10 Facts About Camarasaurus


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If you’re reading this, odds are you already know all about last week’s big Brontosaurus story. The dino’s famous name had been deemed scientifically illegitimate since 1903, back when Teddy Roosevelt still lived on Pennsylvania Avenue and the World Series was a brand-new spectacle. Still, no demotion could stop Brontosaurus from capturing the public’s imagination—even The Wizard of Oz (1939) mentions it in song. So, when a recent scientific paper argued that the name ought to be reinstated after a 112-year exile, fossil fans jumped for joy.

Today’s featured dinosaur played a minor role in the notorious and confusing Brontosaurus saga. Please don’t hold that against it.

1. For a Long-Necked Dino, Camarasaurus Bones Are Unusually Common.

Remember Brachiosaurus, the giant leaf-gobbler that made your eyes pop when you first saw Jurassic Park? Although it must have been every bit as majestic in real life, scientists know relatively little about this creature. Brachiosaurus fossils are scarce, and we’ve yet to find a skeleton that isn’t missing significant chunks. Sadly, many other sauropods (“long-necked” dinos) are in the same boat.

Luckily, though, Camarasaurus isn’t one of them. In fact, here in North America, it’s the most commonly-found dinosaur from the late Jurassic period (160-142 million years ago). Paleontologists have recovered numerous adult and juvenile specimens, including a few skeletons that are complete.

2. Its Name Means “Chambered Lizard.”

IJReid, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Camarasaurus’s spine is rife with hollow chambers. In theory, these would have both reduced its weight and connected to a series of air sacs that helped the beastie breathe more efficiently (today, birds use a similar system).

3. A Scavenged Camarasaurus Trio Gave Paleontologists the Chance to Play Jurassic CSI.

Between 1997 and 2004, the remains of three Camarasaurus were excavated from a quarry in northeastern Wyoming. But that’s not the cool part. What’s truly remarkable is the curious “shallow pits” that had been carved into their bones. Very similar calling cards are left by 21st century dermestid beetles, which can pick skulls clean. Given what forensic science knows about these bugs and how their feeding habits slowly alter bones, paleontologists deduced that one particular Camarasaurus died around five weeks before the other two.

4. One of These Things Attended the Texas Centennial Exposition.

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Six million people turned up at an unforgettable 1936 expo to join the Lone Star state in celebrating its 100th birthday. Texas received a helping hand from the Smithsonian, which lent out fossil preparators Norman H. Boss and Gilbert F. Stucker. Upon arrival, the dynamic duo spent nearly five months touching up a newfound Camarasaurus skeleton they’d brought along inside protective field jackets. That mounted beauty went on display (along with some lovely paintings) at the Dallas Federal Building before getting shipped back to our nation’s capital.

5. Camarasaurus Had a “Powerful but Inflexible Neck.”

So say dino experts Eberhard Frey and John Martin. Using biomechanical principles, these two analyzed several different sauropods and found that—given the shape of its vertebrae—Camarasaurus had a fairly stiff, muscular neck.

6. It’s No Stranger to Naming Debates.

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Wanna name a dinosaur? Make sure nobody’s beaten you to the punch. “Morosaurus lentus” used to be considered a proper dino name, but has since been discarded because we now know that the animal was really just a species of Camarasaurus. On the other hand, another species—Camarasaurus lewisi—looks pretty distinctive. Hence, some say that it deserves a separate genus and should be rebranded “Cathetosaurus lewisi.”

7. A Cryptic Code Was Scribbled Over Some Big Apple Camarasaurus Bones.

Although Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) was a great scientist, his record-keeping skills left a bit to be desired. He scrawled letters and numbers on some Camarasaurus fossils now stored at NYC’s American Museum of Natural History; each marking corresponded to a set of dig site sketches so that future generations could know exactly where each bone had been found. But Cope later sabotaged his own work when he threw away those all-important documents. A few copies have surfaced since then, but not enough to explain every character.

8. One Early Paleontologist Thought it Gave Birth to Live Young.

Nurse sharks, anacondas, and many other animals develop eggs that never leave their mothers’ bodies. When the big day comes, the young hatch inside the female and emerge from her fully-formed. In 1883, after finding an adult Camarasaurus with a baby nearby, armchair dino expert Othneil Charles Marsh (1831-1899) wondered if the critter had done something similar. Intriguing as this idea might sound, there’s absolutely no evidence for it and, indeed, plenty to the contrary. After all, sauropod nests lined with hard-shelled, unopened eggs aren’t exactly rare.

9. Brontosaurus Was Inaccurately Given a Camarasaurus-Like Skull by Artists & Museum Curators.

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On a fateful 1879 expedition, Marsh’s men found a headless new dinosaur in the rock beds of Wyoming. This was a massive skeleton; the animal, when alive, must have shaken the ground with every step. So, Marsh named it “Brontosaurus” or “thunder lizard.” While future finds would later prove him wrong, Marsh believed that his new monster was closely akin to Camarasaurus. Therefore, he reasoned, Brontosaurus’ missing noggin must’ve been blunt and Camarasaurus-esque.

We’ve since learned that members of the group to which Brontosaurus belongs have narrow, vaguely horse-shaped skulls. But before that revelation occurred, museums spent several decades reconstructing it with stand-in heads modeled after Camarasaurus.  

10. There’s a Camarasaurus Resting In Situ at Dinosaur National Monument.

If you’re even remotely interested in dinosaurs, fossil-hunting, or the history of life, hit the road and check this place out. Here, a roofed exhibit hall surrounds an impressive rock face containing roughly 1500 undisturbed Jurassic bones, including a great Camarasaurus head and neck. Needless to say, seeing this 149-million-year-old cemetery in person is an experience you’ll never forget.