Which was the biggest dinosaur? (Answer: it’s complicated)
October 20, 2015
I just gave an answer to this question on Quora, and it occurred to me that I ought to also give it a permanent home here. So here it is.
This is a great example of a question that you’d think would have a simple, clear answer, but doesn’t. In fact, as a palaeontologist specialising in dinosaur gigantism, I have an abiding fear of being asked this question in a pub quiz, and not being able to produce the name that’s written on the quizmaster’s answer sheet.
First, what do we mean by “biggest”? Diplodocus was longer than Apatosaurus, but Apatosaurus was heavier. Giraffatitan was taller than either. Let’s simplify and assume we want to know the heaviest dinosaur.
Second, estimating the masses of extinct animals is incredibly hard even when we have a pretty complete skeleton. For example, the gigantic mounted brachiosaur skeleton in Berlin (which used to be called “Brachiosaurus” brancai but is now recognised as the separate genus Giraffatitan) has been subject to at least 14 estimates in the published scientific literature,. They vary from 13,618 kg to 78,258 kg — a factor of 5.75 for the same individual. That’s like looking at a human skeleton and not knowing whether its from Kate Moss or Arnold Schwazenegger. (There are reasons for this and I urge you to read the linked article.)
Third, the big dinosaurs tend to be very poorly represented. Giraffatitan is probably the heaviest dinosaur known from a more or less complete skeleton (though even that is put together from several different individuals) so I could give that as the answer to the hypothetical pub-quiz — though the answer sheet would probably be out of date and call it Brachiosaurus.
Fourth, which individual of a given species do we mean? I said Giraffatitan is known from a more or less complete skeleton. And my best guess is that that individual massed, say, 30,000 kg. But an isolated fibula of the same species is known that’s 12.6% longer than the one in the skeletal mount. That suggest an animal that masses 1.126^3 = 1.43 times as massive as the mounted skeleton — say 43,000 kg. There might be yet bigger Giraffatitan individuals. On the other hand, there isthat Apatosaurus, which is usually thought of as not being so big, might have got even bigger.
Fifth, the very biggest specimens tend to be known from only a handful of bones. A good example here is the titanosaur Argentinosaurus, which is known from several vertebrae and a few limb bones, but not all from the same individual. It’s a good bet that it massed 60-70 tonnes — so maybe about twice as much as Giraffatitan, but much less than the often-cited 100 tonnes. Other, more recently discovered, titanosaurs seem to be in the same size class: Puertasaurus, Futalognkosaurus, Dreadnoughtus and more. They they are hard to compare directly due to the paucity of overlapping material, or at least . (Scientists are working on getting more of this stuff properly described in the literature, which will help.)
But, sixth, the very biggest dinosaurs tend to be apocryphal. There’s Amphicoelias fragillimus,. This may have been 50 m long and massed 80 tonnes; but other published estimates say 58 m and 122 tonnes. We really can’t say from the very poor remains.
So if you get asked this question in a pub quiz, your best bet is to roll a dice, pick an answer, close your eyes and hope. Roll 1 for Giraffatitan, 2 for Brachiosaurus, 3 for Apatosaurus, 4 for Argentinosaurus, 5 for Dreadnoughtus and 6 for Amphicoelias fragillimus. Good luck!