Brontosaurus Is the Most Amazing Dinosaur Who Never Existed

I can’t stay away from dinosaurs. Any excuse is a good one if I can spend a few hours wandering among their lovely skeletons in the museum halls. That's how I encountered this Brontosaurus, magnificent but incorrect, drawn from another era in paleontology.

On a cool November day in 2010, I decided to play hooky from the annual Science Writers conference, held that year in New Haven, Connecticut, and wander over to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. How could I resist? The dusty dinosaur exhibit was a monument to the dinosaurs I grew up with, including the one and only skeleton that could truly lay claim to the name “Brontosaurus.”

As much as I admire modern museum exhibits, populated by new or new-ish reconstructions of classic dinosaurs, I’m just as fond of galleries full of tubby, tail-dragging monstrosities. It’s a way of traveling back in time, to see dinosaurs as the great paleontologists of preceding generations did. Up to a point, anyway. Othniel Charles Marsh – the paleontologist for whom the museum was created by his rich uncle George Peabody in 1866 – crankily rejected the idea of putting dinosaur skeletons up for public display, lest the high science of bone-reading be reduced to puerile spectacle. The museum only put its dinosaurs out for exhibit after 1925, more than two decades after Marsh’s death, with the dedication of a new space to hold their old bones.

Those dinosaurs stand in a stiff, static formation in just the same was as they did in the early 20th century, looking especially drab under the yellow lights and against the gray carpets and walls. The dinosaurs almost seem camouflaged in the drab confines of the hall. Little wonder, then, that I wasn’t so much immediately drawn to the dinosaurs, as to Rudolph Zallinger’s vivid portrayal of comically-outdated dinosaurs plastered against the right wall – The Age of Reptiles.

I had seen reproductions of Zallinger’s famous march through prehistoric time quite often. It’s the quintessential image of 20th century dinosaurs, completed in 1947. What I didn’t know was that all these images were derived from a smaller-scale practice version of the fresco secco that Zallinger had drawn up beforehand. I had never seen the original, beautifully-detailed mural. I strolled along the timeline, experiencing a strange variation of déjà vu as I soaked in the intricacies of a familiar image that I hadn’t seen in its original form.

Brontosaurus Is the Most Amazing Dinosaur Who Never Existed

Zallinger’s “Brontosaurus” (pictured at the top) was the most striking of all. In the miniature version of the mural and derivative prints, the great swamp-dwelling sauropod is draped in slightly wrinkled charcoal skin, as if the dinosaur had borrowed an elephant’s coat. But the sauropod as finally restored on the wall by Zallinger is illustrated in amazingly delicate detail and with a little more vitality. The dinosaur’s yellowish underbelly stands out from the scaled sheen of the sauropod’s back, against which the lighter blue of the dinosaur’s eye gives the herbivore a concentrated gaze on something unseen on the Jurassic landscape. By modern standards, Zallinger’s “Brontosaurus” is ridiculously wrong, but his tribute to the sauropod is lovingly illustrated and is the most beautiful rendition of the cherished dinosaur ever created.

The osteological inspiration for Zallinger’s sauropod stood right behind me – the one, and only, “Brontosaurus.” Excavated by Marsh’s field crew from Como Bluff, Wyoming, the Jurassic fossils are the very ones that Marsh himself used to coin the name “Brontosaurus” in 1879. Although the skeleton as it is now is a bit of a mishmash. The dinosaur is locked into the same pose it’s maintained since 1931, but with the name Apatosaurus and a replica of the dinosaur’s proper skull – a cranium originally discovered in 1910 in Utah, misidentified in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s collections, and not rediscovered until 1975. The bones are not just an approximation of a once-living animal. Yale’s Apatosaurus, née “Brontosaurus”, is a paleontological history lesson, recording over a century of fossil investigation and debate.

Together, the skeleton and Zallinger’s restoration embody “Brontosaurus” as I met the dinosaur as a child. The sauropod was a dumb, benevolent monster that seemed little more than a biological check on the population growth of duckweed and algae. From the tip of the dinosaur’s blunt skull to the end of the sauropod’s drooping tail. “Brontosaurus” was the epitome of dinosaurian majesty, excess, and ridiculousness – a fantastic evolutionary joke that I could never have imagined had I not known that such an animal already existed.

But I don’t want “Brontosaurus” back. I miss the name – the title of the “thunder lizard” is wonderfully evocative – but not the animal itself.

Brontosaurus Is the Most Amazing Dinosaur Who Never Existed

Peabody Museum Brontosaurus photo by Mark Ryan

As I stood beneath the skeleton, imagining the organs, muscles, and skin of the great dinosaur, it was Apatosaurus and not “Brontosaurus” that came back to life. The Jurassic titan as we now know the animal is even more marvelous – an 80 foot long animal with a raised tail, a complex system of air sacs permeating its skeleton, and which snarfed down plants from high and low to fuel its warm-running physiology. The dinosaur was so wonderful that paleontologists are still puzzling over the basics of its biology – such as how an animal without molars could break down vast quantities of food and the cardiovascular details of how the dinosaur kept blood pumping from heart to head. The image of “Brontosaurus” has been trampled down by Apatosaurus, a symbol of the complexity of dinosaur biology rather than reptilian largesse.

And yet we can’t really understand Apatosaurus without “Brontosaurus.” The discarded imagery that was so intimately attached to the thunder lizard is a baseline for how we used to think of dinosaurs, when paleontologists could often do little more than speculate about the actual lives of the animals.

Brontosaurus Is the Most Amazing Dinosaur Who Never Existed

If we forget “Brontosaurus”, we not only push aside history, but we can easily forget the tangled and circuitous process of science itself. The bones of the dinosaur are the same as they have been for the past 150 million years or so, but how we understand, interpret, and investigate them is a tale of human curiosity and discovery. That’s where the romance of paleontology truly lies. Finding bones in the badlands is exhilarating, but wondering how such bizarre creatures actually lived – and how they influenced the evolution of our own mammalian ancestors that scurried under their feet – is what keeps paleontologists searching for vestiges of Mesozoic history.

After wandering among the hall’s other displays and exhibits for a while, I went back to “Brontosaurus” for one last look. Wrapped up in that one skeleton are tales of prehistoric life and scientific discovery, stories built upon stories. Old and outdated, yes, but still with so many lessons to share. And that is why the poor dinosaur is the mascot of My Beloved Brontosaurus. Any ode to the new dinosaurs I’m entranced by had to start with the specter of the dinosaurs that I used to know. Dead dinosaurs do tell tales.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, which is out today.

YouTube clip from the audiobook, read by Brian Switek.