The “Brontosaurus” Between Us

Sisters - dinosaur Late 80sIt’s amazing to hear a small child, one who hasn’t even mastered subject-verb agreement, rattle off a list of her favorite dinosaurs, pronouncing each multisyllabic word perfectly: ty-ran-no-sau-rus rex, ste-go-sau-rus, and tri-cer-a-tops. These dinosaurs joined my daughters’ vocabularies not long after “mama,” “dada,” and “mine.”*

My daughters’ love of dinosaurs brings me back to my own childhood, when one of my favorite books was Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Day of the Dinosaur, published in 1987. I loved the rhymes, the illustrations, and its encouragement of scientific discovery. I managed to find a second-hand copy of it, having lost my copy years ago, and I can’t express how excited I was to revisit:

(1)   Tyrannosaurus, which sometimes “bit off more than it could chew. The armored Stegosaurus was pretty mighty too;” and

Stego v TRex

(2)   Brontosaurus, which was “seventy feet tall. Its name means ‘thunder lizard.’ It was the biggest of them all.”

Brontosaurus

Oops. Nostalgia aside, maybe this book isn’t the best choice for my 21st Century kids, who (a) have learned from the PBS kids show Dinosaur Train, a time travel show full of educational anachronisms, that “Buddy” Tyrannosaurus and “Morris” Stegosaurus did not live during the same period (episode: “A Spiky Tail Tale”) and (b) have never heard of Brontosaurus.

Brontosaurus was a household name for those us raised in the 20th Century, despite the fact that the scientific community had known since 1903 that the dinosaur by that name should have never existed. Brontosaurus is actually Apatosaurus, a confusion that dates to the “bone wars” of the mid-19th Century when paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh (of my alma mater) and Edward Drinker Cope (of my hometown) raced each other to name as many new species of dinosaurs as possible (here’s the NPR story on it).

For some reason, it took about 100 years for the public to drop regular usage of “Brontosaurus,” a change that happened at some point between my childhood and my children’s time.***

Now, my children have a Berenstain dinosaur book for their generation, Dinosaur Dig (2012) by Jan & Mike Berenstain, which deviates dramatically from The Day of the Dinosaur of my generation, but which begins with the same poem:

A special kind of beast
Lived very long ago.
Its different forms and names
Are very good to know.

Among other differences, the newer book contains Apatosaurus, an improvement over the older one. Also, in the illustration, it pits Stegosaurus against Allosaurus, two dinosaurs that did actually co-exist, but the text retains the misconception that Tyrannosaurus could have eaten Stegosaurus for dinner (without needing a time tunnel to do it!): “Stegosaurus had spikes on its tail. It could use them to whack big meat-eaters like Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus.” This isn’t a minor detail: in fact, Tyrannosaurus lived closer to our time (67 million years ago from today) than Stegosaurus lived to Tyrannosaurus (83 million before that).

 Regardless of these inaccuracies, both Berenstain books are fun to read with my kids, and both result in long discussions with my children about reading critically, dinosaur myths, and our ever-changing understanding of these pre-historic creatures. The generational gap between us is nowhere near Brontosaurus-sized (it hardly feels like it exists!) when we have our shared interest in books and dinosaurs to bring us together.

Then and Now (2)

Dino Impression Late 80s

*Actually, only my youngest went through the “mine-itis” stage.

*In the set of three pictures, above, the first is of me at my 6th birthday party (my dad made the stegosaurus cake!), followed by a picture of one of my twins 23 years later at the Natural History Museum in DC, and finally a picture of her sister this year at the Peabody at Yale.

***UPDATE:  But the Brontosaurus may be back! As of April 2015: “A new analysis of dinosaur skeletons across multiple related species suggests that the original thunder lizard is actually unique enough to resurrect the beloved moniker, according to researchers in the U.K. and Portugal.” We’ll see whether other paleontologists replicate the results and agree that the name should apply to a species that is different enough from apatosaurus to warrant its own name. Maybe “Brontosaurus” will (re-)stick.

44 thoughts on “The “Brontosaurus” Between Us

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      1. Thank you! It’s nice to have a blog where I can explore all of my interests (the only requirement for a post is that it has to be book-related, defined broadly).

  4. Aaaahhh! I love this post so freaking much! You in the dino costume is PRICELESS! I get a little sad that brontosaurus isn’t a thing anymore, because it makes my favorite literary pun, Brontë-saurus obsolete. Ah well. Dinosaurs still rule!

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  7. “Tyrannosaurus lived closer to our time (67 million years ago from today) than Stegosaurus lived to Tyrannosaurus (83 million before that).”

    I never really put that fact into perspective until just recently, and it’s because of The Day of the Dinosaur. My three-year-old found a copy of it in our neighborhood Little Free Library, and the T. Rex vs Stegosaurus page made my misinformation detector go “ping.” I didn’t know for sure, but I said to him, “I don’t know if those two dinosaurs lived at the same time,” and we looked it up.

    Geologic time is mind-blowing! Thanks for posting this.

    1. Isn’t that a neat little fact? It sounds like your three-year-old might love dinosaurs as much as my girls do. It’s been nice to share books like “The Day of the Dinosaur” with the next generation, even if it isn’t entirely accurate (it helps to have a good misinformation detector!). Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Jaclyn

    Great post! I, too, grew up loving “brontosaurus” – that was my favorite dinosaur. It always cracks me up, how little kids who stumble over regular English words can pronounce the longest, most complex dinosaur names with no trouble. My husband loves dinosaurs to this day, reads science blogs and fills our peanut in on the latest paleontology news each evening – it’s so cute. She’s going to grow up crazy for dinosaurs, I know. (But oh, that “Dinosaur Train” – I saw it when we visited friends with a preschooler, and I had a headache the rest of the day.)

    1. Ha ha! Yes, Dinosaur Train is very loud! I got used to it. I still like dinosaurs a lot, and one of the books I’m thinking of reading is by the paleontologist who says a few words at the end of each Dinosaur Train episode (“Dr. Scott, the paleontologist”/Dr. Scott Sampson). Has your husband read it? Does he have recommendations for any good up-to-date dino books?

  9. LizK

    Oh great costume! I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid too. Good memories! It’s time for another visit to the Natural History Museum to relive my childhood.

  10. I love your dinosaur costume!!

    It’s pretty amazing how much new information that has been learned about dinosaurs since we all were kids, and it will be interesting to see how much more of it will change later.

    1. Thank you! I loved that costume when I was a kid, but felt embarrassed by the pictures during my teenage years. My parents have a lot of embarrassing pictures of us.

  11. Amira

    great post! im sure the girls could teach me a thing or two about dinosaurs — love the pictures 🙂 and appreciate the crop!

    ~your grateful sister (the one next to you in the costume photo, wearing a giraffe costume that everyone mistook for a bruised banana!)

    1. Thank you! I feel very lucky to have had cakes like that. My father has continued the tradition with his grandchildren, who really enjoy picking out what their next cake is going to be.

    1. Thank you! Yes, dinosaurs are timeless. Have you seen “Dinosaur Train” (PBS Kids)? I had to adjust to the idea of dinosaurs on trains, but it is such a cute show. I have to admit that I watch it with them when it’s on.

  12. I remember my dinosaur stage. It lasted for nearly my entire life, to be honest. I’m still interested in dinosaurs, but not the way I was up until university. I nearly studied palaeontology in university, actually. Kind of wish I had studied it, as well as geology. I would’ve had a much better chance at finding a good job in that field than physics and astronomy. But really, I wouldn’t change a thing, because I wouldn’t have my daughter now, who is just starting to talk. I want to teach her about dinosaurs.

    I always liked Styracosaurus, Parasaurolophus, and Tyrannosaurus.

    1. Sharing dinosaurs with my daughters has been a wonderful experience, and I hope it’s a lovely one for you and your daughter, too. Check out “Dinosaur Train” (PBS Kids) and see what your daughter thinks of it. My youngest, who is 26 months, likes it a lot, as do her older sisters. It took me a bit to adjust to dinosaurs on trains, but it’s a cute show, and it teaches kids a lot.

  13. I remember being in like 4th grade when they started shifting out the use of brontosaurus. It was my favorite dinosaur and I hated the “new” name. Dinosaur Train started airing just as my kids “out grew” PBS Kids. I find it somewhat a shame. My son had a dinosaur stage, but my daughter didn’t. But, she’s currently having a bird stage, which is kind of cool.

    1. I am really glad that my kids have gotten as much exposure to “Dinosaur Train” as they have (it’s one of the few shows they watch in English). It’s a great show, even though it took me a bit to adjust to the idea of dinosaurs on trains! My girls love birds, too, and they really like the connection between birds and dinosaurs. Did your family participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/science-stories/2013summary) in February? It’s an international effort now. My girls enjoy being part of it each year.

        1. We have quite a few birds who visit our feeders in the Winter, but it can be scarce on some days. Part of what I like about the GBBC is that it encourages my children to be attuned to nature and to pay attention. I just noticed that you’re in Ohio, and so you might have some of the same species we have here (eastern PA). You also might be interested in Standing Out in My Field (http://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/field-guides-and-childrens-books/), a great blog I stumbled upon a while back. I write about her coloring book on birds of Central Pennsylvania here (https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/one-two-three-black-capped-chickadees/).

  14. I went through a dinosaur stage too. I remember watching “The Land before Time” which was a cartoon show about dinosaurs. I also remember reading a book about four year old dinosaurs who were bossy. It was called “dinofours” I think. I really liked that they humanized the dinosaurs for that- made them seem less scary so it was okay to like them.

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