Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed Even if you knew that, you may not know how the fictional dinosaur came to star in the prehistoric landscape of popular imagination for so long. The story starts 130 years ago, in a time known as the "Bone Wars."
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Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed

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Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed

Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember in the opening credits of "The Flintstones" when Fred slides down the tail of that very large dinosaur, the one from the late Jurassic age?


ALAN REED: (as Fred Flintstone) Yabba-dabba-do.

RAZ: Or if you don't remember that, how about the same-looking dinosaur in this scene from "Jurassic Park"?


SAM NEILL: (as Dr. Grant) It's a dinosaur.

RAZ: OK. Here's a better description of that dinosaur, and let's just keep the music in for a moment.

MATT LAMANNA: That's about 80 feet long, stands on four, huge, massive legs - something like Greek columns - has a long neck and a small head, was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived about 150 million years ago.

RAZ: So that is Matt Lamanna.

LAMANNA: And I'm a dinosaur paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

RAZ: And when we caught up with him this past week at the museum, he was standing in front of a skeleton of that very dinosaur he just described. And the plaque in front of it, what does it say it's called?

LAMANNA: The sign in front of it says - it's called Apatosaurus.

RAZ: Apatosaurus. Ever heard of it? Perhaps, like us, you thought Brontosaurus. Well, it turns out there is no such thing. Try this. Go to Google and look for the Wikipedia entry for Brontosaurus. There is none. You're forced to the Apatosaurus entry. Now, the story of why that is goes back almost 130 years to something paleontologists refer to as the Bone Wars.

LAMANNA: Well, the Bone Wars were a period in the early history of paleontology here in the U.S., and they're the name given to the competition between a Yale paleontologist named O.C. Marsh and his bitter rival, Edward Drinker Cope, a Philadelphian paleontologist. Their dislike for one another and their scientific ambition led them to race dinosaur names into publication and to, you know, to name multitudes of species mostly to try to outdo the other one.

RAZ: And they were - I mean, it wasn't just a friendly rivalry. I mean, this was a very - this was like a deadly rivalry.

LAMANNA: It was. It was an unfriendly rivalry, definitely. There are stories of either Cope or Marsh telling their fossil collectors to smash skeletons that were still in the ground just so the other guy couldn't get them. There were definitely back and forths in newspapers, some back and forth in the scientific literature as well. So it was absolutely a bitter, bitter rivalry.

RAZ: So anyway, in the heat of this competition, Marsh discovered the skeleton of a dinosaur he dubbed the apatosaurus.

LAMANNA: And two years later, his fossil collectors that were working out West sent him a second skeleton that he thought belonged to a different kind of dinosaur that he named brontosaurus.

RAZ: So that was a mistake. But a few years later...

LAMANNA: A few years later in 1903...

RAZ: A third paleontologist figured this out, that they were the same animal.

LAMANNA: And so because the name Apatosaurus is older, it's the one that gets used.

RAZ: And that was it. Scientists already knew in 1903 that there was no such thing as a brontosaurus. But a full reconstruction of the apatosaurus wasn't completed until 1979 because paleontologist O.C. Marsh made another mistake a century earlier.

LAMANNA: When he published his reconstruction, no skull had ever been found attached to a body of the animal that we now call apatosaurus. So when Marsh went to publish a reconstruction of this animal in 1883, he used the head of another dinosaur to complete the skeleton.

RAZ: Now, one thing you are not saying, which is that the dinosaur you are standing in front of actually had the wrong head for a long time, right?

LAMANNA: Yes. That's correct. Yeah. It did have another dinosaur's head on it for many, many years.

RAZ: It turns out paleontologists didn't realize that the skeleton had the wrong skull because very few well-preserved apatosaurus skulls had ever been found.

LAMANNA: And it stood that way from 1932 to 1979. So almost 50 years.

RAZ: Yeah, but brontosaurus has been used, like, up until just a few years ago.

LAMANNA: Well, brontosaurus has been used up until a few years ago definitely in the public eye. And why that is, I'm not totally sure, but I think it has something to do with the nature of the name brontosaurus itself. Brontosaurus is a, you know, it means thunder lizard. It's a big, evocative name for one of these huge, you know, long-necked dinosaurs, whereas the apatosaurus means deceptive lizard. It's quite a bit more boring.

RAZ: I bet "The Flintstones" had a lot to do with it, though.


REED: (as Fred Flintstone) Yabba-dabba-do.

LAMANNA: You know, that could well be. Definitely. You know, the idea of bronto burgers may have perpetuated the idea of brontosaurus in the public's eye. Absolutely.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) From the town of Bedrock...

RAZ: That's Matt Lamanna with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. You can see a photo of that apatosaurus from 1934 with the wrong skull at our website,


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) When you're with the Flintstones you'll have a yabba-dabba-do time...

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