December 22, 2012
Dinosaur Lost: Brontosaurus Was Never Real
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
The Brontosaurus has been one of the most well-known dinosaurs in popular culture for more than a hundred years. It has been portrayed in books, on TV, and in cinema and has also had its likeness put on a US postage stamp in 1989, albeit with a good dose of controversy and criticism.
And while the Brontosaurus has been a mainstay in popular culture for decades, the actual use of the word Brontosaurus was discarded by science quite some time ago, as it was generally considered a junior synonym of the less-known Apatosaurus.
And to now add further insult to injury, it has been recently unveiled Brontosaurus was not only dropped from scientific literature, but researchers are saying the massive beast had never existed at all.
According to Matt Lamanna, curator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the bulk of the scientific community knew Brontosaurus was a fictitious dinosaur for more than a hundred years. But as with some popular trends, the Brontosaurus remained a pop icon throughout the 1900s.
Lamanna said the story of Brontosaurus dates back 130 years, to a period known as the Bone Wars. This early period of paleontology in the US saw a wealth of new dinosaur fossils being discovered, with Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope at the forefront of most discoveries.
The Bone Wars got its name from a bitter feud between Yale´s Marsh and Cope of Philadelphia. Both paleontologists expressed a mutual dislike for one another as they raced to get dinosaur names published, trying to outdo the other.
“There are stories of either Cope or Marsh telling their fossil collectors to smash skeletons that were still in the ground, just so the other guy couldn't get them,” Lamanna said in a detailed interview with Guy Raz of NPR´s All Things Considered. “It was definitely a bitter, bitter rivalry.”
It was this heated race to get dinosaurs published that led to the unwarranted naming of the Brontosaurus. In 1877, Marsh, who had discovered numerous dinosaur fossils, discovered the partial skeleton of a long-necked, long-tailed, herbivorous dinosaur he dubbed Apatosaurus. Since the fossil was missing a skull, in 1883 when he published a reconstruction of his Apatosaurus, he borrowed a skull from another dinosaur – possibly a Camarasaurus – to complete the skeleton.
A few years later his fossil collectors had sent Marsh a second skeleton he believed to belong to a completely new dinosaur, which he named Brontosaurus, according to Lamanna.
However this new dinosaur was in reality a more complete Apatosaurus. And in Marsh´s rush to outdo Cope, he carelessly mistook the dinosaur for something new, Lamanna added.
The dinosaur mistake was eventually spotted by scientists in 1903, but for some reason, the Brontosaurus named lived on in popular culture and children´s imaginations everywhere. It was not until another 67 years, in 1970, when two Carnegie researchers took a second look at the controversy and determined, once and for all, the Brontosaurus was a fictional-only dinosaur.
This conclusion was met due to a dinosaur skull discovered in Utah in 1910 that was correctly attributed to the Apatosaurus rather than Marsh´s defunct Brontosaurus.
Lamanna said, while the Brontosaurus is gone for good, the name lived on mainly because it was given at a time when the Bone Wars fueled much public interest in the discovery of new dinosaurs. As well, he noted, Brontosaurus is just a better name than Apatosaurus.
“Brontosaurus means 'thunder lizard,'” he said. “It's a big, evocative name, whereas Apatosaurus means 'deceptive lizard.' It's quite a bit more boring.”