In a comment on the last post, Anonymous wrote:

I was wondering, in the course of your career, have you ever gotten tired of studying sauropods? Not to say that sauropods aren’t interesting, or that you might be losing interest in them, but have you ever looked out the window one day and gone “you know, I’m sick of working on sauropods for a while, I’d like to do some research on (say) stegosaur necks”. I ask this question because many prospective paleontologist nowadays, particularly graduate and undergraduate students, are feeling increasingly pressured towards being pigeonholed in a certain, rather small area of paleontology, e.g., tooth wear in extinct ungulates, histology in dinosaurs or therapsids, or ankle adaptations in Triassic archosaurs. In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to. Though, in your case because sauropods exhibit such weird and diverse neck anatomy, it may not be a problem. In my case, I have been doing work on a group that is very morphologically stereotyped, and while I enjoy doing work on it, it would be nice to branch out into more diverse groups given my interesting in things like functional morphology and paleoecology. I know several other people in my research group feel the same.

I am going to answer first for myself, and then invite Mike and Darren and everyone else to share their thoughts.

For me, two things. First, I don’t always work on sauropods–I have a human anatomy paper in press, and two different projects on mammal skull osteology struggling toward publication, and a couple of bird things. You could be forgiven for thinking that sauropods are all that I do, though, since almost all of my publications to date have been on sauropods. :-) But I have been doing research on non-sauropod things that interest me for many years, they’re just taking longer to see the light of day.

Second, within the admittedly narrow field of sauropods I do many different kinds of projects. To take four consecutive papers: my part of the Brontomerus paper (Taylor et al. 2011a) was mostly writing about North American sauropod diversity in the mid-Mesozoic, whereas for the next paper (Taylor et al. 2011b) I was hacking through the sexual selection literature, and for Yates et al. (2012) I was thinking about the early evolution of pneumaticity, and for Wedel (2012) I was grappling with the internal processes of neurons. So that’s a spectrum of stuff from cell biology to biogeography–sauropodomorphs are just the thread that held all of these disparate bits together. Army ants typically have a central camp or bivouac from which they send out foraging parties in radiating directions. That’s my scientific development in a nutshell.

And I’m still pretty narrow compared to a lot of other folks. Dan Ksepka is best known for his fossil penguin work, but he also described the sauropod Erketu and has published on choristoderes, among other things. By the time he finished his dissertation, Jerry Harris had done a morphological description of a sauropod (Suuwassea) and another of a theropod (Acrocanthosaurus) and had published on pterosaurs and IIRC some other things as well. And then there’s Darren, whose remit is Tetrapoda, and not just for blogging.

One thing you wrote particularly caught my interest:

In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to.

Really? I am having a hard time wrapping me head around that. Does “this area” not butt up against any number of others? I mean, my first project was Rich Cifelli saying, “Hey, why don’t you go identify these sauropod vertebrae?”, which metastasized into the description of Sauroposeidon. But along the way I got interested in:

  1. the diversity of Early Cretaceous North American sauropods;
  2. pneumaticity;
  3. how birds breathe (and, yes, that’s a separate topic from pneumaticity);
  4. neck muscles in birds;
  5. biomechanics and posture of sauropod necks; and
  6. all the weird stuff lurking in the OMNH collection (see for example Bonnan and Wedel 2004 and Taylor et al. 2011a).

That looked like several lifetimes’ worth of work even back in 2000, and it looks like many more now.

Now, I worry that I am sounding like a jerk, because I know–I KNOW–I was handed the most cherry planned-to-be-one-semester undergraduate research project ever. I get that, and I’m as grateful and humble about it as any naturally arrogant genius could be. But still, it seems to me that just about every project involves applying [method] to [taxon] to measure or infer [parameter], and by the time you look into applying the method to other taxa or problems, and into related or complementary or opposing methods, and into other animals that closely related to or in some way analogous to your ‘home’ taxon, and into other parameters or the same parameter in other places or times or clades, you’ve got a pretty full slate of possible things to work on–and this is just a list of areas where you have a head start because you’re already up to speed. If you want to go work on something completely different, who’s stopping you? And if you have intellectual wanderlust but don’t know what to work on, I’ve already written something that might help with that.

But maybe I am misunderstanding your complaint. If the problem is that your research project is narrow, well, that’s a common lament, but the upside is that it’s the kind of limit that might make things easier. If the OMNH crew had found any more of Sauroposeidon, it would have taken longer to prepare, and it would have been more obvious that it was new, and it would have been a lot more work. So I probably wouldn’t have been put on the project, or if I had been, it might have taken up my whole MS and kept me from working on pneumaticity. I am wondering now if a useful heuristic for student projects–or any projects, really–might be, “Keep narrowing it until it looks tractable.”

If you’re bored, start a side project. At best you’ll have a second thread of publishable work, at worst you’ll have an excellent distraction from writing up your thesis.

If the complaint is that your research project is making you too narrow, then maybe you just haven’t been at it long enough to have found all of the interesting links to other methods and taxa and parameters. But I am certain they are there. And discovering them is one of the chief joys of doing research in the first place.

So, there are my thoughts on the desirability–or inevitability–of breadth in one’s research interests. What does everyone else think?


A while back, Matt mentioned some of the surprising search-terms that lead people to SV-POW!. For reasons that will shortly become clear, I was checking out what’s being searched for now, and I thought I may as well issue this update. Here are the all-time top ten:

Search Views
brachiosaurus 18,484
rabbit 18,274
leopard seal 13,103
basement 12,507
flamingo 12,363
sauroposeidon 11,821
amphicoelias fragillimus 9,841
svpow 9,708
diplodocus 7,203
sv pow 7,053

It’s nice to see good old Brachiosaurus up there at the top: a proper sauropod, and possibly my favourite (not counting the two that I’ve named myself, and which I have an obvious special affection for). But then you have to drop down to number six before you hit another sauropod (Sauroposeidon). Those top two sauropods are reasonable: we’ve written a lot about them here. The third top sauropod is Amphicoelias fragillimus, which is more surprising as we’ve not written that much about it. I guess it just reflects a lot of interest in that beast. Boring old Diplodocus is the fourth and last sauropod in the top ten. The next few are Argentinosaurus (#11), Amphicoelias (#12), Giraffatitan (#16). Apatosaurus (#18)

Unsurprisingly, SV-POW! itself crops up twice in the top ten: once as “svpow” (#8) and once as “sv pow” (#10). It’s also #15 as “sv-pow”.

Meanwhile, four of the top five slots are still held by terms that have nothing to do with sauropods. “Rabbit” can only be due to this post on sauropod neck posture; “Leopard seal” is due to the inclusion of a single sensational (but off-topic) photo in a post on Cetiosaurus nomenclature. “Basement” is another one-hit wonder, thanks to a poorly located Mamenchisaurus cast. “Flamingo” is more of a mystery. I think it must be due to the passing flamingo in the classic Necks Lie post.

Other oddities include “twinkie” at #17, “shish kebab” at #25, “corn” at #34, “corn dog” at #42 and “corn on the cob” at #77 (probably all due to the same post on sauropod neck fatness). Rather sadly, “big ass” comes in at #89. I doubt that the 602 people who came here by searching for that found what they were looking for.

Today (12th February) is the one-year anniversary of the first PeerJ papers! As Matt put it in an email this morning:

Hard to believe it’s been a year already. On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that it’s only been a year. PeerJ is just such an established part of my worldview now.

That’s exactly right. PeerJ has so completely rewritten the rule-book (on price, speed and quality of service) that now when I’m thinking about new papers I’m going to write, the question I ask myself is no longer “Where shall I send this?” but “Is there any reason not to send it to PeerJ?”


Dorsals A and B (probably D8 and D9) of NHM R5937, “The Archbishop”, a still-undescribed brachiosaurid sauropod from the Upper Jurassic Tendaguru Formation of Tanzania, which I will get done this year, and which is destined for PeerJ. Top row: dorsal view with anterior to the right. Bottom row, from left to right: left lateral, posterior, right lateral, anterior.

Yesterday in the comments of a post on The Scholarly Kitchen, Harvey Kane asked me “I am curious as to where you get the notion that publishing OA is less expensive and in some way “better” than the traditional model?” My reply was (in part):

My notion that OA publishing yields better results than traditional is rooted in the online-only nature of articles, which allows them to ignore arbitrary limits on word-count, number of figures, use of colour, etc., and to exploit online-only formats such as video, 3d models, CT-slice stacks, etc. In my own field of vertebrate palaeontology, it’s now routine to see in PLOS ONE descriptive articles that are many times more comprehensive than their equivalents in traditional journals — see for example the recent description of the frog Beelzebufo.

Of course there is nothing specific to open-access about this: there is no technical reason why an online-only subscription journal shouldn’t publish similarly detailed articles. But my experience so far has been that they don’t — perhaps because they are tied to the mindset that pages and illustrations are limited resources.

For Beelzebufo in PLOS ONE, read baby Parasaurolophus in PeerJ, which we described as “the world’s most open-access dinosaur“. This paper is 83 pages of technicolour goodness, plus all the 3d models you can eat. And the crazy thing is, this sort of detail in descriptive papers is not even exceptional any more — see for example the recent description of Canardia in PLOS ONE, or this analysis of croc respiration in PeerJ

Years ago, I said that in the Archbishop descriptions I wanted to raise the bar for quality of illustration. Well, I’ve taken so long over getting the Archbishop done that the bar has been raised, and now I’m scrambling to catch up. Certainly the illustrations even in our 2011 description of Brontomerus are starting to look a bit old-fashioned.

And of course, the truly astonishing thing about PeerJ is that it does this so very cheaply. Because I’m already a member (which cost me $99), the Archbishop description is going to be free to me to publish this year. (This year for sure!) If we also get our Barosaurus neck preprint published properly this year,then I’ll have to find $100 to upgrade my Basic membership to Enhanced. That’s cheap enough that it’s not even worth going through the hassle of trying to get Bristol to pay for me. And if I ever hit a year when I publish three or more papers, I’ll upgrade once more (for another $100) to the Investigator plan and then that’s it: I’m done paying PeerJ forever, however many papers I publish there. (Matt jumped straight to the all-you-can-eat plan, so he wouldn’t even have to think about it ever again.)

Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429, Vertebra Q (C?13). Top row: left ventrolateral view. Middle row, from left to right: anterior view, with ventral to the right; ventral view; posterior view, with ventral to the left. Bottom row: right lateral view, inverted. Inset shows diapophyseal facet on right side of vertebra, indicating that the cervical ribs were unfused in this individual despite its great size. Note the broad, flat prezygapophyseal facet visible in anterior view. (Taylor and Wedel 2013b: figure 6)

Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429, Vertebra Q (C?13). Top row: left ventrolateral view. Middle row, from left to right: anterior view, with ventral to the right; ventral view; posterior view, with ventral to the left. Bottom row: right lateral view, inverted. Inset shows diapophyseal facet on right side of vertebra, indicating that the cervical ribs were unfused in this individual despite its great size. Note the broad, flat prezygapophyseal facet visible in anterior view. (Taylor and Wedel 2013b: figure 6)

PeerJ’s pricing is making PLOS ONE’s $1350 APC look distinctly old-fashioned; and the $3000 charged by the legacy publishers (for a distinctly inferior product) is now frankly embarrassing. You might expect that as such low prices, PeerJ’s quality of service would suffer, but that’s not been our experience: editing, reviewing, typesetting and proofing for our neck-anatomy paper were all up there with the best we’ve received anywhere.

And it’s great to see that it’s not just minor researchers like Matt and me who are persuaded by PeerJ: they’ve now accumulated a frankly stellar list of 20 universities (so far) with institutional plans for researchers to publish there. When I say “stellar” I mean that the list includes Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Berkeley, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, UCL, Carnegie Mellon, Duke … the list goes on.

We can only hope that the next year, and the next ten and twenty, are as successful for PeerJ as the first has been; and that other New Generation publishers will join it in pushing the field forward.

I leave the last word to Matt:

I’m getting Vicki a lifetime membership for Valentine’s Day. Because I’m a romantic.

She’s a lucky, lucky woman.

OMNH baby Apatosaurus

I was at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in March to look at their Apatosaurus material, so I got to see the newly-mounted baby apatosaur in the “Clash of the Titans” exhibit (more photos of that exhibit in this post). How much of this is real (i.e., cast from real bones, rather than sculpted)? Most of the vertebral centra, a few of the neural arches, some of the limb girdle bones, and most of the long bones of the limbs. All of the missing elements–skull, neural arches, ribs, appendicular bits–were sculpted by the OMNH head preparator, Kyle Davies. Kyle is one of those frighteningly talented people who, if they don’t have what they need, will just freaking build it from scratch. Over the years he has helped me out a LOT with the OMNH sauropod material–including building a clamshell storage jacket for the referred scapula of Brontomerus so we could photograph it from the lateral side–so it’s about time I gave him some props.

Atlas-axis model with Kyle

Case in point: this sweet atlas-axis complex that Kyle sculpted for the juvenile Apatosaurus mount.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies

Most fish, amphibians, and other non-amniote tetrapods only have a single specialized vertebra for attaching to the skull. But amniotes have two: a ring- or doughnut-shaped first cervical vertebra (the atlas) that articulates with the occipital condyle(s) of the skull, and a second cervical vertebra (the axis) that articulates with the atlas and sometimes with the skull as well. Mammals have paired occipital condyles on the backs or bottoms of our skulls, so our skulls rock up and down on the atlas (nodding “yes” motion), and our skull+atlas rotates around a peg of bone on the axis called the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (shaking head “no” motion). As shown in the photos and diagrams below, the dens of the axis is actually part of the atlas that fuses to the second vertebra instead of the first. Also, reptiles, including dinosaurs and birds, tend to have a single ball-shaped occipital condyle that fits into the round socket formed by the atlas, so their “yes” and “no” motions are less segregated by location.

Anyway, the whole shebang is often referred to as the atlas-axis complex, and that’s the reconstructed setup for a baby Apatosaurus in the photo above.  In addition to making a dull-colored one for the mount, Kyle made this festive version for the vert paleo teaching collection. Why so polychromatic?

Atlas-axis model key

Because in fact he built two: the fully assembled one two photos above, and a completely disassembled one, some of which is shown in this photo (I had to move the bigger bits out of the tray so they wouldn’t block the key card at the back). I originally composed this post as a tutorial. But frankly, since Kyle did all of the heavy lifting of (a) making the thing in the first place, (2) making a color-coded key to it, and (d) giving me permission to post these photos, it would be redundant to walk through every element. So think of this as a self-study rather than a tutorial.

UPDATE in December, 2019: oh heck with it, I’m very belatedly renaming this a tutorial, so I can tag on a follow-up post as Tutorial 36b and curate this where it belongs, on our Tutorials page. The URL will stay the same, like a digital fossil.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies - labeled

Oh, all right, here’s a labeled version. Note that normally in an adult animal the single piece of bone called the atlas would consist of the paired atlas neural arches (na1) and single atlas intercentrum (ic1), and would probably have a pair of fused cervical ribs (r1). Everything else would be fused together to form the axis, including the atlas pleurocentrum (c1), which forms the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (etymologically the “tooth” of the axis).

Romer 1956 fig 119 atlas-axis complex

Here’s the complete Romer (1956) figure from the key card, with a mammalian atlas-axis complex  for comparison. Incidentally, the entire book this is drawn from, Osteology of the Reptiles, is freely available online.

Apatosaurus axis-atlas complex Gilmore 1936 figs 5 and 6

And here’s the complete Gilmore (1936) figure. Sorry for the craptastic scan–amazingly, this one is NOT freely available online as far as I can tell, and Mike and I have been trying to get good scans of the plates for years. Getting back on topic, single-headed atlantal cervical ribs have been found in several sauropods, especially Camarasaurus where several examples are known, so they were probably a regular feature, even though they aren’t always preserved.

Also, as noted in this post, it is odd that in this specimen of Apatosaurus the cervical ribs had not fused to the first two vertebrae, even though they normally do, and despite the fact that the vertebrae had fused to each other, even though they normally don’t. Further demonstration, if any were needed, that sauropod skeletal fusions were wacky.

Varanops atlas-axis complex Campione and Reisz 2011 fig 2C3

For comparison to the above images, here is the atlas-axis complex in the synapsid Varanops, from Campione and Reisz (2011: fig. 2C).

Those proatlas thingies are present in some sauropods, but that’s about all I know about them, so I’ll say no more for now.

There is a good overview of the atlas-axis complex with lots of photos of vertebrae of extant animals on this page.

Previous SV-POW! posts dealing with atlantes and axes (that’s right) include:


Living dead girl

Hey, look–dinosaurs!

My spouse, Vicki, the other Dr. Wedel, is a physical and forensic anthropologist. And she’s one of a very small number of scientists who have (a) learned something new about the human body, and (b) used it to help identify dead people. And since that process involves the sciences of hard-tissue histology and skeletochronology–not to mention lots of dead folks–I reckon it might be of interest here. Hence this post.

This started about a decade ago, when Vicki was working on her PhD under Alison Galloway at UC Santa Cruz. Vicki worked with Alison on a ton of forensic cases, including some you probably heard of–they analyzed the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn baby, Connor, for Scott Peterson’s murder trial. I had the unusual privilege of assisting a couple of times, on other cases, once to take some pictures in the lab while Vicki fished the skeleton out of the bag of skin that was all that was left of the body, and once to crawl around on my hands and knees picking human finger bones out of a muddy slough near Santa Cruz. All in all, I’m happy that my usual victims have been dead a lot longer.

CT reconstruction of skull with bullet holes. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

CT reconstruction of skull with bullet holes. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Incidentally, the only show with forensic content that Vicki will watch voluntarily is Dexter. She cannot stand CSI, NCIS, or the other “behind the scenes” forensic investigation shows. We’ve tried watching them, but the inaccuracies drive her crazy (paleo people: imagine getting the Clockwork Orange therapy and being forced to watch Clash of the Dinosaurs). Real cases are solved by teams of specialists, not two omnicompetent protagonists; it takes weeks or months, not half an hour; and if the forensics people carry guns, it’s because they know waaaay too much about how some very bad, very organized people dispose of bodies (the short answer is, not thoroughly enough*).

* Once a guy who was threatening to testify against a certain criminal organization was shot in the head, his body burned, and his burnt remains scattered along the side of the road. Vicki and Alison picked the bone shards out of the roadside gravel, identified some of them as bits of skull, and found bevelling diagnostic of ballistics trauma on some of those. The way the bone had shattered showed that the gunshot had been inflicted perimortem–around the time of death–and before the body was burned. Bottom line, whatever plan you have to get rid of the body, it is probably not going to be enough to keep someone like Vicki from figuring out how you did it. That much, the TV shows do get right.

Skull being cleaned by dermestidbeetle larvae. Image from Wikipedia.

Skull being cleaned by dermestid beetle larvae. Image from Wikipedia.

Not only is hard to really, truly get rid of a human body, it’s also hard to tell exactly when a person died, especially if all you have is a body in the woods. Insects are good–there’s a whole field of forensic entomology, whose practitioners age cadavers based on what insects are present and what stages of their life cycles they’re in. But what if all that is left is a pile of bones in the woods (which happens more often that you might think, and sometimes for completely innocuous reasons)? I’m preaching to the choir here, but bones can survive for a long time, so general wear-and-tear doesn’t tell you much. Rapetosaurus looks like it died last year.

There’s another side to this, which is figuring out how old someone was at the time of death based on their skeleton. Tooth eruption is good, and fusion of the epiphyseal growth plates, but both of those processes are basically done by the time people are in their mid-20s (teeth) to mid-30s (epiphyseal fusion). After that, there are methods based on the morphology of the auricular surface of the ilium and the public symphyses, but these only narrow things down to intervals of 5 to 15 years, and that’s a lot of missing persons reports to sift through. And none of the regular skeletal methods work past the age of 55 or 60. After that, no matter how healthy you are, the primary skeletal changes are attritional (i.e., you’re wearing out), and that process varies so much among individuals and populations that there are basically no predictive guidelines.

All of this was on Vicki’s mind when she was a grad student, so she was alert to anything that might help forensic anthropologists narrow down the possibilities for identifying dead folks. She was teaching in an osteology course and one of her students, Josh Peabody, brought up dental cementum increment analysis (DCIA), which is used in zooarcheology to determine the age and season at death of animal remains found at archaeological sites. Josh wanted to know if the method worked on humans.

Image borrowed from the University of Copenhagen.

Faunal bone from an archaeological dig. Image borrowed from the University of Copenhagen.

At the time–2004–DCIA was being tested for age at death in some historical human populations from archaeological sites, but no-one had tried using it for season at death. So Vicki and Josh set out to see if it would work.

Our teeth, like those of other mammals, are held in their sockets by periodontal ligaments. The periodontal ligament of each tooth attaches via Sharpey’s fibers to the dental cementum on the tooth root(s). Cementum is laid down in annual bands, so you can count the number of bands on a tooth, add the normal age at which that tooth erupts, and get a pretty tight estimate of when the animal died. So much for age at death, which was already being done on humans in a limited way in the early 2000s, albeit in archaeological rather than forensic contexts.

But wait, there’s more. Actually two bands of cementum are laid down every year–a dark band in the winter (roughly October to March) and a light band in the summer (roughly April to September). ‘Dark’ and ‘light’ describe the appearance of the bands under polarized light microscopy. In the summer months, the collagen fibrils that make up the cementum are aligned parallel to the tooth root, so more light comes through. In the winter, the collagen is aligned perpendicular to the root, so less light is transmitted, and the winter bands appear darker by comparison. So not only does the number of pairs of light-and-dark bands tell you the number of years since the tooth erupted, the color of the outermost band tells you in which six-month period the individual died, and the thickness of the outermost band might help you narrow that down even further.

Dental cementum increments in a human tooth, from V. Wedel (2007: figure 1).

Dental cementum increments in a human tooth, from V. Wedel (2007: figure 1).

At least, that’s how it works in other mammals. Would it hold up in humans? After all, we’re pretty good at adjusting our environments to suit us, rather than vice versa. If the winter-summer banding pattern was present in humans, it would be a huge boon to forensic science. Even people in their 40s and beyond with no very reliable skeletal indicators of age could be aged to within a year or two, and their season at death narrowed down to a 2-3 month window.

To find out, Vicki and Josh had a dentist in Santa Cruz collect 112 teeth pulled from patients over the course of a year (with full IRB approval and informed consent from the dental patients). For their purposes, a tooth pulled from a live person is just as good as one from a cadaver or skeleton–extraction kills the tooth as surely as death of the body. Better, even, in that it was easier to quickly get lots of teeth with very precise extraction data.

Vicki and Josh cut a few teeth together and they found dark and light bands right away. They presented those preliminary results at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in 2005. After that, Josh got busy with his own research, but Vicki pressed on (while finishing a dissertation on different project, and being a first-time mom).

If this was a movie, this is the part where there would be a montage of inspirational music to get us quickly past a lot of hard, boring work. Each of the 112 teeth had to be embedded in plastic, a section through the root cut out with a saw, that section mounted on a slide and ground down until it was translucent (this process will be familiar to bone histologists of all stripes, paleo or neo). Then Vicki had to go all the way around the perimeter of the each root to find the place where the cementum bands showed the most clearly, and count them. This part is trickier than it sounds, unless you’ve done some histo and know just how butt-ugly some sections can be under the scope.

The results? In the words of the Bloodhound Gang, which Vicki quotes in her DCIA talks, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals”. Here’s the payoff graph:

Percent completion of outer cementum increment by month, from V. Wedel (2007: figure 4).

Percent completion of outer cementum increment by month, from V. Wedel (2007: figure 4).

The one out-of-place measurement was probably caused by the dark band not being thick enough to register clearly on the image.

Now that she knew that DCIA could be used to determine season at death in humans, Vicki started applying it in her forensic cases, of which there have been many. The vast majority of the work of forensic anthropologists is invisible to the public: after analyzing a set of remains, a forensic anthropologist writes a case report for whatever law enforcement office (or, much less frequently, law firm or other entity) brought them in, and that’s that. The case reports are almost always confidential, but they have to be written to exacting standards since they may be used as evidence in court. So forensic anthropologists spend a lot of time toiling over papers that hardly anyone gets to read.

However, sometimes a case is written up for journal publication–if it’s sufficiently novel or unusual, and if permission can be secured from all of the relevant parties. In 2008, Vicki was approached by the Merced County sheriff’s office to help try to identify the remains of a young woman who had been murdered in 1971. That’s the 37-year-old cold case mentioned in the title of this post, and rather than tell you about it, I’ll point you to Vicki’s case report (Wedel et al. 2013), published last month in the Journal of Forensic Identification and freely available here.

Vicki with the exhumed skeleton of Jane Doe. Photo by Debbie Noda of the Modesto Bee.

Vicki with the exhumed skeleton of Jane Doe. Photo by Debbie Noda of the Modesto Bee.

I wasn’t sure whether to post about this or not–as cool as they are, murder cases are not our normal stock in trade on this blog. What decided me was talking with Andy Farke. He read Vicki’s paper as soon as it came out, and he said that he really enjoyed getting to see how forensic anthropologists work in the real world. I sometimes take for granted that, since I am married to a forensic anthropologist, I get to see how this works all the time. But that’s a pretty rare experience–if paleontology is a small field, forensic anthropology is positively tiny. So if you want to see an example of the real science that CSI and the like are based on, here’s your window.

What’s next? Vicki has several validation studies on DCIA in progress, for which she and her collaborators have collected a much larger sample size–over 1000 teeth–to try to answer questions like: what tooth is best to use for DCIA? Should the histological sections be made longitudinally or transversely through the tooth root? Does cementum banding vary with latitude? And since banding patterns are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, following the flip-flopped season, what happens at the equator? Watch this space, and keep an eye out for Vicki’s future publications–including a book due out next year–at her website, Bodies, Bugs, and Bones.


If you’ll forgive me a rather self-indulgent post, the neck-anatomy paper that I and Matt recently had published in PeerJ is important to me for three reasons beyond the usual satisfaction of getting a piece of work out in a good journal.


Taylor and Wedel (1023:figure 4). Extent of soft tissue on ostrich and sauropod necks. 1, ostrich neck in cross section from Wedel (2003, figure 2). Bone is white, air-spaces are black, and soft tissue is grey. 2, hypothetical sauropod neck with similarly proportioned soft-tissue. (Diplodocus vertebra silhouette modified from Paul 1997, figure 4A). The extent of soft tissue depicted greatly exceeds that shown in any published life restoration of a sauropod, and is unrealistic. 3, More realistic sauropod neck. It is not that the soft-tissue is reduced but that the vertebra within is enlarged, and mass is reduced by extensive pneumaticity in both the bone and the soft-tissue.

Three milestones

First, it brings a drought to an end. For one reason and another, I didn’t get a single paper published in 2012 — my last hit was the neck sexual-selection paper in September 2011, and I’d started to feel that I was drifting off into the distance a bit. Good to be back on the horse.

Second, amazing though it may seem, it’s the first Taylor/Wedel paper (in either order). Matt and I have been collaborating in one form or another for more than thirteen years now (even if the first couple of years of that were just me asking dumb questions and him telling me interesting things). Along the way, we’ve shared the authorship of a few papers with other authors (Taylor, Wedel and Naish 2009 on habitual neck posture; Taylor, Wedel and Cifelli 2011 on Brontomerus; and Taylor, Hone, Wedel and Naish 2011 on sexual selection) but of all the many Mike-‘n’-Matt projects we’ve started, this is the first to make it out into the world.

(As it happens — and at the risk of leaving the stadium before the fat lady sings — we should be adding to that tally of one Real Soon Now. Further bulletins as events warrant.)

Third, and most important, it means that my entire Ph.D is now published. Chapter 1 (the sauropod-history review) was in the Geological Society dinosaur-history volume;  chapter 2 (the Brachiosaurus revision) was in JVP; chapter 3 (the Xenoposeidon description) was in Palaeontology; chapter 4 (the Brontomerus description) was in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and now chapter 5 (neck anatomy) is in PeerJ. I’m pretty happy with the selection of venues there: I’m pleased to have had papers in JVP and Palaeontology even though I won’t be going back to either until they’re open access.

Figure 1. Necks of long-necked non-sauropods, to scale. The giraffe and Paraceratherium are the longest necked mammals; the ostrich is the longest necked extant bird; Therizinosaurus and Gigantoraptor are the largest representatives of two long-necked theropod clades; Arambourgiania is the longest necked pterosaur; and Tanystropheus has a uniquely long neck relative to torso length. Human head modified from Gray’s Anatomy (1918 edition, fig. 602). Giraffe modified from photograph by Kevin Ryder (CC BY, Ostrich modified from photograph by “kei51” (CC BY, Paraceratherium modified from Osborn (1923, figure 1). Therizinosaurus modified from Nothronychus reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Gigantoraptor modified from Heyuannia reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Arambourgiania modified from Zhejiangopterus reconstruction by Witton & Naish (2008, figure 1). Tanystropheus modified from reconstruction by David Peters. Alternating blue and pink bars are 1 m tall.

Taylor and Wedel (2013:figure 1). Necks of long-necked non-sauropods, to scale. The giraffe and Paraceratherium are the longest necked mammals; the ostrich is the longest necked extant bird; Therizinosaurus and Gigantoraptor are the largest representatives of two long-necked theropod clades; Arambourgiania is the longest necked pterosaur; and Tanystropheus has a uniquely long neck relative to torso length. Human head modified from Gray’s Anatomy (1918 edition, fig. 602). Giraffe modified from photograph by Kevin Ryder (CC BY, Ostrich modified from photograph by “kei51” (CC BY, Paraceratherium modified from Osborn (1923, figure 1). Therizinosaurus modified from Nothronychus reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Gigantoraptor modified from Heyuannia reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Arambourgiania modified from Zhejiangopterus reconstruction by Witton & Naish (2008, figure 1). Tanystropheus modified from reconstruction by David Peters. Alternating blue and pink bars are 1 m tall.

Dissertation thoughts

Actually I have strangely conflicted feelings about my Ph.D all being published now. I like the feeling of closure, but I also feel a bit sad that the dissertation itself — by far the most substantial single piece of work I’ve produced in any field — is now wholly obsolete. Really, the only reason anyone would possibly want to read it now would be for the acknowledgements or the laughably incorrect predictions of what I’d be working on next. Happily, I don’t have to lament time wasted on the dissertation: all five chapters were originally written to be papers, and the versions in the dissertation are all formatted as for the journals they were initially submitted to. (Three of them ended up in different venues, having initially been rejected, but that’s another story.)

An oddity of my Ph.D is that all five chapters were side-projects. They’re all things that I worked on when I was supposed to be working on a core project to do with the Archbishop and the mechanics of neck support. Every one of them I thought would be a quick job that I could push out before returning to my main work. And every one of them “grew in the telling” until it was substantial enough to function as a chapter. I am sure there’s a moral to this story, but heck if I can figure out what it is.

For reasons that seemed to make sense to me at the time, I did not post my dissertation on the Internet when it was accepted. I feared scooping myself on the as-yet unpublished material (Brontomerus and neck anatomy). Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking. If I was doing it today I would certainly make it available from the moment it was okayed. As of just a couple of days ago it is now available — just in time to be of no interest to anyone.


Taylor and Wedel (2013:figure 2). Full skeletal reconstructions of selected long-necked non-sauropods, to scale. 1, Paraceratherium. 2, Therizinosaurus. 3, Gigantoraptor. 4, Elasmosaurus. 5, Tanystropheus. Elasmosaurus modified from Cope (1870, plate II, figure 1). Other image sources as for Fig. 1. Scale bar = 2 m.

Co-authoring dissertation chapters

A final thing worth mentioning: as noted above, three of the chapters of my dissertation (Xenoposeidon, Brontomerus, neck anatomy) were co-authored. I think this is not particularly common, so it’s probably worth commenting on.

How does it work? For one of the papers, the Brontomerus description, I just excised Matt’s and Rich’s contributions, which were quite separate from the core of the paper, and used a sole-authored version as the chapter. For the other two, I put an explicit statement in the front-matter saying who did what:

Chapter 3 (description of Xenoposeidon): I was responsible for the anatomical part of the introduction, the systematic palaeontology section, description, comparisons and interpretation, phylogenetic analysis, length and mass calculations, diversity discussion, references, figures with their captions except figure 2, and both tables. Darren Naish of the University of Portsmouth was responsible for the geological and historical part of the introduction, the historical taxonomy section, and figure 2.

Chapter 5 (evolution of long necks): this chapter was written by me as a consequence of a series of discussions with Mathew J. Wedel. Dr. Wedel also contributed figure 5.

My sense was that the examiners were perfectly happy with this. Arguably it’s a good preparation for functioning as a researcher, since so many papers are co-authored. It’s not really realistic practice to sole-author all your work. That said, I doubt papers where I wasn’t lead author would have been welcomed.

I mention this because co-authoring may be a more widely available option than is recognised. My advice would be simple: check with your own supervisor first!

BrontomerusRoughWeb From field correspondent Brian Engh:

A Brontomerus on the edge of a jumbled forest of partially knocked over trees. While I won’t be finishing this particular drawing I decided I want to develop this idea a bit further – I think it would be cool to show a group of brontomeri rearing and grazing on the edge of a forest where a lot of the trees are leaning and show signs of heavy grazing, particularly by giants who rear up, bear hug them and rip down their branches. I’m talking tore-up bark around hand-claw height, trees that are growing bent, but then straighten up above max-bronto height, and maybe a constellation of camptosaurs and pterosaurs living around the brontos for food and protection… anyway, just an idea. Any thoughts?

Yeah. I judge it rad. And plausible. I love the heavy texturing on Bronto and the way the background is simple and evocative at the same time. I like the idea of a forest modified by sauropods for their use. I would like to see more plants damaged by sauropods (but still surviving)–and vice versa. For the proposed full version, the camptosaurs will have to be replaced by tenontosaurs, this being the Early Cretaceous. But they’re both ornithopods, so probably no one will know or care.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure Brian wants genuine feedback, and not just predictable gushing from yours truly. The comment field is open.

Bonus Engh sketch: a rearing Miragaia. Rearing Miragaia by Brian Engh

A couple of days ago, a paper by Tschopp and Mateus (2012) described and named a new diplodocine from the Morrison Formation, Kaatedocus siberi, based on a beautifully preserved specimen consisting of a complete skull and the first fourteen cervical vertebrae.

Unfortunately, the authors chose to publish their work in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, a paywalled journal, which means that most of you reading this will be unable to read the actual paper — at least, not unless you care enough to pay £27 for the privilege.

So you’ll just have to take my word for it when I tell you that it’s a fine, detailed piece of work, weighing in at 36 pages. It features lavish illustrations of the skull, but we won’t trouble you with those. The vertebrae are illustrated rather less comprehensively, though still better than in most papers:


Tschopp and Matteus (2012: figure 9). A, Photograph and B, drawings of the mid-cervical vertebrae of the holotype of Kaatedocus siberi (SMA 0004). Photograph in lateral view and to scale, CV 8 shown in the drawings is indicated by an asterisk. Drawings of CV 8 (B) in dorsal (1), lateral (2), ventral (3), posterior (4) and anterior (5) views. Scale bars = 4 cm.

It should be immediately apparent from these lateral views that the vertebra are rather Diplodocus-like. But the hot news is that there is a great raft of free supplementary information, including full five-orthogonal-view photos of all fourteen vertebrae!

Here is just one of them, C6, in glorious high resolution (click through for the full awesome):


Now, folks, that is how to illustrate a sauropod in 2012! The goal of a good descriptive paper is to be the closest thing possible to a proxy for the specimen itself, and you just can’t do that if you don’t illustrate every element from multiple directions. By getting this so spectacularly right, Tschopp and Matteus have made their paper the best illustrated sauropod description for 91 years. (Yes, I am talking about Osborn and Mook 1921.)

It’s just a shame that all the awe-inspiring illustrations are tucked away in supplementary information rather than in the paper itself. Had the paper been published in a PLOS journal, for example, all the goodness could have been in one place, and it would all have been open access.

Is Kaatedocus valid?

There’s a bit of a fashion these days for drive-by synonymisation of dinosaurs, and sure enough no sooner had Brian Switek written about Kaatedocus for his new National Geographic blog than comments started cropping up arguing (or in some cases just stating) that Kaatedocus is merely Barosaurus.

It’s not. I spent a lot of time with true Barosaurus cervicals at Yale this summer, and those of Kaatedocus are nothing like them. Here is Tschopp and Mateus’s supplementary figure of C14:


And here is a posterior vertebra — possibly also C14 — of the Barosaurus holotype YPM 429, in dorsal and right lateral views:



Even allowing for a certain amount of post-mortem distortion and “creative” restoration, it should be immediately apparent that (A) Barosaurus is much weirder than most people realise, and (B) Kaatedocus ain’t it.

There may be more of a case to be made that Kaatedocus is Diplodocus — but that’s the point: it there’s a case, then it needs to be actually made, which means a point-by-point response to the diagnostic characters proposed by the authors in their careful, detailed study based on months of work with the actual specimens.

There seems to be an idea abroad at the moment that it’s somehow more conservative or sober or scientific to assume everything is a ontogenomorph of everything else — possibly catalysed by the Horner lab’s ongoing “Toroceratops” initiative and subsequent cavalier treatment of Morrison sauropods — maybe even by the Amphidocobrontowaassea paper. Folks, there is no intrinsic merit in assuming less diversity. Historically, the Victorian sauropod palaeontologists of England did at least as much taxonomic damage by assumptions of synonymy (everything’s Cetiosaurus or Ornithopsiswhatever that is) as they did by raising new taxa. The thing to do is find the hypothesis best supported by evidence, not presupposing that either splitting or lumping is a priori the more virtuous course.

Sermon ends.

Morrison sauropod diversity

As we’ve pointed out a few times in our published work, sauropod diversity in the Kimmeridgian-Tithonian in general, and in the Morrison Formation in particular, was off-the-scale crazy. There’s good evidence for at least a dozen sauropod genera in the Morrison, and more than fifteen species. Kaatedocus extends this record yet further, giving us a picture of an amazing ecosystem positively abundant with numerous species of giant animals bigger than anything alive on land today.

Sometimes you’ll hear people use this observation as a working-backwards piece of evidence that Morrison sauropods are oversplit. Nuh-uh. We have to assess taxonomy on its own grounds, then see what it tells us about ecosystem. As Dave Hone’s new paper affirms (among many others), Mesozoic ecosystem were not like modern ones. We have to resist the insidious temptation to assume that what we would have seen in the Late Jurassic is somehow analogous to what we see today on the Serengeti.

Hutton’s (or Lyell’s) idea that “the present is the key to the past” may be helpful in geology. But despite its roots as a branch of the discipline, the palaeontology we do today is not geology. When we’re thinking about ancient ecosystems, we’re talking about palaeobiology, and in that field the idea that the present is the key to the past is at best unhelpful, at worst positively misleading.

Sermon ends.

But isn’t the Kaatedocus holotype privately owned?

You’ve had two sermons already, I’m sure we can all agree that’s plenty for one blog post. I will return to this subject in a subsequent post.

Sermon doesn’t even get started.


Osborn, Henry Fairfield, and Charles C. Mook. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, n.s. 3:247-387, and plates LX-LXXXV.

Tschopp, Emanuel, and Octávio Mateus. 2012. The skull and neck of a new flagellicaudatan sauropod from the Morrison Formation and its implication for the evolution and ontogeny of diplodocid dinosaurs. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. doi:10.1080/14772019.2012.746589

Hi folks,

It’s been a while since I posted here. I haven’t gone off SV-POW! or anything, just going through one of my periodic doldrums (read: super-busy with Other Stuff). I’m writing now to draw your attention to two books that I’m pretty darned excited about.

The first is All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, by John Conway, Memo Kosemen, and Darren Naish, with skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman (lulu, Amazon). This is sort of an SV-POW! love-fest, in that Darren is One Of Us, John and Scott let us use their art a lot–even the goofy stuff–and get a shout-out now and then, and I’ve been awed by the work of Memo–a.k.a. Nemo Ramjet–for longer than SV-POW! has existed (he also created Brontosapiens!). But wait–there’s more! One of the first people to review the book is Emily Willoughby, who was also as far as we know the first person after Paco Gasco to illustrate Brontomerus–that image is still Bronto‘s flagship portrait on Wikipedia.

But enough navel-gazing. The book is based around the mind-blowing presentations “All Yesterdays” and “All Todays” at SVPCA 2011 and 2012, both delivered by John Conway. True story: “All Yesterdays” was the intro to the icebreaker/mixer thing at Lyme Regis, so right after the talk people jumped up to grab pints and socialize. Sometime in the next few minutes, John was separately approached by three different paleontologists who thought that “All Yesterdays” should be a book, and wanted to help write it. Those three hopefuls were Darren, Mike, and me. I’m extremely happy that Darren is the one on the book. Mike and I can wrangle sauropods and we’re both “All [Some]days” fanboys, but the book really needed someone approaching tetrapod omniscience, and that’s obviously Darren.

Whoops, that was actually just another paragraph of navel-gazing. Anywho, I knew after this year’s SVPCA that there would be a book, but I had no idea it would be out so soon. I can’t tell you much about the book itself, for two reasons. First, my dead-tree copy is still en route from Second, I wouldn’t tell you much about the book if I could, because you should see it for yourself. It’s firmly in the tradition of speculative zoology but also has a serious point to make about the memes that drive a lot of paleoart. That’s all you need to know–get the book and prepare to be surprised, amused, amazed, and moved to wonder.

The other new book I’m all het up about is Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals, by Becky Crew (Amazon, New South Books). My mutual admiration pact with Bec goes back to 2009. She blogged about one of my posts, I blogged about how indescribably wonderful her blog was, she published something I wrote–my first paying gig as a writer, I think. Now she’s blogging at SciAm, which is great, because although she’s smart, irreverent, and freakin’ hilarious, she’s also mortal, and we need to get as much of that good stuff out of her head and into general circulation as possible while she’s still around. (She’s not sick or anything, she’s just going to die sometime in the next century, and if you read her blog I think you’ll agree that that’s too damn soon.) Zombie Tits does not seem to be available stateside yet, but I will keep a weather eye on things and post an update when that changes.

I’ll probably review both books here in due time, if by “review” one means “alternately drool over and hyperbolically gush about with no attempt at objectivity whatsoever”. And I do mean precisely that.

It’s been a while since we’ve served you up a sauropod, so, finally and fittingly, here’s John Conway’s playful Camarasaurus taking a mud bath. Or maybe just trying to hide its hideousness; as the authors of All Yesterdays note, “Camarasaurus […] is considered by some experts to be among the ugliest of all sauropods”.

As we saw last time, the appeal of the Gold route to open access is that the publisher does the work of making the article freely available in an obvious, well-known place in its final typeset format. Conversely the appeal of the Green route is that it doesn’t cost the author or her institution any money.

What happens when we combine these two advantages, and get publishers to typeset, publish and archive open-access articles at no charge?

Yes, it does happen. One outstanding journal that does this is Acta Palaeontologia Polonica — this is one of the reasons that I have published there twice (neck posture, Brontomerus) and Matt has three other APP papers as well as being co-author on those two. Another is Palaeontologia Electronica. In a different field, the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR) is of particular interest because the article An Efficient Journal explains in some detail how it’s done.

According to the definitions I gave last time, this best-of-both-worlds scenario is in fact the best case of the Gold route: because the key point is that the publisher is responsible for making the work freely available. The process of publication in these venues is identical to that in other Gold OA venues — the only difference is the lack of a fee.

Recently, I’ve started to hear two new terms used to describe zero-fee Gold open access: Platinum OA and Diamond OA. I am not very keen on either, because they give the incorrect impression that there is another route to open access, fundamentally different from either Gold or Green. But if either term is to be used, “Platinum OA” is a better term than “Diamond OA” because at least platinum is a precious metal like gold — so the connotation is “like Gold OA but ever better”.

So I recommend not using the term “Diamond OA”.