Happened to the Brontosaurus?
Brontosaurus as Marsh envisioned him: wrong head, wrong name,
|A sauropod dinosaur
that was about 75 feet (23m) in length and lived around
150 million years ago in the Jurassic Period.
|In 1877 it was
discovered by Othniel Marsh who was in a race with Edward
Cope to discover as many dinosaurs as possible. In his haste
he did not realize that it was the same species he had discovered
and named Apatosaurus a few months before.
|In 1903 the
mistake was discovered and the official name became the
earlier Apatosaurus with Brontosaurus being
|In 1989 when
the US Post Office issued a set of dinosaur stamps using
the name brontosaurus they were accused of scientific
illiteracy even though some museums continued to use the
brontosaurus name for many years.
| A few scientists
defend the brontosaurus name as it means "Thunder
Lizard" and is more descriptive of the animal than
Apatosaurus, "Deceptive Lizard."
|It was discovered
that Marsh had also used the wrong skull in his reconstruction.
thinking the animal did not live in lakes and swampy areas,
but preferred dry land.
Great Bone War or Requiem for a Brontosaurus
There was a time
when the dinosaur named Brontosaurus evoked images of
a monstrous beast with four legs, a long, graceful neck dragging
an even longer tail through primeval swamps. The meaning of
the name, "Thunder Lizard," seemed perfect for an animal who
must have shook the ground with every step he took. Thousands
of children knew this dinosaur by that name. It even appeared
as the symbol of a major oil company and starred as one of four
ancient, extinct reptiles featured on U.S. postal stamps.
Since the 1980's,
however, this name has disappeared from books and museum exhibits
about dinosaurs. The famous beast was suddenly gone. Surprising,
however, in 2015 he may be making a comeback. Why did he leave,
and now why has he now returned?
Casualty of the
a member of a family of dinosaurs that walked on four legs with
long necks and long tails called sauropods, was the victim of
a war that was played out over a hundred years ago. Starting
in the late 1860's, two of America's most prominent paleontologists,
Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, had a falling
out. Cope claimed that Marsh had paid quarrymen in New Jersey
to divert fossils they found for him to Marsh. Personal attacks
between the men, thinly veiled as "scientific criticism," followed
in articles that they wrote for publication. Later, each would
send teams into the fossil fields of the West where they would
fight over digging rights amid claims that the other side had
destroyed or damaged fossils in order to block their rivals
from getting a hold of them.
One outgrowth of
these "bone wars" was an unscientific competition between Cope
and Marsh to see who could discover the most species of extinct
beasts. In their rush to beat each other to the next find, the
scientists often based their claims on incomplete or inaccurate
In 1877 Marsh wrote
a short two-paragraph article for the American Journal of
Science. The article, entitled "Notice of New Dinosaurian
Reptiles from the Jurassic Formation," didn't have illustrations
and included only a description of the animal's vertebral column,
but he named the creature anyway. Marsh estimated that the Apatosaurus,
meaning "deceptive lizard", was fifty feet in length. Marsh
followed this article with another one in 1879 where he showed
a sketch of the creature's pelvis, shoulder blade and vertebrae.
In that same year,
in another short article in American Journal of Science, Marsh
claimed finding another dinosaur based on a description of the
pelvis and vertebrae. He named this one Brontosaurus and
estimated it to be seventy to eighty feet in length.
soon went on to become one of the most famous dinosaur species
of all time. A nearly complete skeleton found by Marsh was mounted
in Yale's Peabody Museum. There it captured the public's imagination
as did a beautiful illustration Marsh published in The Sixteenth
Annual Report of the US Geological Survey, 1895. The Yale skeleton
was the first sauropod dinosaur put on display anywhere in the
world when it was mounted in 1905 and the animal was clearly
labeled as a "Brontosaurus."
In contrast the few
unspectacular Apatosaurus bones Marsh found were never
augmented with a full skeleton.
In his rush to beat
Cope, Marsh had made a mistake, however. The Apatosaurus was
not a separate species, but simply a juvenile example of Brontosaurus.
In 1903 Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum in Chicago was studying
Marsh's work when he found this mistake:
is convinced that the Apatosaur specimen is merely a young animal
of the form represented in the adult by the Brontosaur specimen.
the naming rules for animals that applied at the time added:
...In view of
these facts the two genera may be regarded as synonymous. As
the term"Apatosaurus" has priority, "Brontosaurus" will be regarded
as a synonym.
Despite the poor
Brontosaurus losing its official status very early in the 20th
century, the name continued to be used in popular books, semi-technical
articles and even on museum displays. The Brontosaurus became
the symbol for Sinclair, a petroleum supplier, and a full-sized
model made its appearance at the oil company's exhibit at the
1964-65 New York World's Fair.
The question of the
popular Brontosaurus name verses the technically-correct Apatosaurus
name came to a head in 1989 when the U.S. Post Office decided
to release a set of four stamps illustrating "dinosaurs." One
in the series was a picture of a large sauropod labeled Brontosaurus.
This upset some dinosaur enthusiasts who accused the Postal
Service of promoting scientific illiteracy, an ironic accusation
given the number of museums that had the animal mislabeled for
decades. While there was a hue and cry over the Brontosaurus
name, few even mentioned the other, more glaring error, which
was the inclusion of a Pteranodon (a flying reptile) in a set
of dinosaur stamps. By definition dinosaurs do not have wings.
A few prominent
people came to the defense of the Brontosaurus and the Postal
Service. Stephen Jay Gould, the noted biologist, pointed out
that the issue was a tempest in a teapot in his famous article,
"Bully for the Brontosaurus" written for Natural History magazine.
Robert Bakker, the celebrated paleontologist and curator of
the Tate Museum in Casper, Wyoming, also continues to use the
popular Brontosaurus label instead of Apatosaurus.
To add insult to
injury, the poor Brontosaurus not only got a name change,
but it was discovered that he had the wrong head, too. One item
that was not found in the excavation with Marsh's Yale skeleton
was a skull. Marsh mounted a head found at a different location
to complete the exhibit. For many years scientists suspected
that Marsh had gotten the wrong skull, but it wasn't until 1970
that two scientists, John McIntosh from Wesleyan University
and David Berman of the Carnegie Museum, proved it. The head
that Marsh had mounted was from another sauropod named Camarasaurus.
The proper Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus skull actually had
a slightly longer snout and looked a lot like the skull of another
sauropod called Diplodocus.
would wind up getting both his name and his head changed, but
it isessentially still the same animal. It it wrong to refer
to an Apatosaurus as the Brontosaurus? Not really.
The popular synonym has been around for many years and its meaning,
"Thunder Lizard," is highly descriptive to the sound the animal
made. What sense does the name "deceptive lizard" make? How
deceptive can a 70-foot long, 30-ton animal be?
Much more important
than the question of names is what we know about how the animal
actually lived. Today, scientist's vision of the habits and
habitat of the Apatosaurus are quite different than what Marsh
and other early paleontologists had thought. Early analysis
suggested that the animals must have been weak because their
small heads could only chew the minimum amount of food necessary
to fuel such a big body. So weak, in fact, that large sauropods
were thought to be slow, unable to lift their bulky tails off
the ground and only able to support their massive weight by
living in shallow lakes and swamps where water floated their
like Bakker showed that this image was wrong. No Apatosaurus
skeleton has been found in an ancient body of water and its
feet were not at all suited for walking through marshy and muddy
ground. In fact, Bakker notes in his book Dinosaur Heresies,
an analysis of changes in geology over time suggest that large
sauropods moved out of areas as they became wet: they didn't
like swamps at all. Also, a careful reconstruction of the tail
shows that it was probably held aloft and could be swung back
and forth, perhaps for defense. The sauropod's small head was
not a limit on how much it could eat because the animals didn't
chew their food in their mouth. Like many modern birds (and
crocodiles), they grind up food in a lower part of the stomach
called the gizzard. Researchers have recovered stones from sauropod
excavations that the animals swallowed and that lay in the gizzard
to aid in the the grinding process. Because of this Bakker has
suggested these huge animals may have been so active that they
could stand on their rear legs to reach high plants or engage
in mating battles.
So, even if the poor Brontosaurus's name
was a casualty of the "bone wars," at least eventually paleontologist
have gotten his lifestyle right.
is the Brontosaurus Back?
In 2015 a study led by Emanuel Tschopp, a vertebrate
paleontologist at the New University of Lisbon, took a new look
at a number of sauropod fossils. The scientists analyzed 477
physical features of some 81 specimens by traveling around to
museums across the world in an attempt to understand the relationships
between them. They found evidence that the Brontosaurs was indeed
a separate species from the Apatosaurus after all. "The Brontosaurus
can be distinguished from Apatosaurus most easily by the neck,"
said Tschopp," which is higher and less wide." In fact, the
study suggests there might actually be three species of brontosaurus:
Brontosaurus excelsus, the one Marsh first found, as
well as a Bontosaurus parvus and a Brontosaurus yahnahpin.
Even though it may take more than one study to convince
some scientists, it seems likely that the venerable sauropod
may soon find his name back in museums to the delight of dinosaur
fans around the world.
set of U.S. Postal stamps that ignited the controversy in 1989.
(Courtesy US Postal Service)
Lee Krystek, 2002-2015.