Biggest sauropod ever (part…. II)
During the 1990s, little-known articles by John McIntosh (revered older statesman of sauropod research) and Greg Paul looked briefly at A. fragillimus. McIntosh (1998) went through Cope’s inventories of the
The news is that, at long last, a proper reappraisal of this mysterious giant has finally appeared: it’s a new paper by Ken Carpenter of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and while, sadly, it doesn’t report the discovery of a new, articulated A. fragillimus specimen, it does cover pretty much everything we know about this dinosaur (Carpenter 2006). By the way, Carpenter and colleagues have tried looking for additional remains of A. fragillimus, thus far without success. Actually, I have to note here the rumour that new A. fragillimus material has been discovered, and that it will be discussed at the 2008 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. We shall see [adjacent image is Cope’s original 1878 figure of the A. fragillimus vertebra. I ripped it off from Matt Celeskey’s post about A. fragillimus from August of last year (go here). Sorry Matt].
Was A. fragillimus a hoax?
Unsurprisingly, quite a few people have been sceptical about the existence of this all-too-conveniently lost mega-sauropod. Can we be sure that it ever really existed, or could it be that Cope was pulling a fast one in order to beat his rival, Othniel Charles Marsh, hands-down in an effort to describe the biggest sauropod? As attractive as this scenario might appear, hoaxing is highly, highly unlikely. Consider the following:-
-- Cope was very specific about all the discovery details of A. fragillimus. According to his field notes, it was collected in late 1877 by Oramel Lucas (described by Cope as his ‘indefatigable friend’) at
-- Furthermore, the shipment records discovered by McIntosh show that Oramel Lucas and his brother Ira knew of A. fragillimus and labelled some remains with this name (McIntosh 1998, p. 487 and p. 498). If it was a hoax, then the Lucas brothers must have been in on it too, which now makes it a conspiracy.
-- The conspiracy would have to extend even further, as an
-- The rivalry that existed between Cope and Marsh is also relevant here (Marsh is pictured at left). As is well known, Marsh enjoyed making a very public fool of Cope when he made a technical error (Storrs 1994, Davidson 2002), and when he disagreed with Cope, or thought him wrong, Marsh was tediously pedantic in his criticisms (see Marsh’s 1873 papers on dinoceratans, for example). Marsh never criticised, nor even questioned, the reality of A. fragillimus. Carpenter (2006) notes that ‘Marsh is known to have employed spies to keep tabs on what Cope was collecting, and it is quite possible that he had independent confirmation for the immense size of A. fragillimus’ (p. 134).
-- Cope’s drawing of A. fragillimus is accurate-looking and elaborate, and his description refers to small detailed features, all of which conform in details with what we know of diplodocoid vertebrae (part of the description is reproduced at left: from here). He would have to have made all of this stuff up if the specimen was a hoax: it’s not as if the only record of A. fragillimus is a scribbled fragment in a diary, saying ‘On Tuesday I saw the biggest vertebra ever… it was thiiiiis big…’. Rather, the material is documented, in detail, in a proper technical paper. To hoax an entire paper of this sort would be severe science-crime, and there is no indication that Cope was unscrupulous or dastardly, or prepared to stoop this low.
-- It is noteworthy that workers well known for their methodical and conservative approach to sauropod studies (notably John McIntosh) have accepted Cope at his word. Osborn, who succeeded Cope as vertebrate palaeontologist for the US Geological Survey and is well known for speaking his mind when he had a problem with something, also never voiced doubts about A. fragillimus.
All of this is circumstantial, for sure, but I agree with Carpenter (and others) that the idea of Cope perpetrating a hoax of this magnitude is pretty much unthinkable. I think we have to assume that the specimens really existed. Therefore, they must have become lost or destroyed some time between 1878 and 1921 (when Osborn and Mook failed to find them). As Carpenter (2006) points out, it in fact appears likely that the material was too fragile to survive, and that it crumbled to bits some time after its discovery. Matt Celeskey also noted this possibility (go here). Cope commented on this fragility, writing ‘in the extreme tenuity of all its parts, this vertebra exceeds this type of those already described, so that much care was requisite to secure its preservation’ (p. 563), and his drawing also suggests that the vertebra had been subjected to extensive weathering and hence was already fragile. Indeed its fragile nature explains the specific name he chose for it.
Furthermore, ‘preservatives had not yet been employed to harden fossil bones, the first of which was a sodium silicate solution used in O. C. Marsh’s preparation lab at
The other Amphicoelias
As I’ve now mentioned a few times, the detailed anatomy of the A. fragillimus vertebra (as figured by Cope) shows us that this sauropod was a diplodocoid. We can make a confident statement like this because it is relatively easy to distinguish the different sauropod clades on the basis of their vertebral anatomy, and A. fragillimus has all the distinctive anatomical features typical of diplodocoids. In fact it strongly resembles the vertebrae of the first named species of Amphicoelias, A.
Was Cope right in referring his second Amphicoelias species to the same genus as the first? Several authors have thought so, and in fact have gone so far as to state that ‘it is doubtful … if the characters described by Cope warrant the placing of the type [of A. fragillimus] in another species different from A. altus’ (Osborn & Mook 1921, p. 279), or ‘there is no reason not to consider [A. fragillimus] a very large individual of A. altus’ (McIntosh 1998, p. 502). If this is true then, like A.
Carpenter argues in his new paper that, in fact, A. fragillimus seems to have differed from A.
Refs - -
Carpenter, K. 2006. Biggest of the big: a critical re-evaluation of the mega-sauropod Amphicoelias fragillimus Cope, 1878.
Cope, E. D. 1878. On the saurians recently discovered in the Dakota Beds of Colorado. The American Naturalist 12 (2), 71-85.
Davidson, J. P. 2002. Bonehead mistakes: the backround in scientific literature and illustrations for Edward Drinker Cope’s first restoration of Elasmosaurus platyurus. Proceedings of the
McIntosh, J. S. 1998. New information about the Cope collection of sauropods from
Osborn, H. F. & Mook, C. C. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the
Paul, G. S. 1994a. Big sauropods – really, really big sauropods. The Dinosaur Report Fall 1994, 12-13.
- . 1994b. Is Garden Park home to the world’s largest known land animal? Tracks in Time 4 (5), 1.