The Sideshow

The Brontosaurus never existed: A tale from the Bone Wars

A 1934 photo showing the "Brontosaurus" wearing the wrong skull (Carnegie Museum)This may be old news to dinosaur history experts around the world, but many of us have continued to be fascinated by the Brontosaurus, which never actually existed.

Still, as NPR reported Sunday, the story of how the Brontosaurus legend began is a fascinating tale that sheds light on the far-from-perfect origins of scientific discovery.

In 1877, two paleontologists were competing to see who could make the most discoveries of dinosaur remains. Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were bitter personal rivals who sometimes took extreme measures to show up one another. Their rivalry was so intense, it became known as the Bone Wars.

"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," Matt Lamanna, curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, told NPR's "All Things Considered." "It was definitely a bitter, bitter rivalry."

At the height of their rivalry, Marsh discovered a partial skeleton of a long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur that was missing a head. To hurry along the process so he could claim the credit, he substituted the skull of another dinosaur and dubbed the finding Apatosaurus.

"Two years later, 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," Lamanna said.

However, the skeleton was actually another Apatosaurus. Much like with the earlier discovery of the first Apatosaurus, had Marsh waited for more evidence, the mistaken claim may have been avoided. But in a rush to top his rival, Marsh went for the quick victory of marking yet another "discovery." And thus the history of the Brontosaurus began.

As it turns out, Marsh's mistake was called out by scientists long before the public was willing to let the Brontosaurus go, with the record being set straight over a century ago in 1903. And as NPR notes, even the Carnegie Museum itself placed the wrong head on an Apatosaurus skeleton in 1932, calling it a Brontosaurus.

Finally, in 1979, two Carnegie researchers matched the skeleton with an actual Apatosaurus skull that was discovered in Utah in 1910.

Nonetheless, the Brontosaurus has remained a fixture in popular culture. Is it simple ignorance, or something deeper? As the Discovery Channel notes, "When music star Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph, everyone still called him 'Prince.' Similar confusion surrounds the dinosaur Apatosaurus, which many still refer to as 'Brontosaurus.'"

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