Wanting some lively company for lunch on a recent trip to the east coast, I dug up good old Charles Gilmore (pictured above) and got him to arrange a meeting along with John Bell Hatcher, Carl Wiman, and Werner Ernst Martin Janensch, for some straight talk about sauropod necks.

Recall that Hatcher's Diplodocus and Gilmore's Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus all had necks that were straight at their base, while over in Europe, Wiman's Euhelopus and Janensch's Brachiosaurus were giraffe-like, with necks that pointed skyward starting from a sharp bend at the base of the neck, despite the fact that the fossilized vertebrae gave no evidence that they were titanic giraffes. Hence the lunch conversation, transcribed, word-for-word, just as it happened.

Me: "Charles! John! good to see you. Thanks for going to the effort to meet. And Carl, Werner, thanks for coming such a long way."
Others: [assorted head nods and rumbling noises of acknowledgment, clinking of glasses]
Me: Hey, Charlie to start, I've really wanted to ask you a few questions (and you're okay with "Charlie", right?)"
Gilmore: "Friends call me Chuck."
"Um, okay, I'd like your take on how sauropods are viewed now compared to when you were first working on them. I want to start with you because your reconstruction of Apatosaurus had the back blend straight into the base of the neck without any curve. What do you think now? Here's one of your old pictures to remind you.
Gilmore: "Yeah, quite a long neck to stick onto the front end of that body. Especially since the vertebrae just wanted to fit together straight-like. Like the line from 'Fargo', I guess 'he was kind of funny looking'".
Hatcher: [pausing to swallow] "in what way?"
Gilmore: "I don't know. Just funny looking. [chuckles from John, who appreciation the literary allusion]. Maybe it looked strange to have that long neck just hanging out in front of the body, yeah. That it's fine to imagine the head out in front for a lizard or an anteater, but for something this big, that looked ridiculous. So there was social pressure to raise that head up. Cartoons and such. Then things get weird after some point with the toy makers. I mean, we don't have anything like these guys now, I mean, very, very large herbivores with very, long necks where the necks stick straight out pretty much horizontally. Nothing like it on that scale. Same with Camarasaurus, oh, and your Diplodocus, John... the back was probably straighter than you made it out to be, also."
Hatcher: [caught with another mouthful] "hummmfp... you're probably right, Chuck. My reconstruction always looked a bit too much like a circus elephant around the middle part, I'll admit."
Me: "Thanks guys. So, if there were less arch to the back and the pectoral girdles were lower on the ribcage, that would make the top of the back pretty much horizontal. And the neck about straight out horizontal at the base. You okay with that? "
Gilmore: "The bones kinda want to go that way, don't they? Right Johnny?"
Hatcher: "[mouth again full] "mmumph. Yep"
Me: "And how about Camarasaurus then? I mean the juvenile with the kinked up neck.
Gilmore: Ah, don't worry about the neck. It was just pulled way back after death,... the whole thing was twisted up, and we're lucky it was still pretty much articulated. I must admit it looked pretty dopey with the neck hanging out there, so I rather preferred giving it a bit of a raised head, to make it a bit more perky.
Me: "And you've seen what some artists have done with that since your time, right?"
Gilmore: "Yes, they've bent the thing all out of whack, ... made it look like a swan neck. That was a dead animal, you know."
"Kind of like your reconstruction of Euhelopus, right, Carl? Did you ever notice that you made the life pose precisely the same as the death pose it was found in? Here, look at your illustrations to refresh your memory."
Carl: "Ya, but I never thought about it much because I expected the neck to bend upward. And now, looking back, please, cut me some slack. We were thinking swamp creatures at the time, remember. Some of my colleagues didn't even believe they could walk standing up, so maybe those long necks were snorkels and they hung out in the water. The idea that they walked around on dry land with their necks just sticking straight out in front was maybe OK for you guys, Chuck and John, but I didn't see it that way."
Me: "Now that the sauropods are out of the water, do you still think this (or any other) sauropod went around with it head up in the air?
Wiman and Janensch: [the two simultaneously jump up from the table taunting] "If bunnies do it, then sauropods did too! Naaaagh Naaaaagh Naaaagh!!!"
Gilmore Oh, my, my head hurts. John, they are at it again. Please gentlemen, I am going to get indigestion.
Me: "I'm not sure what's going on. Bunnies? Anyway, Carl and Werner, please sit down. It's fine. Everything is fine. Please finish your lunches. And let's forget about bunnies. But since I've got you here, I would like to ask, ... and it's been so such a long time since the Berlin Brachiosaurus was erected, and politics and science have changed, and, well, you can now look back on things more dispassionately, ... just why were its posterior cervicals made so wedge shaped? The actual fossils in the basement were all pretty much laid out straight and flat in one block, as it was found, right, with not a sign of a wedge to be seen, right?"
Janensch: "Well, you need to remember what was going on in Berlin back in 1939. I was under some pressure, from [lowering his voice] very high in the government to make my specimen, shall we say very special. I didn't want to risk sticking my neck out. So we went up, instead, if you know know what I mean. And anyway, there was a lot of ceiling height in the exhibition hall."
Gilmore: "But Werner, come on, with those tall forelimbs, you guys already had the tallest sauropod, even if not the longest. "
Hatcher: "Yeah, mine was longer! [chortling, trailing off to unintelligible mumbling]"
Janensch: [ignoring Hatcher] "But you know, I've not been back there for so long. They must have renovated my old Brachiosaurus mount by now, and I bet that exaggerated giraffe-like neck is history, right?" Looked impressive, though. Too bad it wasn't real.
Me: "Ummm, changing the subject, did any of you gentlemen foresee just how iconic the sauropods you described would become? The public still sees them in much the same way as you originally depicted them. If you could see the real sauropods alive now, how would they look, as behaving animals, not as skeletal mounts? Let me start with you, John."
Hatcher: "I think I have actually had it easiest of the four of us. Diplodocus had instant appeal, what with that slender body, long tail, and elegant neck. Something for everyone, and we did not even have pressure from the marketing folk upstairs. This guy had star quality from the beginning: noble and dignified and definitely enough dinosaur for anyone's imagination. It looks even more dignified with the head raised a bit (even if is really just to keep it out of reach of the little kids that visit the museums). Oh, and I've seen now that several museums have remounting their Diplodocus skeletons with a horizontal and straight back, and that makes the neck extend out from the shoulders in a way that is even more dignified than the downslope I gave it. But some artists still want the head raised, as part of its behavior. That's another matter. What do you think, Chuck?"
Gilmore: "I agree, Johnny. I've always liked Diplodocus because it looks a bit more graceful and elegant. But when Apatosaurus is also given the newer interpretation of the body plan ... you know, with its horizontal back and big beefy (can I say 'beefy' when talking about sauropods?) pectoral girdles, wow, it's like Johnny's Diplodocus on steroids. It's way more elegant looking than when it appeared as an oversized elephant with an arched back."
Wiman: "Excuse me, gentlemen, but I can't help but notice the superlatives you use to describe your dinosaurs. My modest Euhelopus just cannot compete. Yes it's was found, shall we say in situ in flagrante delicto, impressively straight and erect, but in it's normal life I was told it might have been a rather modest low-browser, if truth be known."
[others] "Carl, no. Don't beat yourself up over this. Your Euhelopus is lovely, if modest. Be proud of it. Many would be happy to have such an outstanding member, of the sauropoda. "
Me: "Which reminds me, did anyone notice that the type specimen of Opisthocoelicaudia has no neck? And yet some artists give it an erect, swan-like neck?"
Hatcher: "Ridiculous. Why assume that? The rest of the body looked pretty much like a titanosaur, right? Do those artists have certain issues?"
Gilmore: "Huh? A swan-neck? Aren't we past that by now?"
Janensch: "But use your imagination. It just looks right, yes? Or is it just me?
Wiman: "Well, I agree; there's something about tradition. Sauropods just should have swan necks, even if the evidence is missing."
Me: "Thanks gentlemen. We have got to meet again. More to discuss. I'll leave you with a riddle: how is a sauropod like a tiny bunny?"

Copyright © 2011 Kent A. Stevens, University of Oregon Page Counter