Bite Club – 5 Prehistoric Face-Offs

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that the only thing better than seeing prehistoric monstrosities snaffle up people is watching them fight each other. From the pioneering stop-motion dinosaurs of the original Lost World to the Jurassic Park films, paleo battles have been a standard spectacle whenever ancient life is brought back from the dead. Seriously, just Google “Tyrannosaurus vs Spinosaurus” and see how many YouTube videos and zealous forum posts are still discussing this match-up over 14 years after the controversial battle played out in Jurassic Park III.

On the surface, these imaginary battles are a little silly. They often involve animals that lived millions and millions of years apart in different habitats and would have been unlikely to battle to the death as if they were natural arch-rivals. Not to mention that a little creative writing can turn the battle in the favor of whichever species we prefer. But, hell, it’s still fun to imagine, and I’ll admit to spending more than a few childhood hours pitting my various dinosaur models against each other in a battle for supremacy. With that sandbox spirit in mind, and with a few suggestions from the enthusiastic Tor staff, here’s how a few fossil throwdowns might shake out.



Outdated 1897 restoration by Charles R. Knight

Brontosaurus vs. Apatosaurus

Up until a few months ago, this would have just been Apatosaurus shadowboxing itself. The name “Brontosaurus” was discarded over a century ago when paleontologist Elmer Riggs proposed that the “thunder lizard” was really a synonym of Apatosaurus. But now Brontosaurus is back—maybe—so we can pit the sauropod against Apatosaurus to see who’s the superior dinosaur.

This is a tough one to call. The dinosaurs really are similar—both were over 70 feet long and weighed more than 15 tons. The main differences between them are subtle skeletal features and, despite its hefty name, a slightly slimmer neck on Brontosaurus. So, given that its name means “deceptive lizard,” I’m going to assume that Apatosaurus fought dirty and would beat Brontosaurus by kicking dust in its opponent’s eyes.


Quetzalcoatlus restoration by Mark Witton and Darren Naish; Brontornis restoration by NatGeo

Quetzalcoatlus restoration by Mark Witton and Darren Naish; Brontornis restoration by NatGeo

Quetzalcoatlus vs. Brontornis

In this corner, hailing from the Late Cretaceous of North America and with a wingspan of 35 feet, we have the largest flying creature of all time, the Bruiser of Big Bend, Quetzalcoatlus. And in the opposing corner, all the way from the Miocene of Brazil and weighing in at 800 pounds, a titan of terror birds, the “avian thunder,” Brontornis.

A flying reptile matched against a giant, flightless bird? Sure. Why not? While Brontornis was a hefty predator with large talons, Quetzalcoatlus would have the psychological advantage. On the ground, the enormous pterosaur stood as tall as a giraffe and a long, toothless beak that made it seem about as ill-tempered as today’s marabou storks. Not to mention that it could pole-vault into the air if the match wasn’t going its way. Match to Quetzalcoatlus.


Therizinosaurus restoration by Walking With Dinosaurs; Utahraptor restoration by Vlad Konstantinov

Therizinosaurus restoration by Walking With Dinosaurs; Utahraptor restoration by Vlad Konstantinov

Therizinosaurus vs. Utahraptor

This one is claw versus claw. Made famous by dint of being the largest of the “raptor” dinosaurs, adult Utahraptor stretched over 20 feet long and had enlarged claws on their hyperextendable inner toes. While often depicted as slashing weapons, it’s more likely that Utahraptor used these formidable weapons to pin down prey while tearing at away flesh with its serrated, forward-pointing teeth.

Therizinosaurus is a big softie by comparison. This small-headed, tubby dinosaur is estimated to have been about 30 feet long and stood as much as 18 feet tall. But its hands gave it something of a Freddie Krueger vibe—each finger was tipped with a claw measuring three feet long or more. This may have given Therizinosaurus a literal edge in defense, unless Utahraptor were social predators (as one fossil site might suggest). In which case… Eep.


T. Rex reconstruction by John Sibbick; Spinosaurus reconstruction by Davide Bonadonna

T. Rex reconstruction by John Sibbick; Spinosaurus reconstruction by Davide Bonadonna

Tyrannosaurus vs. Spinosaurus

This one’s obligatory. Both are in competition for the title of “largest land carnivore of all time”, so it’s only natural that plenty of digital ink has been spilled over a confrontation between the two. Let’s look at the stats. Tyrannosaurus, known from over 50 skeletons of varying levels of completeness, got to be about 40 feet long and weigh 9 tons. Spinosaurus, as we now know it, is a composite of various bits and pieces, with the latest reconstruction proposing that this dinosaur was a low-slung, fish-eating carnivore that stretched over 40 feet long and weighed more than 8 tons.

So size alone isn’t going to make the difference here. Skill is. While the biomechanical abilities of Spinosaurus have been little-studied to date, what has been determined for Tyrannosaurus makes it difficult to see how its sail-backed competitor could have pulled victory from the literal jaws of defeat. Tyrannosaurus could bite with a force of over 12,800 pounds, and had neck muscles powerful enough that the dinosaur could toss a 110-pound chunk of meat 15 feet in the air and catch it. (This is called “inertial feeding.”) All of which is to say that when the Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park III bit the neck of the Spinosaurus early in their fight, good ol’ T. rex would have crushed its rival’s neck. You have some apologizing to do to the tyrant king, Joe Johnston.


Triceratops battle reconstruction by Lukas Panzarin

Triceratops battle reconstruction by Lukas Panzarin

Triceratops vs. Triceratops

I had to throw one real dinosaur battle in here. Triceratops were apparently fractious dinosaurs, and the evidence is right there on their bones. Multiple Triceratops skulls show scrapes and lesions along the bones that made up their cheeks and frills. These weren’t from fights with tyrannosaurs. They were from skirmishes with each other. The placement of the injuries match the expected horn-locking positions possible for these huge herbivores. Which offers up a parting word to the wise – don’t rub a Triceratops the wrong way.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus (out in paperback from Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Written in Stone. He also writes the National Geographic blog Laelaps.


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