Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Sauropod is Bigger

There is a new record holder for second-longest dinosaur, longest if you only count bones that currently exist. Skip past the long-winded intro if you want to get to the point!

New mounted skeleton of Mamenchisaurus, in Tokyo, the longest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world. Image by Shiziuo Kambayashi from the AP.

What is it about pissing contests over the largest dinosaurs? Who cares if Spinosaurus is a few metres longer than Tyrannosaurus? Does it really matter which super long-necked, long tailed giant sauropod is slightly longer than its nearest competitor?

Of course it does!

Well not really, but it can be a fun part of armchair paleontology to keep track of these things. I created the Wikipedia article Dinosaur Size to try and help people keep tabs on this issue using peer-reviewed sources (though for a while there a few too many Internet sources were creeping in, but we've put a stop to that).

Now, everyone gets their shorts in a bunch over the biggest theropod, because even though sauropods are nearly always bigger, they're not the ones who will try to eat Jeff Goldblum. This is evidenced by the fact that one of the biggest theropods in terms of sheer mass, Therizinosaurus, is almost always ignored in these competitions because it was probably herbivorous and looked like a giant porcupine goose with a beer belly. However, despite how cool theropods may be (i.e., extremely cool), sauropods are without a doubt the group where we find the largest dinosaurs.

So which dinosaur was largest? Well, define large. Do you mean length, height, or mass? In modern animals, mass is usually what counts. The African elephant is considered the largest land animal, even though the giraffe is taller and the reticulated python is longer. The most massive, and therefore largest, dinosaur known from decent remains that still exist is a bit of a tie game right now. Traditionally, the largest sauropod known is cited as the titanosaur Argentinosaurus, with rational mass estimates ranging between 78 and 83 tonnes. However, several other titanosaurs were about the same size, if not bigger, including Puertasaurus and the horrifically named Futalognkosaurus (note that the official name even includes a misspelling, yikes!).

Scale diagram showing several of the largest dinosaurs discussed in this post. Green: Diplodocus. Orange: Supersaurus. Purple: Argentinosaurus. Blue: Sauroposeidon. Grey: Bruhathkayosaurus. Red: Amphicoelias. Scale bar = 40m. Image by Matt Martyniuk, licensed.

The new goss here though, to finally get to the reason for this post, is that the record for longest dinosaur has changed... sort of (see final paragraph, below). When I was a kid, I was enthralled by the longest known dinosaur according to several of my books, the "Seismosaurus" (earthquake lizard). This monster diplodocid (whip-tailed sauropod) was said to be over 130ft in length. Well, those initial estimates were a little too hopeful, and based on the mis-identification of a tail bone which threw the estimates off by up to 30%. More reasonable estimates place its total length at a mere 33.5m (110ft), and furthermore, it turned out to likely be just a slightly oversize specimen of Diplodocus anyway.

The downsizing of Seismo--er, Diplodocus left the length champion to its cousin, Supersaurus. As the preparation of a fairly complete skeleton nicknamed "Jimbo" by Scott Hartman showed, Supersaurus probably reached a total length of 34m, or 112ft, surpassing both Diplodocus and weight champion Argentinosaurus by a meter or two (in the process robbing the titanosaurs of their clear victory in both units of measure).

However, now a new champion emerges by a neck (I'll be here all weekend folks!). A new specimen of the mega-necked Chinese sauropod Mamenchisaurus unearthed in 2001 was initially reported as the largest of its kind at a respectable, but short, 30m (98ft). However, a surprise came when they assembled a reconstructed skeleton for a new exhibition opening in Tokyo: the specimen actually measures a whopping 35m long, or 115ft, beating out Supersaurus for the title of longest known dinosaur. See photo at top of this post, news story here.
Extraordinarily accurate (down to the scales) illustration on Mamenchisaurus by Steve OC, licensed.

That is, if you don't count Amphicoelias. This monster, known from a single partial vertebrae that was 8ft tall and would have been 12 if complete, was very similar to Diplodocus and, scaling up from the same bone in that animal, Amphi would have been at the very least 40m long (131ft) and probably in the area of 120 tons, easily trumping all other contenders in every category: length, weight, and height (read the Wiki I started and wrote most of on Amphi here). So far the only contender to that throne is the even more dubious Bruhathkayosaurus, which is known from a poorly preserved, poorly published, and basically never studied leg bone sometimes thought to be a tree trunk, and even if the size the describers said it was is probably vastly overestimated in published surveys. For now, Amphi is the king, but its smaller cousins with better remains are inching closer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More On Chewy Hadrosaurs

First, thanks to those who commented and emailed regarding my post on the controversial hadrosaur chewing mechanics paper (see "Nom nom nom"). Vince Williams, lead author of the paper in question, was among those who contacted me about it, and he pointed out an error that stems from (yet again) science reporting that isn't all there.

Above: Underside of the skull of Leonardo, the Brachylophosaurus mummy. By Ed T., from Flikr. Licensed.

My last post reiterated a statement from this MSNBC article, that gut contents of the famous hadrosaur mummy "Leonardo" seem to contradict Williams et al.'s findings, because the plant matter was

a) chopped or sheared, not chewed, and
b) mainly coniferous, indicating that hadrosaurs were browsers rather than grazers.

Well, I checked up on the source that MSNBC used for this information (Leonardo is, despite documentaries on the History Channel, not fully studied and published on yet). That lead me to another MSNBC article on Leo, which appears to state the opposite! From the older, cited article:
  • "An analysis of the gut contents from an exceptionally well-preserved juvenile dinosaur fossil suggests that the hadrosaur's last meal included plenty of well-chewed leaves digested into tiny bits."
  • "An analysis of pollen found in the specimen's gut region revealed a variety of plants, including ferns, conifers and flowering plants. Although the pollen could have been ingested when the dinosaur drank water, the tiny leaf bits, under 5 millimeters (a quarter-inch) in length, indicate that Leonardo was a big browser of plants, Chin said."
So, the gut contents in question actually would seem to support, at least in part, Williams' findings. Even stranger given the apparent lack of cranial kinesis reported last December. Obviously further study is needed on this...