How big were the biggest sauropod trackmakers?
October 13, 2009
UPDATE December 3, 2009
I screwed up, seriously. Tony Thulborn writes in a comment below to correct several gross errors I made in the original post. He’s right on every count. I have no defense, and I am terribly sorry, both to Tony and to everyone who ever has or ever will read this post.
He is correct that the paper in question (Thulborn et al 1994) does discuss track length, not diameter, so my ranting about that below is not just immoderate, it’s completely undeserved. I don’t know what I was thinking. I did reread the paper before I wrote the post, but I got the two switched in my mind, and I assigned blame where none existed. In particular, it was grossly unfair of me to tar Tony’s careful work with the same brush I used to lament the confused hodgepodge of measurements reported in the media (not by scientists) for the Plagne tracks.
I am also sorry that I criticized the 1994 paper and implied that the work was incomplete. I was way out of line.
I regard this post as the most serious mistake in my professional career. I want very badly to somehow unmake it. I am adding corrections to the post below and striking out but not erasing my mistakes; they will stand as a reminder of my fallibility and a warning against being so high-handed and unfair in the future.
I’m sorry. I beg forgiveness from Tony, from all of our readers, and from the broader vertebrate paleontology community. Please forgive me.
You might have seen a story last week about some huge sauropod tracks discovered in Upper Jurassic deposits from the Jura plateau in France, near the town of Plagne. According to the news reports, the tracks are the largest ever discovered. Well, let’s see.
The Guardian (from which I stole the image above) says the prints are “up to 2 metres (6ft 6 in) in diameter”, but ScienceDaily says “up to 1.5 m in total diameter”. Not sure how ‘total diameter’ is different from regular diameter, but that’s science reporting for you. The BBC clarifies that, “the depressions are about 1.5m (4.9ft) wide”, which might be the key here (see below), but then mysteriously continues, “corresponding to animals that were more than 25m long and weighed about 30 tonnes.” I find it rather unlikely that a pes track 1.5 m wide indicates an animal only as big as Giraffatitan (hence this post).
So there’s some uncertainty with respect to the diameter of the tracks–half a meter of uncertainty, to be precise. But sauropod pes tracks are usually longer than wide, and a print 1.5 m wide might actually be 2 m long.
Not incidentally, Thulborn (1994) described some big sauropod tracks from the Broome Sandstone in Australia, with pes prints up to 1.5 m. Although the photos of the tracks are not as clear as one might wish, they do appear to show digit impressions and are probably not underprints. [See Tony Thulborn's comment below regarding footprints vs underprints.]
I’ll feel a lot better about the Plagne tracks when the confusion about their dimensions is cleared up and when some evidence is presented that they also are not underprints. In any case, the only dimension with any orientation cited for the Plagne tracks is the 1.5 m width reported by the BBC, so we’ll go with that. So the Plagne tracks might only tie, but not beat, Thulborn’s tracks.
…Then again, Thulborn only said that the biggest tracks were up to 150 cm in diameter. What does that mean–length? Width? Are the tracks perfect circles? Does no one who works on giant sauropod tracks know how to report measurements? These questions will have to wait, because despite the passing of a decade and a half, the world’s (possibly second-) biggest footprints–from anything! ever!–have not yet merited a follow-up paper. [Absolutely wrong and unfair; please see the apology at top and Tony Thulborn's comment below.]
Nevertheless, for the remainder of this post we’ll accept that at least some sauropods were leaving pes prints a meter and a half wide. Naturally, it occurs to me to wonder how big those sauropods were. I don’t know of any studies that attempt to rigorously estimate the size of a sauropod from its tracks or vice versa, so in the finest tradition of the internet in general and blogging in particular, I’m going to wing it.
First we need some actual measurements of sauropod feet. When Mike and I were in Berlin last fall (gosh, almost a year ago!), we measured the feet (pedes) of the mounted Giraffatitan and Diplodocus for this very purpose. The Diplodocus feet were both 59 cm wide, and the Giraffatitan feet were 68 and 73 cm wide. The Diplodocus feet are trustworthy, the Giraffatitan bits less so. Unfortunately, the pes is the second part of the skeleton of Giraffatitan that is less well known than I would like (after the cervico-dorsal neural spines). The reconstructed feet look believable, but “believability” is hard to calibrate and probably a poor predictor of reality when working with sauropods.
One thing I won’t go into is that Giraffatitan (HM SII) probably massed more than twice what Diplodocus (CM 84/94) did, but on the other hand G. bore more of its weight on its forelimbs. It would be interesting to calculate whether the shifted center of mass would be enough to even out the pressure exerted by the hindfeet of the two animals; Don Henderson may have done this already.
Anyway, let’s say for the sake of argument that the hindfeet of the mounted Giraffatitan are sized about right. The next problem is figuring out how much soft tissue surrounded the bones. In other words, how much wider was the fleshy foot–deformed under load!–than the articulated pes skeleton? I am of two minds on this. On one hand, sauropods probaby had a big heel pad like that of elephants, and it seems reasonable that the heel pad plus the normal skin, fat, and muscle might have expanded the fleshy foot considerably beyond the edges of the bones. On the other hand, the pedal skeleton is widest across the distal ends of the phalanges, and in well-preserved tracks like the one below the fleshy foot is clearly not much wider than that (thanks, Brian, for the photo!).
Bear in mind that a liberal estimate of soft tissue will give a conservative estimate of the animal’s size, and vice versa. Looking at the AMNH track pictured above, it seems that the width added by soft tissue could possibly be as little as 5% of the width of the pes skeleton. Skewing hard in the opposite direction, an additional 20% or more does not seem unreasonable for other animals (keep in mind this would only be 10% on either side of the foot). Using those numbers, Diplodocus (CM 84/94) would have left tracks as narrow as 62 cm or as wide as 71 cm. For Giraffatitan (HM SII) I’ll use the wider of the two pes measurements, because the foot is expected to deform under load and the 73 cm wide foot looked just as believable as the 68 cm foot (for whatever that’s worth). Applying the same scale factors (1.05 and 1.20) yields a pes track width of 77-88 cm.
These numbers are like pieces of legislation, or sausages: the results are more pleasant to contemplate than the process that produced them. They’re ugly, and possibly wrong. But they give us someplace to start from in considering the possible sizes of the biggest sauropod trackmakers. Something with a hindfoot track 1.5 meters wide would be, using these numbers, conservatively more than twice as big as (2.11x) the mounted Carnegie Diplodocus or 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 10 tons for Vanilla Dippy (14,000L x 0.7 kg/L = 9800 kg), would have had a mass of 94 metric tons (104 short tons). The monster Giraffatitan-like critter would have been “only” 130 feet long, but with a 14.5 meter neck and a mass of 113 metric tons (125 short tons; starting from a conservative 23 metric tons for HM SII).
Keep in mind that these are conservative estimates, for both the size of the trackmakers and the masses of the “known” critters. If we use the conservative soft tissue/liberal animal size numbers, the makers of the 1.5 meter tracks were 2.4 times as big as the mounted Diplodocus or almost twice as big as the mounted Giraffatitan, in which case masses in the blue whale range of 150-200 tons become not just probable but inevitable.
Going the other way, I can think of only a handful of ways that the “conservative” trackmaker estimates might still be too big:
First, the pes of Giraffatitan might have been bigger than reconstructed in the mounted skeleton. Looking at the photo above, I can image a pes 10% wider that wouldn’t do any violence to the “believability” of the mount. That would make the estimated track of HM SII 10% wider and the estimated size of the HM-SII-on-steroids correspondingly smaller. But that wouldn’t affect the scaled up Diplodocus estimate, and the feet of Giraffatitan would have to be a LOT bigger than reconstructed to avoid the reality of an animal at least half again as big as HM SII.
Second, the amount of soft tissue might have been greater than even the liberal soft tissue/conservative size estimate allows. But I think that piling on 20% more soft tissue than bone is already beyond what most well-preserved tracks would justify, so I’m not worried on that score. (What scares me more is the thought that the conservative estimates are too conservative, and the real trackmakers even bigger.)
Third, I suppose it is possible that sauropod feet scaled allometrically with size and that big sauropods left disproportionately big tracks. I’m also not worried about this. For one thing, when they’ve been measured sauropod appendicular elements tend to scale isometrically, and it would be weird if feet were the undiscovered exception. For another, the allometric oversizing of the feet would have to be pronounced to make much of a dent in the estimated size of the trackmakers. I find the idea of 100-ton sauropods more palatable than the idea of 70-ton sauropods with clown shoes.
Fourth, the meta-point, what if the Broome and Plagne tracks are underprints? [Please see Tony Thulborn's comment below regarding footprints and underprints.] I’ve seen some tracks-with-undertracks where the magnification of the apparent track size in the undertracks was just staggering. The Broom tracks have gotten one brief note and The Plagne tracks have not been formally described at all, so all of this noodling around about trackmaker size could go right out the window. Mind you, I don’t have any evidence that the either set are underprints, and at least for the Broome tracks the evidence seems to go the other way, I’m just trying to cover all possible bases.
So. Sauropods got big. As usual, we can’t tell exactly how big. Any one individual can leave many tracks but only one skeleton, so we might expect the track record to sample the gigapods more effectively than the skeletal record. Interestingly, the largest fragmentary skeletal remains (i.e., Amphicoelias and Bruhathkayosaurus, assuming they’re legit) and the largest tracks (i.e., Plagne and Broome) point to animals of roughly the same size.
It’s also weird that some of the biggest contenders in both categories have been so little published. I mean, if I had access to Bruhathkayosaurus or a track 1.5 m wide, you can bet that I’d be dropping everything else like a bad habit until I had the gigapod evidence properly written up. What gives? [The implication that the Broome tracks were not properly written up is both wrong and unfair; please see the apology at top.]
Finally, IF the biggest fragmentary gigapods and the biggest tracks are faithful indicators of body size, they suggest that gigapods were broadly distributed in space and time (and probably phylogeny). I wonder if these were representatives of giga-taxa, or just extremely large individuals of otherwise vanilla sauropods. Your thoughts are welcome.
Epilogue: What About Breviparopus?
It’s past time someone set the record straight about damn Breviparopus. The oft-quoted track length of 115 cm is (A) much smaller than either the Broome or Plagne tracks, and (B) the combined length of the manus and pes prints together; I know, I looked it up (Dutuit and Ouazzou 1980). Why anyone would report track “length” that way is beyond me, but what is more mysterious is why anyone was taken in by it, since the width of 50 cm (pathetic!) is usually quoted along with the 115 cm “length”, indicating an animal smaller than Vanilla Diplodocus (track length is much more likely than width to get distorted by foot motions during locomotion) [This part is wrong; see the update below.]. But people keep stumbling on crap (thanks, Guiness book!) about how at 157 feet long (determined how, exactly?) Breviparopus was possibly the largest critter to walk the planet. Puh-leeze. If there’s one fact that everyone ought to know about Breviparopus, it’s that it was smaller than the big mounted sauropods at museums worldwide. The only thing super-sized about it is the cloud of ignorance, confusion, and hype that clings to the name like cheap perfume. Here’s the Wikipedia article if you want to do some much-needed revising.
UPDATE (Nov 17 2009): The width of the Breviparopus pes tracks is 90 cm, not 50 cm. The story of the 50 cm number is typically convoluted. Many thanks to Nima Sassani for doing the detective work. Rather than steal his thunder, I’ll point you to his explanation here. Point A above is still valid: Breviparopus was dinky compared to the Broome and Plagne trackmakers.
You know I ain’t gonna raise the specter of a beast 1.7 times the size of HM SII without throwing in a photoshopped giant cervical. So here you go: me with C8 of Giraffatitan blown up to 170% (the vert, not me). Compare to unmodified original here.
- Dutuit, J.M., and A. Ouazzou. 1980. Découverte d’une piste de Dinosaure sauropode sur le site d’empreintes de Demnat (Haut-Atlas marocain). Mémoires de la Société Géologique de France, Nouvelle Série 139:95-102.
- Thulborn, R.A., T.Hamley and P.Foulkes. 1994. Preliminary report on sauropod dinosaur tracks in the Broome Sandstone (Lower Cretaceous) of Western Australia. Gaia 10:85-96.