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.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Waddle, _Achillobator_, Waddle!

Above: Revised illustration of Achillobator giganticus with corrected leg proportions. Scale bar = 500 mm. By Matt Martyniuk, all rights reserved.

"I've hunted most things that can hunt you, but the way these things move..."
"Fast for a biped?"
"Cheetah speed. Fifty, sixty miles an hour if they ever got out into the open, and they're astonishing jumpers."

This quote from the original Jurassic Park film did much to cement the image of dromaeosaurids, the raptor* dinosaurs, in the public consciousness as fleet-footed hyper predators. Despite being nearly 20 years old, this portrayal has by and large remained unchanged in popular culture, with raptors often stock monsters with near-supernatural murderous abilities in everything from tongue-in-cheek xkcd comics to (I hope) tongue-in-cheek made for SyFy movies.

*Yes, I'm going to commit a cardinal sin and refer to dromies as "raptors". "Raptor" in ornithology refers to most predatory birds, even those that hunt on the ground (the Raptor Research Foundation considers Secretarybirds to be raptors). Since dromaeosaurids were both predatory and birds under any sane definition of the word, there should be no problem referring to them as an extinct group of raptors.

But were raptors really particularly fast? Bipedal running speed in digitigrade animals (that is, those that walk on their toes like birds rather than their ankles like humans) is usually roughly determined by the ratio of the lower leg bones (the tibia/tibiotarsus) to the upper foot bones (the metatarsus). The longer the upper foot is in length compared to the lower leg, the faster an animal could run. Therefore, we would expect the fastest theropod dinosaurs to be those with the longest metatarsi relative to tibiae.

A prime example of a theropod specialized for running very very quickly are the parvicursorines. This specialized group of alvarezsaurids (strange theropodan insectivores with stout, powerful arms each bearing one very large claw) has among the longest lower leg to upper leg ratio of any Mesozoic dinosaur group.  Looking at the statistics compiled by Mickey Mortimer at The Theropod Database (a phenomenal resource I turn to so often I really should just make it my browser's home page), the type specimen of Parvicursor remotus (see leg diagram here) has a femur 52.6 mm long, a tibiotarsus about 75.6 mm long, and a metatarsus 58 mm long. The functional lower leg is 113 mm long, well over twice the length of the upper leg. More importantly, the lower leg and upper foot bones were fairly close to being equal in length. This animal was clearly a speed demon.

How does this compare to raptors? If, as Jurassic Park claimed, raptors were exceptionally fast, we would expect them to have similarly long lower legs. The terrifyingly human-sized raptors in JP were a Hollywood invention, but we do know of raptor species slightly smaller and slightly larger than they were.

On the smaller side were the famous Deinonychus antirrhopus. According to TTD, the femora of one relatively complete specimen measured 248 mm, with a tibia 324 mm long, and a metatarsus 151 mm long. Again, the total lower leg length is nearly double the upper leg. But the upper foot bones were only half as long as the lower leg bones.

The "fast raptor" meme was started by John Ostrom himself, when he first described Deinonychus in 1969. This was merely speculation on his part, as the hind limb was not completely known in the first specimens. Ostrom actually changed his opinion in later papers, finding that the femur was shorter than he'd initially thought, and that the foot bones were surprisingly short compared to other dinosaurs. Not only was Deinonychus not particularly fast, it probably could not have been nearly as fast as most other small theropods, including modern flightless birds, let alone cheetahs.

Another very popular type of raptors are advanced giant dromaeosaurines (Utahraptor and Achillobator). I recently found myself revising an older drawing of an Achillobator giganticus, which were, as mentioned above, only slightly larger than the Jurassic Park raptors. Many young dinosaur fans are very attached to these species in part because they're much larger than most other raptors, and because they had a slightly anthropomorphized novel written about them by Bob Bakker shortly after JP was released (Raptor Red). As a result, these big birds have a cachet in the collective consciousness similar to the generally more famous Deinonychus and Velociraptor--that of super-fast, agile and intelligent predators.

However, when finishing up my revised drawing, I had to double check the proportions several times to make sure I wasn't screwing it up. To my amazement, the legs, particularly the lower legs and upper foot bones, looked almost laughably short. Again according to TTD, the femur of A. giganticus measures 505 mm long, the tibia 490 mm long, and the metatarsus a paltry 234 mm long--less than half the length of the tibia. Not only is the metatarsus much, much shorter than the tibia, the entire lower leg in only marginally longer than the femur! The first thing that struck me wen looking at my own reconstruction was that this looked like the dromaeosaurid equivalent of Majungasaurus, those abilisaurids with the ludicrously short legs (which, coincidentally like Achillobator, have been suggested to be made up of chimeric specimens). It is also reminiscint of another stout-legged dromaeosaurid species, Balaur bondoc. While Balaur have been suggested to be possibly herbivorous due to these strange proportions, partial jaws and some teeth of Achillobator confirm that they were carnivores. But with legs like those, it's hard to imagine these creatures behaved the way the public imagines raptors to have done, chasing down fast moving prey. Frankly, it's hard to imagine Achillobator doing much beyond waddling across Nemegtian lake shores hunting turtles in epic slow-motion chases.

For the record, no described specimen of Utahraptor preserves both a femur, a tibia, and a metatarsus, so it's impossible to say whether or not they had the same squat proportions (unless somebody has some more detailed information on the numerous undescribed specimens in the BYU collections). For now, it would be safe to assume that they, too, would have been a laughing stock if they were caught trying to run.

Ok, but why would predatory animals have such stubby legs? There is a lot of evidence that dromaeosaurids were specialized for hunting big game, often animals larger than themselves. Deinonychus are infamous for their association with large ornithopods Tenontosaurus tilletti, and while evidence suggests they mainly targeted juveniles (Forster 1984), these were still much larger in terms of weight than even adult Deinonychus. Velociraptor are known to have grappled with the larger Protoceratops, and even a rumored specimen of a Microraptor apparently preserves evidence that they tackled prey larger than themselves. The short legs, especially the short foot bones, seem to be linked with the function of the large sickle-claw, making lack of speed a trade-off for improved ability to grapple and kill large game. Dinosaurs like Tenontosaurus and Protoceratops probably weren't particularly fast-moving themselves, making this sacrifice in speed worthwhile for the chance to down a massive animal that could provide a whole lot of food.

In the end, while the raptor chase scenes in Jurassic Park remain some of the most exciting parts of the movie, they require a significant amount of disbelief to be suspended; after all, it would be more realistic but slightly less suspenseful if Laura Dern had been able to evade the raptors in the power bunker by simply breaking into a light jog.