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Panphagia, the Oldest-Known Sauropodomorph Dinosaur

For decades, South America has been regarded by paleontologists as the place where dinosaurs originated. It is here that we have our clearest record of what the oldest dinosaurs looked like. Specifically, Brazil and Argentina hold the record for the countries that possess the oldest-known dinosaur fossils. Based upon the fossils that have been uncovered in Brazil’s Santa Maria Formation and Argentina’s Ischigualasto Formation (in particular a locality known as “the Valley of the Moon”), dinosaurs are believed to have appeared during the middle of the Triassic Period about 235-230 million years ago.

Prior to the appearance of dinosaurs in the middle Triassic, smaller dinosaur-like animals scurried about within the jungles of South America. These proto-dinosaurs are known as “dinosauromorphs”. They first appeared during the early Triassic Period, and continued into the late Triassic, well after dinosaurs had appeared and established themselves. Probably the most well-known of these early dinosauromorphs is Lagosuchus, a small reptile about the size of a chicken. What made Lagosuchus and its kind different from the other reptiles which were around at the time was the fact that Lagosuchus and its close relatives ran around on two legs instead of four. This would be a major innovation which would be exploited by the earliest dinosaurs.

File:Marasuchus.JPG

The skeleton of Marasuchus, an advanced “dinosauromorph” from Argentina, dated to the middle Triassic Period about 235 MYA. It has been hypothesized that Marasuchus and Lagosuchus are in fact the same animal. Photograph by Michelle Reback (July 28, 2008). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marasuchus.JPG

For a long time, our idea of what the earliest dinosaurs looked like was shrouded in mystery. However, it seemed that the first dinosaurs were carnivores. From the 1950s until the very early 1990s, creatures like Staurikosaurus of Brazil and Herrerasaurus of Argentina were the oldest-known dinosaurs, and they were also believed to be the most evolutionarily primitive. Still, despite their supposedly archaic nature, these were fairly large animals – Staurikosaurus reached 6 to 8 feet long, and Herrerasaurus was even bigger, reaching 12 feet long. Both of these animals, and Herrerasaurus in particular, clearly would have been formidable competitors to the other carnivorous four-legged reptiles which were alive at the time. This was quite an upgrade from small chicken-sized creatures like Lagosuchus, which had existed only a short time earlier. Considering the very short time difference between the appearance of small creatures like Lagosuchus and the subsequent appearance of large meat-eating dinosaurs like Herrerasaurus, it appeared as though one of two options applied here: either dinosaurs managed to evolve into a large size within a very short length of time, or there was some intermediate species which hadn’t been discovered yet. Was it possible that there was another dinosaur, as yet undiscovered, which could fill the gap between the primitive dinosauromorphs and creatures like Herrerasaurus?

In 1991, the skeleton of a new dinosaur was discovered in Argentina by Dr. Ricardo Martinez, a paleontologist from the University of San Juan. This animal was far smaller, and it seemed more primitive, than Herrerasaurus. It measured only 3 feet long, and it appeared to have an anatomy which was less advanced than either Staurikosaurus or Herrerasaurus. In 1993, the animal was named Eoraptor, “the dawn thief”. For nearly two decades, this little animal held the title of being the oldest-known dinosaur.

However, complications arose. A closer examination of the skeletons of both Herrerasaurus and Eoraptor created doubts as to whether or not Eoraptor really was the oldest and most primitive dinosaur ever found. For example, the fewer sacral vertebrae an animal has, the more primitive it’s believed to be. Eoraptor possessed three sacral vertebrae, but Herrerasaurus had only two. This indicated that Herrerasaurus, despite being five times larger, was actually more primitive than Eoraptor. Another point of contention was the structure of the lower jaw. When Eoraptor was first discovered and described, it was believed that it possessed a less-evolved jaw structure than Herrerasaurus, but this turned out to be false. Gradually, concerns began to be raised that Eoraptor, despite its small size, was actually not as primitive as it first appeared to be. Special attention was given to the skull and the teeth. Eoraptor possessed different kinds of teeth in its mouth, indicating that it was an omnivore. A close examination of both the skull structure and the teeth made some wonder if Eoraptor was as primitive as we initially believed. In fact, there were some aspects of its anatomy that bore a bit of a resemblance to the sauropodomorph dinosaurs – the long-necked long-tailed creatures that we typically associate with the word “dinosaur” – rather than the fleet-footed meat-eating theropod dinosaurs.

In 2011, Dr. Ricardo Martinez (the same man who had found Eoraptor’s skeleton in 1991) re-classified Eoraptor as a primitive sauropodomorph. This claim was met with skepticism by the scientific community. In a subsequent study, Martinez changed his mind again and stated that Eoraptor was so archaic that it could not be placed into any definite group of saurischian dinosaurs and ought to be placed at the very base of Saurischia. However in 2013, Dr. Paul Sereno did his own evaluation of Eoraptor’s skeleton and concluded that indeed it was a primitive sauropodomorph, distantly related to other prosauropods like Plateosaurus and Anchisaurus. Even so, the overwhelming majority of the scientific community has refuted this claim. Numerous studies have been conducted on Eoraptor since it was discovered and named, and most of them state that Eoraptor is either a very primitive theropod dinosaur or else it is the earliest saurischian, appearing before the saurischians split into theropods and sauropodomorphs.

All of this raises an interesting question. If Eoraptor was not the earliest sauropodomorph, then what was?

In 2006, Dr. Ricardo Martinez was once again exploring the middle Triassic rock layers of the Ischigualasto Formation, dated to 228.3 million years ago, when he found another skeleton. It looked similar to Eoraptor, but it was noticeably larger, measuring 4.25 feet (1.3 meters) in length; Martinez thought that the skeleton was of a juvenile, and that the adult would be larger, say perhaps 6 feet long. The skeleton was incomplete, including only a partial skull. Teeth were only found in the lower jaw. The skull was clearly similar to Eoraptor’s, but it also showed some features which can be seen in very primitive sauropodomorphs like Plateosaurus. For example, the lower jaw curves downwards towards the front, which is a tell-tale feature of that group. The teeth were also very similar to those seen in prosauropods. Based upon the skull structure and the shape of the teeth, this animal seemed to be more closely related to sauropods than theropods. In 2009, the animal was named Panphagia, which is ancient Greek for “eats everything” in reference to its supposedly omnivorous diet.

Reconstruction of the skeleton of Panphagia protos. Photograph by Eva Kröcher (December 5, 2010). Creative Commons “Attribution Non-Commercial Non-Derivative 3.0 (US)”, GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), and Free Art License. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panphagia_fossil_DSC_6168.jpg.

A complete skull was not found with the skeleton, but we have enough of the bones to give us an idea of the skull’s outline. Below is an illustration that I made of what the complete skull of Panphagia might look like, based upon what was seen in the photograph that you see above. The drawing was made with a black Crayola marker.

Skull of Panphagia protos. © Jason R. Abdale (February 9, 2021).

Based upon this skeleton and the description that Ricardo Martinez and Oscar A. Alcober gave in their paper on this animal, I have reconstructed what the entire animal might look like. The creature bears a slight resemblance to prosauropods like Plateosaurus and Anchisaurus. No hands were found with the specimen. However, the illustration which accompanied Martinez and Alcober’s paper showed Panphagia sporting hands with four fingers, although the fourth digit was so small that it was probably incorporated into the wrist and wasn’t seen on the outside. The fingers themselves were longer the more distal they were to the body (in other words, the middle finger was longer than the thumb, and the pinky was even longer than the middle finger), and this was repeated in the skeletal reconstruction seen above. Since this was the reconstruction seen in both sources, I incorporated it into my own illustration.

I think that there are two issues with the illustrated reconstruction of Panphagia’s skeleton seen in the scientific paper and in the physical reconstruction seen in the photo above. Firstly, I think that the tail is too short. The animal looks conspicuously front-heavy, and the tail ought to be longer to give it better balance. Secondly, I believe that the hand structure is incorrect. Prosauropods like Plateosaurus, Massospondylus, and Anchisaurus had hands with five fingers and large thumb claws. However, it must be noted that all three of those species came from the late Triassic and early Jurassic Periods, nearly twenty to thirty million years after Panphagia’s appearance, and their hand structure may have been more evolved than that seen in archaic animals like Panphagia. However, until a more complete specimen of this animal is found, I think my reconstruction is going to remain as it is.

My drawing was made with No. 2 pencil on printer paper.

Panphagia protos. © Jason R. Abdale (February 14, 2021).

 

For more information, please read Martinez’ and Alcober’s paper on this animal, which you can see here:

Martínez, Ricardo N.; Alcober, Oscar A. (February 16, 2009). “A basal sauropodomorph (Dinosauria: Saurischia) from the Ischigualasto Formation (Triassic, Carnian) and the early evolution of Sauropodomorpha”. PLoS ONE, volume 4, issue 2. Pages 1-12. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004397.

https://storage.googleapis.com/plos-corpus-prod/10.1371/journal.pone.0004397/1/pone.0004397.pdf?X-Goog-Algorithm=GOOG4-RSA-SHA256&X-Goog-Credential=wombat-sa%40plos-prod.iam.gserviceaccount.com%2F20210301%2Fauto%2Fstorage%2Fgoog4_request&X-Goog-Date=20210301T093333Z&X-Goog-Expires=3600&X-Goog-SignedHeaders=host&X-Goog-Signature=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.

 

Keep your pencils sharp, everyone.

 

History Lecture – “The Great Illyrian Revolt” at the Queens Public Library – January 26, 2021

Greetings everyone! On January 26, 2021, I conducted my first ever public lecture as a historian when I delivered a talk for the Queens Public Library via WEBEX concerning the Great Illyrian Revolt, a massive uprising which took place against the Roman Empire from 6 to 9 AD. The lecture was recorded on the host’s personal computer, and she sent me the link to the video, but I didn’t know how to download this video file onto my own computer until a few hours ago. After some very frantic computer work, here it is! The video lasts for a just a tad longer than an hour and twelve minutes. I hope you enjoy it.

If you like this lecture please purchase a copy of my book The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9, published by Pen & Sword Books in 2019.

More photos of Allosaurus from the AMNH

Greetings friends. In an earlier post from 2014, I put up some photographs which I took of the two Allosaurus skeletons that are on public display in the American Museum of Natural History (or AMNH for short) in New York City. I’ve recently uncovered some other photos which I took during a visit there in March 2019, and so I’m posting them here. Enjoy!

 

 

Some Morrison Formation Sauropods: Apatosaurus, Barosaurus, and Diplodocus

Hello everyone. Here are some simple sketches of three Late Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs from the Morrison Formation of western North America: Apatosaurus, Barosaurus, and Diplodocus. All three of these sauropods are members of the family Diplodocidae, which includes the eponymous Diplodocus and any other sauropod that’s more closely related to Diplodocus than to any other sauropod group. The “diplodocids”, as these species are sometimes called, are distinctive for having long peg-like teeth in the fronts of their jaws (good for raking and stripping, but not well-suited for biting), a nares (the hole in the skull that contains your nostril openings) that’s located on the top of the skull, and long tapering whip-like tails.

The first is Apatosaurus louisae, which measured around 75 feet long. Like all diplodocid sauropods, Apatosaurus had a long whip-like tail, but it also had a massive thickly-built neck. Some paleontologists hypothesize that Apatosaurus used its neck in whacking contests during the mating season like modern-day giraffes. You can read more about that here.

Apatosaurus louisae. © Jason R. Abdale. May 11, 2020.

Next is Barosaurus lentus, which measured around 85 feet long. This animal was made famous by the impressive display in the entrance hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Notice that the neck and the tail are almost the same size; the tail is only slightly longer.

Barosaurus lentus. © Jason R. Abdale. May 11, 2020.

Finally is Diplodocus carnegii, which measured around 90 feet long. For a long time, this animal held the record as the longest dinosaur ever, until it was challenged by Supersaurus, Seismosaurus (which is almost certainly another species of Diplodocus), and various titanosaurid sauropods from South America. Of all of the diplodocid sauropods, Diplodocus itself had the longest tail. Some have speculated that the long ribbon-like tails of Diplodocus and its kind were used like whips, and it was even calculated that they could be cracked like a modern-day bull-whip. In the early 1990s, a partial skeleton of a Diplodocus-like dinosaur was found in Howe Quarry, Wyoming which had preserved skin impressions, including a series of keratin spikes similar to those seen on the back of an iguana lizard. An article was published about this discovery in 1992, which you can read here, although it wasn’t expressly stated within the report that the creature in question was indeed a Diplodocus. However, many paleo-artists ran with the idea anyway, and it was even incorporated into the 1999 BBC television series Walking With Dinosaurs. Since this is the prevailing trend, I decided to outfit my Diplodocus razorback-style as well.

Diplodocus carnegii. © Jason R. Abdale. May 11, 2020.

Last is an image showing a size comparison between Apatosaurus (75 feet), Barosaurus (85 feet), and Diplodocus (90 feet). For some people, it can be difficult to mentally grasp the size and the anatomical differences of these animals just by looking at numbers on a page. Perhaps by looking at this picture, you can truly appreciate the differences in the size proportions. Apatosaurus is a muscular beast. Barosaurus looks like a see-saw with legs. Diplodocus‘ tail measures three-fifths of its whole body length. So, as you can see, not all sauropods are the same.

A size comparison between Apatosaurus (75 feet), Barosaurus (85 feet), and Diplodocus (90 feet). © Jason R. Abdale. May 11, 2020.

Keep your pencils sharp, everyone.

Get your Roman history book for the holidays!

Do you or someone that you know love ancient history, Roman history, or military history? Then you should buy a copy of The Great Illyrian Revolt and Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg. These two histories are just the thing to satisfy your ancient warfare addiction! Both books have received numerous positive reviews on Amazon and elsewhere and have been praised by professional historians. Both books are also on sale just in time for the holiday season, so order your copies today before they run out! You can find these books on Amazon, Barnes, and Noble, Pen & Sword Books, and numerous other book retailer websites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Liopleurodon

The middle to late 19th Century can arguably be seen as the glory days of paleontology. While this time frame is often associated with the discovery of dinosaurs and the so-called “Bone Wars” of the American West, discoveries were also being made elsewhere during this time and concerning the remains of prehistoric life other than those creatures that inhabit every child’s fantasies.

Europeans had known about the fossilized remains of prehistoric marine life ever since the Middle Ages. In the superstitious societies of those times, shells of prehistoric mollusks were often believed to be the nails and horns of devils. During the late 18th Century, grander discoveries were made, notably by the English paleontologist Mary Anning. Due to the impressive finds made by her and others, creatures like ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs made their entrance into our collective knowledge of life.

During the middle 1800s, some isolated teeth were discovered in northern France. In 1873, these teeth were ascribed the name Liopleurodon, meaning “smooth-sided tooth” by the French paleontologist and biologist Henri Émile Sauvage. It was evident that the teeth belonged to a large prehistoric marine reptile, and it was established that this creature belonged to a group known as the pliosaurs, which had been named by Sir Richard Owen in the 1840s. The pliosaurs were close relatives of their more famous long-necked plesiosaur cousins; in fact, pliosaurs are sometimes referred to as “short-necked plesiosaurs”. The pliosaurs had the same general body plan as their plesiosaur relatives – a rounded stocky body with four large flippers and a short tail – but they had short muscular necks and long crocodile-like heads which were very large in proportion with their bodies. The pliosaurs seem to have emerged during the early Jurassic Period, and quickly rose to be apex predators of their environment. Some species, such as the eponymous Pliosaurus and its cousin Kronosaurus grew to be some of the largest marine reptiles in Earth’s history, with their size commonly stated to be 40 feet long, just as big as Tyrannosaurus rex.

The remains of Liopleurodon have been found in Britain, France, and Germany within rocks dated to the middle Jurassic/late Jurassic boundary, approximately 165-155 million years ago. Phylogenic analysis suggests that it was an advanced member of the pliosaur family. However, it was only half the size of its gargantuan relatives. Only partial remains of this animal have been discovered so far, so it is difficult to gauge an accurate size. However, the most common size estimates for Liopleurodon are between 20 to 25 feet in length. Even though it wasn’t as big as Pliosaurus or Kronosaurus, Liopleurodon was likely the top predator in the shallow sea that once covered Europe during the Jurassic Period.

Liopleurodon first came to my attention in 1994 when it was featured in issue #85 of Dinosaurs! magazine. In the article, it was mistakenly stated that it grew to be 39 feet (12 meters) long, a much larger size than the one it was likely in life. It was also portrayed, remarkably, as being mostly toothless except for a crescent of curved fangs extending from the front of both jaws.

Liopleurodon afterwards came to mass public attention in 1999 when it was featured in Episode 3 of the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs. In this TV show, the creature bears only a general resemblance to the real animal. Firstly, there was a drastic difference in size. As said earlier, many paleontologists think that Liopleurodon had a maximum size of 25 feet. However, in Walking With Dinosaurs, Liopleurodon was portrayed as being three times larger, measuring 80 feet long, a truly gargantuan size indeed! This inflated size estimate was based upon a single fragmentary specimen uncovered in Mexico which was attributed to Liopleurodon and was believed to represent a gigantic individual. Although the evidence was flimsy, the producers took this as a cue and exaggerated Liopleurodon’s size to absurd proportions, claiming that it was the largest marine reptile that ever lived – it wasn’t. Secondly, the head was the wrong shape, with it being given a much more curvaceous high-arched skull. In reality, the skull was much lower and flatter. Thirdly, the body proportions were incorrect. It was stated in the episode that Liopleurodon’s head measured one-fourth the total length of its body. However, an article from 2003 stated that it was likely that the head measured one-fifth the total length of its body. This would have made its head seem somewhat smaller in relation to its body.

A reconstructed Liopleurodon skeleton can be seen in the Museum of Paleontology in Tübingen, Germany – you can see a photo of it here. Granted, much of the skeleton is fictitious, since only partial remains of Liopleurodon have been found in Europe, so the blank spaces were filled in with reconstructions based upon what we know about pliosaur anatomy. The first thing that one is struck by is that it is obviously much, much smaller than the size given in Walking With Dinosaurs. The skull is also much flatter than you would expect. This might be due to compression caused by the fossilization process rather than being an accurate portrayal of its natural appearance. However, there are other pliosaur species that have flat crocodilian-like skulls, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. The front teeth in both jaws are enormous, while the majority of teeth that line its mouth were only one-half or one-third the size of the front teeth, and most of them are missing. This is probably the reason why Liopleurodon was portrayed as having only front teeth in a largely toothless mouth in the Dinosaurs! article. The front end of the lower jaw is noticeably spoon or scoop-shaped – it is pronounced in relation to the rest of the dentary bone, and it has an obvious upward swoop. Like the 2003 article states, the head isn’t as large in proportion with the rest of the body as the BBC series showed. The neck is longer, and it has a much more pot-bellied barrel chest. All in all, this looks very little like its representation in Walking With Dinosaurs. Given the character’s well-known imagery from that show, you might be forgiven in thinking that the specimen on display in the museum was actually a completely different species.

Finally comes the issue of color. Ever since its appearance on Walking With Dinosaurs, reconstructions of Liopleurodon, either two-dimensional images or rendered into three-dimensional sculptures and toys, have portrayed it with a piebald black-and-white color pattern. While the repeated use of this color scheme may seem to be becoming over-used to the point of being trite, there may be scientific foundation to it, since it was claimed in a scientific study that prehistoric marine reptiles were probably darkly-colored in order to absorb as much heat as possible. Furthermore, this color pattern has become widely recognizable as the most identifiable and therefore definitive Liopleurodon appearance, and this motif is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Seeing this reconstructed skeleton left an impression on me, and I decided to make a series of illustrations of what Liopleurodon would have looked like in real life. In contrast to my usual style, which is highly detailed and would take me weeks or even months to finish, I decided to knock out a few quick black-and-white line drawings made with an ordinary black ballpoint pen.

First is a basic line drawing showing how Liopleurodon would look as it swam through the Jurassic ocean.

Second is another line drawing showing the iconic Walking With Dinosaurs color pattern, rendered to look like something that you’d see in a coloring book.

Finally is a colorized portrayal showing the classic black-and-white piebald color pattern.

I realize that these pictures may not be what you’d expect, especially given our engrained perceptions of what we think Liopleurodon ought to look like based upon its appearance in WWD, but holy heck, look at the size of those front choppers!!! It looks like something out of a nightmarish Wayne Barlowe painting! I hope you enjoy these pictures. Please like and leave any comments below.

March 19 – The Feast of Minerva

March 19 marked the beginning of the Quinquatria, “the Festival of Five Days”, spanning from March 19 to 23. This was a five day long celebration of the goddess Minerva, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena. She was a goddess of wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, cleverness, wit, strategy, creativity, and artistic inspiration, and she served as the patron goddess of philosophers, writers, artists, musicians, doctors, and teachers. The festival was originally called the Quinquatrus, “the Fifth Day”, because it took place on the fifth day after the Ides of March (even though it’s actually four days). Later, this got changed to a five day festival and it was renamed the Quinquatria, “Five Days” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

“The Quinquatrus: this day, though one only, is from a misunderstanding of the name observed as if there were five days in it. Just as the sixth day after the Ides is in similar fashion called the Sexatrus by the people of Tusculum, and the seventh day after is the Septimatrus, so this day was named here, in that the fifth day after the Ides was called the Quinquatrus” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 187, 189).

Minerva Among The Muses, painted by Hendrick van Balen the Elder (1620s). Museum of King John III’s Palace at Wilanów, Warsaw, Poland.

The main day of celebration was the first day, March 19, which served as the feast day of the goddess Minerva. Festus claims that the reason why Minerva’s feast day fell on March 19 was because this was the day that her temple on the Aventine Hill was consecrated. Religious law dictated that no blood could be shed on March 19. Therefore, there were no hunts, no animal butchering, no preparing of meat, no gladiator fights, and no physical harm done to anyone. However, there were gladiatorial games for the four days afterwards (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 19). Women also consulted sooth-sayers and fortune-tellers on this day. As a protector goddess, women were understandably anxious about the fate of themselves and their families (“Quinquatrus or Quinquatria”).

The Feast of Minerva was a day dedicated to creativity and the arts. It was a special day for artists and craftsmen, a day to let their muse truly shine. As Ovid states…

“Pray now you boys and tender girls to Pallas [“the Protector”, a title given to the Greek goddess Athena, and adopted by the Romans for Minerva]. He who can truly please Pallas is learned. Pleasing Pallas let girls learn to card wool, and how to unwind the full distaff. She shows how to draw the shuttle through the firm warp, and close up loose threads with the comb. Worship her, you who remove stains from damaged clothes, worship her, you who ready bronze cauldrons for fleeces. If Pallas frowns, no one could make good shoes, even if he were more skilled than Tychius. And even if he were cleverer with his hands than Epeus once was, he’ll be useless if Pallas is angry. You too who drive away ills with Apollo’s art, bring a few gifts of your own for the goddess. And don’t scorn her, you schoolmasters, a tribe so often cheated of its pay. She attracts new pupils. Nor you engravers, and painters with encaustics, nor you who carve the stone with a skillful hand. She’s the goddess of a thousand things, and song for sure. If I’m worthy may she be a friend to my endeavours. Where the Caelian Hill slopes down to the plain, at the point where the street’s almost, but not quite, level, you can see the little shrine of Minerva Capta, which the goddess first occupied on her birthday. The source of the name is doubtful: we speak of ‘Capital’ ingenuity; the goddess is herself ingenious. Or is it because, motherless, she leapt, with a shield from the crown of her father’s head (caput)? Or because she came to us as a ‘captive’ from the conquest of Falerii? This, an ancient inscription claims. Or because her law ordains ‘capital’ punishment for receiving things stolen from that place? By whatever logic your title’s derived, Pallas, shield our leaders with your aegis forever” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 19).

A Picture Gallery, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1873).

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the emperor Domitian took the Feast of Minerva very seriously; it was one of his favorite holidays…

“He celebrated the Quinquatria too every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12, chapter 4)

Sources:

Map of the Celtic Tribes of the British Isles, circa 50 BC

Map of the Celtic tribes of the British Isles, circa 50 BC. Abbreviated names listed in alphabetical order: Caer. = Caereni; Carno. = Carnonacae; Dec. = Deceangli; Erd. = Erdini; G. = Gadini; Ive. = Iverni; M. = Manapians; Rhob. = Rhobogdians; S. = Smertae; Sel. = Selgovae; Vaco. = Vacomagi; Vella. = Vellabori. Illustration by Jason R. Abdale, (C) November 17, 2019.

Note: The map seen above is an updated version of a map that was posted on February 22, 2019. That original version has since been deleted.

Some Quickie Drawings of Late Triassic Life

Hi everybody. As many of you already know, I occasionally volunteer at the Garvies Point Museum in Nassau County, New York. One day, I decided to hash out some drawings of Late Triassic creatures when I had a few moments of spare time, and I stuck them on the wall over the bulletin board. Recently, I went back to the museum for their annual Native American Feast, and to tell you the truth, I had completely forgotten about these pictures. I decided to take some photos of them while I was there. I’m hoping that the museum staff uses them for coloring activities with the children that visit the museum every week.