In A Nutshell
Even though the name “brontosaurus” continues to appear in museums and textbooks alike, it’s long been known that the brontosaurus didn’t exist. And not only did the brontosaurus never actually exist, but the creature with that name was a mix-n-match skeleton of bones from different creatures that was actually “discovered” twice. It happened when two paleontologists, in the grip of a bitter rivalry, starting making desperate bids to one-up the other.
The Whole Bushel
Ask most people to name a few dinosaurs, and chances are the brontosaurus will be up there with the tyrannosaurus and the triceratops. It conjures up a distinctive image, with its long neck, arched back, and equally long tail. We’ve seen them in movies and cartoons, and we can even still see them in museums.
Unfortunately, they’re a century-old mistake.
The brontosaurus was “discovered” by Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh in 1877. Earlier that year, he had also published works outlining his discovery of another dinosaur, which he called an apatosaurus. His article in the American Journal of Science described the apatosaurus (“deceptive lizard”), as being 15 meters (50 ft) in length, based on the vertebral column—the only part of the skeleton that was actually discovered.
When he published an article in the same magazine later that year, he cited his discovery of another dinosaur—the brontosaurus. He wrote a similar sketch of the long backbone and estimated that this creature was 20–24 meters (70–80 ft) in length.
In 1903, it was discovered that Marsh had simply been hasty in publishing his two discoveries. The first was simply a younger individual than the second, and they were the same creature. The name “apatosaurus” was used first, and was deemed the proper name for the creature. But it was the name “brontosaurus” that stuck in the public’s mind. Even the US Postal Service used the term in a set of commemorative stamps, earning them the outrage of a scientific community that had been striving to set the record straight.
So why did Marsh make such a clumsy mistake? Because he was deep in the midst of a rivalry with another paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia. The two were constantly trying to discover first and then publish their findings first . . . their rivalry was so extreme that there are even records of the two paleontologists giving collectors orders to smash fossils and destroy findings before the other could publish. Marsh was in a hurry to get his discovery out before his competition, so he didn’t wait until he had found a more complete skeleton.
In fact, when he unveiled the so-called complete skeleton of his apatosaurus in 1883, it was still wrong. This specimen that he had found had been missing its head, so he stuck on another one that didn’t belong at all. So when he found another skeleton—this one complete with the correct head—it seemed clear that it was a completely different kind of dinosaur, the brontosaurus. It took until 1970 to clear up the mistake of the original wrong skull.
It’s now known that Marsh even got the details about the life and habitat of his apatosaurus/brontosaurus completely wrong. Looking at their small head, massive body and long tail, he surmised that the animal must have lived in lakes and swamps where water would support the massive body and allow them to get around easier. (You can see this outdated idea in the above painting.) Now, we know from where other skeletons have been found and by the appearance of their feet that this hypothesis, too, is completely wrong.
And even today, there are specimens in museums and in textbooks that refer to the creature as the brontosaurus, rather than its more scientifically accepted name of apatosaurus. (On a side note, even auto-correct in some word processing programs recognizes the term “brontosaurus” and not “apatosaurus.”) The US Postal Service isn’t the only group to mis-label the dinosaur; children still learn about the brontosaurus and can still see them in a museum. All because a scientist was in a rush to out-do the competition.