Name that Dinosaur! (#2)

Posted by Nima On Monday, April 21, 2014 0 comments

Recently I saw some pretty impressive dinosaur remains that evade description. These are tough. They're even stumping me, believe it or not.

Of course they are hips.

Sauropod hips are usually pretty easy to identify. The basal ones are pretty simple, relatively small ilium and the ischium and pubis of similar length and lightly built.

Eomamenchisaurus yuanmouensis

Then you have diplodocoid hips, which have big rounded ilia and very tall sacral spines:

Diplodocus longus

Camarasaurs have similar ilia but much squatter and even more completely fused sacrals.

Camarasaurus supremus

Brachiosaur hips are relatively rare in the fossil record (or at least complete described and published ones seem to be). Overall they are wide and extensively fused in the sacrals to support more weight, and have tall ilia with the front end much larger and taller than the back end.

Brachiosaurus altithorax (sacrum). Note the hypantrum gap at the front of the sacrum, and flat-topped prezygapophyses on either side of it. This will be useful later.

Brachiosaurus altithorax (right ilium)

And then you have titanosaur hips, which always tend to be super-wide (in this case even wider than they are long) and super-heavily fused. The ilia are flared out to a downright crazy extent, so the rib cage would have been easily twice as wide as most of the earlier sauropod types. These giants just seemed to be getting fatter and fatter every few million years as the Cretaceous ground on.

Futalognkosaurus dukei complete pelvis (ventral view)

Futalognkosaurus dukei complete pelvis (front view)

And then of course you have the stuff that can only border on fantasy:

not sure if this ever was a dinosaur sacrum, or just a weird rock...

Okay, so on to the star attraction. 

A few pics from Heinrich Mallison's blog caught my eye, I had never seen these before and apparently they are from the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal, Utah. We're talking basement vault stuff, locked away far out of view of the museum visitors.

two whatchamacallits... seriously these are weird.

Neither one of these two specimens have been formally described or assigned to any known species.

The pelvis on the left, on the green-tinted forklift pallet, is obviously the taller and less squat of the two. The ilia still flare out a bit and it appears rather front-heavy, so this may be a brachiosaur or a basal titanosaur. The Potter Creek ilium discovered by Jensen (1985) in Utah also seems to have a mix of features from both groups, and may belong to an intermediary family.

The pelvis on the right is far flatter and more interesting. Its  neural spines look a bit Giraffatitan-like but that's where the similarity ends. This pelvis is very wide with super-flared out ilia. Most likely a titanosaur. But lets look closer (keep in mind there's only one species of true titanosaur known from Utah, or the entire United States for that matter).

The squat pelvis from the front. Note the tight space between the prezygapophyses, and the fact that it's a good bit above the neural canal

This thing definitely looks like a titanosaur, but not any that I've seen. A tight, high hypantrum with enough clearance above the neural canal to accommodate a real hyposphene from the final dorsal vertebra (basal titanosaur trait), yet extremely wide hips  with super-flared ilia  (derived titanosaur trait).

How does it stack up?

Alamosaurus sanjuanensis (referred big bend specimen - pelvis cast, dorsal view. Note the neural spines are separate at the tip - beware that this may be a speculative reconstruction because in many drawings you see them looking fused)

Trigonosaurus pricei partial pelvis, dorsal view. Once again, note the neural spines are distinctly separate at the tip.

Saltasaurus loricatus pelvis - the neural spines and top of the ilia and sacral rib connections are eroded, but you can still see that the neural spines were configured as having distinctly separate tips.

Malawisaurus dixeyi - sacrum from above and below. A transitional titanosaur. Note the HEAVY fusion of the neural spines into a single piece by ossified ligaments.

Huanghetitan liujixiaensis sacrum, anterodorsal view. A basal titanosauriform. Note the fusion of the neural spines by ossified ligaments (though the sides of the tips are still visible), and the gap at the front between the prezygapophyses - it's not as tight as in the Utah pelvis. But like the Utah pelvis, their upper surfaces are flat and horizontal.

Euhelopus zdanskyi pelvis and last few dorsals. Top view. The backswept ischia are visible at bottom. Note the lack of fusion in the neural spines tips. This animal was intermediate between brachiosaurs and titanosaurs, and slightly more derived than Huanghetitan - yet the neural spines are radically different. However this is an immature animal, and in adults they may have fused with ligaments into a single piece as in Huanghetitan (whose holotype, though much larger, is ironically also not fully grown).

Unnamed Brazilian titanosaur pelvis - note the heavy fusion of the neural spines with ossified ligament. Also the gap between the prezygapophyses is shallow, and not very far above neural canal. The opposite condition to the Utah pelvis.

Futalognkosaurus dukei pelvis - outlined to clearly show the structures. Note that the prezygapophyses are just above the neural canal, not much clearance, and the gap between them is shallow (just as in the Brazilian taxon), and the connection surfaces are v-shaped.

And finally... the Utah pelvis again:

Note that the prezygapophyses are deep and block-like, their upper connecting facets are horizontal, not v-shaped, and the gap between them is tall and being "hugged" in a tight embrace, well above the neural canal, as if interlocking with a deep hyposphene on the vertebra in front of it. This isn't found in derived titanosaurs like Futalognkosaurus and the Brazilian titanosaur, which lost the hypantrum-hyposphene feature.

So we have the Utah pelvis having some basal traits (brachiosaur-like neural spine "fan-tips" and well-developed deep and high hypantrum which interlocked with a big hyposphene on the last dorsal in front of it) as well as some traits of derived titanosaurs (extremely wide flaring in the ilia and largely unfused neural spine tips as in Trigonosaurus and Saltasaurus - yet this latter trait is also present in the far more basal Euhelopus). Yes, they are mostly unfused at the tips in this sacrum. Here's the proof: a panoramic 3D model by Heinrich Mallison.

The middle four spines are tightly packed together (a common feature of many sauropods) but the tips are still distinct and are not fused into a single straight-edged block like Malawisaurus or the unnamed Brazilian taxon.

Overall the shape of the sacral spines and the twist in the sacral ribs reminds me of Giraffatitan, with the front and middle spines less completely fused, but this is clearly a much wider set of hips.

Whatever this animal is, it looks like a basal titanosaur, but with the extremely wide hips of a derived one. Things get even more complicated when you realize that there's only one true titansoaur known from the United States (and it's native to Utah too), Alamosaurus. A very derived titanosaur which did NOT have a hypantrum-hyposphene connection. Critically, it was an immigrant from South America, at the time when the land bridge of Panama took shape (Late Cretaceous, Campanian epoch) - before this the two continents were isolated, and North America was known to be nearly devoid of sauropods - the basal titanosauriforms of the Early Cretaceous (Venenosaurus, Paluxysaurus, Brontomerus, etc.) had already gradually died out. So the Vernal pelvis is clearly no Alamosaurus. But what is it?

Are we looking at a basal titanosauriform somewhere on the family tree between brachiosaurs and true titanosaurs? Perhaps a Phuwiangosaurus or Paluxysaurus-like creature? Or is this a derived titanosaur similar to Trigonosaurus, with a ridiculous level of throwbacks to its hypantrum-bearing ancestors? In the absence of knowing the creature's age (which would be a big key to figuring out its relationships given the big sauropod-devoid Mid-Cretaceous time gap in North America), what can we deduce from the fossil itself?

And what's more, is this animal a totally "new" species, or a more complete specimen of something we already knew about?

YOU DECIDE... I'd like to see everyone's thoughts.

Giraffatitan's dorsals are just WEIRD.

Posted by Nima On Sunday, March 16, 2014 5 comments

Some really interesting stuff here. First off, the last "name that dinosaur" contest was a good one, Zach Armstrong won. It was indeed the La Invernada titanosaur, a relatively small species that doesn't have a name but is pasted all over South American paleontology websites. The reasonably complete foot allows us to place this animal at the hub of lithostrotia, close to Epachthosaurus.

Second, the bizarre derived titanosaur Yongjinglong datangi has been described in PLoS One. A crowning moment for both Chinese paleontology and open-access research. So long Cretaceous Research, Acta Geologica Sinica and other paywalled journals.This odd creature is from the Hekou Group, so it was probably in the same ecosystem as Huanghetitan and Daxiatitan. Details here.

But the craziest thing to come to my attention is from an old favorite. 

I just realized while looking at revising my Giraffatitan skeletal that most previous restorations seem to have either botched the shape of some of the dorsals to look too generic or followed Dr. Werner Janensch's rather hasty full body skeletal instead of his far more detailed engravings of the actual fossil material of the primary specimen, HMN SII.

Here's my original reconstruction, which you can see on DeviantArt:

This uses SII as well as a number of other specimens to fill in the hindlimbs, shoulders, hips, head and tail. Lets take a look at the dorsals.

There's a bit of uncertainty as to which dorsal was truly the last. However, the last two shown in this reconstruction right before the sacrum (the ones whose neural spines seem to neatly interlock with each other) are fused at the centrum joint. HMN SII was a subadult individual (judging by the lack of fusion in the coracoid, and unfused scapula found in similar-sized individuals) that either was getting near puberty or had some unique pathologies such as DISH or ankylosing spondylitis (this pair of bones shows some ossified ligaments on the neural spines which may also have fused together given enough time). This pair of fused rear dorsals is labeled as D11 and D12 (the final two dorsals) by Taylor (2009), but if you follow Janensch (1950) they should actually be D10 and D11. D12 on the other hand, looks as illustrated on the left in the image below.

Last 3 dorsals in Giraffatitan, from HMN SII and the even larger HMN fund no. (which also includes the caudal series that Janensch frankensteined onto the rear end of SII).
It's from a larger individual (the centrum, is thicker while the top of the neural spine is eroded off), but clearly not the same bone as either of the two fused ones. And it looks far more typical in shape for a terminal dorsal that hooks into the front end of the sacrum. So my original skeletal as well as all the others by Greg Paul, Scott Hartman, etc. are probably wrong and will have to be revised.

However the main point to take note of isn't even this discrepancy, but rather the bone that sits in front of the fused pair in the SII specimen. Note the red box around this bone.

The dorsal vertebra in front of the fused pair has a long centrum. In fact, it looks freakishly long because of vertical crushing. I have "uncrushed" it a bit. The original is so bizarre it looks like it came from a totally different species, but it was found together with the rest of the same specimen.

Giraffatitan HMN SII Dorsal 9 (per Janensch, 1950) or 10 (if you follow Taylor, 2009), reversed. Arrows show direction of geological crushing. The centrum used to be deeper in life, the lower neural arch was taller and not smushed into the centrum, and the neural spine tilted rearward instead of forward. The prezygapophyses also seem to be worn off, as is much of the diapophysis which has been crushed forward.

Now even if you correct for crushing, that's still going to be a very long centrum compared to the vertebrae both before and behind this one. And its rear rim has a totally different angle from the other centra, meaning that between this bone and the next one down (the first on the fused pair) there is an odd dip in the spine, a sort of "lordosis" or "anti-hunchback" posture. And however you restore the end of the centrum (its upper portion is missing and represented by a dotted line here), there is still going to be a BIG gap between the neural spine of this vertebra and the next (even with the spine tilted the correct way, uncrushed). But the gap is often ignored in the schematic literature.

Four different reconstructions of the Giraffatitan torso, primarily based on HMN SII. (A) Greg Paul, 1988; (B) Scott Hartman, 2012; (C) Asier Larramendi, 2013; (D) Nima Sassani, 2011.

None of these have the order correct with the D12 based on Janensch (HMN fund no 8). One of the two speculative middle dorsals has to be removed to make room for D12 at the back end and still keep the count at 12 dorsal vertebrae, which is typical of basal titanosauriformes. But notice how some of these skeletals (notable mine and Asier's) do show the big gap and also the odd "return up" of the subsequent fused pair's neural spines. Greg Paul ignores this feature but does at least half-bake the gap, while Scott Hartman totally omits both of these very distinctive features. But they are natural and can't solely be attributed to crushing.

The point is that the dorsal column as a whole needs to be reworked. In fact the dorsals of HMN SII are a lot less complete than often believed.

Hey, at least when you bother to include HMN fund no 8, you only are missing one dorsal in the sequence to make it a full count of 12. Note hoe the neural spines shorten so radically between D4 and D7. This is quite a bit different that you see in currently existing skeletal restorations, which ignore D12 from HMN fund no 8, and bump D7 back to the D8 position to make things look a bit more gradual (adding an imaginary middle dorsal in the process to keep the count at 12 vertebrae). We can see that if you follow Janensch's explicit instructions (which even he failed to incorporate into his full skeletal recon) then such a position is no longer tenable.
So even though almost the whole dorsal series is present in some form, many of the neural spines and arches are broken and missing,and even the centra show a lot more variation than Paul or Hartman restored. Even the new revised mount in Berlin omits a lot of these details in its sculpted replica bones. So the spine will have to be radically revised. Just how radically? Take a look at this:

HMN SII + HMN fund no 8 (D12, scaled down by 10% to SII)

This is even more bizarre than previously thought. With just the baseline amount of de-crushing necessary to make the vertebrae articulate, so that we avoid unnecessary artificial distortions, the spine is kinked at both ends of the by-now-notorious Dorsal 9. Even it you ignore the pathology argument (and you probably should, since D9, D10 and D11 are all very symmetrical, with no anomalies in lateral curvature), the odd shape and angle of D9 is even stranger than even myself and Asier Larramendi had restored it. While the gap between it and the fused pair is now smaller in the neural spines (which makes sense since the tips of the spines in D9 and D10 almost interlock at this angle), the gap below the zygapophyses (which the spinal cord would have run through) is still gigantic. Woe betide any young Giraffatitan that got bitten there.

Another interesting feature is that there seems to be another dip between dorsals 3 and 4, (or rather an upcurve of the anterior dorsals at D3) which may mean that the tall neural spines in this region came out looking less hump-like than traditionally depicted, and the spine profile of the live animal may have actually been more of a straight incline. And this would clearly make the angle of the anterior dorsals steeper and the neck even higher and more vertical... without having to add an insane amount of upward kink at the base of the neck the way Research Casting International did for the updated Berlin mount of Giraffatitan. I suppose it was easier to alter one joint than redo four of them, but then again closer attention should have been paid to how they reconstructed those other anterior dorsals in the first place. Janensch wasn't making up the shape of the cotyles, and D3 and D4 show very little vertical crushing. There should actually be an upcurve at D3, not a downcurve or a hump.

Even Greg Paul's new 2010 version doesn't come close.

There is still a slight hump in the soft tissue there (which looks excessive anyway) and the tips of the neural spines definitely form a hump. But the centra form a straight line. If they were restored as per Janensch's engravings (and dorsals D3 and D4 are not crushed, so there's no need to "straighten" them out) then D3 and everything in front of it would form a steeper angle and less hump without needing such deep nuchal muscles.

Note that D3 and D4 show almost no crushing in the centrum so the articulation angle even at Osteological Neutral Pose still results in an upward tilt of D3, which makes it easier for D2 and D1 to arch up by fewer degrees and still support a vertical neck, with a minimum of strain or flexion on any one joint, far less than in either of Greg Paul's versions or the updated Berlin mount. Take that, Kent Stevens.

So yes, I will be revising my interpretation pretty heavily. Giraffatitan may turn out to be a bit of a sail-back... in the same sense as Acrocanthosaurus.

Stay tuned for more updates, Giraffatitan's dorsals aren't the only weird thing about this beast.

Bwwaaaaroooooo! Atchooo!


Janensch, W. 1950a. Die Skelettrekonstruktion von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica, Supplement 7 (I, 3):97-103.

Janensch, W. 1950c. Die Wirbelsäule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica, Supplement 7 (I, 3):27-93.

Paul, G.S. (1988). "The brachiosaur giants of the Morrison and Tendaguru with a description of a new subgenus, Giraffatitan, and a comparison of the world's largest dinosaurs". Hunteria, 2(3): 1–14.

Paul, G.S. (2010). The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Taylor, M.P. (2009). "A Re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropod) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensh 1914)." Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 29(3): 787-806.



Posted by Nima On Sunday, June 9, 2013 6 comments

The Paleo King's Frequently Asked Questions

I figured that after having been around on the blogosphere this long, it is worth posting a brief FAQ section so that some of the emails I get can be easily answered in advance. This is far from a comprehensive list. If you have a question you think should appear here, drop me a line at

Who are you?

I'm an artist and researcher with over a decade of study of dinosaurs and other extinct life. I draw dinosaurs and aim for both accuracy and a visually attractive product (in the live scenes anyway).

What's your favorite dinosaur?

That's a tough question at the best of times! For a long time it was Brachiosaurus – though later on it turned out the particular species I liked was actually Giraffatitan. Then I got into mamenchisaurs and titanosaurs, and right now my favorite dinosaur would probably be either Euhelopus or Daxiatitan, both of them Early Cretaceous forerunners of the shape of things to come. Among non-sauropods my favorites are Tarbosaurus, Lambeosaurus, and Pentaceratops.

What's with all the ads? Some of them aren't even dino-related!

They're there to generate some extra income to make things a little easier to run around here. See, in the Paleo Kingdom, our currency has been depreciating and inflating for millions of years, so every little bit of $$$ helps keep the economy afloat and finance research and upgrades, as most commission-based projects generally do not cover travel costs and the like, and also time is valuable. Google puts up the ads, so their relevancy is up to them.

What are your interests besides paleo-related stuff/extinct animals?

Too many to name. I like history, biology, social psychology, medicine, astronomy, history of technology and economics, movies that make you think, most kinds of music as long as it actually requires real talent and originality, building models, a select few computer games/video games, and maybe about 1% of the anime that's out there. That's just scratching the surface.

What is your experience with paleontology?

I've done my own research and read many scientific papers for over 10 years, and studied dinosaurs usually on my own time and dime, independently of any particular institution. I've amassed a good working knowledge of many dinosaur species, including many very rare ones that are seldom mentioned in books and never covered by the press. I have also attended the annual conference of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, though I have drawn some extinct invertebrates as well. I'm currently researching giant titanosaurs and may produce a paper or two soon.

Why do you do it?

Because I love dinosaurs and the history of life on earth – and I want to make that knowledge accessible to people in a visual sense and let you SEE the creatures as they probably looked. Other artists and “experts” will talk about that dream of “bringing them to life”. I look at it from the opposite end – forget about bringing them to life, I want to take you back to their times and places and put you in their world. So you see not just the dinosaurs but the whole diverse habitats they interacted with – at which point you don't even need to mix animals from different periods to make the thing interesting.

Why do your dinosaurs look so different from Jurassic Park? 
They just don't seem believable to me.

My dinosaurs are not based on Jurassic Park or any Hollywood movies – they are based on independent research and often repeatedly revised as I get better information. Jurassic Park's dinosaurs had many anatomical errors (aside from the obvious mistakes like oversized “Velociraptors” and poison-spitting Dilophosaurus with fake neck flaps) that were already known to be wrong many years before the film was made. It was good entertainment, but not hard science, which is something a lot of JP fans seem to miss. It was a great movie for its time, but should not be taken literally as accurate. The sequels are inferior for a number of story-driven reasons, aside from the fact that they didn't update any of their dinosaurs to take new scientific knowledge into account. There are some people who will only draw dinosaurs in their “JP versions” not realizing that there are far better interpretations of dinosaurs' appearance these days. Of course science doesn't have to be boring – in many cases it's stranger and more amazing than the fiction, the problem is most researchers are ivory-tower fixtures that don't do a good job of making it available or understandable to the general public in simple terms. So yes, my sauropods are slimmer than in Jurassic Park, my ceratopsians are more richly patterned, and my backgrounds don't all look like Costa Rica's tropical jungles. It's supposed to look like the Mesozoic era, not a movie set from the 1990s. And it's based on current scientific thinking and evidence, and even the speculative parts have some scientific reason behind them.

Aren't you just another Greg Paul clone?

Oooh, good one! I get this rather laughable accusation thrown at me from time to time. Really, just a clone? No original ideas? Well consider this. While I did learn a lot from Greg Paul's drawing style and anatomy diagrams, that was over 10 years ago, and I've studied the methods of many other paleo-artists since then. Nothing I produce is copied from Greg Paul or any other artist (which is just as well, since he's fired up the copyright lawsuit train to full steam ahead). That said, every scientific dinosaur artist since Greg Paul has to some extent been influenced by his style. He was a major figure in pioneering the "new look" of warm-blooded dinosaurs in the 1970s and 1980s, paying much closer attention to the hard science than early "reptilian" artists like Knight and Burian had ever done. And much of the theory behind his work has become widely accepted by the field as new evidence of fast, active, warm-blooded dinosaurs continues to turn up. It's a simple matter of timing, pioneering artists influence later ones. Michelangelo influenced Bernini, Giotto influenced Botticelli. Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn all drew inspiration from Bach. It didn't make them "clones" of Bach. All of today's top paleo-artists have been "students" of Paul's method in some way at some time.

The standard “alternating steps” pose for skeletal drawings or dinosaur schematics is not limited to Greg Paul – it has been used in some shape or form for over 30 years by at least two dozen other artists and probably many more I haven't heard of. My live scenes are not based on any Greg Paul scenes, and the skin patterns I use are completely original. Furthermore many of my dinosaurs look very different from the way Greg Paul draws them, though to the untrained eye it may be hard to spot. More importantly, in light of decade-long independent study of the published scientific literature, I don't agree with how he currently restores sauropod and hadrosaur necks, sauropod noses, or maniraptor feathers, and I consider most of his titanosaur restorations and revised stegosaurs to be totally off. Many of his skeletals omit important bone and soft-tissue data, and while good for 1980s standards, lack the hi-fi detail needed in more recent skeletal reconstructions. And I'm seriously thinking there must be a better alternative way of drawing T. rex's orbital horns. 

Now people have compared the aesthetic look of my work to Greg Paul's, and that's something I've moved away away from – I try not to even look at his work these days when doing my own. Instead I look up the source material – the original papers and photos of the actual bones. But overall simply having a similar style in some images does not make one a clone or a copycat, particularly when the research methods and materials used are different. If it did, then just about every living paleo-artist would be either a Mark Hallett, Luis Rey, Doug Henderson, or Raul Martin clone...

Why so many sauropods?

Because I'm researching sauropods at this time. And because they're BIG. I know there are a lot of raptor and T. rex fans out there. And I'm open to drawing those fan favorites. But right now I'm working on several sauropod-related projects and so that's the main focus of my art. I do blog about many other paleo-related topics though. Sauropods are an area that just doesn't get as much attention or good research, mainly because the vast majority of funding from National Geographic and other prestigious organizations goes to research on birdlike dinosaurs and other “metataxa” or “missing links” that are important to the public perception of evolution and refuting the claims of denialists. However, there are plenty of sauropod metataxa and “missing links” which also show how evolution works. In fact, a better way of putting it is that there are no missing links, and everything is a missing link (except for species that ended up in a dead-end extinction). In other words, every species that survived to evolve into something else is a “missing link” from a human scientist's viewpoint, as long as it wasn't discovered before its ancestors and descendants, even if it doesn't look all that different from them. 

Sauropod metataxa just aren't perceived as being “all that hot” in the media because they're not a link between two entire classes of animals (or at least classes the way we humans define them). But they're a lot more interesting and mysterious than the repetitive hordes of fuzzy raptors which have re-proven the dinosaur-bird connection hundreds of times over, to the point that the only people that still reject it out of hand are those who will always choose to reject it as a matter of belief. Think of it this way – a single vertebra from a large sauropod has more complex skeletal anatomy in it than the entire bodies of most other dinosaurs. They're like gothic cathedrals, you can totally get lost in them - and we probably know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the big picture of sauropod evolution.

Draw or paint a T. rex, please draw one right NOW, I love T. rex and I want to see you do one....

Just because you said so? LOL yeah right. I don't choose what to draw on a whim, I actually have a schedule of projects planned out. Not all of them will be “Forgotten Giants” pieces or even sauropods for that matter. I've drawn other types of dinosaurs before and will do so again. But as for specific requests (and believe me, I've gotten a LOT of them from fans) I will have to put those at or near the bottom of the list because there are more urgent projects that need my attention. Now if you want me to do a drawing or painting of a particular dinosaur or scene for you and you're prepared to pay MONEY for the pleasure of owning a Paleo King original, then you'll get bumped up higher on the list, just how high depends on how much you're willing to pay for the sterling Paleo-King treatment of your favorite species and the privilege of owning the original. Pricing and shipping agreements will generally be on a case-by-case basis until standard market pricing can be worked out by agreement with fellow artists.

Otherwise, much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, your T. rex will have to wait. BTW I do have T. rex already on my list of scheduled projects, so if you request one or not, it makes no difference in how fast it gets done (again, unless you're interested in commissioning a custom T. rex piece from me.)

Will you post more stuff about controversies in paleontology, like BANDits, MANIACs, SNAFU-ites, neck postures, soft tissue structures, Jack Horner's theories, lumpers vs. splitters, etc?

The answer is probably yes. Thing is, I don't like posting on topics like those unless I have at least some of the claims of others documented so that trolls don't start jumping up and screaming bloody murder about how I “misrepresented” such and such scientist's views. So it may take a while, but yes I do hope to get some basic information as well as my take on these issues up on the blog.

What the heck are BANDits and SNAFU-ites? Will you post definitions of these crazy terms?

Yes, there will be a glossary page up soon. And I'll be updating it too.

Are you going to do posts on Creationism or the Evolution-Creation controversy?

I may do a few posts on Creationism but it's not a main priority for me because I primarily focus on the art of paleontology rather than political/religious issues or debates. Not that I don't think defending science in the classroom and the courtroom is important – rather, I want to let the people who specialize in that area do their job, and not get bogged down in futile debates. However, a practical list of ways to handle creationists and identify their errors is, I think, very useful and not a bad idea at all. But there are two reasons why I won't do extensive posts on an “evolution-creation controversy”.

First off, it's NOT a controversy as far as science is concerned. The scientific field has a consensus that evolution is REAL, and for 200+ years the fossil and genetic evidence has supported evolution, not disproved it. Real biologists don't currently dispute that evolution happens. Crackpot pseudoscientific “scholars for dollars” with fake degrees do. The only real “controversy” is a political one, artificially stoked by some very rich and powerful (but not particularly intelligent) fundamentalist families to get their handpicked candidates elected on a puritanical “moral” platform that has very little to do with the issues at hand, much less the essentially exploitative 'Social Darwinist'/Malthusian domestic, economic, and foreign policy that these same hypocritical "moralists" pursue in practice.

Second, there are already many blogs and websites that specialize in debating Creationism in all its forms. A good one to check out is So I won't be turning this into a “lets debate Creationists” blog, as there are already hundreds of online resources that expose Creationist fallacies far better than I could in a million years. Another thing I want to avoid doing is turning this blog into a watered-down, superficial “up with evolution” blog that only deals with overhyped media darlings like Tiktaalik, Ida the Adapid, and Ardipithecus. This is primarily (but not exclusively) a dinosaur-related blog. I will go over evolution here – thing is, it will mostly be dinosaur evolution, NOT amphibian or primate evolution, or whatever the newest poster-child of the anti-creationist debate is. There are plenty of general evolution blogs out there full of “missing links”, but very few good blogs that specifically focus on detailed, reliable information about dinosaurs and their anatomy/appearance. So I have decided not to dilute the focus of this blog. If you want to debate ape-men, this is not the blog for you.

Are you going to debate science vs. religion on this blog?

No. As far as I'm concerned there's no substantial conflict between science and religion. Science deals with empirical and falsifiable testing and physical evidence, whereas religion, at its core, deals mostly with non-falsifiable metaphysical ideas about our place in the universe, miraculous revelations and transmutations, ethical/spiritual issues, and other things that plain old rocks and fossils just can't prove or disprove. Not every scientist is an atheist, in fact I know several PhD paleontologists who are theists of some sort and it doesn't make them dogmatic or anti-science in the least. I think that people who try to force a conflict between science and religion are doing a disservice to either one or both, whether it's people like Kent Hovind or people like Richard Dawkins. Don't be deceived by politicians and the media trying to claim that religion and science are enemies. A lot of anti-evolution public figures claiming to be religious are total hypocrites, and their morality is very, very selective in the real world. They don't really get religion, they only have an empty, embellished husk of religion. Similarly, fanatic atheists who claim that doing science requires one to deny belief in a Creator or an afterlife simply don't get science, and they fail to understand its parameters and limits.

Will you be talking about cryptozoology or mysterious sightings of strange creatures that may be prehistoric?

Quite possibly – but hold on a second before you bash my credibility. While this isn't going to be a paranormal/alien/bigfoot blog, there will be some critical mentions of stuff that is borderline crypto - just to give a full perspective on the state of paleo-knowledge. This doesn't make someone a crackpot BTW. Even very respected scientists such as Darren Naish blog about (and then often debunk) plenty of crypzoological theories. Much of the time, the facts are actually stranger than the fiction. Now blatant hoaxes and myths like Mokele-Mbembe or the various purported lake monsters out there are things I won't spend much time on, but there are a lot of more obscure (and possibly far more credible) reports of a second kind – discoveries of fossils of extremely strange or huge dinosaurs that have yet to be described or published, some of which sound hard to believe. There's all sorts of stuff from an alleged Argentinosaurus skull that was never published, to lost footprints of creatures supposedly bigger than Amphicoelias fragillimus, to rumors of colossal un-catalogued titanosaur femurs and brachiosaur hips that have seldom or never appeared in print, to the mysterious case of Bruhathkayosaurus in all its various incarnations as theropod, bonehead, and super-sauropod. I'm only going to present the facts for these, and let you make your own conclusions. We also have the reports of things like “Tyrannosaurus X” and “Titanoceratops” along with a slew of giant bones that have never been assigned to any species. These sorts of things will definitely have their 15 minutes of fame here.

Can you do a post endorsing my political party or candidate for X government office?

No, never! This is strictly a science blog, not a politics blog. There shall be no endorsing or mudslinging of any political candidate or platform here. (It's ridiculous that anyone would ask me to do this on a science blog, but some have). My viewers are of very diverse beliefs and backgrounds and from all over the world. And I'd like to keep it that way. The only time I would even consider posting about a politician is if he or she is cutting funding to museums or suppressing/privatizing the free flow of publicly funded scientific data and research, particularly paleontological research which is already on a volunteer/shoestring budget in most countries. In that case I'll totally consider tearing them a new one. But as a disgruntled scientist, not as a partisan pundit.

Can I help or participate in your blog? I have a lot of cool ideas/suggestions.

Sometimes viewers have great ideas. If you have information that I haven't mentioned on a topic I've covered, by all means mention it in the comments. As for participating in blog posts themselves... I'm the sole administrator of my blog, and for the foreseeable future I don't see that changing (Ultimately I'd like to have someone manage the blog on my behalf, but so far nobody with the skills and vision for the future has turned up). But by all means suggestions are welcome. Think the blog could use a new look? Seen a cool template that might work? A paleo-topic that's blazing hot and hasn't been covered yet here? Let me know, email your suggestions to

Name that Dinosaur! (#1)

Posted by Nima On Wednesday, March 13, 2013 6 comments

While more Forgotten Giants articles are in progress, let's take a look at the odds and ends that often turn up in the more interesting corners of paleontology.

Every once in a while we see something that's mysterious, bizarre, or just unknown, and yet keeps popping up on the internet. And yet it's good enough to warrant a description, or at least a nickname. And many of you, I am in no doubt, fancy yourselves true experts on dinosaurs after having seen just a few episodes of Primeval or the "Walking With" series. But perhaps some of you, seeking earnestly after knowledge, truly are more than just fanboys or fangirls, and can truly call yourselves walking talking museums. Some of you have corrected Wikipedia's dinosaur pages, and been "de-corrected" - and you knew Wikipedia was wrong.

Think you can test your dino-knowledge against the Paleo King, and come out unscathed with not even one intellectual raptor slash to your mental encyclopedia?

Well then this series is for you.

So here's a real stumper (paleo-bucks on the line here): what do you think this is? Does it have a formal scientific name? What family does it belong in? Or is it still an undescribed curiosity - and what name is it known by anyway?... so without further ado... Name that dinosaur!

Full-size image (107 K)

FORGOTTEN GIANTS, #3: Andesaurus

Posted by Nima On Monday, June 18, 2012 4 comments

Well after a LONG time, the Andesaurus project is finally finished - for a while at least. While the open-access issue has been very important, it's time to get back to what this blog is all about - dinosaur art and the science behind it. And Andesaurus is one of the few titanosaurs often touted as being record-breakers which have never gotten a decent restoration until now. This dinosaur is still pretty obscure though it's been known longer than Argentinosaurus, Paralititan, Sauroposeidon, and most of the other new favorites among giant sauropods. Strange, that this animal is literally the demarcation line at the base of titanosauria, universally acknowledged (though not necessarily correctly) as the most basal true titanosaur, extensively used as a key phylogenetic reference taxon in all sorts of papers, every paleontologist studying sauropods knows about it, and yet it's so little known in the public.

A rather fanciful drawing of Andesaurus delgadoi with a not-so-possible serpentine tail pose, and a very flat Diplodocus-like head (basal titanosaurs should actually be restored with large nasal crests, similar to Euhelopus and Malawisaurus).  Artist unknown.

Oh, and another thing. It's BIG.


Well maybe not that big. One of the first things you notice about Andesaurus (assuming one of those rare times when you do come across it) is that it's a titanosaur from Argentina. The second thing you notice is that like some other, far more famous titanosaurs from Argentina, its length is listed as over 30m or 100ft in those few books that actually bother to mention it (the only mass-published "layman's author" who seems to give it any attention is Dougal Dixon, in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs). Andesaurus should be famous, then, if for no other reason than its size - any titanosaur a hundred feet long is pretty high up in the running for both longest and heaviest dinosaur. But don't hold your breath - this is all WRONG.

That's right, you heard me. DEAD wrong. Andesaurus isn't 100 feet long. Not even close. That length has been repeated in many places, Wikipedia among them (at least a few months ago). I don't know how many people have actually read the scientific literature on Andesaurus (which now includes the description paper, Calvo & Bonaparte 1991; the titanosaur comparative anatomy paper Salgado et. al. 1997; and an extensive redescription, Mannion & Calvo, 2011). And the number of people who have actually seen and measured the fossils, I could probably count on my hand. The dorsal vertebrae (what's known of them anyway) are absolutely dwarfed by those of Argentinosaurus - a bit odd for two creatures that were supposedly around the same size. Even plain old Brachiosaurus has bigger dorsals. Andesaurus is a lot smaller than we've been led to believe.

 Comparison of dorsal vertebrae of Andesaurus delgadoi and Argentinosaurus huinculensis in posterior and right lateral view, to the same scale. 
Seriously Mr. Dixon, one is only about half the size of the other!

Not that I knew that when I started drawing it. That's why I decided to make Andesaurus # 3 in my Forgotten Giants series (I'm starting from the biggest titanosaurs, in no particular order, then working my way down). In fact I assumed (before I was able to get my hands on the description paper) that Dixon's estimates would suffice for at least mapping out rough proportions. Not that it matters these days when you can digitally re-scale your sauropod, but it does get very confusing to check your measurements when everything you had believed about this creature turned out to be dead wrong.

The only photos of this beast that were available online were a couple of grainy mid-90s images...

                         Andesaurus delgadoi, posterior dorsal and two mid-caudal vertebrae.

Otherwise I had nothing to go on. Until 2010's SVP meeting in Pittsburgh, where by unexpected fortuitous circumstances I came to possess copies of both the description paper and Salgado et. al. 1997 (which actually has drawings of far more of the Andesaurus material). The resulting jumble of odd bone outlines was just enough to start piecing together this beast.

But inevitably some of the outlines were off. So it had to be redone.

A few reworks later, here's the progress. The little outlines outside the body are drawings of the bones from Salgado, et. al. 1997, scaled to the same scale. The pubis has no expansion at the tip - it just looks like a huge thumb.

Soon enough, a skeletal and a life profile began to take shape.
 And a front view...

And finally color tinting, shading of speculative missing bones, and inclusion of inset enlargements of the more interesting bits. This is literally all the known Andesaurus fossil material, all of it from the holotype (there are no other known specimens).

But all was not well in the Candeleros.... for one thing, this animal is colossal (at least in this initial version) and as we saw earlier, its vertebrae are only half as big as those of Argentinosaurus! Even the vertebrae of the Brachiosaurus holotype (which despite its huge size is only a teenager) absolutely dwarf those of Andesaurus. I scaled Andesaurus to 30m or 100ft initially due to having only Dougal Dixon's estimate and those two grainy photos to work from. But after obtaining the description paper and the Salgado paper, it became clear that the actual fossil material belonged to a much smaller animal.

Remember this picture? Andesaurus is NOT 100 feet long. Lets stop perpetuating size myths based on figures in non-technical commercial books which don't include any scale images of the actual fossils.

Andesaurus was no record-breaker. At most it was a mid-sized to moderately large titanosaur, with a tail of rather ordinary size and proportions, and no indication that its neck was exceptionally long for a sauropod either. There is an incomplete femur shaft, no shoulder material, and only a partial humerus, so limb lengths are speculative. Even the length of the torso is uncertain, since the anterior dorsals are missing. Indeed, it may have been only 50-60 feet long. 65 is a stretch. So it needed a rescale, among other modifications. Easy enough, since the scaling is based on the scale bar and human figure - they just had to look larger.


In addition to scaling down Andesaurus to the likely maximum size of the holotype, 66ft, I also bulked up the limbs, widened the torso, and added more fusion to the sacrals (perhaps still not enough, but we don't have the sacrals and the degree of sacral spine fusion varies among basal titanosaurs and titanosauriforms). 

Also I looked at Mannion and Calvo's new redescription paper of Andesaurus (unfortunately this paper is now paywalled by Wiley) - ultimately it didn't call for any major changes to my skeletal, though it did give me an idea of how laterally crushed the original fossils were (and how laterally compressed the tail naturally was even when you account for crushing). Finally, after a bit of checking the scale, I resized the Sandow figure to match up with his real height (depending on who you ask, about 5'9" or 5'10" which was relatively tall for his time).

In its original oversized form this was the first ever scientific schematic of Andesaurus, and now with the revisions, it's doubtlessly the best. All the scale bars have been corrected and rechecked.

And the title font is a little less boring. :)


Apparently despite all the negative attention and criticism of Elsevier's abuse of wealth and power to stifle scientific knowledge behind steep paywalls, the executives of the corporate academic publishing giant have no regrets and simply have not gotten the message, despite their precious RWA bill being D.O.A. in congress.

David Clark, the incurably arrogant and patronizing senior Vice-President of Elsevier's physical sciences division retorted contemptuously to his company's critics:

 There is little merit in throwing away a system that works in favour of one that has not even been developed yet...

...access to journal content has never been better. Despite difficult economic times, Jisc Collections, which represents more than 100 UK universities, entered into new five- year agreements with Elsevier and Wiley Blackwell in December, welcoming the new and improved terms offered by both publishers. This is a different world from the 1990s, when journal articles were only available in the print libraries of major research universities.

This is an outrage - the "system" Clark speaks of only "works" for him and his corporate cronies. For the scientist who is forced to sign away the rights to his research FOR FREE to Elsevier, only to have Elsevier turn around and charge 33% profits on the same article, the system is broken and insanely unfair. And you expect us to believe that access to journal content has never been better, Dave? Don't you mean to say that your shareholders' bottom line has never been better? It's certainly bounced back since 2009, though unless you're a billionaire owning untold scores of their class-A stock, the actual percent return on investment is pretty ho-hum and blue chip-ish.

Furthermore, there IS an alternative system to Elsevier, and it works just fine - plus it's been around for quite a while. Ever heard of PLoS, David? Of course you don't talk about it, because it's the vanguard of the new open-access academic publishing wave of the future. The wave which will bury Elsevier's outdated and feudalistic business model. This business model is indeed fantastically strange: 'Write, edit and review articles for us for free, and we will then sell them back to you at enormous cost'. It should make anyone with a shred of justice and ethics want to vomit all over Elsevier.

If you have not yet signed the petition to boycott and divest from Elsevier over at The Cost of Knowledge, please head on over and do so. I've done it already, and as of today over 8,000 scientists and concerned citizens have done so.

Also be sure to sign the Alliance for Taxpayer Access petition. You pay taxes, you deserve to have access to taxpayer funded research! It's only logical. Don't let corporate publishers steal science. And if you have any news on the hypocrisy of El Serpiente executives, feel free to post it in the comments here. If Elsevier wants to steal the fruits of our labor, lets make it a burning, painful theft they will sorely regret.