Posted by Nima On Tuesday, January 17, 2012 7 comments


I decided when I started this blog that it would be devoted to science, not politics. But politics has interfered in the future of the blogosphere in a very nasty way. And no other paleo-bloggers seem to be speaking out on this.

The good-for-nothing U.S. congress with its self-serving members and their 80% public DISapproval ratings is trying to ram through two bills into law which would decimate the freedom of the internet under the deceptive auspices of stopping piracy. ANY site or blog which links to other sites that contain copyrighted material could be falsely banned or shut down under the draconian provisions of the PIPA and SOPA acts, and bloggers like myself and many of us in the Paleo-blogosphere may be forced to shut down because of over-reaching government meddling in private rights of citizens. ANY activity relating to links to another site or posting material from other websites for mere educational non-profit purposes could be construed as a "copyright infringement" even if properly attributed to its authors, and may result in lawsuits, harassment, and even indefinite arrest under false charges of "piracy" without access to any legal representation.

In addition, many internet programmers and companies will be crippled by all the convoluted clauses of these bills which allow government to interfere at any point in the delivery of online content to consumers. It will damage the economy even further than foolish wars and corrupt bank bailouts, to the point that most businesses that advertise or sell online will end up having to spend even more money on lawyers to cover their backsides and fight arbitrary censorship, this time against unscrupulous FCC cronies and their Wall Street paymasters. That’s why AOL, EBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga wrote a letter to Congress protesting the bills, saying these bills “pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation.” And small businesses, which make up the bulk of the private sector, will be forced to close their doors or suspend their websites altogether due to prohibitively high legal costs of warding off frivolous government accusations of "piracy", laying off millions more employees in the long run. More than 200 entrepreneurs have slammed these bills as dangerous to the economy and destructive to innovation and job growth. And the brain-dead pork barrel congressmen and women (who seem to keep getting re-elected despite their dismal track records) want to tell us that THIS is the freedom that we need to export to the rest of the world on the back of tanks and Apache helicopters? I didn't vote for this Orwellian crap. Nobody was given a choice.

And the worst part is that these bills were written by ignorant lazy media conglomerate shills who don't even have a clue how the internet works. You can tell just based on the vague language of the things how these politicians are totally behind the times and are trying to police the web based on intrusive stone-age protocols. Half of them don't even know what twitter is and are trying to convince the country that dinosaurs and humans lived together in Eden. And they're trying to claim they know better than you and me what needs to be done with technology. What's more, their sad excuses for anti-piracy legislation are USELESS at stopping online piracy.

For those of you outside of America, don't think that this problem doesn't involve you. Whatever the United States government can get away with in domestic economic policy, the rest of the world will likely follow suit, if not do even worse. The problem of government censorship of the internet could very well spread to your shores if it is not stopped while it's still just here.

PLEASE SIGN THIS PETITION on Google's website to tell Congress that you are not just going to sit there and swallow their coercion like a fool. Censorship does not belong on the internet. And neither does the act of collectively punishing the entire web for the acts of a few software pirates. If you do nothing... then welcome to Oceania.

P.S. this post is meant to criticize the draconian broad-brush punishment favored by your congressmen/women, not to defend the crime. I am not advocating piracy of any sort. However the PIPA and SOPA bills are not a solution to the pirate problem, and they are actually creating far worse hardships for the economy and threatening liberty itself.

P.P.S. to all those deluded teabagger neocons out there who think this is 100% Obama's fault - it's congress that wrote these bills, and none of your wall street-funded candidates has done anything to stop them so far either, despite all their empty promises to "shrink government" and "reduce intrusive regulations on business". 
(BTW I'm not referring to Ron Paul here, he's the furthest thing from a neocon or corporate lackey.)

Rethinking "Brouhaha-saurus" - what if it were real?

Posted by Nima On Saturday, January 7, 2012 17 comments

The previous post on Bruhathkayosaurus has given me some thoughts on an interesting possibility: what if this animal were indeed real?

It's no secret that I'm seriously skeptical of the remains that Yadagiri and Ayyasami found in 1989 and labeled as "Bruhathkayosaurus". First they identified it as a very large predator, then later on others suggested it must be a plant-eating sauropod, and probably a titanosaur at that. Most of these theories are pure conjecture. But from the size of the remains it really only makes sense that if this animal were real, it would have to be a sauropod.

But how should we interpret these remains, which are now the lost victims of a monsoon flood? The discoverers are notorious for describing stuff that isn't what seemed at first. Dravidosaurus, the supposed Late Cretaceous "lazarus" stegosaur, really turned out to be a very badly eroded and fragmentary plesiosaur. The alleged stegosaur back plates were really the sternals of a marine reptile, so weathered as to be barely identifiable at all.

Is Bruhathkayosaurus similarly misidentified? Might it be a chimera of unrelated animals, or, as was the case with Dravidosaurus, not a dinosaur at all? Some have suggested it might even be petrified wood. And sole testimony of its authenticity rests with Dr. Sankar Chatterjee, who himself has incorrectly described (and some might even say largely invented) a number of extinct creatures known from very poor and dubious material (notably Protoavis).

But what if? What if Bruhathkayosaurus really was authentic and a titanosaur at that? What might it look like?

The photos reveal little, and need some guesswork to interpret. Here's Steve O'Connor's take:

The red-tinted areas are the bones. The top of the hip socket it easily visible (if a bit oddly triangular) in the second photo. The front end of the ilium is broken off, but would be to the left of the second photo (regardless of what the confusing and likely incorrect captions seem to say - there should not be hip socket processes sticking out of the top or rear of an ilium!).

Here is the material without tinting, and with my own interpretation of the outlines and corrected captions under the original ones:

 And finally with tinting of different areas:

 There seems to be some sacrum material in the photos that wasn't initially identified. Sacral ribs at least. The green area is an unusual bit of bone or some other substance which is not part of the hip structure. The ilium, unusually, has a very long posterior shelf. It's elongated almost into a cylinder. There are few sauropods that have hips like this, and the one that immediately comes to mind is an undoubtedly bizarre one - Opisthocoelicaudia.

Opisthocoelicaudia skarzynskii - skeletal by Jaime Headden

The ilium shelf in Opisthocoelicaudia is strangely similar to that of a tyrannosaur in general shape - long, low, and with a substantial rear process not seen in many titanosaurian sauropods. This may have something to do with Yadagiri and Ayyasami's initial identification of the material as a giant theropod.

T. rex skeletal (based on AMNH specimen) by Greg Paul. Posted for informational purposes only.

Indeed there IS a bizarre parallel between the rear shelf process in that T .rex ilium and the one for Bruhathkayosaurus. But I doubt "big Bru" was anything other than a plant-eating sauropod. the anterior process of the ilium's hip socket is elongated similarly to Alamosaurus, and most titanosaurs and brachiosaurs, rather than resembling the short anterior socket process in theropods. The ilium was described as 1200mm long, larger than that of Giraffatitan, which makes anything other than a sauropod identity next to impossible.

However, it's not certain if this length of 1200mm refers to the portion of the ilium which was recovered, or to the likely size of the whole thing. In any case, though large, such a length for the ilium makes it very unlikely that Bruhathkayosaurus was anything close to the biggest dinosaur. Indeed, the hips of "Brachiosaurus" nougaredi were 1300mm long not including the missing first sacral vertebra, and would have been at least 1500mm long when complete. So from one point of view Bruhathkayosaurus may not have all that big. For comparison, the ilia of the holotype of Argentinosaurus, when complete, would have been around 1800mm (though the sacral centra would have been shorter at around 1300mm width of the Argentinosaurus hips could have been as much as 3000mm or 10 feet). However, even given those numbers, it's likely that Bruhathkayosaurus, if it existed, was still a very large animal of Argyrosaurus or Paralititan class.

The "tibia" was estimated at 2000mm, which is unusually large to go with tie ilium. If it's a real bone (and not, as I suspect, petrified wood), then it may belong to a different dinosaur, something far larger. Even the tibia of Argentinosaurus doesn't come close to 2m, so the figure could be grossly overinflated or not valid at all. But whatever it is, the "tibia" is not likely to belong to the same animal as the ilium. There is other material supposedly found at the site: a caudal centrum 750mm wide - downright huge even by the standards of Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus vertebrae - and a partial femur with a condylar width of 750 mm and a shaft width of 450 mm. According to Zach Armstrong,

"The femoral condyle width was 750 mm, compared to in Giraffatitan, where it is about 580 mm (going off of drawings by Janensch in Taylor (2009)). This means the Bruhathkayosaurus femur was about 1.28 times as long, assuming if we scale roughly off of that, then Bruhathkayosaurus was about 2.1 times has heavy, or roughly 67 tonnes. Again, far from being the largest dinosaur, and also shows why going off of appendicular proportions can be quite misleading."

67 tonnes (which I assume is based on admittedly error-prone limb bone allometry equations) is not too far from my 70-ton estimate for adult Argyrosaurus, which overall would have been about 15-20 feet longer than Giraffatitan HMN SII and about twice as massive due to its far more robust proportions.

So basically what we appear to have is an ilium and partial femur that belonged to an Argyrosaurus-sized animal with Opisthocoelicaudia-type body design, along with a caudal vertebra and a "tibia" from a much larger creature, both of which are currently labeled Bruhathkayosaurus, and no longer exist even as fossils. If, that is, they can be trusted to be real. I have never seen a picture of the caudal vertebra OR the femur, though the dimensions of the femur are at least a bit more believable. The two different-sized sauropods (assuming the larger one is valid at all) could just as well be two unrelated animals as different-aged individuals of the same species.

The ilium and femur are definitely not from the biggest dinosaur yet known. But the tibia and caudal centrum could be, if both were legit remains. Problem is, we may never know, as it's all been washed away and destroyed. Dr. Ayyasami reportedly told Armstrong:  "Only thing is that I did not visit the site again to check for further bone collection. I may do so next year as I plan for a visit to the Cretaceous of Ariyalur." We all anticipate the results, though given how these things usually go and stretch out over many years just to prepare for in places like India, Dr. Ayyasami's expedition may not materialize anytime soon. If and when it does, I highly suggest that this time he take a digital camera with spare batteries, and invite a real artist along to sketch the bones for good measure. So that we may have better drawings to go on than this embarrassing scrawl:

Happy New Year, everyone! A lot of new dinosaur discoveries in 2011, and 2012 promises to be even better. BHI's dueling dinosaurs (a large Nanotyrannus and a previously unknown chasmosaurine ceratopsid) await description, and there several remains of Chinese theropods contemporary with the Ruyang/Liudian sauropod fauna that have yet to be described. "Xinghesaurus", "Liaoningotitan", and "Nurosaurus" round out the list of sauropods mounted but not formally described or named, and of course there are those colossal French titanosaurs popping out of the hills of Champagne.


But for all the new discoveries coming out of the woodwork, there is one that must be laid to rest and buried. For all the fans of giant sauropods, this is disappointing news, but not altogether unexpected. Bruhathkayosaurus, long considered the biggest or second-biggest dinosaur, is NO MORE. Whatever little evidence of it there was, is now completely gone, and so barring the discovery of another specimen, it will never be studied and its purported dimensions can't be verified. I have a lot of people asking me "what about Bruhathkayosaurus?!" since I posted my list of obscure giant dinosaurs, and I also get that question every time I say "Puertasaurus (and now Alamosaurus too) is the biggest dinosaur we have rock-solid physical evidence for as of NOW." So I'm doing this post on Bruhathkayosaurus to clear up all the questions about this bizarre case of skullduggery and sasquatch-sensationalism trumping hard science.


Personally I am beyond skeptical about this animal's validity, (in my view it's a hundred times more dubious than even the long-lost Amphicoelias fragillimus) but before I explain my reasons, take a look below at Matt Martyniuk's blog post on this mythical super-sauropod from December 21. (reposted below):

Bruhathkayosaurus is Dead. Again.

Bruhathkayosaurus is Dead. Again. 

 Above: Working sketches for a speculative B. matleyi reconstruction by Steve O'Connor. Click here for Steve's final drawing.

I don't know how common this knowledge is, but this is the first I've heard of it so humor me while I mourn the possibility of ever re-assessing the intriguingly large sauropod specimen known as Bruthathkayosaurus matleyi.

B. matleyi was known from fragmentary remains of the pelvis and limb bones found in the Tiruchirappalli district of Tamil Nadu, India. It was first described by Yadagiri and Ayyasami in 1989 as species of giant allosauroid. This classification was widely doubted online, but little follow-up work was ever done. The initial description is widely regarded as exceedingly poor in quality and not much can be discerned about the specimen due to poorly detailed drawings and insufficient text. Tom Holtz has even stated that "the hypothesis that this is no more than petrified wood has not been falsified yet to my satisfaction." However, Mickey Mortimer later noted that the tree trunk hypothesis "is questionable given the non-cylindrical bones preserved such as the ilium. Additionally, Chatterjee has personally examined the fossils, and while he has a bad record of misidentifying taxa, I give him enough credit to not confuse a tree for a limb bone."

Sankar Chatterjee did indeed apparently examine the material and told George Olshevsky and Tracy Ford that he believed it to be a titanosaur, as reported in 1999 here.

Holtz responded to these appeals by noting that "not all units are the Dinosaur Park or the Djadokhta. In some preservation is really, really, really crappy. You might get all sorts of autogenic growth on the fossils, or alteration of the original material. In outcrops like that, it isn't out of the question to be fooled into thinking bone is wood and vice versa, especially from simple superficial appearances. This is why a section of the fossil would help resolve if it is bone or wood." So, there's that. We'll now never be able to take that section.
While B. matleyi was a near-mythical celebrity among "semi-apocryphal gigapods", its legend loomed larger than (published) reality. While most online sources (such as the DML posts quoted above) had long since agreed that the specimen was probably a gigantic sauropod and not a gigantic carnosaur, no actual published reference to the species as a sauropod existed until five years ago (Krause et al. 2006).

And what a sauropod it was, maybe! Obviously with such a paltry footprint on the scientific literature, reliable size estimates for such a poorly described specimen are hard to come by. Luckily, some researchers have done the best they could with the available data and determined that, if B. matleyi was indeed a titanosaur with similar proportions to say, Argentinosaurus, it would have been very large indeed. Matt Wedel over at SV-POW has estimated the size of this animal in life at 139 tons. Mickey Mortimer has estimated its length at up to 34 meters. That would position it as one of the largest species of land animals ever, second only to Amphicoelias fragillimus, possibly.

And now, it appears that B. matleyi has suffered the same fate as its atlantosauroid rival for the record. In the comments at another SV-POW post about semi-apocryphal gigapods, Wedel reports that the type and only specimen of B. matleyi was at some point washed away in a flood. Any hope of verifying the stupefying claims about this species' size now seem to be lost. And unlike A. fragilimus, which was described and well-illustrated by a mostly reputable source with no obvious errors, the poor state of the B. matleyi description will forever doom this creature to the realm of dubious claims. After all, given the poor state of the description, it seems possible that a simple scale bar error or other mix-up could have tainted the data, and therefore all of our size estimates.

So here's to Bruthathkayosaurus matleyi, a beast (or possibly, a tree?) that died 70 million years ago, raised its spectral head (or crown?) again for one tantalizing moment and then, like Hitchcock's Ornithichnites, sunk back beneath the earth before we could really learn anything about it.

The only known photograph of Dr. Ayyasami, who along with his colleague Yadagiri,
described Bruhathkayosaurus and the similarly over-hyped and misidentified Dravidosaurus.

In fact there is some more to this story...

The rumors of the Bruhathkayosaurus material being washed away in a monsoon are confirmed here: Zach Armstrong has confirmed with Dr. Ayyasami that the remains were lost in floodwaters..

"From email correspondence with Dr. Ayyasami, it appears that the material was never actually properly prepared and was left exposed to the elements so when heavy monsoon rains struck the region the fossils were carried away in the rains. He says that the material was definitely dinosaurian in nature, and apparently Dr. Sankar Chatterjee also was able to confirm its dinosaurian (and apparently, titanosaurian) nature. However, as you note, both of these guys have not had the best track record in identifying fossils."

My reactions to the remains having disappeared was hot.

"Why did Ayyasami not prevent the loss of this material, surely if he believes it was one of the biggest dinosaurs it would be valuable enough NOT to repeat what Cope allowed to happen with Amphicoelias fragillimus!

I know you're not supposed to take this stuff personally in Paleontology, but I'm honestly furious with the guy for not taking any photos or even making a good DETAILED drawing of the bones. Seriously, is film that expensive? It wasn't too costly for Lydekker to take photos of Argyrosaurus way back in 1893! I doubt Yadagiri and Ayyasami didn't have any access to a camera, especially considering how much press coverage their discovery got, even up through the 90s. It's like the people who prepared this thing just didn't care. I'm beginning to fear the whole thing may be a hoax taxon. Like over 95% of the other titanosaur material dug up India and Pakistan.... sadly... 

This wouldn't be the first time Yadagiri and Ayyasami pulled this kind of thing either. Dravidosaurus was another one of their bogus "dinosaur" discoveries. It turned out to be some battered barely recognizable scraps of marine reptile - probably a plesiosaur - but they claimed for certain that it was the last surviving stegosaur, lasting well into the Cretaceous! Have these guys EVER dug up anything legit?"

Apparently not. It seems their only published discoveries were Bruhathkayosaurus and Dravidosaurus, both possible hoaxes which are anything but what they seemed to be. Though Yadagiri and Ayyasami actually DID take some photographs of "Big Bru", as I later found out - it's just that these SUCK. And since 1989 apparently no other photographs have been taken of the remains, leaving us to boggled figure out just what the heck they were spending film on:

 You can't really make out much of anything, it's hard to tell in the first two photos if you re actually seeing an ilium or just some random bits of rock, bone and petrified wood thrown together. The bottom photo (supposedly of a tibia) doesn't actually seem to show much of anything. The remains are so badly weathered that Yadagiri and Ayyasami originally described this animal as a meat-eating theropod before they decided it was really a sauropod. I mean if you can make that kind of mistake so easily despite having a PhD in paleontology/biology/geosciences, then either you're really starved for good specimens (or fame/fortune/funding) -  or a PhD simply doesn't mean what it once did.

Also it's apparent that they never actually removed the fossils from the ground, let alone brought them back to the lab for study. The fossils were not transported to the nearest museum, they were just left in the ground (the intent probably being indefinitely).

To quote Mickey Mortimer:

"Very interesting to learn the material was washed away. So not only were the authors terrible at drawing and describing, they didn't even try collecting the specimens..."

It's frustrating to learn that the material is gone. Based on the images in the description it's not even certain the supposed 2m long 'tibia' was a tibia.

What's more, Dr. Sankar Chatterjee, who looked at the material and claimed it's real and a titanosaur, doesn't exactly have the best record of identifying dinosaurs correctly either. A lot of his discoveries are based on very shoddy material, and most of the time he got the identity of the animal wrong. Such as the following cases:

*Shuvosaurus - named for his son, Chatterjee described it as a Triassic ornithomomid (I know, sounds bizarre... considering even basal maniraptorans didn't evolve until late Jurassic times) - It turns out Shuvosaurus wasn't a dinosaur at all, but a rauisuchian - something much more closely related to modern crocodiles. Few recent descriptions of new fossil taxa have been that far off the mark.

* Technosaurus - this strangely named creature was initially labeled as a basal ornithischian by Chatterjee, something similar to Fabrosaurus perhaps. It was actually a chimera of at least three different animals: a "prosauropod", a Shuvosaurus, and finally jaw fragments that could be from just about any random archosaur. None of the bones fit Chatterjee's description as an ornithischian dinosaur.

* Alwalkeria - Chatterjee's diagnosis as a theropod was wrong, and its unserrated, unspecialized teeth make it either a very basal dinosaur (similar to Tawa or Eoraptor) more primitive than theropods or any of the later major groups - or perhaps put it outside of dinosauria altogether.

* Protoavis - the infamous "bird before the first bird", which Chatterjee claimed pushed the origin of birds back to the Triassic, far before that of Archaeopteryx, and supposedly meant that birds, rather than evolving from dinosaurs, only shared a common ancestor with them. The claim made Chatterjee an overnight celebrity and lightning rod in the scientific arena, and Feduccia and the other BANDits instantly ate it up. But Protoavis was based on a few very badly worn fragments, so that even the likes of Phil Currie and Greg Paul can't agree on what it really was. We do know it wasn't a bird though. There's no trace of feathers, nor any uniquely avian features. The known remains (such as can be identified) are very "reptilian" in form. Possibly it's a chimera of bits of early dinosaurs, lizards, crocodylomorphs, and other assorted odds and ends. Chatterjee got a lot of media attention for this artificial creature, but after a while the story just evaporated and Protoavis - nothing more than some beat-up fragments just barely recognizable as archosaur bones - was largely forgotten. There's really nothing in the (very crappy) fossil material to identify it definitively as anything beyond a generic archosaur, let alone pinpoint it as a bird.

In his definitive analysis of the material, The Rise of Birds (1997),Chatterjee failed to illustrate the Protoavis fossils via pictures or sketches of the fossils proper, and instead offers the reader artistic reconstructions. For this, Chatterjee has been sharply criticized. Such an approach is unscientific in that it idealizes the material at hand, and obscures the very fragmentary nature of the fossils, and their poor state of preservation. Today most paleontologists consider Protoavis totally invalid.

The very same could be said for Ayyasami's crude and stylized drawings of the bones of Bruhathkayosaurus.

And Chatterjee, for all his years as a professor, is not exactly a titanosaur specialist. He has never described a single titanosaur, not even as a co-author. Most of his research is in little broken-up pieces of Triassic archosaurs that may not be dinosaurs at all. I'm not sure how well he'd be able to identify titanosaur remains beyond the need for a second opinion, considering how poorly he's done with the critters for which he DOES have years of experience under his belt. Unfortunately his opinion is all we have, since the bones of Bruhathkayosaurus are gone forever.

Frankly, the bizarre narrow opening of the hip socket indicates the entire ilium may be a false construct. And in fact the entire socket seems to be constructed of two separate fragments. For all we know they could have been found hundreds of feet apart and have no relation to each other or to the upper shelf of the "ilium". The tibia is so blurry in the photograph that it may just be some small ridges of rock that happen to form a rough pattern.

I believe Bruhathkayosarus is either a hoax or a very hastily cobbled chimera of things which were never properly identified. How convenient for the authors that the thing just lay around outdoors for years and got washed away with no high-resolution photos ever taken. Oh it WAS the biggest dinosaur, we found it alright. Where is it? Oh well after two decades of leaving in the ground, we lost it in a monsoon, so sorry. But you should have been there to see it, Watson. You should have seen it!

Laugh me a river. For anyone that still wants to believe that Bruhathkayosaurus was for real, and a bona fide titanosaur at that, I have this to show you: