As children, we went through school learning the fascinating facts about dinosaurs that roamed the earth millions of years ago. We studied the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Stegosaurus, and the beloved Brontosaurus. What many of us may have never learned, however, was the controversy of the giant gentle Brontosaurus. Did it really exist? Well…kind of, but not really.
In the late 1800s two paleontologists, Edward D. Cope and Othneil C. Marsh, were on the hunt to discover fossils of extinct species. While the pair started off as friends, their individual egos and determination to be the first one to discover, and scientifically name, new fossil species of prehistoric animals, including dinosaurs, drove them apart and made them competitors. In their desperation to outdo each other, Marsh and Cope sacrificed accuracy in their work. The Brontosaurus became a victim of their feud.
In 1877, Marsh discovered an incomplete skeleton for a new type of dinosaur which he named the Apatosaurus. Two years later, Marsh discovered the nearly complete skeleton of what he thought was another new dinosaur species. Among the few bones missing was the skull. Unable to move forward with a headless dinosaur and fueled by his desire to beat his competitor, Marsh snatched up the nearest skulls he could find that could match the magnitude of his new creature (not giving much thought to the fact that one head was found four miles away from the original dig site and the other skull was found 400 miles away, oh yeah, and the skulls he found were already matched with another type of dinosaur called the Camarasaurus). Thus the brontosaurus was born.
Upon further study, scientists soon realized the similarities between the Brontosaurus and the Apatosaurus. Both were herbivores, fairly large in size, and had long necks and long whip-like tails. As a result, they determined that the Brontosaurus was not a stand-alone dinosaur but actually the adult specimen of the previously discovered juvenile Apatosaurus skeleton. Based on the rules that govern the scientific naming of animals, scientists kept Apatosaurus as the official name of the species because it was published first. Even though the name Brontosaurus was more widely known and used, it remains merely a synonym of the Apatosaurus.
Although many scientists questioned the validity of the Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus skull, it wasn’t until the 1970s that two scientists managed to prove it. The proper Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus skull actually had a slightly longer snout and looked a lot like the skull of another sauropod called Diplodocus.
So, did the Brontosaurus really exist? Depends on who you talk to and how picky you want to be. Although Apatosaurus is considered to be the official scientific name, Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus are merely two different names for the same dinosaur.
- Brontosaurus means “thunder lizard” because of its massive size (average length of 75 feet and weighing between 40,000 and 77,000 pounds). Imagine the thundering sound it must have made when it moved. Wow!
- Apatosaurus means “deceptive lizard” because the bones on the underside of its tail were similar to those of prehistoric marine lizards.
- The Apatosaurus lived over 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period.
- The Apatosaurus was strictly a vegetarian.
- The Apatosaurus had a long, whip-like tail which is presumed to be its most effective means of defense against predators.
- Due to its massive size, scientists used to think the Apatosaurus was too big to support its weight for long periods of time on land, so they assumed it spent much of its time submerged in water. However, the latest research indicates this lifestyle is not accurate, and the Apatosaurus is considered a land dwelling animal.
- In their desperate attempts to each outdo the other, the methods of Cope and Marsh to uncover fossils often damaged and destroyed many dinosaur specimens. For example, one way they tried to unearth bones was through the use of dynamite. Yikes!
- Even after scientists made Apatosaurus the official name, Brontosaurus was still most popular and widely used. Sinclair, a U.S. petroleum supplier, adopted the Brontosaurus as part of their company’s logo in the mid 1900s. The U.S. Postal Service also featured the Brontosaurus as part of their extinct dinosaur postal stamp series released in 1989. Hard-core dinosaur fans accused the Postal Service of “promoting scientific illiteracy”. While many voiced their anger over the use of the Brontosaurus in the stamp series, few even noticed that the Postal Service also included the Pteranodon in their dinosaur stamps. The Pteranodon, being a flying reptile, is not even considered a dinosaur because by definition, dinosaurs don’t have wings.
Expand for References