As Matt frequently reminds me, it’s now nearly five years since I started to work on “The Archbishop”, more formally known as BMNH R5973, the Natural History Museum’s long-neglected Tendaguru brachiosaur.  This is, or at least once was, one of the most complete brachiosaurid specimens ever discovered — although quite a bit of the material has gone missing or remains unprepared.  It’s true that I owe the world a proper description, especially since I spoke about the specimen as long ago as the 2005 SVPCA (Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy) and have been sitting on it ever since.  So: you have my apologies, along with a promise to get into gear RSN.

But what I want to know is this: since this specimen is radioactive, and I’ve been working with it for five years now, surely according to all the rules of literature, I should by now have developed brachiosaurid superpowers?  At the very least, the ability to have a neck way long compared with my body:

Left to right: Mike with brachiosaurid superpowers, Matt with no superpowers, Darren being mundane.

Left to right: Mike with brachiosaurid superpowers, Matt with no superpowers, Darren being mundane.

Better still would be the ability to crush my enemies to dust beneath my Mighty Forefeet of Justice.  And yet, so far, nothing.  It doesn’t seem fair somehow.

Since we’re talking about the Archbishop, let’s take a look at Cervical U, the best preserved of the five cervicals that are available for study:

Tendaguru brachiosaurid BMNH R5937, "The Archbishop", cervical U in right lateral view.  Copyright the Natural History Museum, since it's their material.

Tendaguru brachiosaurid BMNH R5937, "The Archbishop", cervical U in right lateral view. Copyright the Natural History Museum, since it's their material.

When it was found in 1930, in an expedition to Tendaguru, Tanzania, led by F. W. H. Migeod, the Archbishop consisted of an articulated vertebral column all the way from cervical 5 through to caudal 8 or so — by far the best vertebral sequence of any brachiosaur — along with cervical and dorsal ribs, a scapula, both humeri, pelvic elements and a partial femur.  At least, if you believe Migeod; but the material that made it back to London, survived the Second World War and has been prepared is a fraction of that: five cervicals in various states of repair, some cervical ribs, two excellent dorsals (featured previously, though not in a big way), two further dorsal centra and a dorsal neural spine, an indeterminate long-bone fragment and a smushed proximal pubis.  Migeod measurements make it seem unlikely that all the material really belongs to a single animal — for example, the humeri seem much too short — but the articulation of the vertebrae makes their associated pretty rock solid.  And that is plenty enough to make this an awesome specimen.

Here is Migeod’s quarry map:

BMNH R5937 quarry map, from Migeod (1930:fig. 1)

BMNH R5937 quarry map, from Migeod (1930:fig. 1)

I don’t want to say too much more about the Archbishop for fear of stealing my own thunder, but it’s no secret that I don’t think it’s Brachiosaurus brancai.  For those who want to know more, the slides from my 2005 SVPCA talk are available.  Enjoy!

References

If you’ve been following SV-POW! closely – perhaps a little too closely – you will know of BMNH R5937, a Tendaguru sauropod collected in 1930 on one of the British Museum (Natural History) expeditions, and reported in 1931 by Frederick Migeod (pronounced ‘mee-zhou’). Discovered in the ‘M23’ quarry at Tendaguru, the specimen was assumed by Migeod and all subsequent authors to be another specimen of Brachiosaurus brancai, but what’s notable is that Migeod mentioned several features in the vertebrae of the specimen that really sounded quite un-Brachiosaurus-like. Despite the size and quality of the specimen however, nobody ever got round to studying it properly – until Mike did exactly this. An abstract and talk slides on the specimen can be found here. For whatever reason, the specimen has become known as The Archbishop.

While Migeod wrote about The Archbishop, he never published any illustrations of it (with the exception of a quarry map). I don’t think I’m betraying any secrets by letting on that Mike is working on a full technical desciption of the specimen, wherein it will of course be illustrated properly. Little known however is that The Archbishop has appeared in the literature before, but (unsurprisingly, and in keeping with tradition) has been misidentified as Brachiosaurus. After all, it’s a big sauropod and it comes from Tendaguru, so it must be Brachiosaurus, right? Here’s the proof: it’s p. 94 of David Lambert’s Ultimate Dinosaur Book, published by Dorling Kindersley in 1993. The Archbishop photo is, of course, up there at top right, masquareding as the dorsal vertebrae of Brachiosaurus brancai.

Today, we bring you the long-overdue third installment in everyone’s  favourite Mystery Sauropod Dorsals serial, our trawl through the NHM’s collection of mostly isolated elements from the Wealden Supergroup.

Many of these elements are too bashed up to be diagnostic (with the Xenoposeidon holotype R2095 being an honourable exception).  But there are one or two that are much better preserved, and arguably the best of these are the pair of elements BMNH R88/R89, which in some sense belong to “Eucamerotus” (read on).  These are difficult to photograph well, because they are in a glass case in the public gallery, but fortunately Hulke (1880: plate IV) illustrated the more anterior and better preserved of the two:

plate IV)

Like far too many British sauropod specimens, this one is mired in a taxonomic hell-hole. It was described by Hulke as belonging to Ornithopsis, a genus based on a horribly non-diagnostic type specimen, and it is this name that appears on the exhibit label (along with the incorrect specimen numbers R89/90 … oh well, One Out Of Two Ain’t Bad.)

Here is my least bad photo of R88 and R89, in left lateral view, with R88 on the left:

dscn1431-500px

Blows (1995) referred this pair of dorsals, and a bunch of other specimens, to another ancient British name, Eucamerotus — in fact, he nominated them as paratypes — but didn’t give any reason for doing so.  (He also referred to the R88/R89 pair jointly as R90, thus further muddling the specimen numbering.)  Blows’s reassignment to Eucamerotus is puzzling, because while the Eucamerotus type specimen is also pretty undiagnostic, consisting only of a partial neural arch, it does have one obvious apomophy, which is huge robust parapophyses supported on what I like the call The Prezygaparapophyseal Laminae Of Doom.  (Remind me to show you this specimen some time.)  That feature, of course, R88 and R89 completely lack.

So what are they?  I don’t think they can be referred with any confidence whatsoever to either Ornithopsis or Eucamerotus, two questionable genera of which at least the first is invalid.  So perhaps the right thing to do would be to torpedo those names and raise R88/89 as the type specimen of a new taxon?  There’s more work to do before taking such a step, not least an exhaustive trawl through the historical literature, but I think that might eventually prove the way to go.

Based on general proportions and overall “gestalt”, these vertebrae appear to be brachiosaurid — but I put them in a cladistic analysis a while back (so far unpublished) and they didn’t clade unambiguously with Brachiosaurus, so we’ll have to see how that develops when I finally get around to adding my thirty-odd new characters of the dorsals.  Don’t hold your breath.  At least, these elements are much more convincingly brachiosaurid than anything else I’ve seen from the Wealden.  So do they consitute Britain’s best brachiosaur?

Well, maybe.  Not if you count The Archbishop, Migeod’s Tendaguru brachiosaur, which I’ve been working on for waaay too long now, but really, really will describe Real Soon Now.  (Amazingly, this specimen has yet to appear on SV-POW!, unless you count my T-shirt in one of the photos of our Oxford Museum visit.)  But since this specimen is from the Tendaguru Formation of Tanzania, it should probably be discounted from the BBB competition.

In fact, Britain’s Best Brachiosaur is probably the “Barnes High Sauropod” from the Isle of Wight. But that’s in private hands and the ownership/availability situation is complex.  For that reason, no-one has yet published on it, and in fact I have never seen any of the material except what’s embedded in a wall-mount at Dinosaur Isle.  I’m not sure what’s happening with this specimen (I don’t think anyone is) but if I ever get a chance to find out, I will!

References

  • Blows, William T.  1995.  The Early Cretaceous brachiosaurid
    dinosaurs Ornithopsis and Eucamerotus from the Isle of
    Wight, England.  Palaeontology 38 (1): 187-197.
  • Hulke, J. W.  1880.  Supplementary Note on the Vertebræ of Ornithopsis, Seeley, = Eucamerotous, Hulke.  Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 36: 31-35.  doi:10.1144/GSL.JGS.1880.036.01-04.06

It’s very rare that all three of us SV-POW!ers get together: in fact, until Tuesday this week, it had only ever happened once, at SVPCA 2005. But as Matt was spending nearly a fortnight with me (Mike) in England, far from his native land — an unholy blend of Oklahoma and California — it would have been stupid not to have all got together. So we did, on the 19th, at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH).

The public gallery of the OUMNH is my favourite in the whole world, despite its inexplicable failure to exhibit so much as a single sauropod presacral. That’s because it is just so darned full of stuff. For example, here is Darren, with me, trying to figure out how ventral compressing-bracing of the neck is supposed to work in crocodiles:

Above our heads is a sequence of whale skeletons; to the right is a cabinet full of stuffed crocodilians; in the background, poking its head over the cabinet is a cast of the T. rex “Stan”. Further cabinets in the isle we’re in contain turtles, bizarre fish skulls, giant frog skeletons, and much, much more. Turn a corner and you’re confronted by a vampire squid; face the other direction and there’s a giant Japanese spider crab, or an absurdly oversized pliosaur mandible, or a cast of a Bernissart Iguanodon, or the skeleton of an echidna, giraffe or juvenile gorilla — or any one of a hundred thousand other fascinating exhibits. What you won’t find is “interactives” (i.e. the low-rent video games that infest nearly all museums and which are embarrasingly lame compared with what the kids can play at home on their X-boxes.)

Does this mean that the museum has made itself interesting for clever, sophisticated adults at the cost of being too “difficult” for children? Not a bit of it: Fiona and I took our three sons to the OUMNH a couple of months ago, and I have literally never seen them so excited about anything. Ever. All three of them were running from exhibit to exhibit for two solid hours, constantly calling each other and us to Wow! Come and see THIS! Guess what? Turns out that, when people go to Natural History museums, they like to look at Natural History. So OUMNH is a salutory lesson to every museum whose public galleries have been ruined by people who have, somehow, failed to understand this very, very, very simple principle.

Anyway, sorry for the tangent. What I wanted to show you was The Three SV-POW!sketeers, together at last! So here we are, in front of a bunch of awesome artiodactyl skeletons. From left to right, Mike, Matt and Darren.

(In case you’re wondering, those four grey blobs on my T-shirt are dorsals 8 and 9 from Migeod’s Tendaguru brachiosaurid, BMNH R5937, in posterior, right lateral and anterior views. One of these days, I’ll show you those properly.)

Anyway: packed though the museum is with wonderful things, there is one particular exhibit that stands head and shoulders above every other — a specimen so literally awe-inspiring that, wherever you are in the museum, whatever you’re looking at, you can hardly help but be aware of it, lurking in your peripheral vision and ready to command your full attention. We’re talking about a dinosaur so iconic that it needs no introduction: so, here we are, studying an anterior caudal vertebra of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis:

And finally, here we are having torn ourselves away from the Caudal Of Awesomeness, facing the camera for your pleasure:

That’s all for today — hope you can forgive the “lite” nature of this week’s post: we’ll get back to your usual hardcore action real soon now (though possibly not before a few more OUMNH pictures).

And, yes, we did also visit the collections at OUMNH; and, yes, we did find something absolutely fascinating. But we won’t be saying much about that on here, because we want to Wait For The Paper.

About SV-POW!

October 1, 2007

What this site is

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, or SV-POW! for short, was first conceived as a sort of joke response to the excellent Astronomy Picture of the Day. But before long, it became apparent to us that SV-POW! had legs of its own, and that there really was an almost infinite amount of material we could cover. We originally intended each post to be super-short, basically just an image and a caption, but that’s not at all how it’s turned out.

Read what people are saying about SV-POW!.

Who we are

Three of us write this site:

Mike is a research associate at the University of Bristol, UK, Matt works at Western University of Health Sciences, California, USA, and Darren at the University of Southampton, UK. Note that WE DO NOT SPEAK FOR OUR INSTITUTIONS ON THIS BLOG, ONLY FOR OURSELVES.

From left to right: Darren Naish, Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor, and the right humerus of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis.  Mike’s T-shirt shows posterior dorsal vertebrae of the brachiosaurid NHM R5937.

Darren is an omnivore, and works on pretty much every group of tetrapods: in the past few years he’s published on sauropods, theropods, ornithischians, sloths, birds, ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, turtles, all sorts of critters.  Matt and especially Mike are a bit more focussed: Matt works on sauropods and, to a lesser extent, theropods including birds, especially in relation to skeletal pneumaticity; Mike works on partial mid-to-posterior dorsal vertebrae of sauropods. We frequently collaborate with each other and with other authors on a whole range of topics, from nomenclature to neck posture.

All three of us are working paleontologists and occasionally, against all odds, we get new papers out. Many of our papers were published before we started SV-POW!, and you can find out about them at the links above. As new papers come out, we’re writing about them here — see this page for an overview.

Why we do this

Although it’s not yet widely recognised, SV-POW! is the future of the Internet.  Yes, I (Mike) am serious. It’s nice that companies like Amazon and E-Bay are out there, using the net for useful commercial purposes, but what it’s really about is facilitating small, super-focused groups of people with a shared interest … whether that’s sauropod vertebrae, 14th Century French pottery, the history of biscuits, whatever. I’d love to see more special-interest palaeo-blogs around: Ornithopod Manual Phalanx Picture of the Week, for example, or Basal Tyrannosaurid Metatarsal Picture of the Week.

Does writing this blog “count” in terms of academic credit?  When we started writing it, in 2007, the answer was a clear no.  Now, five years later, in 2012, it’s not so easy to judge.  My guess is that in another five years it will be a clear yes.

No-fossil-ID policy

From time to time, someone asks us to identity a fossil vertebra. As a matter of policy, we don’t do this, because we don’t know who might be a fossil dealer planning to sell scientifically important vertebrate material into private hands. Rather than giving offence by making a judgement on each individual case, it’s simpler for us to have a blanket policy. We just can’t risk having fossils turning up on eBay with the seller claiming “identified by Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week”. Thanks for understanding.

What you should do instead: First, no matter who you contact, be explicit about who owns the fossil and whether you intend to deposit it in a museum. Don’t be afraid to say that you own the fossil if you came by it legally; there are loads of ways to legally come into ownership of a fossil and, for better or worse, in the US the property laws are almost all on your side. But also do not be surprised if a paleontologist refuses to identify a  privately-held fossil; from our perspective, such fossils are lost to science and any time we spend on them is time we can’t spend writing up material held in the public trust. Second, get thee to a museum.* Most natural history museums have some kind of procedure in place for dealing with situations like this, whether it’s a “bring in your fossil” day or farming the work out to grad students who need practice at fossil identification. Try to get an ID from someone who has seen the fossil in person–identifications based on photographs are notoriously dodgy. Third, if it is a fossil that you own, and it turns out to be something important, please consider donating it to a properly accredited museum so that everyone can benefit from it.

* That was a rhetorical flourish–do call ahead or email first.

Copyright and license

All contributions on this blog are copyright their respective authors, except where noted.  (An important and recuring exception is that all photographs of fossils held by the Natural History Museum in London are copyright the museum.)

All original content on this blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (details below), which basically means you can do whatever you want with it provided only that you credit the authors.

Creative Commons License Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week by Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel, Darren Naish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.