When I was nine, a copy of Don Glut’s The New Dinosaur Dictionary turned up in my local Waldenbooks. It wasn’t my first dinosaur book, by far – I’d been a dinosaurophile since the age of three. But The New Dinosaur Dictionary was different.

Up to that point, I had subsisted on a heavy diet of kids’ dino books and the occasional article in National Geographic and Ranger Rick. The kids’ books were aimed at kids and the magazine articles were pitched at an engagingly popular level. I didn’t understand every word, but they were clearly written for curious layfolk, not specialists.

A typical spread from The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982). The armored sauropod blew my young mind.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something else entirely. It had photos of actual dinosaur bones and illustrations of skeletons with cryptic captions like, “Skeleton of Daspletosaurus torosus. (After Russell)”. Okay, clearly this Russell cove was out there drawing dinosaur skeletons and this book had reproduced some of them. But nobody I knew talked like that, and the books I had access to up to that point held no comparable language.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 271)

Then there was stuff like this: “The so-called Von Hughenden sauropod restored as a brachiosaurid by Mark Hallett”. A chain of fascinating and pleasurable ideas detonated in my brain. “The so-called” – say what now? Nobody even knew what to call this thing? Somehow I had inadvertently sailed right to the edge of human knowledge of dinosaurs, and was peering out into taxa incognita. “Restored as a brachiosaurid” – so this was just one of several possible ways that the animal might have looked. Even the scientists weren’t sure. This was a far cry from the bland assurances and blithely patronizing tones of all my previous dinosaur books.

“By Mark Hallett.” I didn’t know who this Hallett guy was, but his art was all over the book, along with William Stout and some guy named Robert T. Bakker and a host of others who were exploding my conception of what paleo art could even be. Anyway, this Mark Hallett was someone to watch, not only because he got mentioned by name a lot, but because his art had a crisp quality that teetered on some hypercanny ridge between photorealism and scribbling. His sketches looked like they might just walk off the page.

In case that line about scribbling sounds dismissive: I have always preferred sketches by my favorite artists to their finished products. The polished works are frequently inhumanly good. They seem to have descended in a state of completed perfection from some divine realm, unattainable by mere mortals. Whereas sketches give us a look under the hood, and show how a good artist can conjure light, shadow, form, weight, and texture from a few pencil strokes. Put it this way: I am anatomist by temperament first, and by training and occupation second. Of course I want to see how things are put together.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 75)

Anyway, The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something completely new in my experience. It wasn’t aimed at kids and written as if by kids, like lots of kids’ books. It wasn’t even written by adults talking down (deliberately or inadvertently) to kids, or trying to reach a wide audience that might include kids. It was written by an adult, aiming at other adults. And it was admitting in plain language that we didn’t know everything yet, that there were lots of animals trembling on the outer threshold of scientific knowledge. I didn’t understand half of it – I was down in an ontogenetic trench, looking up as these packets of information exploded like fireworks over my head.

In Seeing In the Dark, the best book about why you should go out stargazing for yourself, Timothy Ferris writes about growing up on Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1960s, and watching the first generation of artificial satellites pass overhead:

I felt like an ancient lungfish contemplating the land from the sea. We could get up there.

That’s precisely the effect that The New Dinosaur Dictionary had on me: I could get up there. Maybe not immediately. But there were steps, bodies of knowledge that could be mastered piecemeal, and most of all, mysteries to be resolved. The book itself was like a sketch, showing how from isolated and broken bones and incomplete skeletons, scientists and artists reconstructed the world of the past, one hypothesis at a time. Now I take it for granted, because I’ve been behind the curtain for a couple of decades. But to my 9-year-old self, it was revolutionary.

This has all come roaring back because of something that came in the mail this week. Or rather, something that had been waiting in the mailroom for a while, that I finally picked up this week: a package from Mark Hallett, enclosing a copy of his 2018 dinosaur calendar. And also this:

 

An original sketch, which he gave to me as a Christmas present. The published version appears on one of the final pages of our book, where we discuss the boundaries between the known – the emerging synthesis of sauropod biology that we hoped to bring to a broader audience by writing the book in the first place – and the unknown – the enduring mysteries that Mark and I think will drive research in sauropod paleobiology for the next few decades. Presented without a caption or commentary, the sketch embodies sauropods as we see them: emerging from uncertainty and ignorance one hard-won line at a time, with ever-increasing solidity.

Thank you, Mark, sincerely. That sketch, what it evokes, both for me now and for my inner 9-year-old – you couldn’t have chosen a better gift. And I couldn’t be happier. Except perhaps to someday learn that our book exploded in the mind of a curious kid the way that The New Dinosaur Dictionary did for me 34 years ago, a time that now seems as distant and romantic as the primeval forests of the Mesozoic.

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Here’s a bunch of cool stuff that is either available now or happening soon:

Sauropod Dinosaurs book excerpt in Prehistoric Times

Been on the fence about the sauropod book Mark Hallett and I wrote? Now you can try before you buy – our chapter on titanosaurs is reprinted in the new issue of Prehistoric Times magazine. I know it’s on newsstands because I picked it up at the local Barnes & Noble yesterday. You can also buy the issue from the PT website, physically or in digital form, solo or as part of a subscription. Many thanks to PT editor and publisher Mike Fredericks for the visibility, the staff at Johns Hopkins University Press for permission, and most of all to Mark Hallett for making it happen. We hope you enjoy it.

Get more sauropods in Mark Hallett’s 2018 dinosaur calendar

Mark has a dinosaur calendar out from Pomegranate, and I’m happy to say that sauropods are featured 5 out of 12 months. The calendar has a nice mix of Hallett classics and some newer works, including the cover art from our book, as shown above. Get it direct from Pomegranate or from Amazon.

Vicki’s public talk on forensic anthropology in December

My better half, anthropologist and author Vicki Wedel, is giving a public talk about her work on the evening of Thursday, December 14, at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Her title will be, “Bones, ballistics, and blunt force trauma.” I assume the talk will start at 6:00, but check the WSC website for details. The painted skull above is from the natural history museum in Vienna, and it doesn’t have any connection to the talk other than Vicki thought it was rad and I needed a skull to illustrate the post. For more on Vicki and her work, see these posts: cold case, book.

2017VWedelLecture

UPDATE: Final details on Vicki’s talk are out. It will start at 6:00, she’ll be signing copies of her book, Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma, and admission is $5.

My public talk on sauropods and whales in January

In January it will be my turn to give a talk at the Western Science Center. I’m on for the evening of Thursday, January 18. Title is not quite finalized but it will probably something along the lines of, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?” That’s me with the gray whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, back in 2006. I was helping Nick Pyenson measure whales, back when we were both grad students. Ancient blog posts about that here: gray, blue.

See me in Seattle at Norwescon over Easter weekend

If you want to see me star-struck, come to Norwescon, home of the Philip K. Dick Award, next spring, where I’ll be rubbing shoulders with some vastly more famous people. Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winner Ken Liu will be the Writer Guest of Honor, legendary SF&F visionary Wayne Douglas Barlowe Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning artist Galen Dara will be the Artist Guest of Honor, Green Ronin is the Spotlight Publisher, and, er, I will be the Science Guest of Honor. Yes, I’m alert to both the honor and the incongruity of the thing. When I’m not Freaking. Out. about hanging with two of my favorite creators, I’ll probably be giving talks on dinosaurs and astronomy (my other thing) and participating on some panels and signing books. I’ll try not to disappoint.

A bunch of stuff, loosely organized by theme.

Media

First up, I need to thank Brian Switek, who invited me to comment on Patagotitan for his piece at Smithsonian. I think he did a great job on that, arguably the best of any of the first-day major media outlet pieces. And it didn’t go unnoticed – his article was referenced at both the Washington Post and NPR (and possibly other outlets, those are the two I know of right now). I don’t think my quotes got around because they’re particularly eloquent, BTW, but rather because reporters tend to like point-counterpoint, and I was apparently the most visible counterpoint. They probably would have done the same if I’d been talking complete nonsense (which, to be fair, some people may think I was).

Paleobiology vs Records

The most commonly reproduced quote of mine is this one, originally from Brian’s piece:

I think it would be more accurate to say that Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus and Patagotitan are so similar in size that it is impossible for now to say which one was the largest.

That may seem at odds with the, “Well, actually…[pushes glasses up nose]…Argentinosaurus was still biggest” tack I’ve taken both in my post yesterday and on Facebook. So let me elaborate a little.

There is a minor, boring point, which is that when I gave Brian that quote, I’d seen the Patagotitan paper, but not the Electronic Supplementary Materials (ESM), so I knew that Patagotitan was about the same size as the other two (and had known for a while), but I hadn’t had a chance to actually run the numbers.

The much more interesting point is that the size differences between Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan are astonishingly small. The difference between a 2.5m femur and a 2.4m one is negligible, ditto for vertebrae with centra 59cm and 60cm in diameter. OMNH 1331, the biggest centrum bit from the giant Oklahoma apatosaur, had an intact max diameter of 49cm, making it 26% larger in linear terms than the next-largest apatosaur. The centra of these giant South American titanosaurs are more than 20% bigger yet than OMNH 1331, just in linear terms. That’s crazy.

It’s also crazy that these three in particular – Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan – are so similar in size. Dinosaur developmental programs were ‘messy’ compared to those of mammals, both in having weird timings for things like onset of reproduction, and in varying a lot among closely related taxa. Furthermore, sauropod population dynamics should have been highly skewed toward juveniles and subadults. So is the near-equality in size among Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan just a coincidence, or does it mean that something weird was going on? There’s really no third option. I mean, even if some kind of internal (biomechanical or physiological) or external (ecological, food or predation) constraint forced those three to the same adult body size, it’s weird then that we’re finding only or at least mostly near-max-size adults. (If the available specimens of these three aren’t near-max-size, then any hypothesis that they’re forced to the same size by constraints is out the window, and we’re back to coincidence.)

BUT

With all that said, the title of “world’s largest dinosaur” is not handed out for effort expended, number of specimens collected, skeletal completeness, ontogenetic speculation, or anything other than “the dinosaur with the largest measured elements”. And that is currently Argentinosaurus. So although for any kind of paleobiological consideration we can currently consider Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan to all be about the same size – and Alamosaurus, Paralititan, Notocolossus, and probably others I’ve forgotten should be in this conversation – anyone wanting to dethrone Argentinosaurus needs to actually show up with bigger elements.

So, if you’re interested in paleobiology, it’s fascinating and frankly kind of unnerving that so many of these giant titanosaurs were within a hand-span of each other in terms of size. Patagotitan is one more on the pile – and, as I said yesterday, exciting because it’s so complete.

But if you want to know who holds the crown, it’s still Argentinosaurus.

Humeri

In a comment on the last post, Andrea Cau made an excellent point that I am just going to copy here entire:

Even Paralititan stromeri humerus is apparently larger than Patagotitan humerus (169 cm vs 167.5 cm). I know humerus length alone is bad proxy of body size, but at least this shows that even in that bone Patagotitan is just another big titanosaur among a well known gang of titans, not a supersized one.

That made me want to start a list of the longest sauropod humeri. Here goes – if I missed anyone or put down a figure incorrectly, I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments.

  • Giraffatitan: 213cm
  • Brachiosaurus: 203cm
  • Ruyangosaurus: 190cm (estimated from 135cm partial)
  • Turiasaurus: 179cm
  • Notocolossus: 176cm
  • Paralititan: 169cm
  • Patagotitan: 167.5cm
  • Dreadnoughtus: 160cm
  • Futlognkosaurus: 156cm

Admittedly the Patagotitan humerus is from a paratype and not from the largest individual, but that is true for some others on the list, including Giraffatitan. And we have no humeri from Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and some other giants.

Dorsal Vertebrae

A couple of further thoughts on how the dorsal vertebrae of Patagotitan compare to those of Argentinosaurus. First, now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I have a hard time seeing how the dorsal polygon method used by Carballido et al. in the Patagotitan paper has any biological meaning. In their example figure, the polygon around the Puertasaurus vertebra is mostly full of bone, and the one around Patagotitan has a lot of empty space. It’s easy to imagine an alternative metric, like “area of the minimum polygon actually filled by bone”, that would lead to a different ‘winner’. But that wouldn’t mean much, either.

Something that probably does have a real and important biomechanical meaning is the surface area of the articular face of the centrum, because that’s the area of bone that has to bear the compressive load, which is directly related to the animal’s mass. The biggest Patagotitan centrum is that of MPEF-PV 3400/5, which is at least a local maximum since has smaller centra both ahead and behind. The posterior face measures 59cm wide by 42.5cm tall. Abstracted as an ellipse, which may not be perfectly accurate, those measurements give a surface area of (pi)(29.5)(21.25)=1970 cm^2. For Argentinosaurus, the largest complete centrum has a posterior face measuring 60cm wide by 47cm tall (Bonaparte and Coria 1993: p. 5), giving an elliptical surface area of (pi)(30)(23.5)=2210 cm^2. (I’d use hi-res images of the centra to measure the actual surface areas if I could, but AFAIK those images either don’t exist or at least have not yet been made public, for either taxon.) So although the Argentinosaurus dorsal seems like it is only a bit bigger in linear terms, it’s 12% larger in surface area, and that might actually be a meaningful difference.

Cervical Vertebrae

One thing I haven’t commented on yet – Patagotitan is the newest member of the “world’s longest vertebrae” club. The longest Patagotitan cervical, MPEF-PV 3400/3, is listed in the ESM as having a centrum length of 120cm, but it’s also listed as incomplete. In the skeletal recon in the paper, the centrum is colored in as present, but the neural spine is missing. So is the centrum complete in terms of length? I don’t think it’s clear right now.

Anyway, here’s the current rundown of the longest cervical centra of sauropods (and therefore, the longest vertebrae among animals):

  • BYU 9024, possibly referable to Supersaurus or Barosaurus: 137cm
  • Price River 2 titanosauriform: 129cm
  • OMNH 53062, Sauroposeidon holotype: 125cm
  • KLR1508-77-2, Ruyangosaurus giganteus referred specimen: 124cm
  • MPEF-PV 3400/3, Patagotitan holotype: 120cm (+?)
  • MPM 10002, Puertasaurus holotype: 118cm

You may be surprised to see the Price River 2 cervical in there. It was reported in an SVP abstract a few years ago (I’ll dig up that ref and update this post), and Mike and I saw it last year on the Sauropocalypse. We measured the centrum at 129cm, making it just a bit longer than the longest centrum of Sauroposeidon, and therefore the second-longest vertebra of anything ever.

Aside – I’m probably getting a reputation as a big ole meanie when it comes to debunking “world’s largest dinosaur” claims. If I’m willing to take the lead in kicking my own dinosaur down the ladder, don’t expect me to be kind to yours. I follow where the numbers lead.

Now, here’s an interesting thing – now that Sauroposeidon is coming out as a basal titanosaur, rather than a brachiosaur, it might not have been a skinny freak. The 120cm cervical of Patagotitan makes the 125cm cervical of Sauroposeidon and the 129cm cervical from Price River 2 look even more tantalizing. Maybe it’s super-giant sauropods all the way down.

“But wait, Matt”, I hear you thinking. “Every news agency in the world is tripping over themselves declaring Patagotitan the biggest dinosaur of all time. Why are you going in the other direction?”

Because I’ve been through this a few times now. But mostly because I can friggin’ read.

Maximum dorsal centrum diameter in Argentinosaurus is 60cm (specimen MCF-PVPH-1, Bonaparte and Coria 1993). In Puertasaurus it is also 60cm (MPM 10002, Novas et al. 2005). In Patagotitan it is 59cm (MPEF-PV 3400/5, Carballido et al. 2017). (For more big centra, see this post.)

Femoral midshaft circumference is 118cm in an incomplete femur of Argentinosaurus estimated to be 2.5m long when complete (Mazzetta et al. 2004). A smaller Argentinosaurus femur is 2.25m long with a circumference of 111.4cm (Benson et al. 2014). The largest reported femur of Patagotitan, MPEF-PV 3399/44, is 2.38m long and has a circumference of either 101cm (as reported in the Electronic Supplementary Materials to Carballido et al 2017) or 110cm (as reported in the media in 2014*).

TL;DR: 60>59, and 118>111>110>101, and in both cases Argentinosaurus > Patagotitan, at least a little bit.

Now, Carballido et al (2017) estimated that Patagotitan was sliiiiightly more massive than Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus by doing a sort of 2D minimum convex hull dorsal vertebra area thingy, which the Patagotitan vertebra “wins” because it has a taller neural spine than either Argentinosaurus or Puertasaurus, and slightly wider transverse processes than Argentinosaurus (138cm vs 128cm) – but way narrower transverse processes than Puertasaurus (138cm vs 168cm). But vertebrae with taller or wider sticky-out bits do not a more massive dinosaur make, otherwise Rebbachisaurus would outweigh Giraffatitan.

Now, in truth, it’s basically a three-way tie between Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan. Given how little we have of the first two, and how large the error bars are on any legit size comparison, there is no real way to tell which of them was the longest or the most massive. Still, to get to the conclusion that Patagotitan was in any sense larger than Argentinosaurus you have to physically drag yourself over the following jaggedly awkward facts:

  1. The weight-bearing parts of the anterior dorsal vertebrae are larger in diameter in both Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus than in Patagotitan. Very slightly, but still, Patagotitan is the smallest of the three.
  2. The femora of Argentinosaurus are fatter than those of Patagotitan, even at shorter length. The biggest femora of Argentinosaurus are longer, too.

So all of the measurements of body parts that have to do with supporting mass are still larger in Argentinosaurus than in Patagotitan.

Now, it is very cool that we now have a decent chunk of the skeleton of a super-giant titanosaur, instead of little bits and bobs. And it’s nice to know that the numbers reported in the media back in 2014 turned out to be accurate. But Patagotitan is not the “world’s largest dinosaur”. At best, it’s the third-largest contender among near equals.

Parting shot to all the science reporters who didn’t report the same numbers I did here: instead of getting hype-notized by assumption-laden estimates, how about doing an hour’s worth of research making the most obvious possible comparisons?

Almost immediate UPDATE: Okay, that parting shot wasn’t entirely fair. As far as I know, the measurements of Patagotitan were not available until the embargo lifted. Which is in itself odd – if someone claims to have the world’s largest dinosaur, but doesn’t put any measurements in the paper, doesn’t that make your antennae twitch? Either demand some measurements so you can make those obvious comparisons, or approach with extreme skepticism – especially if the “world’s largest dino” claim was pre-debunked three years ago!

* From this article in the Boston Globe:

Paleobiologist Paul Upchurch of University College London believes size estimates are more reliable when extrapolated from the circumference of bones.

He said this femur is a whopping 43.3 inches around, about the same as the Argentinosaurus’ thigh bone.

‘‘Whether or not the new animal really will be the largest sauropod we know remains to be seen,’’ said Upchurch, who was not involved in this discovery but has seen the bones first-hand.

Some prophetically appropriate caution from Paul Upchurch there, who has also lived through a few of these “biggest dinosaur ever” bubbles.

References

Here’s a dorsal vertebra of Camarasaurus in anterior view (from Ostrom & McIntosh 1966, modified by Wilson & Sereno 1998). It is one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in a sauropod. It makes my skin crawl.

Here’s why: the centrum and the thing we habitually call the ‘neural arch’ aren’t fully fused, and as this modified version makes clear, the ‘neural arch’ is neither neural nor an arch. Instead of being bounded ventrally by the centrum and dorsally and laterally by the neural arch, the neural canal lies entirely below the synchondrosis between the not-really-an-arch and the centrum.

Why?! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT, CAMARASAURUS? This is not ‘Nam. This is basic vertebral architecture. There are rules.

Look at c6 of Apatosaurus CM 555 here, behaving as all good vertebrae ought to. Neural arch be archin’, as the kids say.

And if you are seeking solace in the thought that maybe the artist just drew that Cam dorsal incorrectly, forget it. I’ve been to Yale and examined the original specimen. I’ve seen things, man!

Camarasaurus isn’t the only pervert around here. Check this out:

Unfused neural arch of a caudal vertebra of a juvenile Alamosaurus from Big Bend. And I mean, this is a neural arch. This may be the most neural of all neural arches, in that it contains the entire neural canal. It’s more of a neural…ring, I guess. That’s right, this Alamosaurus caudal is batting for the opposite team from the Cam dorsal above. And it’s a team that neither you nor I play on, because we have well-behaved normal-ass vertebrae with neural arches that actually arch, and then stop, like God and Richard Owen intended.

Scientifically, my question about these vertebrae is: well, that is, I mean to say, what!? I think they have damaged me in some fundamental way.

If you have anything more intelligent to add (or even less intelligent – consider the gauntlet thrown down!), the comment thread is open.

References

  • Ostrom, John H., and John S. McIntosh. 1966. Marsh’s Dinosaurs. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 388 pages including 65 absurdly beautiful plates.
  • Wilson, J. A. and Paul C. Sereno. 1998. Early evolution and higher-level phylogeny of sauropod dinosaurs. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Memoir 5: 1-68.

Enter Sarmientosaurus

April 28, 2016

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Fig 6. Cranium of Sarmientosaurus musacchioi gen. et sp. nov. (MDT-PV 2). Computed tomography-based digital visualization in right lateral (A), left lateral (B), rostral (C), caudal (D), dorsal (E), and ventral (F) views. Scale bar = 10 cm. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151661.g006

Yesterday we got a treat: the description of a new titanosaur, Sarmientosaurus musacchioi, based on some decent cervical vertebrae and an almost absurdly nice skull from the Upper Cretaceous of Argentina (Martinez et al., 2016). It was published in PLOS ONE so it’s free to the world, including a 3D PDF of the skull and some awesome visualizations. Get all that good stuff here.

I had one day’s warning about this – Brian Switek contacted me on Monday to ask if I’d be willing to lend my thoughts on the new critter for his news article for National Geographic, which you can read here. As always, I sent more stuff than he could use, so I’m recycling the long form for the rest of this post.

Brian’s first question was about how Sarmientosaurus stands out. I wrote:

Sarmientosaurus has probably the most complete and best-preserved skull of any sauropod from South America to date. It’s kind of funny – for so long we had so few good skulls from brachiosaurs and titanosaurs, and now we’re getting them, but without much of the rest of the skeleton. In North America, unquestionably the nicest Cretaceous sauropod skull is that of the brachiosaurid Abydosaurus, but all we have with the skull is a bit of the neck. Same situation now with this new titanosaur, Sarmientosaurus. I’m not complaining – great skulls without bodies are still great skulls! – but it will be nice to someday connect heads and bodies.

Also, the authors are to be commended – I don’t think anyone has ever done such a thorough job describing the skull of a sauropod dinosaur. This paper will become the standard to which all others are compared going forward.

I stand by all of that. This new paper is just ridiculous in quantity and quality of descriptive detail. Do you like technicolor sauropod palates? Here, have a technicolor sauropod palate:

journal.pone.0151661.g008

Fig 8. Palate of Sarmientosaurus musacchioi gen. et sp. nov. (MDT-PV 2). Computed tomography-based digital visualization in ventral view indicating palatal bones (ectopterygoids, palatines, pterygoids, and vomers) and the right suborbital fenestra. Abbreviations see text. Scale bar = 10 cm. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151661.g008

The next question from Brian was about the head posture and the inference drawn by Martinez et al. (2016) that Sarmientosaurus fed at ground level. My take:

It doesn’t seem unlikely to me that Sarmientosaurus had a downward-facing snout. As for being a low grazer, I am skeptical. The inner ear usually tells us something about the alert posture of an animal, not its feeding posture. Take rhinos – some of them graze from the ground, and some of them browse up higher, but they all carry their heads the same way. Most grazers have wide snouts, whereas that of Sarmientosaurus is pointed and even a little narrower than that of Giraffatitan. That’s a curious shape for a supposed grazer.

So there are three points to unpack here. First, I chose my words deliberately in saying that the inner ear tells us “something” about the alert posture, because in fact the horizontal semicircular canals (HSCCs) aren’t great even at that. As I wrote in this post seven years ago:

Where SCCs have really attracted attention in paleontology is the “more or less” horizontal orientation of the HSCCs in living animals. Some authors have argued that if you set the HSCCs level or close to level, you can figure out how the head was oriented in life.

Well, maybe. The problem is that there is a LOT of variation around level. In birds surveyed by Duijm (1951), HSCC orientation varied by 50 degrees among taxa, from 20 degrees below horizontal to 30 degrees above. Furthermore, in humans HSCC orientation varies by up to 20 degrees among individuals. Possibly humans are weirdly variable, but it seems at least equally likely that most critters are and we’ve only discovered that variation in humans because of the huge sample size.

However you slice it, those are darn big error bars around any given head posture. That doesn’t mean that HSCC orientations in dinosaurs and other extinct vertebrates are worthless for determining posture (they may also be a source of taxonomic information). Strictly speaking, it means that preserved HSCCs can get us in the 50-degree ballpark but can’t narrow things down any further. This is one of those areas in paleontology where we’re just going to have to live with a certain amount of uncertainty, at least for now.

As far as I know, that’s all still true. But I’d love to be wrong.

Second, there’s the difference between alert posture and feeding posture. Go watch horses graze – the skull is practically vertical while they’re feeding, but that’s not the orientation you get from the HSCCs. So if I’m skeptical about ignoring the error bars around HSCC orientation to determine alert posture, I’m even more skeptical about trying to infer feeding posture from them. Also, the rhino point – we have an extant group with closely related taxa where one is a grazer (white rhino, Ceratotherium) and one is a browser (black rhino, Diceros). They hold their heads about the same. So feeding preference will not necessarily be reflected in normal, non-feeding head posture.

journal.pone.0151661.g034

Fig 34. Comparison of titanosauriform sauropod dinosaur skulls in dorsal view. (A) Giraffatitan brancai (redrawn from Wilson and Sereno [103]). (B) Sarmientosaurus musacchioi gen. et sp. nov. (C) Nemegtosaurus mongoliensis (redrawn from Wilson [11]). (D) Rapetosaurus krausei (redrawn from Curry Rogers and Forster [13]). (E) Tapuiasaurus macedoi (redrawn from Zaher et al. [14]). Not to scale. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151661.g034

Third, muzzle shape. Most grazers have wide mouths, but as I said in the email to Brian – and as this figure shows – the snout of Sarmientosaurus is narrower than that of Giraffatitan, and I don’t think anyone is seriously proposing that Giraffatitan was a grazer. So if Sarmientosaurus was more committed to low-level feeding than more basal titanosauriforms, its face was evolving in the wrong direction. Just sayin’.

(Incidentally, I am hugely in favor of figures like 33 and 34 in Martinez et al., 2016, which make it easy to compare the new critter to a selection of reference taxa. I wish everyone would do this all the time.)

journal.pone.0151661.g033

Fig 33. Comparison of titanosauriform sauropod dinosaur skulls in right lateral view. (A) Giraffatitan brancai (redrawn and modified from Wilson and Sereno [103]). (B) Abydosaurus mcintoshi (redrawn and modified from Chure et al. [98]). (C) Sarmientosaurus musacchioi gen. et sp. nov. (D) Nemegtosaurus mongoliensis (redrawn and modified from Wilson [11]). (E) Rapetosaurus krausei (redrawn from Curry Rogers and Forster [13]). (F) Tapuiasaurus macedoi (redrawn from Zaher et al. [14]). Not to scale. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151661.g033

Finally (final for the purposes of the interview), Brian noted that in the media sauropods are often depicted as all being pretty much the same, and he asked what made Sarmientosaurus stand out. My response:

Until now, the skulls we’ve found of basal titanosauriforms – brachiosaurs and relatives – and more derived titanosaurs haven’t looked much alike. To me Sarmientosaurus is cool because it bridges that gap. From the top and the front the skull looks a lot like those of Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan – really wide, pretty big teeth, long toothrow. But from the side, the smaller nostrils and long snout have obvious similarities to more derived titanosaurs like Nemegtosaurus. And they phylogenetic analysis confirms that, which is nice. But you can take one look at this thing and say, “Yeah, cool, we’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

The lateral views of titanosauriform skulls in the above figure nicely illustrate my point. If you took the Giraffatitan skull in A and the Tapuiasaurus skull in F and did a 50% morph between them, you’d get something pretty darned close to Sarmientosaurus. And about halfway between Giraffatitan and the really derived saltasaurids is where the phylogenetic analysis puts Sarmientosaurus. The gestalt of the skull nicely reflects the animal’s relationships, which does not always happen.

Oh, there are cervical vertebrae, too, and a seriously weird ossified tendon that is apparently not a cervical rib, but those will keep for another post.

The take-home here is that although I disagree with the authors on a few points of paleobiological interpretation, the Sarmientosaurus fossils are spectacular and Martinez et al. (2016) have done a tremendous job of describing and illustrating them. And the paper is free to anyone who wants it, as it should be. One of the great delights of the last few years has been watching PLOS ONE and PeerJ become the preferred outlets for high-quality descriptive work on dinosaurs.

Now if we can just find more of this thing!

Reference

Martínez RDF, Lamanna MC, Novas FE, Ridgely RC, Casal GA, Martínez JE, et al. (2016) A Basal Lithostrotian Titanosaur (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) with a Complete Skull: Implications for the Evolution and Paleobiology of Titanosauria. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0151661. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0151661

 

 

Notocolossus is a beast

January 20, 2016

Notocolossus skeletal recon - Gonzalez Riga et al 2016 fig 1

(a) Type locality of Notocolossus (indicated by star) in southern-most Mendoza Province, Argentina. (b) Reconstructed skeleton and body silhouette in right lateral view, with preserved elements of the holotype (UNCUYO-LD 301) in light green and those of the referred specimen (UNCUYO-LD 302) in orange. Scale bar, 1 m. (González Riga et al. 2016: figure 1)

This will be all too short, but I can’t let the publication of a new giant sauropod pass unremarked. Yesterday Bernardo González Riga and colleagues published a nice, detailed paper describing Notocolossus gonzalezparejasi, “Dr. Jorge González Parejas’s southern giant”, a new titanosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Mendoza Province, Argentina (González Riga et al. 2016). The paper is open access and freely available to the world.

As you can see from the skeletal recon, there’s not a ton of material known from Notocolossus, but among giant sauropods it’s actually not bad, being better represented than Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, Argyrosaurus, and Paralititan. In particular, one hindfoot is complete and articulated, and a good chunk of the paper and supplementary info are devoted to describing how weird it is.

But let’s not kid ourselves – you’re not here for feet, unless it’s to ask how many feet long this monster was. So how big was Notocolossus, really?

Well, it wasn’t the world’s largest sauropod. And to their credit, no-one on the team that described it has made any such superlative claims for the animal. Instead they describe it as, “one of the largest terrestrial vertebrates ever discovered”, and that’s perfectly accurate.

Notocolossus limb bones - Gonzalez Riga et al 2016 fig 4

(a) Right humerus of the holotype (UNCUYO-LD 301) in anterior view. Proximal end of the left pubis of the holotype (UNCUYO-LD 301) in lateral (b) and proximal (c) views. Right tarsus and pes of the referred specimen (UNCUYO-LD 302) in (d) proximal (articulated, metatarsus only, dorsal [=anterior] to top), (e) dorsomedial (articulated), and (f) dorsal (disarticulated) views. Abbreviations: I–V, metatarsal/digit number; 1–2, phalanx number; ast, astragalus; cbf, coracobrachialis fossa; dpc, deltopectoral crest; hh, humeral head; ilped, iliac peduncle; of, obturator foramen; plp, proximolateral process; pmp, proximomedial process; rac, radial condyle; ulc, ulnar condyle. Scale bars, 20 cm (a–c), 10 cm (d–f). (Gonzalez Riga et al 2016: figure 4)

Any discussions of the size of Notocolossus will be driven by one of two elements: the humerus and the anterior dorsal vertebra. The humerus is 176 cm long, which is shorter than those of Giraffatitan (213 cm), Brachiosaurus (204 cm), and Turiasaurus (179 cm), but longer than those of Paralititan (169 cm), Dreadnoughtus (160 cm), and Futalognkosaurus (156 cm). Of course we don’t have a humerus for Argentinosaurus or Puertasaurus, but based on the 250-cm femur of Argentinosaurus, the humerus was probably somewhere around 200 cm. Hold that thought.

Notocolossus and Puertasaurus dorsals compared

Top row: my attempt at a symmetrical Notocolossus dorsal, made by mirroring the left half of the fossil from the next row down. Second row: photos of the Notocolossus dorsal with missing bits outlined, from Gonzalez Riga et al (2016: fig. 2). Scale bar is 20 cm (in original). Third row: the only known dorsal vertebra of Puertasaurus, scaled to about the same size as the Notocolossus vertebra, from Novas et al. (2005: fig. 2).

The anterior dorsal tells a similar story, and this is where I have to give González Riga et al. some props for publishing such detailed sets of measurements in the their supplementary information. They Measured Their Damned Dinosaur. The dorsal has a preserved height of 75 cm – it’s missing the tip of the neural spine and would have been a few cm taller in life – and by measuring the one complete transverse process and doubling it, the authors estimate that when complete it would have been 150 cm wide. That is 59 inches, almost 5 feet. The only wider vertebra I know of is the anterior dorsal of Puertasaurus, at a staggering 168 cm wide (Novas et al. 2005). The Puertasaurus dorsal is also quite a bit taller dorsoventrally, at 106 cm, and it has a considerably larger centrum: 43 x 60 cm, compared to 34 x 43.5 cm for Notocolossus (anterior centrum diameters, height x width).

Centrum size is an interesting parameter. Because centra are so rarely circular, arguably the best way to compare across taxa would be to measure the max area (or, since centrum ends are also rarely flat, the max cross-sectional area). It’s late and this post is already too long, so I’m not going to do that now. But I have been keeping an informal list of the largest centrum diameters among sauropods – and, therefore, among all Terran life – and here they are (please let me know if I missed anyone):

  • 60 cm – Argentinosaurus dorsal, MCF-PVPH-1, Bonaparte and Coria (1993)
  • 60 cm – Puertasaurus dorsal, MPM 10002, Novas et al. (2005)
  • 51 cm – Ruyangosaurus cervical and dorsal, 41HIII-0002, Lu et al. (2009)
  • 50 cm – Alamosaurus cervical, SMP VP−1850, Fowler and Sullivan (2011)
  • 49 cm – Apatosaurus ?caudal, OMNH 1331 (pers. obs.)
  • 49 cm – Supersaurus dorsal, BYU uncatalogued (pers. obs.)
  • 46 cm – Dreadnoughtus dorsal, MPM-PV 1156, Lacovara et al. (2014: Supplmentary Table 1) – thanks to Shahen for catching this one in the comments!
  • 45.6 cm – Giraffatitan presacral, Fund no 8, Janensch (1950: p. 39)
  • 45 cm – Futalognkosaurus sacral, MUCPv-323, Calvo et al. (2007)
  • 43.5 cm – Notocolossus dorsal, UNCUYO-LD 301, González Riga et al. (2016)

(Fine print: I’m only logging each taxon once, by its largest vertebra, and I’m not counting the dorsoventrally squashed Giraffatitan cervicals which get up to 47 cm wide, and the “uncatalogued” Supersaurus dorsal is one I saw back in 2005 – it almost certainly has been catalogued in the interim.) Two things impress me about this list: first, it’s not all ‘exotic’ weirdos – look at the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus hanging out halfway down the list. Second, Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus pretty much destroy everyone else by a wide margin. Notocolossus doesn’t seem so impressive in this list, but it’s worth remembering that the “max” centrum diameter here is from one vertebra, which was likely not the largest in the series – then again, the same is true for Puertasaurus, Alamosaurus, and many others.

Notocolossus phylogeny - Gonzalez Riga et al 2016 fig 5

(a) Time-calibrated hypothesis of phylogenetic relationships of Notocolossus with relevant clades labelled. Depicted topology is that of the single most parsimonious tree of 720 steps in length (Consistency Index = 0.52; Retention Index = 0.65). Stratigraphic ranges (indicated by coloured bars) for most taxa follow Lacovara et al.4: fig. 3 and references therein. Additional age sources are as follows: Apatosaurus[55], Cedarosaurus[58], Diamantinasaurus[59], Diplodocus[35], Europasaurus[35], Ligabuesaurus[35], Neuquensaurus[60], Omeisaurus[55], Saltasaurus[60], Shunosaurus[55], Trigonosaurus[35], Venenosaurus[58], Wintonotitan[59]. Stratigraphic ranges are colour-coded to also indicate geographic provenance of each taxon: Africa (excluding Madagascar), light blue; Asia (excluding India), red; Australia, purple; Europe, light green; India, dark green; Madagascar, dark blue; North America, yellow; South America, orange. (b–h) Drawings of articulated or closely associated sauropod right pedes in dorsal (=anterior) view, with respective pedal phalangeal formulae and total number of phalanges per pes provided (the latter in parentheses). (b) Shunosaurus (ZDM T5402, reversed and redrawn from Zhang[45]); (c) Apatosaurus (CM 89); (d) Camarasaurus (USNM 13786); (e) Cedarosaurus (FMNH PR 977, reversed from D’Emic[32]); (f) Epachthosaurus (UNPSJB-PV 920, redrawn and modified from Martínez et al.[22]); (g) Notocolossus; (h) Opisthocoelicaudia (ZPAL MgD-I-48). Note near-progressive decrease in total number of pedal phalanges and trend toward phalangeal reduction on pedal digits II–V throughout sauropod evolutionary history (culminating in phalangeal formula of 2-2-2-1-0 [seven total phalanges per pes] in the latest Cretaceous derived titanosaur Opisthocoelicaudia). Abbreviation: Mya, million years ago. Institutional abbreviations see Supplementary Information. (González Riga et al. 2016: figure 5)

As for the estimated mass of Notocolossus, González Riga et al. (2016) did their due diligence. The sections on mass estimation in the main text and supplementary information are very well done – lucid, modest, and fair. Rather than try to summarize the good bit, I’ll just quote it. Here you go, from page 7 of the main text:

The [humeral] diaphysis is elliptical in cross-section, with its long axis oriented mediolaterally, and measures 770 mm in minimum circumference. Based on that figure, the consistent relationship between humeral and femoral shaft circumference in associated titanosaurian skeletons that preserve both of these dimensions permits an estimate of the circumference of the missing femur of UNCUYO-LD 301 at 936 mm (see Supplementary Information). (Note, however, that the dataset that is the source of this estimate does not include many gigantic titanosaurs, such as Argentinosaurus[5], Paralititan[16], and Puertasaurus[11], since no specimens that preserve an associated humerus and femur are known for these taxa.) In turn, using a scaling equation proposed by Campione and Evans[20], the combined circumferences of the Notocolossus stylopodial elements generate a mean estimated body mass of ~60.4 metric tons, which exceeds the ~59.3 and ~38.1 metric ton masses estimated for the giant titanosaurs Dreadnoughtus and Futalognkosaurus, respectively, using the same equation (see Supplementary Information). It is important to note, however, that subtracting the mean percent prediction error of this equation (25.6% of calculated mass[20]) yields a substantially lower estimate of ~44.9 metric tons for UNCUYO-LD 301. Furthermore, Bates et al.[21] recently used a volumetric method to propose a revised maximum mass of ~38.2 metric tons for Dreadnoughtus, which suggests that the Campione and Evans[20] equation may substantially overestimate the masses of large sauropods, particularly giant titanosaurs. Unfortunately, however, the incompleteness of the Notocolossus specimens prohibits the construction of a well-supported volumetric model of this taxon, and therefore precludes the application of the Bates et al.[21] method. The discrepancies in mass estimation produced by the Campione and Evans[20] and Bates et al.[21] methods indicate a need to compare the predictions of these methods across a broad range of terrestrial tetrapod taxa[21]. Nevertheless, even if the body mass of the Notocolossus holotype was closer to 40 than 60 metric tons, this, coupled with the linear dimensions of its skeletal elements, would still suggest that it represents one of the largest land animals yet discovered.

So, nice work all around. As always, I hope we get more of this critter someday, but until then, González Riga et al. (2016) have done a bang-up job describing the specimens they have. Both the paper and the supplementary information will reward a thorough read-through, and they’re free, so go have fun.

References