In the comments on Matt’s post about the giant new Argentine titanosaur specimens, Ian Corfe wondered why Benson et al. (2014) estimated the circumference of the humerus of Brachiosaurus altithorax instead of just measuring it. (Aside: I can’t find that data in their paper. Where is it?)

I replied:

Yes, the humerus is half-encased in a jacket, face down (we should post photos some time), which would make the circumference impossible to measure directly. But the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton right outside the Field Museum (and the identical one at O’Hare Airport) have casts of that humerus, so measuring the circumference shouldn’t require any equipment more exotic than a stepladder. Maybe the anterior aspect was sculpted — but I doubt it, as there certainly was a time when the humerus was out of its jacket and mounted vertically.

Here is the evidence that the humerus wasn’t always in that jacket (from Getty Images):

Femur of Apatosaurus and right humerus Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype on wooden pedestal (exhibit) with labels and 6 foot ruler for scale, Geology specimen, Field Columbian Museum, 1905. (Photo by Charles Carpenter/Field Museum Library/Getty Images)

Femur of Apatosaurus and right humerus Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype on wooden pedestal (exhibit) with labels and 6 foot ruler for scale, Geology specimen, Field Columbian Museum, 1905. (Photo by Charles Carpenter/Field Museum Library/Getty Images)

I have no idea why it was put back in a plaster jacket: does anyone?

Back in 2005, when Matt and I visited the Field Museum, the staff were amazingly, almost embarrassingly, helpful. They mounted a whole elaborate project to remove the humerus jacket from the cabinet that held it, so we could get a better look:

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Unfortunately, Matt and I were doofuses back in the day: terrible photographers who knew embarrassingly little about appendicular material. So nearly all of our photos are worthless. Here is a rare nice one, showing the humerus in posterodistal aspect. You can see how layers have flaked away towards this end:

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Here is the humerus in proximal view — something that’s relevant to my interests, as at tells us about the area of articular cartilage where it connected to the shoulder:

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And finally — because it would be rude not to — here is Matt, going the Full Jensen with the humerus:

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Next time: what we can learn about the humerus from the mounted skeleton outside the museum!

References

Benson Roger B. J., Nicolás E. Campione, Matthew T. Carrano, Philip D. Mannion, Corwin Sullivan, Paul Upchurch, and David C. Evans. (2014) Rates of Dinosaur Body Mass Evolution Indicate 170 Million Years of Sustained Ecological Innovation on the Avian Stem Lineage. PLoS Biology 12(5):e1001853. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001853

My camera had a possibly-fatal accident in the field at the end of the day on Saturday, so I didn’t take any photos on Sunday or Monday. From here on out, you’re either getting my slides, or photos taken by other people.

Powell Museum sauropod humerus

On Sunday we were at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah, for the Cretaceous talks. There were some fossils on display downstairs, including mounted skeletons of Falcarius and one or two ornithischians,* and this sauropod humerus from the Cedar Mountain Formation (many thanks to Marc Jones for the photo).

* A ceratopsian and Animantarx, maybe? They were in the same room as the sauropod humerus, so it’s no surprise that I passed them by with barely a glance.

There were loads of great talks in the Cretaceous symposium on Sunday, and I learned a lot, about everything from clam shrimp biostratigraphy to ankylosaur phylogeny to Canadian sauropod trackways. But I can’t show you any slides from those talks, so the rest of this post is the abstact from Darren’s and my talk, illustrated by a few select slides.

Wedel Naish 2014 Sauroposeidon and kin - slide 1 title

Sauroposeidon is a giant titanosauriform from the Early Cretaceous of North America. The holotype is OMNH 53062, a series of four articulated cervical vertebrae from the Antlers Formation (Aptian-Albian) of Oklahoma. According to recent analyses, Paluxysaurus from the Twin Mountain Formation of Texas is the sister taxon of OMNH 53062 and may be a junior synonym of Sauroposeidon. Titanosauriform material from the Cloverly Formation of Wyoming may also pertain to Paluxysaurus/Sauroposeidon. The proposed synonymy is based on referred material of both taxa, however, so it is not as secure as it might be.

Wedel Naish 2014 Sauroposeidon and kin - slide 34 Sauroposeidon characters

Top row, vertebrae of Paluxysaurus. From left to right, the centrum lengths of the vertebrae are 72cm, 65cm, and 45cm. Main image, the largest and most complete vertebra of the holotype of Sauroposeidon. Labels call out features that are present in every Sauroposeidon vertebra where they can be assessed, but consistently absent in Paluxysaurus. Evaluating the proposed synonymy of Paluxysaurus and Sauroposeidon is left as an exercise for the reader.

MIWG.7306 is a cervical vertebra of a large titanosauriform from the Wessex Formation (Barremian) of the Isle of Wight. The specimen shares several derived characters with the holotype of Sauroposeidon: an elongate cervical centrum, expanded lateral pneumatic fossae, and large, plate-like posterior centroparapophyseal laminae. In all of these characters, the morphology of MIWG.7306 is intermediate between Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan on one hand, and Sauroposeidon on the other. MIWG.7306 also shares several previously unreported features of its internal morphology with Sauroposeidon: reduced lateral chambers (“pleurocoels”), camellate internal structure, ‘inflated’ laminae filled with pneumatic chambers rather than solid bone, and a high Air Space Proportion (ASP). ASPs for Sauroposeidon, MIWG.7306, and other isolated vertebrae from the Wessex Formation are all between 0.74 and 0.89, meaning that air spaces occupied 74-89% of the volume of the vertebrae in life. The vertebrae of these animals were therefore lighter than those of brachiosaurids (ASPs between 0.65 and 0.75) and other sauropods (average ASPs less than 0.65).

Wedel Naish 2014 Sauroposeidon and kin - slide 64 Mannion phylogeny

Check this out: according to at least some versions of the Mannion et al. (2013) tree, Sauroposeidon and Paluxysaurus are part of a global radiation of andesaurids in the Early and middle Cretaceous. Cool!

Sauroposeidon and MIWG.7306 were originally referred to Brachiosauridae. However, most recent phylogenetic analyses find Sauroposeidon to be a basal somphospondyl, whether Paluxysaurus and the Cloverly material are included or not. Given the large number of characters it shares with Sauroposeidon, MIWG.7306 is probably a basal somphospondyl as well. But genuine brachiosaurids also persisted and possibly even radiated in the Early Cretaceous of North America; these include Abydosaurus, Cedarosaurus, Venenosaurus, and possibly an as-yet-undescribed Cloverly form. The vertebrae of Abydosaurus have conservative proportions and solid laminae and the bony floor of the centrum is relatively thick. In these characters, Abydosaurus is more similar to Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan than to Sauroposeidon or MIWG.7306. So not all Early Cretaceous titanosauriforms were alike, and whatever selective pressures led Sauroposeidon and MIWG.7306 to evolve longer and lighter necks, they didn’t prevent Giraffatitan-like brachiosaurs such as Abydosaurus and Cedarosaurus from persisting well into the Cretaceous.

Wedel Naish 2014 Sauroposeidon and kin - slide 65 Cloverly sauropods

The evolutionary dynamics of sauropods in the North American mid-Mesozoic are still mysterious. In the Morrison Formation, sauropods as a whole are both diverse and abundant, but Camarasaurus and an efflorescence of diplodocoids account for most of that abundance and diversity, and titanosauriforms, represented by Brachiosaurus, are comparatively scarce. During the Early Cretaceous, North American titanosauriforms seem to have radiated, possibly to fill some of the ecospace vacated by the regional extinction of basal macronarians (Camarasaurus) and diplodocoids. However, despite a flood of new discoveries in the past two decades, sauropods still do not seem to have been particularly abundant in the Early Cretaceous of North America, in contrast to sauropod-dominated faunas of the Morrison and of other continents during the Early Cretaceous.

Wedel Naish 2014 Sauroposeidon and kin - slide 66 acknowledgments

That final slide deserves some explanation. On the way back from the field on Saturday–the night before my talk–a group of us stopped at a burger joint in Hanksville. Sharon McMullen got a kid’s meal, and it came in this bag. We took it as a good omen that Sauroposeidon was the first dinosaur listed in the quiz.

For the full program and abstracts from both days of talks, please download the field conference guidebook here.

When Fiona checked her email this morning, she found this note from our next-door neighbour Jenny:

Hi
I seem to remember Mike wanting a mole – I do hope so because I’ve left you a body on your patio in a cereal box!

Cheers Jen x

What a delightful surprise! And here it is:

The SV-POW! mole, intact

The SV-POW! mole, intact

And a close-up of that awesome digging hand:

The SV-POW! mole, right manus

The SV-POW! mole, right manus

I don’t have time to deal with it properly right now, so it’s gone into a plastic box with some small holes in the lid, where I will trust invertebrates to do my work for me — as they did to great effect with the juvenile baby rabbit whose skeleton I must show you some time.

The end-game here is of course to obtain a complete skeleton; but if not that, then at least the upper-arm bones. I’m on record as saying that next to sauropod vertebrae, mole humeri are the bones that move me most; and elsewhere I nominated mole humeri in response to John Hutchinson’s question, “what are the strangest animal bones (in form & function etc) that have ever been discovered?”

Here’s why:

Left: rat humerus (for comparison), Right: mole humerus. The rat humerus is unfused on top, which is why there is a visible gap between the two parts.

Left: rat humerus (for comparison), Right: mole humerus. The rat humerus is unfused on top, which is why there is a visible gap between the two parts.

I stole this picture from an Ossamenta post, The strangest animal bone?. Get yourself over there for more wacky rat-vs.-mole comparisons!

LACM Deinonychus claw

All I want to do in this post is make people aware that there is a difference between these two things, and occasionally that affects those of us who work in natural history.

In one of his books or essays, Stephen Jay Gould made the point that in natural history we are usually not dealing with whether phenomena are possible or not, but rather trying to determine their frequency. If we find that in a particular population of quail most of the birds eat ants but some avoid them, then we know some things: that quail can tolerate eating ants, that quail are not required to eat ants, and that both strategies can persist in a single population.

This idea has obvious repercussions for paleoart, especially when it comes to “long-tail” behaviors. I dealt with that in this post, and also in the comment thread to this one. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Sometimes it is useful to talk about things that never happen, or that have at least never occurred in the sample of things we know of. Obviously how certain you can be in these cases depends on the intensity of sampling and the inherent likelihood of a surprising result, which can be hard to judge. If you argued right now that T. rex lacked feathers because no T. rex specimens have been found with feathers, you’d most likely be wrong; it is almost certainly just a matter of time before someone finds direct evidence of feathers in T. rex, given the number of T. rex specimens waiting to be found and the strength of the indirect evidence (e.g., phylogenetic inference, analogy: ornithomimids are known to be feathered even though most specimens are found without feather impressions). If you argue that sauropods are unique among terrestrial animals in having necks more than five meters long, you’re most likely right; being wrong would imply the existence of some as-yet undiscovered land animal of sauropod size, or with seriously wacky proportions (or both), and our sampling of terrestrial vertebrates is good enough to make that extremely unlikely.

LACM baby rex snout

The reason for this post is that sometimes people confuse that last argument, which is about sampling and induction, with the argument from personal incredulity.

For example, in our no-necks-for-sex paper (Taylor et al. 2011), we included this passage:

Sauropoda also had a long evolutionary history, originating about 210 million years ago in the Carnian or Norian Age of the Late Triassic, and persisting until the end-Cretaceous extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs about 65 millions years ago. Thus the ‘necks-for-sex’ hypothesis requires that this clade continued to sexually select for exaggeration of the same organ for nearly 150 million years, a scenario without precedent in tetrapod evolutionary history.

One of the reviewers argued that we couldn’t include that section, because it was just the argument from personal incredulity writ large, like so:

There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore we don’t believe that the case in question is the sole exception.

…with the second part of that unstated (by us) but implied. But we disagreed, and argued (successfully) that it was an argument based on sampling, like so:

There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that the case in question is the sole exception.

Now, it is perfectly fair to criticize arguments like that based on the thoroughness of the sampling and the likelihood of exceptions, as discussed above for T. rex feathers. Just don’t mistake arguments like that for arguments from personal incredulity.* On the flip side, if someone makes an argument from personal incredulity, see if the same thing can be restated as an argument about sampling. Maybe they’re correct but just expressing themselves poorly (“I refuse to believe that the moon is made out of cheese”), and maybe they’re wrong and restating things in terms of sampling will help you understand why.

* If you want to get super pedantic about it, they’re both arguments from ignorance. But one of them is at least potentially justifiable by reference to sampling. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but it may get to be that way as the sampling improves (e.g., there is no evidence of planets closer to the sun than Mercury, and at this point, that is pretty persuasive evidence that no such planets exist).

LACM brachiosaur humerus with Wedels for scale

Parting shot: one thing that has always stuck in my head from Simberloff (1983) is the bit about imagining a large enough universe of possible outcomes. And I’ve always had a perverse fascination with Larry Niven’s “Down in Flames”, in which he pretty much demolished his Known Space universe by assuming that every basic postulate of that universe was false. Neither of these follow directly on from the main point of the post, but they’re not completely unrelated, either. Because I think that they yield a pretty good heuristic for how to do science: imagine what it would take for you to be wrong–imagine a universe in which you are wrong–and then go see if the thing that makes you wrong, whatever it is, can be shown to exist or to work. If not, it doesn’t mean you’re right, but it means you’re maybe less wrong, which, if we get right down to it, is the best that we can hope for.

The photos have nothing to do with the post, they’re just pretty pictures from the LACM to liven things up a little.

References

I was cruising the monographs the other night, looking for new ideas, when the humerus of Opisthocoelicaudia stopped me dead in my tracks. I think you’ll agree it is an arresting sight:

Opisthocoelicaudia right humerus in lateral, anterior, medial, and posterior views, from Borsuk-Bialynicka (1977: figure 7)

Opisthocoelicaudia right humerus in medial, anterior, lateral, and posterior views, from Borsuk-Bialynicka (1977: figure 7)

I’d seen it before, but somehow I had never grokked its grotesque fatness. I mean, damn, Opisthocoelicaudia, you really let yourself go. Especially compared to the slenderness and grace of this juvenile Alamosaurus humerus:

Alamosaurus left humerus in anterior and posterior views, from Lehman and Coulson (2002: figure 7).

Alamosaurus left humerus in anterior and posterior views, from Lehman and Coulson (2002: figure 7).

Now, I realize that part of the slenderness of this Alamosaurus humerus might be because it’s a juvenile–other alamosaur humeri are a bit more robust–but it’s still a striking contrast. I couldn’t help but superimpose them, scaled to the same midshaft width:

Alamosaurus and Opisthocoelicaudia humeri superimposed

I flipped the Alamosaurus humerus left-to-right to match that astonishing lump of Opisthocoelicaudia. The result reminds me of one of Abrell and Thompson’s Actual Facts:

If you put Woodrow Wilson inside William Howard Taft, he would have stuck out by a good 18 inches.

None of that probably signifies anything more than that I am easily amused. And also,  Opisthocoelicaudia is Just Plain Wrong. You hear me, Opisthocoelicaudia? Don’t make me make you cry mayonnaise!

References