The Great Brontosaurus Hoax

Updated May 8, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

by Borgna Brunner

Will the real dinosaur please stand up?
Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus © Joe Tucciarone

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The story of dinosaurs used to be simple. There was once an innocent time when the dinosaur universe could be reduced to a few creatures: basically, Earth was ruled by the terrifying T. rex and that peace-loving vegetarian, the Brontosaurus.

Brontosaurus Unmasked

But the Age of Innocence really ended the day the Brontosaurus, the gentle giant of dinosaurs, was revealed as a fraud.

Brontosaurus was discovered in 1874 by the paleontologist O. C. Marsh. The skeleton Marsh found is still one of the most complete ever. It helped the Brontosaurus become one of the most identifiable and popular of all dinosaurs.

In 1903, however, scientists determined that Brontosaurus fossils were not from a new species, but from a dinosaur already discovered—the Apatosaurus.

For years this news circulated only in the scientific community. The name Brontosaurus continued to be featured on museum labels. The name was not formally removed from the records of paleontology until 1974.

Postal Goof

The bad news about the Brontosaurus, however, was not noticed by the U.S. Post Office, which issued four dinosaur stamps in 1989: Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Pterandon—and Brontosaurus. Public outrage erupted. The Post Office was accused of "fostering scientific illiteracy."

The recall of the stamp was demanded. The media enjoyed the scandal. Imagine not checking for scientific accuracy before issuing thousands of stamps! Why not go ahead and issue Loch Ness monster stamps next!?

Sauropod, Schmauropod

This postal goof was actually not as bad as it sounds. As Steven Jay Gould pointed out in his hilarious essay on the subject, Bully for Brontosaurus, the issue is really just about words: Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus are simply different names for the same dinosaur.

As Elmer Riggs, the scientist who uncovered the duplication, wrote: "As the term 'Apatosaurus' has priority, 'Brontosaurus' will be regarded as a synonym." Usually, preference is given to the first name that was assigned—even if the other name, Brontosaurus, was clearly more popular.

You Say Bronto, I Say Apato

The group clinging to the name Brontosaurus is really not any more wrong than the group who says Apatosaurus. Those who insist on "Apatosaurus," Gould says, have confused scientific truth with a mere technicality:

If you . . . [claim] that our postal service has mocked the deepest truth of paleontology, I will know that you have only skimmed the surface of my field.
["Bully for Brontosaurus"]

In other words, you're pretty smart if you know a Brontosaurus is really called an Apatosaurus, but you're even smarter if you realize it really doesn't make all that much of a difference.

For further reading: Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, by Steven J. Gould.

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