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Science Behind the Fiction: How big can animals get?

Contributed by
Sep 26, 2018

Horror movies pitting humans against oversized predators have existed almost as long as the medium itself. King Kong first climbed the Empire State Building in the original 1933 movie, and even though beauty killed the beast, the great ape didn't stay dead, as people are still talking about Kong and remaking the movie today.

The genre really hit its stride in the 1950s after the release of Mighty Joe Young in 1949 and the re-release of King Kong in 1953. The world was introduced to another giant animal the following year when Toho released Godzilla, a somber commentary on the impact of nuclear war. Over the last seven decades, pretty much every manner of creature has seen itself blown up on the silver screen. And, these oversized beasts show no signs of going away anytime soon.

That said, the popularity of giant monster movies has ebbed and flowed from decade to decade. The genre's popularity waned during the '60s and may have been destined to go extinct if not for Steven Spielberg's Jaws, which introduced audiences to a more realistic, yet still wholly terrifying, massive predator movie. A giant shark isn't as unbelievable as a skyscraper-sized fire-breathing lizard, which might just be scarier.

Spielberg's model was aped (pun intended) to varying success in the late nineties with a pair of popular horror/thriller movies involving animals who had grown too big for their proverbial britches. Anaconda (1997) followed a team onto the Amazon River where they encounter massive predatory snakes. A couple of years later, Lake Placid did something similar, only this time it was a huge crocodile in Maine. Both films walked a biological and psychological tightrope, presenting audiences with creatures believable enough as to not quite set off our BS detectors while also giving the audience something it could be truly frightened of.

Lake Placid has gone on to have five sequels (one of which was a crossover film with the Anaconda series, go figure) the most recent of which, Lake Placid: Legacy, premiered on SYFY earlier this year.

Lake Placid: Legacy is a direct sequel to the first film in the series, casting aside the events of the rest of the franchise and returning viewers to Maine to face off with the most massive crocodile the world has ever seen.

Considering the longevity of oversized predator flicks and the likelihood they'll be around for a while, let's look at some of the largest predatory animals to see just how far off the mark our monster movies are. And maybe we can discover the critter behind the next big franchise.

CROCODILES

There are two crocodiles in the original Lake Placid film (not counting the four babies discovered at the end. Spoiler alert, I know), the largest of which is said to reach 30 feet in length from snout to tail.

Thirty feet isn't just big for a crocodile, regardless of species — it's downright impossible.

According to the Lake Placid Movies Wiki page (as good a source as any when dealing with the particulars of a fictional reptile) the big bad, known only as "Male Crocodile" is a member of the Asian Pacific species of croc. No official word on how he and his partner made their way to Maine.

As best I can discover, there is no crocodile species known as Asian Pacific, fake species for a fake crocodile, but we can speak with a certain level of certainty about how good ol' "Male Crocodile" might have made his way to Blake Lake.

The closest real-world equivalent to the giant crocs of Lake Placid is the saltwater crocodile, known to inhabit areas including eastern India and Southeast Asia.

A group of scientists in Australia, including the late, great Steve Irwin, tagged a number of crocs in order to track their movements. What they discovered was crocodiles using currents to ride long distances over the water without expending huge amounts of energy.

Some crocs were documented moving hundreds of miles over the course of a few weeks. While impressive, there's a vast difference between traveling to and from nearby islands and crossing the world's largest ocean with only your own scaly body as a boogie board. But, these findings do provide a mechanism by which these animals could spread over vast areas in relatively short time periods.

Saltwater crocodiles are also impressive in their size. Measuring at an average of 17 feet in length for adults, these evolutionary holdovers are certainly not to be messed with, but 17 feet is not 30 feet.

That 17-foot figure is only an average, though, and anyone who ever got a look at the variation in height among the human population knows that averages are not necessarily indicative of how big a species is capable of getting under the right circumstances.

The largest documented crocodile in captivity was a male called Lolong, captured in the Philippines in 2012. Coming in at just more than 20 feet, Lolong beat out the previous record holder by more than two feet in length.

Lolong was certainly a sight to behold, before his death in February of 2013.

"I didn't expect to ever see a crocodile greater than 20 feet long in my lifetime, not an experience I will forget easily," said Adam Britton, a zoologist who confirmed Lolong's length in advance of a Guinness World Record listing.

While it's reasonable to assume there might be individual animals measuring in excess of those we've verifiably measured, it's an incredible leap of faith to believe there might be animals wholly 50% larger than the largest documented crocodile. Lolong, for his part, was suspected in the deaths of at least two people making him just as frightening as any fictional beast.

Reports of crocodiles larger than Lolong, some reaching toward the mythical thirty-foot length, have filtered in over the years but until such time as they can be measured and their size verified, these claims are little more than rumor.

ANACONDAS

The 1997 film opens with a crawl which introduces you to the creatures that will be the central villains of the film. Right away viewers should become aware that the animals they'll be seeing on screen are not a representation of the real-world counterparts.

"Anacondas are among the most ferocious and enormous creatures on earth," it says "growing, in certain cases, as long as 40 feet. Unique among snakes, they are not satisfied after eating a victim. They will regurgitate their prey in order to kill and eat again."

This is the perfect sort of introduction for teenagers who bought a ticket for Jungle 2 Jungle and snuck into Anaconda instead, but should have tripped a few alarm bells for anyone else. Snakes don't regurgitate food for fun. Hunting and eating expends lots of valuable energy, and forcing food back up is stressful. Snakes don't barf up a perfectly good meal, already ingested, unless they have a good reason.

More important for our purposes is the claim that anacondas sometimes grow as long as 40 feet, in certain cases. This is true only if the circumstances in question involve Hollywood budgets and the willing suspension of disbelief.

In truth, anacondas rarely grow to lengths nearing 30 feet, most often settling in under 20 feet in adulthood. This should be impressive enough but a movie like this wouldn't be true to itself if its relationship with the truth wasn't more slippery than Jon Voight covered in snake spit.

Pound for pound, anacondas hold the record for the world's largest living snake. Though, when it comes to length, the reticulated python takes the crown, though the species weighs about half as much as the beefier green anaconda.

While there are no living snakes comparable to the one that ate Owen Wilson, such a snake did once exist. In the midst of a Columbian coal deposit, you'll find a fossil hotbed dating back 58 million years ago. There, you can find the remains of the largest snake ever to have lived.

Coming in at more than 40 feet in length and with an estimated weight of more than a ton, Titanoboa was the undisputed king of its environment. A slithering apex predator capable of eating anything it set its eyes on.

Other fossils retrieved from the same location indicate that Titanoboa lived alongside crocodilians, including a newly discovered species, though these were no weren't Lake Placid-sized crocs. Measuring roughly 6 to 7 feet long, they would likely have been on Titanoboa's menu. No need to watch that Lake Placid/Anaconda crossover film, this is one mystery solved that's already been solved by science. Victory: Titanoboa.

GROWING AND GROWING

As we've seen, movies have a tendency to take the truth of an animal's maximum size and exaggerate it for on-screen effect. We're prevented from realizing our fictional fantasies by the determinate nature of growth among most animals. That is, most animals have a genetically determined size which, once achieved, ends the process of growth for that individual and nothing (aside from the fictional side effects of nuclear bombardment) will change that.

But not everything alive on Earth has determinate growth. Some plants and animals are indeterminate growers, meaning they continue to grow throughout their lives, though sometimes at a slower rate once adulthood is reached.

Crocodiles are often listed as a vertebrate animal with indeterminate growth, but evidence suggests this isn't actually the case. Even if it were, the maximum size is determined by the maximum lifespan and there just isn't time to reach the sizes suggested by the movies.

Indeterminate growth has been observed in corals, mollusks, sea urchins, and potentially some basal fish. The case for basal fish aside, indeterminate growth seems most common in life that doesn't have a skeleton. In addition to the animals listed, plants are all about growth, as you may have noticed.

So, if you're looking for the next big Hollywood hit, it might be time to reconsider a reboot of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. In the meantime, Lake Placid: Legacy is available now.

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