Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Really Honkin' Big Animals

Dear Constant Readers,

Being an American, I am stereotypically obsessed with all things gigantic. Also being rather fascinated by Animalia both extinct and extant, it was only a matter of time before a post like this got written. The genesis of this post was Amphicoelias fragillimus, apparently the biggest honkin' dinosaur of them all. See Darren Naish and the Hairy Museum of Natural History for very good posts on this subject. Also thanks to Amber Alborg, for one of the most hillarious adjectives I've ever heard of.

Also please note that animal sizes tend to be exaggerated, if you know for a fact that some of these records are a load of crap, let me know. The last thing I want to do is spread around more crappy information on the Internet! This list isn't meant to be authoritative, but if there are any records I overlooked that really should be on here, give me a shout.

On all "illustrations", please note that I stand a towering 5'8.5" (1.74 m). If you're an average Italian male, that should roughly be your height according to Wikipedia. Just thought you should know.


Our species has quite the impressive range; from 1'8" (50 cm) and 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg) [both Lucia Zarate] to 8'11" (2.72 m) [Robert Wadlow] to 1400 pounds (636 kg) [Jon Bower Minnoch, no picture needed] or even 1600+ pounds (727 kg) if Wikipedia is to be trusted. The tallest non-pathological giant was Angus MacAskill, standing 7'9" and weighing 425 pounds. He was allegedly monstrously strong too, capable of lifting a 2800 pound anchor. That seems far-fetched to me, but his size was real enough for Guinness to include him when their categories were broader. Then there was Mills Darden, who allegedly combined obesity and gigantism, supposedly weighing in at ~1000 pounds and standing 7'6". He was also in Guinness, but his case is less documented and outrageous sounding. Even if there is some exaggeration, our species has quite a shocking range for not being much bigger than chimpanzees on average.

Gorillas are pretty big honkin' animals...for primates at least. Sure they're only in the 5 foot range (1.65 - 1.75 m) while standing (thanks to short legs), but they can still weigh 3-400 pounds (135-180 kg). I think from a human perspective, the overall similarity to gorillas plus the somewhat superhuman size is what makes them impressive. Record sizes are supposedly over 6 feet tall (1.82 m) and 500-ish pounds (227 kg). Obese Gorillas have gotten larger, of course, but they hardly count. The giant lemur Archaeoindris was around the same size, if not larger than the gorilla average at 440 pound (200 kg).

But of course, both of these pale in comparison to the fossil ape Gigantopithecus. Originally thought to be a giant related to man (more on that later), it turned out to be a pongid ape related closer to Sivapithecus and Orangutans than anything else. In the wack world of Cryptozoology, it is seen as a candidate for Bigfoot, despite the likely quadrupedal stance and inferred great size. That's right, there unfortunately isn't much in the way of fossils for this species. Unlike other big jawed hominids (i.e. Paranthropus), this one apparently had a jaw to match the body. Grover Krantz's reconstruction pegged the skull at an astounding 15" high, and I think a recent reconstruction by Ciochon made it even larger (I can't remember where the source is for the life of me). But body reconstructions peg it at around 9-10 feet (~3 meters) and a weight estimate of 600-1000 pounds (300-500 kg). This does sound a little light actually, since a 4.5 foot (1.37 m) Orangutan weighing 180 pounds (81 kg) would scale up to around 1500+ pounds, and a gorilla even more so. That's another American trait, even though I didn't write the paper, I still think it's my God-given right to nitpick needlessly.


One of the most impressive animals, I think, it the Marabou stork. It's ugly as hell , stabs flamingos to death, can eat butcher knives without ill-effect, joins vultures at carcasses, etcetera. It seems like quite the sort of animal to survive for a while no matter what people are doing to the planet...which makes it troubling why it's close relative the Greater Adjutant is doing so poorly. What makes the animal impressive is it's size, roughly 5 feet tall, 20 pounds, with a wingpan that can reach over 9.5 feet. What's really shocking is that there's a record for a Marabou shot by Richard Meinertzhagen in 1934 of...13 feet 4 inches. Another claim made in old editions of Encyclopedia Britannica mentioned a Greater Adjutant 7 feet tall, which would make it proportionally similar. If these claims are to be believed, the Marabou and Adjutant would hold the records for largest wingspan for any bird, the tallest birds, and presumably the heaviest birds too. Leptoptilos titan ("much larger than living adjutants") and Leptoptilos falconeri (6'6"/2m, 45lbs/20kg average) were prehistoric species in the same size class as the uppermost Marabou and Adjutant claims; so even if the modern claims are exaggerations, there were (not-too-distant) prehistoric birds that size. And who knows how big the freaks of those species were.

An extremely artistic depiction of me and a super-Marabou. Image source from here.

Possibly related to the gigantic storks and modern day condors and New World Vultures was a group of birds called the Teratorns. [Correction: The scoundrelous Darren Naish has ruined my fun and pointed out that storks and the vultures/teratorns aren't that closely related.] Often and dubiously portrayed as super-condors, they were likely fairly active predators with a tendency to hunt on their prey on the ground. However, the largest species, Argentavis, may have in fact been a scavenger after all. A presise size estimate is not readily apparent, but it is estimated to have been between 140 and 260 pounds (65 to 12o kg) with a wingspan of 21 to 23 feet (6.5 to 7 m). Even though the current opinion is that this is some sort of mega-vulture, it's still a pretty impressive bird with a head the size of a horse's. I just wish there were better images of it online as to compare myself to.

While Argentavis may have stretched imaginations for how big birds can get, other fliers were out there that were so big, they were almost other-worldly.


The fossil species Pteranodon has a wingspan about the same as that of Argentavis, 20-25 feet (6-7.5 m), but that isn't too big a deal in the Pterosaur world. Sure it probably weighed a great deal less than Argentavis, but it was probably just as striking. And what's interesting is that at one point of time, this was thought to be the upper limit for fliers. As it turns out, the upper limit keeps on getting pushed up; Quetzalcoatlus famously pushed it to an unbelievable 40 feet (12 m). And not only that...their anatomy was just so implausible and other worldly looking that...well I can't describe it with words. Behold one of the most impressive illustrations I've seen, from Mark Witton's flickr site:

The sheer ludicrousness of this animal is beyond words. And this isn't the only species of pterosaur to get this large, the Romanian Hatzegopteryx thambema was around the same size...but had a head nearly 10 feet (3 m) long! That's the longest head of any non-marine animal...on a flying creature. These creatures, along with other giants such as Arambourgiana, are called azdarchids, the largest and last of the pterosaurs. Here's the inevitable link to Darren Naish's blog illustrating that they were in fact in a niche similar to storks...but much larger. And what's amazing is that now the max estimate has been recently kicked up to...60 feet (18 m) from remains found in Mexico. Here's the expected link to the Hairy Museum of Natural History. Now, do I dare "update" the picture...assuming normal proportions and all...to attempt to illustrate the vastness. Well, let me just plug Mart Witton's flickr site one more time and I think it'll be fine.

What can I say, I feel even less significant than normal. Note that I played around with the anatomy, making it more robust overall as big animals tend to do.

This really does make me wonder about the limits that biomechanics impose. It makes me wonder about one question in particular...

[Correction: Darren Naish strikes again! The Pterosaur is no more. I leave the strike outs as a painful reminder to myself to stay more on the ball in the future]

Marine Reptiles

How come marine reptiles didn't get really really big? I mean, the sauropods were more massive than the biggest (freak) elephant by a factor of ten, and who knows how many times bigger that hypothetical mega-pterosaur was than the Kori bustard and other "giant" birds. How come the same isn't true for marine reptiles? How come there isn't some ultra-ichthyosaur that puts the blue whale to shame? Even though I eagerly await the day there's some 200+ ton marine reptile in the books, the ones out there aren't too bad. I mean, they're far bigger than any animal I've had on here so far, so don't be confusing them for unimpressive.

Fortunately for me, National Geographic has given them a recent treatment which, I think, probably beats my good ol' outlines. They seemed to have covered all bases, even covering the super-gigantic Shonisaurus sikanniensis, the largest known marine reptile at an incredible 70 feet, putting it into the whale leugue. But...I think some giant pliosaur fans might be a tad...confused at their favorite animal not getting mentioned. In the BBC documentary there was an 80 foot (25 meter) Liopleurodon weighing 150 tonnes (~160 tons) pretty much just hyped as the biggest marine predator ever. Problem is, there's nothing really to indicate that Liopleurodon got even half that length, actually they seemed to top out at a mere 33 feet (10 meters). But looking at the animal, already the size of a big killer whale, it would have been quite an intimidating predator. Do we really need to exaggerate these animals?

While Liopleurodon didn't get enormous, that doesn't mean that other pliosaurs didn't. The "Monster of Aramberri" was a ~50 foot (15 meter) colossus that apparently wasn't even fully grown. Thanks to the BBC special, it was misrepresented as Liopleurodon, but is apparently different. Actually, what's odd is that there was a report of the (allegedly near-complete) skeleton in 2002, but I haven't seen anything recent on it. What species is it? How big was it? Was it in fact killed by a larger pliosaur as I heard? There are some vague mentions of pliosaurs in the same size class if not larger, but none nearing 25 meters. But who knows, they may have gotten that large. Something as big as a rorqual whale but not sustaining itself with suspension feeding may sound extreme, but...look at the sauropods, the pterosaurs, and the gigantic theropods. Judging by the fauna we have to day, they're all completely absurd, yet they existed. It's hard to dismiss anything as implausible or impossible in paleontology.

But the question now is, even if there was a 25m 150 tonne pliosaur, would it have been the biggest "predator" of all time?

Sperm Whales

And here is proof that something doesn't have to be a suspension feeder in order to grow large, although I think the apparent ability to stun prey helps out a lot. They've been known to get up to 60 feet (18 meters) in length with a weight of 55 tons (50 tonnes), making them the 7th largest species of whale (after the blue whale, fin whale, and four right whale species). That's not bad considering the next biggest toothed whale is the Baird's Beaked Whale, at maybe 15 tons tops (beaked whales are cryptic and good future post material). However, there have been old records of very very big sperm whales. Wikipedia mentions lots of stories indicating sperm whales got quite large in the past, implied to be 84 feet (25.6 meters) to even 90 feet (28 meters) in length. Wikipedia is being trustworthy here, as Guinness too has mentioned that the 84 foot estimate stems from a 18 foot long (5.5 m) jawbone in a Nantucket Museum. This should be fairly easy to check, and there seem to be lots of other stories indicating really really big sperm whales. I wish I still had the Guinness book of Animal Facts and Feats as it talked extensively about this, and other animal size records. I suppose it is implied that due to hunting, the average size of the sperm whale has decreased dramatically. This has happened with fish at least, swordfish average size plummeted from 250 to 90 pounds (110 to 40 kg) due to hunting, so this does seem to be a real phenomenon.

This all implies that that the sperm whale really could have gotten nearly as large as the blue whale. A 90 foot (28 m) sperm whale would have to weigh roughly 150 tons (or tonnes), compared to the record 200 ton (180 tonne) blue whale. Of course, who knows if the right whales shrunk significantly too. And I can't help but wonder that since every other animal seems to have larger prehistoric relatives, if there weren't some really really big whales out there too.

Everybody! Everybody!
Left to right, top to bottom:
(Mosasaur, 55 ft/17.5 m); Me; Shonisaurus sikanniensis (Ichthyosaur, 70 ft/21m); Blue Whale (110 feet/33m); Hypothetical mega-Pliosaur (60 feet/20m); Hypothetical super-Sperm Whale (85 feet/26m); Right Whale (60 feet/20m); Orca (32 feet/9.75m), Liopleurodon (33 feet, 10m); Large bull Sperm Whale (60 feet/20m).

Huh, well this post took a while and I didn't nearly get to all the really big animals I wanted to. Who knows, maybe a sequel post will be in the works. In the meantime, who knows what I'll be up to next...


Caitling said...

Hmm, I do believe that all giant things should honk, seeing as how all of them are described as "honking big" I for one do not find the honk to rightly foreshadow a large animal. I normally think of little duckies. You aught to try describing them as roaringly big, bonecruchingly big, and other such adjectives.

I actually enjoyed this blog, inspite of (or due to) all of the facts numbers showed me. I am quite happy that you are the average heigt of an italy-n man. I am so proud, now go eat some pasta, or whatever people who average you to be your height do for fun.

More things underwater should be giant. For one thing there's lots of room, andby all means, there's not a lot stopping them. I can understand why land animals are shrinking in size, that's just adapting. But whales should grow as big as they please, form a nice little blubber bridge betweeen countries, make the world a much better place, assuming whale songs don't become the official language.

I actually wouldn't mind another blog about giant animals, keep it up!

Darren Naish said...

Excellent stuff. In homage to your nitpicking theme, I would like to note that neither teratorns nor cathartids/vulturids are close relatives of storks after all, probably. Also, the alleged mega-pterosaur from Mexico - hyped in the media due to a careless and premature data-leak - is no more. I can say no more at this time.

Thanks as always for the links.

Cameron McCormick said...

Cripes, and you just mentioned the teratorns on your vampire posts too! I'm slippin' here...

Traci said...

I love the word "Honkin'", I really do... just about as much as I love sperm whales. lol.

Anonymous said...

It's not letting me post this correctly, so I will post it as anonymous, but I shall state that the person typing this is in fact I, Traci, the amazon of the east. That being said, I love the word "Honkin'", just about as much as I love sperm whales... The name sperm whale makes me giggle.

Sordes said...

I also dealt very much with the topic of the largest marine creatures ever. In the case of the pliosaur, it was in fact that the monster of Aramberri was found after the production of the "Walking with Dinosaurs" series, and they used some relics (I think a mandible or something like this) from the Oxford clays, which was thought to belong to a pliosaur of about 18. But it was not sure if this was really a Liopleurodon ferox at. They thought that if there were 18m long pliosaurs, the largest ever existing pliosaurs of all times was probably even 25m, and in fact in the documentation it is mentioned that the old male is the largest one of its kind.
The 25m Liopleurodon was so only speculation, but the Monster of Aramberri, which seems to belong to a still undescribed species, was in fact 15-18m long. And there are three good reasons to think that there were even much larger pliosaurs out there. At first the skeleton showed that it was not full-grown, and several fissurea at the bones were still not closed. The seceond reason was a healed trauma, which was caused by a much bigger pliosaur some years before the monster died. The third reason was a massive trauma of the skull which was caused by the huge teeth of another much bigger pliosaur (Dr. "Dino" Frey said in a documentation that it was about a third bigger than the monster itself), whose impressions are still in the skull. This lesion showed no callus growth and most probably killed the monster. So there were some very large pliosaurs which killed other 15-18m long pliosaurs the size of a sperm whale with ease, by a single bite in the head. Even using conservative estimates it seems that those leviathan-species was probably at least 20m when adult, but perhaps even larger. And in fact we have as a result of the lack of fossils no idea how large the largest ones of their kind were. Very probably larger than the largest sperm whales, which are about 14-18m in average.
Okay, sperm whales, how large do they grow? I have to say that the statements at wikipedia are not correct. They used the length of the mandible to calculate the length of the living animal. I looked at really many picture of skeletons of sperm whales and searched for many information about stranded sperm whales whose length was acurately measeured, and the length of the skull known. The result was clearly that the mandible is not 20% of the whole length, but 25%. The mandible and skull are nearly of the same length, but the nose makes the head of the living animal again a bit longer, so it is overall about one third of the complete length. Old males seems also to get proportionally bigger heads. So the alleged length of 28m based on the mandible is not correct, about 22m would be more correct. I contacted the New Bedford Whaling museum, and they said that they have a pair of really large teeth (a bit over 30cm) which could come from a monstrous whale of about 26m. The largest jaw they have in their collection is 15 feet in straight line and 16 feet in complete length, but again this sperm whale would be rougly 20m not 25.
I also found a fossil sperm whale tooth on a site for sale, which was 31cm in length and had a weight of 2353g, in general bigger teeth of sperm whales are about 500g or so. So this was probably a real monster, although it is really not easy to jugde the length based on the size of a tooth.

Cameron McCormick said...

Aah, I did forget to write about teeth. I remember the Guinness book of Animal Facts and Feats talked extensively about sperm whale tooth size and overall size; there appears to be an exceptionally poor correlation between overall size and tooth size. I'd think that the extraordinary weight of the tooth is probably due to its fossilized nature. There is actually an even larger tooth (~33 cm) for sale on boneclones:


I seem to recall claims of teeth around this size from Guinness coming from fairly ordinary sized whales (40-50 feet), but I'll have to check. I read that book 6-7 years ago and haven't seen it since.

So I guess it would make sense that old sperm whales were probably somewhat exaggerated/misinterpreted in the old records, although they were still undoubtedly somewhat larger. Who knows what gigantic pliosaur (or icthyosaur or, who knows!) fossils are still waiting around for somebody to publish them.

Sordes said...

Yes, there are some really gigantic modern sperm whale teeth which are in the same size range as those fossil tooth (for example those from New Bedford). I have a book about sperm whales in which a whale is mentioned, whose remains are now in a museum in the Netherlands. It had a length of 17m and the largest tooth was 20,8cm long and had a weight of 516g. So the teeth of those giant sperm whales were about 50% longer than those of a known 17m specimen...But this has not necessarily to mean that they were actually 50% longer. Sperm whales have the extraordinairy ability to replace their teeth during their whole life, and perhaps the teeth of very large old males grow proportionally bigger than those of smaller bulls. As I said before, it is really not easy to determine the complete size of a sperm whale if only the size of a tooth is known. Old logbooks of whalers sometimes mentions whales of really unusual size, but if we look only at the physical evidence in the form of mandibles, even the largest sperm whales don´t seem to exceed a length of 22m or so. What I really find strange is that those scientists who calculated the length based on the mandibles, did not recognice that the mandible is 25, and not 20%, because this makes a very big difference.

David said...

Great post, and I eagerly await the followup. I'd love it if you covered arthropods, as I'm fascinated by them. Here's a little comparison pic I did of the largest living and extinct species (based on ):

Sadly, there wasn't much room for the 20-foot-plus ubercrabs whose existence has been theorized based on reports of 10-foot forelegs. I'm sure you know all about THAT, but were you aware that the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life flatly reports that Macrocheira reaches a leg span of 8 meters? I don't know where they got that info, but it's very very scary. Wikipedia also claims that coconut crabs a meter long across the body have been reported as well, which should equate to a span of 6 to 9 feet. Part of me hopes there's some truth to it, but... yikes.

Sordes said...

In the Museum of Natural History at Vienna I have seen a really gigantic deep sea crab some weeks ago. The front legs were well over 2m in length, and as there are not that much known speciemen, I could well imagine that some of them really reaches a legs span near 6m. But I have also the impression that the legs grow proportionally much longer if the crabs become bigger, and so the actual body of a giant crab with 6m leg span would not be much larger than those with 4m leg span. I had once the opportunity to hold some isolated legs of such giants in a museum´s archive, they were really impressive. I have also already seen really monstrous specimens of coconut crabs and crabs similar to edible crabs, with a shell about 40cm wide. I made photos of them, but there is no useable size-comparison. One of the cooles crustaceens I saw also at Vienna was a giant shrimp the size of a well feed hummer and a complete length of a bit more than a half metre.

Cameron McCormick said...

A shrimp half a meter long? I'm going to have to look into this for the followup.

Oh yes, and I finally did find the book of animal facts and feats...in the reference section of a library for about half an hour. I did read that there have been reports about sperm whale teeth 10, 18, and even almost 20 INCHES long. The book did take a skeptical approach to these claims (including of gorillas 9 feet tall!) and concluded that the largest specimen was probably around 70 feet/22 meters. Now I've just got to finish up this Meganthropus post...

Sordes said...

I hope the internet will soon work again on my own PC, if you want I can sent you some pictures of giant athropods.
And about sperm whales, I´m still not absolutely sure what I should believe, but I suppose estimating the size from single tooth is not absolutely proper. By the way, I found today some new (ok, actually old) information about the monster of Aramberri. Its vertebras were four times the size of the vertebras of a nearly complete Liopleurodon ferox which is exhibited in Tübingen, and said to be 4m in length. I know this skeleton very well, I looked at it for dozens of times, and I´m very sure that it is not only more than 4m, but it seems also that some of the tail vertebras are missing, so the actual animal was probably still longer when alive. I suppose this Liopleurodon was more 4,5m than 4m, making the Monster of Aramberri closer to 18m in length. It seems very probably that this species was in fact in general well over 20m in average when adult. Just imagine how big the freaks of this species were...I calculated for many times the weight of pliosaurs, using mainly the L. ferox skeleton as comparison. Even if I take very conservative weight estimations which are very probably too less, I come to weights of at least 75tons for a 25m pliosaur, but more than 100 tons seems actually more realistic. I also asked me how large the largest crocodiles were. Size estimations for Ramphosuchus indicus range from 15-18m, but I wouldn´t rule out that some speciemens exeeded 20m. A ****ing 20 monster gharial, it would be really impressive. I read also about ridiculous claims of 25m for Purussaurus, I this seems actually much overestimated. But anyway, Purussaurus was surely also a monstrous beast, even larger than Sarcosuchus or Deinosuchus.

ted said...

The Monster of Aramberri was between 50 and 60 feet long. Its weight is not certain but for the moment estimated between 30 and 50 tons. It had already 10 feet jaws with 20 cm teeth and had apparently a tremendeous power biting. Now the holes in his skull seems to indicate teeth which the crown alone was around 40 cm long. Dino Frey indicate from that possible 18 feet jaws from a pliosaur which exceeded 25 m long.
This very probable creature would have been the largest predator that ever lived. Note that it was able to kill another predator already as large a sperm whale or Megalodon with one bite on the skull.

There were probably larg sperm whales during the whaling but nothing indicate really 90 footers bulls. It's proving from bad estimate of the ratio between the jaws of the sperm whales. The jaws are very long, around 1/4 or even 1/3 of the lenght of the whale. Which state large Bulls of more than 65 feet, already huge, but far from these estimate. Note the whalers liked overexagerated their caught.

New evidences indicate that Megalodon was able to grow to 60 feet and possibly a bit more and was more heavily built than a Great White. It had also a monstrous powerful bite.

Anonymous said...

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