Brontosaurus - The Dinosaur that Never Existed - Mystery Files
We all love the Brontosaurus
Who amongst us did not have a passion, when we were children, for Dinosaurs. Those huge lumbering and sometimes terrifying creatures from a bygone age. Those primeval prehistoric leviathans, stars of museums TV and books, and immortalised on cellulose in such films as "Jurassic Park".
Many six-year olds are able to identify any number of exotic dinosaur after only a cursory glance at a picture or model of the beast, and one of the most readily-identified amongst the menagerie must surely be the Brontosaurus - That huge, yet docile herbivore with the incredibly long neck that would seek it's sustenance in the high leafy trees of the Jurassic forests.
So it will come as a shock to many of us to discover that it's just not true - there was no such thing as a Brontosaurus. The benign behemoths that we knew and loved as The Brontosaurus - just never existed.
No Brontosaurus? - You must be kidding!
Now the fact that the Brontosaurus never existed may be a revelation to you, but paleontologists have known the truth for some time, and from the 1970s onwards have been been quietly admitting as much.
The beast that you thought (along with everyone else for the past century or so), was a Brontosaurus, was actually, largely an Apatosaurus - Apatosaurus, interestingly enough means "Deceptive Lizard".
The Brontosaurus story began way back in 1874. A man called Othniel Charles Marsh discovered, in Wyoming, USA, the most complete dinosaur skeleton that had ever, up to that time, been unearthed.
We now know that it was an Apatosaurus - we also know that it was headless! However, in order to present a complete skeleton to the scientific community, Marsh "Borrowed" the head from a completely different dinosaur - a Camarasurus - which he had found some four miles away, and cobbled the disparate parts together. He then presented his hybrid in a scientific paper, heralding it as a completely new dinosaur - The Brontosaurus!
The scientific community were completely taken in - how could they not be? - Did Marsh not have a full Brontosaurus skeleton as evidence? So Marsh was lauded as a paleontological hero and the Brontosaurus went on to become one of the most instantly recognisable dinosaurs of all.
The completely different head of the Apatosaurus
The Brontosaurus is Busted - Slowly.
By 1903, the game was largely up. Scientists by now were aware (largely due to the work of another paleontologist, Elmer Riggs), that the Brontosaurus was actually an Apatosaurus with the head of a Camarasaurus.
This information however, never seemed reluctant to escape it's own little scientific circle. The name of Brontosaurus continued to be used by Museums and the name was not formally removed from Paleontology records and textbooks until 1974 and the Brontosaurus exhibit at the Carnegie Museum finally received it's correct head in 1979.
This low-level, some would say stealthy, changing of information, left the majority of the people outside of the scientific community unaware that the Brontosaurus had never existed. Indeed, in 1989, the US Postal service issued a set of four stamps featuring Dinosaurs: Tyranosaurus, Pterandon, Stegosaurus and - You guessed it - Brontosaurus!
There was a media outcry, with the press accusing the post office of "fostering scientific illiteracy" by not checking for scientific accuracy before publishing, and there were demands that the stamps be recalled.
Bye Bye Brontosaurus - Hello Apatosaurus.
Although the Brontosaurus is no longer with us, the skeleton that started it all is. It continues to be displayed at the prestigeous Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in the USA.
The skeleton, at long last, now has the correct skull - that of an Apatosaurus.
Some other Hubs in my Mystery Files Series
- Mystery Files: The Pregnant Pope
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- Mystery Files: Agatha Christie's Greatest Mystery.
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- Mystery Files: The Woman Who Burst Into Flames - Spontaneous Human Combustion
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