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"Alias Brontosaurus"


Fri, Apr 20th, 2001
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Monday, April 9, 2001

Although known as Brontosaurus to most people the long-necked giant dinosaur serving as the mascot of the Sinclair Oil Company, or as Fred Flintstone’s "steam shovel" for all you cartoon fans, is in reality properly called Apatosaurus. In a way this is unfortunate since when translated Brontosaurus literally means "Thunder Lizard," a name that does seem particularly fitting for a beast estimated to have weighed some 25 to 30 tons when alive and which presumably unleashed a rumbling shockwave with each and every ground pounding step that it took.

Be that as it may, the confusion surrounding the correct name of this long extinct animal dates back to the early days of American fossil hunting. Back to the time of the "Great Bone War," the heated battle for control of dinosaurs unearthed in the western United States waged by Edward Drinker Cope and O.C. Marsh over the last three decades of the nineteenth century. A bitter lifelong feud fought by two of history’s greatest paleontologists, which was destined to become a tale of almost mythological proportions.

Naturally, the scientific acclaim associated with being the first to describe a new species of dinosaur was of paramount importance to both Cope and Marsh. This in turn sparked a frenzied race in search of ever more spectacular fossil discoveries that would ultimately lead to the description of over 130 previously unknown dinosaur species. The chaotic headlong pace of these research activities, however, made occasional mistakes inevitable. While both men would make their fair share of blunders, O.C. Marsh was to do so with almost reckless abandon in the case of Apatosaurus.

This strange odyssey begins in 1877 when Marsh first applied the name Apatosaurus to one of two fragmentary skeletons discovered near Morrison, Colorado. Wasting little time in raising the cloud of confusion still surrounding this particular dinosaur, Marsh promptly christened the second of these partial skeletons Atlantosaurus in 1878.

It was the recovery of yet another far larger specimen from Como Bluff, Wyoming in 1879, again described by Marsh but this time as Brontosaurus, which would solidly establish the continuing misconceptions regarding the animal’s name. The novelty of this sensational fossil, today still one of the most complete gigantic long-necked dinosaur skeletons ever found, immediately captured the interest of the popular press of the age. The prodigious amount of subsequent headline newspaper coverage disseminated knowledge of Marsh’s new prehistoric monster widely, insuring Brontosaurus a lasting fame unattained by virtually any other dinosaur discovery.
And so it stood until 1903, when paleontologist Elmer Riggs of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History conclusively proved that each of the three skeletons actually represented just one type of dinosaur but at different stages of growth. Following the long established rule that the oldest officially recognized name takes priority over all others as promulgated by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the governing committee specifically organized to resolve such disputes, Riggs further accurately concluded that the correct name of the species was indeed Apatosaurus.

This aspect of the story, while certainly of major importance scientifically, naturally received little attention from anyone other than paleontologists. Newspaper editors, authors, just about everyone in fact, simply continued to identify this well-known dinosaur as Brontosaurus. The U.S. Postal Service carried on this tradition as well, using the incorrect name in the series of 25-cent dinosaur postage stamps the agency issued in 1989.

To his credit, Marsh did publicly acknowledge that his three dinosaurs were all probably closely related species of Sauropod, the sizeable dinosaur group that includes Brachiosaurus (the "Veggiesaurus" of Jurassic Park fame) and Diplodocus, as well as Apatosaurus and a large number of additional long-necked species. This did not, however, prevent his subsequent application of still another name to this identity challenged dinosaur, although in all fairness he was to do so somewhat inadvertently.

In one of those peculiar twists of fate, not a single skull was included among Marsh’s three dinosaur fossils. As a headless dinosaur leaves much to be desired, Marsh resolved this "minor" dilemma by utilizing a skull discovered some 35 miles away, and belonging to yet another distantly related Sauropod species known as Camarasaurus, in the reconstruction of his otherwise spectacular Como Bluff giant. Henry Fairfield Osborn compounded this error still further in 1905, when he mounted the American Museum of Natural History’s display specimen of Apatosaurus following Marsh’s "wrong-headed" lead.

Considering the popularity of this New York institution, it is not surprising that the blunt "pug-nosed" shaped head of Camarasaurus, rather than the more elongated and graceful face now known to have been possessed by Apatosaurus, became just as widely associated with this dinosaur as the incorrect name Brontosaurus. Renovations to the American Museum’s dinosaur exhibits completed in 1995 included installation of the proper skull, although if the past history of Apatosaurus provides any indication it will take quite some time before this correction becomes widely known.

Of course, things could have been worse because in this case at least, two heads have proven far more entertaining than none!

By John Levell

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