Here’s the story of my fascination with supramedullary airways over the last 20 years, and how Jessie Atterholt and I ended up working on them together, culminating with her talk at SVPCA last week. (Just here for the preprint link? Here you go.)

Müller (1908: fig. 12). Upper respiratory tract, trachea, and lungs in pink, air sacs and diverticula in blue. DSPM = diverticulum supramedullare.

Way back when I was working on my Master’s thesis at the University of Oklahoma and getting into pneumaticity for the first time, Kent Sanders found Müller (1908) and gave me a photocopy. This would have been the spring or summer of 1998, because we used some of Müller’s illustrations in our poster for SVP that year (Wedel and Sanders 1998). Müller’s description of pneumatic diverticula in the pigeon formed part of my intellectual bedrock, and I’ve referenced it a lot in my pneumaticity papers (complete list here).

One of the systems that Müller described is the diverticulum supramedullare, a.k.a. supramedullary diverticula, or, informally, supramedullary airways (SMAs). Traditionally these are defined as pneumatic diverticula that enter the neural canal and lie dorsal (supra) to the spinal cord (medulla), although O’Connor (2006) noted that in some cases the diverticula could completely envelop the spinal cord in a tube of air. I yapped about SMAs a bit in this post, and they’re flagged in almost every ostrich CT or dissection photo I’ve ever published, here on the blog or in a paper.

CT sections of a Giraffatitan cervical, with connections between the neural canal and pneumatic chambers in the spine highlighted in blue. Modified from Schwarz & Fritsch (2004: fig. 4).

Fast forward to 2006, when Daniela Schwarz and Guido Fritsch documented pneumatic foramina in the roof of the neural canal in cervical vertebrae of Giraffatitan. As far as I know, this was the first published demonstration of SMAs in a non-bird, or in any extinct animal. Lemme repeat that: Daniela Schwarz found these first!

OMNH 60718: too ugly for radio. This is an unfused neural arch in ventral view. Anterior is to the left. Neurocentral joint surfaces are drawn over with ladders; pneumatic foramina lie between them.

Shortly thereafter I independently found evidence of SMAs in a sauropod, in the form of multiple pneumatic foramina in the roof of the neural canal in an unfused neural arch of a basal titanosauriform (probably a brachiosaurid) from the Cloverly Formation of Montana. It’s a pretty roadkilled specimen and I was busy with other things so I didn’t get around to writing it up, but I didn’t forget about it, either (I rarely forget about stuff like this).

Then in 2013 I went to the Perot Museum in Dallas to see the giant Alamosaurus cervical series, and I also visited the off-site research facility where juvenile Alamosaurus from Big Bend is housed. When Ron Tykoski let me into the collections room, I was literally walking through the door for the first time when I exclaimed, “Holy crap!” I had spotted an unfused neural arch of a juvenile Alamosaurus on a shelf across the room, with complex pneumatic sculpting all over the roof of the neural canal.

Title slide for the 2014 SVPCA presentation.

The Big Bend and Cloverly specimens were the basis for my talk on SMAs at SVPCA in 2014, coauthored with Anthony Fiorillo, Des Maxwell, and Ron Tykoski. As prep for that talk, I visited the ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, photographed a lot of bird vertebrae with foramina inside their neural canals, and shot this pelican video. That was four years ago – why no paper yet? It’s because I wanted one more piece of smoking-gun evidence: a CT scan of a bird that would show a direct communication between the SMAs and the air spaces inside a vertebra, through one or more foramina in the roof, wall, or floor of the neural canal.

A spectrum of pneumatic traces in the neural canals of birds, including complexes of large or small foramina, isolated foramina, and sculpting without foramina.

In 2017, Jessie Atterholt taught in our summer anatomy course at WesternU as an adjunct (her full-time employment was at the Webb Schools in Claremont, home of the Alf Museum). Jessie and I had been acquainted for a few years, but we’d never had the opportunity to really talk science. As we chatted between dissections, I learned that she had a huge warchest of CT scans of whole birds from her dissertation work at Berkeley (we’d missed each other by a few years). My antennae twitched: one nice thing about SMAs is that, being bounded by bone, they can’t collapse after death, unlike more peripheral diverticula. And air is jet black on CT scans, so SMAs are easy to spot even on comparatively low-res scans. All you need is one or two black pixels. I proposed a collaboration: we could use her CT scans to survey the presence and distribution of SMAs in as many birds as possible.

Vertebral diverticula in two sagittally-exploded cervical vertebrae of a turkey. Anterior is to the left, #5 is the SMA. Cover (1953: fig. 2). Yes, I know this is gross – if anyone has a cleaner scan, I’m interested.

You might think that such a survey would have been done ages ago, but it’s not the case. A few authors have mentioned supramedullary airways, and O’Connor (2006) gave a good description of some of the variation in SMAs in extant birds as a whole. But the only detailed accounts to illustrate the morphology and extent of the SMAs in a single species are Müller (1908) on the common pigeon and Cover (1953) on the domestic turkey. I’d seen what I suspected were traces of SMAs in the vertebrae of many, mostly large-bodied birds, and I’d seen them in CTs of ostriches and hummingbirds, and in ostriches and turkeys in dissection. But Jessie was offering the chance to see both the SMAs and their osteological traces in dozens of species from across the avian tree.

SMAs in a micro-CT of a female Anna’s hummingbird, Calypte anna. Scale bars are in mm.

Real life intervened: we were both so busy teaching last fall that we didn’t get rolling until just before the holidays. But the project gradually built up steam over the course of 2018. One story that will require more unpacking later: everything I’ve written on this blog about neural canals, Haplocanthosaurus, or CT scanning in 2018 is something serendipitously spun out of the SMA survey with Jessie. Expect a lot more Atterholt and Wedel joints in the near future – and one Atterholt et al. (minus Wedel) even sooner, that is going to be big news. Watch this space.

It didn’t hurt that in the meantime Jessie got a tenure-track job teaching human anatomy at WesternU, to run the same course she’d taught in as an adjunct last year, and started here at the beginning of June. By that time we had an abstract on our findings ready to go for this year’s SVP meeting. Alas, it was not to be: we were out in the field this summer when we learned that our abstract had been rejected. (I have no idea why; we’ve increased the taxonomic sampling of SMAs in extant birds by a factor of six or so, most of our important findings are in the abstract, and we mentioned the relevance to fossils. But whatever.)

We were bummed for a day, and then Jessie decided that she’d submit the abstract to SVPCA, only slightly chopped for length, and go to Manchester to present if it was accepted – which it was. Unfortunately I’d already made other plans for the fall, so I missed the fun. Fortunately the SVPCA talks were livestreamed, so last Friday at 1:30 in the morning I got to watch Jessie give the talk. I wish the talks had been recorded, because she knocked it out of the park.

Title slide for the 2018 SVPCA presentation.

And now everything we’re in a position to share is freely available at PeerJ. The SVPCA abstract is up as a PeerJ preprint (Atterholt and Wedel 2018), the longer, rejected SVP abstract is up as a supplementary file (because it has a crucial paragraph of results we had to cut to make the length requirement for SVPCA, and because why not), and our slideshow is up now, too. I say ‘our’ slideshow but it’s really Jessie’s – she built it and delivered it with minimal input from me, while I held down the sauropod side of our expanding empire of neural canal projects. She has the paper mostly written, too.

Oh, and we did get the smoking-gun images I wanted, of SMAs communicating with pneumatic spaces in the vertebrae via foramina in the neural canal. Often these foramina go up into the neural arch and spine, but in some cases – notably in pelicans and the occasional ratite – they go down into the centrum. So I now have no excuse for not getting back to the sauropod SMA paper (among many other things).

We’re making this all available because not only are we not afraid of getting scooped, we’re trying to get the word out. SMAs are phylogenetically widespread in birds and we know they were present in sauropods as well, so we should see some evidence of them in theropods and pterosaurs (because reasons). I made such a nuisance of myself at the recent Flugsaurier meeting, talking to everyone who would listen about SMAs, that Dave Hone went and found some pneumatic foramina in the neural canals of Pteranodon vertebrae during the conference – I suspect just to shut me up. That’ll be some kind of Hone-Atterholt-Wedel-and-some-others joint before long, too.

Anyway, point is, SMAs are cool, and you now have everything you need to go find them in more critters. Jessie and I are happy to collaborate if you’re interested – if nothing else, we have the background, lit review, and phylogenetic sampling down tight – but we don’t own SMAs, and we’ll be nothing but thrilled when your own reports start rolling in. Unexplored anatomical territory beckons, people. Let’s do this.

References

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Dorsal vertebra of a rhea from the LACM ornithology collection. Note the pneumatic foramina in the lateral wall of the neural canal.

If you’ve been here for very long you know I have a bit of a neural canal fixation. Some of this is related to pneumaticity, some of it is related to my interest in the nervous systems of animals, and some of it is pure curiosity about an anatomical region that seems to receive very little attention in proportion to its weirdness – especially in birds.

Human thoracic vertebrae in midsagittal section showing vertebral venous plexus. Gray (1918, image 579), available from Bartleby.com.

The neural canals of mammals are pretty boring. The canal is occupied by the spinal cord and its supporting layers of meninges, and the rest of the volume is padded out by adipose tissue and blood vessels, notably an extra-dural venous plexus. Aaand that’s about it, as far as I know. (If there are weird things inside mammalian neural canals that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments – I’m a collector.)

But not so in birds, which have a whole festival of weird stuff going on inside their neural canals. Let’s start with pneumaticity, just to get it out of the way. Many birds have supramedullary diverticula inside their neural canals, and these can leave osteological traces, such as pneumatic foramina, in the walls of the neural canal. That’s cool but it’s a pretty well-known system – see Muller (1908) on the pigeon, Cover (1953) on the turkey, and these previous posts – and I want to get on to other, even stranger things.

The lumbosacral spinal cord of a 3-week-old chick in dorsal view. The big egg-shaped mass in the middle is the glycogen body. Watterson (1949: plate 1).

The spinal cords of birds have several gross morphological specializations not seen in mammals, as do their meninges, and most of these apomorphic structures can also leave diagnostic traces on the inner walls of the neural canal. In fact, birds have so many weird things going on with their spinal cords – at least five different things in the lumbosacral region alone – that I spent a week back in January just sorting them out. To crystalize that body of knowledge while I had it all loaded in RAM, I made a little slideshow for myself, and I’ll use screenshots of those slides to illustrate the morphologies I want to discuss. We’ll cover the vanilla stuff in the next post, and the really weird stuff in subsequent posts.

Stay tuned!

References

Bird vertebra diagrams

January 10, 2014

bird neck note sheet

I made these back in the day. The idea was that you could print them out and have them along while dissecting bird necks, so you could draw on the muscles.

bird neck note sheet - LEFT - all three views

It’s basically one drawing of an ostrich vertebra, morphed in GIMP and stacked to simulate articulation. All of the ones in this post show the vertebrae in left lateral view. If you need right views, flip ’em in GIMP or heck, I think even Windows Explorer will do that for you. The one above has dorsal views in the top row, lateral view in the middle row, and ventral views in the bottom row.

bird neck note sheet - LEFT - double lateral

Here’s a sheet with two rows in lateral view, the idea being that you draw on the more superficial multi-segment muscles on one row, and the deeper single- or two-segment muscles on the other row.

bird neck note sheet - LEFT - 12 cervicals

A version with 12 vertebrae, so you can map out the often complicated patterns of origins and insertions in the really long muscles. How complicated? Well, check out this rhea neck with the M. longus colli dorsalis and M. longus colli ventralis fanned out.

Rhea neck muscles fanned - full

That’s all. Have fun!

This  is the fifth in a series of posts reviewing the Apatosaurus maquette from Sideshow Collectibles. Other posts in the series are:

There are really only a couple of interesting points to discuss for posture: the neck and the feet.

The neck posture is fine. Easy to say, but since I’m one of the “sauropods held their necks erect” guys, it might need some unpacking.

On one hand, animals really do use stereotyped postures, especially for the neck and head (Vidal et al. 1986, Graf et al. 1995, van der Leeuw et al. 2001). The leading hypothesis about why animals do this is that the number of joints and muscle slips involved in the craniocervical system permits an almost limitless array of possible postures, and that having a handful of stereotyped postures cuts down on the amount of neural processing required to keep everything going. That doesn’t mean that animals only use stereotyped postures, just that they do so most of the time, when there’s no need to deviate.

This might work something like the central pattern generators in your nervous system. When you’re walking down the sidewalk thinking about other things or talking with a friend, a lot of the control of your walk cycle is handled by your spinal cord, not your brain. Your brain is providing a direction and a speed, but the individual muscles are being controlled from the spinal cord. Key quote from the Wikipedia article: “As early as 1911, it was recognized, by the experiments of T. Graham Brown, that the basic pattern of stepping can be produced by the spinal cord without the need of descending commands from the cortex.”

But then you see a puddle or some dog doo and have to place your foot just so, and your brain takes over for a bit to coordinate that complex, ad hoc action. After the special circumstance is past, you go back to thinking about whatever and your spinal cord is back in charge of putting one foot in front of the other. This is the biological basis of the proverbial chicken running around with its head cut off: thanks to the spinal cord, the chicken can still run, but without a brain it doesn’t have anywhere to go (I have witnessed this, by the way–one of the numerous benefits to the future biologist of growing up on a farm).

Similarly, if the craniocervical system has a handful of regular postures–alert, feeding, drinking, locomoting, and so on–it lightens the load on the brain, which doesn’t have to figure out how to fire every muscle slip inserting on every cervical vertebra and on the skull to orient the head just so in three-dimensional space. That doesn’t mean that the brain doesn’t occasionally step in and do that, just like it takes over for the spinal cord when you place your feet carefully. But it doesn’t have to do it all the time.

van der Leeuw et al. (2001) took this a step further and showed that birds not only hold their heads and necks in stereotyped postures, they move between stereotyped postures in very predictable ways, and those movement patterns differ among clades (fig. 7 from that paper is above). There is a lot of stuff worth thinking about in that paper, and I highly recommend it, along with Vidal et al. (1986) and Graf et al. (1995), to anyone who is interested in how animals hold their heads and necks, and why.

So, on one hand, its wrong to argue that stereotyped postures are meaningless. But it’s also wrong to infer that animals only use stereotyped postures–a point we were careful to make in Taylor et al. (2009). And it’s especially wrong to infer that paleoartists only show animals doing familiar, usual things–I wrote the last post partly so I could make that point in this one.

For example, I think it would be a mistake to look at Brian Engh’s inflatable Sauroposeidon duo and infer that he accepts a raised alert neck posture for sauropods. He might or might not–the point is that the sauropods in the picture aren’t doing alert, they’re doing “I’m going to make myself maximally impressive so I can save myself the wear and tear of kicking this guy’s arse”. The only way the posture part of that painting can be inaccurate is if you think Sauroposeidon was physically incapable of raising its neck that high, even briefly (the inflatable throat sacs and vibrant colors obviously involve another level of speculation).

Similarly, the Sideshow Apatosaurus has its neck in the near-horizontal pose that is more or less standard for depictions of diplodocids (at least prior to 2009, and not without periodic dissenters). But it doesn’t come with a certificate that says that it is in an alert posture or that it couldn’t raise its neck higher–and even if it did, we would be free to ignore it. Would it have been cool to see a more erect-necked apatosaur? Sure, but that’s not a new idea, either, and there are other restorations out there that do that, and in putting this apatosaur in any one particular pose the artists were forced to exclude an almost limitless array of alternatives, and they had to do something. (Also, more practically, a more erect neck would have meant a larger box and heftier shipping charges.)

So the neck posture is fine. Cool, even, in that the slight ribbing along the neck created by the big cervical ribs (previously discussed here) gives you a sense of how the posture is achieved. Visible anatomy is fun to look at, which I suspect is one of the drivers behind shrink-wrapped dinosaur syndrome–even though it’s usually incorrect, and this maquette doesn’t suffer from it anyway.

Next item: the famous–or perhaps infamous–flipped-back forefoot. I have no idea who first introduced this in skeletal reconstructions and life restorations of sauropods, but it was certainly popularized by Greg Paul. It’s a pretty straightforward idea: elephants do this, why not sauropods?

Turns out there are good reasons to suspect that sauropods couldn’t do this–and also good reasons to think that they could. This already got some air-time in the comments thread on the previous review post, and I’m going to start here by just copying and pasting the relevant bits from that discussion, so you can see four sauropod paleobiologists politely disagreeing about it. I interspersed the images where they’re appropriate, not because there were any in the original thread.

Mike Taylor: the GSP-compliant strong flexion of the wrist always look wrong to me. Yes, I know elephants do this — see Muybridge’s sequence [above] — but as John H. keeps reminding us all, sauropods were not elephants, and one might think that in a clade optimsied for size above all else, wrist flexibility would not be retained without a very good reason.

Adam Yates: Yes I agree with Mike here, the Paulian, elephant-mimicking hyperflexion of the wrist is something that bugs me. Sauropod wrist elements are rather simple flat structures that show no special adaptation to achieve this degree of flexion. [Lourina sauropod right manus below, borrowed from here.]

Heinrich Mallison: Hm, I am not too sure what I think of wrist flexion. Sure it looks odd, but if you think it through the very reasons elephant have it is likely true in sauropods. And given the huge amount of cartilage mossing on the bones AND the missing (thus shape unknown) carpals I can well imagine that sauropods were capable of large excursions in the wrist.

 Mike: What are those reasons?

Heinrich: Mike, long humeri, very straight posture – try getting up from resting with weak flexion at the wrist. Or clearing an obstacle when walking. I can’t say too much, since this afternoon this has become a paper-to-be.

Mike: OK, Heinrich, but the Muybridge photos (and many others, including one on John H.’s homepage) show that elephants habitually flex the wrist in normal locomotion, not just when gwetting up from resting or when avoiding obstacles. Why?

The interesting thing here is that this is evidence of how flawed our (or maybe just my) intuition is: looking at an elephant skeleton, I don’t think I would ever have guessed that it would walk that way. (That said, the sauropod wrist skeleton does look much less flexible than that of the elephant.)

Matt: (why elephants flex their wrists) Possibly for simple energetics. If the limb is not to hit the ground during the swing phase, it has to be shortened relative to the stance limb. So it has to be bent. Bending the limb at the more proximal joints means lifting more weight against gravity. Flexing the wrist more might be a way to flex the elbow less.

(sauropod wrists look less flexible) Right, but from the texture of the ends of the bones we already suspect that sauropods had thicker articular cartilage caps than do mammals. And remember the Dread Olecranon of Kentrosaurus (i.e., Mallison 2010:fig. 3).

Mike: No doubt, but that doesn’t change the fact that elephant wrists have about half a dozen more discrete segments.

Matt: Most of which are very tightly bound together. The major flexion happens between the radius and ulna, on one hand, and the carpal block on the other, just as in humans. Elephants may have more mobile wrists than sauropods did–although that is far from demonstrated–but if so, it’s nothing to do with the number of bony elements. [Loxodonta skeleton below from Wikipedia, discovered here, arrow added by me.]

(Aside: check out the hump-backed profile of the Asian Elephas skeleton shown previously with the sway-backed profile of the African Loxodonta just above–even though the thoracic vertebrae have similar, gentle dorsal arches in both mounts. I remember learning about this from the wonderful How to Draw Animals, by Jack Hamm, when I was about 10. That book has loads of great mammal anatomy, and is happily still in print.)

And that’s as far as the discussion has gotten. The Dread Olecranon of Kentrosaurus is something Heinrich pointed out in the second of his excellent Plateosaurus papers (Mallison 2010: fig. 3).

Heinrich’s thoughts on articular cartilage in dinosaurs are well worth reading, so once again I’m going to quote extensively (Mallison 2010: p. 439):

Cartilaginous tissues are rarely preserved on fossils, so the thickness of cartilage caps in dinosaurs is unclear. Often, it is claimed that even large dinosaurs had only thin layers of articular cartilage, as seen in extant large mammals, because layers proportional to extant birds would have been too thick to be effectively supplied with nutrients from the synovial fluid. This argument is fallacious, because it assumes that a thick cartilage cap on a dinosaur long bone would have the same internal composition as the thin cap on a mammalian long bone. Mammals have a thin layer of hyaline cartilage only, but in birds the structure is more complex, with the hyaline cartilage underlain by thicker fibrous cartilage pervaded by numerous blood vessels (Graf et al. 1993: 114, fig. 2), so that nutrient transport is effected through blood vessels, not diffusion. This tissue can be scaled up to a thickness of several centimeters without problems.

An impressive example for the size of cartilaginous structures in dinosaurs is the olecranon process in the stegosaur Kentrosaurus aethiopicus Hennig, 1915. In the original description a left ulna (MB.R.4800.33, field number St 461) is figured (Hennig 1915: fig. 5) that shows a large proximal process. However, other ulnae of the same species lack this process, and are thus far less distinct from other dinosaurian ulnae (Fig. 3B, C). The process on MB.R.4800.33 and other parts of its surface have a surface texture that can also be found on other bones of the same individual, and may indicate some form of hyperostosis or another condition that leads to ossification of cartilaginous tissues. Fig. 3B–D compares MB.R.4800.33 and two other ulnae of K. aethiopicus from the IFGT skeletal mount. It is immediately obvious that the normally not fossilized cartilaginous process has a significant influence on the ability to hyperextend the elbow, because it forms a stop to extension. Similarly large cartilaginous structures may have been present on a plethora of bones in any number of dinosaur taxa, so that range of motion analyses like the one presented here are at best cautious approximations.

One of the crucial points to take away from all of this is that thick cartilage caps did not only expand or only limit the ranges of motions of different joints. The mistake is to think that soft tissues always do one or the other. The big olecranon in Kentrosaurus probably limited the ROM of the elbow, by banging into the humerus in extension. In contrast, thick articular cartilage at the wrist probably expanded the ROM and may have allowed the strong wrist flexion that some artists have restored for sauropods. I’m not arguing that it must have done so, just that I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that it may have. And so the flipped-back wrist in the Sideshow Apatosaurus does not bother me–but not everyone is convinced. Welcome to science!

I can’t finish without quoting a comment Mike left on Matt Bonnan’s blog a little over a year ago:

Ever since I saw Jensen’s (1987) paper about how mammals are so much better than dinosaurs because their limb-bones articulate properly, I’ve been fuming on and off about this — the notion that the clearly unfinished ends we see are what was operating in life. No.

This is a pretty fair summary of Jensen’s position. Of course, thanks to Heinrich, now we know why dinosaurs had such crap distal limb articulations: they weren’t mammals (part 1part 2part 3).

Finally, interest in articular cartilage is booming right now, as Mike blogged about here. In addition to the Dread Olecranon of Kentrosaurus, see the Dread Elbow Condyle-Thingy of Alligator from Casey Holliday’s 2001 SVP talk, and of course the culmination of that project in Holliday et al. (2010), and, for a more optimistic take on inferring the shapes of articular surfaces from bare bones, read Bonnan et al. (2010).

Next time: texture and color.

References

This is the third in a series of posts on the Apatosaurus maquette produced by Sideshow Collectibles. The rest of the series:

It is probably no surprise, given my proclivities, that I have more to say about the neck than about anything else. So unless I develop an abnormal curiosity about and mastery of, say, sauropod foot anatomy in the next few days, this will be the longest post in the series.

As with the head, the neck of the Apatosaurus maquette illustrates a lot of interesting anatomy. Some of this is unique to Apatosaurus and some of it is characteristic of sauropods in general. I’ll start with the general and move toward the specific.

As we’ve discussed before, the necks of most sauropods were not round in cross section (see here and here). The cervical ribs stuck out far enough ventrolaterally that even with a lot of muscle, the neck would have been fairly flat across the ventral surface, and in many taxa it would have been wider ventrally than dorsally.

The non-circular cross section would have been exaggerated in Apatosaurus, which had simply ridiculous cervical ribs (photo above is from this post). The widely bifurcated neural spines would also have created a broad and probably flattish surface on the dorsal aspect of the neck. The extreme width of the vertebrae and the cervical ribs created a very broad neck base. As in Camarasaurus, the base of the neck was a substantial fraction of the width of the thorax (discussed here). Consequently, the cervico-thoracic junction probably appeared more abrupt in narrow-necked taxa like Diplodocus and Giraffatitan, and more smoothly blended in Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus.

All of these features–the non-circular cross-section, the flattish dorsal and ventral surfaces, the wide neck base blending smoothly into the thorax–are captured in the Apatosaurus maquette.

The ventrolateral ‘corners’ of the neck have a ribbed appearance created by, well, ribs. Cervical ribs, that is, and big ones. In contrast to most other sauropods, which had long, overlapping cervical ribs, diplodocoids had short cervical ribs that did not overlap. But in Apatosaurus they were immense, proportionally larger than in any other sauropod and probably larger than in any other tetrapod. What Apatosaurus was doing with those immense ribs is beyond me. Some people have suggested combat, akin to the necking behavior of giraffes, and although I haven’t seen any evidence to support that hypothesis over others, neither does it strike me as far-fetched (an important nuance: giraffes use their heads as clubs, clearly not an option for the small-headed and fragile-skulled sauropods). Whatever the reason, the cervical ribs of Apatosaurus were amazingly large, and may well have been visible from the outside.

Mounted skeleton of Apatosaurus louisae in the Carnegie Museum, from Wikipedia.

Now this brings me to a something that, although not universal, has at least become fairly common in paleoart. This is the tendency by some artists to render (in 2D, 3D, or virtually) sauropods with dished-in areas along the neck, between the bony loops where the cervical ribs fuse to the centra. I am going to be as diplomatic as I can, since some of the people who have used this style of restoration are good friends of mine. But it’s a fine example of shrink-wrapped dinosaur syndrome, and it simply cannot be correct.

Adjacent cervical ribs loops in sauropods would have been spanned by intertransversarii muscles, as they are in all extant tetrapods. And outside of those single-segment muscles were long belts of flexor colli lateralis and cervicalis ascendens, which are also anchored by the cervical rib loops. All of these muscles are present in birds, and only vary in their degree of development in different parts of the neck and in different taxa. The spaces between adjacent cervical rib loops are not only not dished-in, they actually bulge outward, as in the turkey neck above.

And we’re still not done; running up through the cervical rib loops, underneath all of those muscles, were pneumatic diverticula. Not just any diverticula, but the big lateral diverticula that carried the air up the neck from the cervical air sacs at the base of the neck to the vertebrae near the head end (diverticula are reconstructed here in a cervical vertebra of Brachiosaurus, from Wedel 2005: fig. 7.2). Now, it’s unlikely that the diverticula exerted any outward pressure on the lateral neck muscles, but they were still there, occupying space (except when the muscles bulged inward and impinged on them during contraction), and with the muscles they would have prevented the neck from having visible indentations between the cervical rib loops of adjacent vertebrae.

Okay, so sauropod necks shouldn’t be dished in. But might the cervical ribs have stuck out? It might seem like the same question, only seen from the other side, but it’s not. We’ve established that adjacent cervical rib loops supported bands of single-segment muscles that spanned from one vertebra to the next, and longer, multi-segment muscles that crossed many vertebrae. But could the bony eminences of the cervical ribs have projected outward, through the muscle, and made bumps visible through the skin? The idea has some precedent in the literature; in his 1988 paper on Giraffatitan, Greg Paul (p. 9) argued that,

The intensely pneumatic and very bird-like neck vertebrae of sauropods were much lighter in life than they look as mineralized fossils, and the skulls they supported were small. This suggests that the cervical musculature was also light and rather bird-like, just sufficient to properly operate the head-neck system. The bulge of each neck vertebra was probably visible in life, as is the case in large ground birds, camels, and giraffes.

Paul has illustrated this in various iterations of his Tendaguru Giraffatitan scene; the one below is from The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Paul 2010) and is borrowed from the Princeton University Press blog.

There is much to discuss here. First, I have no qualms about being able to see individual vertebrae in the necks of camels and giraffes, and it’s not hard to find photos that show these. It makes sense: these are stinkin’ mammals with the usual seven cervical vertebrae, so the verts have to be longer, proportionally, and bend farther at each joint than in other long-necked animals. I’m more skeptical about the claim that individual vertebrae can be seen in the necks of large ground birds. I’ve dissected the necks of an ostrich, an emu, and a rhea, and it seems to me that the neck muscles are just too thick to allow the individual vertebrae to be picked out. In a flamingo, certainly–see the sharp bends in the cranial half of the neck in the photo below–but flamingos have freakishly skinny necks even for birds, and their cervicals are proportionally much longer, relative to their width, than those of even ostriches.

What about sauropods? As discussed in this post, sauropod cervicals were almost certainly proportionally closer to the surface of the neck than in birds, which would tend to make them more likely to be visible as bulges. However, the long bony rods of the cervical ribs in most sauropods would have kept the ventral profile of the neck fairly smooth. The ossified cervical ribs of sauropods ran in bundles, just like the unossified hypaxial tendons in birds (that’s Vanessa Graff dissecting the neck of Rhea americana below), and whereas the latter are free to bend sharply around the ventral prominences of each vertebra, the former were probably not.

All of which applies to sauropods with long, overlapping cervical ribs, which is most of them. But as mentioned above, diplodocoids had short cervical ribs. Presumably they had long hypaxial tendons that looked very much like the cervical ribs of sauropods but just weren’t ossified. Whether the vertebrae could have bent enough at each segment to create bulges, and whether the overlying muscles were thin enough to allow those bends to be seen, are difficult questions. No-one actually knows how much muscle there was on sauropod necks, not even within a factor of two.  There has been no realistic attempt, even, to publish on this. Published works on sauropod neck muscles (Wedel and Sanders 2002, Schwarz et al. 2007) have focused on their topology, not their cross-sectional area or bulk.

But then there’s Apatosaurus (AMNH mount shown here). If any sauropod had a chance of having its cervical vertebrae visible from the outside, surely it was Apatosaurus. And in fact I am not opposed to the idea. The cervical ribs of Apatosaurus are unusual not only in being large and robust, but also in curving dorsally toward their tips. If one accepts that the cervical ribs of sauropods are ossified hypaxial tendons–which seems almost unarguable, given that the cervical ribs in both crocs and birds anchor converging V-shaped wedges of muscle–then the ossified portion of each cervical rib must point back along the direction taken by the unossified portion of the tendon. In which case, the upwardly-curving cervical ribs in Apatosaurus suggest that the muscles inserting on them were doing so at least partially from above. So maybe the most ventrolateral portion of each rib did stick out enough to make an externally visible bulge.

Maybe. Many Apatosaurus cervical ribs also have bony bumps at their ventrolateral margins–the ‘ventrolateral processes’ or VLPs illustrated by Wedel and Sander (2002: fig. 3). If these processes anchored neck muscles, as seems likely, then even the immense cervical ribs of Apatosaurus might have been jacketed in enough muscle to prevent them from showing through on the outside.

Still. It’s Apatosaurus. It’s simply a ridiculous animal–a sauropod among sauropods. If this were a model of Mamenchisaurus and it had visible bulges for the cervical rib loops, I’d be deeply skeptical. For Apatosaurus, it’s at least plausible.

Because the cervical ribs are visible in the maquette as distinct bulges, it’s possible to count the cervical vertebrae. Apatosaurus has 15 cervicals, and that seems about right for the maquette. The neck bumps reveal 11 cervicals, but they don’t run up all the way to the head. This is realistic: the most anterior cervicals anchored muscles that supported and moved the head, and these overlie the segmental muscles and cervical ribs in extant tetrapods. The most anterior part of the neck in the maquette, with no cervical rib bumps, looks about the right length to contain C1-C3. Plus the 11 vertebrae visible from their bumps, that makes 14 cervicals, and the 15th was probably buried in the anterior body wall.

One last thing: because the cervical ribs are huge, the neck of Apatosaurus was fat. To the point that the head looks almost comically tiny, even though it’s about the right size for a sauropod head. I first got a visceral appreciation for this when I was making my own skeletal reconstruction of Apatosaurus, for a project that eventually evaporated into limbo. Once you draw an outline of flesh around the vertebrae, the weirdness of the massive neck of Apatosaurus is thrown into stark relief. Apatosaurus is robust all over, but even on such a massive animal the neck seems anomalous. I don’t know what Apatosaurus was doing with its neck, but it’s hard not to think that it must have been doing something. Anyway, I bring this up because the maquette captures the neck-fatness very well. So much so that when I sit back from the computer and my eyes roam around the office and fall on the maquette, I can’t help thinking, for the thousandth time, “Damn, that’s weird.”

In sum, the neck of the Sideshow Apatosaurus maquette gets the non-circular cross-section right, appears to have the correct number of cervical vertebrae, and looks weirdly fat, which turns out to be just right for Apatosaurus. The bumps for the individual vertebrae are plausible, and the maquette correctly avoids the dished-in, emaciated appearance–cocaine chic for sauropods–that has become popular in recent years. It manages to be eye-catching and even mildly disturbing, even for a jaded sauropodologist like yours truly, in that it confronts me with the essential weirdness of sauropods in general, and of Apatosaurus in particular. These are all very good things.

Next time: as much of the rest of the body as I can fit into one post (all of it, it turned out).

References

Okay, special dissection post, coming to you live from the Symposium  of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic coast of England, well past my bedtime. First, check out this comment from Neil and see the linked image of some neck muscles in the anhinga. Here’s a small version I’m swiping. There are a couple of short, single-segment muscles shown, but the big long ones in this image are longus colli ventralis (on the ‘front’ or ‘bottom’ of the neck) and longus colli dorsalis (on the ‘back’ or ‘top’).

Now, grok these photos of the same dorsal muscle. Or muscle group, if you prefer. Note that in all cases shown here and in the link–anhinga, rhea, and turkey–the muscle inserts on the anterior cervical vertebrae, and not on the skull.

In Rhea:

In Meleagris (turkey):

The rhea was dissected by Vanessa back at Western a couple of weeks ago, the turkey by me on Mike’s dining room table on Monday. Full story to follow…at some point.

In the meantime, go buy your own turkey and cut up its neck. It’s cheap and you’ll learn a ton.

The work continues

August 27, 2011

Not always solemnly.