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The size of King Kong's bone


Via Arts & Letters Daily, a breakthrough study of the anatomy of overgrown movie monsters and shrinking monster-movie heroes, done by an expert in invertebrate zoology (the real queen of the sciences). Even if you understand the general idea of the physical paradoxes involved in massively scaling up apes and spiders and ants and such, there are some great bits in this article, among them:

The hemonauts in Fantastic Voyage wouldn't have been able to see because their eyeballs would be smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

The Incredible Shrinking Man would have kicked the spider's ass, only to be drowned when he tried to drink a handful of water (which would have formed a sticky globe around his head and hands).

Ray Harryhausen's magnificent octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea actually died of the bends.

Mothra couldn't fly, and the giant ants in Them! couldn't walk, unless their joints were made of pure diamond.

And plenty of other insights on the way massive scaling up would break most of the bones of mammals. (I always wonder what the implications are here for roided-up NFL behemoths supporting 350-pound physiques on frames made for 200-pounders.) Even a chipmunk bulked up to 40 pounds would be as brittle as china. And forget about the 50-foot woman:

Based on some measurements from stills from the original movie, at the beginning of the movie Kong is about 22 feet tall, but by the time he climbs the Empire State Building, he appears to be 50 percent bigger, presumably because he was allowed bananas ad libitum. At 22 feet tall, Kong is about four to five times the size of your garden-variety lowland gorilla. A fivefold increase in height implies a 25-fold increase in bone cross-sectional area and a 125-fold increase in body mass; the stress on the bones thus should be about five times greater than the stress on a normal gorilla's bones. But, remember, according to Andy Biewener's data, a safety factor of five is extreme for mammals; Kong's excessive body size should have exhausted the safety factor. True, Kong stands a bit straighter than the average gorilla so he may gain a bit of the safety factor back, but it's clear that he's pushing the envelope. Is that why he has such a short fuse and is always roaring and bashing things? Not only does he continually run the risk of breaking his legs, but undoubtedly his feet hurt.

Kong may be pushing the limits of his bone strength, but other movies have clearly crossed the line. In The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), a 100-foot (but normally proportioned) man menaces Las Vegas. Although, based on his size, we would assume his first step should be his last, somehow he manages to survive a fall off Boulder Dam and return for the sequel, War of the Colossal Beast (1958). The protagonist in Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) is only half the size of the Amazing Colossal Man, but she also pushes the skeletal safety factor beyond reasonable limits.

In his tribute to the late Fay Wray, Jesse Walker dug up some gems of King Kong appreciation, including this one: "King Kong perpetually changes size; one minute his hand is big enough to seize an underground train, the next it only goes round the torso of a woman we see waving her arms and legs about."

Theme song and stills from Tom of T.H.U.M.B.

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  1. This site on Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics also contains a section on the problems of scaling.

  2. Things must have been even worse for the large sauropod like Apatasaurus and Brachiosaurus. Indeed, some folks have suggested that they couldn’t have lifted their heads straight up without passing out; it is doubtful their hearts were strong enough to pump blood that high.

    I remember, years ago, reading in a schoolbook a blurb that said something to the effect that the Earth was 20% (or something) less massive in the days of the dinosaurs. (I guess that asteroid that killed them must have been one heavy sucker…) A quick Google search for this just brings up some kooky expanding-earth sites. But it doesn’t quite seem to make sense that these dinosaurs would evolve their long necks if they couldn’t even lift them up, so maybe there’s something to it.

    So, has anyone else ever seen anything similar? Did I just imagine reading that little factoid?

  3. I have to admit, my mind was in the gutter reading the title of the post.

  4. I don’t think there’s any serious contention that the Earth was significantly less massive during the dinosaur age. There there has been some semi-serious speculation that the force of gravity (not just on Earth but as a universal constant) has changed over the course of the universe’s history and was possibly less in the past, but that’s hardly a mainstream view.

    The neck posture of dinosaurs like Brachiosaurus and Apatasaurus (formerly Brontosaurus) is a matter of some debate right now. You can go to the Dinosaur Mailing List at and search “sauropod neck posture” for an extensive discussion, but here are some highlights:

    1) A fairly common and traditional view is that the sauropods (big long-necked dinosaurs) generally held their heads high, and used this posture to feed on the foliage of tall trees. This view presumes they had some remarkable (and as yet unknown) mechanism for controlling blood flow to their heads. Otherwise when they raised their heads they would faint and when they lowered their heads their heads would explode or something.

    2) Another view is sauropods generally held their necks out horizontally from their shoulders, so their heads weren’t really much higher than their hearts. Reconstructions of this posture look quite plausible for some species (see Diplodocus, which is kind of long and low)and kind of stupid for others (see Brachiosaurus, which had long forelegs that seem designed for raising the neck and head as high up as possible. But “it looks stupid” may not be a good basis for evaluating a scientific hypothesis.

    3) View #2 is based both on doubts that the sauropods had a no-good-fossil-evidence-for amazing blood pressure-maintaining mechanism, and also by studying the neck vertebrae and concluding that the lowest-strain, “neutral stress posture” for the neck was horizontal, or even drooping down a bit.

    4) That last observation has fueled further speculation that sauropods perhaps did not feed from trees at all, but from ground plants. Perhaps they used their long necks to sweep back and forth and cover a lot of ground while feeding, saving themselves the effort of having to move their massive bodies as much, just their necks — an energy-saving measure.

    5) The last hypothesis has in turned spawned arguments over which really costs more energy: taking a few steps, or swinging your giant multi-ton neck around?

    6) The theory based on “neutral stress posture” indicating that sauropods held their necks low to the ground has been attacked on the basis that for some species, the “neutral stress posture” of the neck vertebrae indicates a distinct downward curve that would actually place the animal’s head below ground level, which seems unlikely as a default posture. This indicates that it may not be wise to rely on the fossilized bones alone to reconstruct the living animal’s neutral posture — this might be more affected by pads of cartilage, ligaments or other softer tissue that did not fossilize.

    So the debate rages on.

  5. “Bug Park” by James P. Hogan deals with scaling issues in a very interesting way.

  6. Dr. Ray Palmer of Ivy University dealt with the problems outlined in the Incredible Shrinking Man situation by developing technology that made the subjects mass, not just his size, variable. I believe this was done by employing his particular form of handwavium – “white dwarf star matter” – in a lenticular arrangement that effectively shunted excess mass into another dimension, to be recovered when the subject returned to his original size.

    Dr. Palmer regularly shrank to levels smaller than oxygen atoms, yet still manged to “breathe.” He has been quoted as telling his fellow micronauts to “not think to hard about what you are breathing.”

    Dr. Palmer’s precursor, chemist Darrell Dane, never explained how he overcame the difficulties outlined in the article. Dane’s transformation had only two states: full size and a six inch height. He never faced the physical quandries that attended the ultra-small adventures of Doc Palmer.

    Dr, Palmer’s great rival, Dr. Henry Pym, managed his feats of growth and shrinking by means of the eponymous particles he discovered. Whether extra-dimensional mass shifting was involved in their operaton is unknown to me.


  7. Thank you Stevo for proving to my satisfaction that dinosaurs are an evil plot to make us not believe in the bible.

  8. I don’t know, Carl. The debate about some long necked dinosaur not being able to pick up it’s head never dawned on me. Now that the issue has reared its ugly head, I have to say this one might be in favor of the Bible folks. We know the beasts are extinct, but if evolution were /is true in its vertical sense then it surely never would have favored the expansion of a species so retarded in its evolution that it can’t pick up its head. I think the extinction would have been from the start. Or you can run w/ the creationist to have faith that maybe there is a secret we don’t know. Your call.

  9. Gravity varied in the past. How else do you think the Egyptians made the pyramids? sheesh.

    Also, the islands of the east were inhabited by people who jumped from Asia; really good running jumps.

  10. Invertebrate biology is theory – King Kong is fact.

  11. Building on what Stevo said, I attended a lecture featuring Robert Bakker several years ago, and he talked about the sauropod blood pressure/neck thing. (He had this great illustration of a herd of sauropods with their heads launching off of their necks.)

    IIRC, he put forth the idea that for short periods of time the sauropods could raise their head, but at the cost of starving their brain of oxygen. So they’d raise their head, graze for a bit until they got light-headed, and then plop back down and recuperate.

    I guess it would be sort of a dinosar version of the choking game.

    Also, this stuff is pretty dimly remembered, so there’s a chance that I’ve misrepresented the info here.

  12. Stevo is a dinosaur geek.


    mediageek: Cool.

    Here’s another theory about sauropod necks, for the uber-dino-geeky who don’t mind a little technical talk:

    (Peristalsis is what pushes things through your intestines.)

    And in a related controvery, this guy argues that not only could at least some sauropods raise their heads high, but all could probably rear up on their hind legs:


    Summary: Sauropods’ weight was actually distributed so that their center of mass was right at the hips. All they had to do was move one back foot slightly forward and push down, and the front half of the body would swing up rather easily.

  13. The last hypothesis has in turned spawned arguments over which really costs more energy: taking a few steps, or swinging your giant multi-ton neck around?

    Stevo, I about died laughing at this. I lead teams of scientists and engineers on research projects and I’ve seen these kinds of arguments spin absolutely out of control so many times.

    So what if all the dinosaurs on earth farted at the same time and it shifted the earth’s rotation and that caused a climate change and they all died? Well, if you take the sum of the moments about what is now Albequrque NM, and…..


  15. no no, not that Kahn. I’m the Kahn from back closer to the dinosaur age.

    I have a really long neck.

  16. it’s only a movie, pinhead

  17. I always wonder what the implications are here for roided-up NFL behemoths supporting 350-pound physiques on frames made for 200-pounders.

    LOTS of impact and blunt-force trauma injuries. Then there’s the stuff from the simple mechanics of getting through life off and after the gridiron: Early-onset arthritis, knee problems, kidney and liver problems, ongoing weight problems, cardiovascular disease…how’s that for implications?

    The human body wasn’t made for that sort of stuff naturally…which is why they needed the ‘roids’ in the first place.

  18. Then they had realy big birds such as PHOROHACUS and DIATRYMA and large vultures there in LABRAYA TAR PITS and then theres HESPERORNUS a 5 ft long flightless water bird limular to the loon

  19. Speaking of Fantastic Voyage, Isaac Asimov–who wrote the novelization of the movie–was a little frustrated with the weak scientific explanations for miniaturization in the story, so he later wrote Fantastic Voyage II to beef up the science. It’s not his best novel, but he does make a valiant effort to make the whole sub-in-the-body trick sound plausible.

  20. Ummm, if we can imagine that something made a monkey grow to the size of Kong can’t we just imagine his bones are unlike bones of normal animals? I’ve often wondered why this stuff persists….

  21. What about our oversized Democrasaurus? Do we have scaling issues with that?

  22. All this assumes that Kong’s bones have the same properties as a regular gorilla’s. Same with the 50ft Woman and Colossal Man. Wouldn’t mutant freaks have mutant freak physiology?

  23. Yeah! Most of Kong could be, you know, hollow! He probably only weighs about 120 pounds max.

  24. I think the biggest and most obvious flaw in Kong is the big ape’s lack of a penis. He has no genitals, but he falls for a white woman? Come on. That’s just ridiculous.

  25. Borrowed from a Keebler commercial: “What part of ‘magic oven’ do you not understand?”

  26. If Kong had mutant freak bones, he wouldn’t be proportioned exactly like a non-mutant freak gorilla.

    Also, gorillas are not monkeys, and on a normal gorilla, the fully erect penis is about 2 inches long. Someone with better math skills than I have could tell us how big Kong’s tonker would be.

  27. I did some quick research and math, Ian. A male adult gorilla, standing upright, is up to about six feet tall. The height of Kong in the original movie is indeterminate, but the one in Jackson’s remake is usually said to be 25 feet tall. Scaling up from a 2-inch gorilla penis, we get a Kong doaker that is about 8.33 inches long. Hmmm.

    I think width issues would be more of a concern. If Kong is endowed like an extra-large bucket of movie theater popcorn, even a porn actress would demur.

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