Haplocanthosaurus: An Enigmatic Sauropod from the Late Jurassic Period

Introduction

The sauropods are the definitive image of the dinosaur. Almost always, whenever one hears the word “dinosaur”, the image of the long-necked long-tailed four-legged behemoth is what immediately springs to mind. The sauropods were the dominant land herbivores during the Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era, and some of our best specimens come from western North America.

In the Rocky Mountains, in the states of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado lies a massive swath of Jurassic-age rock known as the Morrison Formation. Here are found fossils of some of the most well-known and iconic dinosaur species, names that everyone knows, like Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Apatosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Diplodocus. The Morrison Formation was home to a myriad of different species, and not just dinosaurs either. Other prehistoric creatures that have been found in this rock layer include pterosaurs, crocodiles, turtles, lizards, frogs, fish, mammals, and even insects.

While there are a few dinosaur names that stick in people’s memories, the Morrison Formation was home to many dinosaur species. One of them, which is largely unknown by the general public, was a sauropod called Haplocanthosaurus. Part of the reason why this animal doesn’t have the same caché to its name as other Jurassic giants is because it is known from only partial remains, its fossils are extremely rare, and because it is found in the oldest layers of the Morrison Formation, far below the fossil-rich layers of the middle and late strata that have yielded thousands of finds. This article will be an overview of this mysterious and curious, but not quite forgotten, sauropod of the Late Jurassic.

 

Discovery, Localities, and Dating

In the very early 20th Century, the remains of a sauropod dinosaur were found about eight miles north of Cañon City, Colorado, and they were discovered and excavated by one Mr. W. H. Utterback. In early 1903, John Bell Hatcher gave these bones the identification of Haplocanthus priscus, “the ancient simple spine” (1).

However, Hatcher soon learned that the name was already used for a prehistoric fish, and so later that year, he re-classified the dinosaur as Haplocanthosaurus, “simple-spined lizard”:

“Dr. C. R. Eastman has very courteously called my attention to the fact that the generic name Haplocanthus recently proposed by me for a new Sauropod dinosaur from the Jurassic deposits near Canyon City, Colorado, is essentially preoccupied, Agassiz having employed the name Haplocanthus for a genus of fishes. I would therefore propose the name Haplocanthosaurus for this genus of dinosaurs with simple median spines on the anterior dorsals and posterior cervicals” (2).

Later that same year, Hatcher published a lengthy and detailed description of all of the bones assigned to this new genus (3).

In fact, Hatcher was mistaken – the name Haplocanthus wasn’t already occupied after all. According to the rules of the ICZN, the original name would have been the correct one to use, except that nobody had called this creature by that name since its discovery. A proposal was submitted in 1989 to have Haplocanthosaurus as the accepted name of this creature due to its common use and the fact that Haplocanthus was not acknowledged by the paleontological community. The request was approved in 1991, and Haplocanthosaurus became the definite name of this dinosaur genus (4).

In 1954, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History really wanted a large grand dinosaur skeleton to put on display, just like the ones that were on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. So an expedition was sent out west to bring back an attention-grabbing huge dinosaur skeleton. The expedition was led, surprisingly enough, by a college undergraduate student named Edwin Delfs (5).

Their first destination was Dinosaur National Monument, located near the Utah-Colorado border, and they hunted for fossils around that area. Unfortunately, they didn’t find anything. However, the team received a tip from some geology students from Louisiana State University that they ought to check out a site in Garden Park, located near Cañon City, Colorado. (6).

Delfs and his teammates relocated to the suggested location, and on the eastern bank of Four Mile Creek, they hit paydirt. Here were the grandiose fossils that the Cleveland Museum was looking for. However, they couldn’t dig anything up yet. The United States had entered the Atomic Age, and due to the Red Scare of the 1950s, the country was manufacturing hundreds of atomic bombs every year. In order to fuel this doomsday machine, the military needed massive amounts of uranium. Many of the fossils that had been discovered out west during the post-WWII years had been discovered accidentally by people who were prospecting for uranium deposits. Due to all of the uranium deposits in the area, Edwin Delfs first had to file a mining claim on the site before he could dig up any fossils (7).

Over the course of three digging seasons, Delfs and his team chipped away at the stone. Part of the reason why it took so long was due to the extremely hard consistency of the rock that the bones were found in. Another reason was that sudden flash floods would completely flood the excavation site, and unfortunately some of the bones were washed away before they could be saved and prepared. After three years of on-off excavations, the team uncovered a large number of vertebrae and parts of the hip. The specimen, which was substantially bigger than Haplocanthosaurus priscus, was named Haplocanthosaurus delfsi by Dr. Jack McIntosh (who is widely regarded as the greatest sauropod expert EVER) and Dr. Michael Williams who served as the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The jacketed bones were brought back to the Cleveland Museum to be prepared. The skeleton was put on display, and it remains one of the main attractions at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it is affectionately known by the nickname “Happy” (8).

There are currently two species of Haplocanthosaurus known to science: H. priscus and H. delfsi. Both of them are known from comparatively few remains in relation to other late Jurassic sauropods. No complete skeleton has ever been found, and there are numerous bones missing from all known specimens, including the skull; no Haplocanthosaurus skull has ever been found, which makes it difficult to precisely place this species within the dinosaur family tree. So far, we have large chunks of the neck and backbones, a shoulder blade, a few vertebrae from the base of the tail, the hip bones, a few leg bones, and that’s it. Most fossils of this animal have been found in Colorado, but one specimen was found in Montana and was nicknamed “Big Monty”. However, this specimen was found on private property, and it is in the hands of a professional fossil collector and dealer (9).

Fossils of both species of Haplocanthosaurus are found in the early and middle levels of the Morrison Formation, although it is rare within both of those levels. It is completely absent from the late Morrison. It is possible that Haplocanthosaurus lived during the latest part of the Middle Jurassic and therefore straddled the boundary between the Middle and Late divisions. However, there are so few places within North America where Middle Jurassic rocks are exposed, and the number of fossils from those rocks has been aggravatingly miniscule. So, the question of whether or not Haplocanthosaurus was a Middle Jurassic leftover that survived into the earliest parts of the Late Jurassic cannot be answered yet (10).

 

Anatomy

Haplocanthosaurus is distinctive for vertebrae that have only a single dorsal neural spine as opposed to the double-pronged V-shaped dorsal neural spines found in the diplodocid sauropods like Apatosaurus and Diplodocus. It is this anatomical feature that earned it its name “simple-spined lizard”. The neck vertebrae of Haplocanthosaurus have proportionally small centrum disks, high neural arches, a tall dorsal neural spine, and transverse spines that stick out directly sideways. Haplocanthosaurus is also noted for having femur bones that are substantially longer than the shin bones. This hints that Haplocanthosaurus was a very slow-moving animal (11).

Size measurements are difficult to pin down, because paleontologists currently recognize two species of Haplocanthosautrus: H. delfsi and H. priscus. It appears that Haplocanthosaurus priscus measured only 50 feet long, making it the smallest sauropod yet found in North America, while Haplocanthosaurus delfsi measured 70 feet long. This distinction was not known until 1988. John Foster states that H. priscus likely weighed around 23,000 pounds (10,500 kilograms) while H. delfsi weighed 46,200 pounds (21,000 kilograms). The aforementioned size measurements mean that Haplocanthosaurus priscus was one of the smallest – if not the smallest – sauropod found within the Morrison Formation (12).

 

Phylogeny

Haplocanthosaurus is a bit of an oddball as far as sauropods go because paleontologists haven’t quite made up their minds as to how to classify it. Because Haplocanthosaurus is known only from partial skeletons, deciding where it fits within the sauropod cladogram has proved problematic and aggravating, and paleontologists have repeatedly shuffled this genus around according to their own perceptions.

Due to the shape of its vertebrae, which were unlike those of more advanced sauropods, John Bell Hatcher surmised that Haplocanthosaurus must be a quite primitive. In his initial research paper, he described Haplocanthosaurus as most closely resembling Morosaurus, a name that is now recognized as a junior synonym of Camarasaurus. Since we now classify Camarasaurus as a member of the sauropod group Macronaria, a group which contains species known for having boxy heads and large nostrils, it can be inferred that Hatcher would have placed Haplocanthosaurus in that group as well (13).

Except that Haplocanthosaurus wasn’t included in Macronaria alongside Camarasaurus and Brachiosaurus. It was, instead, included in the family Cetiosauridae. The cetiosaurs were a group of sauropods that are associated with the Middle Jurassic, especially in England, India, and China. One reason why Haplocanthosaurus’ designation as a cetiosaur stuck around for so long was because of the shape and size of the leg bones. Cetiosaurs are characteristic for having femurs that are noticeably longer than their fibulae and tibiae. However, some members of other sauropod groups also have unusually long femurs, so this anatomical feature is not 100% diagnostic towards cetiosaurs (14).

From its discovery until the middle 1990s, the established convention was that Haplocanthosaurus was a cetiosaurid. And then, things began to change. During the middle 1990s, paleontologists began to take a new look at sauropod phylogeny, and many felt that Haplocanthosaurus had been misplaced on the sauropod tree. In 1998, Jeffrey Wilson and Paul Sereno proposed that Haplocanthosaurus might indeed be a primitive member of Macronaria, which is closer to what John B. Hatcher was hinting at in 1903. In 1999, Jose Bonaparte proposed that Haplocanthosaurus was unique enough to warrant a family of its own, which he named Haplocanthosauridae, but this idea was not accepted by the majority of paleontologists. In the early 2000s, it was suspected that Haplocanthosaurus might actually be a very primitive member of the super family Diplodocoidea. A survey conducted in 2005 by Mike Taylor and Darren Naish failed to definitely establish where this genus ought to be placed. John Foster, the author of Jurassic West, postulated in his 2007 book that Haplocanthosaurus was either a cetiosaur or a primitive macronarian. As the 2000s transitioned to the 2010s, the idea that Haplocanthosaurus was likely a primitive diplodocoidean began to gain acceptance within the paleontological community, and this is what most paleontologists now consider Haplocanthosaurus to be (15).

Because Haplocanthosaurus possesses anatomical features found in both sauropod families, it’s possible that it is a transitional species, a “missing link”, between the cetiosaurs of the middle Jurassic and the diplodocids of the late Jurassic. However, proving such a statement is problematic because of the rarity of finds attributed to this genus. Haplocanthosaurus is known from several partial skeletons, but no skull has ever been found. That’s too bad, because a complete skull would probably settle the argument of where this genus fits on the sauropod tree.

Below is a drawing that I made of Haplocanthosaurus. Because no skull has ever been found, I decided to make a sort of half-cetiosaur half-diplodocid design. The short keratinous scutes that run along the middle of its spine are a reference to such spines (longer ones at that) being found in association with diplodocid sauropods; if this was a primitive member of that family, I’m guessing that such spines would be shorter, if it possessed any at all. The tail is somewhat shorter than what you might expect, more in keeping with a cetiosaurid than a diplodocid. The drawing was made on printer paper with a No. 2 pencil.

Haplocanthosaurus delfsi. © Jason R. Abdale. June 21, 2020.

 

Conclusion

Due to the scarcity of remains, theories about Haplocanthosaurus’ appearance and phylogenic relationship to other sauropods are largely conjectural. Museum mounts depicting Haplocanthosaurus, such as the one in Cleveland, are composites of known finds and educated guesswork. In terms of cladistics, the in-vogue assessment is that Haplocanthosaurus is a very archaic member of the super family Diplodocoidea. However, this might change in the future depending on any new finds that are uncovered. All that we can hope for is that we keep looking, and hopefully we’ll be able to uncover some more specimens of this mysterious and intriguing North American dinosaur in the years to come.

 

Source Citations

  1. John Bell Hatcher (February 21, 1903). “A New Sauropod Dinosaur from the Jurassic of Colorado”. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 16 (1): 1-2).
  2. John Bell Hatcher (1903). “A new name for the dinosaur Haplocanthus Hatcher”. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 16 (1): 100).
  3. John Bell Hatcher (1903). “Osteology of Haplocanthosaurus, with description of a new species, and remarks on the probable habits of the Sauropoda and the age and origin of the Atlantosaurus beds. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum, 2: 1–72).
  4. John R. Foster and Mathew J. Wedel (2014). “Haplocanthosaurus (Saurischia: Sauropoda) from the lower Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) near Snowmass, Colorado”. Volumina Jurassica, 12 (2): 197).
  5. “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017”.
  6. “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017”.
  7. “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017”.
  8. “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017”.
  9. “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017”; “Is Nate Murphy Holding a Dinosaur for Ransom?”.
  10. John Foster, Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and their World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007. Page 200.
  11. John Bell Hatcher (February 21, 1903). “A New Sauropod Dinosaur from the Jurassic of Colorado”. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 16 (1): 1-2; John Foster, Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and their World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007. Page 200; “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017”.
  12. John Foster, Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and their World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007. Pages 200-201.
  13. John Bell Hatcher (February 21, 1903). “A New Sauropod Dinosaur from the Jurassic of Colorado”. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 16 (1): 2.
  14. David Lambert, The Dinosaur Data Book: Facts and Fictions about the World’s Largest Creatures. New York: Avon Books, 1990. Page 65; Don Lessem and Donald F. Glut, The Dinosaur Society Dinosaur Encyclopedia. New York: Random House, Inc., 1993. Page 208; Gregory S. Paul, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, 1st Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pages 173-177.
  15. Jeffrey A. Wilson and Paul C. Sereno (June 15, 1998). “Early Evolution and Higher-Level Phylogeny of Sauropod Dinosaurs”. Memoir (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), 5: 1-68; Jose F. Bonaparte (1999). “An armoured sauropod from the Aptian of northern Patagonia, Argentina”. In Proceedings of the Second Gondwanan Dinosaur Symposium, National Science Museum Monographs #15. Y. Tomida, T. H. Rich, and P. Vickers-Rich, eds. Tokyo. Pages 1-12; Mike P. Taylor and Darren Naish (2005). “The phylogenetic taxonomy of Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda)”. PaleoBios, 25 (2): 1–7; John Foster, Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and their World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007. Page 188; John A. Whitlock (April 2011). “A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda)”. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 161 (4): 872–915; Emanuel Tschopp, Octávio Mateus, and Roger B. J. Benson (2015). “A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda)”. PeerJ. 2015; 3: e857; “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017”.

 

Bibliography

Bonaparte Jose F. (1999). “An armoured sauropod from the Aptian of northern Patagonia, Argentina”. In Proceedings of the Second Gondwanan Dinosaur Symposium, National Science Museum Monographs #15. Y. Tomida, T. H. Rich, and P. Vickers-Rich, eds. Tokyo: 1-12.

Foster, John. Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and their World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.

John R. Foster and Mathew J. Wedel (2014). “Haplocanthosaurus (Saurischia: Sauropoda) from the lower Morrison

Formation (Upper Jurassic) near Snowmass, Colorado”. Volumina Jurassica, 12 (2): 197–210. https://sauroposeidon.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/foster-and-wedel-2014-haplocanthosaurus-from-snowmass-colorado.pdf.

Hatcher, John Bell (February 21, 1903). “A New Sauropod Dinosaur from the Jurassic of Colorado”. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 16 (1): 1-2. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/2345230#page/118/mode/1up.

Hatcher, John Bell (February 21, 1903). “A new name for the dinosaur Haplocanthus Hatcher”. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 16: 100. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/2345230#page/118/mode/1up.

Lambert, David. The Dinosaur Data Book: Facts and Fictions about the World’s Largest Creatures. New York: Avon Books, 1990.

Lessem Don; Glut, Donald F. The Dinosaur Society Dinosaur Encyclopedia. New York: Random House, Inc., 1993.

Paul, Gregory S. The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, 1st Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Taylor Mike P.; Naish, Darren (2005). “The phylogenetic taxonomy of Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda)”. PaleoBios, 25 (2): 1–7

Tschopp, Emanuel; Mateus, Octávio; Benson, Roger B. J. (2015). “A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda)”. PeerJ. 2015; 3: e857. Published online on April 7, 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4393826/.

Whitlock, John A. (April 2011). “A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda)”. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 161 (4): 872–915. Published online on January 12, 2011. https://academic.oup.com/zoolinnean/article/161/4/872/2732063

Wilson Jeffrey A.; Sereno Paul C. (June 15, 1998). “Early Evolution and Higher-Level Phylogeny of Sauropod Dinosaurs”. Memoir (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), 5: 1-68.

Inverse. “Is Nate Murphy Holding a Dinosaur for Ransom?”, by Jacqueline Ronson (July 5, 2016). https://www.inverse.com/article/17806-sauropod-dinosaur-discovery-montana-fossil-hunter-paleontology-nate-murphy.

YouTube. ExtermCentral. “Haplocanthosaurus: The Ghost of the Morrison Formation by Dr. Cary Woodruff CMNH Dinofest 2017” (November 12, 2017). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NWL7pjrPbI.



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