Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bruhathkayosaurus is Dead. Again.

 Above: Working sketches for a speculative B. matleyi reconstruction by Steve O'Connor. Click here for Steve's final drawing.

I don't know how common this knowledge is, but this is the first I've heard of it so humor me while I mourn the possibility of ever re-assessing the intriguingly large sauropod specimen known as Bruthathkayosaurus matleyi.

B. matleyi was known from fragmentary remains of the pelvis and limb bones found in the Tiruchirappalli district of Tamil Nadu, India. It was first described by Yadagiri and Ayyasami in 1989 as species of giant allosauroid. This classification was widely doubted online, but little follow-up work was ever done. The initial description is widely regarded as exceedingly poor in quality and not much can be discerned about the specimen due to poorly detailed drawings and insufficient text. Tom Holtz has even stated that "the hypothesis that this is no more than petrified wood has not been falsified yet to my satisfaction." However, Mickey Mortimer later noted that the tree trunk hypothesis "is questionable given the non-cylindrical bones preserved such as the ilium. Additionally, Chatterjee has personally examined the fossils, and while he has a bad record of misidentifying taxa, I give him enough credit to not confuse a tree for a limb bone."

Sankar Chatterjee did indeed apparently examine the material and told George Olshevsky and Tracy Ford that he believed it to be a titanosaur, as reported in 1999 here.

Holtz responded to these appeals by noting that "not all units are the Dinosaur Park or the Djadokhta. In some preservation is really, really, really crappy. You might get all sorts of authigenic growth on the fossils, or alteration of the original material. In outcrops like that, it isn't out of the question to be fooled into thinking bone is wood and vice versa, especially from simple surficial appearances. This is why a section of the fossil would help resolve if it is bone or wood." So, there's that. We'll now never be able to take that section.

While B. matleyi was a near-mythical celebrity among "semi-apocryphal gigapods", its legend loomed larger than (published) reality. While most online sources (such as the DML posts quoted above) had long since agreed that the specimen was probably a gigantic sauropod and not a gigantic carnosaur, no actual published reference to the species as a sauropod existed until five years ago (Krause et al. 2006).

And what a sauropod it was, maybe! Obviously with such a paltry footprint on the scientific literature, reliable size estimates for such a poorly described specimen are hard to come by. Luckily, some researchers have done the best they could with the available data and determined that, if B. matleyi was indeed a titanosaur with similar proportions to say, Argentinosaurus, it would have been very large indeed. Matt Wedel over at SV-POW has estimated the size of this animal in life at 139 tons. Mickey Mortimer has estimated its length at up to 34 meters. That would position it as one of the largest species of land animals ever, second only to Amphicoelias fragillimus, possibly.

And now, it appears that B. matleyi has suffered the same fate as its atlantosauroid rival for the record. In the comments at another SV-POW post about semi-apocryphal gigapods, Wedel reports that the type and only specimen of B. matleyi was at some point washed away in a flood.
UPDATE: Thanks to Fabrizio in the comments pointing out a source closer to the horse's mouth. Artist "palaeozoologist" at DeviantArt posted an apparent personal correspondance from Kumar Ayyasami last January, in which he reported that the specimen was lost in heavy rains several years ago. (There's some more discussion of the specimen and the author's publication record here, including the suggestion that Dr. Ayyasami may now be deceased--that is, if you can get past the inexplicable Ali G speak). So it sounds like not only was the specimen poorly described, but nobody had bothered to actually collect it from the field site in the ~15 years since its discovery, and it was (predictably and inevitably) lost to erosion.

Any hope of verifying the stupefying claims about this species' size now seem to be lost. And unlike A. fragilimus, which was described and well-illustrated by a mostly reputable source with no obvious errors, the poor state of the B. matleyi description will forever doom this creature to the realm of dubious claims. After all, given the poor state of the description, it seems possible that a simple scale bar error or other mix-up could have tainted the data, and therefore all of our size estimates.

So here's to Bruthathkayosaurus matleyi, a beast (or possibly, a tree?) that died 70 million years ago, raised its spectral head (or crown?) again for one tantalizing moment and then, like Hitchcock's Ornithichnites, sunk back beneath the earth before we could really learn anything about it.


  1. The original source is here

    And I reviewed all i know about this fact and his author(s) here in this funny post

  2. I find that drawing painful to look at. lol. It's from about 2006. It's not really based on anything other than speculative limb measurements on the DML. I hadn't even seen the drawings in the description at that time.

    It's frustrating to learn that the material is gone. Based on the images in the description it's not even certain the supposed 2m long 'tibia' was a tibia.

  3. The original description and illustrations are poor enough, that the label 'Bruthathkayosaurus' could be construed as a nude name - nomen nudum (as well as nomen dubium), anyone?

  4. Very interesting to learn the material was washed away. So not only were the authors terrible at drawing and describing, they didn't even try collecting the specimens...

    As for Jay's question, the ICZN doesn't require ANY illustration (it's only a recommendation, and only for post-1999 taxa), nor does it mandate quality description (only 'a description or definition that states in words characters that are purported to differentiate the taxon'). The paper contains an explicit albeit crappy diagnosis, so the name's valid.

  5. Happy New Year! This is a very good and important post fro all those who want to know the facts about this "legend" that probably wasn't (or at least may not have been so big). People keep asking me about Bruhathkayosaurus, so I'm reposting this on my blog soon (with credit given of course) hope you don't mind :)

  6. @Nima Thanks! feel free to spread the word. I also see B. matleyi brought up very often, disproportionate to our actual amount of knowledge. This thing makes Amphicoelias's publication record look like Tyrannosaurus.