Building life-size standees of big dinosaur bones has been a gleam in my eye for a long time. What finally pushed me over the edge was an invitation from Oakmont Outdoor School here in Claremont, California, to come talk about dinosaurs. It was an outdoor assembly, with something like 280 kids in attendance, and most of my show and tell materials are hand-sized and would not show up well from a distance. Plus, I wanted to blow people away with the actual size of big dinosaur bones.


I started with a life-size poster print of FHPR 17108, the complete right humerus of Brachiosaurus from Brachiosaur Gulch in Utah (the story of the discovery and excavation of that specimen is here). I used the image shown above, scaled to print at 7 feet by 3 feet. You can see that print lying on my living room floor in the previous post.

It was simpler and cheaper to get two 2 foot x 4 foot pieces of plywood than one big piece, so that’s what I did. I laid them out on the living room floor, cut out the poster print of the humerus from its background, traced the outline of the humerus onto the plywood, and then took the pieces outside to cut out the humerus shapes with a jigsaw.

The big piece of darker plywood is the brace that holds the two front pieces together. The smaller piece down at the distal end is a sort of foot, level with the bottom of the humerus but wider and flatter to give more stability. I used wood glue and a bunch of screws to hold everything together. Probably more screws than were strictly necessary, but I wanted to build this thing once and then never worry about it again, and screws and glue are cheap.

Even just the plywood outline without the print glued on looked pretty good. Early in the project I dithered on whether to make the thing out of plywood or foam core board. Foam core board would have been cheaper, easier to work with, and a lot lighter, but I also had doubts about its survivability. I want to use this thing for outreach for a long time to come.

To make the thing free-standing I added a kickstand in the back, made from a six-foot board and a hinge.

I used some screw-eyes and steel wire from a picture-hanging kit to add restraints to the kickstand, so it can’t open up all the way and collapse.

I didn’t want the kickstand flopping around during transit, and I also did not want the whole weight of the kickstand hanging cantilevered from the hinge when this thing is being carried horizontally, so I added a couple of blocks on either side for support, and some peel-and-stick velcro to hold the kickstand in place when it’s not being used.

I took the thing to Oakmont Outdoor School this morning and everybody loved it. I think the teachers were just as impressed as the kids. That’s Jenny Adams, the principal at Oakmont, who invited me to come speak. 

This was a deeply satisfying project and it didn’t require any complex or difficult techniques. The biggest expense was the big poster print, and the most specialized piece of equipment was the jigsaw. You could save money by going black-and-white or just blowing up an outline drawing on a plotter, by scavenging the plywood instead of buying new (all my old plywood has been turned into stuff already), or by using foam core board or some other lightweight material.

Many thanks to Jenny Adams and the whole Oakmont community for giving me a chance to come speak, and for asking so many excellent questions. However much fun it was for you all, I’m pretty sure it was even more fun for me. And now I have an inconveniently gigantic Brachiosaurus humerus to worship play with!

I am about a great work

January 21, 2023

I’m also teaching in two anatomy courses and in the process of moving residences (hence bins and boxes and whatnot), so the timing’s…not great. But needs must when the devil drives.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

I’m sure you’ve seen things like ChatGPT in the news: programs that can carry out pretty convincing conversations. They are known as Large Language Models (LLMs) and are frequently referred to as being Artificial Intelligence (AI) — but I really don’t like that designation as it implies some understanding.

To try this out, I asked OpenAI Chat this question: “What are the contenders for the title of Biggest Dinosaur, and what is the basis for their various claims?” I picked that because I know a bit about the answer, and in fact wrote an answer myself back in 2015.

Here’s what it came up with:

There are several contenders for the title of “biggest dinosaur,” and their claims are based on different pieces of evidence. The most commonly cited contenders are:

  1. Argentinosaurus: This is considered to be one of the largest known dinosaurs, with estimates of its length ranging from 110-130 feet (33-40 meters) and a weight of around 100-110 tons. Its size is based on a few fragmented bones, including vertebrae and limb bones, which were found in Argentina.
  2. Brachiosaurus: This dinosaur is estimated to have been around 85 feet (26 meters) long and weighed around 80-100 tons. Its size is based on several well-preserved specimens that have been found in North America, including a nearly complete skeleton.
  3. Puertasaurus: This dinosaur is estimated to have been around 85-100 feet (26-30 meters) long and weighed around 80-100 tons. Its size is based on a few bones, including a femur, that were found in Argentina.
  4. Supersaurus: This dinosaur is estimated to have been around 110-125 feet (33-38 meters) long and weighed around 80-100 tons. Its size is based on a single specimen, a set of vertebrae, that was found in the US.
  5. Diplodocus: This dinosaur is estimated to have been around 90-115 feet (27-35 meters) long and weighed around 20-40 tons. Its size is based on several well-preserved specimens that have been found in North America.

It’s worth noting that the size of these dinosaurs is approximate and there’s still debate among paleontologists. Also, the weight of these dinosaurs is based on estimations, not real measurements.

At first glance this is a decent answer. It’s certainly better than just saying “Argentinosaurus weighed 100 tons”. But if you know your sauropods, you’ll immediately recognise that this answer is riddled with inaccuracies:

  • The Argentinosaurus entry is actually pretty good, although I’ve never seen a 110 ton mass estimate and modern estimates tend to be rather lower than the specified range.
  • The Brachiosaurus mass estimate is way off, two or three times as high as it should be.
  • More importantly, no remotely complete Brachiosaurus specimen has ever been described, and size estimates are based primarily on its Tanzanian relative Giraffatitan.
  • There is no known femur of Puertasaurus. (When I corrected the AI on this, it told me instead that there is a pubis known.)
  • Supersaurus is not based on a single specimen, and both of the main specimens that have been described contain plenty of appendicular material.
  • The Diplodocus length estimate is a bit inflated, but otherwise not bad. But it’s not clear what it’s doing in a list of five biggest dinosaurs.
  • The answer omits some very strong contenders, including Dreadnoughtus and Patagotitan.
  • It doesn’t really address the second part of my question — e.g. Supersaurus has a good claim to be longer, but not heaviest; the converse is likely true for Argentinosaurus.

Now here is the real problem: the LLM does well enough to fool people. If it was nonsense from start to end, there would be nothing to fear here, but the plausibility of the answers and the authoritative tone in which they are given lends the many mistakes a credibility that they do not deserve.

Having seen this sort-of-convincing-but-very-wrong reply in a field that I know something about, I would be very very cautious about trusting an LLM to teach me about a field I don’t already know. I’m guessing its replies about space flight, quantum physics and Medieval French literature are going to be similarly flawed (but also, worryingly, similarly convincing to those such as myself who don’t know better.)

There is a very fundamental reason for all these mistakes: as I implied above, LLMs do not understand anything. They just know what phrases occur close to other phrases. They can do amazing things with that one trick, and I can see them being useful as discovery tools. But we’ll go badly wrong when we start trusting them as anything more than a bright but ignorant kid offering suggestions.

So for all the talk of AI having taken huge leaps forward in the last couple of years, I don’t think any such thing has happened. We’ve just got much better at generating plausible text. But there’s no advance in actual understanding.

UPDATE: Y’all came through! I’m very happy to announce that Vicki’s scholarship is fully funded, and we’ll be able to give out the first scholarship in the spring of 2023 — and every year thereafter. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! 

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.

Science doesn’t always get done in the right order.

In the course of the research for my paper with Mike this past spring, “Why is vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaur so variable?”, published in Qeios in January, I had a couple of epiphanies. The first was that I had collated enough information to map the sites at which arteries and veins enter and exit the vertebrae in most tetrapods. The second was that, having done that, I’d also made a map of (almost) all the places that diverticula enter the vertebrae to pneumatize them. This is obviously related to the thesis we laid out in that paper, that postcranial skeletal pneumaticity is so variable because pneumatic diverticula follow pre-existing blood vessels as they develop, and blood vessels themselves are notoriously variable. In fact, if you had to summarize that thesis in one diagram, it would probably look like the one above, which I drew by hand in my research notebook in early March.

Only that’s not quite correct. I didn’t have those epiphanies “in the course of the research”, I had them after the pneumatic variation paper was done and published. And at the time they felt less like epiphanies and more like a series of “Holy crap” realizations:

  1. Holy crap, that diagram would have been really helpful when we were writing the pneumatic variation paper, since it establishes, almost tautologically, that diverticula invade vertebrae where blood vessels already have. In a rational world, Mike and I would have done this project first, and the pneumatic variation paper would have stood on its shoulders.
  2. Holy crap, how have I been working on vertebral pneumaticity for more than two decades without ever creating a map of all the places a vertebra can be pneumatized, or even realizing that such a map would be useful?
  3. Holy crap, how have I been working on dinosaur bones — and specifically their associated soft tissues — for more than two decades without wondering exactly how the blood was getting into and out of each bone? 

Arguably, not only should Mike and I have done this project first, I should have taken a stab at it way back when I was working on my Master’s thesis. Better late than never, I guess.

I used a sauropod caudal as my vertebral archetype because it has all the bits a tetrapod vertebra can have, including the hemal arch or chevron. This was important, because Zurriaguz et al. (2017) demonstrated that the chevrons are pneumatic in some titanosaurs. 


For the actual presentation I redrew the vessels on top of a scan of a Camarasaurus caudal from Marsh, which Mike found and cleaned up (modified from Marsh 1896: plate 34, part 4, and plate 39, part 3c). 

We deliberately used an unfused caudal to emphasize that ‘ribs’ — technically, costal elements — are present, they just fuse to the neural arch and centrum rather than remaining separate, mobile elements like dorsal ribs.

Anyway, I’m yapping about this now because this project is rolling: Mike and I submitted an abstract on it for the 3rd Palaeontological Virtual Congress, and a short slideshow on the project is now up at the 3PVC site for attendees to look at and comment on. The congress started last Wednesday and runs through Dec. 15, after which I’m sure we’ll submit the abstract and slide deck somewhere as a preprint, and then turn it into a paper as quickly as possible.

I’ll probably have more to say on this in a day or so, but for now the comment field is open, and your thoughts are welcome.



My Oct. 13 National Fossil Day public lecture, “Lost Giants of the Jurassic”, for the Museums of Western Colorado – Dinosaur Journey is now up on their YouTube channel. First 48 minutes are talk, last 36 minutes are Q&A with audience, moderated by Dr. Julia McHugh. New stuff from the 2021 field season — about which I’ll have more to say in the future — starts at about the 37-minute mark. Hit the 44-minute mark (and this and this) to find out what to do with all of the unwanted bird necks that will be floating around at the upcoming holidays.

Finally, big thanks to Brian Engh for finding our brachiosaur and for letting me use so much of his art, to John Foster, Kaelen Kay, Tom Howells, Jessie Atterholt, Thierra Nalley, and Colton Snyder for such a fun field season this year, and to Julia McHugh for giving me the opportunity to yap about one of my favorite dinosaurs!

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!

We’ve noted many times over the years how inconsistent pneumatic features are in sauropod vertebra. Fossae and formamina vary between individuals of the same species, and along the spinal column, and even between the sides of individual vertebrae. Here’s an example that we touched on in Wedel and Taylor (2013), but which is seen in all its glory here:

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 5). Giraffatitan brancai tail MB.R.5000, part of the mounted skeleton at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Caudal vertebrae 24–26 in left lateral view. While caudal 26 has no pneumatic features, caudal 25 has two distinct pneumatic fossae, likely excavated around two distinct vascular foramina carrying an artery and a vein. Caudal 24 is more shallowly excavated than 25, but may also exhibit two separate fossae.

But bone is usually the least variable material in the vertebrate body. Muscles vary more, nerves more again, and blood vessels most of all. So why are the vertebrae of sauropods so much more variable than other bones?

Our new paper, published today (Taylor and Wedel 2021) proposes an answer! Please read it for the details, but here’s the summary:

  • Early in ontogenly, the blood supply to vertebrae comes from arteries that initially served the spinal cord, penetrating the bone of the neural canal.
  • Later in ontegeny, additional arteries penetrate the centra, leaving vascular foramina (small holes carrying blood vessels).
  • This hand-off does not always run to completion, due to the variability of blood vessels.
  • In extant birds, when pneumatic diverticula enter the bone they do so via vascular foramina, alongside blood vessels.
  • The same was probaby true in sauropods.
  • So in vertebrae that got all their blood supply from vascular foramina in the neural canal, diverticula were unable to enter the centra from the outside.
  • So those centra were never pneumatized from the outside, and no externally visible pneumatic cavities were formed.

Somehow that pretty straightforward argument ended up running to eleven pages. I guess that’s what you get when you reference your thoughts thoroughly, illustrate them in detail, and discuss the implications. But the heart of the paper is that little bullet-list.

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 6). Domestic duck Anas platyrhynchos, dorsal vertebrae 2–7 in left lateral view. Note that the two anteriormost vertebrae (D2 and D3) each have a shallow pneumatic fossa penetrated by numerous small foramina.

(What is the relevance of these duck dorsals? You will need to read the discussion in the paper to find out!)

Our choice of publication venue

The world moves fast. It’s strange to think that only eleven years ago my Brachiosaurus revision (Taylor 2009) was in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, a journal that now feels very retro. Since then, Matt and I have both published several times in PeerJ, which we love. More recently, we’ve been posting preprints of our papers — and indeed I have three papers stalled in peer-review revisions that are all available as preprints (two Taylor and Wedels and a single sole-authored one). But this time we’re pushing on even further into the Shiny Digital Future.

We’ve published at Qeios. (It’s pronounced “chaos”, but the site doesn’t tell you that; I discovered it on Twitter.) If you’ve not heard of it — I was only very vaguely aware of it myself until this evening — it runs on the same model as the better known F1000 Research, with this very important difference: it’s free. Also, it looks rather slicker.

That model is: publish first, then filter. This is the opposite of the traditional scholarly publishing flow where you filter first — by peer reviewers erecting a series of obstacles to getting your work out — and only after negotiating that course to do get to see your work published. At Qeios, you go right ahead and publish: it’s available right off the bat, but clearly marked as awaiting peer-review:

And then it undergoes review. Who reviews it? Anyone! Ideally, of course, people with some expertise in the relevant fields. We can then post any number of revised versions in response to the reviews — each revision having its own DOI and being fixed and permanent.

How will this work out? We don’t know. It is, in part, an experiment. What will make it work — what will impute credibility to our paper — is good, solid reviews. So if you have any relevant expertise, we do invite you to get over there and write a review.

And finally …

Matt noted that I first sent him the link to the Qeios site at 7:44 pm my time. I think that was the first time he’d heard of it. He and I had plenty of back and forth on where to publish this paper before I pushed on and did it at Qeios. And I tweeted that our paper was available for review at 8:44 — one hour exactly after Matt learned that the venue existed. Now here we are at 12:04 my time, three hours and 20 minutes later, and it’s already been viewed 126 times and downloaded 60 times. I think that’s pretty awesome.


  • Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806. [PDF]
  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2021. Why is vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs so variable? Qeios 1G6J3Q. doi: 10.32388/1G6J3Q [PDF]
  • Wedel, Mathew J., and Michael P. Taylor 2013b. Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78213. 14 pages. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078213 [PDF]

For those following the saga of Oculudentavis (the beautiful tiny dinosaur preserved in amber that turned out to be a lizard), three more things.

Xing et al. 2020, Extended Data Fig. 2. Computed tomography scan of HPG-15-3 in palatal view, with the mandibles removed, and an isolated quadrate. a, Full palatal view. Dashed square box in a indicates the region enlarged in b [not shown]. bp, basipterygoid process; bs, basisphenoid plate; bsr, basisphenoid rostrum; ch, choana; dt, developing tooth; pt, pterygoid; pp, papillae; pmc, medial contact of the palatal processes of the premaxillae.

First, I’ve updated the timeline in Friday’s post to include several more events, kindly pointed out by commenters Pallas1773 and Ian Corfe. Check back there to better understand the increasingly confusing sequence of events.

Second, David Marjanovic provided an excellent summary of the ICZN issues in a message on the Dinosaur Mailing List. (Summary: you can’t invalidate a name by retracting the paper in which it was erected.) David knows the details of the code as well as anyone, so his analysis is well worth reading.

Finally — and annoyingly, I can’t remember who put me on to this — an interesting Chinese-language article was published two days ago about the retraction [link] [Google translation]. (Apparently the word translated “oolong” should be “mistake”.) It contains a statement from Xing Lida, lead author of the original paper, on the reason for the retraction:

The reporter found that the key to retracting the manuscript was “research progress has been made on a new specimen with a more complete preservation of the same origin discovered by the author team.” The team realized that the skull of the new specimen was very similar to HPG-15-3, but the skeleton behind the head showed a typical squamosaurus form and should be classified as squamosaurus. This indicates that HPG-15-3 is likely to belong to the squamatosaurus, which is different from the initial conclusion.

But the article goes on to note that “there are many loopholes in this withdrawal statement”. It contains some illuminating analysis from Oliver Rauhut and Per Ahlberg, including this from Rauhut: “The main problem of the paper is that the author basically preconceived that the specimen was a bird and analyzed it under this premise (this is not necessarily intentional)“. And it claims:

As early as the evening of March 19, the corresponding author of the paper said in an interview with Caixin Mail, “She recognized the questioner’s conclusion-this is more likely to be a lizard than a bird.”

And this of course was nearly three months before the same author (Jingmai O’Connor) lead-authored the preprint reasserting the avian identity of Oculudentavis.

The more I read about all this, the stranger it seems.

Update (22 August 2020)

A new paper at Zoosystema (Dubois 2020) summarises the nomenclatural situation, citing SV-POW! in passing, and concludes that the name remains nomenclaturally valid despite the retraction of the paper in which is was named — quite rightly.



Since we wrote about the putative tiny bird Oculudentavis (Xing et al. 2020) last time, things have become rather weirder. I want to discuss two things here: how we got to where we are, and what happens to the zoological name Oculudentavis khaungraae.

Xing et al. 2020, Extended Data Fig. 1. Close-up photographs of HPG-15-3. Part a, Entire skull in left lateral view. The black arrows indicate decay products from the soft tissue of the dorsal surface of the skull and the original position of skull, which drifted before the resin hardened. Scale bars, 2 mm.

First, how we got here. The timeline is a little confused but it seems to go like this:

  • 11 March: Xing et al. (2020) name Oculudentavis khaungraae, describing it as a bird. [link]
  • 11 March: In a Facebook thread on the day the paper is published, Tracey Ford claims that at least some of the authors were told at a symposium by lizard workers that their specimen was a lizard.
  • 12 March: Mickey Mortimer (very quick work!) publishes a blog-post titled “Oculudentavis is not a theropod”, making a solid argument. [link]; see also the followup post [link]
  • 13 March: Andrea Cau, working independently, publishes a blog post in Italian titled “Doubts about the dinosaurian (and avian) state of Oculudentavis” (translated), also making a solid case [link]
  • 13 March: Wang Wei et al. (the same authorship team as in the next entry) publish a detailed, technical Chinese-language article arguing that Oculudentavis is a squamate. [link] [Google translation]
  • 18 March: Li et al. (2020), in a BioRxiv preprint, formally dispute the identity of Oculudentavis, suggesting it is a squamate. [link].
  • 3 May: at the monthly meeting of the Southern California Paleontological Society, where Jingmai O’Connor gives the talk on “The evolution of dinosaurian flight and the rise of birds” she is allegedy “quite upfront about Oculudentavis being a lizard” [link]
  • 29 May: a note is added to the online version of Xing et al. 2020 stating “Editor’s Note: Readers are alerted that doubts have been expressed about the phylogenetic placement of the fossil described in this paper. We are investigating and appropriate editorial action will be taken once this matter is resolved.” [link]. (Steven Zhang later says on Facebook, “I’ve been reliably told by one of the coauthors of the Li et al. commentary piece, Nature rejected the comment from publication but then flagged up the matter as an Editor’s Note.”)
  • 14 June: O’Connor et al. (2020) (mostly the same authors as of the original description) reassert the avian identity of Oculudentavis. [link]
  • 22 July 2020: the original article (Xing et al. 2020) is retracted, with the reason given as “We, the authors, are retracting this Article to prevent inaccurate information from remaining in the literature. Although the description of Oculudentavis khaungraae remains accurate, a new unpublished specimen casts doubts upon our hypothesis regarding the phylogenetic position of HPG-15-3.” [link]

(Note: Facebook always seems very ephemeral, so here is a screenshot of the conversation in question:

I am aware that this is only hearsay, and rather vague: what symposium, what lizard workers? But I’ll leave it here as it does seem to be part of the story — judge it as you will.)

The unambiguously strange thing here is the O’Conner et al. preprint, published after O’Connor had seemingly accepted the squamate identity of Oculudentavis, but arguing for an avian identity. The O’Connor et al. rebuttal of Li et al. is pretty clear on its position, stating at the bottom of page 2:

Our parsimony-based phylogenetic analysis run using TNT placed Oculudentavis in Aves … Forcing a relationship with squamates required 10 additional steps.

But it also contains the rather extraordinary statement “Although in the future new information may prove we are incorrect in our original interpretation … this is in no way due to gross negligence” (p3).

I think we have to assume that O’Connor changed her mind between 11 March (the original publication) and 3 May (the SoCal meeting), then changed it back again by 14 June (the rebuttal of Li et al.), and finally accepted her first change of mind had been correct by 22 July (the retraction). But other interpretations are possible.

And of course the key question here lingers: why was the paper retracted, rather than merely corrected? And why does the journal say the authors retracted it, when the lead author says that the journal did it against their will?

Anyway, enough of the past. What of the future of the name Oculudentavis khaungraae?

The first thing we can all agree on is that (assuming Oculudentavis does turn out to be a squamate), the fact that the generic name misidentifies the phylogenetic position of the taxon is neither here nor there. Zoological nomenclature is full of such misnomers: they are not, and never have been, a reason to remove a name from the record.

But the retraction of the article in which the name was published is another matter. Does it mean, as some have argued, that the name is now nomenclaturally void?

I would strongly argue that no, it does not. There are several lines of reasoning.

First, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature does not mention retractions at all — from which the simplest conclusion to draw is that it does not recognise them, and considers a paper once published to be published forever.

Second, the wording of the code pertains to the act of publication, not to ongoing status. In Article 8 (What constitutes published work), section 8.1 (Criteria to be met) says “A work must … be issued for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record”. And the Oculudentavis paper certainly was issued for that purpose.

Third, the paper is still out there and always will be: even though electronic copies now bear the warning “This article was retracted on 22 July 2020”, there are thousands of copies of Nature 579 in libraries around the world. They can’t all be amended. What’s written is written. Quod scripsi, scripsi.

And this leads us to the final and most fundamental point: you can’t rewrite history: not one line. The simple and unavoidable reality is that the paper was published. That happened. A retraction can’t undo that — all it really amounts to is an expression of regret.

So the paper was published, and still is published, and the name established in it remains, and is forever tied to the type specimen HPG-15-3. If someone describes the “new unpublished specimen” referred to above, they have no choice but to use the established name Oculudentavis khaungraae: they don’t have the option of naming it (say) Oculudentosaurus instead.

At least, that’s how it seems to me. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature has been informally invited on Twitter to state a position, but has not responded at the time of writing — but then it’s not tweeted at all since April, so who knows what (if anything) is going on there? I heard somewhere that Oculudentavis is not being discussed on the ICZN mailing list, but I can’t remember where.

Now would be a good time for them to issue some guidance regarding retractions. And hey, ICZN? If you want to use any of my points above, feel free!