Argentinosaurus: smaller than you think?
April 15, 2010
As often happens here, a comment thread got to be more interesting than the original post and ended up deserving a post of its own. In this case, I’m talking about the thread following the recent Mamenchisaurus tail club post, which got into some interesting territory regarding mass estimates for the largest sauropods. This post was inspired by a couple of comments in particular.
Zach Armstrong wrote:
I don’t trust Mazzetta et al.’s (2004) estimate, because it is based off of logarithmic-based regression analyses of certain bone lengths, which a recent paper by Packard et al. (2009) have shown to overestimate the mass by as much as 100 percent! This would mean the estimate of 73 tonnes given my Mazzetta would be reduced to 36 tonnes.
To which Mike replied:
Zach, Mazzetta et al. used a variety of different techniques in arriving at their Argentinosaurus mass estimate, cross-checked them against each other and tested their lines for quality of fit. I am not saying their work is perfect (whose is?) but I would certainly not write it off as readily as you seem to have.
Weeeeell…Mazzetta et al. did use a variety of measurements to make their mass estimates, but they did it in a way that hardly puts them above criticism. First, their estimates are based on limb-bone allometry, which is known to have fairly low accuracy and precision (like, often off by a factor of 2, as Zach noted in his comment). Second, the “raw data” for their allometric equation consists of volumetric mass estimates. So their primary estimation method was calibrated against…more estimates. Maybe I’m just lazy, but I would have skipped the second step and just used volumetric methods throughout. Still, I can see the logic in it for critters like Argentinosaurus where we have limb bones but no real idea of the overall form or proportions of the entire animal.
Anyway, the accuracy of their allometric estimates is intertwingled with their volumetric results, so if their volumetric estimates are off…. The volumetric estimates used a specific gravity of 0.95, which to me is unrealistically high. Taking into account the skeletal pneumaticity alone would lower that to 0.85 or 0.8, and if the critter had air sacs comparable to those of birds, 0.75 or even 0.7 is not beyond the bounds of possibility (as discussed here and also covered by Zach in his comment).
Now, Mazzetta et al. (2004) were not ignorant of the potential effects of pneumaticity. Here’s what they wrote about density (p. 5):
The values from Christiansen (1997) were recalculated using a slightly higher overall density (950 kg/m^3), as the 900 kg/m^3 used in that paper may be slightly too low. Most neosauropods have extensively pneumatised vertebrae, particularly the cervicals, which would tend to lower overall density. However, these animals are also very large, implying a proportionally greater amount of skeletal tissue (Christiansen, 2002), particularly appendicular skeletal tissue, and consequently, they should have had a higher overall density.
This is pretty interesting: they are arguing that the positive allometry of skeletal mass as a fraction of body mass–which is well documented in extant critters–would offset the mass reduction from pneumaticity in animals as big as sauropods. I haven’t given that enough thought, and I definitely need to. My guess–and it is a guess–is that the effects of skeletal allometry were not enough to undo the lightening imposed by both PSP (~10%) and pulmonary air sacs (another ~10%, separate from the lungs), but I haven’t done any math on this yet. Fodder for another post, I reckon.
Getting back to Mazzetta et al., some of the volumes themselves strike me as too high, like ~41,500 liters for HM SII. That’s a LOT more voluminous than Greg Paul, Don Henderson, or Mike found for the same critter. The 16 metric ton Diplodocus and 20.6 metric ton Apatosaurus used by Mazzetta et al. are also outside the bounds of other recent and careful estimates. Not necessarily wrong, but definitely at the upper end of the current spectrum.
Mazzetta et al. got a mass estimate of 73,000 kg for Argentinosaurus, but (1) they used a density that I think is probably too high even if skeletal allometry is considered, (2) at least some of the volumetric mass estimates that form the “data” for the limb-bone regressions are probably too high, and (3) even if those problems were dealt with, there is still the general untrustworthiness of limb-bone regression as a mass estimation technique. 1 and 2, if fixed to my satisfaction, would tend to push the estimated mass of Argentinosaurus down, perhaps significantly (the effect of 3 is, if not unknowable, at least unknown to me). Given that, Zach’s ~52 metric ton estimate for Argentinosaurus is very defensible. (Probably worth remembering that I am a sparse-wing fanatic, though.)
None of this means that Mazzetta et al. (2004) were sloppy or that their estimate is wrong. Indeed, one of the reasons that we can have such a deep discussion of these points is that every link in their chain is so well documented. And there is room for honest disagreement in areas where the fossils don’t constrain things as much as we’d like. You cannot simply take a skeleton, even a complete one, and get a single whole-body volume. The body masses of wild animals often fluctuate by a third over the course of a single year, which pretty well buries any hope of getting precise estimates based on skeletons alone. And no one knows how dense–or sparse–sauropods were. I haven’t actually done any math to gauge the competing effects of skeletal allometry on one hand and PSP and air sacs on the other–and, AFAIK, no one else has either (Mazzetta et al. were guessing about pneumaticity as much as I’m guessing about skeletal allometry). Finally, Argentinosaurus is known from a handful of vertebrae and a handful of limb bones and that’s all, at least for now. If we can’t get a single body volume even when we have a complete skeleton, we have to get real about how precise we can be in cases where we have far less material.
The upshot is not that Argentinosaurus massed 73 metric tons or 52 or any other specific number. As usual, the two-part take home message is that (1) mass estimates of sauropods are inherently imprecise, so all we can do is make our assumptions as clear as possible, and (2) even the biggest sauropods might have been smaller than you think. ;-)
Mazzetta, G.V., Christiansen, P., and Farina, R.A. 2004. Giants and bizarres: body size of some southern South American Cretaceous dinosaurs. Historical Biology 2004:1-13.