10 Thundering Facts About Apatosaurus
By Mark Mancini
Apatosaurus suffers from an identity crisis of epic proportions. Even today, many people only know this amazing animal as the Brontosaurus, a name that was discarded 111 years ago. Really, it’s a shame. The real Apatosaurus deserves way more respect for what it was as opposed to what it wasn’t.
1. Scientifically, There’s No Such Thing as a Brontosaurus (But Apatosaurus is Legit)
While exploring Wyoming in 1879, a field crew organized by fossil hunter Othneil Charles Marsh found an impressive dino skeleton which he called Brontosaurus, or “Thunder Lizard.”
Fast forward to 1903. Paleontologist Elmer Riggs discovered that Brontosaurus was really a new species of Apatosaurus (“Deceptive Lizard”), another dinosaur Marsh’s men had discovered. Because the name Apatosaurus was older, it earned seniority, and Brontosaurus officially became an invalid genus.
2. Apatosaurus Was Accidentally Given the Wrong Head
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons
Headless dinos rarely attract tourists. Though Marsh’s original Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus specimen was missing its skull, he believed the creature had a rounded noggin. So museum curators started giving their Apatosaurus mounts artificial heads modeled after a blunt-skulled creature called Camarasaurus. Apatosaurus’ true head (pictured directly above) wouldn’t be identified until the 1970s.
3. Apatosaurus Was Fairly Heavyset
“I’m not fat; I’m just big-boned!” Despite being shorter in length than Diplodocus and Barosaurus—two close relatives that shared its habitat—Apatosaurus had a much beefier skeleton and probably outweighed them.
4. A Long-Standing Myth Claims That Apatosaurus Lived in Swamps
News flash: Sauropods (“long-necked dinosaurs”) could get awfully big. In fact, some scientists briefly wondered if these beasties were too massive to walk about on dry land. Perhaps, it was suggested, they had to wallow in swamps and marshes to avoid collapsing under their own body mass. Today, there’s no reason to support this idea (fossilized track ways prove that sauropods could manage just fine terrestrially), but many keep buying into it anyway.
5. Apatosaurus Had a Weird Neck
This thing’s downright baffling! Apatosaurus, like many reptiles, had large, dangling structures called “cervical ribs” connected to its neck vertebrae. But in this particular dino, they’re abnormally massive—and nobody knows why.
6. It Lived with a Rogue’s Gallery of Predators
One hundred and fifty million years ago, the American west was a pretty wild place. Local carnivores included the 20-foot Ceratosaurus, the 28-foot Allosaurus, and the 30-foot Torvosaurus. As if this weren’t bad enough, smaller predatory dinos like Tanycolagreus, Marshosaurus, and Coelurus were also kicking around. Sheesh…
7. The British Successfully Cloned an Apatosaurus … According to Internet Pranksters
Facebook recently gave everyone a big dose of face-palm fuel when users started denouncing Steven Spielberg en masse for supposedly killing a Triceratops. This wasn’t the first major dinosaur hoax of 2014. Here’s an actual excerpt from a sham article that went viral last March:
Scientists at Liverpool’s John Moore University have successfully cloned a dinosaur, a spokesman from the university said today. The dinosaur, a baby Apatosaurus nicknamed "Spot" is currently being incubated at the University’s college of Veterinary Medicine.
The author(s) even included a picture… of a hairless baby kangaroo.
8. Apatosaurus Inspired one of the World’s First Cartoon Characters
Hand-drawn icons from Mickey Mouse to Homer Simpson owe a lot to an Apatosaurus named Gertie. Initially, the heroes and villains in animated cartoons were mere transplants from pre-existing comic strips. But 1914’s “Gertie the Dinosaur”—conceived by vaudevillian Winsor McCay—featured one of the first original characters created specifically for this exciting new medium.
9. Apatosaurus Might Have Been Even Bigger Than We Imagined…
Last week, a team led by the Museum of Western Colorado finished unearthing a record-shattering Apatosaurus femur. At roughly 6 feet 6 inches long, this magnificent specimen indicates that Apatosaurus could have potentially reached over 80 feet in total length—noticeably longer than previous estimates had suggested.
10. A Vocal Scientific Minority Thinks Brontosaurus Should be Resurrected
There’s one tiny glimmer of hope for all the Bronto fans out there. When the name was demoted, the animal it belonged to was re-dubbed Apatosaurus excelsus. Yet, a few paleontologists now argue that A. excelsus is different-looking enough from the other known Apatosaurus species (A. ajax, A. louisae, and A. parvus) to deserve its own genus. Brontosaurus would therefore be restored after a hiatus that’s lasted since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
Granted, there’s little chance of this actually happening. The vast majority of paleontologists favor keeping A. excelsus right where it is classification-wise. Unless some conclusive evidence against this status quo turns up, that’ll likely never change. Still, perhaps “Brontosaurus” might make a thundering comeback after all…