Sunday, September 23, 2007
Was the Brontosaurus a Real Dinosaur?
The brontosaurus is an interesting creature: a curious mix of ambition, poor scientific methods, and a part of the dinosaur wars race of the late 19th century. For those who are fans of the brontosaurus, you might want to relocate any pictures you have of it next to the rest of your mythical beast collection. It works well with creatures like the jackalope or unicorn. Though the name is still in popular use, this particular dinosaur never existed, and was in fact an apatosaurus body with a camarasaurus head.
The idea of an enormously huge, herbaceous dinosaur that once populated the earth doesn’t die with the death of the fictional brontosaurus. Apatosaurs are amazingly large beasts, and they were herbivores. The main difference is that the apatosaurs’s head is slightly longer in the snout, and looks different than the heavy-jawed camarasaur.
This certainly isn’t the first time scientists have made a mistake in identifying a new creature. Further, this mistake may have been somewhat intentional by the paleontologist who “discovered” and named the brontosaurus, Othniel Charles Marsh. Marsh was desperately trying to catalog new dinosaur species and get ahead of his rival paleontologist, Edward Dinker Cope. Cope had already discovered and named apatosaurus, and Marsh wanted a discovery just as large and impressive.
What makes Marsh’s actions somewhat insidious is that he didn’t locate a camarasaurus head anywhere near the body of the apatosaur he dug up. Instead he found one at least four miles (6.44km) away. Marsh’s “discovery” was debunked and labeled as apatosaurus by the early 20th century, though the scientific community didn’t officially rebuke Marsh, and his “brontosaurus” discovery was considered to be a mistake. It did take until the 1970s to correctly put together head and body properly, and you’ll note books published in the 1960s, or earlier show the apatosaur with an absurdly large skull.
Still, this large fictional dinosaur stalked through the imaginations of the general public, and continues to remain referred to as “real.” It is decidedly not real, and museums in the US now have corrected their skeletal structures of former brontosaurus models to instead resemble the smaller headed apatosaurus. Ironically, even a Microsoft Word® spell checker recognizes brontosaurus and not the names of the two creatures that made up the fictional dinosaur. Thus the word brontosaurus is likely to remain, even though the creature never walked our earth.