Clever Apes: Top 5 dinosaur myths

March 31, 2011

The latest Clever Apes is all about demystifying dinosaurs, and why it seems to be taking popular culture so long to catch up with the science. So, with apologies for spoiling your childhood idylls, here are Clever Apes’ Top 5 Dinosaur Myths:

1) Brontosaurus

We hope you know about this one by now, but brontosaurus is no longer with us. I don’t mean as in extinct – I mean as in never around to begin with. Brontosaurus was kind of a Frankenstein, born of the vagaries of field work. Back in the late 19th Century, Othinel Charles Marsh was in an all-out war with other fossil hunters over who could find the most new dinosaurs. In his haste he “discovered” and named two dinosaurs: first apatosaurus, then brontosaurus. Turns out they were the same dinosaur, just different ages. Furthermore, brontosaurus was missing a head (as long-dead dinosaurs often are), so Marsh kindly gave him one. Only problem was it was the head of a totally different dinosaur, camarasaurus.

Anyway, the myth is widespread enough that the U. S. Postal Service still put brontosaurus in a set of “dinosaur” stamps in 1989. They also added the pterodon, which, of course, is no dinosaur at all.

2) Triceratops (sort of)

Another field mix-up – at least, maybe. Last year paleo-celebrity Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies co-wrote a paper suggesting that triceratops was likely actually a younger version of another dinosaur, the torosaurus. Many dinosaurs, it turns out, went through major skeletal changes over the course of their lives, confusing paleontologists and toddlers the world over. I suppose next they’ll be telling us that piatnitzkysaurus was just a juvenile gorgonops, right? Am I right? OK, just went overboard off the dork boat. Pull it together, Spitzer.

Anyway, when comic Dan Telfer made reference to the dubious triceratops on the last Clever Apes, we swiftly received anguished tweets from @etsysockmonkey, declaring that we’d made her cry and ruined her life. Well, I hate to break it to you, but it turns out the sock monkey is just a juvenile version of the stuffed monchhichi.

Lindsay Zanno of the Field Museum adds another note of comfort: Even though Horner suggests triceratoips and torosaurus are the same species, triceratops was named first, so it wins. Also, she says, it may all turn out to be hooey. 

3) T. Rex stood tall

The iconic image of the T. Rex is of the mighty predator looming large, back upright, puny arm-twigs raised in menacing fashion. I suppose that seemed more imposing than the hunched-over thing we now know it to be. As paleontologist Paul Sereno explains, the T. Rex was much more bird than kangaroo (or dragon, for that matter). Most serious museums get this right now, but I can tell you from personal experience: the chintzy plastic-toy manufacturers have yet to catch up.

4) Stegosaurus had two brains

The idea that dinosaurs had brains the size of a walnut is itself something of a myth, but it appears to be true in the case of the stegosaurus. To compensate, scientists used to suggest the steg had a second brain near its tail – an “ass-brain,” as Dan Telfer put it. The notion came from a suspicious cavity in its spinal column, and the fact that paleontologists couldn’t imagine how the 30-foot long beast could function with a strawberry in its noggin.

But in the last few decades, the second-brain theory has fallen out of favor. Instead, that cavity may have housed a little starch factory, similar to what modern-day birds have.

5) T-Rex and Stegosaurus tussled with each other

Hate to say it, but these two did not cross paths. All the cartoons and coloring books seem to want to throw all the dinosaurs together at the same time. But the Mesozoic dinosaur era lasted about 165 million years, and during that time lots of dinosaurs came and went. The tyrannosaurus and the stegosaurus missed each other by about 80 million years. 

6) (Special BONUS myth) Dinosaurs are extinct 

Wrong! Sucker! The Field Museum's Zanno says, technically, birds are living dinosaurs. So we are still in the dinosaur era. Dinophiles, rejoice!