|The holotype of Supersaurus, scapulocoracoid BYU 9025|
Supersaurus (meaning "super lizard") is a genus of diplodocid sauropod dinosaur that lived in North America during the Late Jurassic period. The type species, S. vivianae, was first discovered by Vivian Jones of Delta, Colorado, in the middle Morrison Formation of Colorado in 1972. The fossil remains came from the Brushy Basin Member of the formation, dating to about 153 million years ago. A potential second species, S. lourinhanensis, is known from Portugal and has been dated to a similar time.
The first described specimens of Supersaurus were individual bones that suggested a large diplodocid. A large cervical vertebra from the same quarry was later assigned to Supersaurus, which indicated a very elongated neck. This vertebra measures 1,380 millimeters (54 in) and is the longest cervical known.
The assignment of the more complete specimen, WDC DMJ-021, to Supersaurus suggests that in most respects it was very similar in anatomy to Apatosaurus but less robustly built with especially elongated cervical vertebrae, resulting in one of the longest known sauropod necks.
The original fossil remains of Supersaurus were discovered in the Dry Mesa Quarry in 1972. This find yielded only a few bones: mainly the shoulder girdle, an ischium and tail vertebrae. Paleontologist James A. Jensen described Supersaurus; he designated a scapulocoracoid BYU 9025 (originally labeled as BYU 5500) as the type specimen. This shoulder girdle stood some 2.4 meters (8 ft) tall, if placed on end. The specimen was given the name "Supersaurus" informally as early as 1973, but was not officially described and named until more than a decade later, in 1985.
Sauropod researcher Jack McIntosh at one time thought that the BYU Supersaurus material might represent a large species of Barosaurus but later felt that there was evidence for Supersaurus being a valid genus.
A much more complete specimen WDC DMJ-021, nicknamed "Jimbo", was found in Converse County, Wyoming in 1996 and was described and assigned to Supersaurus in 2007. The specimen represented approximately 30% of the skeleton. Its bones are being held at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. A comparison of WDC DMJ-021 and other specimens previously assigned to Supersaurus was done in order to help decide what material from the Dry Mesa Quarry belonged to the genus. It indicated that a series of tail vertebrae and an ulna may have belonged to some other diplodocid.
Jensen, who described the original Supersaurus specimen, simultaneously reported the discovery of another gigantic sauropod, which would later be named "Ultrasaurus" macintoshi (later renamed Ultrasauros macintoshi). The type specimen (the specimen used to define a new species) of Ultrasauros, being a backbone (dorsal vertebra, labelled BYU 9044), was later found to have come from Supersaurus. In fact, it probably belonged to the original Supersaurus specimen, which was discovered in the same quarry in 1972. Therefore, Ultrasauros became a junior objective synonym of Supersaurus, which had been named first and thus retains priority, and the name Ultrasauros was abandoned.
Other bones that were found at the same location and originally thought to belong to Ultrasauros, like a shoulder girdle (scapulocoracoid, BYU 9462), actually belonged to Brachiosaurus, possibly a large specimen of Brachiosaurus altithorax. The Brachiosaurus bones indicate a large, but not record-breaking individual, a little larger than the "Brachiosaurus" brancai (Giraffatitan brancai) mount in the Berlin's Natural History Museum. Larger specimens of Brachiosaurus are known from the Tendaguru beds of Tanzania, in east Africa.
Originally, these Supersaurus and Brachiosaurus bones were believed to represent a single dinosaur that was estimated to reach about 25 to 30 meters (80 to 100 ft) long, 8 meters (25 ft) high at the shoulder, 15 meters (50 ft) in total height, and weighing maybe 70 metric tons (75 short tons). At the time, mass estimates ranged up to 180 tons, which placed it in the same category as the blue whale and the equally problematic Bruhathkayosaurus.
The naming of the chimeric Ultrasauros has a similarly complicated history. Ultrasaurus (with the final "u") was the original choice, and was widely used by the media after the discovery in 1979. However, the name of a new species must be published with a description to become official.
Before Jim Jensen published his discovery in 1985, another paleontologist, Kim Haang Mook, used the name Ultrasaurus in a 1983 publication to describe what he believed was a giant dinosaur in South Korea. This was a different, much smaller dinosaur than Jensen's find, but Kim thought it represented a similarly gigantic animal because he confused a humerus for an ulna. While the logic of naming was incorrect, the Ultrasaurus from Kim's find fulfilled the requirements for naming and became regarded as a legitimate, if dubious genus. Thus, because Jensen did not publish his own "Ultrasaurus" find until 1985, Kim's use retained its official priority of name, and Jensen was forced to choose a new name (in technical terms, his original choice was "preoccupied" by Kim's sauropod). In 1991, at his suggestion, George Olshevsky changed one letter, and renamed Jensen's sauropod Ultrasauros, with the final "o".
When it was later discovered that the new name referred to bones from two separate, and already known species, the name Ultrasauros became a junior synonym for Supersaurus. Since the bones from the Brachiosaurus were only used as a secondary reference for the new species, Ultrasauros is not a junior synonym for Brachiosaurus. Since Supersaurus was named slightly earlier, the name Ultrasauros has been discarded in favor of Supersaurus.
Another diplodocid dinosaur found near the original Supersaurus quarry, known from a backbone (dorsal vertebra type specimen BYU 5750), was named Dystylosaurus edwini and is now also considered to be a specimen of Supersaurus vivianae. Hence, Dystylosaurus has also become a junior synonym of Supersaurus.
Most studies of diplodocid relationships have found it to contain two primary subgroups: Diplodocinae (containing those diplodocids more closely related to Diplodocus than to Apatosaurus) and Apatosaurinae (diplodocids more closely related to Apatosaurus than to Diplodocus). Originally, it was thought that Supersaurus was related to the long-necked diplodocid Barosaurus, and therefore a member of the subfamily Diplodocinae, however, with the assignment of the more complete WDC DMJ-021 most later studies found Supersaurus to be a close relative of the familiar Apatosaurus in the group Apatosaurinae. However, some later studies cast doubt on this paradigm. One comprehensive study of diplodocoid relationships published by Whitlock in 2011 found Apatosaurus itself to lie at the base of the diplodocid family tree, and other "apatosaurines", including Supersaurus, to be progressively more closely related to Diplodocus (making them diplodocines).
In 2015, a specimen level phylogenetic study of diplodocids found that Dinheirosaurus lourinhanensis grouped with Supersaurus. The study considered that it should be a new species of Supersaurus, in a new combination S. lourinhanensis.
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- Whitlock, J.A. (2011). "A phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocoidea (Saurischia: Sauropoda)." Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, Article first published online: January 12, 2011. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00665.x
- "Why do mass estimates vary so much?", by Mike Taylor, August 27, 2002. (see footnote)