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Home » Dave’s DiegesesJuly 2005 » Dave’s Diegesis: Biting Commentary

Dave’s Diegesis: Biting Commentary

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. That is the difference between dog and man.
Mark Twain

You can say that someone or something’s bark is worse than its bite, like dogs, politicians, and Kevin Millar. But scientists have recently discovered that a now-extinct carnivorous marsupial, Thylacoleo carnifex, out-bites every known animal that has existed. A watershed excavation in the Nullarbor caves in Australia yielded eight almost complete T. carnifex fossils, along with the remnants of other Pleistocene animals such as Megalania, the world’s largest goanna; Wonambi, a 20-foot long python; and Procoptodon goliah, a short-faced giant kangaroo that could grow to 11 feet tall.

ThylacoleocarnifexT. carnifex, who is affectionately called “leo,” became extinct 46-50,000 years ago, prowled southern Australia for Diprotodon (ancient 3 ton animals similar to wombats) or archaic kangaroos. The creature probably used its retractable claws with semi-opposable thumbs to scale trees and descend upon their chosen prey. Leo weighed in at approximately 550 pounds, and in comparison to even Smilodon (saber-toothed “tigers”) had the greatest biting force yet discovered.

Paleontologist John Long, author of Mountains of Madness: A Scientist’s Odyssey in Antarctica, is now the head of sciences at Museum Victoria and previously worked on the leo exhibition at the Western Australia Museum. His enamorment with this being has inspired him to write a book about the so-called marsupial lion. “You only have to look at them,” said Long, referring to leo’s teeth. “Its dentition is different to anything we have seen in other predators around the world. Leo’s front incisors had serrated edges, just like a kitchen knife. Its carnassial or side-shearing teeth were used to slice flesh once it had subdued its prey.” Sort of reminds me of the Boston media.

Why all the attention to the biting capacity of predators? Scientists Stephen Wroe and Colin McHenry recently published an article in the Royal Society Proceedings comparing the bite force quotient (BFQ) of 39 different carnivores. Interestingly, placental mammals of similar size to their marsupial counterparts have smaller BFQs. Wroe and McHenry theorized that placentals compensated for their lack of brute biting strength by evolving smarter hunting techniques. There just isn’t enough space in the skull for both massive jaw systems and large brain capacities, so in species where one characteristic is selected for, the other will likely diminish.

I won’t extrapolate how all this might apply to Boston Dirt Dog, but I think you know where I’m going on this: big bite, bantam brain.

Every Friday, Dave McCarty will join us to discuss a topic of interest to him and probably no one else but the author of this site and other lone science geeks with a social conscience.


Maybe I'm a geek (ok, ok.. super-geek), but I find animal bite force incredibly neat. Probably because discovery channel made a show that combines my love of science, biology, robots, unneccesary destuction AND elaborate, frivolous tournament brackets in one package: Animal Face Off. To examine the bite forces at work for sharks, crocodiles, bears and other ferocious animals, they will make biologically acurate robotic models and test them in the labs.

Watching a robotic great white shark run down a rail and bite through a piece of meat makes my inner dork stand up and applaud. I would love to see a robotic T. Carnifex in action. Just looking at that mouth (poor little guy needs some braces) makes me shudder at the damage it could cause, especially if it's bite is as strong as theorized.

Did you see the sperm whale bite through the dinghy? (Um, that's not intended to be a pickup line, by the way.) Animal Face-Off was great.

If you liked Dave's article this week, you might also enjoy the following:
Life's Devices, Steven Vogel
Cats' Paws and Catapults, Steven Vogel
Mechanical Design in Organisms, Stephen Wainwright
Size, Function and Life History, William Calder III
The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives, Alan Turner

I can't wait for Long's book on leo.

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