Yup, the OK Apatosaurus is freakin' huge!

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How big did Apatosaurus get? Well, that gray silhouette that is being dwarfed in terms of bulk there is Supersaurus vivianae. So yeah, that's one big honk'in sauropod...

The genesis of this post comes courtesy of a Matt Wedel post over at the excellent SV-POW! blog, where he was taking a look at the size of the partial Apatosaurus specimen preserved in Oklahoma, specimen OMNH 1670. Matt took a measuring tape to the OMNH specimen himself, and it measures up at a whopping 135 cm (for those of you who don't know the metric system, 135 centimeters is equal to one really big vertebra...).

But Matt really caught my attention when he stated:

...so the big Oklahoma Apatosaurus was probably in Supersaurus territory, mass-wise, and may have rivaled some of the big titanosaurs.

 

A younger me carving a pedal ungal. Look at that hair - what a hippy!

A younger me carving a pedal ungal. Look at that hair - what a hippy!

Supersaurus is an animal near and dear to my heart - it's an animal I've literally shed blood over. Yes really. In addition to working with my coauthors on a description of the second specimen of Supersaurusj and a reassessment of diplodocid phylogeny, we also had to produce a full mount of the animal under exceedingly tight time constraints. As with many small museums this meant we all had to pitch in, and that included learning how to sculpt missing bones. Near the very end of the project, while getting by on little more than 2 hours of sleep and coffee doses that would kill a small horse, I had a very small boo-boo with a carving knife (see photographic evidence at right). No stitches were necessary, and thankfully no sauropods where injured in the process.

The end result of our work was a mount that received top billing in a temporary exhibit in Japan in summer 2006. While the estimated length of 34 meters and mass estimate of 36-40 tonnes is smaller than some of the more sensational numbers that have been floated in popular books (and of course the internet), we suggested in our paper that many of those estimates were, shall we say... extravagant. Supersaurus appears to be close to the longest animal whose length can be reliably estimated (read: not counting Amphiceolias fragilimus), though it was lighter than the giant titanosaurs.

Given my personal stake here I wasn't about to take Matt's vicious maligning of Supersaurus  on faith. But - and this is the darndest thing about science - the facts are on his side. After scaling the fourth dorsal of Apatosaurus louisae up to the appropriate size, it turns out that the thing definitely is bulkier than Supersaurus.

 And if you try it with the other species of Apatosaurus (to whit: A. ajax and A. excelsus), it turns out just as bad - or worse in the case of A. ajax, who seems to have a proportionately shorter D4, which in turn leads to a larger animal when it's scaled to 135 cm.

Of course Supersaurus still looks to be longer by a fair amount, in large part due to the highly elongate neck. But when it comes to moving the dial on a scale, it's clear that Apatosaurus is just more sauropod than Supersaurus. Oh well Jimbo, we'll always have Japan...

Fishing at Dawn

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Unenlagia comahuensis looking for fish at dawn.

What can I say, it's been over a year since I tried my hand at something more artistic than a muscle or skeletal reconstruction. I did the sketch over a year ago, and had it ready to go (it's a digital painting in Photoshop), so I decided to give it a crack and it fell into place a lot faster than I'd expected (most of the time was spent painting water detail).

I've reconstructed Unenlagia as somewhat less ecologically specialized than it's relatives Buitreraptor and Austroraptor, but fishing nonetheless. I don't really have a lot more to say about it - we'll get back to more hard core skeletal stuff soon, I promise! If you have any questions about the process I used I'll do my best to answer in the comments section.

I.O.Yutyrannus

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Hey, it's not every day that a completely fuzzy, nearly 30-foot long meat-eating dinosaur is described, now is it? I'm afraid my current schedule won't allow for a full skeletal of this critter for several more weeks, so consider the skull a down payment.

First, I should say that I'm not going to retread much of the excellent writing that has already been done onYutyrannus. If you'd like more in depth coverage, I highly recommend David Hone's excellent write-up on his blog Archosaur Musings. For more coverage and some reasons to question whetherYutyrannus is a actually a tyrannosauroid, check out Darren Naish's coverage on his Scientific American TetZoo blog. I'd also be remiss to not mention Brian Switek's article over at the Smithsonian website.

Photograph by Roberto Appiani 

What I will cover are some of the difficulties I've already observed in restoring Yutyrannus. The reconstruction above is based on one of the beautifully preserved skulls (there are 3!); like everything else found in the Yixian Formation, the specimens have been squashed flat. Relatively robust bones like a femur hold up fairly well, but skulls really don't. They tend to be highly three-dimensional in shape, and are made out of relatively thin elements. In particular, on theropod skulls the top and rear of the skull tend to fold upward as the head undergoes the pancake treatment of diagenesis

.Small dinosaurs with larger eyes and brains (like the juvenile Scipionyx above seen at right) exaggerate the problem even more, and unsuspecting artists can restore the skulls as having huge domes over the eyes if they don't know better. In Yutyrannus I suspect we are seeing something similar, which probably exaggerates the apparent size of the nasals (especially as you move closer to the eyes), as well as the top of the skull at the back.

If you check out the beautiful photograph of the head of juvenile specimen ELDM V1001 in David Hone's blog (the same one I've restored above), you can probably see what I'm getting at.

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The skull restoration at the beginning of this article takes those things into account, attempting to return a 3-dimensional shape to the steam-rolled remains of the skull (by the way, the mandible is largely a place holder for now, the surangular is actually a fairly different shape). Below I've included a comparison of the the skull with and without those "corrections". Because there are three skulls, and because they have likely been subject to distortion from somewhat different angles, I should be able to double check this with greater precision once I get around to doing the full skeletal.

For those of you investing the time to study the comparison image, the top one is the restored version, while the bottom one treats the outline more literally. In both cases I've re-articulated the lacrimal (the bone in front of the eye) with the jugal (the bone underneath the orbit). In both cases the lower jaw is (as mentioned above) just a generic placeholder that is the correct size, but doesn't take the information from other specimens into account.

That's all the time I have to put into a new skeletal on my own whim for the moment. Until I get a chance to do the whole thing enjoy this Yutyrannus I.O.U.

When journalists attack!

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As recently reported on several apparently legitimate news sources, a new interpretation of dinosaur biology has been proposed that is "so revolutionary it stands the whole world of palaeontology on its head." What is this landmark new idea that has set paleontologists agog? It's being termed the "Aquatic Dinosaur" hypothesis, and as the name implies it suggests that the Charles Knight painting you see above isn't out of date, it was just ahead of its time. And not just for sauropods, but all large dinosaurs.

If something smells fishy to you, it's not just the swamp water; something is very wrong here. First, to be clear, there is no such controversy, or even an idea that you need to take seriously. To be sure, some guy wrote an article in Laboratory News, so I've listed the evidence below in a handy tabulated format:

Literally, no data was provided in the article. The author makes references to "calculations" that were run, but they never make it into print. The article is mostly long-winded hyperbole, filled with such gems as "Dinosaurs look more convincing in water, and the physics stands up more soundly."

So the author's main point appears to be "See??! They look better in the water, so it must be true! Also, I have some secret calculations I won't bother to share with you support my aesthetic preference!"  The fact that it was in the April edition might give us pause to wonder if this isn't a big joke, but alas there are reasons to suspect otherwise (see below).

 Two general claims seem to permeate the article, that dinosaurs were just really big so water would help, and that dinosaur footprints aren't as deep as you'd expect from such big animals. Of course how deep a footprint sinks is only partially related to the mass of an animal. The surface area of the foot must be taken into account, as smaller feet concentrate the weight while large feet spread it out. That's why a woman in high heels can dent substrates that elephants won't. And of course the substrate itself matters - no animals leave tracks on concrete, while people easily get bogged down in viscous mud.

The "they're just so big" meme is also painfully wrong; there's an entire literature of biomechanics that shows that dinosaur limbs are strong enough to support terrestrial locomotion. And of course dinosaurs lack the aquatic features seen in animals such as hippos or crocodiles, which actually spend most of their time in water. Running your mouth off (err, running your text editor off?) without even bothering to read the literature is one of those "the stupid, it hurts!" sorts of moments.

From xkcd

From xkcd

Ok, enough ragging on "professor" Ford; he's either a crank or a practical joker (perhaps those aren't mutually exclusive?), but he's not the first person to have a loony idea and not support it with any evidence. Heck, the internet is littered with such people.

The real problem here is that his personal speculation somehow got reported as news by the mainstream press. First, if this isn't an April Fools prank, it calls the editorial judgement of Laboratory News into serious question (and if it IS somehow a prank, why was it allowed to be spread pre- and post-April 1st to other media outlets?). Amusingly, on page 17 of the same issue of Laboratory News there is an article lamenting the state of science reporting in the news (seriously, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried).

If you or your lab has a subscriptions to Lab News, I'd seriously consider making inquiries, or simply dropping it. If they allow this sort of thing to happen, how can you trust the rest of their articles?

More importantly, why on Earth was this story picked up and repeated by serious news outlets? Does BBC Radio 4 do any sort of review at all before they put someone on the air? Have journalistic standards sunk that low at the British Broadcasting Company? A quick listen to the audio shows the show starting out as mildly skeptical, but concluding by comparing Ford to Galileo freakin' Galilei!

W. T. F.?!!

Galileo, you may recall, did actual science and was being silenced by non-scientists due to the (presumed) theological implications of his findings. Mr. Ford (who the BBC charitably refers to as a "cell biologist" despite being more of a media gadfly and author of popular books and articles, not a publishing scientist) is not doing science - he in fact seems intent on ignoring science at all costs - and was simply being refuted by an actual, you know, paleontologist. Yet they whipped out the Galileo reference!

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Which honestly begs the question of whether anyone should bother listening to BBC Radio 4. To be fair, actual paleontology has been covered on Radio 4 and it seems to otherwise have solid programming, but the BBC should move swiftly to clear this up if they don't want a permanent stain on their credibility.

Most of the web and print articles are based on the BBC interview, but that doesn't exonerate them; not a single one of them bothered to inquire as to whether there was any real science here, and when they did contact paleontologists, they presented it as another "side" in a debate, rather than the debunking of junk Science.

Regular readers have already seen that sources like Scientific American can get even basic anatomical facts wrong, but this goes well beyond an incorrect fact in an otherwise solid story; it's misleading through and through. In a follow up article the Telegraph directly compares the aquatic dinosaur nonsense with actual research, in the process repeatedly mutilating the concept of a scientific theory.

This stuff really matters. We live in a world where huge swaths of people don't understand basic scientific concepts, and this sort of nonsense just makes it harder to teach. Worse, listeners that were sympathetic to the reporting will become disillusioned when they find out the reality of the situation, possibly making them view all science more cynically (or simply avoiding science altogether).

We deserve better science reporting than this. The BBC and everyone else who carried this story should be ashamed. Perhaps the best way to sum this up is in grand internet fashion:

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