As far as cinematic bust-ups go, you’d be hard pressed to beat a face off between King Kong and Godzilla. And while they might no longer carry the cultural cachet of the Avengers, (the kings and queens of smashing things up on screen), both creatures have earned their right to a long-awaited showdown in Godzilla vs. Kong, which hits screens this week.
Arguably the strangest thing about the upcoming movie isn’t the nonsensical, smash-heavy trailer, but the fact that both creatures seem to be in the midst of a serious growth spurt – even when compared to the relatively recent reboots, which are also part of Legendary Entertainment’s ‘MonsterVerse’ – a shared fictional universe.
The last time the pair squared off, in the 1962 Japanese stop-motion release King Kong vs. Godzilla, Kong was 148 feet tall, compared to just 25ft tall in Peter Jackson’s 2005 film King Kong, according to online estimates. In 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the great primate was around 104ft; almost four times smaller than the current iteration of Godzilla, who clocks in at 393ft.
While the skeletons of Kong’s parents in Skull Island suggest 100ft is roughly their species’ genetic limit, the producers of the series have retconned the franchise by explaining that Kong is an adolescent in that film, leaving room for him to grow into a worthy opponent for Godzilla some 40 years down the movie timeline.
Scaling up Kong to match Godzilla makes sense. It would be a short film if Godzilla stomped the big ape to death in the opening minutes. But how does that explain Godzilla’s own growth spurt from 328ft in 2014 to 393ft today? And, crucially, is any of this based in science?
There are some things the films get right. James Rosindell from the faculty of natural sciences at Imperial College London points to a theory called ‘Cope’s Rule’ which holds that evolution will increase a species body size over time. “[Being larger] gives competitive advantages and is often naturally selected for,” he explains.
However, larger creatures need more food and typically reproduce at a slower rate, meaning few individuals can be supported by any one ecosystem. So Kong and Godzilla being the last of their species – and Kong slowly maturing over 40 years – fits the science.
But that’s about the only thing that holds together. It turns out that Godzilla and Kong’s biggest foe may not be each other, but physics. Specifically, the laws of gravity and biomechanics.
The largest animal alive today, the blue whale, is found in our oceans. “The size limit of aquatic animals is closely tied to the ability to eat enough food to sustain their chonky bodies,” explains David Labonte, a researcher in the department of bioengineering, also at Imperial College. Labonte has a specific interest in the interaction between physical laws and body size. For example, why there are no climbing animals heavier than geckos that can cling upside down to smooth surfaces?
When it comes to the blue whale, Labonte explains that their large mouths and a technique known as ‘lunge feeding’ enables them to obtain enough food to sustain their bodies. This has allowed some blue whales to grow up to 180 tonnes (Kong was around 158 tonnes in his last film).
An aquatic environment bestows other advantages, namely, buoyancy. Having its weight suspended in water is one of the key reasons why the blue whale is able to grow so large. It’s also the reason that when whales beach, the most common cause of death is internal damage from the weight of their own bodies.
Gravity, then, is a problem our terrestrial animals are yet to overcome. It’s the reason our largest land animal, the African elephant tips the scales at a relatively puny six tonnes.
“For terrestrial animals, gravity is often suggested to pose the key limit,” explains Labonte. “Ideally, you can stand on your bones without breaking them. This may sound like a modest request, but it’s increasingly challenging the larger you get. The key problem is that the ability of bones (or other support structures) to withstand forces grows more slowly with size than the force which they need to support.”
Labonte describes this as a textbook scaling problem: the strength of a block of material depends on its cross-sectional area, whereas the mass of that block depends on its volume. Rosindell’s colleague, Samraat Pawar, illustrates this by pointing to British Biologist JBS Haldane’s well-known example of a 60ft man. This giant would not only be ten times taller than a 6ft man, but also ten times as wide and thick. Do the maths and his total weight would be around a thousand times that of the 6ft specimen.
Unfortunately, the cross sections of this giant’s bones would only be a hundred times those of a normal man, so that every square inch of giant bone has to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, a giant would break their thighs every time they take a step.
The chances of Godzilla or Kong being able to take a step without incurring multiple fractures – let alone stomping through city blocks – is slim to none.
When it comes to the question of whether either creature could ever exist at all, Labonte explains that warm-blooded creatures – like primates – are thought to have an easier time adapting than cold-blooded ones, suggesting Kong has more of a chance than Godzilla at dealing with challenges such as climate change.
But, Pawar adds, the chances of a cold-blooded animal reaching anywhere near Godzilla’s size is impossible, as the dinosaurs proved. “In reality, it would have been impossible for Godzilla to be cold blooded (ectothermic) at that size because ectotherms of that size would not be able to heat up sufficiently using external energy sources,” he explains. “This is why large dinosaurs were all at least partially endothermic (warm-blooded).”
Ultimately, Kong and Godzilla’s biggest threat may not be each other, but their own bodies. “The larger your body, the more cells you have, and therefore more chance of one cell malfunctioning and causing a cancer,” explains Rosindell. Why large animals like the African elephant and the blue whale are able to stave off the disease remains a mystery, but Rosindell believes it could be due to them having evolved potential genetic defences against cancer. “These too have to evolve and may have some cost. Any huge creature would need to have a solution to this problem too.”
The truth about Earth’s largest creature may be more unusual than Kong and Godzilla combined. Comfortably eclipsing both the blue whale and the African elephant is armillaria solidipes, or ‘honey fungus’. A single organism of this parasitic fungus found in the Oregon woods is estimated to span 5.5km and weigh anywhere between 7000 to 30,000 tonnes. And while ‘Attack of the Giant Fungus’ might not have the marquee pull of Godzilla vs. Kong, it would certainly make for a terrifying – and more truthful – tale.
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