During the latter half of the 1980s, when I was just becoming acquainted with dinosaurs, "Brontosaurus" was just on its way out. A few of my books depicted the lumbering dinosaur, and a few museums still had the wrong heads on their skeletons, but the images of slow, stupid Brontosaurus were slowly being replaced by Apatosaurus. By the time the U.S. Postal Service issued a Brontosaurus postage stamp in 1989, dinosaur fans were quick to point out that the animal was called Apatosaurus and that the old name had been tossed in the taxonomic dustbin.
Paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized that Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were one in the same in 1903, and most paleontologists quickly agreed that he was correct. So why did Brontosaurus hang around for another 80 years? As Paul Brinkman noted in his retelling of the events, museums like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and even the Field Museum in Chicago—Riggs' academic home—kept using the name Brontosaurus for their skeletons. It was not until 1979, when the correct skull of Apatosaurus was finally found, that the title Apatosaurus began to gain some popularity. Paleontologists may have abandoned Brontosaurus by the early 20th century, but it lived on in the public imagination, and this dinosaur remains a fan favorite.
After asking "Were you inspired by a dinosaur?" earlier this week, my friend Scicurious responded that Brontosaurus sparked her interest in science, although she was disheartened to learn that her different Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus models actually represented the same dinosaur:
So you can imagine my horror when I found out that was not a brontosaurus. It was an apatosaurus. I think it was some older know-it-all kid who told me. I didn’t believe it. I read they were the same and I STILL didn’t believe it. People were lying to me. Everyone knew brontosaurus and apatosaurus weren’t the same!!! My model of brontosaurus had a smooth chin. Apatosaurus had a floppy chin like a turkey and some sort of fleshy crest. TOTALLY DIFFERENT (my 7 year old mind probably never figured on the improbability of a floppy chin getting fossilized). Besides, brontosaurus was awesome!!! Apatosaurus was for losers. Brontosaurus sounds better, right? Right??!
It's hard to compete with the evocative name and famous image of Brontosaurus, and others agreed. When Scicurious and I started talking about the "thunder lizard" on Twitter, Ed Yong cast his vote for Brontosaurus, adding the hashtag #alwaysBrontosaurustome. Maria Wolters responded with "Is it wrong that I hear Billy Joel singing that hash tag?" (referring to his hit "She's Always a Woman"), which inspired Scicurious to write an impromptu ode to everyone's favorite, long-lost dinosaur:
“Always Brontosaurus to me”
You were my favorite sauropod my vegetarian with heavy plod and then I found out something odd you disappeared and I am left aloooooone…
Who’s this apatosaurus guy? he’s got those same thunder thighs and that long neck that reached the skyyyy but he’s not YOUUUUUU….
CHORUS! For you’re always Brontosaurus to meeee the greatest dino that there will ever beee You’re the only Sauropod that I neeeeeeed brontosaurus, always Bronty to meeeee
Zen Faulkes, who also responded to my question with a post of his own about dinosaur model kits, also contributed his own ditty "Bronto is Everywhere," though I'm not so sure that Brontosaurus had a role in creating Stonehenge.
Part of me wishes that Brontosaurus was a real dinosaur and not a synonym for Apatosaurus. Even if the plodding creature with the Camarasaurus-like head I grew up with never existed, Brontosaurus is such a fantastic name that it seems a shame not to use it. (Brontomerus, "thunder thighs," is wonderful, too, but this Utah sauropod can't replace my memories of Brontosaurus.)
According to some paleontologists, there is a slim chance Brontosaurus will make a return someday. Robert Bakker and others have argued that the skeleton originally called Brontosaurus—known as Apatosaurus excelsus today—is distinct enough from the bones of the dinosaur Apatosaurus ajax to merit its own genus. The majority of paleontologists continue to use Apatosaurus for both species—they are very similar to each other—but there remains a sliver of a possibility that future, in-depth research might bring Brontosaurus back. For now, the science is still on the side of Apatosaurus, but imagine the celebration if Brontosaurus returned to us.
BRINKMAN, P. (2006). Bully for Apatosaurus Endeavour, 30 (4), 126-130 DOI: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2006.10.004