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Was the Brontosaurus a Real Dinosaur?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The brontosaurus is an interesting creature: a curious mix of ambition, poor scientific methods and a part of the “bone wars” of the late 19th century. It could be described as a mythical beast with the body of one dinosaur and the head of another. Alternatively, it could be said to have resulted from the hasty misidentification of an incomplete skeleton. Although the name is still in popular use, the vast majority of paleontologists believe this particular dinosaur never existed as such: it was simply another specimen of an already known animal. For a long time, the most complete exhibit was in fact an Apatosaurus body with a Camarasaurus head.

The Bone Wars

During the 1870s and 1880s, a bitter rivalry existed between two paleontologists, Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, which became known as the “bone wars.” A number of incidents seem to have contributed to the enmity between the two. For example, it was alleged that Marsh had paid some of Cope’s workers to send the bones they had dug up to him instead of to their employer. On another occasion, Marsh publicly humiliated Cope when the latter mistakenly attached the skull of a fossilized marine reptile to its tail instead of its neck. It was against this background that the confusion regarding the Apatosaurus and the “Brontosaurus” arose.

The “Discovery” of the Brontosaurus

In their haste to claim new discoveries, both men could be careless in their methods, often basing their claims on very limited evidence and sometimes lumping together bones from different animals. In 1877, Marsh, on the basis of a few vertebrae and a pelvis, identified a new dinosaur, which he named Apatosaurus. It was a large sauropod — a four legged animal with a long neck and a long, tapering tail. Two years later, he examined another incomplete sauropod skeleton and declared it to be new dinosaur, which he named “Brontosaurus,” meaning “thunder lizard.”

In 1883, most of the remainder of this skeleton was found and Marsh was able to piece together an almost complete reconstruction. The skull, however, was missing. Ironically echoing Cope’s earlier mistake, he completed the skeleton by attaching the skull of another dinosaur, Camarasaurus. This error, though suspected for some time, was not confirmed until the 1970s. To be fair to Marsh, it was a common practice to use parts of similar dinosaurs to fill in missing pieces in a skeleton for public display.

A comparison of the Apatosaurus and “thunder lizard” skeletons by the paleontologist Elmer Riggs in 1903 concluded that they were the same dinosaur. Since the name “Apatosaurus” had been given first, it had to take precedence and “Brontosaurus” became redundant in scientific terms. Once the skeleton went on display, however, it caught the public imagination in a way that the Apatosaurus had not. It continued to appear with the no longer accurate name in books on dinosaurs at least until the 1970s and featured in numerous movies and cartoons.

The Apatosaurus

The idea of an enormous, herbivorous dinosaur that once walked the earth did not die with the brontosaurus. The Apatosaurus was an amazingly large beast and it was a herbivore. It grew up to 75 feet (23 m) in length and may have weighed more than 20 tons. An average sized human would have reached just a bit above its knee.

The main reason for Marsh’s misidentification of the skeleton is that the second finding had more vertebrae. This suggested a different dinosaur; however, it was later established that, as these dinosaurs grew, some of the vertebrae fused together. It seems that Marsh had simply found a younger example.

The dinosaur formerly known as brontosaurus was certainly real — it just had the wrong name and the wrong head. The main difference is that the head of the Apatosaurus was narrower, slightly longer in the snout and smaller than that of the heavy-jawed Camarasaur. If Marsh had used the term “brontosaurus” for his first sauropod discovery, the name would have been scientifically valid and might have been more appropriate. A computer simulation has suggested that the dinosaur may have been able to make a thunderous noise — possibly reaching 200 decibels — by cracking its tail like a whip.

The Thunder Lizard Lives On

This huge, arguably fictional, dinosaur lives on in the popular imagination and continues to be referred to as “real.” A well-known spell checker, for example, recognizes brontosaurus, but not the names of the two creatures that made up the original exhibit. All this is in spite of the fact that museums in the US have now corrected their displays.

At least one prominent paleontologist, however, believes that the skeleton of Marsh’s thunder lizard is sufficiently different from that of Apatosaurus for it to be considered a dinosaur in its own right. Another skeleton formerly regarded as a type of Apatosaurus has now been recognized as a different dinosaur and named Eobrontosaurus, meaning “dawn thunder lizard.” There is one place where a brontosaurus exhibit can still be seen, as of 2013: Othniel C. Marsh’s original reconstruction, albeit with a new skull, is on display at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. As it forms a part of a historical record, it is labeled “Brontosaurus.”

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a All Things Nature contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon298655 — On Oct 21, 2012

The so called brontosaurus was a real dinosaur! Though brontosaurus wasn't it's actual name the animal the name refers to is, in fact, real. -- no different then calling your girlfriend a pet name like babe or hon. Everyone simply called the Apatosaurus a brontosaurus. And just because they used a different name to refer to it doesn't make it imaginary. No need to move that picture of the brontosaurus to the same stack as the unicorn. If it really bugs you just cross out brontosaurus and sharpy in Apatosaurus. Problem solved.

By pmbrown — On May 26, 2012

Brontosaurus was a real animal, and I am tired of people maintaining otherwise. O.C. Marsh discovered the bones of one in 1879 and picked the name "Brontosaurus" to designate the animal.

Though the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature don't permit this name to be official, there was nothing "mythical" about this animal; it walked the plains of what is now southeastern Wyoming and its bones lay there until Marsh discovered them.

The idea that Brontosaurus had a Camarasaurus head is sheer nonsense. The animal Marsh found did not have such a head! When the skeleton was mounted in a major museum in 1905, the staff used the head of a Camarasaurus based on all the information they had of what the head might have looked like. They were not guilty of “poor scientific methods”; formulating theories based on the best available theories is what scientists do!

By geekygirl123 — On Mar 24, 2012

So "the land before time" feeds me lies about triceratops and brontosaurus. What's next, that the great dane is a bigger version of a shih-tzu and ruin Scooby Doo for me too (I'm only 11).

By anon164795 — On Apr 02, 2011

Particularly frustrating to fans of the name 'Brontosaurus' is that, although it is true that Marsh described 'Apatosaurus' first and therefore it does have priority over 'Brontosaurus' (which by the rules is now considered a junior synonym) for the rest of his life Marsh publicly stated that he preferred the name 'Brontosaurus' and that was the name he used in all his public lectures on the animal.

Doesn't it seem that if the founder of both names favored one over the other, that we could make an exception to the stuffy rules just this once? After all, a cool name like 'Brontosaurus' doesn't come along every day.

By anon156428 — On Feb 27, 2011

A rose by any other name...

It's funny how the more popular name is the one that is "not real". he juvenile bones were named Apatosaurus and the adult bones where named Brontosaurus. There is thought now that the Triceratops is a juvenile Torosaurus. In this case, the name given to the juvenile fossil is considered incorrect.

My children know them as Longnecks and Three-Horns from watching the land before time, but I still know what they're talking about. All people need to know is that the Apatosaurus and the Brontosaurus were the same animal.

By anon136597 — On Dec 23, 2010

The brontosaurus, along with the pig's tooth mentioned below, are products of popular culture and popular media but are, unfortunately, associated with "scientist" (you know, the guys in the white coats from the movies.) They're the same ones who "say" things in news articles that also don't actually exist. Real scientists are generally too intelligent and too busy to worry about nonsense like this.

By anon101989 — On Aug 06, 2010

You know what? None of it even really matters.

One of the "missing links" was a pig's tooth.

Scientists always make mistakes when they are too emotionally attached.

Now to hit the beach. I absolutely love the new Globally Warmed weather.

By momothree — On Jul 11, 2010

@cmsmith10: I know that many paleontologists wanted the stamp recalled but I am not sure if it ever happened. The U.S. Postal Service defended their actions and made reference to the stamps being part of the "Land Before Time" dinosaur family.

By googie98 — On Jul 11, 2010

@cmsmith10: It wasn’t really as bad as it sounded regarding the postal service. Since the Brontosaurus was actually the Apatosaurus, it was just an issue of incorrect wording. Brontosaur has been widely accepted as a synonym for the Apatosaurus

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 11, 2010

I think everyone was disappointed that the Brontosaurus was not real. The U.S. Postal Service issued four dinosaur stamps in 1989, one being the Brontosaurus. They were then accused of “fostering scientific illiteracy”. The stamp had to be recalled.

By krisl — On Jul 07, 2010

This is interesting. When I was learning about dinosaurs in elementary school in the mid 1990’s, they taught us about and showed us pictures of the brontosaurus despite the fact that it isn’t real. In fact, I didn’t know that the brontosaurus wasn’t real until reading this article.

Funny enough, my elementary school teachers didn’t teach me about either of the dinosaurs that the brontosaurus was mistaken for. You’d think, given that the truth about this dinosaur has been accepted since the 1970’s, that the American school system would teach more accurately on this subject. Perhaps by teaching us about the brontosaurus, this “hybrid” creature, they were killing two dinos with one stone?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a All Things Nature contributor, Tricia...
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