhuchengosaurus may be junior synonyms of Shantungosaurus). But those are all monsters, well over 10 metric tons in estimated mass. So a four-foot femur would be from a large but not insanely large hadrosaur.

Mmmmmm…suffering. OM NOM NOM NOM!!

  • Theropods. Among the largest theropods, the holotype of Giganotosaurus has a femur length of 143 cm (4 ft, 8 in; Coria and Salgado 1995), and ‘Sue’ the T. rex (a.k.a. FMNH PR2081) has a right femur 132 cm long (4 ft, 4 in; Brochu 2003). So a four-foot femur from a theropod would definitely be from one of the monsters. The femur of Saurophaganax was 113.5 cm long (Chure 1995), just under four feet, which I only note as an excuse to use the above photo, which I adore.
  • Stegosaurs. I don’t know the longest femur that has been recovered from a stegosaur, but getting in the ballpark is easy. NHMUK PV R36730 has a femur 87 cm long, and the whole animal was approximately 6 m long (Maidment et al. 2015). Partial bits and bobs of the largest stegosaurs suggest animals about 9 m long, implying a femur length of about 130 cm (4 ft, 3 in), or just over the line.

I think that’s it. I don’t know of any ceratopsians or ankylosaurs with femora long enough to qualify – I assume someone will let me know in the comments if I’ve forgotten any.

How much would a four-foot femur weigh?

There are a couple of ways to get to the answer here. One is to use Graphic Double Integration, which is explained in this post.

Limb bones are not solid – in terrestrial tetrapods there is virtually always a marrow cavity of some sort, and in marine tetrapods the limb bones tend to be cancellous all the way through. Estimating the mass of a limb bone is a lot like estimating the mass of a pneumatic bone: figure out the cross-sectional areas of the cortex and marrow cavity (or air space if the bone is pneumatic), multiply by the length of the element to get volumes, and multiply those volumes by the density of the materials to get masses. I piled up all the relevant numbers and formulas in Tutorial 24, a move that has frequently made me grateful to my former self (instead of cussing his lazy ass, which is my more usual attitude toward Past Matt).

Currey and Alexander (1985: fig. 1)

Sauropod limb bones are pretty darned dense, with extremely thick cortices and smallish marrow spaces that are not actually hollow (tubular) but are instead filled with trabecular bone. My gut feeling is that even a four-foot sauropod femur would be almost too heavy to lift, let alone wield as a club, so in the coming calculations I will err in the direction of underestimating the mass, to give our hypothetical caveman the best possible chance of realizing his dream.

Some of the proportionally thinnest cortices I’ve seen in sauropod limb bones are those of the macronarian Haestasaurus becklesii NHMUK R1870, which Mike conveniently showed in cross-section in this post. I could look up the actual dimensions of the bones (in Upchurch et al 2015: table 1 – they passed the MYDD test, as expected), but for these calculations I don’t need them. All I need are relative areas, for which pixels are good enough.

First, I took Mike’s photo into GIMP and drew two diameters across each bone, one maximum diameter and a second at right angles. Then I drew tick marks about where I think the boundaries lie between the cortex and the trabecular marrow cavity. Next, I used those lines as guides to determine the outer diameters (D) and inner diameters (d) in pixels, as noted in the image.

For the radius, on the left, the mean diameters are D = 891 and d = 648. I could divide those by 2 to get radii and then plug them into the formula for the area of a circle, etc., but there’s an easier way still. For a tubular bone, the proportional area of the inner circle or ellipse is equal to k^2, where k = r/R. Or d/D. (See Wedel 2005 and Tutorial 24 for the derivation of that.) For the Haestasaurus radius (the bone, not the geometric dimension), d/D = 0.727, and that number squared is 0.529. So the marrow cavity occupies 53% of the cross-sectional area, and the cortex occupies the other 47%.

For the ulna, on the right, the mean diameters are D = 896 and d = 606, d/D = 0.676, and that number squared is 0.457. So in this element, the marrow cavity occupies 46% of the cross-sectional area, and the cortex occupies the other 54%.

(For this quick-and-dirty calculation, I am going to ignore the fact that limb bones are more complex than tubes and that their cross-sectional properties change along their lengths – what I am doing here is closer to Fermi estimation than to anything I would publish. And we’ll ground-truth it before the end anyway.)

Left: rat humerus, right: mole humerus. The mole humerus spits upon my simple geometric models, with extreme prejudice. From this post.

You can see from the photo (the Haestasaurus photo, not the mole photo) that neither bone has a completely hollow marrow cavity – both marrow cavities are filled with trabecular bone. By cutting out good-looking chunks in GIMP and thresholding them, I estimate that these trabecular areas are about 30% bone and 70% marrow (actual marrow space with no bone tissue) by cross-sectional area. According to Currey and Alexader (1985: 455), the specific gravities of fatty marrow and bone tissue are 0.93 and 2.1, respectively. The density of the trabecular area is then (0.3*2.1)+(0.7*0.93) =  1.28 kg/L, or about one quarter more dense than water.

But that’s just the trabecular area, which accounts for about one half of the cross-sectional area of each bone. The other half is cortex, which is probably close to 2.1 kg/L throughout. The estimated whole-element densities are then:

Radius: (0.53*1.28)+(0.47*2.1) = 1.67 kg/L

Ulna: (0.46*1.28)+(0.54*2.1) = 1.72 kg/L

Do those numbers pass the sniff test? Well, any skeletal elements that are composed of bone tissue (SG = 2.1) and marrow (SG = 0.93) are constrained to have densities somewhere between those extremes (some animals beat this by building parts of their skeletons out of [bone tissue + air] instead of [bone tissue + marrow]). We know that sauropod limb bones tend to have thick cortices and small marrow cavities, and that the marrow cavities are themselves a combination of trabecular bone and actual marrow space, so we’d expect the overall density to be closer to the 2.1 kg/L end of the scale than the 0.93 kg/L end. And our rough estimates of ~1.7 kg/L fall about where we’d expect.

Femur of Haplocanthosaurus priscus, CM 572, modified from Hatcher (1903: fig. 14).

To convert to masses, we need to know volumes. We can use Haplocanthosaurus here – the femur of the holotype of H. priscus, CM 572, is 1275 mm long (Hatcher 1903), which is just a hair over four feet (4 ft, 2.2 in to be exact). The midshaft width is 207 mm, and the proximal and distal max widths are 353 and 309 mm, respectively. I could do a for-real GDI, but I’m lazy and approximate numbers are good enough here. Just eyeballing it, the width of the femur is about the same over most of its length, so I’m guessing the average width is about 23 cm. The average width:length ratio for the femora of non-titanosaur sauropods is 3:2 (Wilson and Carrano 1999: table 1), which would give an anteroposterior diameter of about 15 cm and an average diameter over the whole length of 19 cm. The volume would then be the average cross-section area, 3.14*9.5*9.5, multiplied by the length, 128 cm, or 36,273 cm^3, or 36.3 L. Multiplied by the ~1.7 kg/L density we estimated above, that gives an estimated mass of 62 kg, or about 137 lbs. A femur that was exactly four feet long would be a little lighter – 86.6% as massive, to be exact, or 53.4 kg (118 lbs).

I know that the PCs in RPGs are supposed to be heroes, but that seems a little extreme.

But wait! Bones dry out and they lose mass as they do so. Lawes and Gilbert (1859) reported that the dry weight of bones of healthy sheep and cattle was only 74% of the wet mass. Cows and sheep have thinner bone cortices than sauropods or elephants, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a dry sauropod femur might only weigh 80% as much as a fresh one. That gets us down to 43 kg – about 95 lbs – which is still well beyond what anyone is probably going to be wielding, even if they’re Conan the Cimmerian.

Picture is unrelated.

I mentioned at the top of this section that there are a couple of ways to get here. The second way is to simply see what actual elephant femora weigh, and then scale up to dinosaur size. According to Tefera (2012: table 1), a 110-cm elephant femur has a mass of 21.5 kg (47 lbs). I reckon that’s a dry mass, since the femur in question had sat in a shed for 50 years before being weighed (Tefera 2012: p. 17). Assuming isometry, a four-foot (122 cm) elephant femur would have a dry mass of 29.4 kg (65 lbs). That’s a lot lighter than the estimated mass of the sauropod femur – can we explain the discrepancy?

 

Femora of a horse, a cow, and an elephant (from left to right in each set), from Tefera (2012: plate 1).

I think so. Elephant femora are more slender than Haplocanthosaurus femora. Tefera (2012) reported a circumference of 44 cm for a 110-cm elephant femur. Scaling up from 110 cm to 122 cm would increase that femur circumference to 49 cm, implying a mean diameter of 15.6 cm, compared to 19 cm for the Haplo femur. That might not seem like a big difference, but it means a cross-sectional area only 2/3 as great, and hence a volume about 2/3 that of a sauropod femur of the same length. And that lines up almost eerily well with our estimated masses of 29 and 43 kg (ratio 2:3) for the four-foot elephant and sauropod femora.

A Better Weapon?

Could our hypothetical caveman do better by choosing a different dinosaur’s femur? Doubtful – the femora of ‘Sue’ are roughly the same length as the Haplo femur mentioned above, and have similar cross-sectional dimensions. Hadrosaur and stegosaur femora don’t look any better. Even if the theropod femur was somewhat lighter because of thinner cortices, how are you going to effectively grip and wield something 15-19 cm in diameter?

I note that the largest axes and sledgehammers sold by Forestry Suppliers, Inc., are about 3 feet long. Could we get our large-animal-femur-based-clubs into the realm of believability by shrinking them to 3 feet instead of 4? Possibly – 0.75 to the third power is 0.42. That brings the elephant femur club down to 12.3 kg (27 lbs) and the sauropod femur club down to 18 kg (40 lbs), only 2-3 times the mass of the largest commonly-available sledgehammers. I sure as heck wouldn’t want to lug such a thing around, much less swing it, but I can just about imagine a mighty hero doing so.

Yes, there were longer historical weapons. Among swing-able weapons (as opposed to spears, etc.), Scottish claymores could be more than four feet long, but crucially they were quite light compared to the clubs we’ve been discussing, maxing out under 3 kg, at least according to Wikipedia.

T. rex FMNH PR2081 right fibula in lateral (top) and medial (bottom) views. Scale is 30 cm. From Brochu (2003: fig. 97).

If one is looking for a good dinosaur bone to wield as a club, may I suggest the fibula of a large theropod? The right (non-pathologic) fibula of ‘Sue’ is 103 cm long (3 ft, 4.5 in), has a max shaft diameter just under 3 inches – so it could plausibly be held by (large) human hands, and it probably massed something like 8-9 kg (17-20 lbs) in life, based on some quick-and-dirty calculations like those I did above. The proximal end is even expanded like the head of a war club. The length and mass are both in the realm of possibility for large, fit, non-supernaturally-boosted humans. Half-orc barbarians will love them.

And that’s my ‘expert’ recommendation as a dice-slinging paleontologist. Thanks for reading – you have Conan-level stamina if you got this far – and thanks to Shawn for letting me use his question to freewheel on some of my favorite geeky topics.

References

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By contrast to the very delicate pelican humerus and ulna in the previous post, here is the left femur of Aepyornis OUMNH 4950 — an “elephant bird” from Antolanbiby, Madagascar. It’s just a couple of meters away from the pelican, in the same Oxford gallery:

This is of course a ludicrously robust bone, as befits a gigantic ground-dwelling bird. But the fun thing is that it, too, is very pneumatic. You can see this in lots of ways: the foramina up at the top, the little patch of stretched texture at mid-length, and most of all in the honeycomb structure of the inside of the bone, which we can see where the cortex has broken off at both proximal and distal ends.

Birds: they’re made of air.

Here are the humerus and ulna of a pelican, bisected:

What we’re seeing here is the top third of each bone: humerus halves on the left, ulna halves on the right, in a photo taken at the 2012 SVPCA in one of our favourite museums.

The hot news here is of course the extreme pneumaticity: the very thin bone walls, reinforced only at the proximal extremely by thin struts. Here’s the middle third, where as you can see there is essentially no reinforcement: just a hollow tube, that’s all:

And then at the distal ends, we see the struts return:

Here’s the whole thing in a single photo, though unfortunately marred by a reflection (and obviously at much lower resolution):

We’ve mentioned before that pelicans are crazy pneumatic, even by the standards of other birds: as Matt said about a pelican vertebra (skip to 58 seconds in the linked video), “the neural spine is sort of a fiction, almost like a tent of bone propped up”.

Honestly. Pelican skeletons hardly even exist.

Help me find this notebook

January 30, 2017

best-notebook-ever

TL;DR: if you know where I can get a notebook just like this one, or from the same manufacturer and made to the same specs, or have one of your own that I could buy off you (provided it’s mostly unused), please let me know in the comments.

best-notebook-ever-2

Long version:

This is the best notebook I’ve ever used. The cover is 7.25 x 10 inches, made of some kind of dense and probably recycled paper board. It’s twin-loop wire bound, has a button-and-string closure and a separate loop of board inside the back cover to hold a pen or pencil. Heavyweight cream paper. Has a fossil fish, Eoholocentrum macrocephalum, embossed on the cover, with the Linnean binomial properly capitalized and italicized.

I’ve used loads of other notebooks, including several sizes and designs of Moleskine and Rite-in-the-Rain, and this one is by far my favorite. Why? It lies flat when open or folded back on itself, the wire binding has never hung up, torn a page, or otherwise malfunctioned in over four years of travel and heavy use, and the pen holder and button string closure are perfect for my purposes. I’ve never had a notebook with an elastic band that didn’t wear out, and I usually have to build my own pen loops out of tape.

The one I have was a gift from Mark Hallett, who picked it up at SVP some years ago. Neither of us know who made it. But I’d really like to have another one, because mine is almost full. So far all of my searching online and off has failed to turn up a notebook like this, either another original or one with the same features made to the same specs. So if you know something about this, please pass it on!

Several drinks later, they all die and somehow become skeletonised, and that’s how they all land up on a table in my office:

2016-04-14 11.12.52

Top left: pieces of monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus. Cervical vertebrae 1-7 on the piece of paper, femora visible above them, bits of feet below them. Awaiting reassembly. The whole skeleton is there.

Top right, on a plate on top of some lizard bits: skull, cervicals and feet of common pheasant Phasianus colchicus. The skull has come apart, and I can’t figure out how to reattach the quadrates. One of the feet is cleanly prepped out and waiting to be reassembled, while the other retains some skin for now.

Bottom left: skull and anterior cervicals of red fox Vulpes vulpes. Lots of teeth came out during the defleshing process, and will need to be carefully relocated and glued after the skull has finished drying out.

Bottom right: skull and anterior cervicals of European badger Meles meles. The skull is flat-out awesome, and by far my favourite among my mammal skulls. If tyrannosaurs were medium-sized fossorial mammals, they’d have badgers’ skulls for sure. A few teeth that came out have been glued into place; once the glue is dry, this skull is done.

 

The pheasant comes apart

March 26, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I was given a pheasant, which I reduced to science and food. When we last saw it, it was down to a skinned and partially defleshed head/neck and feet. It’s been through a couple of defleshing rounds since then, and today I was able to take it fully apart:

2016-03-26 12.31.09

At the moment, the bits are laid out on this plate, drying. Small amounts of soft-tissue remain (and more on the second foot), which may need the attentions of invertebrates to fully clean.

It pains me to admit, but even though I have kept the cervical vertebrae, for most people the skull will be the interesting part. Here it is in a little more detail, disarticulated into about ten units. The mandible is to the right of this image; the rostrum to the left of it, and the main cranial section to the left again:

2016-03-26 12.31.47

To the sides are the bones that laterally connect the rostrum to the braincase: zygomatics, quadrates and what have you. They are laid out roughly in the right positions, though the two quadrates may have been switched. Once everything is clean and dry, I’ll glue it back together, using my ostrich skull to help guide me.

The feet are trickier. Here’s the one I took apart:

 

2016-03-26 12.31.35

At the top of the photo, you see a mass of ossified tendons, which operated the toes from more proximal areas. This is how all bird feet work, and it’s such a great scheme that it seems weird everything doesn’t do it.

Below these, we have the tarsometatarsus to the right, and the four digits to the left. Each digit has its phalanges in the right order, but I don’t know what order the digits themselves should be in. To help me get that right, I pulled out of prepping the other foot down, hence its current semi-zombified state:

2016-03-26 12.31.23

I’m hoping it’s still intact enough to guide me as a reassemble the bones of the other foot. (Once that’s done, I may also take this one to completion, or I may decide that one pheasant foot is enough.)

Anyway, it’s nice to be progressing this specimen. Next, I need to figure out the best way to decapitate a medium-sized mammal (like a fox or badger) without damaging the skull, and using no special equipment.

Notocolossus is a beast

January 20, 2016

Notocolossus skeletal recon - Gonzalez Riga et al 2016 fig 1

(a) Type locality of Notocolossus (indicated by star) in southern-most Mendoza Province, Argentina. (b) Reconstructed skeleton and body silhouette in right lateral view, with preserved elements of the holotype (UNCUYO-LD 301) in light green and those of the referred specimen (UNCUYO-LD 302) in orange. Scale bar, 1 m. (González Riga et al. 2016: figure 1)

This will be all too short, but I can’t let the publication of a new giant sauropod pass unremarked. Yesterday Bernardo González Riga and colleagues published a nice, detailed paper describing Notocolossus gonzalezparejasi, “Dr. Jorge González Parejas’s southern giant”, a new titanosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Mendoza Province, Argentina (González Riga et al. 2016). The paper is open access and freely available to the world.

As you can see from the skeletal recon, there’s not a ton of material known from Notocolossus, but among giant sauropods it’s actually not bad, being better represented than Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, Argyrosaurus, and Paralititan. In particular, one hindfoot is complete and articulated, and a good chunk of the paper and supplementary info are devoted to describing how weird it is.

But let’s not kid ourselves – you’re not here for feet, unless it’s to ask how many feet long this monster was. So how big was Notocolossus, really?

Well, it wasn’t the world’s largest sauropod. And to their credit, no-one on the team that described it has made any such superlative claims for the animal. Instead they describe it as, “one of the largest terrestrial vertebrates ever discovered”, and that’s perfectly accurate.

Notocolossus limb bones - Gonzalez Riga et al 2016 fig 4

(a) Right humerus of the holotype (UNCUYO-LD 301) in anterior view. Proximal end of the left pubis of the holotype (UNCUYO-LD 301) in lateral (b) and proximal (c) views. Right tarsus and pes of the referred specimen (UNCUYO-LD 302) in (d) proximal (articulated, metatarsus only, dorsal [=anterior] to top), (e) dorsomedial (articulated), and (f) dorsal (disarticulated) views. Abbreviations: I–V, metatarsal/digit number; 1–2, phalanx number; ast, astragalus; cbf, coracobrachialis fossa; dpc, deltopectoral crest; hh, humeral head; ilped, iliac peduncle; of, obturator foramen; plp, proximolateral process; pmp, proximomedial process; rac, radial condyle; ulc, ulnar condyle. Scale bars, 20 cm (a–c), 10 cm (d–f). (Gonzalez Riga et al 2016: figure 4)

Any discussions of the size of Notocolossus will be driven by one of two elements: the humerus and the anterior dorsal vertebra. The humerus is 176 cm long, which is shorter than those of Giraffatitan (213 cm), Brachiosaurus (204 cm), and Turiasaurus (179 cm), but longer than those of Paralititan (169 cm), Dreadnoughtus (160 cm), and Futalognkosaurus (156 cm). Of course we don’t have a humerus for Argentinosaurus or Puertasaurus, but based on the 250-cm femur of Argentinosaurus, the humerus was probably somewhere around 200 cm. Hold that thought.

Notocolossus and Puertasaurus dorsals compared

Top row: my attempt at a symmetrical Notocolossus dorsal, made by mirroring the left half of the fossil from the next row down. Second row: photos of the Notocolossus dorsal with missing bits outlined, from Gonzalez Riga et al (2016: fig. 2). Scale bar is 20 cm (in original). Third row: the only known dorsal vertebra of Puertasaurus, scaled to about the same size as the Notocolossus vertebra, from Novas et al. (2005: fig. 2).

The anterior dorsal tells a similar story, and this is where I have to give González Riga et al. some props for publishing such detailed sets of measurements in the their supplementary information. They Measured Their Damned Dinosaur. The dorsal has a preserved height of 75 cm – it’s missing the tip of the neural spine and would have been a few cm taller in life – and by measuring the one complete transverse process and doubling it, the authors estimate that when complete it would have been 150 cm wide. That is 59 inches, almost 5 feet. The only wider vertebra I know of is the anterior dorsal of Puertasaurus, at a staggering 168 cm wide (Novas et al. 2005). The Puertasaurus dorsal is also quite a bit taller dorsoventrally, at 106 cm, and it has a considerably larger centrum: 43 x 60 cm, compared to 34 x 43.5 cm for Notocolossus (anterior centrum diameters, height x width).

Centrum size is an interesting parameter. Because centra are so rarely circular, arguably the best way to compare across taxa would be to measure the max area (or, since centrum ends are also rarely flat, the max cross-sectional area). It’s late and this post is already too long, so I’m not going to do that now. But I have been keeping an informal list of the largest centrum diameters among sauropods – and, therefore, among all Terran life – and here they are (please let me know if I missed anyone):

  • 60 cm – Argentinosaurus dorsal, MCF-PVPH-1, Bonaparte and Coria (1993)
  • 60 cm – Puertasaurus dorsal, MPM 10002, Novas et al. (2005)
  • 51 cm – Ruyangosaurus cervical and dorsal, 41HIII-0002, Lu et al. (2009)
  • 50 cm – Alamosaurus cervical, SMP VP−1850, Fowler and Sullivan (2011)
  • 49 cm – Apatosaurus ?caudal, OMNH 1331 (pers. obs.)
  • 49 cm – Supersaurus dorsal, BYU uncatalogued (pers. obs.)
  • 46 cm – Dreadnoughtus dorsal, MPM-PV 1156, Lacovara et al. (2014: Supplmentary Table 1) – thanks to Shahen for catching this one in the comments!
  • 45.6 cm – Giraffatitan presacral, Fund no 8, Janensch (1950: p. 39)
  • 45 cm – Futalognkosaurus sacral, MUCPv-323, Calvo et al. (2007)
  • 43.5 cm – Notocolossus dorsal, UNCUYO-LD 301, González Riga et al. (2016)

(Fine print: I’m only logging each taxon once, by its largest vertebra, and I’m not counting the dorsoventrally squashed Giraffatitan cervicals which get up to 47 cm wide, and the “uncatalogued” Supersaurus dorsal is one I saw back in 2005 – it almost certainly has been catalogued in the interim.) Two things impress me about this list: first, it’s not all ‘exotic’ weirdos – look at the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus hanging out halfway down the list. Second, Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus pretty much destroy everyone else by a wide margin. Notocolossus doesn’t seem so impressive in this list, but it’s worth remembering that the “max” centrum diameter here is from one vertebra, which was likely not the largest in the series – then again, the same is true for Puertasaurus, Alamosaurus, and many others.

Notocolossus phylogeny - Gonzalez Riga et al 2016 fig 5

(a) Time-calibrated hypothesis of phylogenetic relationships of Notocolossus with relevant clades labelled. Depicted topology is that of the single most parsimonious tree of 720 steps in length (Consistency Index = 0.52; Retention Index = 0.65). Stratigraphic ranges (indicated by coloured bars) for most taxa follow Lacovara et al.4: fig. 3 and references therein. Additional age sources are as follows: Apatosaurus[55], Cedarosaurus[58], Diamantinasaurus[59], Diplodocus[35], Europasaurus[35], Ligabuesaurus[35], Neuquensaurus[60], Omeisaurus[55], Saltasaurus[60], Shunosaurus[55], Trigonosaurus[35], Venenosaurus[58], Wintonotitan[59]. Stratigraphic ranges are colour-coded to also indicate geographic provenance of each taxon: Africa (excluding Madagascar), light blue; Asia (excluding India), red; Australia, purple; Europe, light green; India, dark green; Madagascar, dark blue; North America, yellow; South America, orange. (b–h) Drawings of articulated or closely associated sauropod right pedes in dorsal (=anterior) view, with respective pedal phalangeal formulae and total number of phalanges per pes provided (the latter in parentheses). (b) Shunosaurus (ZDM T5402, reversed and redrawn from Zhang[45]); (c) Apatosaurus (CM 89); (d) Camarasaurus (USNM 13786); (e) Cedarosaurus (FMNH PR 977, reversed from D’Emic[32]); (f) Epachthosaurus (UNPSJB-PV 920, redrawn and modified from Martínez et al.[22]); (g) Notocolossus; (h) Opisthocoelicaudia (ZPAL MgD-I-48). Note near-progressive decrease in total number of pedal phalanges and trend toward phalangeal reduction on pedal digits II–V throughout sauropod evolutionary history (culminating in phalangeal formula of 2-2-2-1-0 [seven total phalanges per pes] in the latest Cretaceous derived titanosaur Opisthocoelicaudia). Abbreviation: Mya, million years ago. Institutional abbreviations see Supplementary Information. (González Riga et al. 2016: figure 5)

As for the estimated mass of Notocolossus, González Riga et al. (2016) did their due diligence. The sections on mass estimation in the main text and supplementary information are very well done – lucid, modest, and fair. Rather than try to summarize the good bit, I’ll just quote it. Here you go, from page 7 of the main text:

The [humeral] diaphysis is elliptical in cross-section, with its long axis oriented mediolaterally, and measures 770 mm in minimum circumference. Based on that figure, the consistent relationship between humeral and femoral shaft circumference in associated titanosaurian skeletons that preserve both of these dimensions permits an estimate of the circumference of the missing femur of UNCUYO-LD 301 at 936 mm (see Supplementary Information). (Note, however, that the dataset that is the source of this estimate does not include many gigantic titanosaurs, such as Argentinosaurus[5], Paralititan[16], and Puertasaurus[11], since no specimens that preserve an associated humerus and femur are known for these taxa.) In turn, using a scaling equation proposed by Campione and Evans[20], the combined circumferences of the Notocolossus stylopodial elements generate a mean estimated body mass of ~60.4 metric tons, which exceeds the ~59.3 and ~38.1 metric ton masses estimated for the giant titanosaurs Dreadnoughtus and Futalognkosaurus, respectively, using the same equation (see Supplementary Information). It is important to note, however, that subtracting the mean percent prediction error of this equation (25.6% of calculated mass[20]) yields a substantially lower estimate of ~44.9 metric tons for UNCUYO-LD 301. Furthermore, Bates et al.[21] recently used a volumetric method to propose a revised maximum mass of ~38.2 metric tons for Dreadnoughtus, which suggests that the Campione and Evans[20] equation may substantially overestimate the masses of large sauropods, particularly giant titanosaurs. Unfortunately, however, the incompleteness of the Notocolossus specimens prohibits the construction of a well-supported volumetric model of this taxon, and therefore precludes the application of the Bates et al.[21] method. The discrepancies in mass estimation produced by the Campione and Evans[20] and Bates et al.[21] methods indicate a need to compare the predictions of these methods across a broad range of terrestrial tetrapod taxa[21]. Nevertheless, even if the body mass of the Notocolossus holotype was closer to 40 than 60 metric tons, this, coupled with the linear dimensions of its skeletal elements, would still suggest that it represents one of the largest land animals yet discovered.

So, nice work all around. As always, I hope we get more of this critter someday, but until then, González Riga et al. (2016) have done a bang-up job describing the specimens they have. Both the paper and the supplementary information will reward a thorough read-through, and they’re free, so go have fun.

References