SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales

May 20, 2008

First, some horn-tooting. A few years ago I realized that I good lateral-view photos of lots of big stuff–a blue whale skeleton, a Brachiosaurus skeleton, a big bull elephant, myself–and I put together a composite picture that showed everything together and correctly scaled. Various iterations of the project, which I undertook solely for my own amusement, are here, here, and here. Here’s the final product:

From left to right by skull position those are:

  • the mounted skeleton of Balaenoptera musculus at the Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, California;
  • the mounted six-ton (not ten-ton; see the comments from June 3 and 4, below) bull Loxodonta africana from the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois;
  • the mounted skeleton of Brachiosaurus altithorax from the same museum;
  • yours truly;
  • and Mike Taylor.

Everything is scaled correctly, and none of the critters in the picture represent the maximum size attained by their species (although I come pretty close). The whale is, at 87 feet, about 80% of the size of the largest known individuals. The Brachiosaurus skeleton is about 85% of the size of the largest known specimens in the genus, and the elephant is 77% of the size of the world record (these are all in linear terms).

I often blog like I’m in a vacuum but somehow people do find out about this stuff, and the good folks at the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum asked if they could use the photo on their blue whale page. Naturally I agreed.

Then last week I was contacted by them again. The museum’s blue whale project was to be featured on the evening news and they wanted to use the photo in the story. I’m never one to turn down free publicity in the interests of science. Here’s the clip (after a brief ad).

Since it comes up frequently (for me, at least), and since we’re talking about blue whales anyway, I’ll tackle the age-old question about which is bigger, a blue whale or the largest dinosaur.

In this corner, the defending champion: Balaenoptera musculus

Everyone “knows” that blue whales are 100 feet long and weigh 100 tons, right?

Wrong. According to Wood (1982, p. 7), “The largest accurately measured blue whale on record (length taken in a straight line parallel to the body axis from the tip of the upper jaw to the notch in the tail flukes) was a female…which measured 107 Norwegian fot (= 110 ft 2 1/2 in 33.59m).” Wood also lists numerous other confirmed records of blue whales over 100 feet long. Apparently they were not that uncommon in the Antarctic before the intensive whaling of the early 20th century.

The common perception of the 100ft/100 ton whale is even farther off when it comes to maximum weight. Weighing big whales is a pain in the ass. The biggest whale that has ever been weighed intact was a 59 ft (18m) sperm whale that was picked up by three floating cranes and weighed at 58 tons (53 metric tons; all of these data are from Wood 1982). Much larger sperm whales are known; the largest possibly being 84 ft (25.6m) long and weighing perhaps 88 tons (80 metric tons). All whales larger than that 58-ton sperm whale have had to be weighed piecemeal, by chopping them up and weighing the bits. Inevitably lots of blood and fluid are lost this way, so the piecemeal weight is usually about 6% less than the true body weight.

Nevertheless, there are lots of records of big blues weighing more than 150 tons, and the heaviest one on record is a pregnant female that weighed a jaw-dropping 209 tons (190 metric tons), more than twice the commonly quoted maximum size for this animal. Surely, surely, one thinks, that is the ne plus ultra of vertebrate mass.

Not so. Wood (1982, p. 9) describes a ‘very fat’ female, 91 ft (27.7m) long, which “yielded a record 305 barrels of oil weighing 51.85 tonnes [57 English or short tons]. Unfortunately this enormous whale was not weighed piecemeal, but on the basis of its oil yield it must have scaled at least 200 tonnes [220 short tons; emphasis in the original]!

And in this corner, the contenders: sauropods!

The longest sauropod known from decent remains is Supersaurus, for which Lovelace et al. (2007) estimate a total length of 33-34 meters (108-111 ft) for Jimbo, the new specimen from Wyoming. The Dry Mesa specimen is apparently slightly larger. Seismosaurus has now been sunk into Diplodocus, and was apparently no more than 30m (98 ft) long, enthusiastic estimates to the contrary notwithstanding (see Lovelace et al. 2007 for details, and also check out Scott Hartman’s site for lots of good info and cool skeletal reconstructions). Because it was so slender, Supersaurus weighed less than you might think; Lovelace et al. estimate Jimbo’s mass at 35-40 tons.

The most massive sauropod for which a reasonably secure mass estimate is possible is Argentinosaurus, which Mazzetta et al. (2004) estimated to have weighed 80.5 tons (73 metric tons). Old estimates of up to 80 tons for Brachiosaurus are based on models that can most charitably be described as just horribly, stupidly fat; all of the recent sane estimates put the better-known big specimens of Brachiosaurus between about 30 and 45 tons, with the very largest known specimens possibly getting up to 50 or 60 tons. Irritatingly, during the 1980s a bunch of mass estimates for “Ultrasauros” came out that were based on the ridiculous 80-ton estimate for Brachiosaurus, and put the mass of “Ultrasauros” at 180 tons. As we shall see, there is no good evidence that any sauropod ever got within 40 tons of that mark.

Then there are the semi-apocryphal gigapods, Bruhathkayosaurus and Amphicoelias fragillimus. Bruhathkayosaurus is reported to have a 2-meter-long tibia, which would make it perhaps 20% larger than Argentinosaurus in linear terms, and 70% more massive (mass scales with the cube of the linear dimension, and 1.2 x 1.2 x 1.2 = 1.728). Assuming that the proposed tib is really a tib and not an eroded femur or something, and that Bruhathkayosaurus was built like the very robust Argentinosaurus and not like, say, the very slender Brachiosaurus, and that the mass estimate for Argentinosaurus is accurate, Bruhathkayosaurus may have weighed as much as 139 tons (126 metric tons).

Amphicoelias fragillimus appears to have been built like a big Diplodocus–well, okay, an extremely mind-blowingly immense Diplodocus–and assuming the sole surviving drawing is legit and correctly scaled, it was just completely nuts (way more so than Apatosaurus; see Darren’s thoughts here and here). The femur may have been anywhere from 3-4.6 meters long (Carpenter 2006), and was more likely in the upper part of that range. In the big mounted skeletons of Diplodocus, the femora are just a little over 1.5 meters long. So Amphicoelias may have been 2-3 times the size of Diplodocus in linear terms. Carpenter (2006) posited a length of 190ft (58m) and a weight of 135 tons (122.4 metric tons).

Interlude: world record animals

The biggest known whales really are probably close to being the biggest representatives of their species. The individuals listed above are the largest known from a sample of more than 300,000 blue whales killed in the early 20th century. That’s a big pool. Supersaurus and Argentinosaurus are both known from two specimens, and Bruhathkayosaurus and A. fragillimus from one specimen each. The chances that these largest-known sauropods are really the largest sauropods that ever lived is vanishingly small.

And the winner is…

For mass, no question, the blue whale. Even our most liberal estimates of the most poorly known gigapods don’t come close to the 200-ton mark, which blue whales are known to exceed.

For length, probably a sauropod. A huge sample of blue whales included none longer than 110 feet, while our comparatively pathetic sample of sauropods has already turned in one animal (Supersaurus) that may have just edged that out, and another (A. fragillimus) that–assuming it was really as big as we think–blows it out of the water (so to speak).

References

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89 Responses to “SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales”

  1. Zach Miller Says:

    Okay, first off: That picture is fucking awesome. Do you have a larger version of it? That’s a desktop wallpaper just waiting to happen, brother.

    Second: I had no idea blue whales were so heavy. I assume they are able to get so ridiculously fat because they live in a gravity-negative environment, and thus their organs don’t collapse. A beached blue whale would not last long, I imagine. What boggles my mind is that they are able to get so tubby from eating krill and other tiny invertebrates alone!

    Maybe I should start gulping down a cup of krill instead of a Scandishake in the morning to keep my weight up. :-)

    Third: Why were sauropods (and other dinosaurs) able to get so monsterously large while mammals never produced anything much larger than Deinotherium and Indricotherium? I have plenty of reasons of my own, but I’d like to hear an expert’s commentary.

  2. Zach Miller Says:

    Wow, I’m an idiot. Just clicked on the picture.


  3. […] foxdrox@tulsanow.org wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptNevertheless, there lots of records of big blues weighing more than 150 tons, and the heaviest one on record is a pregnant female that weighed a jaw-dropping 209 tons (190 metric tons), more than twice the commonly quoted maximum size … […]


  4. Zach,

    One hypothesis (from Janis & Carrano back in the 1990s) is that placental mammals are hindered by their mode of reproduction. Gestation period scales with body size (with some scatter, of course: otherwise it wouldn’t be Nature…). So elephants have 2 year gestations, and big proboscideans and rhinoceratoids may have had 3 year terms. And at the end of that time, just a single offspring. So very large mammals can be very sensitive to population crashes and the like.

    Right-thinking dinosaurs, of course, had a better system: lay dozens of eggs (possibly every year). Sure, the chances of any one making it to adulthood are slim, but it is easier to build up a population after a crash.


  5. This has to be the best article I’ve read on this site (granted I know you guys are a specialty niche).

    I just love the practical application of what we know from the sauropod vertebrae and comparing it to their long time size competitors the whales.

    I’ve already based a whole primary school level measurement lesson around this article where the kids try to figure out which is bigger themselves, and than teach them how it could go either way. It just depends on what your looking at. A very good intro to the concept of mass.

    Also I have to say the picture RULES… If its a high enough resolution you should totally market it as SV POW poster (even just a mini one)… I’d buy a couple in an instant (very useful for a teacher to have in their classroom).

    Thanks SV POW!

  6. Zach Miller Says:

    Ha! Dinosaurs win AGAIN! :-)

  7. Brad McFeeters Says:

    Mammals did produce forms much bigger than Deinotherium and Indricotherium- for example, Balaenoptera, one of the animals we just read about in this essay. :P

    The blue whale’s gestation period is only one year. How is it able to reproduce faster than big terrestrial mammals?

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Brad,

    The blue whale is a big, lazy doofus, and has nothing to do but lie around all day and gestate. It doesn’t even bother to stand up. No wonder it has plenty of energy to pour into its babies. What kind of lifestyle is that for a self-respecting endotherm? Wastrels. They should get a job. And cut their hair.

  9. Nathan Myers Says:

    I suppose whales get a pass vs. population crashes because they’re mobile enough to avoid local causes.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    Right-thinking dinosaurs, of course, had a better system: lay dozens of eggs (possibly every year). Sure, the chances of any one making it to adulthood are slim, but it is easier to build up a population after a crash.

    I have read that in most years the recruitment in snapping turtle populations is zero, because all of the nests and hatchlings are destroyed by predators. But every few years one or a handful get through, and they’re so cryptic and just so damned mean (trust me on this) that they essentially live forever, pumping out babies like there’s no tomorrow.

    I imagine millions of baby sauropods getting mowed down like wheat by every hungry critter in the ecosystem. But every so often one or a few get through…

  11. Nathan Myers Says:

    Matt: Those baby sauropods had a responsibility to keep us supplied with fossilized vertebrae. They rather fell down on the job, particularly in the Cretaceous. After the first million years they ought to have caught on to what they were doing wrong. I won’t even go into the wisdom of cranial detonation as a defensive measure.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nathan: fair point about the lack of sauropod remains from the Early Cretaceous. Hmm. If only someone, somewhere had addressed that problem. Oh, wait a minute — they have! :-)

    http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/dino/pubs/calpal2008/abstract.html

  13. Mark Witton Says:

    Hmm. So there’s me feeling all tough standing next to this thing:

    Fall down mountains, just don't fall on me

    And then you chaps go and do this. Way to make me feel inadequate, guys.

    Seriously, great post. There’s definitely something to be said for emphasising just how big animals are or were. Someone should write a book on it: you’d have to order superlatives and exclamation marks in bulk, mind.


  14. Matt,

    Interesting info about snappers.

    As for the baby sauropods, that summarizes Holtz’s First Principle of Mesozoic Paleoecology:

    In the Mesozoic, Life Was Cheap!

  15. Asier Says:

    Good post,

    But we have to be very careful, is bad to take by reference the “record” specimens. For the winner, the post is based in the Blue Whale record (in fact is 177 metric tons, no 200), I´m totally disagree with this, beacuse an average blue whale rarelly exceeds 110 metric tons. For the dinosaurs, is imposible to find record specimens fossils, the largets fossils we found are normally the average size of the real animal. So, if we asume that Amphicoleias fragillimus and Bruhathkayosaurus really exited, this individuals would have been larger than Blue Whale. With record specimens weighting over 250 tons.

    PD:Bruhathkayosaurus tibia is 29% larger than argentionaurus not 20%, making an animal of 160 metric tons)

  16. Matt Wedel Says:

    For the winner, the post is based in the Blue Whale record (in fact is 177 metric tons, no 200)

    Do you have documentation of this? Wood (1982) cites a Russian paper for the 190-metric-ton animal. As indicated in the quote in the post, the animal that is posited to have weighed 200 metric tons was not weighed. However, there is a very predictable relationship between oil yield and mass, and based on that animal’s oil yield it was either 200 metric tons or its internal composition was radically different from that of other whales. Given that there is a documented case of a 190-metric-ton whale, 200 metric tons does not seem extreme.

    For the dinosaurs, is imposible to find record specimens fossils, the largets fossils we found are normally the average size of the real animal.

    Actually, we don’t know this. It’s not impossible to find record specimens, merely unlikely. And we don’t know if the fossils we find are average-sized, or slightly smaller (which should be more numerous) or slightly larger (which might be easier to preserve). Probably they are close to the average, but we have no cause to feel certain. Especially when our N is 1, as is the case for both Bruhathkayosaurus and A. fragillimus (and Sauroposeidon, and Paralititan, and…).

    As Greg Paul has pointed out in his papers, world-record individuals of many species are often twice the mass of average individuals. So if our specimens of Bruhathkayosaurus and A. fragillimus represent average-sized individuals, world-record individuals of the same taxa might have massed over 200 tons. But there are three huge caveats.

    The first is that B. and A. might be world-record individuals. The world-wide sample of sauropod specimens is probably something like 2000 individuals, which is pathetic compared to the whale haul but might be enough to snag one or two exceptional critters.

    The other is that we really don’t know enough to say for sure how big B. and A. were. The Bruhathkayosaurus material is so poorly illustrated and described that I am very hesitant about taking that 2-m tibia seriously. If it’s a femur or a humerus–and believe me, those possibilities are ‘live’ until a scaled photo of the element surfaces–all of this ‘biggest dinosaur EVAR!!’ speculation will evaporate in a cloud of ‘oops’. Furthermore, as I indicated in the post we don’t know that Bruhathkayosaurus was built like a tank. If it was slender it might have weighed a lot less.

    Bruhathkayosaurus tibia is 29% larger than argentionaurus not 20%, making an animal of 160 metric tons)

    Yeah, I saw that on Wikipedia too, but the fact is that to date no tibia has been found for Argentinosaurus. The ‘tibia’ mentioned in the original paper turns out to be a fibula, and sauropod fibulae are longer than their associated tibiae. Which is why I went conservative in my estimate in the post.

    (While we’re on that, the Wikipedia article also credits Chatterjee (1995) for the referral of Bruhathkayosaurus to Sauropoda, but he has never written a word about the animal (I know, I asked him). Nobody really seems to know who decided that Big B. was a sauropod and not a theropod as originally described.)

    Turning to A. fragillimus, the piece of vertebra that was preserved does not really tightly constrain the total size of the vertebra, and estimates of the vertebra’s total height vary by something like 25%. Carpenter’s (2006) estimates are all based on the upper end of the range. Also, the vert was extremely lightly built, much lighter than comparable vertebrae from Diplodocus. We know that vertebral pneumatization knocked down the volumetric mass of Diplodocus, and it does not seem unreasonable that A. fragillimus might have been lighter than a scaled-up Diplodocus would have been.

    The third caveat is that the estimates of 120-160 metric tons for B. and A. are already based on long chains of ‘ifs’. To take those estimates as data, assume that they represent average individuals of their respective species, and then jump onward to imagine world-record individuals massing more than 200 tons is to pile uncertainty on top of uncertainty and speculation on top of speculation, while ignoring all the if/then decision points that led to the original estimates. People are welcome to do that, but no one is compelled to take it seriously.

    The bottom line is that the evidence for whales weighing 190-200 metric tons is pretty darn good, and the evidence for sauropods weighing even 150 tons is frankly pathetic. So until much better evidence for the gigapods emerges, I’ll continue to award the “Heaviest Vertebrate Ever” prize to the blue whale.

  17. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    “And then you chaps go and do this. Way to make me feel inadequate, guys.”

    No, Mark, you’re still the bull paleontologist in the herd. Afterall, Mike and Matt are just consorting with dead bones while you were obviously standing next to a live gigantic pterosaur. I mean, there’s no way anyone draws a picture of Hatzegopteryx like that but from life.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    One day, when I have time to spare, I am going to composite Mark’s Hatzegopteryx into Matt’s montage. Or someone else could do it, and post a link.

  19. Nathan Myers Says:

    Mike: What a great slideshow! (But what are those slides with just random scraps of old bones?) What I take away is that there were as many varieties of sauropod in the lower Cretaceous, but fewer specimens; i.e. they did let down their end. I suppose they saw where things would be heading after the Maastrichtian and just lost interest. Sauropods: if we see farther, it’s because we’re just damned tall. (Apologies to
    Bernard of Chartres.)

    I did notice, on the slide about immature sauropods unable to reach forest crowns, a distinct paucity of speculation on the possibility of coprophagic nurturing. Perhaps it suffices at first just to treat the question of what they did eat as worth asking.

  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nathan, we *never* say “scraps of old bones”. The technical term is “shards of excellence”.

    Anyway, I couldn’t see any slides in that show which showed scraps of bones. Which slides did you have in mind.

    (Also: the greatness of the slideshow is entirely down to Matt, who prepared it. My role in this project was … not the most earthshaking.)


  21. “(While we’re on that, the Wikipedia article also credits Chatterjee (1995) for the referral of Bruhathkayosaurus to Sauropoda, but he has never written a word about the animal (I know, I asked him). Nobody really seems to know who decided that Big B. was a sauropod and not a theropod as originally described.)”

    The reference is to a DML post from 1995, where Olshevsky wrote-
    “Sankar also notes that _Bruhathkayosaurus_, formerly the titanic theropod, is almost certainly a titanic titanosaurid sauropod (at least it’s not petrified wood).”

    http://dml.cmnh.org/1995Nov/msg00158.html

    And in 1999, Ford wrote the following on the DML-
    “Sankar Chatterjee has told George and I that Bruhathkayosaurus is a titanosaur (he did look at the material).”

    http://dml.cmnh.org/1999Mar/msg00516.html

    To confirm this, I emailed Chatterjee himself in 2000 and got the following reply-
    “The material is very fragmentary, but the ilium and the femur looks like those of titanosaurids, very massive with high iliac crest. The only theropod occurs in this region is abelisaurids. We have recently collected almost complete postcranial skeleton of abelisaurid similar to indosuchus. They are quite different from Bruhathkayosaurus.”

    You’re right that he’s never published this observation though, and personal communication is hardly a testable authoritative source. Then there’s Chatterjee’s record of problematic identifications (Protoavis, Shuvosaurus, Technosaurus, etc.)…

  22. Matt Wedel Says:

    One day, when I have time to spare, I am going to composite Mark’s Hatzegopteryx into Matt’s montage.

    I’ll do it, if Mark gives me permission. What say, Mr. Witton? Can I put your pterosaur next to my sauropod? (Man, why does that sound so dirty?)

  23. Nathan Myers Says:

    Mike: I think it would be least invidious to point to slide 19. Yes, that’s it, just one slide. The rest of the shards truly are excellent, if sometimes heartbreaking, bless them.

    You are all welcome to use the “see farther” quote wherever you like, without attribution. (But do try to apologize to poor Bernard, victim of the Matthew Effect.)


  24. “You’re right that he’s never published this observation though, and personal communication is hardly a testable authoritative source.”

    So, waitaminute–has the identification of Bruhathkayosaurus as a sauropod ever been published at all? Or is this a runaway meme started on the DML, and it may as well be petrified wood as far as peer-reviewed lit is concerned?

  25. Nathan Myers Says:

    Mike: one other thing… they weren’t all vertebrae, which failing I counted against them, perhaps unfairly.

  26. Matt Wedel Says:

    The reference is to a DML post from 1995, where Olshevsky wrote-
    “Sankar also notes that _Bruhathkayosaurus_, formerly the titanic theropod, is almost certainly a titanic titanosaurid sauropod (at least it’s not petrified wood).”

    Thanks for setting it straight, Mickey. Somebody ought to straighten out the citation on Wikipedia, which cites this paper as the source of the titanosaur referral:
    Chatterjee, S. (1995). “The last dinosaurs of India”. The Dinosaur Report, Fall 1995. p. 12-18.

    When I talked to Sankar about it last year he was very bemused that his paper was being cited as the source of that information. I didn’t know about the DML posts.

    Seriously, somebody needs to have a look at that thing and post or better yet publish some decent photos. I mean, it’s only a contender for Most Massive Terrestrial Animal of All Time. Actually, there should be an institute whose job would be to give out big piles of money to go study the biggest stuff ever.

  27. Asier Says:

    Thank you very much for your Answer Matt.

    As you said we only have the Nº1 of puertasaurus, sauroposeidon, amphicoelias… But remember, the first individual known, practicaly never is the largest.

    Brachiosaurus, diplodocus, apatosaurus, mamenchiosaurus, antarctosaurus, spinosaurus, tyrannosaurus, triceratops, pentaceratops, shantungosaurus, lambeosaurus….

    In all theese case the later found fossils were 15% to 80% larger than the holotype.

    The 177 metric ton whale was the heaviest weighed by NMML scientists. Not stimated, is probably that 200 MT whales have exited as you pointed. Un unfortunately nowadays there aren´t super giant blue whales because of their hunting.

    Regards

  28. Matt Wedel Says:

    Brachiosaurus, diplodocus, apatosaurus, mamenchiosaurus, antarctosaurus, spinosaurus, tyrannosaurus, triceratops, pentaceratops, shantungosaurus, lambeosaurus….

    In all theese case the later found fossils were 15% to 80% larger than the holotype.

    Yep, that’s a good point. Some day some fanatic will pile up all the data on which specimens were found when and develop some kind of rarefaction curve for the discovery of the largest individuals of fossil taxa. Some invert paleo people have probably already done it. Damn them and their immense sample sizes.

    Unfortunately nowadays there aren´t super giant blue whales because of their hunting.

    Yeah, it’s a bummer. I got to see a big blue whale and her calf on a whale-watching trip in Monterey Bay. All I can say is, if you ever get the chance, go. Just go. Seeing that big momma surface…and surface…and surface…and holy crap there’s still more of her coming out of the water…oh my stars and garters, there’s her tail at last–was one of the most startling and humbling experiences of my life.

    Helping Nick Pyenson measure that whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz was almost as awesome. I’ve spent a lot of time around big sauropod skeletons, and that blue whale was so much bigger it took my breath away. You have a comfortable idea of how big animals are supposed to be, and then you see something like that…

    I’m sad that their numbers aren’t greater, but I’m glad that most nations have given up industrial whaling and those animals are still around. It is pretty amazing to think that the most massive vertebrate of all time is extant. And if you’re lucky you can go look at one. Whew!

  29. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nathan, what’s wrong with slide 19? Not only does it feature a perfectly good presacral centrum in both right lateral view _and_ transverse section, but it’s a centrum that has featured right here on SV-POW! under the title the birth of excellence.

    And the appendicular material is pretty good, too.

    No, sir: if you consider the fine material on that slide to be “scraps” then you are _not_ going to enjoy some of the papers I’ve got coming up. We Wealden workers know a a think or two about scraps :-)

  30. Mike Taylor Says:

    Matt Martyniuk: yes, it seems that Bruhathkayosaurus’s supposed titanosaurian identity has only even been proposed on the Internet, and specifically that this idea originated in a DML post. So does that mean that it’s just as likely to be chunk of wood? Haha, ironically, no, because — stop me if you’ve heard this one — the idea that it’s a chunk of wood also originated with a DML post … from our very own Tom Holtz. http://dml.cmnh.org/1999Mar/msg00489.html

    So nearly everything anyone “knows” about this alleged animal (including, needless to say, the various mass estimates, some as high as 220 tonnes) is Internet chatter. None of it comes from anyone who’s seen the material.

    So we should probably stop perpetuating it :-)


  31. […] a big bull elephant, myself??and I put together a composite picture that showed everything togehttp://svpow.wordpress.com/2008/05/20/sv-pow-showdown-sauropods-vs-whales/Meet Giganotosaurus, a relic from Patagonia The Altoona Herald-Mitchellville IndexAt 6 feet tall, […]

  32. Nathan Myers Says:

    Sauropods are made out of *wood*? That settles the mass estimate problem: they weighed the same as a duck.


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  34. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    “We Wealden workers know a a think or two about scraps”

    Are you saying that in many cases the most obvious classification would be as Chunkosaurus?

  35. mike wahl Says:

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  36. Richard Li Says:

    Excellent post Matt, really well done. I’ve been waiting for someone to do this comparison for ages, and now I’ve finally had the pleasure of reading it. There’s a few things and questions I would like to say/ask:

    There are reportedly monster sperm whale bulls in the past during the whaling era, a jawbone at Nantucket museum is 5.5 metres, and this specimen is supposedly a whopping 28m and roughly estimated to be 133 tonnes! What’s your take on that Matt? Regarding all the big blue whale specimens, while I don’t want to belittle such a magnificent creature, those measurements were all taken by whalers who would have had great motivation to exaggerate their catch, can they really be trusted over the scientists who state that the biggest specimen they’ve measured is 177 tonnes? Also, what is the probability of a lot of the whale’s mass being water as they take in all the krill they need?

    Apparently now the Songhua River Mammoth has taken the title of the largest land mammal ever from the Indricotherium. Take a look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammuthus_sungari
    Mammuthus sungari – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    I’d say the evidence for this animal to be a valid separate species is quite dubious.

  37. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the kind words. Sperm whales over 100 tonnes would not surprise me. That’s beyond what is rigorously documented, but come on. Whalers in the 1700s and 1800s killed a buttload of whales without weighing them. If whales are like everything else, the real monsters probably got hunted out pretty quickly, so by the time people started keeping careful records in the 20th century, the very biggest might already have been taken.

    Again on the 177-tonne estimate, what paper is this from? I’ll need to see a reference that (a) documents that mass and (b) gives me good reason to discount the 190-tonne mass before I’ll think about accepting the 177-tonne specimen as ‘the biggest’. Gerald Wood accepted the 190-tonne specimen, and he was pretty scrupulous about documenting sources of uncertainty and probable overestimates. And that still leaves the ~200-tonne animal with all the oil. In the end, the argument I gave above for the biggest sperm whales applies here. The posited masses for the very largest blue whales are not so much larger than the well-documented masses that they are difficult to believe. It’s not the like the supposed 30-meter anacondas, for example.

    As for the most of a whale’s mass being water, well, sure. Like all of us animals. :-) But seriously, they take huge bites from swarms of krill and then expel almost all of the water before they swallow the catch. Darren covered this back on Tet Zoo v1, here, here, and here (I strongly recommend all three posts). If anything, big whales are probably less dense than most other mammals because of all the fat and oil (fats are about 0.95 g/mm, versus 1.0 for water and watery tissues).

    I am very skeptical about Mammuthus sungari because (a) no one I know has seen the paper, (b) talk about motive to exaggerate the size of your animal, and (c) the photos of the skeleton I’ve seen are [i] terrible and [ii] don’t make it look that big. It has come up in the comments here before, though, so I suppose we’ll have to deal with properly one of these days. If that’s possible.

    Stinkin’ mammal..

  38. Richard Li Says:

    The blue whale page on Wikipedia says that the heaviest specimen that was weighed by the scientists at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) is at 177 tonnes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_whale#Size
    Blue Whale – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    I certainly don’t discount the 190 tonne specimen, I gladly accept it as I’m a big fan of large animals and can only wish this is the case, and now there is evidence for it I’m only too happy! Unfortunately nowadays you’d be lucky to get one over 80 feet or over 120 tonnes. So sad that all the big ones were killed off and never had the chance to pass on their genes.

    The intriguing question would be, was there some prehistoric whale or other marine animal that was as large or even bigger than the blue whale?

    For the exact paper documenting the 177 tonne animal, it’s the “http://www.wildwhales.org/cetaceans/blue/sr_blue_whale_e.pdf.pdf
    Assessment and Update Status Report on the Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus
    But I’m not sure if this link would work for you, it didn’t for me!

  39. Richard Li Says:

    The 177 tonne specimen apparently weighed by the people at National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) comes from here: http://www.wildwhales.org/cetaceans/blue/sr_blue_whale_e.pdf.pdf
    Assessment and Update Status Report on the Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus
    (I don’t think the paper is there anymore unfortunately as the page just takes you straight to something else)
    I certainly don’t dismiss the 190 tonne specimen as I’m a big fan of large animals and could only wish that this is true, and now that there is good evidence for it I’m only too happy! Here is blue whale page on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_whale#cite_note-pop-6
    Blue Whale – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The intriguing question would be: Was there some prehistoric whale or any other marine animal that was as big or even bigger than the Blue Whale?

  40. Asier Says:

    Hello,

    I´m making my own study about proboscideans skeletons. The largest skeleton in the world are based in two giant M.sungari specimens found in a coal mine in china in 1980. There isn´t any paper, only a short report in chinese. The original skeleton is in the inner mongolian museum. I´m trying to get the measures of this skeleton to know the real size (In any one could help me in this query I would be vey Thankful :-)). As far I know the ibaraki museum skeleton (replicator of the inner) measures 490 to 500 cm to the shoulders. Otherwise the shoulder blades in this mount are too low in the chest making the skelton taller, around 30 cm. If this skeleton conforms to real skeleton, this creature would be more heavier than any indricotherium.

    This species was formally descrived in 1959. But the largest M.sunagari specimens probably represents one kind of rather enormous Palaeoloxodon.

    Regards,

  41. Richard Li Says:

    Asier, I’m a native Chinese speaker so I think I can help you out. The wide range of big proboscideans is quite amazing!

  42. Asier Says:

    OMG!

    That is great!

    I e-mailed inner mongolian museum without resulsts. Probably you could call them and ask for bone measures such as, humerus and femurs lenghts and pelvis width. I´m particulary intereted in theese measures. Also needed are the original museum specimen identification numbers.

    Here, you can see the webpage and museum telephone numbres:

    http://www.chinamuseums.com/inner.htm

    Thank you very much Richard Li!

    Best,

    PD:If you decide to call them, please give me your e-mail.

  43. Vertebrat Says:

    The whale may be heavier, and longest of them all
    May be some other sauropod – but wow, that thing is tall!
    It earns the Brachiosaurus name, and altithorax too –
    The elephant could fit beneath its chest, and walk right through.
    Has anything before or since approached that dizzy height?
    The humans spurn the mammals for the more impressive sight.
    One lifts his head to gaze at all those hollow vertebrae;
    The other cuddles it to show his awe another way.

  44. Andreas Johansson Says:

    Y’know what this comparison is lacking? Sauropod and blue whale vertebrae drawn to scale for easy comparison.

    (To restore mammalian honour after “Your coccyx is contemptible” etc, we should also do the same for blue whale and mega-sauropod skulls.)

  45. Matt Wedel Says:

    Y’know what this comparison is lacking? Sauropod and blue whale vertebrae drawn to scale for easy comparison.

    That is such a good idea that I’m going to steal it for a future post. Thanks!

    (To restore mammalian honour after “Your coccyx is contemptible” etc, we should also do the same for blue whale and mega-sauropod skulls.)

    What would be particularly embarrassing would be to put the skull of Diplodocus up next to, say, that of a harbor porpoise. Or a cow. Tragically this is not Sauropod Skull Picture of the Week, so mammalian honour–if such exists–will have to be restored elsewhere.

    Here’s a fun fact to which rorqual stud Nick Pyenson introduced me: a Boeing 737 is about the same size as a big blue whale in both length and girth. So the next time you take your seat in a ’37 or comparable non-jumbo airliner, take a minute to look around and think, “Holy crap, this could be the inside of a whale.” (Actually most airliners are better lit and slightly less stuffy on the inside than whales, but you get the picture.)

  46. Nathan Myers Says:

    The skull is just a couple of modified vertebrae, innit? And the jaw, a couple of modified ribs? Or is that pre-urban legend?

  47. Asier Says:

    Hello!

    A clarification. I´ve seen some photos of the mounted elephant in Chicago museum. That elephant is probably less tha 3.5 m at the shoulders, 10 ton???. I think that in live that elephant would have weighed 6.5 tons or less.

    Regards

  48. Matt Wedel Says:

    A clarification. I´ve seen some photos of the mounted elephant in Chicago museum. That elephant is probably less tha 3.5 m at the shoulders, 10 ton???. I think that in live that elephant would have weighed 6.5 tons or less.

    Oops! You are absolutely correct. The animal in fact weighed six tons, I just got my wires crossed when I was writing this post. I’ll fix it right away. Good catch.


  49. […] 26, 2008 This one, obviously, is a follow-up to this one. Mark drew the picture, Mike had the idea, Mark gave the go-ahead, and here we are. Cry havoc and […]

  50. Matt Wedel Says:

    One day, when I have time to spare, I am going to composite Mark’s Hatzegopteryx into Matt’s montage. Or someone else could do it, and post a link.

    Brother, can I get a “hell yeah”?


  51. […] 1, 2009 I’m sure Mike will deride this as sordid linkbait, but what the heck. I’ve been meaning to blog about the sauropods of Star Wars for a […]


  52. […] would be  invaluable for those of us who are interested in body proportions, neck elongation, mass estimation, and all that good stuff. But sadly the second paper contains no table and almost no measurements; […]

  53. Sameer Says:

    How people can say Blue whale is the largest animal that ever existed ?
    Iam waiting for longtime to see if any large sauropod has been discovered which could beat blue whales record.In many sites,they mention as blue whale is the largest animal that ever lived.I cant agree that,i mean they can say the blue whale is the largest animal of all.But not as — Ever lived..
    There may be a large sauropod or large Marine which existed and its fossils might have been destroyed somehow or it is in good shape and still yet to find.In my view,the largest dinosaur is not unearthed yet.There must be somewhere.

  54. William Miller Says:

    It’s probably dumb to comment on a 17-month-old post, but there is an actual published paper calling [i]Bruhathkayosaurus[/i] a sauropod, in a list of Gondwanan dinosaurs – it’s online at http://www.oucom.ohiou.edu/dbms-oconnor/research/pdfs/krause%20et%20al_2006_mobot.pdf .

    Sadly, though Bruhathkayosaurus is listed as “Sauropoda indet.”, it appears only in the list and no further information is given.

    Now, where did Krause et al. get *their* information from…?

  55. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oh, well spotted! I believe that counts as a 50% increase in the total publication record on the world’s biggest terrestrial animal ever. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.


  56. […] 170% the size of the mounted Berlin Giraffatitan. That’s right into Amphicoelias fragillimus/Bruhathkayosaurus territory. The diplo-Diplodocus would have been 150 feet long, and even assuming a very conservative […]


  57. Guys: I’m not a scientist – more of a failed mathematician laboring away in thrall of Corporate America, but it occurs to me that you might be going about this weight estimation technique all wrong. I know I’m late to the thread, but am hoping I can help advance the ball on this obviously thorny subject

    I polled a couple of buddies on FaceBook and the consensus was that there’s a pretty simple way to do it:

    1. You weigh yourself and write it down.
    2. Pick up the whale and get back on the scale.
    3. Write down the new number
    4. You take that number and subtract the number you wrote down in the first part. Voilà. The weight of the whale.

    HTH

    Cheers
    — dhk


  58. […] Sauropods vs. whales … aaaand, FIGHT! […]

  59. Uros Says:

    Hi,

    does anybody know, why there is nobody to go back to the site where bruhathkyosaurus bones were found and at least do some new measurements, sketching or maybe take a photo. It would also be interesting if such enormous bones (if they really are of animalian origin) were taken out and analised and displayed in some museum.
    According to the mystery around B. I wouldn’t be surprised, if more bones were found if the area was searched again.
    As far as I know, these bones should still be there (nobody mentioned anything similar to the amphicoelias bone vanishing), and somebody from the original expedition should still be able to find the way back there, before erosion helps B. join A..

  60. Mike Taylor Says:

    Uros,

    I don’t know why no-one has seriously worked on the Bruhathkayosaurus material. All I can think of is that everyone who might do that work has other stuff that they are prioritising. And India is a long way to go to look at material that might turn out to be a tree-trunk. (No disrespect intended towards palaeobotanists.)

  61. William Miller Says:

    Hmmm, is there anyone who would give out $[however much a round-trip ticket to India costs] grants to study the thing?

    Well, if it’s not been republished by the time I get a degree and could afford a trip to India…


  62. In all seriousness, if anyone out there happens to have spare cash lying around and really wants to see a publication on what might be the biggest animal ever to walk on land, contact me off-list about funding travel to research this thing. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s worth asking.

  63. Anonymous Says:

    What about HEIGHT? Can we say that in terms of height, sauropods can claim the honour of being the tallest animal that ever lived?

  64. davidmaas Says:

    What about a contribution method? How much is needed?

  65. William Miller Says:

    I wonder if there might be ‘political’ issues; maybe somebody there is currently working on it, or something. Still, if it hasn’t been published on in however-long-it’s-been…

  66. Uros Says:

    I believe it should be possible to get sponsors. Maybe a bit difficult with current economy, but still possible.

  67. William Miller Says:

    Old post, I know, but not sure of a better place to put a size related question: I was reading old papers at the Marsh Repository, and I found a mention of Atlantosaurus immanis with a 2.5 meter femur. I know Atlantosaurus is now lumped with Apatosaurus, but that’s awfully large; is it taken into account in the standard Apatosaurus mass estimates?

  68. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m not sure what happened to Atlantosaurus. It seems to be pretty much universally regarded as a nomen dubium, and possibly the same as Apatosaurus (please let’s not go leaping us the JSS chain again!), but I don’t recall ever seeing a detailed published discussion that reaches this conclusion. Anyone?

    The Glut encyclopaedia says (p152) that “Marsh (1878a) described a partial skeleton (YPM 1840) from Colorado, including a femur measuring about 1.7 meters (nearly 6 feet), as Atlantosaurus immanis, stating that the femur represented the largest land animal yet known, possibly approaching a total length of more then 29 meters (100 feet). Later, Berman and McIntosh (1978) regarded this specimen as belonging to A. ajax“. (Glut is mistaken here: Marsh did indeed specify 2.5 m, not 1.7 m.)

    Berman and McIntosh (1978:33) say only “Atlantosaurus (first described as Titanosaurus Marsh, 1877a) cannot be adequately defined [i.e. diagnosed] and has to be considered a nomen dubium. The type species, A. montanus, is based only on an incomplete sacrum (YPM 1835) that cannot be clearly distinguished from those of a nunber of sauropods”.

    BTW., I don’t recall seeing either YPM 1840 or YPM 1835 when I was briefly at the Yale museum a year or two ago, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t briefly catch sight of them. My attention was elsewhere.

  69. William Miller Says:

    So how big an animal does a 2.5 meter femur imply? It sounds colossal, but then most sauropods were huge by any sane standard.

    I notice that *Antarctosaurus giganteus* (which is big, though poorly known) had a 2.35 meter femur. But maybe titanosaurs scaled differently than Apatosaurus… Or were there really 70+ ton apatosaurs?

  70. Mike Taylor Says:

    Greg Paul (1988:table 1) gives the mass of YPM 1840 (which he terms Apatosaurusimmanis“) as ~23 tonnes — but then he gives its femur length as ~1950 mm, which is well short of the 2500 claimed by Marsh. If it really was 2.5 m long, that would make it 1.28 times as big in linear dimension, which scales isometrically to 1.28^3 = 2.11 times as voluminous and heavy, which would yield an estimate of 48.5 tonnes. Bearing in mind that Paul’s mass estimates tend to be at the low end of published estimates, I don’t think 70 tonnes would necessarily be completely out of the question for such an animal.

  71. William Miller Says:

    Hmmm. I wonder if Paul re-measured the actual specimen, or was going by a different published number, or what?


  72. […] sauropod expert Matt Wedel once pointed out, there are two “semi-apocryphal” dinosaurs that may have been significantly larger than […]


  73. The Blue Whale looks like he could eat both the Brachiosaurus and the elephant

  74. Fred W. Hill Says:

    The most magnificent animal that ever evolved and we, the most intelligent yet idiotic of all species, nearly wiped it out and may yet succeed in doing so. Within less than a century we reduced blue whales from approximately 400,000 to less than 10,000.

  75. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, it takes intelligence to wipe out a huge ocean-going species. What we lack is not intelligence but wisdom.


  76. […] be as extreme as Canseco thinks, though: he states the weight of Supersaurus to be about 200 tons. Current estimates place it closer to 40 tons: it was a pretty slender beast compared to its length! (In fairness, 40 tons is hardly skinny: the […]


  77. […] any larger. So the plastered-up specimen is the best case scenario for the RC femur to represent a gigapod. And I know the stated width of 665 mm is the max width of the proximal end, because I sent Brooks […]

  78. Mark Says:

    I’d like to point out that a if a single specimen of a sauropod is discovered, it is likely that it was near the average size of the species, so it doesn’t seem quite fair to compare it to the maximum mass ever measured out of 300,000 blue whales. If you compare the average size of a blue whale (about 120 tons) to the size of the largest known sauropods, the race for biggest gets to be close. Also, the estimated “world record” size for a giant sauropod species may well have been close to 200 tons (according to Greg Paul, 1997). While we’re dealing with giant animals, I think its worth mention that the largest ichthyosaurs might have exceeded 100 tons (assuming a 14 meter Shonisaurus weighs 35 tons, a 21 meter Shastasaurus might weigh 118 tons).

    Also, in terms of length, the largest animal ever is almost certainly an invertebrate. The bootlace worm (Lineus longissimus) has been measured to be 60 meters long (to be fair, that specimen may have been stretched beyond its natural length). The tentacles of the Lion’s Maine Jellyfish may be over 30 meters long, so the maximum tentacular spread of this animal may exceed 60 meters (the largest known specimen of this species had tentacles 37 meters long. The maximum tentacular spread of this individual (counting the bell) would be at least 75 meters).

  79. LeeB Says:

    I just saw that someone had woken this old thread up and I looked at it.
    Regarding the Mammuthus sungari mentioned above Wei et. al. 2010 revised the material and found that it was very late surviving steppe mammoth Mammuthus trogontherii which lived until about 25000 years ago in northern china.
    Three skeletons were discovered in Inner Mongolia; two were combined to make an oversized mount, the third as mounted is 4.33m tall and thus similar to other male M. trogontheri skeletons (these were big mammoths, a fairly complete female skeleton from Serbia is around 3.8 m tall).

    The paper is Wei et. al. 2010, New materials on the steppe mammoth Mammoth trogontherii with discussion on the origin and evolutionary patterns of mammoths; Science China-Earth Sciences vol. 53(7) 956-963.

    And if you are looking for the longest organisms the colonial siphonophores in the genus Praya are also contenders, reaching 30-40m lengths.

    LeeB.

  80. Mike Taylor Says:

    Interesting that even these cheaty marine invertebrates are not unequivocally longer than Amphicoelias.

  81. Ted Says:

    Having the occasion to discuss with Hal Whitehead, a sperm whale expert, it seems that the claims of 80 feet sperm whales were most likely exagerations from whalers. Richard Ellis discusses this in his book The Great Sperm Whale. He doubts many actually exceeded 60 feet.

    Regarding the claims that the sperm whales were noticeably larger before whaling era, a paper actually indicated that sperm whale size seems to have actually increased during the hunting, because of the density of the populations.

    DENSITY DEPENDENT GROWTH IN NORTH PACIFIC SPERM WHALES
    Toshio Kasuya

    I think that the largest specimen was caught in the 50’s by japaneses whalers, and was 20,5 m, and approx. 80 tons.


  82. […] And the blue whale is not just a contender for largest living animal, they are also contenders for largest animal of all time. In fact, in terms of absolute weight, it doesn’t appear to be close at all. Whereas […]

  83. Ted Says:

    Mark, Shastasaurus sikanniensis was very slender in shape, the deepest part of its body was only 2 m deep.

    I highly doubt that it even exceeded 40-50 tons at 21 m.


  84. […] And the blue whale is not just a contender for largest living animal, they are also contenders for largest animal of all time. In fact, in terms of absolute weight, it doesn’t appear to be close at all. Whereas […]


  85. […] Here’s the mounted skeleton of Brachiosaurus altithorax outside the Field Museum in Chicago, based on the holotype FMNH P25107, with missing parts filled in from the mounted Giraffatitan brancai MB.R.2181 at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. To see it with humans and other animals for scale, go here. […]

  86. Trevor Madin Says:

    It might be of interest to note the maximum recorded weight of the Bowhead whale is 122 tons…A fairly short but very heavy whale…


  87. […] been reading The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (Wood 1982) again. Here’s what he says on pages 98-99 about the strength of crocodiles, and […]


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