Welcome to 2017! Let’s start the year with a cautionary tale. I’ll leap straight to the moral, then give an example: it’s very easy to reach the wrong conclusion about fossils from photos. That’s because no single photo can give an accurate impression of distortion. For that, you need at least a much bigger selection of photos; or better still, a 3d model; or of course best of all, the fossil itself.

Here’s the motivating example:

unnamed

Cervical vertebrae 8-16 of Barosaurus lentus AMNH 6341; and BYU 9024 “Supersaurus” cervical ?9. All in left lateral view.

A correspondent — I will not divulge his or her name unless the person in question chooses to reveal it — had looked over the slides for our 2016 SVPCA talk on new Barosaurus specimens, which claims that Jensen’s Dry Mesa “Supersaurus” cervical BYU 9024 actually belongs to Barosaurus.

Matt and I felt, based largely on the degree of neural spine bifurcation, that the BYU vertebra compares most similarly to C9 of the AMNH specimen — the middle one in the top row of the composite illustration above. But my correspondent put together the composite, and wrote [lightly edited for clarity]:

I’ve already compared BYU 9024 with the AMNH cervicals, I attach a photo, because for me it is also very similar to C14: the centrum is much more similar to C14 than C9, I think. What do you think about this?

Like I said: you always need to be careful about interpreting any one view of a fossil. In this case, BYU 9024 is misleading in lateral view because the CPOLs are folded upwards and inwards, and the ventrolateral flanges are (to a lesser extent) folded downwards and inwards — making the posterior part of the centrum look much taller (and rather narrower) than it really is.

This is hard to see in photos, because the fossil is so smashed up and the matrix is so visually similar to the bone, but take a look at the posterior view (with anterior to the right of the photo):

img_3516

Here are the key parts, annotated, as best I can make out. (And bear in mind that even I am not sure, after having spent a whole day with the fossil, and with literally hundreds of photos to consult.)

img_3516-annotated

As you can see, the centrum accounts for only a small proportion of the apparent height of the posterior end of the vertebra — and even that is probably exaggerated, as the eccentricity of the condyle indicates that crushing has increased its height at the expense of its width.

Put it all together, and Jensen’s much-derided sculpture of what the vertebra should have looked like is actually pretty good:

img_3399

The upshot of this anecdote is an obvious one, but it bears repeating: you simply cannot do a meaningful description of a fossil without seeing it yourself — or at the very least a high-quality 3d model. Photos just won’t cut it.

Back at the start of September, I noted that Tschopp and Mateus (2016) had published a petition to the ICZN, asking them to establish Diplodocus carnegii as the type specimen of the genus Diplodocusa role that I argued it already fulfils in practice.

I wrote a formal comment in support of the petition, which I submitted on 7 September; and the next day I had word from the secretary of the ICZN that it had been received and would be published in the next issue of the BZN — the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature.

Since then I have had emails from a couple of different people asking me for the formal citation details of my comment, and I have made three or four separate attempts to discover whether it’s appeared in BZN yet. And I have been completely unable to find out.

First stop is the ICZN web-site’s case-finder, available in the sidebar at pages such as Cases and List of Available Names. But that doesn’t find Case 3700 (the Diplodocus case). I don’t just mean it doesn’t find my comment; it doesn’t find the case at all.

By poking around the site at random, I found this page, which has a tree-structured list of cases in its sidebar. Towards the bottom is a link to Case 3700 — hurrah! — but that link just says “BZN view could not find any content :(”

All right, then, let’s go to the ICZN’s site’s page about the Bulletin. As the page itself proudly proclaims in the sidebar, “The Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature (ISSN:0007-5167) is the official periodical of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature”. And yet the page content just says:

Bulletin

Either no literature content has been added to this site, or it has not yet been indexed. Indexing can take up to one hour, so please check back later.

So I tried a more general search for the BZN elsewhere on the Web.

All in all, there seems to be literally no meaningful Web presence of the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature — which is the journal of record for, well, Zoological Nomenclature. If, like me, you want to discover the status of cases … well, you just can’t.

Oh, at no-one at the ICZN Twitter account is responding to my tweets. But then the most recent tweet from that account is from 15 May 2014, so it’s been dormant for more than two and a half years.

So my question is: *knock knock* is anyone home?

Here’s why this matters. It’s well established that Zoological Taxonomy is important (e.g. Vink et al. 2012) and that as a discipline it’s under threat. Now, the ICZN is the only game in town when it comes to authoritative taxonomy. It is the undisputed guardian of the zoological taxonomic record, and it’s had to weather threats to its own existence before a recent injection of funding. So it’s crucial that, as the standard bearer of its field, the ICZN does a solid, competent, professional, reliable job.

That has to start with making the journal of record available — or at least, if the Commission really really doesn’t want to go open access, making its table of contents available so people can see what’s been decided. If that’s not happening, then whatever decisions the Commission makes are the sound of a tree falling in a deserted forest.

We need the ICZN to up its game.

References

So I came across this tweet from Laurent Gatto, who’s head of the Computational Proteomics Unit at the University of Cambridge, UK:

My immediate reaction was not to retweet. Why? Because I am not comfortable recommending rejection (or acceptance!) of something I’ve not seen. I said so, and Laurent explained the real issue:

So I have two simple questions:

First, How can this massive spending on public money possibly be confidential? What justification can there possibly be for that? And second, how can there be meaningful discussion of the offer on the table if no-one knows what it is?

And then I remembered the classic explanation of confidentiality clauses from Elsevier’s David Tempest: “we have this level of confidentiality […] Otherwise everybody would drive down, drive down, drive drive drive”.

So my first reaction was to say that if anyone comes across a leaked copy of the draft agreement, let me know and I will link to it from this post. But I am also open to hear from anyone who thinks there is a legitimate reason, that I’ve not thought of, to enforce confidentiality. So if you have a reason, please mention it in the comments. If not, but you know where there is a leaked copy, email me privately on dino@miketaylororg.uk.

One more SVP book signing

October 29, 2016

imageWe keep selling out of books, which is a nice problem to have, but still a problem for people who want books. So we’re getting a final shipment this morning, and Mark Hallett and I will be at the JHUP booth signing books, starting at 12:15 and going until we run out of either customers or books.

Many, many thanks to everyone who has gotten a book or just stopped by to chat. We’re humbled by the great response we’ve gotten.

Parting question: someone on Facebook asked if we could sign and mail bookplates for folks who can’t get to our signings. I’m cool with that, just curious about how much interest there might be. Let me know in the comments.

 

This just in: Wilson and Allain’s (2015) redescription of Rebbachisaurus garasbae, the type and only true species of Rebbachisaurus!

Wilson and Allain (2015:figure 3). Holotype of R. garasbae. Dorsal vertebra (MNHN-MRS 1958) in anterior (A), right lateral (B), posterior (C), and dorsal cross-sectional (D) views. Anterior faces top in D. Scale bar equals 20 cm.

Wilson and Allain (2015:figure 3). Holotype of R. garasbae. Dorsal vertebra (MNHN-MRS 1958) in anterior (A), right lateral (B), posterior (C), and dorsal cross-sectional (D) views. Anterior faces top in D. Scale bar equals 20 cm.

Here we see the much-admire’d dorsal vertebra that’s been on display for some time in the French National History Museum, and which we’ve seen here previously:

Jeff Wilson (left) and Ronan Allain (right), with dorsal vertebra of Rebbachisaurus.

Jeff Wilson (left) and Ronan Allain (right), with dorsal vertebra of Rebbachisaurus.

(It’s a shame that photo didn’t make it into the paper, really.)

There’s good and bad news here. The good news is obvious: this is a really important specimen, the type of a whole sauropod family, and it’s been in dire need of redescription because Lavocat’s (1954) paper did a bit of a drive-by on it. It’s great that there’s a proper description at last.

The bad news is, you can’t read it — at least, not unless you’re a JVP subscriber or at a wealthy university. It’s been a while, I think, since we wrote about a non-open access paper here at SV-POW!, and it’s funny how little we seem to have missed them. A lot of the action in vertebrate palaeo, especially for dinosaurs, seems to have moved to open access journals — especially PLOS ONE and PeerJ, but also of course the venerable Palaeontologia Electronica.

FIGURE 13. Holotype of R. garasbae. Right scapula (MNHN-MRS 1957) in medial (A) and lateral (B) views. Abbreviations: ac fo, acromial fossa; ac no, acromial notch; ac ri, acromial ridge; ss, origin of M. subscapularis. Inference of muscle attachment sites is based on comparisons with crocodile pectoral musculature (Meers, 2003). Reconstruction of distal margin of blade based on photograph of scapula in situ (Fig. 2A). Scale bar equals 20 cm.

Wilson and Allain (2015:figure 13). Holotype of R. garasbae. Right scapula (MNHN-MRS 1957) in medial (A) and lateral (B) views. Abbreviations: ac fo, acromial fossa; ac no, acromial notch; ac ri, acromial ridge; ss, origin of M. subscapularis. Inference of muscle attachment sites is based on comparisons with crocodile pectoral musculature (Meers, 2003). Reconstruction of distal margin of blade based on photograph of scapula in situ (Fig. 2A). Scale bar equals 20 cm.

It’s no secret that I am done with JVP (and Palaeontology, and the Journal of Paleontology, not that I’ve ever had a paper in that last one) until they become fully open access journals — and no, a hybrid OA option doesn’t cut it. I’m glad to have that notch on my bedpost, but I don’t feel any need to go back there.

But what I’d forgotten, or perhaps never really registered, is how terribly old-fashioned JVP papers look. No-one is disputing the journal’s high editorial standards or the importance of the work published there; but their tiny fonts, cumbersome two-column layout, and low-resolution black-and-white figures located bizarrely distant from the relevant text all make it feel like a journal badly in need of an overhaul for the 21st Century. I’m not sure what plans the Society has (it’s been years since I was a member) but I’d love to see JVP reinvented as a full-colour open-access journal, primarily online with printed copies only for those who want to pay for them. We’ll see.

Wilson and Allain (2015:figure 5). Holotype of R. garasbae. Computed tomography (CT) scans of the dorsal vertebra (MNHN-MRS 1958). A–E, transverse sections; F– G, frontal sections. Abbreviations: acpl, anterior centroparapophyseal lamina; cpol, centropostzygapophyseal lamina; cprf, centroprezygapophyseal fossa; ct, cotyle; lat. spol, lateral spinopostzygapophyseal lamina; med. cprl, medial centroprezygapophyseal lamina; med. spol; medial spinopostzyga- pophyseal lamina; nc, neural canal; pc, pleurocoel; pcdl, posterior centrodiapophyseal lamina; podl, postzygodiapophyseal lamina; posl, postspinal lamina; poz, postzygapophysis; prpl, prezygoparapophyseal lamina; prsl, prespinal lamina; prz, prezygapophysis; sc, subcamerae; spdl, spinodiapophy- seal lamina; se, septum; tpol, intrapostzygapophyseal lamina. Scale bar equals 10 cm for CT images.

Wilson and Allain (2015:figure 5). Holotype of R. garasbae. Computed tomography (CT) scans of the dorsal vertebra (MNHN-MRS 1958). A–E, transverse sections; F– G, frontal sections. Abbreviations: acpl, anterior centroparapophyseal lamina; cpol, centropostzygapophyseal lamina; cprf, centroprezygapophyseal fossa; ct, cotyle; lat. spol, lateral spinopostzygapophyseal lamina; med. cprl, medial centroprezygapophyseal lamina; med. spol; medial spinopostzygapophyseal lamina; nc, neural canal; pc, pleurocoel; pcdl, posterior centrodiapophyseal lamina; podl, postzygodiapophyseal lamina; posl, postspinal lamina; poz, postzygapophysis; prpl, prezygoparapophyseal lamina; prsl, prespinal lamina; prz, prezygapophysis; sc, subcamerae; spdl, spinodiapophyseal lamina; se, septum; tpol, intrapostzygapophyseal lamina. Scale bar equals 10 cm for CT images.

It’s great that Wilson and Allain had the Rebbachisaurus vertebrae CT-scanned, showing just how crazily lightly they are built: see figure 13, especially part A, above. But I have to admit to finding it strange that a 34-page paper that deals in detail with sauropod pneumaticity doesn’t cite anything by either Brooks Britt or our own Matt Wedel — surely the two people who have done the most important work in this area, certainly the most foundational work.

My 2009 paper (Taylor 2009, duh) does get a mention — not, this time, to disagree with me on the generic separation of Giraffatitan from Brachiosaurus, to but to acknowledge its recognition of the spinoparapophyseal lamina (SPPL) that occurs in D?8 of the Giraffatitan paralectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN SII) and has now been recognised also in Rebbachisaurus.

Anyway, this is an important new paper, very well illustrated (apart from the annoyingly avoidable lack of colour) and with typically careful and exhaustive descriptions. It’s going to be very helpful, and it’s reawakened an idea that I once had …

… but that’s for another time.

References

In my blog-post announcing Haestasaurus as the new generic name for the misassigned species “Pelorosaurusbecklesii, I briefly surveyed the three phylogenetic analyses in the paper. Of the third — the one based on the Mannion et al. (2013) Lusotitan matrix using both discrete and continuous characters — I wrote that it …

… recovers Haestasaurus as a titanosaur — as sister to Diamantinasaurus and then Malawisaurus, making it a lithostrotian well down inside Titanosauria.

My mistake! I was working from the result of an earlier version of that analysis. In the final version included in the paper, things are rather different:

Fig 17. Strict consensus tree (LCDM). A strict consensus tree based on the 17 most parsimonious trees generated by analysis of the Mannion et al. [18] LCDM with the revised scores for Haestasaurus and the addition of six new characters. GC values (multiplied by 100) are shown in square brackets for all nodes where these values are greater than 0. Abbreviations: Brc, Brachiosauridae; Dd, Diplodocoidea. N.B. the tree topology shown here means that the clades defined by Brachiosaurus+Saltasaurus (Titanosauriformes) and Andesaurus+Saltasaurus (Titanosauria) are identical. See main text for details.

Upchurch et al. (2015: Fig 17). Strict consensus tree (LCDM).
A strict consensus tree based on the 17 most parsimonious trees generated by analysis of the Mannion et al. [18] LCDM with the revised scores for Haestasaurus and the addition of six new characters. GC values (multiplied by 100) are shown in square brackets for all nodes where these values are greater than 0. Abbreviations: Brc, Brachiosauridae; Dd, Diplodocoidea. N.B. the tree topology shown here means that the clades defined by Brachiosaurus+Saltasaurus (Titanosauriformes) and Andesaurus+Saltasaurus (Titanosauria) are identical. See main text for details.

As you can see, Haestasaurus is indeed a titanosaur in this analysis — but not a derived one at all. In fact, it’s part of the most basal clade of titanosaurs, along with Janenschia and Dongbeititan. In this tree, we have a really nice, big Brachiosauridae, containing 19 OTUs split fairly evenly between two subclades.

[Side-note: Upchurch et al. (2015) uses phylogenetic definitions that I’m not crazy about. I prefer the arrangement that I followed in my brachiosaur paper (Taylor 2009), in which Titanosauriformes = Brachiosauridae + Titanosauria is a node-stem triplet. Hopefully, some time soon, the wretched PhyloCode will finally be implemented, and we’ll be in a position to nail down a single set of definitions for the whole community to use.]

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that all three phylogenetic analyses in the paper return Haestasaurus as a pretty basal macronarian, and on the balance of evidence it’s likely not a titanosaur after all. (That’s why the name “Haestatitan“, which was in some earlier drafts of the paper, was changed to Haestasaurus. Kind of a shame, given how mundane -saurus names are, but probably the wisest course of action.)

What is the takeaway lesson from this? It’s not just “Haestasaurus is not a derived titanosaur”. It’s that all our phylogenetic hypotheses are just that — hypotheses. Papers that publish only a single cladogram are always at risk of being misinterpreted as conveying much more certainty than they really do, and Paul and Phil are to be commended for including the whole messy story in this paper. The position of Haestasaurus shifts around far too easily for us to have a strong sense of what it is, and it’s good that the paper makes that clear.

(It also makes me glad that way back in Taylor and Naish (2007), I and Darren didn’t give a more precise position of Xenoposeidon than that it’s probably some kind of neosauropod. And even that is not something I would put money on.)

References

I have sent this message to David Loydell and Beris Cox, the editors of the Palaeontographical Society’s monograph series. (Update: and to Steve Donovan, secretary of the society.)


Dear Palaeontographical Society,

I was delighted to see that Adam Smith and Roger Benson’s new monograph on the plesiosaur Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni is now out, as shown on Adam’s publications page. This is a long-awaited work on an important specimen.

But when I asked Adam to send me a copy of the PDF, I was surprised to find that he doesn’t have one, and doesn’t expect to be given one. Is this correct?

If so, can you please explain the society’s reasoning?

I would like to publish your response on my blog, https://svpow.com/, as others will also be interested in this. May I please have your permission to do so?

Many thanks,

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ

Reference

Smith A.S. and Benson R.B.J. 2014. Osteology of Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni (Sauropterygia: Rhomaleosauridae) from the Lower Jurassic (Toarcian) of Northamptonshire, England. Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society 168(642):1–40 and plates 1–35.

Update 1 (two hours later)

David Loydell is no longer an editor for the Monographs of the Palaeontographical Society. Instead, I am writing to Steve Donovan, Secretary of the Palaeontographical Society.