Brontosaurus

For adults, childhood is a land of memory. It lives in a solipsistic world, full of treasured pets, long lost friends, and foolish adventures we somehow survived. There are some darker memories, to be sure, but most of us have a collection of prized bits of our past that somehow still define our inner selves.

Sadly, the world can sometimes conspire to damage those cherished artifacts. Take, for instance, dinosaurs. Are there any kids who didn’t fall in love with dinosaurs? Don’t they still live inside us?

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, there were two rich Americans who decided to make their names in the burgeoning new field of paleontology: Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Originally cooperative colleagues, by the end of what became known as “The Bone Wars,” they were bitter enemies who sacrificed pretty much everything in attempts to surpass each other. Along the way they both went broke while each dragged his institution, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (Cope) and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale (Marsh) into highly embarrassing bouts of bad publicity.

Paleontology began in Europe, with the English and the French making the early discoveries. America was considered to be very much on the periphery. But by the middle of the nineteenth century people were beginning to realize that the United States had its own fossil beds, and pretty rich ones, too.

And that began the conflict. Gentlemen paleontologists weren’t going out and digging holes themselves. Instead, they relied on quarrymen and road builders to contact them whenever a new discovery was made. Getting there first meant publishing first. The temptation was irresistible.

Apparently Marsh struck the first blow. Cope took him to his best marl pit to show him some new discoveries. Marsh took some of the operators aside and bribed them to deliver the next finds to him. The war was on. Pretty soon each was poaching the other, with bribes all around.

Up to this point it was a more or less courteous professional rivalry. Each had money and each was in a mad race to get the most specimens, identify them, and rush to print. Cope was faster, but Marsh more careful. Each probably thought the other underqualified.

Then Cope received a collection of bones for re-assembly that looked like a marine reptile. It was peculiar in having an amazing number of vertebra. Cope painstakingly assembled them into two arrays, the short one for the neck and the longer one for the tail. Cope saw that the vertebra on each looked opposite from what was “normal,” so he dubbed his new animal and its (presumed) family Streptosauria or “Turned Saurians.”

He rushed to print and added a picture of his new find in a textbook. According to legend, only then did he call Marsh to come have a look at his great new discovery. Marsh looked it over and realized that Cope had it backwards: The long section was the neck and the short section the tail. It was a perfectly standard Plesiosaur.

Humiliated, Cope spent an immense amount of money trying to buy back all copies of the text with its disastrous picture. From that moment on, the feud was highly personal. The war was on, and it would last from 1877 to 1892.

The battles quickly became national. The West of America was being settled and lots of excavating was going on. Pretty soon word was coming to New Haven and Philadelphia about fabulous fossil beds in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Cope and Marsh began sending out parties of diggers to take over the latest beds and lock them out from their rivals. Speed became a premium so they began using the latest technology to speed the process: dynamite. It was said that whenever one man’s crew moved on to the latest bed, they destroyed any fossils they had to leave behind just to keep it out of the other’s hands.

It wasn’t very gentlemanly, nor was it terribly respectful of the artifacts. But it was successful.   Huge boxes of bones began to fill the labs of both men. Whole crews were needed to help identify and assemble the bones. Money poured out.

Of course, few of the skeletons were anything near complete. Cope and Marsh had to try and identify each new specimen from the fragments that arrived.   Often enough, reflecting the nature of the bone beds and the inexpertise of their field crews, fossils from different animals were all mixed together.

It was a situation just about guaranteed to produce errors, and produce them it did. The two men identified over 142 new species of dinosaurs. Today that number has been reduced to 32.

Still, they identified some of our childhood’s favorites, like the Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus.

In the long run, it was Marsh who was the more accurate and more of his identifications have lasted. But it wasn’t easy. One time he received parts of a specimen that was so huge and so frustrating that he named it Apatosaurus, meaning “Deceptive Lizard.”

Then, since he’d had so much fun with the first one, he received the fossils of yet another huge, plant-eating dinosaur. I guess he’d worked off his frustration in naming the Apatosaurus, because he named this one Brontosaurus, “Thunder Lizard.” It, too, took its place as one of the favorite dinosaurs of everyone’s childhood.

Sadly, Marsh had goofed again. This new animal was not, in fact another species. It was a smaller version of the animal he disliked so much, the Apatosaurus.

Let’s face it. Apatosaurus is an ugly name and knowing it means “Deceptive Lizard” doesn’t help. Brontosaurus, on the other hand, rolls wonderfully on the tongue and I remember being awed visiting the Natural History Museum, walking alongside its huge skeleton, and thinking how much the Brontosaurus deserved its name.

Alas, it was not to keep it. I was trained as a scientist and I suppose I have to respect the judgement of the experts who have erased the Brontosaurus from the books, along with our ninth planet, Pluto. But when I was a kid I’d never heard of the Apatosaurus. Now they tell me the Brontosaurus never existed; what I saw was really an Apatosaurus. I guess that’s true.

But, darn it, the Brontosaurus was part of my childhood, and I miss him.

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