June 5, 2012
“Brontosaurus” should have disappeared a long time ago. Paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized that the famous “thunder lizard” was a synonym of Apatosaurus more than a century ago, and a 1936 monograph by Charles Gilmore strongly reinforced what Riggs had discovered. Brontosaurus was not a real dinosaur. But, thanks to museum displays and pop culture persistence, Brontosaurus hung on. Even now, we feel compelled to invoke Brontosaurus in the same breath as Apatosaurus—it seems that no one can use the name Apatosaurus without explaining to their audience that we used to call the dinosaur Brontosaurus. No surprise, then, that the word use tracker Google Ngrams charts Brontosaurus as slightly more popular than Apatosaurus. We can’t let the dinosaur go.
Thanks to a fictional conceit, Brontosaurus recently received some screen time. Everybody knows that the plot of King Kong hinges on a gargantuan gorilla, but dinosaurs—stalwart holdovers from the Mesozoic—also have a role to play. What better way to show the power of Skull Island’s monstrous gorilla than to have him pummel a Tyrannosaurus? And when director Peter Jackson revitalized the story in 2005, he included a new and varied menagerie of modern dinosaurs, including a stampeding herd of Brontosaurus.
Jackson’s Brontosaurus looked just like the sauropods I encountered as a child. These computer-generated dinosaurs were drab, blunt-headed hulks that wallowed in swamps filled with soft plants. They were a throwback to a time when paleontologists thought of sauropods as dim-witted mountains of flesh. At the time the film’s fictional Skull Island expedition took place, this is exactly how good sauropods were thought to act.
The film’s official art book, The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island, added another quirk to the dinosaur’s story. The film’s fictional Brontosaurus baxteri is said to be capable of live birth. Instead of laying clutches of small eggs, gravid Brontosaurus females delivered between one and three large, live offspring at a time. This is not just an invention for the movie’s backstory, but something early 20th century paleontologists actually considered. Under the assumption that these dinosaurs spent most of their time in the water, where egg-laying would be impossible, paleontologist W.D. Matthew suggested that big sauropods may have given birth to live young. We now know this isn’t true, but at a time when huge sauropods were thought to have relied on swampy refuges, Matthew’s suggestion seemed to be a reasonable hypothesis.
Brontosaurus is here to stay. We love the dinosaur’s ghost too much to let it rest. And even though we won’t see digitally restored Brontosaurus stomping around in science documentaries, I’m glad King Kong used a bit of scientific license to bring my childhood favorite to life.
May 14, 2012
The Dinosaur Museum, tucked away a few blocks from Blanding, Utah’s main drag, is an unusual place. Intricately detailed sculptures stand next to casts of fossils, full-size paintings of skeletons and various bits of dinosauriana, mixed together to create rooms full of competing dinosaur images. But I didn’t expect to run into a minor dinosaur celebrity in the galleries. Displayed in a small glass case were the decaying remains of King Kong‘s “Brontosaurus.”
I had almost forgotten about the stop-motion dinosaur. In the original, 1933 King Kong, the sharp-toothed sauropod made a brief appearance as a terrifying, carnivorous swamp monster. Worst of all, the dinosaur was just as dangerous on land as in the water. After wrecking the expedition’s boats, the Brontosaurus shuffled after the fleeing humans and nabbed one crew member dumb enough to think you can escape a long-necked dinosaur by climbing a tree.
But that wasn’t the model’s only appearance. The same model was employed in Son of Kong, a hastily created sequel to the initial hit, released a scant nine months after the first film. And the Brontosaurus was made to do double duty. Not only did the Brontosaurus make a brief cameo at the end of the movie, but the film’s special effects creators refashioned the model into a gnarly sea monster.
Today, this piece of Hollywood memorabilia looks even more monstrous. Time has not been kind to the dinosaur. The fabricated flesh has decayed from around the model’s mouth, eyes and neck, making the dinosaur look even more angry than it ever appeared on film. The sauropod was always meant to be scary, but it looks even more intimidating as a tattered cinema zombie.
May 10, 2012
Dinosaurs are a common sight along Utah’s roadways. Sinclair stations still display their iconic “Brontosaurus” on signs, and a rarer few have a little dinosaur sculpture out front. And one aged station in Blanding, Utah created its own version of the dinosaurian mascot. While traveling from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque, New Mexico by way of Blanding’s Dinosaur Museum, I spotted the skeletal dinosaur browsing from a tree on the sidewalk. I had to stop and snap a photo—I always brake for dinosaurs.
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April 27, 2012
When I first heard the news that paleontologists had discovered a giant, fuzzy tyrannosaur, I was giddy with excitement. The dinosaur, dubbed Yutyrannus, was a confirmation of an idea that researchers and artists had been cautiously exploring for years. While most of the feathered dinosaurs discovered so far have been very small and often quite bird-like animals, Yutyrannus was a roughly 30-foot-long bruiser which showed that even huge predators might have sported fluffy plumage. And if an imposing predator like Yutyrannus sported a fuzzy coat, the same might be true for the theropod’s notorious cousin, Tyrannosaurus rex. The tyrant king may not have been the wholly scaly monstrosity I grew up knowing, but an apex predator decorated by patches of simple protofeathers.
Not everyone shared my enthusiasm. “Tyrannosaurs were supposed to be scaly,” came the cantankerous cry from die-hard fans of more reptilian dinosaurs. Why are paleontologists so committed to destroying the fantastic imagery Jurassic Park embedded in our cultural landscape? Across the web, tyrannosaur traditionalists registered their displeasure. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” mourned one WIRED commenter, and elsewhere, Yutyrannus was presented as a “fuzzball” and “chicken from hell.” And while the outrage was not as great as when people mistakenly believed that paleontologists were trying to kill Triceratops, at least some dinosaur fans lamented the increasingly avian aspect of tyrannosaurs.
Paleo blogger Mark Wildman recently jumped in with a post titled “In Defence of Scaly Dinosaurs.” He was sad to see yet another proud dinosaurian lineage turn fluffy. “Those of us who like our dinosaurs scaly appear to be frowned upon,” Wildman wrote, “as if we don’t know what we are talking about and that we really ought to ‘get with it’ and rejoice that the dinosaurs are covered in fuzz and feathers. Well that isn’t going to happen—certainly not by me and, I am sure, not for many others.” And to dapple Tyrannosaurus with feathers would be the ultimate indignity. Citing the awesomeness of Tyrannosaurus in Dinosaur Revolution, and how silly the feathery Gigantoraptor looked, Wildman challenged readers: “Do you really want the ultimate theropods, the megastars of the dinosaurian world—the tyrannosaurs—displaying colourful yet gaudy feathers and dancing like a demented turkey cock?”
I actually wouldn’t mind a strutting tyrannosaur, even though I admit that Dinosaur Revolution‘s Gigantoraptor sequence was a little over the top. And none of this is to say that Wildman objects to the evidence of feathered dinosaurs. He makes it quite clear that he’s entirely on board with the science. All the same, his post and other comments about how Yutyrannus has somehow ruined tyrannosaurs made me wonder about why it is so fashionable to register cranky displeasure with the way dinosaurs have changed. Some people just don’t like feathery dinosaurs, many wept and wailed at the false assertion of journalists that Triceratops might disappear, and “Brontosaurus” still stirs up strong feelings among those who grew up with the thunder lizard. It’s cool to show contempt for new discoveries in favor of the dinosaurs we grew up with. Before I knew the extent of the evidence, even I felt a little sad that so many of the scabrous, ugly dinosaurs I met as a kid were turned into pretty peacocks.
I can’t explain why this is so any more than I can explain why we adore dinosaurs in the first place. I don’t think anyone has successfully articulated why we’re so enthralled by these creatures. But I think Mike Brown identified one important thread in his book How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming. When Pluto was officially demoted from planet to dwarf planet, many people objected to the loss of one of our solar system’s icons. Brown recalled:
In the days that followed, I would hear from many people who were sad about Pluto. And I understood. Pluto was part of their mental landscape, the one they had constructed to organize their thinking about the solar system and their own place within it. Pluto seemed like the edge of existence. Ripping Pluto out of that landscape caused what felt like an inconceivably empty hole.
Of course, Pluto didn’t actually go anywhere. Its title simply changed. But the alteration virtually obliterated the cosmic body in people’s minds. Might the same be true for dinosaurs? For those of us who grew up with scaly, swamp-dwelling dinosaurs, the new images of fuzzy dinosaurs are conflicting with the Mesozoic world as we think it should be. A Tyrannosaurus with feathers isn’t really a Tyrannosaurus, but a different sort of creature that doesn’t quite fit what we had in mind for so long. This tension is inevitable. There is so much that remains unknown that any vision of the past is certainly going to change. I have no doubt that, a few decades from now, children who grew up with feathery dinosaurs will lament how future generations of paleontologists are altering the picture of dinosaur lives.
April 10, 2012
“Brontosaurus” will always be special to me. The shuffling, swamp-dwelling dinosaur never really existed, yet, for my younger self, the Jurassic behemoth was an icon of everything dinosaurs were supposed to be. The skeleton mounted at the American Museum of Natural History is what really hooked me on the sauropod. When I first visited the skeleton in the late 1980s—before the museum’s dinosaur halls were renovated in the late 1990s—I was astonished. I had seen illustrations of Brontosaurus before, but seeing the animal’s actual bones was a transcendent experience for me. I already liked dinosaurs, but after standing in the shadow of those column-like limbs and intricate vertebral column, I loved dinosaurs.
Today we know that the specimens once assigned to Brontosaurus excelsus really belonged within the genus Apatosaurus. That issue was settled decades before I was even born, although museums and paleontologists themselves were slow to adopt the change. (It wasn’t until the proper head of Apatosaurus was rediscovered—the specimen was excavated at Dinosaur National Monument in 1909 but confused for a Diplodocus skull for decades—that the move to publicly shun Brontosaurus started in earnest.) Indeed, in 1903 paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized that Brontosaurus excelsus was extraordinarily similar to the skeleton of another sauropod, named Apatosaurus ajax. Both had been named by Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh at the height of the Bone Wars era, when many dinosaur specimens, no matter how subtle their differences, were given a new genus or species designation. In this particular case, the fact that the Apatosaurus ajax specimen came from a relatively young animal and the Brontosaurus excelsus specimen was an older animal led Marsh astray. Both forms, Riggs concluded, belonged to the same genus, and Apatosaurus had priority since it was named first.
The American Museum of Natural History mount went up in 1905. The dinosaur was promoted as Brontosaurus, not Apatosaurus. Even though Riggs’ case would eventually win out, AMNH paleontologists Henry Fairfield Osborn and William Diller Matthew didn’t agree with the name change. Exactly why Brontosaurus was allowed to live on—much to Riggs’ frustration—is unclear. But all these little quirks of nomenclature and procedure had a major influence on the popularity of Brontosaurus over Apatosaurus. The AMNH mount was the first reconstruction of this dinosaur ever attempted, and in 1905, it was one of a kind. (The original material Marsh used to describe Brontosaurus was held at Yale, but Marsh never made an effort to publicly display the partial skeleton his crew found at Como Bluff, Wyoming. The specimen, carrying a Brontosaurus name plate and the wrong head, was not reconstructed at Yale until 1931.) The AMNH Brontosaurus mount was the introduction of sauropods to the fascinated public.
William Diller Matthew recounted the process of mounting his museum’s Brontosaurus in an American Museum Journal article and a news item for the Independent. The skeleton was a Frankenstein. The principal part of the mount was an incomplete skeleton found near the Nine Mile Crossing of the Little Medicine Bow River in Wyoming. This one site yielded most of the vertebral column, all the ribs, elements of the shoulders and hips, and a few portions of the limbs from the single sauropod. But quite a few parts were missing, so AMNH paleontologists turned to other specimens. The AMNH Brontosaurus also included various elements from specimens found at Como Bluff and Bone Cabin Quarry, Wyoming, as well as plaster casts made from the Yale Brontosaurus material and other bones already in the AMNH collections.
And, of course, there was a question of the head. No one had ever discovered a Brontosaurus skull articulated or even associated with the rest of the skeleton. (And Earl Douglass’ discovery at Dinosaur National Monument was still four years away.) A skull had to be specially designed for the AMNH mount, and the New York museum followed Yale’s lead.
While all the bones from Marsh’s original Brontosaurus specimen came from Quarry 10 at Como Bluff, there was no skull among the lot. Rather than let the dinosaur go decapitated, however, Marsh identified two skull portions from a more diverse bonebed nearby, known as Quarry 13, as belonging to Brontosaurus. The sections of upper and lower jaws were set with spoon-shaped teeth, and these are the skull portions which make up the head of the famous 1883 reconstruction of the dinosaur Marsh commissioned.
The Como Bluff jaws outlined what the front of the dinosaur’s jaws might have looked like and, assuming that Marsh was correct, indicated that the skull of Brontosaurus was very different from that of Diplodocus. Fortuitously, the same AMNH expeditions to Bone Cabin Quarry which turned up Brontosaurus parts also brought back a complete Camarasaurus skull. Prior to this discovery, no one knew exactly what the head of Camarasaurus looked like. The fact that it seemed to share the spoon-shaped teeth assigned to Brontosaurus meant that the skull was a good model for reconstructing the rest of the missing “thunder lizard” skull. As far as I’m aware, the paleontologists did not consider that the supposed Brontosaurus skull parts, found in a different quarry than Marsh’s original specimen, really belonged to Camarasaurus.
Of course, accumulating all the right bones is just the first step in preparing a mount. Today, huge dinosaur skeletons are the stars of many museums. In 1905, though, such an effort had never been attempted before, and the AMNH paleontologists were not entirely sure how the brontosaur bones should be articulated. Matthew, along with colleague Walter Granger, dissected lizards and crocodiles to investigate how their muscles attached to their limb bones, and used these distant modern analogs to give their Brontosaurus a slightly bow-legged posture.
Mounted an a raised platform, the AMNH Brontosaurus looked like an impressive terrestrial titan. Yet during his study of the bones, Matthew concluded that Brontosaurus was a great amphibious dinosaur. Drawing from the authority of anatomist Richard Owen and paleontologist E.D. Cope, Matthew pointed out that the anatomy of Brontosaurus was so well-suited to life in water that you could tell the approximate depth at which the animal submerged. While the dense, heavy limbs of the dinosaurs acted like the heavy boots of deep-sea divers, Matthew pointed out, the sauropod’s light vertebral column would have been more buoyant. The dinosaur’s back therefore represented a sort of high water line which indicated the depth at which Brontosaurus wallowed in swamps, arcing its long neck to slurp up soft water plants.
Brontosaurus, in Matthew’s estimation, spent life slogging through a warm Jurassic bath. That seemed just as well—the dinosaur’s brain was comically small for its size. This sauropod was not an intelligent, behaviorally complex creature, Matthew argued, but a dim-witted leviathan devoted to a lazy lifestyle. “Hence we can best regard the Brontosaurus as a great, slow-moving animal automaton,” Matthew wrote, “a vast storehouse of organized matter directed chiefly or solely by instinct and to a very limited degree, if at all, by conscious intelligence.”
I am glad that dinosaurs have changed dramatically since Matthew characterized them as idiotic, clumsy piles of flesh. Apatosaurus and the whole rest of the dinosaurian ensemble are far more fascinating now than they were when bound to short and savage lives in steaming jungles and marshes. The true identity of “Brontosaurus” was eventually made clear, sauropods were ushered out of the swamps, butt-brains have been refuted, and paleontologists are able to extract more information about dinosaur lives from old bones than ever thought possible before.
And yet, I still feel some affection for Brontosaurus. This isn’t because I would prefer to see dumb, blunt-headed dinosaurs sloshing through algae-filled ponds, but because the old thunder lizard represented the epitome of true dinosaur-ness when I was a child. The mountain of muscle and bone was a wonderful icon which, in memory, reminds me just how much dinosaurs have changed during the twenty four years since I first saw the sauropod’s bones. I am thrilled that paleontologists sunk Brontosaurus, and the story of the icon’s demise reflects how paleontology has matured from a contest to see who could collect the biggest skeletons to a discipline that is carefully teasing out the secrets of prehistoric lives.
Matthew, W.D. 1905. The mounted skeleton of Brontosaurus. American Museum Journal.V (2), 63-70
Osborn, H.F. 1906. The skeleton of Brontosaurus and the skull of Morosaurus. Nature. 1890 (73), 282-284
Parsons, K. 2001. Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp.1-21