I wrote up a special post for April Fools' Day this year about the history of giant sauropods that were originallyÂ overestimated in size (sometimes vastly so!), beginning with Marsh's Atlantosaurus immanis and Cope's Amphicoelias fragillimus. For some reason, my post never appeared on the Dinosaur Mailing List. (I also sent the post to the Vertpaleo list, but I don't know if showed up there either.)
Part of the post was about the Berlin Giraffatitan, so, inspired by Nicholas Carter's interesting blog today,Â I thought I might try again with the "Gigantosaurus" (= Giraffatitan) section of the post on the DML.
Before the end of the 19th century, there was one more media claim of the "biggest dinosaur"--but one that never made it into scientific literature...
In 1898, the tabloid The New York Journal and Advertiser hailed "Brontosaurus giganteus" as the "The Most Colossal Animal Ever on Earth"--a discovery in fact based on a fragment of a femur found in Wyoming. Famously, the hyped up newspaper coverage led Andrew Carnegie to fund major dinosaur digs that would unearth a nearly completely Diplodocus, which was then used to create plaster casts sent to museums around the world, starting with England. The first cast mounted on the European continentÂ was in Berlin--which in turn spurred Germany to look for dinosaurs in Africa...
Biggest Sauropods in the 20th and 21st Centuries
Cope's vision of Amphicoelias fragillimus as twice the size of Amphicoelias altus (an idea revived in the 1990s) was the first case of a proposed double-big diplodocid. There would be more...Â
From "Gigantosaurus" to Giraffatitan: Downsizing a Double-Big "Diplodocid"
The German Tendaguru expeditions in colonial East Africa in the early 20th century are famous in dinosaur fossil hunting lore.
In 1907, the German paleontologist Eberhard Fraas (1862--1915) headed an expedition to the German colonial regions in East Africa (now Tanzania) that unearthed new sauropod material. Arguing that Seeley's earlier usage of the name Gigantosaurus was not valid, Fraas published descriptions of two new species of sauropod with the names Gigantosaurus africanus (now Tornieria, a diplodocid) and Gigantosaurus robustus (now Janenschia, a titanosauriform).
With new funding, the Berlin Natural History Museum mounted a series of ambitious follow-up expeditions between 1909 and 1913, led by German paleontologists Carl Wilhelm von Branca (1844-1928), Werner Janensch (1878-1969), and Edwin Hennig (1882-1977), partly in the hope of finding more "Gigantosaurus" fossils. German magazines and newspapers published early reports, hinting at exciting discoveries.Â
In 1911, the popular news magazine Illustrirte Zeitung highlighted the most spectacular new find--a giant 7-foot (2.1 m) humerus recently prepared by the Berlin Museum--with a photo of an unidentified older gentleman standing alongside for scale. At the top of the same page, a figure in a lab coat was drawn in over a photo of Carnegie's complete Diplodocus skeleton as displayed in Berlin to point to its humerus. The Tendaguru upper arm bone was twice as large compared to a human!
Eberhard Stechow (1911) Die deutsche Tendaguru-Expedition. Illustrirte Zeitung 3553: 207-209 (August 3, 1911)
From the text in German: "The bones of this Gigantosaurus, as it has been named, are almost twice the dimensions of the corresponding 25 m long Diplodocus pictured above. Since our Gigantosaurus, on the whole, seems to have had a similar body shape, it is easy to see what a tremendous animal it must have been!"
Similar to Marsh and his Atlantosaurus immanis femur sent as plaster reconstructions to other institutions, the German researchers proudly provided plaster casts of the giant humerus to major museums, including the Natural History Museum in London in 1912, as reported in the journal Nature.Â
Which led to these comments at a meeting in London:
"Dr. Woodward emphasised the importance of an exhaustive comparison of the sauropodous dinosaurs of Africa with those of North America, which would now soon be possible. He also alluded to the problems suggested by the gigantic size of some species, which much exceeded the extreme limit of growth calculated to be possible by the late Prof. Marsh when he first discovered the femur of Atlantosaurus. "
Nature 89 (May 16, 1912): pg. 273
E. Fraas, the original discoverer of "Gigantosaurus," published his own comments on the new specimens, stressing the competition with American dinosaur finds. An accompanying illustration by Heinrich Harder depicted a huge Diplodocus-like animal.
E. Fraas (1912). Der ostafrikanische Gigantosaurus. Die Wunder der Natur 2: 52-54
Translated: "For the time being we can only say that the African Gigantosaurus achieved a certain 'world record' in relation to a size ratio and even overshadowed the huge skeletons of American dinosaurs." (pg. 54)
Shortly after, Edwin Hennig published a general audience book about the expeditions.
Hennig, Edwin (1912) Am Tendaguru. Leben und Wirken einer deutschen Forschungs-Expedition zum Ausgrabung vorweltlicher Riesensaurier in Deutsch-Ostafrika. [In the Tendaguru. Life and Work for a German Scientific Expedition in the Excavation of prehistoric giant saurians in German East Africa.] E. Schweizerbart'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Stuttgart, 1912: 151 pp.
Now informed by additional bones, Hennig tallied the double size of most of the bones compared to Diplodocus, but noted (translated): "The torso and caudal vertebrae, on the other hand, correspond in size (but not in form) to the American ones, and the length of the animal is therefore unlikely to be twice that of the Diplodocus, given the particulars just mentioned. " (pg. 51)
This detail was ignored when Charles Schuchert reviewed the book in 1913.
" It is thought that the largest attained almost twice the length of Diplodocus, which is 80 feet long. The neck appears to have been at least 15 feet longer than that of Diplodocus and a good deal thicker, as the vertebrae of Gigantosaurus are nearly twice as high as in the American genus. Truly they were the 'largest of all known land animals' and 'it is very difficult to picture to ourselves the enormous size of such living masses'."
The American Journal of Science 205 1913
The final word came in the inauspicious year 1914--with the start of World War I in July and an end to collegial international scientific exchange between British and German researchers (and the eventual loss of German colonial territories to Britain).Â
Werner Janensch published a scientific description that reclassified the biggest Tendaguru dinosaur material not as a double-Diplodocus-size "Gigantosaurus" but as two additional species (B. brancai and B. fraasi) of the long-armed (and short-tailed) genus Brachiosaurus from the Upper Jurassic of North America, described by Elmer Riggs in 1903. (Later, the specimens were recognized as belonging to one species, Brachiosaurus brancai.)
Janensch, Werner (1914) Ãbersicht Ãber die Wirbeltierfauna der Tendaguruschichten, nebst einer kurzen Charakterisierung der neu aufgefÃhrten Arten von Sauropoden. [Overview of the vertebrate fauna of the Tendaguru deposits, with a short characterization of the newly discovered species of sauropods] Archiv fÃr Biontologie 3(1): 81-110.
Later that year, American Museum of Natural History paleontologist William Matthew spotlighted the revised description and classification of the Tendaguru "Gigantosaurus" in Scientific American:
Matthew, W. D. (1914) The Largest Known Dinosaur. Scientific American 111(22): 443, 446-447 (November 28, 1914)
Although the dinosaur was certainly big, Matthew brought some details down to earth:
"The prodigious skeleton, 130 to 150 feet long that appeared in the various newspaper illustrations a year or two ago, has not been installed for public view; only two or three of the huge limb bones have as yet appeared. And when it does appear, the proportions and construction are likely to differ as widely from the preliminary sketches as do the modern maps of North America from the strange-looking outlines of a fifteenth century map."
Somehow the British zoologist and popular science writer Edwin Ray Lankester (1847-1929) overlooked these updates to the Berlin "Gigantosaurus" in his 1920 book Secrets of Earth and Sea and repeated the outdated speculative hype about its size, including a non-existent 10-ft. femur, premised on a scaled-up version of Diplodocus:
Lankester, Edwin Ray (1920) Secrets of Earth and Sea London: Methuen & Co. ltd.
"A cast of the humerus, or upper-arm bone, is now exhibited in the Natural History Museum. It is over 7 ft. in length. The femur, or thigh-bone, was still bigger--it was over 10 ft. in length. Alas for the glory of Atlantosaurus! ... Our engraving (Fig. 32) shows the relative size of the humerus of man, the elephant, and the Gigantosaurus. How puny is that human arm-bone! And yet . . .!
When stretched on the shore, resting on the belly, the body of the great lizard of Tendagoroo bulked like a breakwater 12 ft. high, and his tail like a huge serpent extended 80 ft. beyond it; whilst his head and neck reached 40 ft. along the mud in front." (pg. 88)
Some idea of the creature Lankaster had in mind comes from the Tornier-style crawling "reptilian" Diplodocus sprawled in squashed anatomical agony a few pages later (pg. 91)!
A composite of fossil specimens was finally mounted in the Berlin Museum fÃr Naturkunde
in 1937 with a total length of 74 feet and 41 feet in height. The Berlin skeleton was remounted and restudied between 2005 and 2007, and later digitized in 3D--a new monograph on the fossils should appear soon. (A general audience book in German "Dinosaurier Fragmente" about the Tendaguru expeditions came out in 2018.)
Greg Paul erected Giraffatitan as a subgenus of Brachiosaurus for the Berlin material in 1988. Mike Taylor made Giraffatitan a full genus in 2009 distinct from the related North American Brachiosaurus, a status now widely accepted.
Paul, G. S. 1988. The brachiosaur giants of the Morrison and Tendaguru with a description of a new subgenus, Giraffatitan, and a comparison of the worldâs largest dinosaurs. Hunteria 2:1--14.
Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.Â