15 "biggest" dinosaurs you've never heard of!

Posted by Nima On Sunday, November 6, 2011 28 comments

Just got back from SVP, but before I post on what happened in Vegas, here's something dino-related I've been planning to put up for a while now. 

Let's admit it. We all want to know which one was the biggest - which were the longest, tallest, heaviest. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about dinosaurs, mammoths, trilobites, or anything. Bigger is better, size is where the action is. It's why we have Guinness Books and pie-eating contests. It's why we have the Forbes 100 and the Fortune 500. It's why Dubai has practically bankrupted itself in a race to built the world's tallest building. It's why Hummer Limousines were invented. (Ok, so maybe that wasn't such a good idea...)

Everyone thinks they know the biggest dinosaur. But even for people who would never be caught dead thinking it was T. rex, or even "brontosaurus", the real answer is elusive. For dino buffs in the 90's it was Ultrasaurus - oops, I mean Ultrasauros - or perhaps Supersaurus or Seismosaurus. Then we thought we knew better, got rid of the name Ultrasauros altogether, and sometime in the late 90s the record holder became Argentinosaurus (though it was found in 1993). Now there are other giant sauropod dinosaurs like Puertasaurus that may be even bigger. And of course people are talking about the legendary lost giant diplodocid, Amphicoelias fragillimus, the possible hoax titanosaur Bruhathkayosaurus, as well as more bona-fide but almost equally mysterious titanosaurs like Argyrosaurus, Paralititan, and “Antarctosaurus”. Futalognkosaurus rears its headless neck as the most complete giant dinosaur to date, and probably topped 100 feet long – but estimating the size and shape of most of the others is a lot harder because they're only known from a few bones. Then we get word from Greg Paul that the biggest dinosaur isn't a titanosaur at all, but that the record may actually belong to a new Mamenchisaurus species of almost mythic proportions.

Well, paleo fans, I've got some shocking news for you. The biggest dinosaur may not be ANY of these. There are a LOT more contenders for "biggest dinosaur" than most people realize. And even the runners-up and 'regional champions' are pretty impressive though not very well known. Some of the biggest and most amazing giant dinosaurs may just be the ones you've never heard of. Here are just fifteen of them, in no particular order......


15. The Dry Mesa Brachiosaur – it's not “Ultrasauros” and apparently not B. altithorax either!

In 1985 Jim Jensen became famous for digging up not one but THREE huge sauropod dinosaurs, that between them seemed to steal the record of “biggest dinosaur” from the long-unchallenged king, Brachiosaurus (never mind that Argyrosaurus was bigger than Brachiosaurus, and was described ten years earlier in 1893!) 

Working in Colorado's Dry Mesa Quarry, Jensen originally described Ultrasaurus and Supersaurus as brachiosaurs, and Dystylosaurus as a possible brachiosaur. He'd actually caused hundreds of tons of confusion. Supersaurus turned out to be a diplodocid, Ultrasaurus was a chimera of a brachiosaur shoulder blade and a diplodocid neck vertebra, which turned out to be from Supersaurus, and Dystylosaurus also turned out to be a Supersaurus! What's more, Ultrasaurus had to be renamed Ultrasauros, because some genius in Korea had already claimed the name - for a wimpy animal that was way smaller than Brachiosaurus, and therefore didn't even deserve to have the word "Ultra" anywhere near its name - and worst of all, this Korean "Ultrasaurus" was so fragmentary that it wasn't even identifiable as a valid genus!

Jensen (over 6 ft. tall) in his famous pose with a Supersaurus shoulder blade (left) 
and a far rarer pic with his even larger referred "Ultrasauros" shoulder blade (right)

 And since the type material for Jensen's Ultrasauros was really the mistaken Supersaurus neck bone, rather than the brachiosaur shoulder blade, Ultrasauros was sunk into Supersaurus, and the shoulder blade was now an orphan specimen with no name.

But this shoulder blade, a monster at 9 feet long, is actually the bone that had actually made "Ultrasauros" so famous even though it wasn't the official type specimen. So what was it?

Many paleontologists just concluded that it was a big Brachiosaurus altithorax. Greg Paul suggested as much, though he also referred to it as the "Delta Giant". But critical differences emerged - first of all, even though the fact that there was no complete shoulder material for Brachiosaurus altithorax prior to Jensen's discovery makes it a convenient classification, there is the lower part of a shoulder (the coracoid bone) known for B. altithorax, and it's shaped very differently from the coracoid on Jensen's brachiosaur.


Jensen (left) and an assistant with the 9-foot Dry Mesa shoulder blade, 
a 9-foot rib (Brachiosaurus sp.) and the Potter Creek humerus, 
which actually seems to be a legit Brachiosaurus altithorax.

In addition, the coracoid on Jensen's brachiosaur is fused to the scapula (which means it's an adult animal), whereas the only known B. altithorax coracoid is not fused to a scapula (which indicates it was probably a teenager). Yet the Jensen brachiosaur's coracoid is SMALLER than that of a teenage B. altithorax. So this animal, as an adult, looks to be smaller than B. altithorax (or at least had a slimmer chest - we don't know if B. altithorax had 9-foot long shoulder blades, or how big it could get). One thing's for certain - the Dry Mesa brachiosaur has very different proportions from either Brachiosaurus or Giraffatitan. Dr. Mike Taylor (2009) pointed out that this animal was probably a different genus altogether. It must have had a very deep but narrow rib cage/chest region relative to other brachiosaurs - but it is noticeably a brachiosaur. 

Though it's almost certainly not as massive as an adult Brachiosaurus or Giraffatitan, there's no easy way to tell if Jensen's adult animal was bigger or smaller than the teenage holotype of B. altithorax - it was probably slimmer and therefore lighter, but the crazy-long scapula indicates some extreme proportions, possibly greater torso depth and a larger neck which may make up for its lighter, slimmer body. Euhelopus shows a similar gigantism in the shoulder - and its neck is simply astounding. Indeed, big shoulders in macronarians generally indicate both tall shoulder neural spines ("withers") and very long necks. So perhaps the Dry Mesa Giant may have had an unusually long neck even by brachiosaur standards, and thus been longer than Brachiosaurus. Perhaps even a hundred-footer. But a slim one, for a brachiosaur. And who knows - this adult may not be a very old adult. Older ones could perhaps be considerably larger. Either way, this thing absolutely dwarfs Jensen, and Jensen was a tall man.

There are many other large brachiosaur bones found by Jensen across Utah that may belong to this unnamed genus, including anterior cervical and posterior dorsal vertebrae, hips, and a pretty big upper femur section. At present they are housed in the BYU collection and labeled as "Brachiosaurus sp.", though none of them look like Brachiosaurus altithorax and a few are downright bizarre.


14. The Plagne trackmaker - don't mess with France!

In 2009 there were some huge sauropod tracks discovered in Plagne, France, which measured 1.5m wide. that's downright colossal. In fact it was such big news that SV-POW did a major story on it. By comparison, the feet of the Berlin Giraffatitan HMN SII are only about 70cm wide. So we're talking about an animal that had feet TWICE as big. That's up in near-mythical Amphicoelias fragillimus territory!


the Plagne tracks

If there's a lesson here I think it's pretty obvious - you don't have to look in Colorado or even North America to find evidence of dinosaurs that reached truly shocking sizes. Of course there's another lesson too - don't mess with France!


13. The Broome Sandstone trackmaker - the REAL thunder from Down Under!

Matt Wedel of SV-POW also noted that Tony Thulborn discovered some tracks in the Broome Sandstone of Australia back in 1994 - where the pes prints were also 1.5m wide. Gigantic. Like, Amphicoelias fragillimus gigantic. These are legit prints and they really ARE that big, according to a very passionate Thulborn. And they aren't the only ones.


12. Breviparopus - King of the brachiosaurs?

Breviparopus (Dutuit and Ouazzou, 1980) is known from a trackway on a mountain slope in Morocco, that is made up of tracks 90cm wide. Not as large as the Plagne or Broome tracks, but still substantially larger than Giraffatitan. And these tracks are heavily collapsed and were made in loose mud, as is evident from the nearly caved-in toe claw prints - the feet in reality were more like 1.15m wide, which would result in a creature 130 feet long assuming it was a brachiosaur with proportions similar to Giraffatitan. And it does seem to be a brachiosaur, given that it's a narrow-gauge trackway in a cretaceous deposit, with a small thumb claw print (most other sauropod groups had a much bigger thumb claw, which was actually carried off the ground on a short metacarpal and thus didn't make prints).


Part of the trackway of Breviparopus taghbaloutensis (from Ishigaki, 1989)
Note the very thin, nearly collapsed toe claw prints, and the small 
thumb claw impression on the first left manus print. The irregular shape of the last 
pes print (at right) is an additional clue of the extreme looseness of the mud.

Though the Plagne and Broome tracks make it clear that Breviparopus wasn't the biggest dinosaur by a long shot (contrary to what the Guinness Book claims with its imaginary 157-foot estimate), it was still downright huge and possibly the biggest brachiosaur known today. Sauroposeidon was around 110 ft. long (the same approximate length as Argentinosaurus) so a 130-foot Breviparopus is still among the biggest dinosaurs in terms of raw length and height. Keep in mind though, that being longer than Argentinosaurus does NOT make you heavier. Brachiosaurs generally were much lighter than titanosaurs of the same length (but much heavier than diplodocids of the same length). Incidentally these tracks are incorrectly dated in some internet sources as being mid-Jurassic in age, based on some rather spotty research. They were actually Early Cretaceous, from the Barremian epoch.

Last March of the Breviparopus.
The first hi-fi restoration of this dinosaur in history. And it's mine.


11. Ultrasauripus - so maybe there were truly gigantic sauropods in Korea after all...

Ultrasauripus ungulatus is a set of prints found in Korea's Uiseong Jeo-ri formation, which according to Rexisto, may be brachiosaurid. So far it has not been associated with any particular genus, but the pes prints are 1.15m wide, which is comparable to Breviparopus. There are rumors of even larger brachiosaur prints in Gara Samani, Algeria, but so far information on these has been very scarce.


10. Parabrontopodus - more proof of Amphicoelias fragillimus at last?

Perhaps the biggest of the sauropod footprint taxa, Parabrontopodus distercii (Meijide-Fuentes et al.,1999) is known from gigantic prints as wide as 1.65m, found in the Spanish town of Soria (though the majority of the prints are about 1.48m wide, perhaps due to being partially collapsed and heavily eroded). It's a good deal larger than Parabrontopodus macintoshi (Lockley, 1994) and is probably from an unrelated animal. No less than six other sets of tracks have been referred somewhat dubiously to Parabrontopodus, from regions as far apart as Switzerland and Chile. Most seem to be from unrelated animals - some diplodocids, some brachiosaurs, and some titanosaurs. If the Spanish Parabrontopodus tracks are from a diplodocid, they could belong to something as large as Amphicoelias fragillimus. If they are from a brachiosaur, it would be the biggest brachiosaur yet known, edging out Breviparopus by a huge margin.


9. “Shinhesaurus” - oops, I mean Xinghesaurus - the mysterious Tokyo titanosaur they won't tell you about...

In Tokyo recently there was a new exhibition at a gigantic museum hall, which resembled a massive aircraft hangar. In this there was a huge mounted skeleton of Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum, the new mamenchisaur which reached 116 ft. long and is claimed by Greg Paul to be the largest dinosaur in terms of mass as well. I don't know about the mass, but it is certainly impressive.


But what's stranger is that along with this mega-mamenchisaur (and the shameless Klamelisaurus whose head intrudes into the foreground), there are two other sauropods in that hall - both titanosaurs. Take a closer look here:

In the background, far behind the huge mamenchisaur and the meat-eater (probably a Sinraptor), there's a low wall - behind this wall you can see a light cream colored Huabeisaurus skeleton rearing its head up (it's roughly 75 feet long), and a bit closer, there's a longer, darker skeleton mounted with a more horizontal neck. Don't be fooled, that dark skeleton is no Diplodocus. It is in fact a titanosaur (probably a nemegtosaurid) that looks a lot like the Huabeisaurus. It's not mentioned by name anywhere in any book or on the internet, except here, if you can read Japanese.


The name is written in katakana letters, which are used for writing foreign words - they are phonetic, not pictographic characters like the Kanji. They read "Shinhesaurus". And this is a name I've never come across before. It appears nowhere in the paleo-literature. But actually I have it on good authority that this is a garbled transliteration into Japanese from the original Chinese name: Xinghesaurus. Now that name is mentioned in a few places on the internet, but it's an animal that has never been formally described. The skeleton looks remarkably like Huabeisaurus, (not surprising, since both are heavily reconstructed, and probably by the same folks). It may even be just a larger individual of Huabeisaurus. But interestingly, unlike Huabeisaurus, the skull on Xinghesaurus appears to be authentic (or at least a cast of a distorted original). Compare the two:

Huabeisaurus

Xinghesaurus
...both from the same exhibit hall. Notice the picture of a man holding the 
Xinghesaurus skull. For some reason the skull on the mounted skeleton looks
a bit slack-jawed. Perhaps the upper jaw was casted too long...

 All the same this is a very interesting discovery. The huge hips with their deep ilia are probably the most interesting feature - and one it shares with Huabeisaurus. It's a pity there's no more information on this beast. All I can tell is that it's longer than Huabeisaurus, and that both animals are mostly neck and tail. Still, though they don't have the biggest bodies in the titanosauria, they are nevertheless the biggest Asian nemegtosaurs known from postcranial remains. There's not exactly much for them to compete against in their family - Rapetosaurus is the only other bona-fide nemegtosaur known from anything other than a skull, and it's tiny by comparison even as an adult (as is Opisthocoelicaudia, which may or may not be a nemegtosaur depending on how you see it - no skull for that one so it's hard to tell). Nevertheless Huabeisaurus was so far the biggest Asian sauropod of the Campanian, so with Xinghesaurus being even bigger, that should be worth something.... it looks to be around 90 ft. long. The tail seems nearly as long as the neck.


Anyway there you have it. Xinghesaurus, so far the biggest of the later Asian titanosaurs and the biggest nemegtosaur in the eastern hemisphere. At least it seems to be a nemegtosaur. And at least one Japanese blog calls it Xinghesaurus (or "Shinhesaurus"). Aside from that, there's no mention of it. Not a paper, not a single raw measurement, not even a brief mention in a fossil survey. I still would like to think there's a far bigger nemegtosaur still out there in Late Cretaceous Asia waiting to be found, something like the Antarctosaurus giganteus of the Gobi Desert. for now, though, we'll have to content ourselves with this (marginally) big brother of Huabeisaurus, which the paleo community so far has seemed to ignore completely. What a shame.... Xinghesaurus, we barely even knew you.


8. The infamous Lonely Planet Nemegtosaur sacrum – the land of Genghis Khan holds more secrets than just his burial place!

One of the least talked-about new sauropods is this creature, known only from a sacrum so pale white that it looks like fresh bone, as if the animal died a week ago. Its exact size is hard to gauge, but it seems to be at least big for a nemegtosaur.

Everyone who's every traveled to another country is probably familiar with the Lonely Planet travel guides, most of which are top-notch for both the novice traveler and the National Geographic veteran. But the publisher also has a website full of stock photos of random things they found in each country. In their section on Mongolia, this interesting pic turned up.


Nemegtosaur sacrum and right ilium at dinosaur canyon,
Nemegt Uul, Omnogov, Mongolia

That water bottle looks a bit on the large side for the hand-held variety - perhaps close to a foot long. Out in the Gobi desert, you'd better be packing some big water. The pelvis looks then like it would be around 6 feet wide or more with both ilia intact. Sounds big, but remember we're dealing with titanosaurs here - insanely wide for their length. Futalognkosaurus has a pelvis that's nearly 9 feet wide. And though a real giant in its own right, it's not the biggest dinosaur. All the same, the Nemegt Uul pelvis is pretty big by average saltasaur and  nemegtosaur standards (there aren't that many nemegtosaurs known anyway, and even fewer big ones), but in any case this probably isn't the biggest they got. Though the bones look completely fused, the sacral ribs look very light and not as massively reinforced as in fully mature individuals - it's probably not a very old animal, and may not even be an adult. Just by virtue of being a titanosaur, this is one of the biggest animals ever to live in Mongolia. If it had the elongated proportions of Rapetosaurus or "Shinhesaurus", it could have easily topped 80 ft. Giraffatitan had a pelvis nearly 2m wide as well. That of Saltasaurus is 1.15m. Interpret that as you will.

Only two questions remain - 1) will anyone write a paper on this pelvis? and 2) does anyone actually know about it apart from Lonely Planet?


7. Cooper and George – when will they describe these things already?!?!?

Australia has produced several major titanosaur finds. The problem is that instead of proper scientific descriptions, most of them are still stuck with silly personal nicknames. Elliot, Mary, Cooper, and George. Cooper and George are to two largest, apparently. Australian media sources claim these are both colossal dinosaurs, nearly as big as Argentinosaurus. But in other places far more modest estimates are given. Here's one explanation:

"Subsequent excavations by Queensland Museum staff have so far discovered the remains of two giant titanosauriform dinosaurs. A 1.5 metre (5 foot) humerus weighing 100 kg has been nicknamed 'Cooper'. A second giant bone, a femur 1.8 metres (6 feet) long (from another animal) has been called 'George'. The larger animal (George) has been estimated to have been around 25 metres (82 feet) in length, making it potentially the largest dinosaur ever discovered in Australia, and among the largest sauropods in the world. These two animals lived about 2 to 5 million years later than Elliot from further north, who has been estimated to have been 'only' about 18 metres (60 feet) in length."

 
Ok so it's not quite big enough to rival Argentinosaurus. Actually, not even close. The humerus of George is in the Paralititan/Argyrosaurus range, so it's no doubt pretty big, but certainly not the biggest. And actually, the funny thing is, they even look a bit like the humeri of Paralititan and Argyrosaurus: very wide, rectangular, and flat like a surfboard.


A flat humerus from one of the two mysterious giant titanosaurs 
of Australia (no solid info on whether it's Cooper or George).


Another such flat humerus (again not sure if it's Cooper or George, 
but it has the same life illustration as the last humerus). 
It's almost uniformly wide across its whole length like some kind of Cretaceous snowboard - 
a very rare configuration in titanosaurs, and all other sauropods for that matter.

Paralititan stromeri humerus from Egypt (very flat), with Jason "Chewie" Poole
of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences showing journalists how to surf the Cretaceous Egyptian tides.


Argyrosaurus superbus holotype forelimb (from Lydekker, 1893) .
Notice the same type of extremely wide, flattened "snowboard" humerus

Most titanosaur humeri are far narrower in the middle than those of argyrosaurids (even if they may be pretty wide at the ends). Other titanosaurs also tend to have relatively more cylindrical humerus shafts (which is the standard condition in most sauropods), rather than the extremely flat shafts of argyrosaurs.

Unfortunately, also like both Argyrosaurus and Paralititan, Cooper and George seem far too incomplete to deduce their size with certainty. Of course some published photos with scale bars aren't too much to ask for... are they?

And the length estimate of 82 feet for George, already nothing too earth-shattering, may not even be reliable, since we don't know how much of the skeleton is known, to make such estimates! And it all depends on what kind of dinosaurs Cooper and George really are. A six-foot femur on a brachiosaur or early titanosauriform doesn't result in anything close to Argentinosaurus size. The 75-foot long Giraffatitan in Berlin has humeri that are SEVEN feet long, and it only comes out to around 35 tons (as opposed to the 85 tons usually estimated for Argentinosaurus). Some femur material would definitely help even out the odds, but the problem is that there seems to be no progress whatsoever on these dinosaurs since 2005. The fossils of 'Cooper' and 'George' have since been put on display at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, but there is still no formal description. One can only guess that the fossils are too incomplete to be diagnostic, or that there are still excavations of the same animals going on at the original dig sites.

No word yet on which is true, or neither. The Queensland museum seems to still have its hands tied with two earlier sauropod discoveries, "Elliot" and "Mary", so it's anyone's guess when somebody will finally get the nerve to write a paper on Cooper and George. Heck, if I had access to the fossils and could do a good analysis on whether there were truly argyrosaurs in Australia, I'd be the toast of SVP! You'd think Aussie paleontologists would be all over this one, but some of them have told me that the Queenslanders are a breed apart from the rest, hoarding yet taking far longer than normal to describe their finds. I don't know, but it does sound too fishy for television. Too bad the other provinces don't have such giants popping out of the ground waiting for a real name.



6. The French monster titanosaur – the biggest, baddest ass-kicking femur north of the Mediterranean!

It's not often that a new dinosaur species gets dug up which really shakes the world of science. Paleontology, maybe. But consider shaking up ALL of science. Finding something so unbelievable, that imagine the feeling you get if at first glance the average person would think you were some kook peddling the National Enquirer, before you showed them all your un-edited, high-definition full color photos of YOU next to your near-mythical find and watched their jaws drop clear through the Mantle.

Yeah. That feeling. The rush of adrenaline that makes you forget all about Tiktaalik, Ida the Adapid and all the other overhyped (and worse yet, SMALL) fossil finds that the media fawns over (and misrepresents... LOL)

Well I can only guess what the guy who discovered this behemoth felt like when his heart skipped a few:


Get ready to choke on your freedom fries! This colossal femur belongs to an Early Cretaceous titanosaur dug up in southern France in November 2010. Yeah, not that long ago.

And just how big is it? At least 2.2m long, according to Science Daily. That's 7.3 feet, but that measurement was taken before the whole bone was excavated, looks like it could be even bigger than that. It's currently the biggest femur of any animal ever found in all of Europe, easily beating the primitive sauropod Turiasaurus, whose femur is 1.9m. The monster French titanosaur is probably well into the 100-foot range, if you assume it had proportions like most members of titanosauria (most of them had much longer necks than Saltasaurus - perhaps unless you're Ken Carpenter, that is...). And the extreme slenderness of this bone, relative to its length, could mean that this individual wasn't even close to the maximum adult size possible for its species! It rivals the femurs of "Antarctosaurus" giganteus in size, and even looks similar at the bottom end. Though I don't discount the possibility that this slender and mostly straight femur could also be lognkosaurian.

Whatever kind of titanosaur it's from, this bone alone could easily put a few Renaults out of order, that's for sure. I don't even think most dinosaurs could survive being hit by the foot of something that big! And there seems to be the end of another bone (perhaps a femur) sticking out of the rock to the left of the pit. This site, close to the town of Angeac-Charente in France's Champagne region, is definitely yielding a lot of remains, and I'm looking forward to what else comes out of there. Nearly 400 bones from many other dinosaurs were found jammed into a relatively small area at the site, including some theropod remains (probably little squat abelisaurs, but who knows so far...). A report of what was found at the site is available HERE. (You have to know French though... to get its true meaning... all you babel fish cheaters...)


I have it on good authority that remains of an even BIGGER titanosaur were found at the site and are still undergoing preparation. The photo below shows what may be the bottom end of that beast's femur at left - judging by the height of most of the guys in this picture, the complete bone was easily 8 feet long. On the other hand, the condyles at the bottom of that shaft look a bit more like a tibia than a femur - which could mean a colossal 5-foot long tibia and a femur probably in excess of 8 feet:


Finally, Monsieur Professor, the mystery of who made the Plagne tracks looks close to being solved!

Move over, Ampelosaurus. These new Champagne titans are putting France firmly on the map of towering, scale-busting sauropods that could kick some serious carnosaur ass. Which may be why all the really big nasty Early Cretaceous predators stayed the hell out of France altogether (at least it appears so, though we don't know that for certain).

As we've seen before - don't mess with France!



5. “Brachiosaurus” nougaredi – hips don't lie!

One of the most obscure giant brachiosaurs (but because of its obscurity, also among the most fascinating) was discovered in Algeria in 1960. Dr. Albert-Felix de Lapparent was excavating dinosaur remains in an Early Cretaceous formation in Algeria known as the "Continental Intercalaire" and brought them back to Paris. The material in one site known as "Wargla" included a huge sacrum and some left metacarpals and phalanges. In addition, scattered across hundreds of meters at the site were partial bones of the left forearm, wrist bones, a right shin bone, and fragments that may have come from metatarsals. This second set of remains, for reasons that are not fully understood, were never excavated and have probably since eroded away. Lapparent writes in his 1960 paper:

"Several hundred meters east of the sacrum lay the bones of the left forelimb (Pl. III, fig. 3), which were collected with care by Mr. Gillmann; they were accompanied by rather abundant fossil wood. In the locality, the distal ends of the large ulna and radius were observed, and a carpal bone; these very fragile elements could not be recovered."

They were too fragile to be recovered? Well perhaps he didn't have the best fossil glue on hand. Something like this wouldn't simply be abandoned today!

However, it may matter little, since most paleontologists believe that none of these remains, or even the recovered metacarpals, could possibly from the same animal as the sacrum - they just aren't anywhere near big enough.

Known as "specimen ZR.2", the sacrum was the real prize in this expedition. It was gigantic by the standards of anything known at the time, including Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan. Lapparent commented:

"A large sacrum initially drew attention, lying flat on the reg (Pl. II, fig.3-4). This beautiful element must have been complete during its burial in the sediment, not far from large trunks of silicified trees. The dorsal part was exposed by the erosion that delivered the piece today, and several transverse processes were altered. Such as could be removed and reconstructed, this sauropod sacrum presents an exceptional size: total length = 130 cm; diameter = 80 cm. The sacral vertebrae number four, fused together. The first offers an enormous anterior disc, 23 cm wide and 22 cm tall. The third sacral is 28 cm long and has a disc diameter of 20 cm; the keel is very marked on the ventral part, and the diameter of the centrum in the middle is only 10 cm. The zygapophyses have wide and strongly twisted stalks; they are extended up to 40 cm to the right and left of the neural canal; at their end, they are widened in the shape of a powerful club and are solidly fused together there. In spite of its weight, we were able to bring this element back to Paris."


This massive sacrum, which was largely eroded on top and was missing the first sacral vertebra (it originally would have had five, not four), became known as "Brachiosaurus nougaredi". The metacarpals and other limb elements found at the site were also included in this species, though they likely don't belong there, and not from the same individual. While the appearance and description of the sacrum certainly give away a brachiosaurid identity, it can not possibly be a species of Brachiosaurus itself. It was from the Early Cretaceous (Albian epoch) in Algeria. But Brachiosaurus lived in North America in the Late Jurassic (Kimmeridgian-Tithonian epochs) and disappears from the fossil record at the end of this period, a full 45 million years before the Algerian brachiosaur "ZR.2" existed! No genus in the history of dinosauria has survived that long. And the shape of the sacral ribs is different from both Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan (but between the two, it appears to be more like Giraffatitan). Nevertheless, whatever "ZR.2" or "Brachiosaurus" nougaredi is, it's certainly a brachiosaur of some sort, and it's bigger than anything else in Cretaceous Africa aside from Paralititan.


Even though "Brachiosaurus" nougaredi is only known from a sacrum, it could have easily rivaled or even exceeded Sauroposeidon in size. Though the total length of what was left of the sacrum is 130cm, when fully complete with all five vertebrae it would have been more like 160cm long - a full 60% larger than the sacrum of the Berlin Giraffatitan! Now if you assume it had similar proportions to Giraffatitan, scaling up from the 75-foot Berlin specimen by an additional 60% yields a brachiosaur 120 feet (36m) long - truly colossal, and perhaps even larger than Sauroposeidon. Of course, that's assuming it had similar proportions to Giraffatitan. If it was built more like Sauroposeidon, with an even more elongated neck, then it could have topped 130 feet (40m), no problem. As big as Breviparopus, though it is younger in age.


You might think that this dinosaur should be super-famous today, considering its size, the fact that it was discovered way back in 1960, and the simple fact that brachiosaurs are just badass to begin with.

Well, don't we wish! This dinosaur is so obscure that it apparently hasn't been published in a single book, and I practically had to write the Wikipedia article on it! And it's not like a sacrum is insufficient material - it's still complete enough to be diagnostic, enough to tell that it's a unique genus of brachiosaur - and there have been far more famous dinosaurs that got tons more publicity on the basis of equally scant or even far worse material! Troodon was originally described based on a single tooth, as was the dubious duckbill "Trachodon" which graced dinosaur books for nearly half a century. The original material for Oviraptor was pretty bad, even the skull was reconstructed wrong, while the type material for Cetiosaurus is so badly eroded and unidentifiable that it ended up being discarded and another specimen was designated as the type! And lets not forget Bruhathkayosaurus, which received tons of media hype as the "biggest dinosaur" up through the 90's but no photograph has ever been published, the authors initially mistook it for a theropod for over a decade, the remains themselves were not excavated and are now rumored to have been lost in a monsoon flood, and the only known images are a few cartoonish drawings that may as well have been the work of a 5-year-old child!

Considering how shoddy and borderline crypto some of these cases are, "Brachiosaurus" nougaredi is actually a pretty solid, legit dinosaur! Its name should be on every Jurassic Park fanboy's lips! But it isn't. And it may just be because this giant was not only incorrectly named, but also badly publicized.

It was mentioned among many other fragmentary Algerian dinosaurs in a survey paper by Lapparent in 1960, and there hasn't been a single paper focusing on it since. Even Lapparent himself seems to have abandoned it. The specimen itself is supposedly in Paris, but so far I haven't been able to find out what museum it's being kept in, or if, like so many other sadly underrated giant dinosaurs, the "scientists" responsible for protecting this find simply got careless and lost it. It SUCKS when important fossils just languish in a vault for decades and nobody studies them. It sucks even more when they get lost or destroyed as a result of ignorance or carelessness. But at least we have a detailed description AND some corroborating photographic evidence to prove that this one was real, regardless of what has become of the actual sacrum since then. That's right, Shakira - the hips don't lie.



4. Lacovara's titanosaur – the biggest AND most complete of the giants?

This giant is brand new and doesn't even have a name yet. It's not even clear what it looked like, but we do know a few things - it's a titanosaur, it's from Argentina, and according to Dr. Ken Lacovara of Drexel University who led the dig, it's more complete than any titanosaur found before (yes, including Futalognkosaurus). And..... it's huge.

I had to honor of meeting Dr. Lacovara in person at the SVP 2010 convention in Pittsburgh (and again this last time around in Vegas), where he explained a bit more about this massive beast. Some of it was being prepared in the fossil lab at the Carnegie Museum (where I snapped some pictures of the bones), and the rest (actually most of it) was being prepared in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. The idea being that two teams can get the process done a lot faster than one, and believe me, this is one huge dinosaur - as complete as it is, it will take a long time to unpack and prepare it. Dr. Lacovara said it was similar in size to Paralititan, possibly even bigger. Assuming Paralititan was about 90 ft. long and 70 tons, that makes this new giant a serious contender for the title of "biggest dinosaur".

The femur of this beast was 2.2m long, the same length as the French monster's femur, and its hips are as big as a forklift pallet!


That's one ilium. Okay, so it's even longer than a forklift pallet. Scary.
The bones were cracked into many fragments, but most were pieced together with putty.


These appear to be either the ischia or the pubes. I'd say ischia due to their shortness, as titanosaur pubes tended to be much larger than the ischia, in order to support a huge belly.



Some rib fragments. The toy Diplodocus is there simply for scale, or someone was having too much fun :) This thing was not related to Diplodocus.



A sternal plate. Two of these bones strengthened the chest, and they were particularly large in titanosaurs.



These are probably the pubes. They are larger and more massive than the ischia. They're still rather compact and not very elongated compared to the pubes of some other titanosaurs, a trait which immediately brings to mind the pubis of Argyrosaurus...


The thick, stubby pubis of Argyrosaurus (superbus?) subadult specimen (PVL 4628). 
Modified from Powell, 2003.

Lacovara's titanosaur is indeed a huge dinosaur, but is it the biggest? Judging by femur length, I'd have to be cautious. The femur of Argentinosaurus, though not totally complete, is estimated at 2.5m in length. So even with its 2.2m femur, Lacovara's titanosaur may not be as big as Argentinosaurus. But there's one big caveat - even similar dinosaurs can have different limb proportions. Argentinosaurus and Lavocara's titanosaur may not be very closely related, and there's always the possibility that the new animal is wider or longer than Argentinosaurus despite having shorter legs. If the pubes are any indication, it may be more similar to Argyrosaurus, which is a later and more advanced titanosaur - or perhaps it's closer to something else entirely. And argyrosaurids in all likelihood have different proportions than Argentinosaurus. Furthermore there's always the possibility that the new titanosaur isn't fully grown - which would be the case if it turns out its shoulder blades haven't undergone complete fusion. I haven't seen them, and for all we know they may not even be unpacked yet, so the jury's still out on that one.

All the same, I would be surprised if this particular individual didn't reach at least 100 feet and 75 tons.
Was it bigger than Argentinosaurus? We may well find out soon.



3. Huanghetitan – that's right, I mean the big one. No, the REALLY big one.

Our next giant comes from China. And no, it's not a mamenchisaur. You should know better by now ;)

The number of new titanosaurs coming of of China is nothing short of astounding. One of the most productive regions is Gansu, in the north of the country, a hotbed of Early Cretaceous fossils. The biggest dinosaur in the area, Huanghetitan liujiaxiaensis, was described by You et al. in 2006. Named for the Huang He (yellow river) which flows through Beijing, it is known from fragmentary materials including two caudal vertebrae, an almost complete sacrum, rib fragments, and the left shoulder girdle.

 Huanghetitan liujiaxiaensis scapula and coracoid, unfused. This individual, though huge, was not fully grown.


 Huanghetitan liujiaxiaensis sacrum

It was discovered in the eastern part of the Lanzhou Basin (Hekou group) in the Gansu Province in 2004. Rapidly, a speculative skeleton was cast and sculpted and put on display in a museum built pretty much on top of the actual Lanzhou fossil site (which also has the rare distinction of being one of the few fossil sites in the world to preserve both bones and footprints) But this was only the beginning.

 I don't know where they got those weird neck vertebrae from, since they aren't part of the actual type specimen, but I'm guessing they recasted and spliced parts of Euhelopus and Huabeisaurus together to get the desired (and somewhat grotesque) effect... 
At least the head looks believable - though the lower arms don't.

Huanghetitan liujiaxiaensis was probably around 80 feet long, and was indeed a massive beast to say the least. But it was still no record-breaker.

The world was soon to see something far more impressve come out of Early Cretaceous China - a second, much larger species was found further south in the Mangchuan formation of Ruyang county, Henan province. Huanghetitan ruyangensis was described in 2007 based on a partial spinal column and several ribs, some of which were nearly 3m (10 feet) long.


These are the longest ribs known for any dinosaur, and immediately a speculative skeleton was sculpted and unveiled at Ruyang, and the headlines of Xinhua news boomed with news that Huanghetitan ruyangensis had "the deepest body cavity of any known dinosaur".


You have to give the people that planned this display credit, they sure know how to make an attractive presentation. Those cervical ribs look way too thick and stubby though... just as with the type species mount in Lanzhou, this display's neck is 100% imagination.

Actually, this may not be correct. Other massive sauropods should have possibly deeper body cavities and rib cages, their ribs just weren't recovered! A good example might be Puertasaurus or Paralititan. There's one rib known from Argyrosaurus, but it's an immature specimen and the rib isn't complete. Overall, most titanosaur specimens don't include complete ribs - that's what makes the huge ribs of Huanghetitan ruyangensis truly special. We actually have a good idea how big its rib cage was!


As big as it is, though, I would have expected them to size up the fake neck and tail to match, but they both look far too small and short. Especially the neck - WAY too short. This thing looks like a cetiosaur or a camarasaur, not a basal titanosaur. Basal titanosaurs had enormous necks, not unlike that of Brachiosaurus or Euhelopus in general proportions. And the fake ilium just doesn't look right.... a bit too horizontal and flat-topped for a typical titanosaur (but very typical if it were a mamenchisaur...)

Indeed, it may not quite be a titanosaur, but a slightly more primitive "titanosauriform" - more basal than Andesaurus, but more derived than Euhelopus. It's got enough unique features to erect its own family, Huanghetitanidae. Which, for now, is limited to China (much as a hypothetical "Venenosauridae" would be to North America, or Chubutisauridae to South America). In any case, it's a giant among giants, and if the neck and tail are ever found, they will probably  a lot longer than what you see here - the whole animal was probably 100 feet long or more, and could have even rivaled Argentinosaurus in mass. Though the type species of Huanghetitan, while large, is no record setter, there's no doubt that the second species, Huanghetitan ruyangensis  - that's right, the really big one - is a serious contender for the biggest dinosaur.


2. Daxiatitan – "other dinosaur have necks. I have a skyscraper."

If Huanghetitan ruyangensis takes the cake for the deepest body cavity, there's one other dinosaur discovered the very next year in China that had one of the longest necks ever found (I know that's a pretty big club to join, but this new dinosaur isn't kidding around when it comes to necks).

Daxiatitan binglingi, a giant relative of Euhelopus, was found in 2008 in the Lanzhou basin formation (Hekou group) - the same formation that produced Huanghetitan liujiaxiaensis (the smaller of the two Huanghetitan species). It probably didn't come into contact with the colossal H. ruyangensis, which lived in a different fauna many miles further south (and probably at a different time as well).



Daxiatitan, unlike Huanghetitan, is known from fairly complete remains by giant titanosauriform standards. Nearly the entire neck is known, as well as most of the dorsal vertebrae, the shoulder blade, and the femur. So it's a simpler matter to reconstruct the skeleton - more molding and casting, less speculative sculpting.



Daxiatitan dorsal vertebrae, with neural spines partially restored, sitting in their molds.

Yes, the shoulder blade is actually big enough to "do the Jensen" next to.

Shoulder blade and femur. Scale bar = 10 cm

Notice that the femur has a very large, clean fault fracture - 
an effect of fossilization that strangely did not crush or shatter the bone.



The dorsal column is almost identical to that of Euhelopus. Not only that, the femur has the same outward tilt to the condyles at the knee joint. Which can only mean one thing - both of these "Euhelopodids" walked with their shins and feet rotated out like Charlie Chaplin! The two animals are certainly closely related, though the shoulder blades and femurs are still different enough that it's evident they were not the exact same animal. The type (and only) specimen of Euhelopus, by the way, is not fully mature:

Euhelopus zdanskyi type skeletal by Greg Paul. Included for educational purposes only.
Note that the scapula and coracoid are unfused and therefore it's not yet an adult. 
At roughly 50 feet long (assuming a short brachiosaur-like tail), it still looks cuddly. But just barely.

  But before Jack Horner's followers jump to their typical conclusions (on the other hand, I don't know if he's ever touched a sauropod ...) let me say here that I highly doubt Daxiatitan could ever be the adult form of Euhelopus. Aside from the differences in the shoulder and femur (and probably some finer details of the vertebrae), it's also just way too big. The Euhelopus holotype, around 50 feet long, is not fully grown, but it's a teenager, NOT a child. Its vertebrae are fully formed and don't have any of the lateral sutures present in juvenile sauropods, so it didn't have that much more growing to do. So an adult Euhelopus might be 60-70 feet long, max. It would not be pushing 100 feet like Daxiatitan.

 

But since it had similar crazy neck proportions, the best way of getting an idea of the size of Daxiatitan is to take Euhelopus and scale it up. Since the tails of both animals are not known (Euhelopus is missing the entire tail, and only two tail vertebrae and a chevron from Daxiatitan were found), the length estimate is still a bit murky, but even with a short tail, Daxiatitan is about twice as big - easily a hundred-footer. And it could have been incredibly tall too, possibly topping 60 feet in height.

And it's got the biggest neck of just about any animal in the Early Cretaceous (apart from Sauroposeidon). Probably an even longer than Erketu. Erketu, let's remember, is a much smaller animal, and even though it has a proportionally crazier super-neck, Erketu's neck was still probably shorter than Daxiatitan's in terms of raw length. What's even better is that the neck of Daxiatitan is far more complete than anything we've got for either Sauroposeidon or Erketu.

So there you have it - the biggest, baddest neck in the Early Cretaceous Far East. Daxiatitan may not be busting any weight records with its compact Euhelopus-like torso, but it's still downright huge, and far and away the most complete and impressive giant sauropod specimen in the entire Early Cretaceous anywhere on the planet. Shocking, then, that it's virtually unknown to most dino-fans.



1. Ruyangosaurus giganteus – the largest – and strangest – of China's record breakers

Just when you thought Huanghetitan and Daxiatitan were big, China had one more titanosaur secret to body-slam everything you thought you knew about the biggest dinosaurs. This new titan isn't just huge beyond belief - it's also incredibly weird, even by the freaky standards of titanosauria, a superfamily which probably holds the unchallenged record for producing truly odd dinosaurs over the years. And seems to have its closest links with another species that was found thousands of miles away, across an entire ocean!



Discovered in 2009, this dinosaur seemed to steal the crown of "Asia's biggest" from both Huanghetitan and Daxiatitan instantly. Well, everyone has their 15 minutes... or in the cases of Huanghetitan and Daxiatitan, a whole year. Discovered near Huanghetitan ruyangensis, this new giant was one of many strange titanosaur lineages that migrated into China - the authors of the paper (Lu, et. al. 2009) describe its date vaguely as "early Late Cretaceous" which probably means the Cenomanian epoch. The new dinosaur was named "Ruyangosaurus giganteus", and the specimen consists of a "posterior cervical vertebra" (more likely an anterior dorsal), a posterior dorsal vertebra, a right femur, a right tibia, a partial cervical rib, and a partial dorsal rib. That's it. Just six bones. But six very huge bones.

It's actually one of only two sauropods to actually bear the species name "giganteus". The other is Antarctosaurus giganteus (Von Huene, 1929), and just as with that creature, the name fits. A bit of a welcome change from the inane habit, common in Von Huene's day, of giving grandiose names to creatures that don't deserve them - such as giving names like "Gigantosaurus" and "Titanosaurus" to random sauropod bones that were not especially huge - or for that matter, the more recent blunder of naming those non-diagnostic Korean fragments "Ultrasaurus" when there was nothing "ultra" about them.


Femurs of various titanosaurs and titanosauriforms including Ruyangosaurus and Antarctosaurus - all to scale. All in posterior view, except where otherwise noted. 
It's obvious that Ruyangosaurus is bloody big, even compared to everything else.


What's also astonishing is that Ruyangosaurus seems more than a match for Antarctosaurus giganteus in size. The right femur of A. giganteus is 222cm long (well over 7 feet), while the right femur of Ruyangosaurus, as reconstructed, measures roughly 235cm long (over 7.7 feet). While the bottom half of the Ruyangosaurus femur is largely missing, the reconstruction appears to incorporate some distal fragments. The paper estimates the femur length at "about 200cm" (2m) but this would make the femur far shorter than what the reconstruction shows. Either way, it's up there with Antarctosaurus giganteus, and there's another line of evidence that shows it may even rival Argentinosaurus in mass.


The anterior dorsal vertebra recovered from the site is huge - the centrum alone is nearly 50 cm wide, comparable to both Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus. Indeed the vertebra looks very similar to that of Puertasaurus - squat with a fat centrum, a very small neural canal, a wide triangular neural spine, and very short from front to back.

 Anterior dorsal vertebrae of Ruyangosaurus (with missing portions outlined) and Puertasaurus.
Modified from Lu, et. al. 2009, and Novas et. al. 2005, respectively. The Ruyangosaurus vertebra has been diagonally crushed and faulted.

 The diapophyses (side process) on Ruyangosaurus are very deep and likely were also very long as in Puertasaurus. This would have helped support a massively wide rib cage.

The funny thing is that the Lu, et. al. claimed that Ruyangosaurus is a primitive "Andesaurid" titanosaur on the basis of its size (a pretty awful condition for classifying any dinosaur species) and supposedly having a hypantrum-hyposphene complex (basically an interlocking "tab and slot" mechanism on the vertebrae just above the level of the spinal cord). But upon closer examination, it doesn't appear to have one at all. The hole above the anterior dorsal's neural canal isn't a hypantrum slot - it's just a hole where bone material got broken and punched out during fossilization (notice that it lies on the intersection of a HUGE diagonal crack and a smaller vertical crack on the neural spine!) The entire thing looks far more like Puertasaurus than Andesaurus. And for reference, here's an Andesaurus vertebra:

Andesaurus posterior dorsal (modified from Salgado, 1997)

This looks nothing like the Ruyangosaurus anterior dorsal you've already seen, no matter which way you look at it. Now compare this to the posterior dorsal of Ruyangosaurus:

Andesaurus and Ruyangosaurus posterior dorsal vertebrae. 
Modified from Salgado (1997), and Lu, et.al. (2009), respectively.

Hypantrum? What hypantrum? All I see is a thick V-shaped lamina of bone connecting the prezygapophyses. There's no gap between them, no hypantrum slot for a hyposphene to even fit into! And from behind and the side, there's no trace of a hyposphene - just another V-shaped lamina above a flat space with a few very shallow and thin "spider laminae" which are barely visible. And this lack of a hypantrum-hyposphene complex is something only found in more advanced titanosaurs, not "andesaurids".

Is this giant REALLY a primitive andesaurid? I don't believe it. You be the judge.

Regardless of its taxonomic affinities Ruyangosaurus was still undeniably huge. But just how huge?
The anterior dorsal vertebra is only about 10% smaller than that of Puertasaurus, so assuming it had similar proportions to Puertasaurus, and assuming Puertasaurus was 125ft. long (as per my own restoration...).....


When you scale it down by 10%, you get a hypothetical "Ruyangosaurus" that was about 112.5 feet long. That tops Argentinosaurus. And that's still assuming a pretty conservative tail length and neck proportions similar to what I calculated for Puertasaurus (the huge Ruyangosaurus cervical rib may indicate an even longer neck, and overall even a length of 120 feet is still pretty likely). Actually, I've assumed three times already, and so much assuming means a lot of possibilities for error. But it's a better guesswork model than I've seen from anyone else's restorations, so if Ruyangosaurus was similar to Puertasaurus in proportions, the error is cut to a minimum.


However, even if Ruyangosaurus was longer than Argentinosaurus, its legs were considerably shorter. The Ruyangosaurus tibia is far shorter than the femur, and even the femur is at best, 2.35m long. That of Argentinosaurus is a full 2.5m, over 8 feet. And the tibia of Argentinosaurus is considerably longer than that of Ruyangosaurus, so all in all, the body of Ruyangosaurus seems to have been no more than 5m tall at the hips, while Argentinosaurus reached around 6.3m at the hips. But a lower body and shorter legs to not necessarily make a smaller or lighter dinosaur. Ruyangosaurus seems to have the odd "double-wide" body shape of Puertasaurus rather than the slimmer deep "barrel" belly of Argentinosaurus. Which means that it could have been wider than Argentinosaurus, and just perhaps (depending on the torso length), more voluminous and massive. 80 tons or more for a 112 to 120-foot titanosaur is definitely possible. Even if this creature was a short squat tank compared to Argentinosaurus.

Either way, there's a good possibility Ruyangosaurus is either the second or third largest dinosaur known from currently existing remains. And the biggest creature to roam the Middle Kingdom, hands down.



There you go. 15 mysterious giants that owned any scene they stomped into. And you saw it here first, in the Paleo Kingdom. The next forgotten giant.... may be one that you find!

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