Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Species that don't get publicity #3: Barosaurus lentus

Some dinosaurs are just unlucky. Take this week’s species;  while it’s part of the richest fauna of its age and continent, it’s overshadowed by the other members of its family. It’s huge, but smaller than the others. It’s featured at the American Museum of Natural History, but plays second banana to the older mounts. It was once famous for being intercontinental, but turns out the African species has its own genus.  It’s headless and footless so far.  What does it have in terms of unique features, however, is a giant neck and an example of sauropod diversity at their height.

We’re talking about Barosaurus. Barosaurus has one species now, B. lentus, known from Utah and South Dakota in the USA.  It was discovered by one of the many fossil-finding teams of Othniel C Marsh in their coverage of the Morrison Formation. This formation gives us our classic North American dinosaurs, as I’ve mentioned before: Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Ornitholestes, Brachiosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Camarosaurus, Camptosaurus and many, many more.   Indeed, it’s very similar in form to its close kin Diplodocus and Apatosaurus.  The skull has never been found, but the rest of the body is so similar to Diplodocus it’s easy to reconstruct it as similar to Diplodocus

What makes Barosaurus interesting? Well, I said something about a neck earlier. Well, for one it has one more cervical vertebra (neck bones) than Diplodocus or Apatosaurus, and each one is longer than those of the said sauropods.   The neck bones are wider as well, overall giving the animal a very big neck, about 30 feet long (second only to Mamenchisaurus) and at some places 28 inches in width.  Now this is interesting in terms of biology.  Right now, Michael Taylor and Matthew Wedel are doing a paper on Barosaurus necks that can be found in its rough draft here

Their conclusion is that Barosaurus had very limited motion in its neck vertically but a lot of range horizontally. Another paper by Taylor and Wedel  (and Darren Naish) showed that most sauropods had a wide range of motion for their neck, and that Diplodocus and Apatosaurus could comfortably raise their necks to feed on high growth. These two findings suggest that Barosaurus had a separate niche than the other two diplodocid genera-specializing in feeding on low growth, sweeping its neck from side to side.
 Now, this is just speculation on my part, and is not considering bipedal feeding. 

Speaking of bipedalism and speculation, most people have seen or known about Barosaurus from a dynamic mount in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The mount is located at the Roosevelt Rotunda, far away from the other dinosaurs. However, unlike the fairly static poses of the other mounts (more on that later when I get to my American Museum article), this one exploits the room and shows a prehistoric battle. A Barosaurus mother rears on her hind legs, protecting her offspring (behind her) from a marauding Allosaurus. The behavior and even the physical capability of a Barosaurus to rear up are still being disputed, but not outside the realm of possibility and make for a great scene.

Aside from New York, Toronto, and Dinosaur National Monument, you can find Barosaurus in the pages of dinosaur encylopedias and more general books. Since Barosaurus is rarer and more incomplete than Diplodocus or Apatosaurus, it’s less well known and never seen in any film or documentary.  Only a few artists have tackled it; John Gurche has only to illustrate the American Museum mount.  And, to be fair, other than its super-neck, there’s not much interesting about this sauropod. You can remember it two ways- the diplodocid with the big neck, or the Morrison diplodocid that’s neither Apatosaurus nor Diplodocus.  I bring it up out of pity rather than any particular fascination. Poor Barosaurus gets no chance.  I'm barely doing a real article on it simply because there's not much to say

So anyway,  Hollywood, give this guy a break. Museums, keep him on display and I suggest Carnegie find room for the holotype. Toy companies, here’s a new fresh face. Authors,  think about the crap you’re writing and how this genus could perk up the place. And remember, shop Barosaurus where you work or play.

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