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The Brontosaurus Never Existed

Think of dinosaurs, and a few specific creatures inevitably come to mind -a T. Rex, maybe a Velociraptor, and probably a Brontosaurus as well. The Brontosauruses, due to their daunting size and impressive likeness, have been portrayed on TV and in films for decades. However, scientifically speaking - they don’t exist. While these long-necked dinosaurs exist in our culture, science abandoned them long ago, as the name is considered a junior (albeit redundant) synonym of the Apatosaurus. 

According to Matt Lamanna, curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the scientific community has known that the Brontosaurus was a fictitious dinosaur for more than a hundred years. But as with some popular trends, the Brontosaurus remained a cultural fixture until this very day. 

Lamanna said the story of Brontosaurus dates back over a century, 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 feud between them was called the Bone Wars, as they were frequently trying to outdo one another. 

“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 actually 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.

“Brontosaurus means ‘thunder lizard,’” he said. “It’s a big, evocative name, whereas Apatosaurus means ‘deceptive lizard.’ It’s quite a bit more boring.”

Sources: RedOrbitNPR

Image Sources: 1, 2

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