In Hollywood, skyscraper-sized reptiles flail around like toddlers and massive robots backflip before landing in a kung fu stance. Meanwhile, physics sighs like a disappointed parent.
In the real world, our largest land animal the African elephant – which “only” weighs 7 tons – must always keep one foot on the ground and eat almost constantly to support its weight. So what about the biggest animal that ever walked the Earth? Well, given it was twice as tall, five times as long and ten times heavier, Patagotitan needed air sacs, conifer forests, and bathtubs full of blood in order to exist.
Well, you were looking for a herd!
Stumbling across a 2 and a half metre (8 ft) dinosaur femur isn’t what you expect when looking for lost sheep, but that’s what happened to shepherd Aureliano Hernandez back in 2012. And that wasn’t the only surprise in the Argentinian badlands. There were seven Patagotitan all together, all of which had died at the same spot over 3 visits – possibly due to drought or starvation – making it the first instance of “site fidelity”. While the heads and upper torsos were missing, there were enough remains to reconstruct how on Earth something this large didn’t collapse under its own weight, let alone move about.
Firstly, holes in its neck bones made them 30% lighter. Secondly, Patagotitan bulked up. The enormous femur had a huge muscle connected to the long and muscular tail, and the pull between them would have helped it move about. Thirdly, it had an efficient engine. With a 1.8 metre (6 ft) circumference heart, it could have pumped 90 litres of blood every 5 seconds, and the aforementioned air sacs attached to its lungs let it breathe both in and out. And possibly play the didgeridoo. But how do you power such a massive engine? Plants. Lots and lots of plants.
Everything in bloom
When you’re 37 metres (122 ft) long you’ve got room for a massive gut, so Patagotitan could just snip off leaves, plants and conifer needles and down them without chewing. Since needles have practically zero nutritional value, it would have taken a conifer cornucopia to feed this colossal gobbling machine, especially as it wasn’t the only titanosaur to triple in size.
Known as the Lognkosauria (not a typo – Lognko is the indigenous Mapuche word for “chief”), this select group of long-necks sprung up when the climate soared 100 million years ago. Flowering plants had been exploding everywhere for about 25 million years prior, something Diego Pol, palaeontologist and one of the original Patagotitan paper’s authors, believes may have made them balloon. Hey, if there’s enough food around, something’s going to eat it. Unfortunately for Patagotitan, this may have applied to the friendly neighbourhood carnivores as well.
Tyrannotitan toothmarks were found on one of the tail vertebrae, and it’s not clear if it was from a post-mortem munching. Then again, if even the forces of nature couldn’t shift Patagotitan’s bones from the place it died, it was probably too big for most meat-eaters to bother with. Well, we assume. Because the ones we found weren’t even fully grown.
That’s right, the current record holder for biggest land animal that ever lived was a gawky teenager. So who knows what other, literally Earth-shaking secrets are still to be found?
Meaning: “Titan of Patagonia” (Patagotitan mayorum). The “mayorum” part is after the Mayo family, on whose ranch its bones were found
What? A massive long-necked dinosaur, the biggest known to have ever lived
Where? Southern Argentina during the Early Cretaceous, about 102 million years ago
How big? 6 metres / 20 feet high at the shoulder, and 37 metres / 122 feet long. If its neck pointed straight up, it could have been 15 metres / 50 feet tall!
Probable motto: Okay physics, I’ll play by your rules. As long as I get to eat constantly.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“African elephant“. No date. National Geographic Photo Ark.
“African elephant“. No date. WWF.
“Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur“. 2016. BBC.
Borenstein, Seth. 2017. “Discovery of biggest dinosaur ever hailed by scientists as fossilised bones of Patagotitan unearthed in Argentina“. The Independent.
Calvo, Jorge O. et al. 2007. “A new Cretaceous terrestrial ecosystem from Gondwana
with the description of a new sauropod dinosaur”. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências (2007) 79(3): 529-541
Carbadillo, José L. et al. 2017. “A new giant titanosaur sheds light on body mass evolution among sauropod dinosaurs”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284(1860): https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.1219
de Lazaro, Enrico. 2017. “Meet Patagotitan mayorum, Biggest Animal Ever to Walk Earth“. Sci-news.com
Geggel, Laura. 2017. “Ginormous, 70-Ton Titanosaur Is the Largest Dinosaur on Record“. LiveScience.com.
“How fast can an elephant run?” No date. Reference.com.
Montanari, Shaena. 2017. “New Dinosaur Species Was Largest Animal Ever to Walk the Earth“. National Geographic.
Rafferty, John. No date. “Titanosaurs: 8 of the World’s Biggest Dinosaurs“. Britannica.com.
Waggoner, Ben. 1995/2011. “The Cretaceous Period“. Berkeley, University of California.
Yong, Ed. 2017. “Meet Patagotitan, the Biggest Dinosaur Ever Found“. The Atlantic.
Featured image credit: “Patagotitan“, by James Kuether