Use of scaled dinosaur bones in taphonomic water flume experiments


Laboratory water flumes are artificial troughs of moving water widely used in hydraulic studies of fluvial systems to investigate real-world problems at smaller, more manageable scales. Water flumes have also been used to understand bone transportation sorting and bone orientation found in the fossil record using actual bones. To date, these studies have not involved scaled bones. A 1/12 scale model of a 21.8-m long skeleton of Apatosaurus, a long-necked sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic, was used to explore three problems at Dinosaur National Monument (USA) that cannot be explained by tradition bone flume studies: (1) why there is an abrupt bend in articulated vertebrae, (2) why articulated dorsals are inverted relative to the pelvis, and (3) how bone jams form. The flume experiments established that (1) bed friction with the wing-like transverse processes of vertebrae resists the force of the water flow, whereas those vertebrae lacking the processes are free to pivot in the flow; (2) elevation of the dorsal vertebrae by the transverse processes subjects the vertebrae to the energy of the flow stream, which causes the vertebrae to flip. Computation fluid dynamics (CFD) software shows this flip was due to differential pressure on the upstream and downstream sides. (3) The formation and growth of bone clusters or jams (analogous to log jams in rivers) occur as transported bones pile against an initial obstruction and jammed bones themselves become obstacles. These preliminary studies show that scale models can provide valuable insights into certain taphonomic problems that cannot be obtained by traditional bone flume studies.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Data availability

Input files available at These include the boundary conditions as a bitmap image and a text file containing the simulation parameters. Replace these for the ones that came with Flowsquare. Apatosaurus dorsals and bone jam


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Access to the quarry face at Dinosaur National Monument was made possible by National Park Service paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster. The review comments by two reviewers are acknowledged. This publication is the ninth on Dinosaur National Monument by me.


This study was self-funded.

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Kenneth Carpenter was responsible for the design of the experiments, analysis of the results, and the writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kenneth Carpenter.

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Carpenter, K. Use of scaled dinosaur bones in taphonomic water flume experiments. Sci Nat 107, 15 (2020).

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  • Water flume
  • Scale modeling
  • Computation fluid dynamics
  • Experimental taphonomy