Recapitating Apatosaurus

You may have felt rumblings reverberating through the Internet this week, like the roll of distant thunder. That’s because Brontosaurus might be a valid name again. A new analysis of numerous sauropod specimens suggests that the classic dinosaur possibly had enough unique traits to be distinguished from Apatosaurus, after all.

The longer a dinosaur lives in our imagination, though, the more history the old bones pick up. Stories get tangled up into a new mythology of what the dinosaur means to us. In the case of Brontosaurus, much of it comes down on the sauropod’s head. The “thunder lizard” is sometimes miscast as a chimera – the body of an Apatosaurus with a Camarasaurus noggin.

As with everything Brontosaurus, the real story is intensely complicated. Neither Apatosaurus nor Brontosaurus had skulls when they were named. The features Othniel Charles Marsh used to distinguish the two were in the hips. And, years later, when museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, Field Museum, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History went about mounting their Apatosaurus skeletons – which they often labeled Brontosaurus – sooner or later they had to create mock-up skulls for their impressive saurians. Since Camarasaurus was thought to be a close relative of Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus, a camarasaurish skull seemed a good fit. (As for anything sauropodal, read SV-POW for more details.)

For reasons involving paleontological uncertainty and scientific peer pressure, though, what went overlooked was that the Carnegie’s fossil collector Earl Douglass found a true Apatosaurus skull in 1909. He uncovered the fossil in a Jurassic graveyard that now forms the backbone of Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, and it took almost 70 years before paleontologists realized what Douglass had pulled from the stone. In this video for Dinologue, I cover how that skull was found, lost, and eventually reunited with its ancient owner.

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