Update

This is an actual page from the late, lamented Weekly World News, from December 14, 1999. I always thought it was pretty darned funny that they had the alien remains discovered in the “belly” of an animal known only from neck vertebrae. Now, subjecting a tabloid story to technical scrutiny really is like dancing about architecture, but…it just tickles me. As does the entire story. I haven’t been able to get hold of Dr. Posvby to confirm his findings, but it’s been over a decade and he still hasn’t published, so I’m not holding my breath.

Incidentally, the WWN archives are available on Google Books: go here to read about Bat Boy siring a 3-headed alien Elvis baby on a female Sasquatch. Or something to that effect.

In an email, Vladimir Socha drew my attention to the fact that Tom Holtz’s dinosaur encyclopaedia estimates the maximum height of Sauroposeidon as 20 meters plus, and asked whether that was really possible.  Here’s what Tom actually wrote: “Sauroposeidon was one of the largest of all dinosaurs.  At perhaps 98 to 107 feet (30 to 32.5 meters) long and weighing 70 to 80 tons […] Sauroposeidon would have been the tallest of all dinosaurs. […] If it could crane its neck up, it might have been able to hold its head 66 to 69 feet (20 to 21 meters) high or more” (Holtz and Rey 2007:207).  Vladimir was understandably skeptical.  But can it be true?

Wedel and Cifelli (2005: fig. 15) shows Matt’s best skeletal reconstruction of Sauroposeidon, with Boring Old Brachiosaurus and a human for scale:

Sauroposeidon with Boring Old Brachiosaurus and human for scale and 20 m height indicated. Lightly modified from Wedel and Cifelli (2005: fig. 15)

Sauroposeidon with Boring Old Brachiosaurus and human for scale and 20 m height indicated. Lightly modified from Wedel and Cifelli (2005: fig. 15)

Amazingly, those dummies didn’t include an actual scalebar; but apparently the human figure is 1.8 m tall, so by measuring pixels and cross-scaling, I determined that in this image, Sauroposeidon is a mere 13.43 m tall.  I took the liberty of adding in a marker for the 20 m height proposed by Holtz, and as things stand you’d have to say that it doesn’t look probable.

But let’s see what we can do.  We’ll begin with the classic brachiosaur skeleton of Paul (1988), which shows the well represented species Brachioaurus brancai:

Brachiosaurus brancai skeletal reconstruction in left lateral view. From Paul (1988:fig. 1)

Brachiosaurus brancai skeletal reconstruction in left lateral view. From Paul (1988:fig. 1)

(Some other time, we should take a moment to discuss the differences between this and the Wedel brachiosaur reconstruction; but it will not be this day.)

This reconstruction is in a nice erect-necked posture which, in light of our own recent paper, is probably not too extreme.  Since all the neural arches and processes are missing from the only known posterior cervicals of this species, we don’t know how much flexibility they allowed, and so in light of how the rest of the animal is built (high shoulders and all) it seems reasonable to allow a lot of extension at the base of the neck.  So let’s assume that the pose offered by Paul is correct.  By measuring my scan of that figure, and I see that the 2.13 m humerus is 306 pixels long.  The entire reconstruction, from tip of cranial crest down to forefoot, is 1999 pixels tall, which is 1999/306 = 6.53 times as long as the humerus, which scales to 6.53*2.13 = 13.91 m — a little taller than Sauroposeidon (not Brachiosaurus) in Matt’s reconstruction, which seems about right if we imgine Matt’s Brachiosaurus raising its neck into a Paul-compliant posture.

Now Paul’s reconstruction is based on the Berlin mounted skeleton HMN S II.  Cervical 8 is very well preserved in that animal, and has a centrum length of 98 cm (Janensch 1950a:44).  By contrast, the centrum of C8 of Sauroposeidon OMNH 53062 (the only known specimen) is 125 cm long (Wedel et al. 2000a: 110). So if Sauroposeidon is merely an elongated Brachiosaurus brancai, then it’s 125/98 = 1.28 times as long and tall, which would be 17.74 m.

But wait: it seems that Sauroposeidon is to Brachiosaurus brancai as Barosaurus is to Diplodocus — similar overall but more elongate.  And it turns out that Barosaurus has at least 16, maybe 17 cervicals (McIntosh 2005:45) compared with Diplodocus‘s 15.  So maybe Sauroposeidon also added cervicals from the brachiosaur base-state — in fact, that would hardly be surprising given that Brachiosaurus brancai has so few cervicals for a long-neck: 13, compared with 15 in most diplodocids, 16 or 17 in Barosaurus, and 19 in Mamenchisaurus.  If you reconstruct Sauroposeidon with two more C8-like cervicals in the middle of the neck, that adds 2*125 = 250 cm, which would give us a total height of 17.74+2.5 = 20.24 m.

So I don’t think Tom Holtz’s estimate is completely unrealistic, even for the one Sauroposeidon specimen we have now — and remember that the chances of that individual being the biggest that species got are vanishingly small.

On the other hand, maybe Sauropodseidon‘s neck was the only part of it that was elongated in comparison to Brachiosaurus brancai — maybe its forelimbs were no longer than those of its cousin, so that only the neck elongation contributed to greater height.  And maybe it had no additional cervicals, so its neck was “only” 1.28 times as long as that of Brachiosaurus brancai — 1.28*8.5 = 10.88 m, which is 2.38 m longer; so the total height would be 13.91+2.38 = 16.29 m (assuming the additional neck length was vertical).  And maybe the neck couldn’t get very close to vertical, so that the true height was lower still.

All of this just goes to show the perils of reconstructing an animal based only on a sequence of four cervicals.  (Reconstructing on the basis of a single partial mid-to-posterior dorsal, on the other hand, is a much more exact science.)

Finally: Matt’s reconstruction of Sauroposeidon is really rather conservative, and looks very much like a scaled-up vanilla brachiosaur.  Just to see how it looks, I’ve made a reconstruction of the putative (and very possible) elongated, attenuated version of Sauroposeidon, showing the legs and cervicals 28% longer than in B. brancai, and with two additional cervicals.  I made this by subjecting Greg Paul’s 1988 brachiosaur to all sorts of horrible and half-arsed distortions, so apologies to Greg.  But remember, folks: this is just as likely correct as Matt’s version!

A different view of Sauroposeidon, based on elongation of the cervicals and legs of Brachiosaurus brancai and the insertion of two additional cervicals. Heavily and carelessly modified from Paul (1988: fig. 1)

A different view of Sauroposeidon, based on elongation of the cervicals and legs of Brachiosaurus brancai and the insertion of two additional cervicals. Heavily and carelessly modified from Paul (1988: fig. 1)

References

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Internal structure of a cervical vertebra of Sauroposeidon, OMNH 53062. A, parts of two vertebrae from the middle of the neck. The field crew that dug up the bones cut though one of them to divide the specimen into manageable pieces. B, cross section of C6 at the level of the break, traced from a CT image and photographs of the broken end. The left side of the specimen was facing up in the field and the bone on that side is badly weathered. Over most of the broken surface the internal structure is covered by plaster or too damaged to trace, but it is cleanly exposed on the upper right side (outlined). C, the internal structure of that part of the vertebra, traced from a photograph. The arrows indicate the thickness of the bone at several points, as measured with a pair of digital calipers. The camellae are filled with sandstone.

Image and caption recycled from fig. 14 here. Hat tip to Mike from Ottawa for the wonderful title.

Addendum (from Mike)

What Matt’s failed to mention is that this section of prezygapophyseal ramus is one of the elements for which he calculated the Air-Space Proportion (ASP) in his chapter in “The Sauropods”. As shown in his table 7.2, this calculation yielded 0.89.  Just think about that for a moment.  89% of the bone was air.  Yikes.

It’s interesting that this was the only prezygpapophyseal ramus in the survey, and that it had a way higher value that any of the other elements considered, which topped out at 0.77, i.e., more than twice as much bone as this specimen.  So maybe all prezyg rami are ridiculously pneumatic? So far (as far as I know) no-one’s measured the ASP of another ramus, so the answer remains, for now, ridiculously unknown to our planet.

Special bonus weirdness

Basal sauropodomorph wizard Adam Yates has posted an entry on his blog showing more sauropod vertebrae/ceratopsian frill convergence, as follow-up to our own recent post. Too weird.

Since my last post was rather heavier on the sushi than on the sauropod vertebrae, I offer this special bonus post. One of the frustrating things about the otherwise marvelous Sauroposeidon monograph (Wedel et al. 2000b) is that the figures are so small. Sadly this is also true of all the other publications that illustrate its remains, and so the published literature has no nice, detailed images.

No longer!  I’ve scored a rare paper copy of Matt’s undergraduate thesis (Wedel 1997) which contained basically all the material that eventually became that monograph, and which in addition has much larger versions of the figures.  So without further ado, I give you figure 5 of that paper:

Sauroposeidon cervical vertebrae. A, C5-C8; B, C6

Part A is similar to Wedel et al. (2000b:fig 6), and part B to Wedel et al. (2000b:fig. 7A), but this older version is rather nicer, and from a waaay better scan than is available for Wedel et al. (2000b).

And that’s all I have to say about that.

References.

This figure is stolen from Wedel et al. (2000:fig. 5). A shows the first 11 cervical vertebrae* of Sauroposeidon in articulation. B shows how the holotype specimen, OMNH 53062, must have disarticulated, and C shows it as it was found. Shaded vertebrae and bits of vertebrae were not found. The thickness of the cervical ribs is greatly exaggerated for clarity.

*We assume that Sauroposeidon had 13 cervicals like Brachiosaurus. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it had more, but it is unlikely that it had fewer. Sauroposeidon seems to be all about crazy neck elongation, and it doesn’t make sense to make some vertebrae longer while losing others.

Some facts:

  • In life, the long cervical ribs formed overlapping bundles, just like the long neck tendons of birds, and that is how the preserved cervical ribs are arrayed–in vertically stacked bundles.
  • Each cervical rib is about 4 cm in diameter where it attaches to its vertebra, and tapers to a point about 3 meters away. The last meter or so of each rib goes from being the diameter of a pencil to the diameter of a mechanical pencil lead. They just sort of peter out into nothingness.
  • The fact that even the pencil-lead-sized wisps of the cervical ribs are still in articulation suggests pretty strongly that the neck was buried with the muscles intact.
  • If the neck had simply been broken transversely (like a guillotine cut), the two most anterior vertebrae in the preserved block of four should have the cervical ribs of even more anterior vertebrae beneath them, and the cervical ribs from the two most posterior vertebrae would not stick out the back of the preserved block.
  • The facts that the cervical ribs from the missing anterior vertebrae are also missing, and that the cervical ribs from the preserved vertebrae trail behind the articulated block, suggest that the neck was pulled apart lengthwise, as shown in B.
  • None of the vertebrae have any teeth marks or any sign of mechanical damage, other than the missing neural spine from the third preserved vertebra. The front third of the first preserved vertebra was eroded away before the vertebrae were discovered in the field.
  • Assuming that Sauroposeidon was built like Brachiosaurus, it must have had a body mass somewhere between 40 and 60 tons. Even if it was built more like Mamenchisaurushellacious neck tacked on fairly dinky body–it was still probably a 20-ton critter.
  • After 14 years of subsequent erosion and fieldwork, no other sauropod bones have been discovered at the site.

Some questions:

  • How did the neck get separated from the body? The body was presumably too big to move, and the neck is too well preserved to have been moved very far.
  • What pulled the neck apart?
  • How did the neck come apart without disturbing those little pencil-lead cervical rib ends?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, by the way. And I’m open to suggestions.

Here’s my best guess. I think the body stayed put, and the neck floated away. Not far–a few hundred feet would be enough to put the body outside the outcrop area at the holotype site, but not so far that the neck would be all beat up. I think it floated rather than being dragged (by an Acrocanthosaurus, for example) because the vertebrae are all in such good shape and none of them have any tooth marks. I think it floated in calm water because the preservation is so good. I think the neck muscles rotted enough to let the force of the current rip part of the neck away from the base, just like you can pull a cooked chicken neck apart lengthwise without messing up the articulations among the vertebrae in the chunk that breaks free.

All of that will suffice to get the neck separated from the body. What really bugs me is the separation of the anterior part of the neck from the preserved block of vertebrae. It is tempting to think that the anterior part never came off, and that those vertebrae simply eroded away before they were found, like the front third of the most anterior preserved vert. But that can’t be; if those vertebrae were in articulation and just eroded away, we should still have their cervical ribs below the first two preserved verts.

Who knows, maybe the scenario I outlined above is good enough to explain both breaks. For some reason it is just easier to image most of the neck coming off the carcass than to imagine one part of the neck coming off the other part of the neck. But maybe the anteriormost vertebrae were ripped off and floated away first, and then the preserved block came free and floated off on its own later. (The head probably exploded, as these things were wont to do.)

It is worth noting that there are probably only a handful of people alive who have any first-hand experience with how multi-ton animal carcasses are dispersed, and zero people alive who have ever seen a dead sauropod rot. So, like too much in paleontology, what seems plausible or reasonable to me may not line up with objective reality.

BTW, this post fulfills a promise I made in a comment thread here. If we promise a post, we deliver. (We just don’t specify a due date.)

Comments, suggestions, hypotheses, rants, and crank fringe theories welcome.

References:

FHPR 17108, a right humerus of Brachiosaurus, with Wes Bartlett and his Clydesdale Molly for scale. Original paleoart by Brian Engh.

Last May I was out in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation with Brian Engh and Thuat Tran, for just a couple of days of prospecting. We’d had crappy weather, with rain and lots of gnats. But temperatures were cooler than usual, and we were able to push farther south in our field area than ever before. We found a small canyon that had bone coming out all over, and as I was logging another specimen in my field book, I heard Brian shout from a few meters away: “Hey Matt, I think you better get over here! If this is what I think it is…”

What Brian had found–and what I couldn’t yet show you when I put up this teaser post last month–was this:

That’s the proximal end of a Brachiosaurus humerus in the foreground, pretty much as it was when Brian found it. Thuat Tran is carefully uncovering the distal end, some distance in the background.

Here’s another view, just a few minutes later:

After uncovering both ends and confirming that the proximal end was thin, therefore a humerus (because of its shape), and therefore a brachiosaur (because of its shape and size together), we were elated, but also concerned. This humerus–one of the largest ever found–was lying in what looked like loose dirt, actually sitting in a little fan of sediment cascading down into the gulch. We knew we needed to get it out before the winter rains came and destroyed it. And for that, we’d need John Foster’s experience with getting big jackets out of inconvenient places. We were also working out there under the auspices of John’s permit, so for many reasons we needed him to see this thing.

We managed to all rendezvous at the site in June: Brian, John, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, their kids Ruby and Harrison, and Thuat. We uncovered the whole bone from stem to stern and put on a coat of glue to conserve it. Any doubts we might have had about the ID were dispelled: it was a right humerus of Brachiosaurus.

While we were waiting for the glue to dry, Brian and Ruby started brushing of a hand-sized bit of bone showing just a few feet away. After about an hour, they had extracted the chunk of bone shown above. This proved to be something particularly exciting: the proximal end of the matching left humerus. We hiked that chunk out, along with more chunks of bone that were tumbled down the wash, which may be pieces of the shaft of the second humerus.

But we still had the intact humerus to deal with. We covered it with a tarp, dirt, and rocks, and started scheming in earnest on when, and more importantly how, to get it out. It weighed hundreds of pounds, and it was halfway down the steep slope of the canyon, a long way over broken ground from even the unmaintained jeep trail that was the closest road. Oh, and there are endangered plants in the area, so we coulnd’t just bulldoze a path to the canyon. We’d have to be more creative.

I told a few close friends about our find over the summer, and my standard line was that it was a very good problem to have, but it was actually still a problem, and one which we needed to solve before the winter rains came.

As it happened, we didn’t get back out to the site until mid-October, which was pushing it a bit. The days were short, and it was cold, but we had sunny weather, and we managed to get the intact humerus uncovered and top-jacketed. Here John Foster and ReBecca Hunt-Foster are working on a tunnel under the bone, to pass strips of plastered canvas through and strengthen the jacket. Tom Howells, a volunteer from the Utah Field House in Vernal, stands over the jacket and assists. Yara Haridy was also heavily involved with the excavation and jacketing, and Brian mixed most of the plaster himself.

John Foster, Brian Engh, Wes and Thayne Bartlett, and Matt Wedel (kneeling). Casey Cordes (blue cap) is in the foreground, working the winch. Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Here we go for the flip. The cable and winch were rigged by Brian’s friend, Casey Cordes, who had joined us from California with his girlfriend, teacher and photographer Mallerie Niemann.

Photo courtesy of Brian Engh.

Jacket-flipping is always a fraught process, but this one went smooth as silk. As we started working down the matrix to slim the jacket, we uncovered a few patches of bone, and they were all in great shape.

So how’d we get this monster out of the field?

From left to right: Wes Bartlett and one of his horses, Matt Wedel, Tom Howells, and Thayne Bartlett. Photo by Brian Engh.

Clydesdales! John had hired the Bartlett family of Naples, Utah–Wes, Resha, and their kids Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin–who joined us with their horses Molly and Darla. Brian had purchased a wagon with pneumatic tires from Gorilla Carts. Casey took the point on winching the jacket down to the bottom of the wash, where we wrestled it onto the wagon. From there, one of the Clydesdales took it farther down the canyon, to a point where the canyon wall was shallow enough that we could get the wagon up the slope and out. The canyon slope was slickrock, not safe for the horses to pull a load over, so we had to do that stretch with winches and human power, mostly Brian, Tom, and Thayne pushing, me steering, and Casey on the winch.

Easily the most epic and inspiring photo of my butt ever taken. Wes handles horses, Casey coils rope, Thayne pushes the cart, and Kaler looks on. Photo by Brian Engh.

Up top, Wes hooked up the other horse to pull the wagon to the jeep trail, and then both horses to haul the jacket out to the road on a sled. I missed that part–I had gone back to the quarry to grab tools before it got dark–but Brian got the whole thing on video, and it will be coming soon as part of his Jurassic Reimagined documentary series.

There’s one more bit I have to tell, but I have no photos of it: getting the jacket off the sled and onto the trailer that John had brought from the Field House. We tried winching, prybar, you name it. The thing. Just. Did. Not. Want. To. Move. Then Yara, who is originally from Egypt, said, “You know, when my people were building the pyramids, we used round sticks under the big blocks.” As luck would have it, I’d brought about a meter-long chunk of thick dowel from my scrap wood bin. Brian used a big knife to cut down some square posts into roughly-round shapes, and with those rollers, the winch, and the prybar, we finally got the jacket onto the trailer.

The real heroes of the story are Molly and Darla. In general, anything that the horses could help with went waaay faster and more smoothly than we expected, and anything we couldn’t use the horses for was difficult, complex, and terrifying. I’d been around horses before, but I’d never been up close and personal with Clydesdales, and it was awesome. As someone who spends most of his time thinking about big critters, it was deeply satisfying to use two very large animals to pull out a piece of a truly titanic animal.

Back in the prep lab at the Field House in Vernal: Matt Wedel, Brian Engh, Yara Haridy, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, and John Foster.

We’re telling the story now because the humerus is being unveiled for the public today at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal. The event will be at 11:00 AM Mountain Time, and it is open to the public. The humerus, now cataloged as FHPR 17108, will be visible to museum visitors for the rest of its time in the prep lab, before it eventually goes on display at the Field House. We’re also hoping to use the intact right humerus as a Rosetta Stone to interpet and piece back together the shattered chunks of the matching left humerus. There will be a paper along in due time, but obviously some parts of the description will have to wait until the right humerus is fully prepped, and we’ve made whatever progress we can reconstructing the left one.

Why is this find exciting? For a few reasons. Despite its iconic status, in dinosaur books and movies like Jurassic Park, Brachiosaurus is actually a pretty rare sauropod, and as this short video by Brian Engh shows, much of the skeleton is unknown (for an earlier, static image that shows this, see Mike’s 2009 paper on Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan, here). Camarasaurus is known from over 200 individuals, Apatosaurus and Diplodocus from over 100 individuals apiece, but Brachiosaurus is only known from about 10. So any new specimens are important.

A member of the Riggs field crew in 1900, lying next to the humerus of the holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus. I’m proud to say that I know what this feels like now!

If Brachiosaurus is rare, Brachiosaurus humeri are exceptionally rare. Only two have ever been described. The first one, above, is part of the holotype skeleton of Brachiosaurus, FMNH P25107, which came out of the ground near Fruita, Colorado, in 1900, and was described by Elmer S. Riggs in his 1903 and 1904 papers. The second, in the photo below, is the Potter Creek humerus, which was excavated from western Colorado in 1955 but not described until 1987, by Jim Jensen. That humerus, USNM 21903, resides at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The Brachiosaurus humerus from Potter Creek, Colorado, on display at the Smithsonian.

For the sake of completeness, I have to mention that there is a humerus on display at the LA County Museum of Natural History that is labeled Brachiosaurus, but it’s not been written up yet, and after showing photos of it to colleagues, I’m not 100% certain that it’s Brachiosaurus (I’m not certain that it isn’t, either, but further study is needed). And there’s at least one humerus with a skeleton that was excavated by the University of Kansas and sold by the quarry owner to a museum in Korea (I had originally misunderstood this; some but not all of the material from that quarry went to KU), that is allegedly Brachiosaurus, but that one seems to have fallen into a scientific black hole. I can’t say anything about its identification because I haven’t seen the material.

Happy and relieved folks the morning after the Brachstraction: Yara Haridy, Matt Wedel, John and Ruby Foster, and the Bartletts: Kaler, Wes, Cobin, Resha, Jayleigh, and Thayne. Jacketed Brachiosaurus humerus for scale. Photo by Brian Engh.

So our pair of humeri from the Salt Wash of Utah are only the 3rd and 4th that I can confidently say are from Brachiosaurus. And they’re big. Both are at least 62cm wide across the proximal end, and the complete one is 201cm long. To put that into context, here’s a list of the longest sauropod humeri ever found:

  1. Brachiosaurus, Potter Creek, Colorado: 213cm
  2. Giraffatitan, MB.R.2181/SII specimen, Tanzania: 213cm
  3. Brachiosaurus, holotype, Colorado: ~213cm (preserved length is 203cm, but the distal end is eroded, and it was probably 213cm when complete)
  4. Giraffatitan, XV3 specimen, Tanzania: 210cm
  5. *** NEW Brachiosaurus, FHPR 17108, Utah: 201cm
  6. Ruyangosaurus (titanosaur from China): ~190cm (estimated from 135cm partial)
  7. Turiasaurus (primitive sauropod from Spain): 179cm
  8. Notocolossus (titanosaur from Argentina): 176cm
  9. Paralititan (titanosaur from Egypt): 169cm
  10. Patagotitan (titanosaur from Argentina): 167.5cm
  11. Dreadnoughtus (titanosaur from Argentina): 160cm
  12. Futalognkosaurus (titanosaur from Argentina): 156cm

As far as we know, our intact humerus is the 5th largest ever found on Earth. It’s also pretty complete. The holotype humerus has an eroded distal end, and was almost certainly a few centimeters longer in life. The Potter Creek humerus was missing the cortical bone from most of the front of the shaft when it was found, and has been heavily restored for display, as you can see in one of the photos above. Ours seems to have both the shaft and the distal end intact. The proximal end has been through some freeze-thaw cycles and was flaking apart when we found it, but the outline is pretty good. Obviously a full accounting will have to wait until the bone is fully prepared, but we might just have the best-preserved Brachiosaurus humerus yet found.

Me with a cast of the Potter Creek humerus in the collections at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado. The mold for this was made from the original specimen before it was restored, so it’s missing most of the bone from the front of the shaft. Our new humerus is just a few cm shorter. Photo by Yara Haridy.

Oh, our Brachiosaurus is by far the westernmost occurrence of the genus so far, and the stratigraphically lowest, so it extends our knowledge of Brachiosaurus in both time and space. It’s part of a diverse dinosaur fauna that we’re documenting in the Salt Wash, that minimally also includes Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and either Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, just among sauropods. There are also some exciting non-sauropods in the fauna, which we’ll be revealing very soon.

A chunk of matrix from the brachiosaur quarry. The black bits are fossilized plants.

And that’s not all. Unlike most of the other dinosaur fossils we’ve found in the Salt Wash, including the camarasaur, apatosaur, and haplocanthosaur vertebrae I’ve shown in recent posts, the humeri were not in concrete-like sandstone. Instead, they came out of a sandy clay layer, and the matrix is packed with plant fossils. It was actually kind of a pain during the excavation, because I kept getting distracted by all the plants. We did manage to collect a couple of buckets of the better-looking stuff as we were getting the humerus out, and we’ll be going back for more.

As you can seen in Part 1 of Brian’s Jurassic Reimagined documentary series, we’re not out there headhunting dinosaurs, we’re trying to understand the whole environment: the dinosaurs, the plants, the depositional system, the boom-and-bust cycles of rain and drought–in short, the whole shebang. So the plant fossils are almost as exciting for us as the brachiosaur, because they’ll tell us more about the world of the early Morrison.

The Barletts: Thayne, Jayleigh, Resha, Cobin, Wes, and Kaler.

Among the folks I have to thank, top honors go to the Bartlett family. They came to work, they worked hard, and they were cheerful and enthusiastic through the whole process. Even the kids worked–Thayne was one of the driving forces keeping the wagon moving down the gulch, and the younger Bartletts helped Ruby uncover and jacket a couple of small bits of bone that were in the way of the humerus flip. So Wes, Resha, Thayne, Jayleigh, Kaler, and Cobin: thank you, sincerely. We couldn’t have done it without you all, and Molly and Darla!

EDIT: I also need to thank Casey Cordes–without his rope and winch skills, the jacket would still be out in the desert. And actually everyone on the team was clutch. We had no extraneous human beings and no unused gear. It was a true team effort.

The full version of the art shown at the top of this post: a new life restoration of Brachiosaurus by Brian Engh.

From start to end, this has been a Brian Engh joint. He found the humerus in the first place, and he was there for every step along the way, including creating the original paleoart that I’ve used to bookend this post. When Brian wasn’t prospecting or digging or plastering (or cooking, he’s a ferociously talented cook) he was filming. He has footage of me walking up to the humerus for the first time last May and being blown away, and he has some truly epic footage of the horses pulling the humerus out for us. All of the good stuff will go into the upcoming installments of Jurassic Reimagined. He bought the wagon and the boat winch with Patreon funds, so if you like this sort of thing–us going into the middle of nowhere, bringing back giant dinosaurs, and making blog posts and videos to explain what we’ve found and why we’re excited–please support Brian’s work (link). Also check out his blog, dontmesswithdinosaurs.com–his announcement about the find is here–and subscribe to his YouTube channel, Brian Engh Paleoart (link), for the rest of Jurassic Reimagined and many more documentaries to come.

(SV-POW! also has a Patreon page [link], and if you support us, Mike and I will put those funds to use researching and blogging about sauropods. Thanks for your consideration!)

The happiest I have ever been in the field. Photo by Yara Haridy.

And for me? It’s been the adventure of a lifetime, by turns terrifying and exhilarating. I missed out on the digs where Sauroposeidon, Brontomerus, and Aquilops came out of the ground, so this is by far the coolest thing I’ve been involved with finding and excavating. I got to work with old friends, and I made new friends along the way. And there’s more waiting for us, in “Brachiosaur Gulch” and in the Salt Wash more generally. After five years of fieldwork, we’ve just scratched the surface. Watch this space!

Media Coverage

Just as I was about to hit ‘publish’ I learned that this story has been beautifully covered by Anna Salleh of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I will add more links as they become available.

References

In the last post, we looked at some sauropod vertebrae exposed in cross-section at our field sites in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation. This time, we’re going to do it again! Let’s look at another of my faves from the field, with Thuat Tran’s hand for scale. And, er, a scale bar for scale:

And let’s pull the interesting bits out of the background:

Now, confession time. When I first saw this specimen, I interpeted it as-is, right-side up. The round thing in the middle with the honeycomb of internal spaces is obviously the condyle of a vertebra, and the bits sticking out above and below on the sides frame a cervical rib loop. I figured the rounded bit at the upper right was the ramus of bone heading for the prezyg, curved over as I’ve seen it in some taxa, including the YPM Barosaurus. And the two bits below the centrum would then be the cervical ribs. And with such big cervical rib loops and massive, low-hanging cervical ribs, it had to an apatosaurine, either Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus.

Then I got my own personal Cope-getting-Elasmosaurus-backwards moment, courtesy of my friend and fellow field adventurer, Brian Engh, who proposed this:

Gotta say, this makes a lot more sense. For one, the cervical ribs would be lateral to the prezygs, just as in, oh, pretty much all sauropods. And the oddly flat inward-tilted surfaces on what are now the more dorsal bones makes sense: they’re either prezyg facets, or the flat parts of the rami right behind the prezyg facets. The missing thing on what is now the right even makes sense: it’s the other cervical rib, still buried in a projecting bit of sandstone. That made no sense with the vert the other way ’round, because prezygs always stick out farther in front than do the cervical ribs. And we know that we’re looking at the vert from the front, otherwise the backwards-projecting cervical rib would be sticking through that lump of sandstone, coming out of the plane of the photo toward us.

Here’s what I now think is going on:

I’m still convinced that the bits of bone on what is now the left side of the image are framing a cervical rib loop. And as we discussed in the last post, the only Morrison sauropods with such widely-set cervical ribs are Camarasaurus and the apatosaurines. So what makes this an apatosaurine rather than a camarasaur? I find several persuasive clues:

  • If we have this thing the right way up, those prezygs are waaay up above the condyle, at a proportional distance I’ve only seen in diplodocids. See, for example, this famous cervical from CM 3018, the holotype of A. louisae (link).
  • The complexity of the pneumatic honeycombing inside the condyle is a much better fit for an apatosaurine than for Camarasaurus–I’ve never seen that level of complexity in a camarasaur vert.
  • The bump on what we’re now interpreting as the cervical rib looks suspiciously like one of the ventrolateral processes that Kent Sanders and I identified in apatosaurine cervicals back in our 2002 paper. I’ve never seen them, or seen them reported, in Camarasaurus–and I’ve been looking.
  • Crucially, the zygs are not set very far forward of the cervical ribs. By some rare chance, this is pretty darned close to a pure transverse cut, and the prezygs, condyle (at its posterior extent, anyway), and the one visible cervical rib are all in roughly the same plane. In Camarasaurus, the zygs strongly overhang the front end of the centrum in the cervicals (see this and this).

But wait–aren’t the cervical ribs awfully high for this to be an apatosaurine? We-ell, not necessarily. This isn’t a very big vert; max centrum width here is 175mm, only about a third the diameter of a mid-cervical from something like CM 3018. So possibly this is from the front of the neck, around the C3 or C4 position, where the cervical ribs are wide but not yet very deep. You can see something similar in this C2-C5 series on display at BYU:

Or, maybe it’s just one of the weird apatosaurine verts that has cervical rib loops that are wide, but not very deep. Check out this lumpen atrocity at Dinosaur Journey–and more importantly, the apatosaur cervical he’s freaking out over:

UPDATE just a few minutes later: Mike reminded me in the comments about the Tokyo apatosaurine, NSMT-PV 20375, which has wide-but-not-deep cervical ribs. In fact, C7 (the vertebra on the right in this figure) is a pretty good match for the Salt Wash specimen:

UpchurchEtAl2005-apatosaurus-plate2-C3-6-7

NSMT-PV 20375, cervical vertebrae 3, 6 and 7 in anterior and posterior views. Modified from Upchurch et al. (2005: plate 2).

UPDATE the 2nd: After looking at it for a few minutes, I decided that C7 of the Tokyo apatosaurine was such a good match for the Salt Wash specimen that I wanted to know what it would look like if it was similarly sectioned by erosion. In the Salt Wash specimen, the prezygs are sticking out a little farther than the condyle and cervical rib sections. The red line in this figure is my best attempt at mimicking that erosional surface on the Tokyo C7, and the black outlines on the right are my best guess as to what would be exposed by such a cut (or pair of cuts). I’ve never seen NSMT-PV 20375 in person, so this is just an estimate, but I don’t think it can be too inaccurate, and it is a pretty good match for the Salt Wash specimen.

Another way to put it: if this is an apatosaurine, everything fits. Even the wide-but-not-low-hanging cervical ribs are reasonable in light of some other apatosaurines. If we think this is Camarasaurus just because the cervical ribs aren’t low-hanging, then the pneumatic complexity, the height of the prezygs, and the ventrolateral process on the cervical rib are all anomalous. The balance of the evidence says that this is an apatosaurine, either a small, anterior vert from a big one, or possibly something farther back from a small one. And that’s pretty satisfying.

One more thing: can we take a moment to stand in awe of this freaking thumb-sized cobble that presumably got inside the vertebra through one its pneumatic foramina and rattled around until it got up inside the condyle? Where, I’ll note, the internal structure looks pretty intact despite being filled with just, like, gravel. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about how pneumatic vertebrae get buried and fossilized, I am blown away by this. Gaze upon its majesty, people!

This is another “Road to Jurassic Reimagined, Part 2″ post. As before, Part 1 is here, Part 2 will be going up here in the near future. As always, stay tuned.

References

Nature’s CT machine

January 28, 2020

Because I’ve worked a lot on the anatomy and evolution of air-filled bones in sauropod dinosaurs, I’ve spent most of my career looking at images like this:

CT sections through a cervical vertebra of an apatosaurine (Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus), OMNH 1094. Wedel (2003b: fig. 6). Scale bar is 10cm.

…and thinking about images like this:

Physical sections through pneumatic vertebrae of Giraffatitan. Janensch (1950: figs. 71-73).

Turns out, that’s pretty good practice for fossil prospecting in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation, where we frequently find things like this:

That’s a bit hard to read, so let’s pull it out from the background:

This is almost certainly a pneumatic vertebra of a sauropod, sectioned more-or-less randomly by the forces of erosion to expose a complicated honeycomb of internal struts and chambers. The chambers are full of sandstone now, but in life they were full of air. I say “almost certainly” because there is small chance that it could belong to a very large theropod, but it looks more sauropod-y to me (for reasons I may expand upon in the comments if anyone is curious).

I’m not 100% certain what section this is. At first I was tempted to read it as a transversely-sectioned dorsal, something like the Allosaurus dorsal shown in this post (link) but from a small, possibly juvenile sauropod. But the semi-radial, spoke-like arrangement of the internal struts going to the round section at the bottom looks very much like the inside of the condyle of a sauropod cervical or cervico-dorsal–compare to fig. 71 from Janensch (1950), shown above. And of course there is no reason to suspect that the plane of this cut is neatly in any of the cardinal anatomical directions. It is most likely an oblique cut that isn’t purely transverse or sagittal or anything else, but some combination of the above. It’s also not alone–there are bits and bobs of bone to the side and above in the same chunk of sandstone, which might be parts of this vertebra or of neighboring bones. Assuming it is a sauropod, my guess is Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus, because it looks even more complex than the sectioned cervicals and dorsals I’ve seen of Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, or the apatosaurines.

Sometimes we can do a little better. This is one of my favorite finds from the Salt Wash. This boulder, now in two parts, fell down out of a big overhanging sandstone cliff. When the boulder hit, it broke into two halves, and the downhill half rolled over 180 degrees, bringing both cut faces into view in this photo. And there in the boulder is what looks like two vertebrae, but is in fact the neatly separated halves of a single vertebra. I know I refer to erosion and breakage as “Nature’s CT machine”, but this time that’s really on the nose. Let’s take a closer look:

Here’s what I see:

It’s a proportionally long vertebra with a round ball at one end and a hemispherical socket at the other end: a cervical vertebra of a sauropod. Part of the cervical rib is preserved on the upper side, which I suspect is the left side. The parapophysis on the opposite side is angled a bit out of the rock, toward the camera. Parapophyses of sauropod cervicals tend to be angled downward, and if we’re looking at the bottom of this vertebra, then the rib on the upper side is the left. The right cervical rib was cut off when the boulder broke. All we have on this side are the wide parapophysis and the slender strut of the diapophysis aiming out of the rock toward the missing rib, which must still be embedded in the other half of the boulder–and in fact you can see a bit of it peeking out in the counterpart in the wide shot, above.

Can we get a taxonomic ID? I think so, based on the following clues:

  • The cervical ribs are set waaay out to either side of the centrum, by about one centrum diameter. Such wide-set cervical ribs occur in Camarasaurus and the apatosaurines, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, but not typically in Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, or other Morrison sauropods.
  • The cervical rib we can see the most of is pretty slender, like those of Camarasaurus, in contrast to the massive, blocky cervical ribs of the apatosaurines (for example).
  • We can see at least bits of both the left and right cervical ribs in the two slabs–along with a section right through the centrum. So the cervical ribs were set wide from the centrum but not displaced deeply below it, as in Camarasaurus, and again in contrast to the apatosaurines, in which the cervical ribs are typically displaced far below (ventral to) the centrum (see this).
  • This one is a little more loosey-goosey, but the exposed internal structure looks “about right” for Camarasaurus. There is a mix of large and small chambers, but not many small ones, and nothing approaching the coarse, regular honeycomb we’d expect in Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus, or Diplodocus, let alone the fine irregular honeycomb we’d expect in Barosaurus or Brachiosaurus (although I will show you a vert like that in an upcoming post). On the other hand, the internal structure is too complex for Haplocanthosaurus (compare to the top image here).
  • As long as Camarasaurus is on the table, I’ll note that the overall proportions are good for a mid-cervical of Cam as well. That’s not worth much, since vertebral proportions vary along the column and almost every Morrison sauropod has cervicals with this general proportion somewhere in the neck, but it doesn’t hurt.

So the balance of the evidence points toward Camarasaurus. In one character or another, every other known Morrison sauropod is disqualified.

When it’s too dark to hunt for sauropods, you can look at other things.

Now, Camarasaurus is not only the most common sauropod in the Morrison, it’s also the most common dinosaur of any kind in the formation. So this isn’t a mind-blowing discovery. Still, it’s nice to be able to get down to a genus-level ID based on a single vertebra fortuitously sectioned by Mother Nature. In upcoming posts, I’ll show some of the more exciting critters that we’ve been able to ID out of the Salt Wash, ‘we’ here including Brian Engh, John Foster, ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Jessie Atterholt, and Thuat Tran. Brian will also be showing many of these same fossils in the next installment of Jurassic Reimagined. Catch Part 1 here (link), and stay tuned to Brian’s paleoart channel (here) for more in the very near future.

References

When I visited Dinosaur National Monument in October with Brian Engh and Yara Haridy, we spent a decent amount of time checking out DNM 28, a skull and associated bits of Camarasaurus. In particular, I got some shots of the axis (the second cervical vertebra behind the head), and it got me thinking about pneumaticity in this unusual element. Why I failed to get a full set of orthogonal shots is quite beyond my capacity, but we can roll with what I have. Before we go on, you might want to revisit Tutorial 36 to brush up on the general parts of the atlas-axis complex.


Here’s the axis in left lateral view (so, anterior to the left).

And a labeled version of the same. A few things to note:

  • One oddity of sauropod axes (and of axes of most critters) is that not only are the articular facets of the prezygapophyses not set forward of the neural arch, they’re set backward, well behind the forward point of the arch.
  • The dens epistrophei or odontoid process is sticking out immediately below the neural canal. This is the tongue of bone that articulated with the atlas (first cervical vertebra) in life.
  • Check out the prominent epipophysis above the postzygapophysis, which anchored the long dorsal neck muscles. (For more on epipophyses, see these posts, and especially this one.)
  • The diapophysis and parapophysis articulated with a cervical rib, which is not shown here. In fact, I don’t remember seeing it in the drawer that this vert came from. The atlantal and axial cervical ribs are small, apparently fused late in life if they fused at all, and are easily lost through taphonomic processes.
  • At least three pneumatic features are visible in this lateral view: the lateral fossa on the centrum, which is referred to as the “pleurocoel” in a lot of older literature; a ventral fossa that lies between the parapophysis and the midline ventral keel; and a fossa on the neural arch, behind the postzygodiapophyseal lamina. In the nomenclature of Wilson et al. (2011), this is the postzygocentrodiapophyseal fossa.

“Postzygocentrodiapophyseal fossa” is a mouthful, but I think it’s the only way to go. To be unambiguous, anatomical terminology needs to references specific landmarks, and the schemes proposed by Wilson (1999) for vertebral laminae and Wilson et al. (2011) for vertebral fossae are the bee’s knees in my book.

Nomenclatural issues aside, how do we know that these fossae were all pneumatic? Well, they’re invasive, there’s no other soft-tissue system that makes invasive fossae like that in archosaur vertebrae (although crocs sometimes have shallow fossae that are filled with cartilage or fat), and the same fossae sometimes have unambiguous pneumatic foramina in other vertebrae or in other sauropods.

Most of the features labeled above are also visible on the right side of the vertebra, although the ventral fossa is a little less well-defined in this view, and I can’t make out the prezyg facet. Admittedly, some of the uncertainty here is because of my dumb shadow falling across the vertebra. Specimen photography fail!

The paired ventral fossae are more prominent in this ventral view, on either side of the midline ventral keel (anterior is to the top).

And here’s a labeled version of the same ventral view.

Finally, here’s the posterior view. It’s apparent now that the neural spine is a proportionally huge slab of bone, like a broad, tilted shield between the postzygapophyses (which are also quite large for the size of this vertebra). The back side of the neural spine is deeply excavated by a complex fossa with several subfossae (kudos again to Jeff Wilson [1999] for that eminently useful term).

Here’s the same shot with some features of interest labeled. If I’ve read Wilson et al. (2011) correctly, the whole space on the back side of the neural spine and above the postzygs could be considered the spinopostzygapophyseal fossa, but here I’ve left the interspinous ligament scar (ILS) unshaded, on the expectation that the pneumatic diverticula that created that fossa were separated on the midline by the interspinous ligament. I might have drawn the ILS too conservatively, conceivably the whole space between the large deeply-shadowed subfossae was occupied by the interspinous ligament.

I’m particularly interested in those three paired subfossae, which for convenience I’m simply calling A, B, and C. Subfossa A may just be the leftover space between the spinopostzgyapophyseal laminae laterally and the interspinous ligament medially. I think subfossa B is invading the ramus of bone that goes to the epipophysis and postzygapophysis, but I didn’t think to check and see how far it goes (that might require CT anyway).

Subfossa C is the most intriguing. Together, those paired fossae form a couple of shallow pits, just on either side of the midline, and aimed straight forward. They can’t be centropostzygapophyseal fossae, which used to be called peduncular fossae, because they’re not in the peduncles on either side of the neural canal, they’re up above the lamina that connects the two postzygapophyses. Could they be ligament attachments? Maybe, but I’m skeptical for at least four reasons:

  1. Although interspinous ligament attachments often manifest as pits in the cervical vertebrae of birds, in sauropods they usually form rugosities or even spikes of bone that stick out, not inward. Furthermore, these pits are smooth, not rough like the interspinous ligament scars of birds.
  2. The interspinous ligament in tetrapods is typically a single, midline structure, and these pits are paired.
  3. Similar pits in front of the neural spine are present in some sauropod caudals, and they appear to be pneumatic (see Wedel 2009: p. 11 and figure 9).
  4. Pits at the base of the neural spine seem to be fairly uncommon in sauropod vertebrae. If they were attachment scars from the universally-present interspinous ligaments, we should expect them to be more prominent and more widespread.

But if these paired pits are not ligament scars, what are they? Why are they present, and why are they so distinct? Sometimes (often?) subfossae and accessory laminae look like the outcome of pneumatic diverticulum and bone reacting to each other (I almost wrote ‘playing together’), in what looks like a haphazard process of adaptation to local loading. But the symmetry of these pits argues against them being incidental or random. They don’t seem to be going anywhere, so maaaybe they are the first hoofbeats of the embossed laminae and “unfossae” that we see in the vertebrae of more derived sauropods (for which see this post), but again, their symmetry in size and placement isn’t really consistent with the “developmental program gone wild” appearance of “unfossae”. I really don’t know what to make of them, but if you have ideas, arguments, or observations to bring to bear, the comment field is open.

In summary, sauropod axes are more interesting than I thought, even in a derpasaurus like Cam. I’ll have to pay more attention to them going forward.

References

 

The Man Himself, taking notes on what look like Giraffatitan caudals.

Here’s how I got my start in research. Through a mentorship program, I started volunteering at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in the spring of 1992, when I was a junior in high school. I’d been dinosaur-obsessed from the age of three, but I’d never had an anatomy course and didn’t really know what I was doing. Which is natural! I had no way of knowing what I was doing because I lacked training. Fortunately for me, Rich Cifelli took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. I started going out on digs, learned the basics of curatorial work, how to mold and cast fossils, how to screenwash matrix and then pick microfossils out of the concentrate under a dissecting microscope, and—perhaps most importantly—how to make a rough ID of an unidentified bone by going through the comparative element collection until I found the closest match.

All set, right? Ignition, liftoff, straight path from there to here, my destiny unrolling before me like a red carpet.

No.

It could have gone that way, but it didn’t. I had no discipline. I was a high-achieving high school student, but it was all to satisfy my parents. When I got to college, I didn’t have them around to push me anymore, and I’d never learned to push myself. I went off the rails pretty quickly. Never quite managed to lose my scholarships, without which I could not have afforded to be in college, period, but I skimmed just above the threshold of disaster and racked up a slate of mediocre grades in courses from calculus to chemistry. I even managed to earn a C in comparative anatomy, a fact which I am now so good at blocking out that I can go years at a time without consciously recalling it.

After three years of this, I had the most important conversation of my life. Because I was a zoology major I’d been assigned a random Zoology Dept. faculty member as an undergrad advisor. I was given to Trish Schwagmeyer, not because we got on well (we did, but that was beside the point) or had similar scientific interests, just luck of the draw. And it was lucky for me, because in the spring of 1996 Trish looked at my grades from the previous semester, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re blowing it.” She then spent the next five minutes explaining in honest and excruciating detail just how badly I was wrecking my future prospects. I’ve told this story before, in this post, but it bears repeating, because that short, direct, brutal-but-effective intervention became the fulcrum for my entire intellectual life and future career.

The holotype specimen of Sauroposeidon coming out of the ground in 1994.

Roughly an hour later I had the second most important conversation of my life, with Rich Cifelli. While I’d been lost in the wilderness my museum volunteering had petered out to zero, and Rich would have been completely justified in telling me to get lost. Not only did he not do that, he welcomed me back into the fold, in a terrifyingly precise recapitulation of the Biblical parable of the prodigal son. When I asked Rich if I could do an independent study with him in the next semester, he thought for a minute and said, “Well, we have these big dinosaur vertebrae from the Antlers Formation that need to be identified.” Which is how, at the age of 21, with a rubble pile of an academic transcript and no real accomplishments to stand on, I got assigned to work on OMNH 53062, the future holotype of Sauroposeidon proteles.

I was fortunate in four important ways beyond the forgiveness, patience, and generosity of Richard Lawrence Cifelli:

  • OMNH 53062 was woefully incomplete, just three and a half middle cervical vertebrae, which meant that the project was small enough in concept to be tractable as an independent study for an undergrad. Rich and I both figured that I’d work on the vertebrae for one semester, come up with a family-level identification, and maybe we’d write a two-pager for Oklahoma Geology Notes documenting the first occurrence of Brachiosauridae (or whatever it might turn out to be) in the vertebrate fauna of the Antlers Formation.
  • Because the specimen was so incomplete, no-one suspected that it might be a new taxon, otherwise there’s no way such an important project would have been assigned to an undergrad with a spotty-to-nonexistent track record.
  • Despite the incompleteness, because the specimen consisted of sauropod vertebrae, it held enough characters to be identifiable–and eventually, diagnosable. Neither of those facts were known to me at the time.
  • All of Rich’s graduate students were already busy with their own projects, and nobody else was about to blow months of time and effort on what looked like an unpromising specimen.

NB: this guy is not a prodigy.

There is a risk here, in that I come off looking like some kind of kid genius for grasping the importance of OMNH 53062, and Rich’s other students look like fools for not seeing it themselves. It ain’t like that. The whole point is that nobody grasped the importance of the specimen back then. It would take Rich and me a whole semester of concentrated study just to come to the realization that OMNH 53062 might be distinct enough to be diagnosable as a new taxon, and a further three years of descriptive and comparative work to turn that ‘maybe’ into a paper. People with established research programs can’t afford to shut down everything else and invest six months of study into every incomplete, garbage-looking specimen that comes down the pike, on the off chance that it might be something new. Having the good judgment to not pour your time down a rat-hole is a prerequisite for being a productive researcher. But coming up with a tentative ID of an incomplete, garbage-looking specimen is a pretty good goal for a student project: the student learns some basic comparative anatomy and research skills, the specimen gets identified, no existing projects get derailed, and no-one established wastes their time on what is most likely nothing special. If the specimen does turn out to be important, that’s gravy.

So there’s me at the start of the fall of 1996: with a specimen to identify and juuuust enough museum experience, from my high school mentorship, to not be completely useless. I knew that one identified a fossil by comparing it to known things and looking for characters in common, but I didn’t know anything about sauropods or their vertebrae. Rich got me started with a few things from his academic library, I found a lot more in OU’s geology library, and what I couldn’t find on campus I could usually get through interlibrary loan. I spent a lot of time that fall standing at a photocopier, making copies of the classic sauropod monographs by Osborn, Hatcher, Gilmore, Janensch, and others, assembling the raw material to teach myself sauropod anatomy.

The sauropod monographs live within arm’s reach of my office chair to this day.

In addition to studying sauropods, I also started going to class, religiously, and my grades rose accordingly. At first I was only keeping up with my courses so that I would be allowed to continue doing research; research was the carrot that compelled me to become a better student. There was nothing immediate or miraculous about my recovery, and Rich would have to give me a few well-deserved figurative ass-kickings over the next few years when I’d occasionally wander off course again. But the point was that I had a course. After a few months I learned—or remembered—to take pride in my coursework. I realized that I had never stopped defining myself in part by my performance, and that when I’d been adrift academically I’d also been depressed. It felt like crawling out of a hole.

(Aside: I realize that for many people, depression is the cause of academic difficulty, not the reverse, and that no amount of “just working harder” can offset the genuine biochemical imbalances that underlie clinical depression. I sympathize, and I wish we lived in a world where everyone could get the evaluation and care that they need without fear, stigma, crushing financial penalties, or all of the above. I’m also not describing any case here other than my own.)

What fresh hell is this? (Apatosaur dorsal from Gilmore 1936)

Out of one hole, into another. The biggest problem I faced back then is that if you are unfamiliar with sauropod vertebrae they can be forbiddingly complex. The papers I was struggling through referred to a pandemonium of laminae, an ascending catalog of horrors that ran from horizontal laminae and prespinal laminae through infraprezygapophyseal laminae and spinopostzygapophyseal laminae. Often these features were not labeled in the plates and figures, the authors had just assumed that any idiot would know what a postcentrodiapophyseal lamina was because, duh, it’s right there in the name. But that was the whole problem: I didn’t know how to decode the names. I had no map. SV-POW! tutorials didn’t exist. Jeff Wilson’s excellent and still-eminently-useful 1999 paper codifying the terminology for sauropod vertebral laminae was still years in the future.

Then I found this, on page 35 of Werner Janensch’s 1950 monograph on the vertebrae of what was then called Brachiosaurus brancai (now Giraffatitan):

It was in German, but it was a map! I redrew it by hand in my very first research notebook, and as I was copying down the names of the features the lightbulb switched on over my head. “Diapophyse” meant “diapophysis”, and it was the more dorsal of the two rib attachments. “Präzygapophyse” was “prezygapophysis”, and it was one of the paired articular bits sticking out the front of the neural arch. And, crucially, “Präzygodiapophysealleiste” had to be the prezygodiapophyseal lamina, which connected the two. And so on, for all of the weird bits that make up a sauropod vertebra.

It’s been 22 years and I still remember that moment of discovery, my pencil flying across the page as I made my own English translations of the German anatomical terms, my mind buzzing with the realization that I was now on the other side. Initiated. Empowered. I felt like I had pulled the sword from the stone, found Archimedes’ lever that could move the world. In the following weeks I’d go back through all of my photocopied sauropod monographs with my notebook open to the side, reading the descriptions of the vertebrae for the second or third times but understanding them for the first time, drawing the vertebrae over and over again until I could call up their basic outlines from memory. This process spilled over from the fall of 1996 into the spring of 1997, as Rich and I realized that OMNH 53062 would require more than one semester of investigation.

Interlude with a left femur of the Oklahoma apatosaurine (but not the largest individual).

My memories of those early days of my sauropod research are strongly shaped by the places and circumstances in which I was doing the work. Vicki and I had gotten married in the summer of 1996 and moved into a two-bedroom duplex apartment on the north side of Norman. The upstairs had a long, narrow bathroom with two sinks which opened at either end onto the two upstairs bedrooms, the one in which we slept and the one we used as a home office. In the mornings I could get showered and dressed in no time, and while Vicki was getting ready for work or school I’d go into the office to read sauropod papers and take notes. Vicki has always preferred to have music on while she completes her morning rituals, so I listened to a lot of Top 40 hits floating in from the other upstairs rooms while I puzzled out the fine details of sauropod vertebral anatomy.

Two songs in particular could always be counted on to play in any given hour of pop radio in the early spring of 1997: Wannabe by the Spice Girls, and Lovefool by the Cardigans. I am surely the only human in history to have this particular Pavlovian reaction, but to this day when I hear either song I am transported back to that little bedroom office where I spent many a morning poring over sauropod monographs, with my working space illuminated by the light of the morning sun pouring through the window, and my mind illuminated by Werner Janensch, who had the foresight and good grace to give his readers a map.

Figure 5 from my undergraduate thesis: OMNH 53062 in right lateral view.

If you want to know what I thought about OMNH 53062 back in 1997, you can read my undergraduate thesis—it’s a free download here. Looking back now, the most surprising thing to me about that thesis is how few mentions there are of pneumaticity. I met Brooks Britt in the summer of 1997 and had another epochal conversation, in which he suggested that I CT scan OMNH 53062 to look at the air spaces inside the vertebrae. I filed my undergrad thesis in December of 1997, and the first session CT scanning OMNH 53062 took place in January, 1998. So in late 1997 I was still a pneumaticity n00b, with no idea of the voyage I was about to embark upon.

In 2010, after I was settled in as an anatomist at Western University of Health Sciences, I wrote a long thank-you to Trish Schwagmeyer. It had been 14 years since that pivotal conversation, but when she wrote back to wish me well, she still remembered that I’d gotten a C in comparative anatomy. I’d have a chance to make amends for that glaringly anomalous grade later the same year. At ICVM in Punta del Este, Uruguay, I caught up with Edie Marsh-Matthews, who had taught my comparative anatomy course back when. I apologized for having squandered the opportunity to learn from her, and she graciously (and to my relief) shifted the conversation to actual comparative anatomy, the common thread that connected us in the past and the present.

If the story has a moral, it’s that I owe my career in large part to people who went out of their way to help me when I was floundering. And, perhaps, that the gentle approach is not always the best one. I needed to have my head thumped a few times, verbally, to get my ass in gear, when less confrontational tactics had failed. I slid easily through the classrooms of dozens of professors who watched me get subpar grades and didn’t try to stop me (counterpoint: professors are too overworked to invest in every academic disaster that comes through the door, just like paleontologists can’t study every garbage specimen). If Trish Schwagmeyer and Rich Cifelli had not decided that I was worth salvaging, and if they not had the grit to call me out on my BS, I wouldn’t be here. As an educator myself now, that thought haunts me. I hope that I will be perceptive enough to know when a student is struggling not because of a lack of ability but through a lack of application, wise enough to know when to deploy the “you’re blowing it” speech, and strong enough to follow through.

References

  • Gilmore Charles W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus, with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175–300 and plates XXI–XXXIV.
  • Janensch, Werner.  1950.  Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai.  Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3: 27-93.
  • Wedel, M.J. 1997. A new sauropod from the Early Cretaceous of Oklahoma. Undergraduate honor thesis, Department of Zoology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK. 43pp.
  • Wilson, J.A. 1999. A nomenclature for vertebral laminae in sauropods and other saurischian dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19: 639-653.

Matt with big Apato dorsal 2000

Final bonus image so when I post this to Facebook, it won’t grab the next image in line and crop it horribly to make a preview. This is me with OMNH 1670, in 2003 or 2004, photo by Andrew Lee.