A Q&A to the Diplodocus degree: HMNS skeletons still inspire after 110 years

Editor’s Note: Sometimes, you ask us questions on Facebook or Twitter that require a bit more than just a pithy response. So .. we wrangle the experts to get to the heart of the matter for you. You’re welcome.

Q: A write-up on another Diplodocus says that the forelimbs and hands on all the Carnegie casts are all based on a Diplodocus specimen from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Is this the one known as “Dipsy,” first mounted in 1975? Or a different one? There’s a reference online to one excavated in 1902, but again, I don’t know if this is the same specimen. -Andrew Armstrong

bob.bakkerA: Yes indeed, our Dipsy has unusually fine feet.

Our skeleton is a composite of the two famous ones dug by Utterback near Hole in the Wall, Red Fork of the Powder River, Wyoming, way back in 1902-1903. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had their secret camp not far away. The Dipsy Duo skeletons were originally numbered as 307 and 662 in the Carnegie Museum catalog.

Not only are the forefeet and hind feet quite splendid, but the braincase — the biggest, most complicated unit in the entire skull — is still the most perfect one for all diplodocines. Matt Mossbrucker at the Morrison Museum and I are publishing a paper using the Dipsy Duo to re-think how long-necked dinos used their heads.

Here’s a close-up of our braincase, set on the first two neck vertebrae:

jm_dippy_carn_art_bcase-axis

And a shot of the excellent Denver skeleton with our entire neck and head, so you can see the proportions of skull and cervical vertebrae:

jm_dippy_carn_grey_neck_dnvr

Stay tuned: the Dipsy Duo head and neck are about to start a Diplodocus Renaissance.

-Dr. Bob Bakker

Nota bene: As of September 2013, our darling Dipsy the Diplodocus has been de-installed and is currently on vacation in Black Hills, being cleaned and repositioned. She will return to us and take up permanent residence in our Morian Hall of Paleontology in the next year or so.

Forty years after Dipsy’s unveiling, original welder John Barber is back to watch her disassembly

There’s no sweeter story than that of a boy and his … dinosaur?

In February of 1973, 24-year-old John Barber was just out of art school in Virginia, having barely missed the draft and with no idea what to do with himself. He was visiting an aunt and uncle in Houston when he paid a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science — and happened upon a scene that would change his life.

“There was a large wooden platform raked at an angle, and a lot of large bones laid out in some kind of order. I walked around it a couple of times and realized that they were apparently going to assemble a big dinosaur,” Barber says. “I thought, holy cow!”

Having earned a fine arts degree in sculpture — and worked his way through school as a welder — Barber asked to speak to then-curator Dwayne Hicks to see if he might make himself useful. They reviewed his skills and 20 minutes later, Barber, now 64, left with a job.

Barber estimates he was making about $525 a month in those days. “I arrived in Houston with a small valise, a box of Magic Markers and a cardboard tube of drawing paper.”

Forty years later, Barber is back at HMNS supervising Dipsy’s de-installation. He paused to chat with us about his own history with Houston’s best-loved dinosaur and how it feels to see her come down.

Twenty years after their first meeting, John Barber is back to bid farewell to Dipsy
Barber poses with Dipsy during her de-installation

When Barber first began work on Dipsy’s armature, 18 months of bone preparation had already been completed. For non-sculptors, an “armature” refers to the steel support that, in this case, took the place of cartilage and muscles that would have supported Dipsy’s skeleton in life. The objective, Barber says, was to make the support as unobtrusive as possible so the public would view the maximum amount of dinosaur bone and minimum steel support. His mentor, Dr. Wann Langston, used to joke, “If you do your work right, no one will ever see it.”

By 1975, Dipsy was revealed to the general public.

via Pinterest

“We worked on that mount for almost two years,” Barber says. “Some people got upset that it took so long, but Dr. Langston was old school. His main interest in the mount was the feet. The reason our Diplodocus is mounted moving up a slope has to do with how the feet and legs were able to support that 30-ton mass going up a grade.”

via Pinterest

In life, Dipsy would have weighed the equivalent of two tractor trailers stacked on top of one another. Even her skeleton is heavy enough that it required 250-pound, 8-inch I-beams for support, laid across two pieces of railroad track that are concealed in her base.

Barber remained in the Museum exhibit business — and in Houston — for the next 25 years, only more recently deciding to devote his full attention back to (more traditional) sculpture. His sheet metal sculptures of Gulf Coast wildlife are shown at galleries throughout the region and online at johnbarber.com.

“As we approach the task of disassembling the Diplodocus some 40 years since I started working on it, I find myself contemplating the issue of time — how 40 years is the working life of a man, but for a fossil specimen is but a moment. I feel that I have an obligation to that specimen; it changed the course of my life in a profound manner, and brought me into a line of work that I found artistically fulfilling and intellectually satisfying. How much more can a man ask for in life?”

Have your own special memory of Dipsy? Post it here in the comments or share it with us on Facebook!

Bakker blogs: Indiana Dipsy & the Temple of More Room — A fascinating tail of surprise

Here’s the poster (as I see it) for the latest episode in the long-running Indiana Jones franchise, with Harrison Ford playing Diplodocus playing Indiana Jones.

Before you object to its realism, Harrison is not too old; our Dipsy will be, after all, 148  million, 345 thousand and 77 years old on a Thursday in November.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Indiana Dippy Thwarts a Gang of Cut-Throat allosaurs
along the Red Fork of the Powder River.

Actually, the art is from Dr. Bob’s favorite book from the fourth grade, So Long Ago, by E. Boyd Smith, published 70 years ago. According to the book, the great whip-fighter is supposed to be a Brontosaurus, but our Diplodocus would be very similar, just skinnier around the middle. So Long Ago is hard to find but worth the effort.

For his role as the Professor-Dipsy, Ford will have to be fitted with a prosthetic neck (his is short by nine vertebrae) and we will have to insert an animatronic bull whip to his derrière, in classic Diplodocus style. We’ll have to contact his agent, but we’re sure he won’t mind.

Opening scene: The tortuous canyons around Hole in the Wall, Wyoming, where the Red Fork of the Powder River cuts steep gorges and box canyons that confuse lawmen and tourists. Jones is investigating rumors of a cache of antique gold coins stolen by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Their gang stopped the Union Pacific Railroad Express train, blew open the safe, and absconded with the relics, plus cash. (That really did happen.)

We see Indiana Dipsy following the miscreants’ trail up the dry wash. Meanwhile, hiding in the rocks a hundred feet above are the scaly heads of allosaur outlaws, who lick their thin lizard-lips in anticipation of an ambush. “This’ll be easy…” they think as they evaluate the weapons carried by the Dipsy. “Weak jaws, wussy thin teeth…he can’t bite back.”

“Whooop whooop!”  Down they come, a dozen hardened criminals, armed with saw-edged knives in their mouths. It looks like Indy-Dipsy can’t possibly escape.

“Wwwwwwwwffffffffft  WHAM!” Our hero lashes out with his whip tail, catching the nearest brigand around the throat. “Yank-thud”: The would-be bushwhacker gets toppled. Now our Indiana Dipsy clambers up the canyon wall, deftly hopping from one boulder to another.

“Haha!” He yells derisively, “You thought you had me cornered. Bet you didn’t know that I was born right here in Hole in the Wall!”

The tail sweeps right and left. Up and down. Desperado-allosaurs get flipped and tossed, smacked along their muzzles, tumbled under boulders and rolled down by the dancing Diplodocus.

“I grew up here. I know every niche and cavern. I played with the young Sheriff Bill Utterback all over these rocks!”

***

Gripping, right?  And, as they say in Hollywood, “Based on a true story.” Our very own HMNS Diplodocus did, in fact, come from the Red Fork of the Powder River, from an outcrop of red and green mudstone just a stone’s throw away from Hole in the Wall. Plus, the Red Fork Dipsy was a champion tail-fighter who could whip a score of opponents all at once. His trainer in tail-martial arts was W. H. Utterback from the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

Bill Utterback — The “Redoubtable Utterback” as he was known back then, was already a famous Frontier Dino-Hunter when he penetrated the badlands of the Red Fork in 1902 and 1903. He had scored an entirely new kind of long-necked dinosaurian monster at Canon City, Colorado, the site of the new Federal Penitentiary. Canon City and Boulder had fought over who was going to get the state university and who was going to get the prison. (Boulder lost.)

Utterback’s Canon City finds became Haplocanthosaurus, an herbivore with anatomical features that contrast with those of Dipsies . Haplos have stubby, thin tails and very long front legs, resemblances to the ginormous Brachiosaurus. Go to the Cleveland Museum to see an excellent Haplo — one of eleven great reasons to visit that city. (The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is reason #7.)

Haplos were part of the “Bite-Back” group of long-necked vegetarians, a clan that includes the very common camarasaurs. Jaw muscles were large, by herbivore standards, and the front teeth were immense. These were no timid dinosaurian Bambis. They could crunch down on unwary carnivores. It’s very interesting that the Bite-Back species had much stronger jaws than did Dipsies, but far weaker tails.

Here’s an angry camarasaur running down a terrified baby allosaur.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Though Haplos were intriguing to scholars, the real star of the Jurassic at the time was Diplodocus and its kin, creatures with weak muzzles, extraordinarily elongated necks and rumps of massive construction. The Pittsburgh crew had already scored a pair of fine Diplodocus along Sheep Creek, Wyoming, in the 1890’s. The New York museum got a super rump and tail from Como Bluff, Wyoming about the same time.

Here’s the New York view of Dipsy: Note that the beast is standing tripod-fashion, using the mightily muscled tail as the center leg. Why is the lab guy hitting the dino with a chisel?  I haven’t a clue.

Note where the tail meets the ground:

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

***

New York became the center of Dipsy-ology when, beginning in 1899, they exhumed a half-dozen skeletons at Bone Cabin Quarry just north of Como.

So, when Utterback arrived at Hole in the Wall in ’02, an entire posse of Diplodocus had been dug up at a half dozen spots. Skulls, necks, shoulders, torsos, rumps, feet were well represented. Andrew Carnegie, who footed the bill for the  Pittsburgh expeditions, was immensely pleased with the results. The bone-hunters honored their benefactor by naming the Pittsburgh species Diplodocus carnegiei, which became the most famous Dipsy species, a status it still retains today. Dipsy-specialists felt self-satisfied too. They were sure they understood every compartment of the Diplodocus body form.

They were wrong.

Dipsy tails were the problem, but no one suspected that there was a caudal flaw in all the reconstructions. Dipsy tails were powerful near the hips and then tapered down to a blunt point, in the manner of a croc tail, or so everybody thought. That’s the way all the plaster copies of Carnegie’s Dipsy were mounted in Berlin, in London, in Vienna, and many other spots.

Check out this gorgeous anatomical drawing of the New York Dipsy: Note how the artist showed the termination of the tail. The diagram fibs a bit — New York crews had not actually found the final tail vertebra.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Then came Utterback. He explored Hole in the Wall and found our Dipsy, a rather delicate-looking individual. Excellent portions of neck, torso, limbs — and tail. This skeleton would be named Diplodocus hayi and would eventually come to Houston. The base of the tail was standard Diplodocus: thick where it attached to the hips, thinning down until it reached where it should stop, according to all the brightest and best among Jurassic dino-thinks. But it didn’t stop! The Hole in the Wall Dippy tail kept going and going and getting thinner and thinner and losing all the normal prongs of bones for joints and muscles that normal vertebrae have. At about vertebra number 40, counting from the hips, the tail bones became so thin they looked like nunchucks, those rods of wood martial-arts fellows like to swing around. The nunchucks then continued for another 20 vertebrae or more. When Utterback got to the last vertebrae preserved in the series, he was sure there had been more in the living animal, because dino tails end in a short half-vert, with a pointy rear end. Utterback’s tail terminated in another long nunchuck that must have connected with at least one more, to mark the extreme finality of the caudal organ.

Look at this fine anatomical diagram of Utterback’s tail tip. The entire intact Dipsy tail was longer than the neck and body put together. The last 30 feet of tail looked like an enormous bull-whip.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Even the veteran Carnegie Museum folks were flummoxed by this, although there had been hints of a nunchuck-tail one English Jurassic dino. Utterback’s discovery forced all the museums to re-boot their tail diagrams.  Inside museum drawers from old digs they found nunchucks that had been mingled with Diplodocus bones. The scientists just hadn’t paid enough attention to these strange bones. New excavations in Utah backed up Utterback. Skeletons of Dipsies and their close kin, the apatosaurs, revealed complete tails. Every one had the same arrangement seen in the Hole in the Wall specimen. Clearly all the Dipsy tails in all the exhibits and textbooks had to be changed. In a few years, it was clear that Dipsies were not alone in carrying the multiple nunchuck device. Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus*, extra-massive fellows with the same basic proportions of Diplodocus, were equipped with the super-whip too.

There still was one more major correction that needed to be made in how the tail was restored. The Carnegie folks made the tail droop down  from the hips, like this:

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

The droopy reconstruction forced the tail to lie along the ground for most of its length. Problem: trackways proved that Dipsy-type dinos moved in big herds. Wouldn’t the tails get stepped on?  At the Smithsonian, dino-sleuth C. W. Gilmore scrutinized the joint where tail met the hips. The droopy arrangement had to be wrong, way wrong, because the joint on the back of the hips didn’t match the joint on the front of the tail. When he rearranged the bones correctly in his Dipsy, Gilmore was delighted to see that the tail didn’t droop at all. Instead the tail rose up and out from the hips and then made a long, slow descent. The widely arching tail made much more anatomical sense — and it looked infinitely cooler.

Clearly the whip-tailed dinos carried their tail high off the ground, where it wouldn’t be stepped on and where it was ready to lash out. And here is the elegant result: the Dipsy at Denver, re-mounted a la Gilmore. Now the tail didn’t drag.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Your Curator, Dr. Bob, wrote his first scientific paper as a geeky undergrad on how Dipsy tails never dragged.

The whip-tailed giants of the Jurassic were obviously designed for some serious martial arts, nunchuck-wise. The long thin bones in the tail tip would have been surrounded by a sheath of flexible skin and ligaments. When the huge muscles in the tail-base twitched, the lightweight tail tip would go slashing at high speed. Estimates go to 700 mph and beyond. You could hear the Dipsy tail cracking like a whip. As a weapon, it was unique among dinosaurs. Only Dipsies and the related families used multi-nunchucks to trip their enemies and lash their foes. Whip-tails were most diverse in the Late Jurassic, but some survived into the next Period, the Cretaceous. The very last whip-tail was the magnificent Alamosaurus of the Late Cretaceous. The Perot Museum in Dallas has a fine reconstructed skeleton, tail held high.

You can see a bunch of whip-tailed dinos on display all over the world. But remember, it all started with our Houston Dipsy and the careful digging of Bill Utterback. Which is the best whip-tail display? OURS! Because the tail is actually whipping around, coiled on the right, ready to swing fast to the left.

*There’s a lot of confusion about these two genera, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus. Most dino-scholars put the Bronto species into the genus Apatosaurus. Your Curator, Dr. B., and Matt Mossbrucker, the Director of the Morrison Museum in Morrison, Colorado, are studying new specimens of giant whip-tails from the Jurassic; we’re giving a paper at the big Geological Society of America conference in late October. Our conclusions: The species Brontosaurus excelsus and Apatosaurus ajax were related but turn out to be far more distinct than we had thought. It has not escaped our notice that these new specimens might force us to re-appraise the status of Brontosaurus.