A life-size silhouette of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, with Thierra Nalley, me, and Jessie Atterholt for scale. Photo by Jeremiah Scott.

Tiny Titan, a temporary exhibit about the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus project, opened at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California, last night. How? Why? Read on.

Things have been quieter this year on the Haplo front than they were in 2018, for many reasons. My attention was pulled away by a lot of teaching and other day-job work–we’re launching a new curriculum at the med school, and that’s eaten an immense amount of time–and by some very exciting news from the field that I can’t tell you about quite yet (but watch this space). Things are still moving, and there will be a paper redescribing MWC 8028 and all the weird and cool things we’ve learned about it, but there are a few more timely things ahead of it in the queue.

One of the things going on behind the scenes this year is that Jessie Atterholt, Thierra Nalley, and I have been working with Alton Dooley, the director of the Western Science Center, on this exhibit. Alton has had a gleam in his eye for a long time of using the WSC’s temporary exhibit space to promote the work of local scientists, and we had the honor of being his first example. He also was not fazed by the fact that the project isn’t done–he wants to show the public the process of science in all of its serendipitous and non-linear glory, and not just the polished results that get communicated at the end.

Everything’s better cut in half. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Which is not to say that the exhibit isn’t polished. On the contrary, it looks phenomenal. Thanks to a loan from Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey in Colorado, most of the real fossils are on display. We’re only missing the ribs and most of the sacrum, which is too fragmentary and fragile to come out of its jacket. As you can see from the photo up top, there is a life-size vinyl silhouette of the Snowmass Haplo, with 3D prints of the vertebrae in approximate life position. Other 3D prints show the vertebrae before and after the process of sculpting, rescanning, and retrodeformation, as described in our presentation for the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress last year (that slideshow is a PeerJ Preprint, here). The exhibit also includes panels on “What is Haplocanthosaurus” and its relationships, on pneumaticity in sauropods, on the process of CT scanning and 3D modeling, and on the unusual anatomical features of the Snowmass specimen. The awesome display shown above, with the possibly-bumpy spinal cord and giant intervertebral discs reconstructed, was all Alton–he did the modeling, printing, and assembly himself.

Haplo vs Bronto. Thierra usually works on the evolution and development of the vertebral column in primates, so I had to show her how awesome vertebrae can be when they’re done right. Photo by Brittney Stoneburg.

My favorite thing in the exhibit is this striking comparison of one the Snowmass Haplo caudals with a proximal caudal from the big Oklahoma apatosaurine. This was Alton’s idea. He asked me if I had any photos of caudal vertebrae from really big sauropods that we could print at life size to compare to MWC 8028, and my mind went immediately to OMNH 1331, which is probably the second-largest-diameter vertebra of anything from all of North America (see the list here). It was also Alton’s idea to fill in the missing bits using one of Marsh’s plates of Brontosaurus excelsus from Como Bluff in Wyoming. It’s a pretty amazing display, and it turns out to have been a vehicle for discovery, too–I didn’t realize until I saw the verts side-by-side that the neural canal of the Snowmass Haplo caudal is almost as big as the neural canal from the giant apatosaurine caudal. It’s not a perfect comparison, because the OMNH fossil doesn’t preserve the neural canal, and the Como specimen isn’t that big, but proportionally, the Snowmass Haplo seems to have big honkin’ neural canals, not just at the midpoint (which we already knew), but all the way through. Looks like I have some measuring and comparing to do.

(Oh, about the title: we don’t know if the Snowmass Haplo was fully grown or not, but not all haplocanthosaurs were small. The mounted H. delfsi in Cleveland is huge, getting into Apatosaurus and Diplodocus territory. Everything we can assess in the Snowmass Haplo is fused, for what that’s worth. We have some rib chunks and Jessie will be doing histo on them to see if we can get ontogenetic information. I’ll keep you posted.)

Brian’s new Haplocanthosaurus restoration, along with some stinkin’ mammals. Photo by Jessie Atterholt.

Brian Engh contributed a fantastic life restoration of Haplocanthosaurus pro bono, thanks to this conversation, which took place in John Foster’s and ReBecca Hunt-Foster’s dining room about a month ago:

Brian: What are you drawing?

Me: Haplocanthosaurus.

Brian: Is that for the exhibit?

Me: Yup.

Brian (intense): Dude, I will draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Me: I know, but you’re a pro, and pros get paid, and we didn’t include a budget for paleoart.

Brian (fired up): I’m offended that you didn’t just ask me to draw you a Haplocanthosaurus.

Then he went to the Fosters’ couch, sat down with his sketchbook, and drew a Haplocanthosaurus. Not only is it a stunning piece on display in the exhibit, there are black-and-white printouts for kids to take and color (or for adults to take to their favorite tattoo artists, just sayin’). [Obligatory: this is not how things are supposed to work. We should all support original paleoart by supporting the artists who create it. But Brian just makes so damn many monsters that occasionally he has to kick one out for the heck of it. Also, I support him on Patreon, and you can, too, so at a stretch you could consider this the mother of all backer rewards.]

One special perk from the opening last night: Jessica Bramson was able to attend. Who’s that, you ask? Jessica’s son, Mike Gordon, found the first piece of bone from the Snowmass Haplo on their property in Colorado over a decade ago. Jessica and her family spent two years uncovering the fossils and trying to get paleontologists interested. In time she got in touch with John Foster, and the rest is history. Jessica lives in California now, and thanks to John’s efforts we were able to invite her to the exhibit opening to see her dinosaur meet the world. Stupidly, I did not get any photos with her, but I did thank her profusely.

A restored, retrodeformed caudal of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, 3D-printed at life size for the exhibit. Photo swiped from the WSC Facebook page.

I owe a huge thanks to Alton Dooley for taking an interest in our work, and to the whole WSC crew for their hard work creating and promoting the exhibit. You all rock.

The exhibit will run through the end of March, 2020, at least. I deliberately did not show most of it, partly because I was too busy having fun last night to be diligent about taking photos, but mostly because I want you to go see it for yourself (I will do a retrospective post with more info after the exhibit comes down, for people who weren’t able to see it in person). If you make it out to Hemet, I hope you have half as much fun going through the exhibit as we did making it.

 

I had an interesting opportunity when I was in Utah and Colorado a couple of weeks ago. At Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado, I went looking for a cast of the Potter Creek Brachiosaurus humerus. I found it — more on that another time — and I also found a cast of BYU 4503, the holotype dorsal vertebra of Dystylosaurus (now almost universally regarded as Supersaurus [but then…]), lurking with it in a corner of the collections room.

Dystylosaurus cast, posterior view.

Somehow I had overlooked the Dystylosaurus cast on all of my previous visits to DJ, which is a shame, because the cast is easy to pick up, flip over, and manipulate. Very much unlike the actual fossil, which combines the charming attributes, shared with many other sauropod vertebrae, of weighing hundreds of pounds but still being awfully fragile.

Dystylosaurus cast, anterior view.

So, hey ya, I had a chance to photograph and measure both sides of the vertebra. You’re not supposed to take measurements from casts, but I figured what the heck, no-one was going to lock me up for it, and I could compare the measurements from the cast to the measurements of the real thing when I visited BYU later in the trip. And that’s exactly what I did. It was easy to make sure I took the second set of measurements the same way I had done the first set, because I took them just a few days apart.

The real deal at BYU.

Here’s what I got. For each measurement, the actual value measured from the real fossil at BYU comes first, followed by the same measurement from the cast at Dinosaur Journey, followed by the difference as a percentage of the first (true) measurement.

  • Total Height (as preserved): 1050mm / 1022mm / -2.6%
  • Max Width (as preserved): 905mm / 889mm / -1.8%
  • Anterior Centrum Height: 400mm / 394mm / -1.5%
  • Anterior Centrum Width: 470mm / 454mm / -3.4%
  • Posterior Centrum Height: 365mm / 352mm / -3.5%
  • Posterior Centrum Width: 480mm / 473mm / -1.5%

They’re not the same! On average, the measurements of the cast are 2.4% smaller than the same measurements taken from the actual bone. (Incidentally, you may be wondering how I measured the posterior centrum faces of the BYU vertebra without flipping it. I used a couple of wooden blocks as orthogonators and measured between them, and I did it at several points to make sure they were truly parallel. In essence, I made giant redneck calipers, a method that Mike and I have had to employ many times when measuring huge, weirdly-shaped fossils. Remind me to show you John Foster’s giant caliper setup sometime.)

Dinosaur Journey cast in right lateral view, big doofus for scale.

Anyway, the discrepancy in the measurements should not be surprising. It is a known phenomenon that when an object is molded and cast, there is a little bit of shrinkage. You can see it bedevil Adam Savage in his quest for the ultimate Maltese Falcon replica in this charming video:

So, on one hand, no outright disasters here; all of the cast measurements are within a few percent of the real measurements, so if all you had was a cast, you could get a pretty good sense of the size of the real thing. But precision counts, even among giant sauropods. In a world where the largest vertebra of Argentinosaurus is only 1cm bigger in diameter than the largest vertebra of Patagotitan, differences like I got with Dystylosaurus would be enough to scramble the order of giant vertebrae. So if you’re ever stuck measuring something from a cast, be forthright and say as much, so that no-one mistakes the cast measurements for the real thing.

Here are some more measurements from BYU 4503, the real thing, for you completists. Note that the vertebra is sheared a bit from right postero-ventral to left antero-dorsal, so figuring out how to take the centrum length is not straightforward. I ended up doing it twice, once orthogonal to the posterior centrum face, and once following the slant of the centrum, both at the mid-height of the centrum, as shown in the little diagram from my notebook (above).

  • Centrum Length, left side, orthogonal: 295mm
  • Centrum Length, left side, on the slant: 310mm
  • Centrum Length, right side, orthogonal: 280mm
  • Centrum Length, right side, on the slant: 305mm
  • Max Width across prezygs: 305mm
  • Min gap between prezygs: 19mm
  • Max Width across parapophyses: 620mm
  • Max antero-posterior length of prezyg articular surfaces: 55mm
  • Max antero-posterior depth of hypantrum: 95mm
  • Max antero-posterior depth of fossa between spino-prezyg laminae (SPRLs): 80mm
  • Neural spine cavity, max antero-posterior extent: 40mm
  • Neural spine cavity, max medio-lateral extent: 70mm

Finally, a huge thanks to Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey and Brooks Britt and Rod Scheetz at BYU for letting me come play with their huge toys er, hugely important scientific specimens. Rod was particularly helpful, shifting giant things about with a forklift, helping me measure bones that are longer than I am tall, and boxing up loan specimens for me. Mike and I have had really good luck with pro-science curators and collections managers, but the folks at DJ and BYU have always been standouts, and I can’t thank them enough.

Back into the Corner of Shame, artificially tiny Dystylosaurus!

Unworn:

Worn:

Spent some time last week just admiring these things. They’re pretty cool.

EDIT: in answer to Mike’s question in the first comment below, here’s a photo of some more worn teeth, showing that the level of wear in the one shown above is not unusual. Also, all of these worn teeth still had full roots, with no sign of the root resorption that would have preceded shedding of the tooth, so they were evidently going to be used for a while yet, probably a few months at least — BUT see the very useful comment from Jens Kosch below on the likely rapidity of tooth replacement in Camarasaurus.

DINO collections - more worn Camarasaurus teeth

Nothing too serious here, just a fun shot I got while in the collections at BYU this past week. The Brachiosaurus element is metacarpal 1 (thumb column) from BYU 4744, the Potter Creek material. I highlighted my own metacarpal 3. There is a metacarpal 3 from this specimen, but I didn’t see it on the shelf. According to D’Emic and Carrano (2019), the MC3 is 60cm long, vs 57cm for this MC1. So this photo could have been 3cm more impressive!

Oh, ignore the tag on the left that says “radius”. You could be forgiven for thinking that the bone I have my hand on is a radius, but the radius from this individual is 1.34 meters long, or about two-and-a-third times the length of this metacarpal.

Reference

D’Emic, M.D. and Carrano, M.T., 2019. Redescription of Brachiosaurid Sauropod Dinosaur Material From the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation, Colorado, USA. The Anatomical Record.

This awesome photo was taken in the SVPCA 2019 exhibit area by Dean Lomax (L). On the right, Jessie Atterholt, me, and Mike are checking out some Isle of Wight rebbachisaurid vertebrae prepped by Mick Green, who is juuuust visible behind Dean. Jessie’s holding a biggish (as rebbachisaurids go) dorsal or caudal centrum and partial arch, me a lovely little cervical, and Mike an astonishingly delicate and beautiful dorsal. You can see behind us more tables full of awesome fossils, and there were more still across the way, behind Dean and Mick. I was going to throw this photo into the last post to illustrate the exhibit area, but by the time the caption had hit three lines long, I realized it needed a post of its own.

Photo courtesy of Dean, and used with permission. Mark your calendars: on Sunday, Oct. 13, Dean will be speaking at TEDx Doncaster, with a talk titled, “My unorthodox path to success: how my passion for the past shaped my future”. You can follow the rest of Dean’s gradual conquest of the paleosphere through his website, http://www.deanrlomax.co.uk/.

As usual I came back from SVPCA to a mountain of un-dealt-with day-job work, which is why it’s taken me so long to get this post done and up. I wanted to get it posted as quickly as I could decently arrange, because I had a fantastic time at this year’s meeting and I wanted to document a few reasons why, both to thank this year’s hosts and to perhaps inspire the organizers of future meetings.

A shot from the back of the banquet-hall-turned-lecture-theater during Mike’s talk.

1. Space

This year’s presentation space was unlike any I can remember from previous SVPCAs. Instead of being in a lecture hall, talks were held in a big ballroom, and attendees sat in chairs at big circular banquet tables. This had a LOT of positive effects: no edging along long rows of seats to get in or out between talks, easy discussion around and between the tables at the breaks, the opportunity for a group of people to sit together as a group (vs a line or same-facing block), plenty of space to set notebooks, laptops, papers, pens, drinks, etc. I realize that meeting space is probably one of the things that conference organizers have the least control over, but at least from what I saw this year I’d say the ballroom model works even better than the lecture hall model, so that’s a possible consideration for the future.

2. Time

Owing to the smaller-than-normal number of abstract submissions — possibly a function of the meeting being on an island rather than the, uh, somewhat larger island of Great Britain — everyone who asked for a talk got one, and the talk slots were long enough for full 15-minute talks and 5 minutes for questions. So the meeting seemed decompressed. No-one really rushed through their talks (although Mike did speak very quickly), and there was usually plenty of time for questions, and the all-important coffee top-up or between-breaks bio-refresh. I know that a fuller conference is in some ways a healthier conference, and I still maintain that if talks have to be trimmed at future meetings, established players like myself should take the hit so students and early-career-researchers can have some runway, but I still appreciated the more relaxed pace of this meeting.

3. Food and drink

Food and drink service was probably the best that I have experienced at a paleo conference, full stop. I wish I had taken a photo of the ranked rows of coffee cups on saucers, because they never ran out. I don’t think we ever ran out of coffee, either. A lunch of sandwiches, crisps, veggies, and hummus (edit: and cheese, lots of beautiful cheese!) was provided on Thursday and Friday all three days of the conference, and from what I saw, the lunches ran down to a bare handful of sandwiches at the very end but didn’t quite run out — and this was after everyone had ample opportunity to go back for more. Simply an outstanding job.

If I had one quibble, it was that the bar at Cowes Yacht Haven opened about five minutes before the start of Don Henderson’s Fox Lecture on Wednesday evening, without warning and after a lot of people (Mike and me included) had brought in drinks from outside, which we were then told we couldn’t drink on the premises. I realize that the opening and closing of the yacht club bar was probably outside the control of the organizers, but it was an annoyance for those of us who wanted to have a drink with the evening lecture.

4. Exhibitors

I admit to being disappointed when I realized that the meeting would be at Cowes rather than near the Dinosaur Isle museum in Sandown. We did get to visit the museum for the Tuesday evening icebreaker, but other than that we were in a different town entirely. The organizers’ clever solution was to bring the fossils to the paleontologists: several local collectors brought fossils for us to pore over on breaks and during poster time. This was particularly great for Mike, Jessie, and me, since so many of the fossils on display were from sauropods. Jessie and I were able to recognize neural canal ridges in the vertebrae of a rebbachisaurid for the first time, and we were able to use a brachiosaur caudal to demonstrate the ridges to Femke Holwerda, who then told us she’d seen them in a cetiosaur caudal. So our research made meaningful advancements because of the specimens on display, and we made useful contacts.

Speaking of Femke, her big Patagosaurus redescription has been accepted for publication at an OA outlet, so look for that most-welcome work in the not-too-distant future.

There were also paleoartists among the exhibitors, including John Sibbick, Mark Witton, and Luis Rey, among others, including some local artists. I picked up a nice print of a hand-drawn sauropod caudal by Trudie Wilson (this Trudie Wilson, not that Trudie Wilson, although I’m sure she’s a wonderful person too), which I need to do a whole post about, and will soon. I can’t remember now who proposed it, but someone remarked in one of the open sessions about how nice it was to have so much paleoart on display, and that maybe that was something that future meetings could lean into, including having paleoartists give talks about their art. That’s not unprecedented — John Conway and Bob Nicholls have both given presentations on paleoart at previous meetings, either in regular sessions or at evening social functions — but it is a great idea, and one I heartily endorse.

5. Proximity to everything else

Mike did sterling work finding an AirBnB house for a bunch of us (Mike, Darren, Mark Evans, Femke Holwerda, Jeff Liston, Mark Witton, Georgia Witton-Maclean, and Vicki and London and me) that was 300 feet from the entrance to Cowes Yacht Haven and about 700 feet from the banquet hall where the talks were held. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a short walk between my lodgings and the talk venue, even when I’ve stayed in the hotel where the conference was being held. There was also a Sainsbury’s grocery store, a bank of ATMs, and a bunch of restaurants within, seriously, a two-minute walk of the venue. I realize that this was also a lucky circumstance, not readily repeatable for other meetings that take place in museums or university lecture halls at some remove from commercial districts, but it sure was nice. If you had ten minutes, you could legit pop out to Sainsbury’s for some crisps or a beer, and be back at your seat with time to spare.

6. Loot

This one is purely personal, and mostly outside the organizers’ control. (Although they did carelessly put those exhibitors right in the path of my wallet, which fortunately was only running at about Category 3 this trip.) I’m only listing it here to guilt me into finishing the post (or posts) about the items I acquired on the trip, but folks, I did all right. More on that later.

So, a huge thank-you to the organizers of this year’s SVPCA for pulling off such a comfortable and enjoyable meeting. It was a gem. For more on what it was like, please see this post by Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at London’s Horniman Museum. If you know of other post-SVPCA conference reviews or retrospectives, please post them in the comments.

As Mike noted in the last post, many (all?) of the talks from SVPCA 2018 are up on YouTube. Apparently this has been the case for a long time, maybe most of the past year, and I just didn’t know. But I’m glad I do now, because I can encourage you to take 14 minutes and watch Jessie Atterholt’s talk on air spaces inside the neural canal in birds and other archosaurs:

This will not only be interesting in itself — assuming you are interested in pneumaticity, animals, or just how weird the natural world can be at times — but it will be good homework for the Atterholt and Wedel talk at this year’s SVPCA. That talk, also to be delivered by Jessie, will be on a different weird thing about archosaur neural canals, and one that neither of us have yapped about yet on social media.

Here’s the full rundown of talks by SV-POW!sketeers and affiliates at this year’s SVPCA:

Thursday, September 12

  • 11:00-11:20 – Vicki Wedel, “Validating the use of Dental Cementum Increment Analysis to determine season-at-death in humans and other mammals”
  • 11:20-11:40 – Matt Wedel, “How to make new discoveries in (human) anatomy”

Friday, September 13

  • 10:10-10:30 – Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel, “The past, present and future of Jensen’s Big Three sauropods”
  • 15:00-15:20 – Jessie Atterholt and Matt Wedel, “Neural canal ridges: a novel osteological correlate of post-cranial neurology in dinosaurs”

Presumably most or all of these will become PeerJ Preprints in time, just like Mike’s and my presentations from SVPCA 2017 (link, link) and Jessie’s presentation last year (link). I haven’t heard anything yet about livestreaming or recording of the talks this year — fingers firmly crossed.

Anyway, we look forward to seeing at least some of you at SVPCA or at other points on our trip to England, and to having more stuff to talk about here in the near future. Stay tuned!