Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Several years ago, I was fortunate to be asked to helm the scientific description of Jane, a very complete skull and skeleton of a subadult tyrannosaurid found in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana by the Burpee Natural History Museum (Rockford, IL). That project is presently winding down, where I have only the ribs, gastralia, and hemal arches to write up, in addition to other loose threads.
Following the model of H. R. Giger’s posthumously published Alien Diaries, I will document the closing stages of the Jane monograph in the style of a summative journal on the days I push that work forward. State abbreviations (e.g, AK, NY, WY) are used instead of people’s names to preserve their anonymity. Since this diary pertains to a research project that is in progress, new data and anatomical description are excluded from the narrative. It is my hope that some of you will take an interest in reading about how such a project is undertaken, and that this inside account will satisfy your curiosity.

Today’s view of the Jane monograph upon wrapping up for the day: a pair of cervical ribs that will be in a holding pattern for a week.
Tuesday September 30, 2014
A two-hour drive from Kenosha to the Burpee Museum; arrived shortly after 10 am. Once in collections, I first measured the height of the spinous process of each cervical vertebra from the dorsum of the laminae so that I can compare this specimen with the ratio of character 212 in Brusatte et al. (2010). I only measured the height from the ceiling of the vertebral canal during a previous visit; I take up to 41 measurements for each vertebra, but that doesn’t always capture everything. WI and I went to the gallery to remove the cervical ribs from the mounted skeleton; I photographed the ribs in position before WI removed them; I left with one in hand while WI removed the rest.
Back in collections I worked on describing the new rib – I wrote up three last Tuesday – until WI brought down the rest; I then put the nine ribs in their correct sequence. All of the cervical ribs were found associated with the skeleton, but detached from the vertebrae, so I do not know which vertebrae they belong to. However, working out the correct sequence was straightforward. Several ribs are still upstairs because they are fixed to the mount, so I will have to write those up while standing in the display!
IL stopped by briefly and I raised the possibility that our respective institutions might get some publicity out of this formative stage of the monograph, instead of waiting for its publication to take action. We discussed the possibility of a documentary to follow up on the one about the discovery and collection of the skeleton – Jane the Mystery Dinosaur - that was done in 2006. It is just an idea at this stage and a tangible plan is required for it to get anywhere.
After that, I labeled each rib with post it notes, marked with their relative sequence; there is only one set of duplicates (i.e., a matching left and right bone of the same anteroposterior sequence). I found that the posteriormost cervical rib on the right side was on the mount inside out and upside down; it will be an easy fix for WI when it goes back on display. After establishing the sequence I finished writing up the anteriormost rib in time for lunch.
Following lunch, a meeting with OH and IL regarding next summer’s field season ate up of much of the afternoon, but it was worth the investment of time for solving many of our field logistics this far in advance. I was left with a relatively short amount of time to start on the description of the paired ribs before I had to leave, but I managed to give the general description, the primary dimensions, the lateral surface of the expanded anterior region, and a good start on the tuberculum.
This skeleton sometimes seems endless, even this close to the end, but there’s always aspects of its morphology – even in cervical ribs – that are new and exciting that give me the incentivizing thrill to keep going forward. I get to see the transformation of serially homologous features from one rib to the next; this opportunity gives me a better understanding of the nature of some features, such as the various forms taken by the cranial process along the cervical series. After I notice such things, the following week seems to be a long, long way off and snapping off the twig of the day’s task takes great strength.
Oh yes – as of today, the manuscript is 350 pages long and there are 173 pages of tables of measurements.
References cited
Brusatte, S. L., M. A. Norell, T. D. Carr, G. M. Erickson, J. R. Hutchinson, A. M. Balanoff, G. B. Bever, J. N. Choiniere, P. J. Makovocky, & X. Xu. 2010. Tyrannosaur paleobiology: new research on ancient exemplar organisms. Science 329:1481.
Giger, H. R. 2014. The Alien Diaries. Section 9 Entertainment: 660 pp.


  1. "I take up to 41 measurements for each vertebra, but that doesn’t always capture everything."

    Almost anything's better than Brochu's (2003) Sue monograph when it comes to measurements. The one measurement he provides for postaxial presacrals? Dorsoventral height. :| Why would that ever be chosen over central length? The caudals don't even get measured.

    "Several ribs are still upstairs because they are fixed to the mount, so I will have to write those up while standing in the display!"

    It's not like they have world experts on tyrannosaurs writing up a monograph of the material or anything. I mean, it'd take work to take them off the mount.... :| Maybe museum resources are in a far worse state than I imagine, but you'd think the one time the curators would disassemble mounts would be when their specimen is being initially described or redescribed. There's no better time.

  2. Hi Mickey – I’m sure plenty of holes will be found when this work is published that are presently invisible to me.

    With regard to the ribs, the issue is with the mount itself – even though it is constructed as a rack, where bones can be removed separately, in only a few areas this has proven impossible. It certainly hasn’t been without the earnest effort of museum staff to free them; the mount is simply too difficult in some areas to remove bones because they are either fixed in place or removal would damage them. In fact, this is the first time that the skeleton has been so extensively disassembled for research, so we are all on the learning curve regarding the armature.

    Regardless, the access I’ve had to Jane (and other fossils) at the Burpee Museum, and the courtesy with which I’ve been treated there, ranks with the best museum collections I’ve had the privilege of visiting, including the AMNH, CMN, FMNH, MOR, NMMNH, ROM, RSM, SDSM, and others. I can assure you that the Burpee Museum staff take this project very seriously and are making great accommodations to see that it happens.