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.


  • 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.

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