How big was Brachiosaurus altithorax? I mean, really?
June 2, 2014
I’m currently writing a popular guide to dinosaurs, to be published by Random House next autumn [Ed.: available now at amazon.com and at amazon.co.uk]. I’ve been writing about [Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan], and have read your 2009 study vindicating the proposal to separate them into two genera.[…]I know you consider Brachiosaurus likely to have been bigger (and note that the specimen was not fully grown), with a longer trunk and tail – but most of the sources I can find give both animals the same body length, generally around 26m. Presumably this doesn’t reflect your work, and your calculations are different.
I replied at the time, and said that I’d post that response here on SV-POW!. But one thing and another prevented me from getting around to it, and I forgot all about it until recently. Since we’re currently in a sequence of Brachiosaurus-themed posts [part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6], this seems like a good time to fix that. So here is my response, fresh from November 2011, lightly edited.
Well, Giraffatitan has only been recognised as a separate animal at all in the last couple of years, and nearly everything that has been written about “Brachiosaurus“, at least in the technical literature, is actually about Giraffatitan. So existing sources that give the same length for both are probably not making a meaningful distinction between the two animals.
First, on Giraffatitan: Janensch (1950b:102) did a great job of measuring his composite mounted skeleton. His figure for the total length of Giraffatitan along the neural canal is 22.46 m, and is certainly the best estimate in the literature for an actual brachiosaur specimen (and quite possibly the best for any sauropod).
I don’t know where the figure of 26 m comes from, but as Janensch (1961:213) notes, the isolated fibula XV2 of Giraffatitan in the Berlin collection is 134 cm long, compared with 119 cm for that of the mounted skeleton. This is 1.126 times as long, which if scaled isometrically would yield a total length of 25.29 m. So that is defensible, but 26 m is not, really.
I would advise sticking with Janensch’s published figure of 22.46 m, as it’s based on good material, and also because it forms the basis of my comparative estimate for a Brachiosaurus of similar limb length.
Now in my 2009 paper I estimated with reasonable rigour that the torso of Brachiosaurus was probably about 23% longer than that of Giraffatitan, yielding 4.82 m rather than 3.92 that Janensch gave for Giraffatitan. On much less solid evidence, I tentatively estimated that the tail of Brachiosaurus might have been 20-25% longer than that of Giraffatitan. Given the paucity of evidence I would play safer by going with the lower end of that estimate, which would give a tail length of 9.14 m compared with Janensch’s 7.62 for Giraffatitan. Riggs (1904) tells us that the sacrum of Brachiosaurus is 0.95 m long, which is slightly less than 1.07 m for Giraffatitan. Finally, since we know nothing of the head and neck of Brachiosaurus, the null hypothesis has to be that they were similar in proportion to those of Giraffatitan.
Putting it all together, Brachiosaurus may have been longer in the torso by 0.9 m, and in the tail by 1.52 m, but shorter in the sacrum by 0.12 m — for a total additional length of 2.3 m. That would make Brachiosaurus 24.76 m long, which is 10% longer than Giraffatitan.
Note that all the Brachiosaurus figures are given with much greater precision than the sparse data we have really allows. I think you could round Janensch’s 22.46 m for Giraffatitan to 22.5 and be pretty confident in that number, but you shouldn’t really say anything more precise than “maybe about 25 m” for Brachiosaurus.
Finally, you correctly note that the Brachiosaurus specimen was not fully grown — we can tell because its coracoid was not fused to the scapula. But the same is true of the mounted Giraffatitan, so these two very similarly sized animals were both subadult. How much bigger did they get? We know from the fibula that Giraffatitan got at least 12-13% bigger than the well-known specimen, and I’d be pretty happy guessing the same about Brachiosaurus. And I wouldn’t rule out much bigger specimens, either.
- Janensch, Werner. 1950b. Die Skelettrekonstruktion von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Supplement 7) 3:97-103, and plates VI-VIII. [English translation]
- Janensch, Werner. 1961. Die Gliedmaszen und Gliedmaszengurtel der Sauropoden der Tendaguru-Schichten. Palaeontographica, suppl. 7 (1), teil 3, lief. 4:177-235.
- Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.