One of the field trips for last year’s SVPCA meeting was a jaunt to Nottingham to see the Dinosaurs of China exhibit at Wollaton Hall. We got to see a lot of stuff, including original fossils of some pretty famous feathered dinos – but of course what really captured our attention was the mounted Mamenchisaurus. This is a cast of the good old M. hochuanensis holotype specimen that has been put up all over the world, including in a car-park in Copenhagenon stilts in Chicago and even in a flooded basement in Slovenia.

Wollaton Hall houses the Nottingham Museum of Natural History, which is a fantastic trove of weird and wonderful things from around the world. We should really post about those things – I had them in mind when I was recently lamenting my lousy conversion rate of museum visit photos into blog posts. That will have to wait for another time. I’ll just note in closing that grand buildings and mounted sauropods go together like peanut butter and chocolate, and that this field trip was outstanding.

Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel, Darren Naish, and Bob Nicholls (kneeling) at Wollaton Hall, with Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis for scale.


Back in 2009, I posted on a big cervical series discovered in Big Bend National Park. Then in 2013 I posted again about how I was going to the Perot Museum in Dallas to see that cervical series, which by then was fully prepped and on display but awaiting a full description. Ron Tykoski and Tony Fiorillo (2016) published that description a couple of years ago, and after almost five years it’s probably time I posted an update.

I did visit the Perot Museum in 2013 and Ron and Tony kindly let me hop the fence and get up close and personal with their baby. I got a lot of nice photos and measurements of the big specimen. It’s an impressive thing. Compared to the other big sauropod cervicals I’ve gotten to play with, these vertebrae aren’t all that long – the two longest centra are about 80cm, compared to ~120cm for Sauroposeidon, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan, and 137cm for Supersaurus (more details here) – but they are massive. According to the table of measurements (yay!) in Tykoski and Fiorillo (2016), which accord well with the measurements I took when I was there, the last vert is 117.5cm tall from the bottom of the cervical rib to the top of the neural spine, 98.4cm wide across the diapophyses, and has a cotyle measuring 29cm tall by 42cm wide. Here it is with me for scale:

I guarantee you, standing next to that thing and imagining it being inside the neck of a living animal is a breathtaking experience.

I failed in my mission in one way. In a comment on my 2013 post, I said, “I’ll try to get some good lateral views of the mount with as little perspective as possible.” But it can’t be done – the geometry of the room and the size of the skeleton don’t allow it, as Ron noted in the very next comment. There is one place in the exhibit hall where you can get the whole skeleton into the frame, and that’s a sort of right anterolateral oblique view. Here’s my best attempt:

So, this is an awesome specimen and you should go see it. As you can see from the photos, the vertebrae are right on the other side of the signage, with no glass between you and them, so you can see a lot. The rest of the exhibits are top notch as well. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself within striking distance of Dallas.


Tykoski, R.S. and Fiorillo, A.R. 2016. An articulated cervical series of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis Gilmore, 1922 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from Texas: new perspective on the relationships of North America’s last giant sauropod. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 15(5):339-364.

This past weekend I was camping up the coast at Hearst San Simeon State Park, with my son, London, and Brian Engh.

We went to see the elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas. It was my first time seeing elephant seals in the wild. Not having done any research in advance, I was expecting something like this:

In other words, a small number of elephant seals, not doing much, basically at binocular distance from the viewing area. Obviously we did get some of that, since I have a picture of it. But that was up the coast a bit, at the start of Boucher Trail near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse.

We spent most of our time at the main Piedras Blancas rookery, where just the southeastern half of the viewing area looked – and sounded – like this:

We also saw a lot of this (semi-groady iPhone-through-binocular shot by me):

and even some of this (much nicer photo courtesy of Brian Engh):

I’ll have a lot more to say about this real soon, including more video, but it’s late and I need sleep. Stay tuned!

This post started out as a comment on this thread, kicked off by Dale McInnes, in which Mike Habib got into a discussion with Mike Taylor about the max size of sauropods. Stand by for some arm-waving. All the photos of outdoor models were taken at Dino-Park Münchehagen back in late 2008.

I think it’s all too easy to confuse how big things do get from how big they could get, assuming different selection pressures and ecological opportunities. I’m sure someone could write a very compelling paper about how elephants are as big as they could possibly be, or Komodo dragons, if we didn’t have indricotheres and Megalania to show that the upper limit is elsewhere. This is basically what Economos (1981) did for indricotheres, either forgetting about sauropods or assuming they were all aquatic.

Truly, a mammal of excellence and distinction. With Mike and some dumb rhino for scale.

In fact, I’ll go further: a lot of pop discussions of sauropod size assume that sauropods got big because of external factors (oxygen levels, etc.) but were ultimately limited by internal factors, like bone and cartilage strength or cardiovascular issues. I think the opposite is more likely: sauropods got big because of a happy, never-repeated confluence of internal factors (the Sander/et al. [2008, 2011, 2013] hypothesis, which I think is extremely robust), and their size was limited by external, ecological factors.

Take a full-size Argentinosaurus or Bruhathkayosaurus – even modest estimates put them at around 10x the mass of the largest contemporary predators. Full-grown adults were probably truly predator-immune, barring disease or senescence. So any resources devoted to pushing the size disparity higher, instead of invested in making more eggs, would basically be wasted.

If there was reproductive competition among the super-giants, could the 100-tonners have been out-reproduced by the 70-tonners, which put those extra 30 tonnes into making babies? Or would the 100-tonners make so many more eggs than the 70-tonners (over some span of years) that they’d still come out on top? I admit, I don’t know enough reproductive biology to answer that. (If you do, speak up in the comments!) But if – if – 70-tonners could out-reproduce 100-tonners, that by itself might have been enough to put a cap on the size of the largest sauropods.

Another possibility is that max-size adult sauropods were neither common nor the target of selection. In most populations most of the time, the largest individuals might have been reproductively active but skeletally-immature and still-growing subadults (keep in mind that category would encompass most mounted sauropod skeletons, including the mounted brachiosaurs in Chicago and Berlin). If such individuals were the primary targets of selection, and they were selected for a balance of reproductive output and growth, then the few max-size adults might represent the relatively rare instances in which the developmental program “overshot” the selection target.

Dave Hone and Andy Farke and I mentioned this briefly in our 2016 paper, and it’s come up here on the blog several times before, but I still have a hard time wrapping my head around what that would mean. Maybe the max-size adults don’t represent the selective optimum, but rather beneficial traits carried to extreme ends by runaway development. It seems at least conceivable that the bodies of such animals might have been heavily loaded with morphological excrescences – like 15- to 17-meter necks – that were well past the selective optimum. As long as those features weren’t inherently fatal, they could possibly have been pretty darned inefficient, riding around on big predator-immune platforms that could walk for hundreds of kilometers and survive on garbage.

What does that swerve into weird-but-by-now-well-trod ground have to do with the limits on sauropod size? This: if max-size adults were not heavy selection targets, either because the focus of selection was on younger, reproductively-active subadults, or because they’d gotten so big that the only selection pressure that could really affect them was a continent-wide famine – or both – then they might not have gotten as big as they could have (i.e., never hit any internally-imposed, anatomical or biomechanical limits) because nothing external was pushing them to get any bigger than they already were.

Or maybe that’s just a big pile of arm-wavy BS. Let’s try tearing it down, and find out. The comment thread is open.


I was fortunate to get to visit some pretty cool places last year, and to photograph some awesome critters, many of which I had never seen so well before. Here are the best of the lot.

In March I went out to Black Mesa with my mentor, Rich Cifelli, and a Native Explorers crew led by Kent Smith. Rich and I saw this pronghorn on the way in, and I got the shot by holding my phone up to Rich’s binoculars.

Later that same day, I caught these pronghorns crossing the highway in front of us. You can tell from the glare and splotches that I was shooting through the windshield. It was that or no shot.

A few days later, we got absurdly lucky. Everyone was driving back to base at the end of the day, with Rich’s truck at the end of the train. This herd of bighorn sheep picked that time to jump a fence and run across the road, right in front of Rich’s truck. Everyone else missed it, they were too far ahead. The bighorns crossed the road in front of our caravan again a couple of days later, and Kent Smith and Jeff Hargrave got some good photos of their own.

I like this landing-and-recovery sequence, illustrated by four different individuals.

Check out the two at the edge of the road, running in step.

A final wide shot. Thank goodness for burst mode shooting. These are all cropped iPhone photos, by the way.

Then in June I got to go with my son’s 5th grade field trip group to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park, where we camped for three days and two nights. The dwarf island foxes were always around.

I think people have actually been good about not feeding them because they don’t beg. Neither are they afraid of humans. They treated us as non-threatening and inedible chunks of ambulatory matter. This one was startled by something in the bush and decided that running past me was the lesser of two evils. It might have been another fox, we saw and heard several get into tussles.

Another burst mode catch was this raven on the beach.

Here’s a crop. Not bad, sez me. For a shot of a stinkin’ theropod.

And here’s my favorite shot of that trip, and my second-favorite of the entire year. On the boat ride out to the island, a pod of dolphins came and surfed our bow wake. They did this for quite a while, and everyone who wanted to was able to cycle through the front of the boat and get close-up shots. I’d seen dolphins from shore before, when we lived in NorCal, but I’d never gotten to see them up close from the water. This is yet another burst-mode catch, taken just as this dolphin was breaking the water and before most of the bubbles coming out of its blowhole had popped.

I’m going to use my son’s standing as a tetrapod to sneak this in: sunset at Dead Horse Point, near Moab, Utah. That’s the Colorado River down there, 2000 feet below the clifftops. If you’re ever in that neck of the woods, this is the place to come see the sun set. Trust me on this.

Here is a vertebra that Matt and I saw on our recent travels through Utah:



I will explain in a subsequent post where we saw it, who gave us access, where and when it is from, and so on.

For now, I want people’s gut reactions: what is it?

As regular readers will know, Matt and I have recently spent ten glorious days travelling the dinosaur museums of Utah, in a once-in-a-lifetime event that we have been calling the Sauropocalypse. In that time, we visited seven different museums and — this is the truth — had an absolutely fantastic time in all of them. One of the big reasons is of course the quality of their collections and galleries. But equally important is the welcome we got from our hosts at each of these places, and the help they all generously and cheerfully gave us.

Here’s where we visited, in chronological order, with a word of thanks to each host.

1. BYU Museum of Paleontology, Provo


Mike compares Jensen’s sculpture of the big Supersaurus cervical BYU 9024 with the actual fossil.

At the amazing BYU — where we spent three full days, as it has almost certainly the largest collection of sauropod fossils anywhere in the world — our host was Brooks Britt. (Matt’s mentioned Brooks previously on this blog, as one of the most formative influences on his career: the person who put him onto pneumaticity.)

Brooks set us free in his collections and gallery with no restrictions. He had specimens fork-lifted down from high shelves for us, gave us a pallet lifter so we could move them around at will, and generally did everything he could to make our stay productive. He also took us out to lunch, twice: once at a cheap but delicious taco place, and once at a Brazilian eat-all-you-want barbecue place where I could happily have spent the entire afternoon.

2. The Prehistoric Museum, Price


Matt inspects the beautifully preserved and prepared anterior cervicals of a Camarasaurus in the main gallery.

Our host at Price was occasional SV-POW! commenter Ken Carpenter, who also arranged for us to give a pair of talks at the museum in the evening. (Mine: Why giraffes have short necks. Matt’s: Why elephants are so small.) Ken gave us free reign to get in among the exhibits, and we took full advantage to make a potentially important discovery (to be discussed in a future post).

Ken also took us to see the CEUM collections, and invited us to take on a huge descriptive project, working on the PR2 brachiosaur. Sadly, that project is just too big for either of us. But there are individual elements within the PR2 collection that are of interest, and no doubt we’ll be posting more about those, too.

3. Dinosaur National Monument, Jensen


Matt looms ominously over an Apatosaurus cervical in ventral view — or is it Camarasaurus?

Matt has already paid tribute to Dan Chure, our host up on the wall, who came in on his day off just to help us. An extraordinary host at an astonishing venue.

4. Utah Field House of Natural History, Vernal


Diplodocus butt. Wedel for scale. He likes big butts and he cannot lie.

Here, we were hosted by Mary Beth Bottomley. She went beyond the call of duty in not only allowing us access to the prep room and collections, but helping us to take apart the shelving in collections so we could get better photos of a big, difficult-to-move specimen. Mary Beth was particularly interested in what we were working on, and will (I hope) now be a regular reader of this blog.

5. Dinosaur Journey, Fruita


Mike, astonished by a particularly extreme apatosaur cervical. But then aren’t they all extreme?

We were, inadvertently, sensationally rude to our host, Julia McHugh. She’d arranged to take us for lunch, but Matt was so obsessed with the transit of Mercury across the sun that he completely forgot, and sent me off to get salads from Subway instead. (Note that I am making the point here that Matt forgot this arrangement. I make no comment on my own recall.) As a result, we cheated ourselves out of a BBQ lunch.

But Julia was great about it, and once again we were given free reign in collections. Matt and I were each able to make valuable observations, one for an already-in-progress paper and one for a new one.

6. Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City


Barosaurus, an Allosaurus adult and several juveniles, and Mike.

Here, our host was Carrie Levitt. She welcomed us to the museum, gave us a tour of collections, left us to it, and … we spent almost the entire day in the public gallery instead! I did get a couple of nice photos of the holotype skulls of Kosmoceratops and Diabloceratops, but the truth is that the public gallery was so awesome, it just sucked us in.

But Carrie was great about it. Rather than resenting our having wasted her time in the collections orientation, she was just glad that we got useful observations out of the museum. (And we did. Matt and I can sometimes get so wrapped up in individual vertebrae that we forget they’re part of whole animals. The many fine mounted dinosaur skeletons at UMNH helped to redress this failing.)

7. North American Museum of Ancient Life, Thanksgiving Point


Matt is attacked by a Utahraptor, but is all like “Am I bovvered?”. To be honest, I suspect he was all dinosaured out by this point.

On our last day — I had to be at the airport by 6pm — we went to NAMAL, We’d not been able to make contact with staff ahead of time, as Matt’s old contact seems to be no longer at the museum. But as we walked past the prep lab near the museum entrance, we saw some beautiful Barosaurus cervicals. As we stood gawping, Rick Hunter, inside the lab, recognised Matt and invited us in.

With no prior notice at all, Rick dropped what he was doing to help us out as we inspected their gorgeous material. That’s been really helpful as we’ve firmed up our ideas on what Barosaurus is. (And I hope we’ve helped them get a better handle on the serial positions of their vertebrae, too.)

In summary, pretty much everyone we met in Utah was super-helpful and super-nice. That also includes John and ReBecca Foster, who put us up for the night in Moab, the night before we went to Arches National Park. The people are one of three reasons why Utah is now my favourite US state. (The others are the sauropods, naturally, and the landscapes.)

Museum folks of Utah, we salute you!