The Dawn of Brontosaurs

Let us begin with saying that the so-called Bone Wars (1877-92) came down to Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope being massive jerks. It was, essentially, a contest of who could name more genera to boost their own ego. It, therefore, is absolutely scandalous that the two men had dinosaurs named after at least two out of three parts of their names.

This story, however, actually begins about three decades earlier. In 1842, Richard Owen, famous founder of dinosaur taxonomy, named Cetiosaurus, supposedly a giant crocodile-like animal. It wasn’t surprising that Owen then proceeded to dump a bucket of species into Cetiosaurus, especially because he only had vertebrae and whatnot. Most of these are no longer Cetiosaurus.

Mark Witton’s Cetiosaurus crocodile. Adorable.

Gideon Mantell, who hated Owen with a vengeance, took a look at Cetiosaurus in 1850 and saw a land animal, based on a characteristic cavity present in the bones. He renamed these bones Pelorosaurus, not realizing that Cetiosaurus was more or less also the same thing. He didn’t directly refute crocodile superpredator Cetiosaurus.

In 1868, near the lovely town of Bletchingdon, a femur showed up. Soon, vertebrae also showed up – Cetiosaurus vertebrae – and it soon became clear that Cetiosaurus was no marine crocodile. From 1869 to 1870, further excavations revealed three additional skeletons that allowed John Philips and his crew to slowly piece together this enigmatic giant. This new material was named Cetiosaurus oxoniensis.

It was fairly clear by this point that sauropods were extremely dinosaur-like, even though Owen neglected to include Cetiosaurus in his definition of dinosaurs.

Halfway across the world in America, Harry Seeley found some vertebrae with weight-reducing cavities inside them, which he named Ornithopsis, as he thought that they were probably bird vertebrae. He was wrong. They belonged to the same kind of animal as Cetiosaurus. It wasn’t until more skeletons turned up that palaeontologists realized that something was going on.

This is where our dear prickish friend Othniel Charles Marsh comes in. The year is 1877, and the Bone Wars have just started. Marsh finds a semi-complete skeleton of a giant Cetiosaurus-like animal, with hollow vertebrae, which he recognizes finally as being a dinosaur. The animal is named Apatosaurus ajax, the so-called “deceptive lizard of Ajax,” because the vertebrae kind of looked like mosasaurs, which were essentially Owen’s Cetiosaurus crocodile superpredators. It was a giant, lumbering herbivore that roamed the plains of the Morrison Formation during the Jurassic, undoubtedly one of the most imposing animals of its time.

In 1879, Marsh named another similar giant dinosaur, which he named Brontosaurus excelsus – the “noble thunder lizard.” It was fairly complete, but the only thing that was more or less missing was the skull. Of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, the former came out on top – it would take the imaginations of the public by storm for the next several decades. Brontosaurus becomes immortalized in Gertie the Dinosaur, one of the very first animated films.

Marsh’s original reconstruction of Brontosaurus, from Wikipedia. The head is actually a Brachiosaurus.

Problem is, the thing about the Bone Wars is that the intensity of the dick-measuring contest led to a lot of genera named over and over and over again, resulting in a ton of synonyms. Palaeontologist Elmer Riggs saw Brontosaurus as one of these meaningless taxa. In 1903, he sunk Brontosaurus into Apatosaurus.

In view of these facts the two genera may be regarded as synonymous. As the term ‘Apatosaurus’ has priority, ‘Brontosaurus’ will be regarded as a synonym.

-Elmer Riggs, 1903

However, people still loved Brontosaurus.  Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was then the president of the American Museum of Natural History, mounted a complete skeleton (AMNH 460, with legs, feet, and tail filled in from other specimens) as Brontosaurus even though he hated Marsh’s taxa. This skeleton quickly became a hit, serving to establish a lasting impression of Brontosaurus in the public. Charles Knight’s reconstruction of Brontosaurus quickly became famous.

Charles Knight’s Brontosaurus, from Wikipedia.

Even though, for the longest time, Brontosaurus was technically Apatosaurus, this didn’t stop the public from loving it.

References

  • Owen, R. (1841). A description of a portion of the skeleton of the Cetiosaurus, a gigantic extinct saurian reptile occurring in the oolitic formations of different portions of England. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 3, 2: 457-462.
  • Owen, R. (1842). Report on British Fossil Reptiles. Part II. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Plymouth, England.
  • Marsh, O.C. (1877). Notice of New Dinosaurian Reptiles from the Jurassic formation. American Journal of Science 14, 84: 514-516.
  • Marsh, O.C. (1879). “Notice of new Jurassic dinosaurs”. American Journal of Science 18: 501–505.
  • Riggs, E.S. (August 1903). “Structure and Relationships of Opisthocoelian Dinosaurs. Part I, Apatosaurus Marsh”. Publications of the Field Columbian Museum Geographical Series 2 (4): 165–196.
  • Norell, M.A., Gaffney, E.S., & Dingus, L. (1995). Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
  • Taylor, M.P. (2010). Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review. In Richard Moody, Eric Buffetaut, David M. Martill and Darren Naish (eds.), Dinosaurs (and other extinct saurians): a historical perspective.

The Spinosaur’s Dilemma

Last year, the enigmatic look of Spinosaurus was finally revealed. It was a bizarre oddity, an unholy eldritch abomination of weirdness that made fanboys squirm. It was at least semi-aquatic, had a curvy sail, and, at least according to Ibrahim, walked on its knuckles.

Look at the darn thing. Plain weird.

So what’s the obvious thing to do? Obviously, publicize it and make a documentary about it. That’s exactly what National Geographic decided to do not long after the press release. A few weeks ago, I was watching this documentary, titled Bigger than T. rex (absolutely scandalous hyping). It starts off pretty routinely – talking about Stromer’s discovery, the loss of the specimen, the amazing story of how Ibrahim managed to find the man who knew where the dig site was, piecing all of the remains together – but then, an interesting thing happened.

They started talking about the Cretaceous North African Kem Kem-Bahariya ecosystem and how it was essentially an inland sea. Some of the local fauna showed up, and something seemed oddly familiar.


Carcharodontosaurus and Sarcosuchus play tug-of-war. Seem familiar?

Of course. We all remember this exact scene from Planet Dinosaur, where a young Paralititan is on the verge of being torn in two by Sarcosuchus and Carcharodontosaurus. It’s almost an exact match except for the colors and the scenery. Even the texturing is almost the same.

This was strange. At first, being the guy who screams audibly at palaeoart theft, I suspected that good old Nat Geo went and nicked some footage from the BBC. They probably recolored it to make it seem less obvious. But is that really how things would work? Would Nat Geo really put their reputation on the line just to go and save some time? Why did they even change it anyways if it looked so similar?

There was another possibility. Given how poorly detailed the texturing on the Sarcosuchus is, thewoodparable suggested that this could be mere B-roll footage from Planet Dinosaur. It would make sense – it’s an easy way to save money, and because the models are all mildly different, it wouldn’t be a complete ripoff for viewers. Why change all the foilage and scenery, though?


Two morphs of Spinosaurus hunting footage – PD-like and new.

This got more intriguing. In a later scene, Spinosaurus is hunting for Onchopristis, just as in Planet Dinosaur. In the midst of the jump-cuts, there’s clearly both the wibbly-wobbly Planet Dinosaur perspective and another differently tinted version. The Spinosaurus then catches and eats the fish, flipping it as in Planet Dinosaur, but not much similarity after that.

Flipee-dee-floop.

So Nat Geo then went and made its own footage, which, frankly, looks pretty good. Why go through the trouble of recoloring and re-texturing Planet Dinosaur, then?


Maybe?

Take a close look at the Spinosaurus in both documentaries. They’re very similar – down to the claw texture, the spots on the arms, the circle around the eyes, the osteoderms, and the red nasal crest. But the rest of the color scheme – especially on the sail – is completely different. After the fishing scene, there’s a little interaction between Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus while the narrator explains they had different niches. And there’s several scenes that at first glance resemble Planet Dinosaur – but no, the Ouranosaurus carcass is flipped and the angle is different.


No one messes with hungry Carcharodontosaurus. No one.


Carcharodontosaurus don’t want no Spinosaurus snooping around.


Carcharodontosaurus has a lovely Ouranosaurus dinner.

Interestingly, the scenes where both Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus show up have a lot less camera movement.

Just chilling, don’t mind me.

What is going on? Is this blatant plagiarism? Does the BBC have a deal with Nat Geo? If so, why did they even care to modify it? Why are the skins and scenery all different? Well, the end credits offer the long-awaited revelation.


[gasp]

That’s right. The animations in Bigger than T. rex were done by Jellyfish Pictures, the same company that worked on Planet Dinosaur. So now, it all comes together. There was no theft, no footage exchange. What happened was probably that Nat Geo contacted Jellyfish, having seen their impressive work on Planet Dinosaur, and asked them to come up with some footage for the documentary in a few weeks.

But no, that’s not going to happen, because Planet Dinosaur took years. So Jellyfish did what it could, making a new Spinosaurus model, but in the end they had to reuse a ton of their old footage. That’s why it’s weird, jumpy, and inconsistent. In the meantime, Jellyfish didn’t want it to look exactly the same, so what did they do? They retextured everything.

No wonder this documentary isn’t on their website.