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