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Assuming the ocean is deep enough and not overcrowded is there any upper limits to the size a "sea monster" can grow?

On land creatures are limited by gravity, they have to be able to generate the forces required to move (not to mention hunt, escape and reproduce). However in water the buoyancy does not limit them in the same way (which is why swimming is often used for rehabilitation after injury).

Are there any similar such constraints in water or is a creature's size only limited by its food and space?

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  • $\begingroup$ I've edited this to remove the handwavey "I've got food covered" as @TimB addresses food so well in his answer $\endgroup$ – Liath Sep 19 '14 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ I feel a link to an article on Nessie is relevant here (and I never thought I'd say that lol) but I can't find a good one that mentions size constraints. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 1 '14 at 17:12
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Physically there are no hard limits as the weight problems are solved by buoyancy. You would end up with interesting internal systems to handle things like respiration, blood flow, etc but solutions can be proposed for all of those.

The immediate problems that are going to prove limiting factors though are:

Mobility

Only the outer surface of the creature is in contact with the water, as it grows larger and larger it also becomes less and less mobile as each time the size doubles the surface in contact with water increases by four times but the mass increases by eight times.

Respiration

The creature needs to absorb oxygen somehow and distribute it through the body. The amount of body to support in ratio to the surface able to absorb oxygen has the same problem that mobility does. In addition there is the problem of circulating that oxygen to the places where it's needed.

Food

This is a bigger problem than you seem to have considered. The bigger the creature grows the less mobile and agile it becomes. It's noticeable for example that blue whales eat tiny creatures by the massive mouthful rather than trying to hunt for their food.

Even if the entire surface of the creature was mouths (in which case where do the flippers and gills go) eventually you will reach a limit where it just cannot eat enough to support its bulk.

You could posit a pyramid system where the very largest of these creatures eats smaller versions, that eat smaller versions, and so on down.

The problem with this though is that the larger ones would need some way to catch the smaller ones in sufficient numbers to support itself. It's theoretically possible but there would still be limits.

A hypothetical example ecosystem

You could have an ocean planet populated by essentially one dominant lifeform. The lifeform has massive redundancy, a distributed nervous system and multiple hearts/gills/flippers/etc. If a section is torn off it seals the wound and regrows the missing area constantly growing.

Stage 1: Larva

In its smallest form it lives in and feeds off massive floating beds of seaweed.

Stage 2: Proto

As they grow larger they start to hunt each other, tearing chunks off smaller ones to eat. The smaller ones mostly seal the damage and start growing again trying to avoid being eaten but a lot of them end up held down in size while a few grow larger.

Stage 3: Grazer

Larger versions move along grazing on the floating seaweed. Sometimes they eat the smaller ones but mostly they are unable to catch them. Occasionally they are able to tear chunks off a careless Proto and get a boost of protein that way.

Stage 4: Big Grazer

Hundreds of meters wide the creature munches its way through the floating seaweed leaving a cleared trail behind it and consuming anything smaller that is foolish enough to get in its way.

Stage 5: Sessile

As the creature grows larger and slower the seaweed is no longer able to sustain it, movement uses more energy than it gains. It sinks down towards the deeper ocean and goes quiet, camouflaging itself in the deep. Mostly it hibernates waiting for Grazers or Larger to pass above, when one does massive tentacles shoot out and drag them down into its waiting maw.

The Sessile form would have an interesting effect in that the area above it would have few grazers, letting the smaller creatures grow and the seaweed populate in fertile abundance - until the smaller creatures grew large enough to be worth eating. This abundance would tempt more grazers into the area, only for them to be consumed in turn.

Occasionally ocean currents would drift two Sessile forms close enough together. This would result in a titanic battle with each ripping chunks off the other and consuming it until in the end either one was victorious and devoured the smaller or the two drifted apart again.

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    $\begingroup$ Another great answer! I hadn't actually overlooked food, I was going to address that in a different question so this didn't get overly complex. I don't need to now - I love the idea of your sessile leviathan! $\endgroup$ – Liath Sep 19 '14 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me a lot of how things work in Agar.io (A rather addictive website. Don't forget to stand up every so often.). $\endgroup$ – Yay295 Jul 15 '15 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ The pyramid system would probably fall apart at larger levels due to bioaccumulation - where a toxic substance is introduced into the chain at a lower level, something that preys only on smaller versions of something that preys on smaller versions would act to massively magnify the effects of the toxin at higher levels in the trophic chain. $\endgroup$ – Ben MS Feb 26 '16 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ @BenMS True, however if it became enough of a pressure there would be selective pressure to evolve a way to deal with or eliminate the toxin. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 26 '16 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ Somewhere, maybe someone can prove/disprove me, I read that the theoretical upper limit of creature size on Earth was about the size of blue whales. Slightly related to the food problem, it becomes a thermodynamic problem, how to get energy to the farthest reaches of the system before it is all spent during transport. Weird multi stomach creatures could solve this though, but for life similar to Earth life, Blue Whales are as big as it gets. $\endgroup$ – RomaH Oct 7 '16 at 18:08
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A few limits more

For creatures subject to the limits of size imposed by the square-cube law as described in Tim B's answer there is no point in considering the problems met at still larger sizes. So for whales, squid and fish, for example, see that answer. However, for creatures of less conventional shapes, size can be extended further, to the point that it may be worth considering the further limits that are met by hypothetical creatures of truly huge size. As we progress through these limits we get to life forms where the definition of "creature" blurs a little, so your own requirements of what should constitute a creature will affect how far you can go in your own world.

Outgrowing the square-cube law

For a consistent body shape doubling the length quadruples the surface area but octuples the volume. If the internal distribution also stays consistent this also octuples the mass, making maneuvering more and more difficult. Buoyancy only helps with the support problem of mass. The inertia of a massive creature still restricts its movement, and as Tim B points out, the available surface area for propulsion cannot keep up with the much faster growing mass as a creature is scaled up.

Changing shape

The restrictions of diminishing surface area per volume can be overcome by changing shape during growth. The problem only applies to a creature that keeps the same shape as it grows. A creature that constantly increases the relative surface area of its shape as it grows would be able to maintain contact with a large surface for food and oxygen intake, as well as propulsion.

Internally (lung)

For example, animals that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through their skin are much smaller than animals that use gills or lungs to change their shape and increase their surface area. Even scaling up a lung does not prevent the surface area lagging behind the volume - a larger creature has more levels of branching in its lungs, rather than just the same shape scaled up. For example, the number of levels of branching in a mouse lung, if scaled up to the size of a blue whale lung, would have a far smaller surface area than the lung of a blue whale. A large lung is not simply a scaled up small lung - it is a closer approximation of the fractal tree structure of an idealised lung.

So the gas exchange problem can be fixed with a self similar structure that is not simply scaled up but grows more complex at larger sizes. However, this still leaves propulsion limited by the square-cube law. Even though lungs make possible creatures considerably larger than a blue whale (the largest reported blue whales are almost twice the size of the average blue whale), propulsion means the square-cube law still applies eventually.

Note that blue whales can move considerably faster than the speed they use for feeding - their size is not the upper limit even based on propulsion. In the absence of predators (orcas) and the need to migrate large distances between feeding locations and breeding locations, blue whales could feasibly be considerably larger and less mobile.

Externally (branched body)

To grow beyond the limit imposed by propulsion a creature could have an external body structure that is branching, rather than just branching internally. This would allow most of it's body to be surface, available for gas exchange, feeding and propulsion. Not only would more area be available for movement, but movement may be less important with access to so much more water in contact with its surface. Feeding through its entire surface (like the trichoplax) rather than only through its mouth, it may not need to move very quickly.

Limited by pressure

The depth a creature can descend to is limited by the pressure it can withstand. In a similar way, the size of a creature is limited by the pressure it can withstand, since a deeper/taller creature will have its lower body at higher pressure even when its upper body is at the surface.

Even if the creature's outer surface can withstand the pressure, its internal workings will have difficulty beyond a certain depth. Lungs cannot be inflated against immense pressure even if the rest of the creature can stand the pressure. The heart will need to be stronger to maintain the required very high blood pressure, and the entire circulatory system will be subjected to this pressure, even in those parts of the animal in lower pressure water.

Growing beyond this limit could be done by growing laterally, leading to a wide shallow creature rather than growing deeper. Alternatively having no circulatory system would allow a creature to grow deeper. However, this would require a much more branched body structure with very little internal volume - most of the body being near the skin. This can still be seen as an animal but at first glance the shape is beginning to look more like a motile plant or fungus. Somewhere in between you might find creatures that have no global circulatory system, but several local circulatory systems each restricted to a given pressure range.

Changing to a different fluid (for example a methane ocean) doesn't remove the pressure problem. Different liquids are compressible to different extents, but even with very little compression the pressure still increases with depth - you can't get around that by changing the liquid. A less dense liquid will see lower pressure at a given depth, but there will still eventually be a depth at which pressure is too great.

Limited by available water

This is not just the water required to accommodate the creature, but the water required to accommodate its food supply (whether plant or animal or microbial). With the depth limited either by pressure or by the total depth of the water, the amount of available water depends on the surface area of the body of water.

Limited by available energy

If the energy source for the ecosystem is sunlight, then only a volume near the surface is taking in energy. Even in the most efficient case where there is no food chain and the creature takes in sunlight directly (some animals use photosynthesis) this restricts the size of the creature to a limited depth. It can be the same size as the surface of the water it lives in, but it can't extend arbitrarily deep with a limited energy supply.

Limited by available raw materials

Just having enough water and energy doesn't allow for growth. A creature needs the raw materials from which to build its body. Whether these are absorbed directly from the water or obtained from food, ultimately those materials come from the water. An ocean of almost pure water with very few dissolved materials will support very little life, limiting the number and size of creatures. Even a single raw material being limited can have this effect. For example, growth in Earth's oceans is mostly limited by the shortage of iron. There are enough raw materials for an explosion of growth but those raw materials cannot be used at that rate because there is insufficient iron. Dumping a source of iron in the sea leads to algal bloom - a sudden increase in the growth rate.

Limited by planet size

With depth limited by pressure, the habitable size of an ocean is limited by the surface area of the planet. A given size planet can only have a limited ocean area, even if the ocean covers its entire surface. Simply making the planet larger only helps up to a point. Beyond a certain size, a larger planet does not provide more water volume due to the constraints of gravity.

Limited by gravity

The larger the planet size, the higher the gravity at the surface. This means that the water pressure increases more quickly with depth. Not only does this further restrict the depth that a creature can occupy without being crushed, but even a creature that can withstand great pressure will be restricted by the fact that higher gravity means shallower water. The higher the gravity, the less the depth of water before the pressure prevents it being liquid. The ice we are familiar with is less dense than water and floats on top of it. Subjecting this ice to intense pressure makes it melt. However, subjecting liquid water to still more pressure forces it to become a different type of ice that is more dense than water. There are several types of high density ice, but the relevant point is that below the depth required for forming this ice, there will be no liquid water. Increasing the temperature of the water can increase the depth at which this happens, but for sufficient gravity there will still be an ice boundary that limits the depth, and you can only increase the temperature so much before you are just boiling off the surface water and defeating the object.

So yes, there is a maximum size limit to an ocean bound creature, but just what that limit is depends on what you count as a "creature" and how extreme an environment it can survive.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you are overestimating the effect of pressure on aquatic creatures, because they don't keep air inside they aren't affected anything like as much as you might expect - other than that a really excellent answer :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 1 '14 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB Thank you :) I'm imagining creatures large enough for this to have an effect - far beyond the size of creatures on Earth so there is a long pressure gradient from top to bottom - not just high external pressure. Even for existing huge creatures the blood pressure is much higher than ours. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Oct 1 '14 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ If you have a circulatory system then the heart produces a blood pressure which is fairly similar at the top and bottom of the body, leading to it being significantly higher than the external water pressure at the top of the body. This effect is magnified as a creature gets larger, both by the need for still higher blood pressure, and the greater difference between external water pressure at the top and bottom. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Oct 1 '14 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ I expected that in "Limited by gravity" there will be something about black holes. $\endgroup$ – Vi. Oct 11 '14 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Vi The liquid water depth would decrease to zero long before the gravity is sufficient to spontaneously form a black hole :) $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Oct 11 '14 at 15:46
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No, if they are sessile animals tethered to the ocean floor. What appears to be thousands of such creatures could be all bound together by "rhizomes" that allow nutrients to be passed from one to another. Sort of an undersea animal version of this fungus.

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