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Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed

This photograph from 1934 shows the Carnegie Museum's Apatosaurus skeleton on the right — wearing the wrong skull. (Carnegie Museum of Natural History )

It may have something to do with all those Brontosaurus burgers everyone's favorite modern stone-age family ate, but when you think of a giant dinosaur with a tiny head and long, swooping tail, the Brontosaurus is probably what you're seeing in your mind.

Well hold on: Scientifically speaking, there's no such thing as a Brontosaurus.

Even if you knew that, you may not know how the fictional dinosaur came to star in the prehistoric landscape of popular imagination for so long.

It dates back 130 years, to a period of early U.S. paleontology known as the Bone Wars, says Matt Lamanna, curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

The Bone Wars was the name given to a bitter competition between two paleontologists, Yale's O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia. Lamanna says their mutual dislike, paired with their scientific ambition, led them to race dinosaur names into publication, each 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 tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "It was definitely a bitter, bitter rivalry."

The two burned through money, and were as much fame-hungry trailblazers as scientists.

It was in the heat of this competition, in 1877, that Marsh discovered the partial skeleton of a long-necked, long-tailed, leaf-eating dinosaur he dubbed Apatosaurus. It was missing a skull, so in 1883 when Marsh published a reconstruction of his Apatosaurus, Lamanna says he used the head of another dinosaur — thought to be a Camarasaurus — to complete the skeleton.

"Two years later," Lamanna says, "his fossil collectors that were working out West sent him a second skeleton that he thought belonged to a different dinosaur that he named Brontosaurus."

But it wasn't a different dinosaur. It was simply a more complete Apatosaurus — one that Marsh, in his rush to one-up Cope, carelessly and quickly mistook for something new.

Although the mistake was spotted by scientists by 1903, the Brontosaurus lived on, in movies, books and children's imaginations. The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh even topped its Apatosaurus skeleton with the wrong head in 1932. The apathy of the scientific community and a dearth of well-preserved Apatosaurus skulls kept it there for nearly 50 years.

That Brontosaurus finally met its end in the 1970s when two Carnegie researchers took a second look at the controversy. They determined a skull found in a quarry in Utah in 1910 was the true Apatosaurus skull. In 1979 the correct head was placed atop the museum's skeleton.

The Brontosaurus was gone at last, but Lamanna suggests the name stuck in part because it was given at a time when the Bone Wars fueled intense public interest in the discovery of new dinosaurs. And, he says, it's just a better name.

"Brontosaurus means 'thunder lizard,'" he says. "It's a big, evocative name, whereas Apatosaurus means 'deceptive lizard.' It's quite a bit more boring."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember in the opening credits of "The Flintstones" when Fred slides down the tail of that very large dinosaur, the one from the late Jurassic age?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FLINTSTONES")

ALAN REED: (as Fred Flintstone) Yabba-dabba-do.

RAZ: Or if you don't remember that, how about the same-looking dinosaur in this scene from "Jurassic Park"?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JURASSIC PARK")

SAM NEILL: (as Dr. Grant) It's a dinosaur.

RAZ: OK. Here's a better description of that dinosaur, and let's just keep the music in for a moment.

MATT LAMANNA: That's about 80 feet long, stands on four, huge, massive legs - something like Greek columns - has a long neck and a small head, was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived about 150 million years ago.

RAZ: So that is Matt Lamanna.

LAMANNA: And I'm a dinosaur paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

RAZ: And when we caught up with him this past week at the museum, he was standing in front of a skeleton of that very dinosaur he just described. And the plaque in front of it, what does it say it's called?

LAMANNA: The sign in front of it says - it's called Apatosaurus.

RAZ: Apatosaurus. Ever heard of it? Perhaps, like us, you thought Brontosaurus. Well, it turns out there is no such thing. Try this. Go to Google and look for the Wikipedia entry for Brontosaurus. There is none. You're forced to the Apatosaurus entry. Now, the story of why that is goes back almost 130 years to something paleontologists refer to as the Bone Wars.

LAMANNA: Well, the Bone Wars were a period in the early history of paleontology here in the U.S., and they're the name given to the competition between a Yale paleontologist named O.C. Marsh and his bitter rival, Edward Drinker Cope, a Philadelphian paleontologist. Their dislike for one another and their scientific ambition led them to race dinosaur names into publication and to, you know, to name multitudes of species mostly to try to outdo the other one.

RAZ: And they were - I mean, it wasn't just a friendly rivalry. I mean, this was a very - this was like a deadly rivalry.

LAMANNA: It was. It was an unfriendly rivalry, definitely. 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. There were definitely back and forths in newspapers, some back and forth in the scientific literature as well. So it was absolutely a bitter, bitter rivalry.

RAZ: So anyway, in the heat of this competition, Marsh discovered the skeleton of a dinosaur he dubbed the apatosaurus.

LAMANNA: And two years later, his fossil collectors that were working out West sent him a second skeleton that he thought belonged to a different kind of dinosaur that he named brontosaurus.

RAZ: So that was a mistake. But a few years later...

LAMANNA: A few years later in 1903...

RAZ: A third paleontologist figured this out, that they were the same animal.

LAMANNA: And so because the name Apatosaurus is older, it's the one that gets used.

RAZ: And that was it. Scientists already knew in 1903 that there was no such thing as a brontosaurus. But a full reconstruction of the apatosaurus wasn't completed until 1979 because paleontologist O.C. Marsh made another mistake a century earlier.

LAMANNA: When he published his reconstruction, no skull had ever been found attached to a body of the animal that we now call apatosaurus. So when Marsh went to publish a reconstruction of this animal in 1883, he used the head of another dinosaur to complete the skeleton.

RAZ: Now, one thing you are not saying, which is that the dinosaur you are standing in front of actually had the wrong head for a long time, right?

LAMANNA: Yes. That's correct. Yeah. It did have another dinosaur's head on it for many, many years.

RAZ: It turns out paleontologists didn't realize that the skeleton had the wrong skull because very few well-preserved apatosaurus skulls had ever been found.

LAMANNA: And it stood that way from 1932 to 1979. So almost 50 years.

RAZ: Yeah, but brontosaurus has been used, like, up until just a few years ago.

LAMANNA: Well, brontosaurus has been used up until a few years ago definitely in the public eye. And why that is, I'm not totally sure, but I think it has something to do with the nature of the name brontosaurus itself. Brontosaurus is a, you know, it means thunder lizard. It's a big, evocative name for one of these huge, you know, long-necked dinosaurs, whereas the apatosaurus means deceptive lizard. It's quite a bit more boring.

RAZ: I bet "The Flintstones" had a lot to do with it, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FLINTSTONES")

REED: (as Fred Flintstone) Yabba-dabba-do.

LAMANNA: You know, that could well be. Definitely. You know, the idea of bronto burgers may have perpetuated the idea of brontosaurus in the public's eye. Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FLINTSTONES")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) From the town of Bedrock...

RAZ: That's Matt Lamanna with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. You can see a photo of that apatosaurus from 1934 with the wrong skull at our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FLINTSTONES")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) When you're with the Flintstones you'll have a yabba-dabba-do time... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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