The biggest and best

imgp1226There is often what could be described as an unhealthy preoccupation with size in scientific circles and especially in the reporting of science. The biggest species of a clade, of land animals, of predators, of all time etc. will always get you media coverage and certainly helps get papers published (T.rex might still be the most famous, but an awful lot of people have heard of Giganotosaurus simply becuase it’s big). I’m hardly immune to this, and my work on giantism and size changes and of course pterosaurs (which include the largest fliers of all time) makes me still more involved. However, while people are always happy to bang on about the largest of various groups (be it length, weight, height, or whatever) it can be hard to get an idea of what this really means. Even when you have a figure for a scale bar or some other good ‘standard’ to measure lengths with (for example, not elephants) getting a sense of scale is tricky and you are left with awkward compromises if you want to try and compare a lot of different things.

However just the other day I saw a superb exhibit on this very issue at the National Museum of Science and Nature in Toyko, that really dealt with the concept superbly, from several different angles and with the least problems over the inevitable compromises of trying to compare and contrast some very different organisms based on limited, space, budget, available material and general practicality. What they assembled was a small group of specimens which in their various ways represented the ‘largest’  something or other. The lighting and arrangement made it hard to take good photos but hopefully it has been achieved to at least give a sense of the concept. Above you can see a pickled giant squid (Architeuthis sp. – the largest known invertebrate [well, it was until recently]) and mostly cut-off on the bottom is a reticulated python (Python reticulatus – the longest land animal).


In the second photo you can see (hopefully) a giraffe (Giraffa camelopardis – the tallest living animal), an elephant (Elephas maximus – the heaviest terrestrial animal, they used an Indian, since I assume no African specimen was available or would fit) an estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus – the largest reptile), an Andean condor (Vultur gryphus – the flying bird with the biggest wing-area), a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus the biggest toothed whale, and one of the largest organisms, a model of a blue whale stands outside) and in the background (behind the giraffe) in sections a giant tree (though stupidly I did not check which, so it could be there for size or height and it’s hard to tell from just a few trunk sections in a photo, though it was listed as being over 50 m in height so it must be a giant sequoia or a giant redwood). (The squid and python are tucked behind the giraffe so can’t be seen from this angle, but were part of the display).

Overall, I think this is an excellent little display that really helps to convey just how big some of these animals (and a plant) are and how they compare to each other. OK, so not all of them are especially big examples (it’s only a female giraffe, the crocodile is only a couple of metres long etc.) but given the limitations of creating a museum display, I think it’s wonderful. It does get the major points across (there are lots of different ways of defining ‘big’, and here are some of those ‘biggest’ organisms for you to compare) in a limited amount of space and covers really quite a range of extant things (you can’t cram in everything either – giant flowers, fungi, insects, fish etc.).

I have seen plenty of overblown and uninteresting museum exhibits that try to cram too much information in, or are given over to flashy displays and huge wadges of text that no-one pays any attention to and this avoids those pitfalls well. Certainly more museums could do with providing more displays like this (and this was only one of a number of excellent displays and exhibitions at the museum in question) and whilemit can hardly serve as a model of all, or even many exhibits, the way in which it handles a tricky subject by showing a bunch of specimens together is something all museums should do more.

4 Responses to “The biggest and best”

  1. 1 Sordes 28/02/2009 at 2:22 am

    Big and giant animals are always fascinating, but if you make more personal research it turns very often out that the sizes given in general aren´t true at all. To take Architeuthis as example, I grew up with the idea that it reaches over 20m and more than a ton, but later it turns out that even the largest specimens are not longer than 13m and around 250kg in weight. As I dealt a lot with growth and maximum sizes of fish I discovered that nearly all alleged maximum sizes for the largest freshwater fish are nothing but big-fish-stories (to make some examples, the wels catfish, the arapaima, the chinese paddlefish, the beluga sturgeon and many more), and the actually confirmed sizes are often well under the alleged sizes. There is a similar thing in many marine fish, especially sharks, but also of course in reptiles. Even at mammals there are several alleged maximum sizes which are highly quoted but most probably not pure facts.

  1. 1 The biggest and best « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings | Who Has The Biggest Trackback on 02/02/2009 at 3:34 pm
  2. 2 National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 23/03/2009 at 10:58 am
  3. 3 Preservation and recovery « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 18/04/2010 at 11:55 am
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