Wednesday, July 12, 2006

‘Angloposeidon’, the unreported story, part I

An uncensored big cat kill is screened for the first time on TV, the aquarboreal theory as applied to hominids and sloths becomes personally relevant, and the bizarre social lives of small brown passerines come to dominate my thoughts. Then there are the agamas. But today I want to talk about sauropods, sort of (though be warned: this post has less to do with sauropods, and more to do with the rather dull back-story of one sauropod discovery in particular) [Image used here produced by Mark Witton and nicked from his flickr site].

If Mirischia the Brazilian theropod is one of my little pets, the enormous sauropod represented by the cervical vertebra MIWG.7306 – affectionately (and unofficially) known to some of us as 'Angloposeidon' – is one of the biggest [the image at left, and that below, are my drawings of the specimen]. I don’t specialise on sauropods, but I sometimes collaborate on technical work on these awesome beasts. Mike P. Taylor and I co-authored a paper on the phylogenetic systematics of diplodocoids last year (Taylor & Naish 2005: for the free pdf go here) and we have a few other sauropody projects in the pipeline, and Matt Wedel and I are going to be publishing sauropod stuff some time in the future. It’s a recent sauropod-themed post on Matt’s blog site that’s inspired me to put finger to keyboard on the following. His post is somewhat err, irreverent perhaps, but I still found it inspirational :)

2000 was a really busy year for me, in part because of the huge Dorling Kindersley encyclopaedia I worked on, the Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight book, my work on the preliminary description of Eotyrannus (Hutt et al. 2001), and the completion of my M.Phil. thesis. And a great deal of time that year was spent, with Dave Martill, running around the Isle of Wight looking at specimens we were planning to include in Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. On several occasions we stumbled over unreported specimens that we ‘discovered’ in collections, but in other cases we made specific trips to look at, and photograph, specimens that we’d seen discussed or described in the literature.

Among the latter was an allegedly enormous sauropod vertebra, mentioned on the last page of a booklet entitled ‘The discovery of the island’s largest dinosaur’ and produced by Dinosaur Farm Museum. Written anonymously (but actually penned, I think, by Steve Hutt), the booklet discusses the discovery and excavation of the Barnes High brachiosaurid, a specimen discovered by Steve in 1992 and currently on display at Dinosaur Isle Visitor Centre, Sandown. It’s still owned by Dinosaur Farm Museum: a tourist attraction that lacks official museum credentials, the frustrating consequence being that the Barnes High brachosaurid is still unavailable for technical study. This is maddening as the specimen is easily the most complete European brachiosaurid, and in fact one of the best European sauropods (only little Europasaurus from Germany being better represented). The booklet (which includes no publication data at all and can only be cited as ‘Anon. undated’!) states on p. 7….

Last year an enthusiastic young collector, Gavin Leng, found and gave to the Sandown Museum a single giant neck vertebra which is 920mm (2’6”) long. This was from an adult brachiosaurid which would have had a complete neck 8.8-11 metres (24-30 feet) long and a total length of 26 – 29.6 metres (70 – 80 feet)!

Highly intrigued, in the summer of 2000 I asked around. It turned out that, while the specimen was quite obviously a sauropod cervical vertebra, it had been discovered encased within a hard sideritic matrix, and literally years of careful preparation had been required to prep it out. It had been discovered, in 1992, on the foreshore at Sudmoor Point on the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight. Leng, its discoverer, is well known in the world of Isle of Wight palaeontology for finding a particularly good valdosaur specimen and for discovering Eotyrannus, so he’s a pretty significant guy.

He had handed it over to what was then known as the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, and from here it had been the pet project of David Cooper, a former pathologist and now amateur palaeontologist, who was working on the specimen at his house. I already knew David from many previous meetings and discussions we’d had about Isle of Wight dinosaurs, and when Dave (Martill) and I visited him during the summer of 2000 the specimen was looking pretty good, with clean bone surfaces almost entirely free of matrix.

We carefully carried it out on to David’s back lawn and photographed it there on the grass, and one of the resulting images was published as Plate 14B in Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. David had not just been preparing the specimen, he had also been trying to interpret its morphology and affinities, and we decided then and there that we would collaborate on getting a description into print. It was easily the biggest British dinosaur vertebra I’d ever seen, and I knew that it was about on par with the similarly enormous cervical vertebrae of Brachiosaurus. In its degree of elongation it appeared similar too. I was later to learn that it had an accession number – MIWG.7306 – and I’ll use that from hereon.

Early in 2000 I began corresponding with Mathew Wedel, then of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (but today of the University of California Museum of Paleontology). In March 2000 Matt published (with co-authors Richard Cifelli and R. Kent Sanders) his preliminary description of a giant brachiosaurid from the Antlers Formation of Oklahoma, named Sauroposeidon proteles (Wedel et al. 2000a: download the pdf here). Sauroposeidon is known only from its immense cervical vertebrae, two of which are depicted in the adjacent image (provided courtesy of Matt). A fuller description, with tons of new data, was published later in the year in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica (Wedel et al. 2000b: pdf also available - go here).

When Matt and I started corresponding I didn't even know of the existence of MIWG.7306: Matt was contacting me as he was curious as to whether there might be any evidence for giant Sauroposeidon-like brachiosaurids in the British Wealden Supergroup. I was therefore very excited when, one day in the summer of 2000, I was able to tell him about my first viewing of MIWG.7306 at David’s house. David had been comparing MIWG.7306 with Janensch’s figures of Brachiosaurus, and while this was still entirely appropriate, I figured that, because Sauroposeidon was closer in age to MIWG.7306 than was Brachiosaurus, MIWG.7306 might prove to be more like it than was Brachiosaurus.

In between other projects (including papers on Eotyrannus, Aristosuchus and Thecocoelurus), I really got to work on the MIWG.7306 paper during 2001, and visited the specimen several more times. While it was obvious which end was which on MIWG.7306, that’s about all that was obvious. The thing was a complex mess of bony laminae and concavities (termed fossae), few of which were symmetrical when you compared the two sides. Massive ventrolaterally projecting flanges projected from the bottom surface of the specimen: they were highly similar to the hypertrophied centroparapophyseal laminae regarded by Wedel et al. (2000a) as diagnostic for Sauroposeidon. My notes and sketches were a complete mess, as every time I looked at the specimen I ended up reinterpreting my previous identifications.

Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight was finished during May 2001, and a brief comment on MIWG.7306 was added to the sauropod section (Naish & Martill 2001, p. 212). Copies of the book arrived from the Palaeontological Association (the publishers) on 11th July 2001 (the same day that I attended an [unsuccessful] job interview on the Isle of Wight), and at the time I thought that – excepting that brief mention in ‘Anon. undated’ – this was the first time the specimen had made it into print. How wrong I was – but more on that later.

Completion of the manuscript came slowly, and not until the very end of 2001 was I able to finish the figures. The final manuscript – listing myself, Dave Martill and David Cooper as co-authors – was technically submitted to the chosen journal, Cretaceous Research, in February 2002. Why chose Cretaceous Reseach, when a journal devoted to vertebrate palaeontology might seem like a more obvious choice? The answer is that the BBC series Live from Dinosaur Island was screened in June 2001, and that the production of a special issue of Cretaceous Research – devoted entirely to Isle of Wight palaeontology – had been agreed on as a sort of spin-off of the series. A space within that issue was sort of 'booked' for the MIWG.7306 paper.

For various reasons, that special volume never materialised, and the MIWG.7306 manuscript was shelved for what seemed like an eternity, plus the handling editor (who, I should note, was not anyone on the current editorial staff of Cretaceous Reseach) managed to lose the original figures of the manuscript. Don’t forget that this was in the days before digital submission, so the figures were the original photographs.

And I’ll have to stop there, apologies if you’re bored to tears. Part II will follow next (unless hoardes of blog readers object and insist that I go back to sea snakes). .. it's now available, click here.

Refs - -

Anon. Undated. The discovery of the island’s largest dinosaur. Dinosaur Farm Museum (Brighstone, Isle of Wight).

Hutt, S., Naish, D., Martill, D. M., Barker, M. J. & Newbery, P. 2001. A preliminary account of a new tyrannosauroid theropod from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous) of southern England. Cretaceous Research 22, 227-242.

Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. 2001. Saurischian dinosaurs 1: Sauropods. In Martill, D. M. & Naish, D. (eds) Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. The Palaeontological Association (London), pp. 185-241.

Taylor, M. P. & Naish, D. 2005. The phylogenetic taxonomy of Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda). PaleoBios 25, 1-7.

Wedel, M. P., Cifelli, R. L. & Sanders, R. K. 2000a. Sauroposeidon proteles, a new sauropod from the Early Cretaceous of Oklahoma. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 20, 109-114.

- ., Cifelli, R. L. & Sanders, R. K. 2000b. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45, 343-388.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Darren
I just wondered if the David Cooper you mention used to work at the prison medical officer. If so could you email me as I'm trying to get hold of him for a documentary I'm involved in. Thanks Nadia - my email is

2:27 PM  

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