When my partner, Vicki Wedel, passed away unexpectedly last year, the whole community at Western University of Health Sciences pulled around London and me. One of the most touching things that happened is that my then dean, Paula Crone, DO (now interim provost of the university), got to work right away with University Advancement to set up the Vicki Wedel PhD Memorial Scholarship:

The scholarship will be awarded to a first year WesternU College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific student with a GPA of or greater than 3.0, with demonstrated financial need who excelled in first-year anatomy classes.

I’m happy to report that the scholarship is nearly fully-funded, at which point it will generate at least one scholarship for a deserving student, every year in perpetuity. We’ve had a very kind offer of a matching gift challenge: an anonymous donor will contribute matching funds to get the scholarship to full funding, if the other half of the remainder is donated by next Tuesday, September 6, which is WesternU’s annual Giving Day. At this point, we’re just a few hundred dollars short of that goal.

Other than very infrequent notices about crowdfunding projects, we don’t put any financial solicitations on this blog, but I’m making an exception in this case. It’s a good cause, to fund a scholarship to help a deserving student with demonstrated financial need pursuing medical training at a non-profit health sciences university. And it’s particularly important to me, because I knew Vicki best, and she was always actively looking for ways to support students. I had no idea how many lives she had touched until after she passed — for weeks I was receiving testimonials from students and former students that she helped and encouraged. Vicki’s memorial scholarship is special to me because I can’t think of a better way to honor her legacy.

I need to give a special thank you to Vicki’s parents, Terry and Carla Cooper, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this summer. They kindly asked guests at their celebration to donate to Vicki’s scholarship fund in lieu of giving them gifts, and we’re so close to the finish line because of that act of generosity.

If you’re interested in learning more about Vicki’s memorial scholarship, please follow this link. And if you’re interested in donating, thank you, sincerely. You’ll have the option to be recognized for your donation, or to donate anonymously, whichever you prefer. Every dollar counts, and every dollar is appreciated.

If you’re reading this post sometime after September 6, 2022, and you’re interested in donating, please feel free! It’s still a good cause, and if the scholarship fund gets large enough, it may be possible to either increase the size of the scholarship, or to give more than one.

A new book is out from Cambridge University Press, Dental Cementum in Anthropology, edited by Stephan Naji, William Rendu, and Lionel Gourichon. Although human teeth are not my area of expertise, I ended up coauthoring the twelfth chapter of the book, “Tooth cementum annulations method for determining age at death using modern deciduous human teeth: challenges and lessons learned”. Of all of my publications, this one is the hardest to write about. In part that’s because our original project failed, for various reasons that we document in the chapter, and the final publication is mostly a catalog of things not to do. But more importantly, it’s because Vicki Wedel, the lead author and my spouse of nearly 25 years, passed away unexpectedly last May.

I haven’t written here about Vicki’s passing because I’ve never been sure what to say. Other than two memorial ceremonies last year and a handful of Facebook posts in the month or so after, I haven’t talked about it in public at all. I hoped that I’d know what to say by the time that the book chapter was published, but here we are, and words still feel like grotesquely inadequate tools with which to sketch the horrifying suddenness and totality of the loss. I thought that time would dull the edge of grief, but it doesn’t hurt any less 10 months after, it just hurts less often. I haven’t become numb to any of the obvious triggers, I’ve just gotten good at side-stepping them. All that means is that it’s a cruel surprise when, at unpredictable and frequent intervals, grief sidles up and slips a dagger between my ribs.

Vicki and I met in high school, when we were both 16. We dated for five years, and got married when we were 21. Professionally, she was always ahead of me: she earned her bachelor’s degree first, and her master’s, and her doctorate; presented at a conference before I did, and traveled internationally, and published a journal article, and a book; got a tenure-track job first, and mentored a graduate student first. Far from being resentful, I was emboldened by her successes in every one of those arenas, and grateful for her example and her encouragement. She passed on May 15, 2021, three weeks short of our 25th wedding anniversary, and five months before our 30th anniversary as a couple. 

As a forensic anthropologist, Vicki was frequently asked how she wanted to die. Her standard answer was that she wanted to go quietly in her sleep, at home, in clean clothes; to be found almost immediately by family; and to be conveyed rapidly to a funeral home. The timing was nothing that any of us had imagined or hoped for, but in the actual event she got everything she had wanted, and that is no small comfort. She went out at the apex of her personal and professional development, with no decline and no suffering, which is something that most of us will not get.

Vicki and I daydreamed of coauthoring papers together, and we always figured we’d get around to it eventually, although we both expected that any joint publications would be on dinosaur bone histology (she was the hard-tissue histologist, I would have supplied the dinosaurs). In the actual event, she was working on a project to determine age at death of human adolescents by counting cementum bands in deciduous teeth (‘baby teeth’), and she hit a wall transmuting the results into a discussion. I volunteered to help with that, and pretty soon I’d gotten sucked into being genuinely interested in the problem that she was up against.

The development and loss of deciduous teeth restrict cementochronology to the interval in which the root apex is complete. (Wedel et al. 2022: fig. 12.1)

I’ve written here before about the method of counting dental cementum bands, which are laid down annually, to determine age and season at death (this post). Vicki wanted to know if that method, which she’d used successfully on permanent teeth, would work on deciduous teeth. That turns out to be a surprisingly tricky problem, for several reasons. One of the foremost reasons is sampling. Human deciduous teeth have three fates:

  1. Most deciduous teeth complete development normally, which means that the roots are resorbed and the teeth fall out. The resorption of the root destroys the cementum bands, so there’s nothing to study. 
  2. Some deciduous teeth are retained in the jaw instead of being resorbed, and usually these retained teeth are pulled by dentists when it becomes clear that they are not going to fall out on their own. Practically by definition, these retained teeth do not represent the typical course of development — not great when you’re trying to validate a method on ‘normal’ samples.
  3. Tragically, some deciduous teeth stop developing because they belong to people who die as children or adolescents. For reasons of privacy and respect for grieving loved ones these teeth are rarely used in research, and they don’t represent a controlled sample anyway. The remains of children from archaeological sites have the additional problem that there’s often no good independent line of evidence for age at death, which makes them useless for a validation study.

As we put it in the chapter, “normal, healthy deciduous teeth are unlikely to be extracted, and extracted deciduous teeth are therefore unlikely to be normal”.

We did have some deciduous teeth, culled from a sample of more than 1000 teeth collected by dentists at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and sent to Vicki by her collaborator, Ken Hermsen, who coauthored the chapter with us. Unfortunately, the methods that had worked so well for Vicki on adult teeth broke down when applied to deciduous teeth, in multiple ways that left us scratching our heads and chasing phantoms. I won’t go through the whole litany of failures here — it’s too depressing, and I already coauthored a whole chapter about it. Suffice it to say that peer review worked in this case, when an anonymous reviewer caught and called attention to our errors. We were ready to shelve the chapter, but lead editor Stephan Naji encouraged us to not let all our effort go to waste. About all we could do in the remaining time was catalog the stuff we’d done wrong, so…that’s the paper. It’s very much an ‘eating our vegetables’ affair, but hopefully it will steer future researchers away from the reefs that our original study foundered on. I’m grateful to Stephan for the opportunity to publish — not least because it would be my last chance to collaborate with my partner — and for the lovely words about Vicki that he wrote in the dedication of the book.

It is supremely bittersweet that Vicki and I finally got to coauthor something, only for it to come out when she’s no longer around to see it. It also hit me with unexpected force that with the publication of this book, Vicki’s scientific legacy is almost complete (there is one more collaboration, with folks other than me, that will hopefully still get published). Like many things related to her passing, those thoughts don’t point anywhere. There’s no neat resolution, no bow to tie things up with. Sometimes things just stop, awkwardly and before their time, and there’s nothing to do but go on.

Reference

Wedel†, V., Hermsen, K., & Wedel, M. 2022. Tooth cementum annulations method for determining age at death using modern deciduous human teeth: challenges and lessons learned. pp. 215-225 in Naji, S., Rendu, W., and Gourichon, L. (eds.), Dental Cementum in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. doi:10.1017/9781108569507.014

Today sees the publication of a special issue of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica in honor of my mentor, Rich Cifelli, who took me under his wing when I was in high school and advised me in my undergraduate and Master’s thesis research. Fellow Cifelli lab alums and guest editors Brian Davis and Brooke Haiar and I were fortunate to get a great set of papers from Rich’s friends and colleagues around the globe. The papers reflect the diversity of Rich’s own interests and those of the students he’s mentored, covering everything from trilobites and salamanders to Miocene ungulates and screenwashing techniques, with the lion’s share of the works dealing with Rich’s favorite topic, early mammals. I’m particularly pleased to have a contribution from another of my mentors in the volume: Kevin Padian’s thoughtful paper on the function of tyrannosaur forelimbs. 

A whole cabal of former Cifelli students hatched the idea of the festschrift back in April of 2020, before Rich retired in the fall of that year, and before we knew just how much the pandemic would impact our lives and professional productivity. We originally hoped to have the volume out last summer, but…you’ve been on Earth for the past two years, same as the rest of us, so you know how that went. It’s finally done and out, and we couldn’t be happier.

Rich in the Morrison Formation of eastern Utah, in June of 2017. Photo by Brian Davis, from the preface to the special issue.

As icing on the cake, this morning Brian Davis lured Rich into a Zoom meeting that was ostensibly to talk about research, but actually was a sort of virtual surprise party with Brooke and me. The three of us got to watch in real time as Rich opened the link to the somehow-against-all-odds-still-secret special issue. It might be the first time in 31 years that I’ve seen Rich, with his quicksilver wit and infinite store of puns and quips, actually speechless. (For something less than a minute, I think. But still!)

Many thanks to all who contributed. Thanks also to the editors at APP, who were enthusiastically in support of the festschrift from the moment we proposed it, and who worked hard to bring the special issue to fruition. A big, heartfelt thank you to Brooke Haiar and especially Brian Davis for keeping the project moving forward and taking on more of the work than anticipated when life events kept me out of the game for most of last year. Like everything in APP, this special issue is open access, free to the world, so go read up on all kinds of weird and wonderful things. Here’s the link.

Rich at Stovall’s Quarry 5 at Black Mesa in the Oklahoma Panhandle, in March of 2016. Photo by Matt Wedel.

Finally, to Rich: thank you, for taking on an enthusiastic but untrained high school student all those years ago; for teaching me what it means to be professional, by instruction and by example; for launching my career (including the timely application of boot to backside a few times!); and for continuing to be a sounding board, colleague, coauthor, and above all a friend. I’ve always been proud to be your student, and I always will be.

I have the honor of giving the National Fossil Day Virtual Lecture for The Museums of Western Colorado – Dinosaur Journey, next Wednesday, October 13, from 7:00 to 8:00 PM, Mountain Daylight Time. The title of my talk is “Lost Giants of the Jurassic” but it’s mostly going to be about Brachiosaurus. And since I have a whole hour to fill, I’m gonna kitchen-sink this sucker and put in all the good stuff, even more than last time. The talk is virtual (via Zoom) and free, and you can register at this link.

The photo up top is from this July. That’s John Foster (standing) and me (crouching) with the complete right humerus of Brachiosaurus that we got out of the ground in 2019; that story is here. The humerus is in the prep lab at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal, and if you go there, you can peer through the tall glass windows between the museum’s central atrium and the prep lab and see it for yourself.

If you’ve forgotten what a humerus like that looks like in context, here’s the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton at the North American Museum of Ancient Life with my research student, Kaelen Kay, for scale. Kaelen is 5’8″ (173cm) and as you can see, she can just get her hand on the animal’s elbow. The humerus–in this case, a cast of the right humerus from the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype–is the next bone up the line. Kaelen came out with us this summer and helped dig up some more of our brachiosaur–more on that story in the near future.

Want more Brachiosaurus? Tune in next week. Here’s that registration link again. I hope to see you there!

Can I really be the first one to have done this? Seems unlikely. Sing out in the comments if you’ve seen others.

Anyway, folks, here’s your new all-purpose scale silhouette. Useful fact: the standard metal folding chairs found from sea to shining sea are 29.25 inches tall, or 0.75 meters. Bernie might be in a plastic folding chair here, I dunno, I’m no expert. But folding chair seats are typically 16-17 inches off the ground, so it can’t be that far out.

Who will get Bernie into print first?

On today’s episode of the I Know Dino postcast, Garret interviews Brian and me about our new Brachiosaurus bones and how we got them out of the field. You should listen to the whole thing, but we’re on from 10:10 to 48:15. Here’s the link, go have fun. Many thanks to the I Know Dino crew for their interest, and to Garret for being such a patient and accommodating host. Amazingly, there is a much longer version of the interview available for I Know Dino Patreon supporters, so check that out for more Brachiosaurus yap than you are probably prepared for.

The photo is an overhead shot of me, Casey Cordes, and Yara Haridy smoothing down a plaster wrap around the middle of humerus. The 2x4s aren’t on yet, and the sun is low, so this must have been in the late afternoon on our first day in the quarry in October. Photo by Brian Engh, who perched up on top of the boulder next to the bone to get this shot.

For the context of the Brach-straction, see Part 1 of Jurassic Reimagined on Brian’s paleoart YouTube channel, and stay tuned for more.

FHPR 17108, a right humerus of Brachiosaurus, with Wes Bartlett and his Clydesdale Molly for scale. Original paleoart by Brian Engh.

Last May I was out in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation with Brian Engh and Thuat Tran, for just a couple of days of prospecting. We’d had crappy weather, with rain and lots of gnats. But temperatures were cooler than usual, and we were able to push farther south in our field area than ever before. We found a small canyon that had bone coming out all over, and as I was logging another specimen in my field book, I heard Brian shout from a few meters away: “Hey Matt, I think you better get over here! If this is what I think it is…”

What Brian had found–and what I couldn’t yet show you when I put up this teaser post last month–was this:

That’s the proximal end of a Brachiosaurus humerus in the foreground, pretty much as it was when Brian found it. Thuat Tran is carefully uncovering the distal end, some distance in the background.

Here’s another view, just a few minutes later:

After uncovering both ends and confirming that the proximal end was thin, therefore a humerus (because of its shape), and therefore a brachiosaur (because of its shape and size together), we were elated, but also concerned. This humerus–one of the largest ever found–was lying in what looked like loose dirt, actually sitting in a little fan of sediment cascading down into the gulch. We knew we needed to get it out before the winter rains came and destroyed it. And for that, we’d need John Foster’s experience with getting big jackets out of inconvenient places. We were also working out there under the auspices of John’s permit, so for many reasons we needed him to see this thing.

We managed to all rendezvous at the site in June: Brian, John, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, their kids Ruby and Harrison, and Thuat. We uncovered the whole bone from stem to stern and put on a coat of glue to conserve it. Any doubts we might have had about the ID were dispelled: it was a right humerus of Brachiosaurus.

While we were waiting for the glue to dry, Brian and Ruby started brushing of a hand-sized bit of bone showing just a few feet away. After about an hour, they had extracted the chunk of bone shown above. This proved to be something particularly exciting: the proximal end of the matching left humerus. We hiked that chunk out, along with more chunks of bone that were tumbled down the wash, which may be pieces of the shaft of the second humerus.

But we still had the intact humerus to deal with. We covered it with a tarp, dirt, and rocks, and started scheming in earnest on when, and more importantly how, to get it out. It weighed hundreds of pounds, and it was halfway down the steep slope of the canyon, a long way over broken ground from even the unmaintained jeep trail that was the closest road. Oh, and there are endangered plants in the area, so we coulnd’t just bulldoze a path to the canyon. We’d have to be more creative.

I told a few close friends about our find over the summer, and my standard line was that it was a very good problem to have, but it was actually still a problem, and one which we needed to solve before the winter rains came.

As it happened, we didn’t get back out to the site until mid-October, which was pushing it a bit. The days were short, and it was cold, but we had sunny weather, and we managed to get the intact humerus uncovered and top-jacketed. Here John Foster and ReBecca Hunt-Foster are working on a tunnel under the bone, to pass strips of plastered canvas through and strengthen the jacket. Tom Howells, a volunteer from the Utah Field House in Vernal, stands over the jacket and assists. Yara Haridy was also heavily involved with the excavation and jacketing, and Brian mixed most of the plaster himself.

John Foster, Brian Engh, Wes and Thayne Bartlett, and Matt Wedel (kneeling). Casey Cordes (blue cap) is in the foreground, working the winch. Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Here we go for the flip. The cable and winch were rigged by Brian’s friend, Casey Cordes, who had joined us from California with his girlfriend, teacher and photographer Mallerie Niemann.

Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Jacket-flipping is always a fraught process, but this one went smooth as silk. As we started working down the matrix to slim the jacket, we uncovered a few patches of bone, and they were all in great shape.

So how’d we get this monster out of the field?

From left to right: Wes Bartlett and one of his horses, Matt Wedel, Tom Howells, and Thayne Bartlett. Photo by Brian Engh.

Clydesdales! John had hired the Bartlett family of Naples, Utah–Wes, Resha, and their kids Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin–who joined us with their horses Molly and Darla. Brian had purchased a wagon with pneumatic tires from Gorilla Carts. Casey took the point on winching the jacket down to the bottom of the wash, where we wrestled it onto the wagon. From there, one of the Clydesdales took it farther down the canyon, to a point where the canyon wall was shallow enough that we could get the wagon up the slope and out. The canyon slope was slickrock, not safe for the horses to pull a load over, so we had to do that stretch with winches and human power, mostly Brian, Tom, and Thayne pushing, me steering, and Casey on the winch.

Easily the most epic and inspiring photo of my butt ever taken. Wes handles horses, Casey coils rope, Thayne pushes the cart, and Kaler looks on. Photo by Brian Engh.

Up top, Wes hooked up the other horse to pull the wagon to the jeep trail, and then both horses to haul the jacket out to the road on a sled. I missed that part–I had gone back to the quarry to grab tools before it got dark–but Brian got the whole thing on video, and it will be coming soon as part of his Jurassic Reimagined documentary series.

There’s one more bit I have to tell, but I have no photos of it: getting the jacket off the sled and onto the trailer that John had brought from the Field House. We tried winching, prybar, you name it. The thing. Just. Did. Not. Want. To. Move. Then Yara, who is originally from Egypt, said, “You know, when my people were building the pyramids, we used round sticks under the big blocks.” As luck would have it, I’d brought about a meter-long chunk of thick dowel from my scrap wood bin. Brian used a big knife to cut down some square posts into roughly-round shapes, and with those rollers, the winch, and the prybar, we finally got the jacket onto the trailer.

The real heroes of the story are Molly and Darla. In general, anything that the horses could help with went waaay faster and more smoothly than we expected, and anything we couldn’t use the horses for was difficult, complex, and terrifying. I’d been around horses before, but I’d never been up close and personal with Clydesdales, and it was awesome. As someone who spends most of his time thinking about big critters, it was deeply satisfying to use two very large animals to pull out a piece of a truly titanic animal.

Back in the prep lab at the Field House in Vernal: Matt Wedel, Brian Engh, Yara Haridy, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, and John Foster.

We’re telling the story now because the humerus is being unveiled for the public today at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal. The event will be at 11:00 AM Mountain Time, and it is open to the public. The humerus, now cataloged as FHPR 17108, will be visible to museum visitors for the rest of its time in the prep lab, before it eventually goes on display at the Field House. We’re also hoping to use the intact right humerus as a Rosetta Stone to interpet and piece back together the shattered chunks of the matching left humerus. There will be a paper along in due time, but obviously some parts of the description will have to wait until the right humerus is fully prepped, and we’ve made whatever progress we can reconstructing the left one.

Why is this find exciting? For a few reasons. Despite its iconic status, in dinosaur books and movies like Jurassic Park, Brachiosaurus is actually a pretty rare sauropod, and as this short video by Brian Engh shows, much of the skeleton is unknown (for an earlier, static image that shows this, see Mike’s 2009 paper on Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan, here). Camarasaurus is known from over 200 individuals, Apatosaurus and Diplodocus from over 100 individuals apiece, but Brachiosaurus is only known from about 10. So any new specimens are important.

A member of the Riggs field crew in 1900, lying next to the humerus of the holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus. I’m proud to say that I know what this feels like now!

If Brachiosaurus is rare, Brachiosaurus humeri are exceptionally rare. Only two have ever been described. The first one, above, is part of the holotype skeleton of Brachiosaurus, FMNH P25107, which came out of the ground near Fruita, Colorado, in 1900, and was described by Elmer S. Riggs in his 1903 and 1904 papers. The second, in the photo below, is the Potter Creek humerus, which was excavated from western Colorado in 1955 but not described until 1987, by Jim Jensen. That humerus, USNM 21903, resides at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The Brachiosaurus humerus from Potter Creek, Colorado, on display at the Smithsonian.

For the sake of completeness, I have to mention that there is a humerus on display at the LA County Museum of Natural History that is labeled Brachiosaurus, but it’s not been written up yet, and after showing photos of it to colleagues, I’m not 100% certain that it’s Brachiosaurus (I’m not certain that it isn’t, either, but further study is needed). And there’s at least one humerus with a skeleton that was excavated by the University of Kansas and sold by the quarry owner to a museum in Korea (I had originally misunderstood this; some but not all of the material from that quarry went to KU), that is allegedly Brachiosaurus, but that one seems to have fallen into a scientific black hole. I can’t say anything about its identification because I haven’t seen the material.

Happy and relieved folks the morning after the Brachstraction: Yara Haridy, Matt Wedel, John and Ruby Foster, and the Bartletts: Kaler, Wes, Cobin, Resha, Jayleigh, and Thayne. Jacketed Brachiosaurus humerus for scale. Photo by Brian Engh.

So our pair of humeri from the Salt Wash of Utah are only the 3rd and 4th that I can confidently say are from Brachiosaurus. And they’re big. Both are at least 62cm wide across the proximal end, and the complete one is 201cm long. To put that into context, here’s a list of the longest sauropod humeri ever found:

  1. Brachiosaurus, Potter Creek, Colorado: 213cm
  2. Giraffatitan, MB.R.2181/SII specimen, Tanzania: 213cm
  3. Brachiosaurus, holotype, Colorado: ~213cm (preserved length is 203cm, but the distal end is eroded, and it was probably 213cm when complete)
  4. Giraffatitan, XV3 specimen, Tanzania: 210cm
  5. *** NEW Brachiosaurus, FHPR 17108, Utah: 201cm
  6. Ruyangosaurus (titanosaur from China): ~190cm (estimated from 135cm partial)
  7. Turiasaurus (primitive sauropod from Spain): 179cm
  8. Notocolossus (titanosaur from Argentina): 176cm
  9. Paralititan (titanosaur from Egypt): 169cm
  10. Patagotitan (titanosaur from Argentina): 167.5cm
  11. Dreadnoughtus (titanosaur from Argentina): 160cm
  12. Futalognkosaurus (titanosaur from Argentina): 156cm

As far as we know, our intact humerus is the 5th largest ever found on Earth. It’s also pretty complete. The holotype humerus has an eroded distal end, and was almost certainly a few centimeters longer in life. The Potter Creek humerus was missing the cortical bone from most of the front of the shaft when it was found, and has been heavily restored for display, as you can see in one of the photos above. Ours seems to have both the shaft and the distal end intact. The proximal end has been through some freeze-thaw cycles and was flaking apart when we found it, but the outline is pretty good. Obviously a full accounting will have to wait until the bone is fully prepared, but we might just have the best-preserved Brachiosaurus humerus yet found.

Me with a cast of the Potter Creek humerus in the collections at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado. The mold for this was made from the original specimen before it was restored, so it’s missing most of the bone from the front of the shaft. Our new humerus is just a few cm shorter. Photo by Yara Haridy.

Oh, our Brachiosaurus is by far the westernmost occurrence of the genus so far, and the stratigraphically lowest, so it extends our knowledge of Brachiosaurus in both time and space. It’s part of a diverse dinosaur fauna that we’re documenting in the Salt Wash, that minimally also includes Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and either Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, just among sauropods. There are also some exciting non-sauropods in the fauna, which we’ll be revealing very soon.

A chunk of matrix from the brachiosaur quarry. The black bits are fossilized plants.

And that’s not all. Unlike most of the other dinosaur fossils we’ve found in the Salt Wash, including the camarasaur, apatosaur, and haplocanthosaur vertebrae I’ve shown in recent posts, the humeri were not in concrete-like sandstone. Instead, they came out of a sandy clay layer, and the matrix is packed with plant fossils. It was actually kind of a pain during the excavation, because I kept getting distracted by all the plants. We did manage to collect a couple of buckets of the better-looking stuff as we were getting the humerus out, and we’ll be going back for more.

As you can seen in Part 1 of Brian’s Jurassic Reimagined documentary series, we’re not out there headhunting dinosaurs, we’re trying to understand the whole environment: the dinosaurs, the plants, the depositional system, the boom-and-bust cycles of rain and drought–in short, the whole shebang. So the plant fossils are almost as exciting for us as the brachiosaur, because they’ll tell us more about the world of the early Morrison.

The Barletts: Thayne, Jayleigh, Resha, Cobin, Wes, and Kaler.

Among the folks I have to thank, top honors go to the Bartlett family. They came to work, they worked hard, and they were cheerful and enthusiastic through the whole process. Even the kids worked–Thayne was one of the driving forces keeping the wagon moving down the gulch, and the younger Bartletts helped Ruby uncover and jacket a couple of small bits of bone that were in the way of the humerus flip. So Wes, Resha, Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin: thank you, sincerely. We couldn’t have done it without you all, and Molly and Darla!

EDIT: I also need to thank Casey Cordes–without his rope and winch skills, the jacket would still be out in the desert. And actually everyone on the team was clutch. We had no extraneous human beings and no unused gear. It was a true team effort.

The full version of the art shown at the top of this post: a new life restoration of Brachiosaurus by Brian Engh.

From start to end, this has been a Brian Engh joint. He found the humerus in the first place, and he was there for every step along the way, including creating the original paleoart that I’ve used to bookend this post. When Brian wasn’t prospecting or digging or plastering (or cooking, he’s a ferociously talented cook) he was filming. He has footage of me walking up to the humerus for the first time last May and being blown away, and he has some truly epic footage of the horses pulling the humerus out for us. All of the good stuff will go into the upcoming installments of Jurassic Reimagined. He bought the wagon and the boat winch with Patreon funds, so if you like this sort of thing–us going into the middle of nowhere, bringing back giant dinosaurs, and making blog posts and videos to explain what we’ve found and why we’re excited–please support Brian’s work (link). Also check out his blog, dontmesswithdinosaurs.com–his announcement about the find is here–and subscribe to his YouTube channel, Brian Engh Paleoart (link), for the rest of Jurassic Reimagined and many more documentaries to come.

(SV-POW! also has a Patreon page [link], and if you support us, Mike and I will put those funds to use researching and blogging about sauropods. Thanks for your consideration!)

The happiest I have ever been in the field. Photo by Yara Haridy.

And for me? It’s been the adventure of a lifetime, by turns terrifying and exhilarating. I missed out on the digs where Sauroposeidon, Brontomerus, and Aquilops came out of the ground, so this is by far the coolest thing I’ve been involved with finding and excavating. I got to work with old friends, and I made new friends along the way. And there’s more waiting for us, in “Brachiosaur Gulch” and in the Salt Wash more generally. After five years of fieldwork, we’ve just scratched the surface. Watch this space!

Media Coverage

Just as I was about to hit ‘publish’ I learned that this story has been beautifully covered by Anna Salleh of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I will add more links as they become available.

References

Something big is coming

December 24, 2019

Since 2015 I’ve been working in the Morrison Formation of Utah with Brian Engh, John Foster, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, and more recently Jessie Atterholt and Thuat Tran. Other than a couple of very short, detail-free mentions (like this one), I’ve been pretty quiet about most of our work out there—we all have—but it’s time to start showing everyone what we’ve been up to. Check out this trailer for a pair of documentaries that Brian has been working on. Coming soon!

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.

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/.