To begin with, let’s get things straight and admit up front that Godzilla is not a real animal, nor was it ever. It’s an unfeasibly big late-surviving dinosaur (belonging to the hypothetical taxon Godzillasaurus, according to some), mutated by radiation, with a radioactive heart, and virtually impervious to other gigantic monsters, robots, artillery, laser blasts, lava and fire. Not real. Sorry about that. But by posing questions about fictional entities we can still learn stuff, and you may be surprised to learn that Godzilla has, on occasion, been discussed semi-seriously by various biologists and palaeontologists. Ok, that won’t surprise you if you already know anything about Godzilla, but what the hey. If you fundamentally object to the coverage of fictional entities (after all, there are more than enough real tetrapods to right about), then feel free to ignore this post and wait for the next one…
A little bit of introduction to Godzilla first. To date Godzilla – and here I mean the real Godzilla, and not the thing that appeared in the 1998 TriStar movie (known variously among Godzilla fans as Fraudzilla, Deanzilla [after writer/producer Dean Devlin], GINO* or Zilla) – has appeared in over 20 movies, dating from 1954 to the present. If you’ve seen any of the new films, you’ll know that they don’t follow on chronologically from their predecessors, a bit like the latest Bond film. The films are still being made, with the latest being Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). There is tons and tons of stuff about Godzilla on the internet, of course.
* Godzilla In Name Only
The obvious and boring stuff about scaling and bone strength and so on
Godzilla is meant to be something like 100 m tall and between 20,000 and 60,000 tons in weight (his size fluctuates in the various films). Of course lots of people who like doing sums and talking about cubes and so on have used the mathematics of scaling to show why – duh – Godzilla couldn’t really walk, stand, or even exist. Michael Dexter presents the argument here, and also brings in thoughts on blood pressure, circulation and physiology to show that a living Godzilla would variously fall to pieces, tear itself apart, have its organs turn to jelly, explode due to a build-up of internal heat… you get the picture.
I know of two palaeontologists who have made comments on various of Godzilla’s physical properties. Jim Farlow, a palaeobiologist based at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, and best known for his work on dinosaur trackways, speculated in 1998 on the foot size of TriStar’s GINO. Jim noted that he’d ‘probably have to log-transform the measurements to get [the data from the toes] onto the same graphs with my other data without scrunching the other points into an indecipherable blur near the origin’. He also noted that it might prove difficult to cast even a single Godzilla footprint given grant limitations and the cost of plaster of Paris, silicone or latex rubber. Sadly, Prof Farlow never published his thoughts on this subject and all we have is a message posted to the dinosaur mailing list (here).
Sauropod expert Mike P. Taylor did a bit of science on Godzilla (this time on the original, not on the TriStar creation), but has also – for shame – failed to publish his results. Interested in how much weight can be absorbed by the limb’s cartilage pads, and in how big these pads needed to be in sauropods, Mike threw Godzilla into the data set to see what might happen. Godzilla’s cartilage disks would not, it seems, hold up under his immense weight, and we can therefore conclude that a terrestrial biped of Godzilla’s size and weight is impossible. Mike included this valuable and surprising [joke] data in his 2005 presentation ‘Upper limits on the mass of land animals estimated through the articular area of limb-bone cartilage’, and to his annoyance it was the one brief comment on Godzilla that earned a mention of this presentation in a write-up of the respective conference (Jones 2005). An abstract of Mike’s presentation exists (Taylor 2005), though it doesn’t mention Godzilla, and you can see the presentation for yourself on Mike’s website.
Moving now to some scientific consideration of the TriStar GINO, a peer-reviewed technical paper on the subject was published in Mathematical Geology by Per Christiansen, a zoologist based at Copenhagen’s Zoological Museum and well known for his work on mathematical scaling in dinosaurs and other tetrapods (his homepage is here). Providing a wealth of speculations and inferences about GINO’s locomotor abilities, biomechanics and physiology, the article mostly critiques the view that the new Godzilla created for TriStar’s 1998 movie is more realistic, from a biological perspective, than the Japanese original (Christiansen 2000). To cut a long story short, Per concluded that TriStar’s GINO violated a number of biomechanical rules and was biologically implausible. Not exactly a surprise. His comment that the real Godzilla ‘is actually much more plausible from a biological perspective’ (p. 239) is mostly based on the real Godzilla’s massive columnar legs and walking (rather than sprinting) gait.
Indeed TriStar’s GINO did look far more realistic, with its horizontal body posture and flexed hindlimbs making it look like an immense theropod; this despite the fact that it was meant to be a mutated lizard of some sort. The TriStar Godzilla also behaves a bit more like an animal than the real Godzilla: it doesn’t seem to have a sense of honour, doesn’t talk to other monsters, doesn’t use martial arts, and doesn’t have atomic breath, for example. But given that it’s over 120 m long, 90 m tall and weighs over 24,000 tons, yet is slim-legged and slender, able to run at over 300 mph, and capable of leaping over skyscrapers and such, I somehow sense that Devlin, Emmerich and their colleagues were not striving for biomechanical accuracy in creating the new-look monster. Or, at least, let’s hope not. Come to think of it, these are the guys that did Independence Day: you can judge that movie by its very first line of dialogue.
Actually, the exact size of the TriStar Godzilla is difficult to pin down given that different sizes have been provided by different people associated with the film and, as Per and others have noted, this is a moot point anyway as the animal changes size throughout the film. This might explain why Godzilla’s exact dimensions are curiously absent from my copy of The Official Godzilla Movie Fact Book (Weinberger & Margolis 1998).
Incidentally, the two different godzillas have a battle in Godzilla: Final Wars, set in Sydney of all places. No prizes for guessing who wins.
Godzilla’s phylogenetic affinities
Based on the conclusions of Japanese palaeontologist Dr Yamane, we ‘know’ that the original Godzilla from the 1954 movie was a dinosaur, and according to Carpenter (1998) it was clearly a theropod. Yes, this is Ken Carpenter, the palaeontologist best known for his work on armoured dinosaurs. By inferring certain morphological details, Carpenter concluded that Godzilla must have been an immense neoceratosaur related to ceratosaurids and abelisaurs. In part this idea comes from the shared derived character of bony scutes growing along the dorsal midline: present in both Godzilla and ceratosaurids, these aren’t present in other theropods and were therefore interpreted as a synapomorphy. I don’t need to tell you that Carpenter’s article was written tongue-in-cheek.
And finally…. Godzilla’s ‘biology’
Little heard of here in the west is the interesting area of Kaiju-biology (Kaiju means monster). To see the sort of thing that kaiju-biologists get up to, go here (please do, you won’t regret it). It is said on some Godzilla websites (here for example) that Kenichi Yamane wrote a thesis on Godzilla’s biology, focusing in particular on Godzilla’s eventual demise (in the 1999 film Godzilla vs. Destoroyah) by way of radioactive meltdown. The cutaway pictures above and near the top are – apparently – taken from this thesis. It might not surprise you, however, to find that Yamane is not a real scientist, but one of the main characters of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. In fact, Yamane is the adopted grandson of the Dr Yamane from the original Godzilla movie of 1954.
How does Godzilla generate radioactivity? Apparently its stomach has mutated into a new organ: the plasma gland. Radioactive particles rise from here to be expelled via the mouth during combat, and excess radioactivity is also passed into the dorsal scutes at the same time ‘not unlike the overflow guard in your ordinary bathtub’, apparently (according to here: this is where the adjacent image comes from). Thanks to its plasma gland, Godzilla continually generates new radioactivity as a source of power, discharging the excess via the scutes and a duct leading to the mouth. This also means that Godzilla doesn’t need to eat, and that must be a good thing when you weigh over 24,000 tons. There are other speculations on Godzilla’s biology, including on cell structure, and on the mysterious substance known as Regenerator G-1 and allowing him unparalleled regenerative abilities.
I think I’d better stop there. Time will tell whether this was a bad idea or not. Cringe.
Refs – –
Carpenter, K. 1998. A dinosaur paleontologist’s view of Godzilla. In Lees, J. D. & Cerasini, M. (eds) The Official Godzilla Compendium. Random House (New York), pp. 102-106.
Christiansen, P. 2000. Godzilla from a zoological perspective. Mathematical Geology 32, 231-245.
Jones, D. 2005. Meeting reports: Progressive Palaeontology 2005. The Palaeontological Association Newsletter 59, 77-79.
Taylor, M. P. 2005. Upper limits on the mass of land animals estimated through the articular area of limb-bone cartilage. In Anon. (ed.) Conference programme and abstracts: Progressive Palaeontology 2005, University of Leicester, 15-16 June, p. 18.
Weinberger, K. & Margolis, D. 1998. The Official Godzilla Movie Fact Book. Puffin Books, London.