That’s right, the go-to dinosaur of pop culture never existed.
How could such a thing happen? Well, basically, paleontologists are jerks.
Okay, fine. Maybe not. But towards the turn of the 20th century, two very famous paleontologists (O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope) were in a high stakes game of publish or perish1 and racing to publish new dinosaur names. In his rush to publish, Marsh wrote a description of a dinosaur that was a squashed up version of two dinosaurs: an Apatosaurus body, with the skull of a completely different dino.
Two years later, a huge dinosaur skeleton was found. This one Marsh named the Brontosaurus, a.ka. Thunder Lizard!
Unfortunately, it was just a grown up Apatosaurus. With its proper skull.2
Awkward! The first name is the final name. According to science.
Brontosaurus bites the dust, but the name lives on in popular culture.3
There may still be hope for our beloved Triceratops. Science is divided about what is going on with the fan favorite and a lot of new science has come out in recent years.
Most recently, it seems the Tri part of Triceratops, appears to have evolved over time, making the earliest of the Triceratops appear differently than we once thought.
‘Course, they’re herbivores anyway, so while gigantic, the Triceratops were less predator, more…prey. And those horns? Apparently – almost totally ornamental. Triceratops have often been portrayed as fearsome beasts battling the T.rex to their death, probably because of the T.rex tooth marks found on their skeletons. But, now that we know that the T.rex scavenged as often as it fought, scientists believe that the Triceratops may have been a post-mortem meal.
None of this calls into question the actual existence of the awesome dinosaur. But, an earlier report really got science geeks everywhere up in a tizzy. In 2010, John Scanelle was working with Jack Horner. The pair found that it’s possible the Triceratops was actually a juvenile of the larger Torosaurus. This would mean that the horns grew in a very unusual way, but it’s not umpossible. The reason we shouldn’t panic? Triceratops was named earlier. Just like the Brontosaurus being identified as an Apatosaurus, the end result of this scientific re-naming extravaganza is that the Torosaurus would no longer exist.
So all you Torosaurus fans out there, get your t-shirt designs ready!
The Archaeoraptor is just a straight up fraud. National Geographic got totally hoodwinked and, in 1999, announced the finding of one of the earliest flying, feathered dinosaurs. Turns out, instead of a theropod, what they actually had was a mash up of an ancient bird and a dromaeosaur dinosaur. Even at the time the National Geographic was being printed, both Nature and Science (leading peer reviewed scientific journals) had refused to publish the “discovery”. Proving that, while it may be flawed, the peer review process is still better than a freakin’ free for all.
Pterosaurs existed. Soaring over Mesozoic landscapes, swooping for prey – ranging from the size of a sparrow to a full blown airplane. The problem is, they aren’t dinosaurs. No, really. Dinosaurs were a real thing, defined as evolving from two particular clades and all having the same upright stance. While Pterosaurs were flying reptiles, they just weren’t dinosaurs. It’s like Pluto. Pluto exists, it’s just not a planet. It’s a dwarf planet.
Hadrosaurs aren’t a single dinosaur. They are actually a family of duck billed dinosaurs. While one sub-family is crestless, the other has a snorkel like crest that did not allow the dino to either breath under water or snort fire, both solid suggestions at one time or another.5
So far so good, right? Well, the problem arises when you consider the archetypal hadrosaur (give or take the first dinosaur discovered in the United States) the Hadrosaurus foulkii, was the only one of its kind ever discovered and, well, we don’t have its skull. And, it probably didn’t look much like the way it was modelled. Scientists have actually suggested that the entire family needs to be renamed. But, a new detailed exploration of the original skeleton kept the taxonomy alive. At least for another couple of years.
Take home message: keep your eyes peeled for more news about continuing existence of Hadrosaurs.
Featured image: Shutterstock/Jaroslav Moravcik
later called the Bone Wars ↩
The mistake was recognized quite quickly. Identified as early as 1903 and after 1938 Brontosaurus was rarely used in scientific literature but the new name just wouldn’t take in popular culture. ↩
Brinkman, P. (2006) “Bully for Apatosaurus” Endeavour, Vol. 30, Iss. 4, pp. 126-130 ↩