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Giraffatitan's head is just WEIRD.

July 22 , 2016

by Nima

The Jurassic weirdness continues!

The last post on Giraffatitan focused on the torso, and how it had often been inaccurately restored. But I didn't appreciate just how strange this animal's spine was until I got down to business, and started articulating images of the bones to see exactly how the centra and zygapohyses actually fit together. In the process I discovered that the actual 12th dorsal, though published by Werner Janensch in his 1950 monograph, was never scaled or reproduced in the mounted skeleton, nor was it used by any of the previous artists who had done skeletals of Giraffatitan. Greg Paul, Scott Hartman, Stephen Czerkas and or course (ironically) Janensch himself had left it out of their full-body skeletals. In addition it appears that they all changed the bizarre proportions of dorsal 9 - which has a relatively compact neural arch but a hugely elongated centrum - in order to make it fit in sequence such that the spine was more or less straight. But D9 (as heavily restored in plaster by Janensch anyway) has to be tilted upwards by around 40 degrees in order to have the short hyposphene reach far back enough to properly lock into place with D10, which indicates that their angle of articulation is anything but straight, and that D9 probably fits into the dorsal column like an upward-pointing wedge of sorts.

The result is a bizarre double-kink in the lower dorsals which both reinforces the lower back and makes the torso shorter and more compact. The fact that D10's centrum (again, going off of Janensch's restoration) has a condyle that is tilted up and back further reinforces this tilted angle of articulation demanded by the hyposphene of D9, as does the resulting snug fit of the neural spines of D9 and D10, without an excessive gap between them. Oddly Janensch doesn't carry over the weird shapes of both bones to his own full-body skeletal, though he does illustrate them individually in his paper, odd shapes and all, just it as his team restored them.

But this is far from the only strange thing about Giraffatitan that has been overlooked for decades.
Nearly every part of its body turned out to have unexpected features not included in ANY previous restorations. And one of the most commonly oversimplified, blurred, or just flat-out distorted parts in many restorations is... the head.

That's right, Giraffatitan's head is truly weird. A marvel of natural engineering and stress distribution through struts that in some places appear thinner than a human finger. The skull was light and hollow, yet could get up to a meter long (estimated size for adult individuals such as HMN XV2). And yet it was packed with big teeth resembling a cross between spoons and railroad spikes, built to crunch through hard branches high in the ancient conifers.

As you can see in the above picture, the skull is partially reconstructed with plaster, including one of the eye struts and the region just below the base of the nasal crest.

But there are in fact four skulls in existence. At least that is how many Janensch mentioned.

Three of them are missing a great deal of material, but the most well-known one, HMN t1, is nearly complete. We know this skull very well. Anyone who has seen photos of the Berlin mounted specimen (mostly based on HMN SII) has also probably seen this t1 skull, which is actually from a smaller individual. A scaled up cast of this skull was mounted on the skeleton itself in 2007, replacing an older crude sculpted skull.

The skull you see at the feet (or rather hands) of the Giraffatitan in these photos is actually only a cast of HMN t1. The real skull is stored in a museum vault and is (supposedly) off limits to the public.

Now at one point this face was cute.

Then it got fossilized and crushed. A few pieces such as the upper part of the eye socket are missing or broken. The upper jaw is partially collapsed in the middle, causing the sides of the maxillae to turn up and flare out. The sides of the jaws are thus artificially bowed out sideways. This led Dr. Matt Wedel to comment that it looks like a toilet seat today. Honestly I feel sorry for this poor creature. But sauropod skulls being delicate and easily smushed is a fact of life. Some of them had such loose connections between the skull bones that they actually dislocated during fossilization!

The crushing is easier to see from the side:

The snout has been flattened in the center, and to some extent the top of the nasal arch has also been squashed. Also notably, the teeth appear artificially long because they have slipped out of their sockets (or been pushed out by inclined crushing during fossilization) and the roots are visible. The skull itself had to be glued together from many fragments, and when first excavated was a bit of a jumble, like this:

Overall I would say given the shape the bones were in, Janensch and his staff had done a pretty good job of rebuilding the skull. Some of the skull elements were actually warped in the fossilization process, which makes sense as the bone layers are extremely thin.

But the trickiest aspect of this whole story is that there are a number of different ways the skull could have looked in real life. The crushing was uneven, which means the left and right sides of the skull appear rather different, with the right upper jaw considerably flatter than the left. Also we may be dealing with the possibility of ontogeny, that the skull of Giraffatitan would have changed shape with age and maturity. This is usually not a big concern in sauropods, as they do not develop any horns or massive butting surfaces on their heads, but that doesn't preclude the possibility that the shape of the head itself changed with age.

In trying to reconstruct a profile of Giraffatitan's head, I had to get around a few things.

First, the specimen I'm using for the skeletal is HMN SII, so the skull has to closely match the S116 skull, which is from the same or similar-sized individual. This skull has somewhat different proportions to some of the bones than HMN t1, although part of this may be due to either ontogeny or sex of the individual. That said, I wanted to create a reconstruction that adequately combines the most consistent aspects of all the skulls and eliminates crushing so that we can see the "ideal" morph of how SII's head would have looked on the living animal.

This was going to be a literal headache. It didn't help that Janensch and other early authors had themselves illustrated the "generic" Giraffatitan skull a number of different ways, with varying proportions.

So in brief, below, is the progress of morphs, trying to get the uncrushed proportions just exactly right (with a similar but shorter process for the referred Felch Quarry skull of Brachiosaurus - also an immature specimen - shown below it.)

By comparison with many photos from different angles and all the known Janensch engravings, gradually a more complete picture emerged. And so with a few remixes for different specimens, ultimately the conclusion was that the typical Giraffatitan head - hypothetically a mix of t1 and S116 - would look as follows.

So after about 30 variations and tweaks, this is what we've got. Overall a LOT better than the ugly derpy overbite version you see in most books and websites (basically a caricature of the crushed t1 skull), or for that matter the oversimplified blurry Greg Paul version which is sorely lacking in detail and deviates substantially from the fossils in several ways.

So yes, Giraffatitan - when uncrushed - has a rather different head than we've long been lead to believe. Feel free to comment below.






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