Daniel Vidal et al.’s new paper in Scientific Reports (Vidal et al. 2020) has been out for a couple of days now. Dealing as it does with sauropod neck posture, it’s obviously of interest to me, and to Matt. (See our earlier relevant papers Taylor et al. 2009, Taylor and Wedel 2013 and Taylor 2014.)

Overview

To brutally over-summarise Vidal et al.’s paper, it comes down to this: they digitized the beautifully preserved and nearly complete skeleton of Spinophorosaurus, and digitally articulated the scans of the bones to make a virtual skeletal mount. In doing this, they were careful to consider the neutral pose of consecutive vertebrae in isolation, looking at only one pair at a time, so as to avoid any unconscious biases as to how the articulated column “should” look.

Then they took the resulting pose, objectively arrived at — shown above in their figure 1 — and looked to see what it told them. And as you can well see, it showed a dramatically different pose from that of the original reconstruction.

Original skeletal reconstruction of Spinophorosaurus nigerensis (Remes et al. 2009:figure 5, reversed for ease of comparison). Dimensions are based on GCP-CV-4229/NMB-1699-R, elements that are not represented are shaded. Scale bar = 1 m.

In particular, they found that as the sacrum is distinctly “wedged” (i.e. its anteroposterior length is greater ventrally than it is dorsally, giving it a functionally trapezoidal shape, shown in their figure 1A), so that the column of the torso is inclined 20 degrees dorsally relative to that of the tail. They also found lesser but still significant wedging in the last two dorsal vertebrae (figure 1B) and apparently some slight wedging in the first dorsal (figure 1C) and last cervical (figure 1D).

The upshot of all this is that their new reconstruction of Spinophorosaurus has a strongly inclined dorsal column, and consequently an strongly inclined cervical column in neutral pose.

Vidal et al. also note that all eusauropods have wedged sacra to a greater or lesser extent, and conclude that to varying degrees all eusauropods had a more inclined torso and neck than we have been used to reconstructing them with.

Response

I have to be careful about this paper, because its results flatter my preconceptions. I have always been a raised-neck advocate, and there is a temptation to leap onto any paper that reaches the same conclusion and see it as corroboration of my position.

The first thing to say is that the core observation is absolutely right, — and it’s one of those things that once it’s pointed out it’s so obvious that you wonder why you never made anything of it yourself. Yes, it’s true that sauropod sacra are wedged. It’s often difficult to see in lateral view because the ilia are usually fused to the sacral ribs, but when you see them in three dimensions it’s obvious. Occasionally you find a sacrum without its ilium, and then the wedging can hardly be missed … yet somehow, we’ve all been missing its implications for a century and a half.

Sacrum of Diplodocus AMNH 516 in left lateral and (for our purposes irrelevant) ventral views. (Osborn 1904 figure 3)

Of course this means that, other thing being equal, the tail and torso will not be parallel with each other, but will project in such a way that the angle between them, measured dorsally, is less than 180 degrees. And to be fair, Greg Paul has long been illustrating diplodocids with an upward kink to the tail, and some other palaeoartists have picked up on this — notably Scott Hartman with his very uncomfortable-looking Mamenchisaurus.

But I do have three important caveats that mean I can’t just take the conclusions of the Vidal et al. paper at face value.

1. Intervertebral cartilage

I know that we have rather banged on about this (Taylor and Wedel 2013, Taylor 2014) but it remains true that bones alone can tell us almost nothing about how vertebrae articulated. Unless we incorporate intervertebral cartilage into our models, they can only mislead us. To their credit, Vidal et al. are aware of this — though you wouldn’t know it from the actual paper, whose single mention of cartilage is in respect of a hypothesised cartilaginous suprascapula. But buried away the supplementary information is this rather despairing paragraph:

Cartilaginous Neutral Pose (CNP): the term was coined by Taylor for “the pose found when intervertebral cartilage [that separates the centra of adjacent vertebrae] is included”. Since the amount of inter-vertebral space cannot be certainly known for most fossil vertebrate taxa, true CNP will likely remain unknown for most taxa or always based on estimates.

Now this is true, so far as it goes: it’s usually impossible to know how much cartilage there was, and what shape it took, as only very unusual preservational conditions give us this information. But I don’t think that lets us out from the duty of recognising how crucial that cartilage is. It’s not enough just to say “It’s too hard to measure” and assume it didn’t exist. We need to be saying “Here are the results if we assume zero-thickness cartilage, here’s what we get if we assume cartilage thickness equal to 5% centrum length, and here’s what we get if we assume 10%”.

I really don’t think it’s good enough in 2020 to say “We know there was some intervertebral cartilage, but since we don’t know exactly how much we’re going to assume there was none at all”.

The thing about incorporating cartilage into articulating models is that we would, quite possibly, get crazy results. I refer you to the disturbing figure 4 in my 2014 paper:

Figure 4. Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

I imagine that taking cartilage into account for the Spinophorosaurus reconstruction might have given rise to equally crazy “neutral” postures. I can see why Vidal et al. might have been reluctant to open that can of worms; but the thing is, it’s a can that really needs opening.

2. Sacrum orientation

As Vidal et al.’s figure 1A clearly shows, the sacrum of Spinophorosaurus is indeed wedge-shaped, with the anterior articular surface of the first sacral forming an angle of 20 degrees relative to the posterior articular surface of the last:

But I don’t see why it follows that “the coalesced sacrum is situated so that the posterior face of the last sacral centrum is sub-vertical. This makes the presacral series to slope dorsally and the tail to be subhorizontal (Figs. 1 and 4S)”. Vidal et al. justify this with the claim by saying:

Since a subhorizontal tail has been known to be present in the majority of known sauropods[27, 28, 29], the [osteologically induced curvature] of the tail of Spinophorosaurus is therefore compatible with this condition.

But those three numbered references are to Gilmore 1932, Coombs 1975 and Bakker 1968 — three venerable papers, all over fifty years old, dating from a period long before the current understanding of sauropod posture. What’s more, each of those three was about disproving the previously widespread assumption of tail-dragging in sauropods, but the wedged sacrum of Spinophorosaurus if anything suggests the opposite posture.

So my question is, given that the dorsal and caudal portions of the vertebral column are at some specific angle to each other, how do we decide which (if either) is horizontal, and which is inclined?

Three interpretations of the wedged sacrum of Spinophorosaurus, in right lateral view. In all three, the green line represents the trajectory of the dorsal column in the torso, and the red line that of the caudal column. At the top, the tail is horizontal (as favoured by Vidal et al. 2020) resulting in an inclined torso; at the bottom, the torso is horizontal, resulting in a dorsally inclined tail; in the middle, an intermediate posture shows both the torso and the tail slightly inclined.

I am not convinced that the evidence presented by Vidal et al. persuasively favours any of these possibilities over the others. (They restore the forequarters of Spinophorosaurus with a very vertical and ventrally positioned scapula in order to enable the forefeet to reach the ground; this may be correct or it may not, but it’s by no means certain — especially as the humeri are cross-scaled from a referred specimen and the radius, ulna and manus completely unknown.)

3. Distortion

Finally, we should mention the problem of distortion. This is not really a criticism of the paper, just a warning that sacra as preserved should not be taken as gospel. I have no statistics or even systematic observations to back up this assertion, but the impression I have, from having looked closely at quite a lot of sauropod vertebra, is the sacra are perhaps more prone to distortion than most vertebrae. So, for example, the very extreme almost 30-degree wedging that Vidal et al. observed in the sacrum of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH PR 25107 should perhaps not be taken at face value.

Now what?

Vidal el al. are obviously onto something. Sauropod sacra are screwy, and I’m glad they have drawn attention in a systematic way to something that had only been alluded to in passing previously, and often in a way that made it seems as though the wedging they describe was unique to a few special specimens. So it’s good that this paper is out there.

But we really do need to see it as only a beginning. Some of the things I want to see:

  • Taking cartilage into account. If this results in silly postures, we need to understand why that is the case, not just pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
  • Comparison of sauropod sacra with those of other animals — most important, extant animals whose actual posture we can observe. This might be able to tell us whether wedging really has the implications for posture that we’re assuming.
  • Better justification of the claim that the torso rather than the tail was inclined.
  • An emerging consensus on sauropod shoulder articulation, since this also bears on torso orientation. (I don’t really have a position on this, but I think Matt does.)
  • The digital Spinophorosaurus model used in this study. (The paper says “The digital fossils used to build the virtual skeleton are deposited and accessioned at the Museo Paleontológico de Elche” but there is no link, I can’t easily find them on the website and they really should be published alongside the paper.)

Anyway, this is a good beginning. Onward and upward!

References

  • Bakker, Robert T. 1968. The Superiority of Dinosaurs. Discovery 3:11–22.
  • Coombs, Walter P. 1975. Sauropod habits and habitats. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 17:1-33.
  • Gilmore, Charles W. 1932. On a newly mounted skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81:1-21.
  • Hatcher, John Bell. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy, and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63.
  • Osborn, Henry F. 1904. Manus, sacrum and caudals of Sauropoda. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 20:181-190.
  • Taylor, Michael P. 2014. Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PeerJ 2:e712. doi:10.7717/peerj.712
  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214
  • Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2):213-230.
  • Vidal, Daniel, P Mocho, A. Aberasturi, J. L. Sanz and F. Ortega. 2020. High browsing skeletal adaptations in Spinophorosaurus reveal an evolutionary innovation in sauropod dinosaurs. Scientific Reports 10(6638). Indispensible supplementary information at https://static-content.springer.com/esm/art%3A10.1038%2Fs41598-020-63439-0/MediaObjects/41598_2020_63439_MOESM1_ESM.pdf
    doi:10.1038/s41598-020-63439-0

 

Mike’s and Matt’s excellent adventure in Pittsburgh continues! Today was Day 4, and just as yesterday offered us a unique opportunity to see the mounted Dipodocus and Apatosaurus skeletons up close on a lift, so today we got to look the two mounts from directly above!

Thanks to our host Amy Henrici and to Calder Dudgeon, we were able to go up to the maintenance balconies above the dinosaur hall, and from there we were able to see this:

It was a little bit scary up there: here’s Matt’s vertical panorama photo of me. Just below the balcony I’m standing on you can see another, which is actually far below up but further back. Below that is the main balcony that overlooks the hall. And below that, the hall itself, showing Diplodocus from above:

We think this is a first: we don’t know of any published photos of mounted sauropods from above — but now, there are some. Let’s take a closer look at the torsos:

Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, torso, in dorsal view, anterior to right.

Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018, torso, in dorsal view, anterior to left.

You can immediately see from here that Apatosaurus is a much broader animal than Diplodocus. That much, we could have guessed. What’s more interesting is that Apatosaurus seems to be slightly broader at the shoulders than at the hips, whereas the opposite is the case in Diplodocus.

This observation left us wondering what’s known about the relative widths of the forelimb and hindlimb articulations in extant animals. What, from the modern bestiary, has hips broader than its shoulders, and what has shoulders wider than its hips? We have no idea. Does anyone know if this has been studied, or better yet summarised?

We jumped the gun a bit in asking How fat was Camarasaurus? a couple of years ago, or indeed How fat was Brontosaurus? last year. As always, we should have started with extant taxa, to get a sense of how to relate bones to live animals — as we did with neck posture.

So here we go. I give you a herd of Indian elephants, Elephas maximus (from here):

056-Elephant-c-Gehan-de-Silva-Wijeyeratne-Minneriya-2004-07-27-165-Gathering

You will notice, from this conveniently-close-to-anterior view, that their torsos bulge out sideways, much further than the limbs.

Now let’s take a look at the skeleton of the same animal in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (downloaded from here but for some reason the photo has now gone away):

4795746797_575d1f0ce6_b

The rib-cage is tiny. It doesn’t even extend as far laterally as the position of the limb bones.

(And lest you think this is an oddity, do go and look at any mounted elephant skeleton of your choice, Indian or African. They’re all like this.)

What’s going on here?

Is Oxford’s elephant skeleton mounted incorrectly? More to the point, are all museums mounting their elephants incorrectly? Do elephants’ ribs project much more laterally in life?

Do elephants have a lot of body mass superficial to the rib-cage? If so, what is that mass? It’s hard to imagine they need a huge amount of muscle mass there, and it can’t be guts. Photos like this one, from the RVC’s televised elephant dissection on Inside Nature’s Giants, suggest the ribs are very close to the body surface:

01020162576700

I’m really not sure how to account for the discrepancy.

Were sauropods similarly much fatter than their mounted skeletons suggest? Either because we’re mounting their skeletons wrongly with the ribs too vertical, or because they had a lot of superficial body mass?

Consider this mounted Camarasaurus skeleton in the Dinosaur Hall at the Arizona Museum of Natural History (photo by N. Neenan Photography, CC-BY-SA):

Camarasaurus_skeleton

Compare the breadth of its ribcage with that of the elephant above, and then think about how much body bulk should be added.

This should encourage palaeoartists involved in the All Yesterdays movement to dramatically bulk up at least some of their sauropod restorations.

It should also make us think twice about our mass estimates.