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Apologetics Press :: Sensible Science

The Case of the Missing Head
by Brad Harrub, Ph.D. and Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

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Look up the word Brontosaurus in any dinosaur book prior to 1989, and you will see a picture of a gigantic creature possessing an unusually long neck and tail. This animal frequently is drawn with an outstretched neck, munching on leaves in the tops of trees. The only problem is that Brontosaurus—one of the world’s best-known and most widely recognized dinosaurs—never really existed! The bones that were used to “reconstruct” this giant actually were derived from more than one dinosaur. An article published in the April 30, 1999 issue of Science demonstrates just how mistaken evolutionists were about this gigantic creature (Stevens and Parrish, 1999). The report used three-dimensional models of dinosaur skeletons and demonstrated that Brontosaurus kept its head down and was a “ground feeder.” Previously, this animal had been considered a “high browser” (i.e., eating out of treetops), but this new evidence demonstrates that the animal actually was better at placing its head at ground level than at higher elevations. So how is it that several generations of children could have been taught the name and characteristics of this nonexistent dinosaur? Let’s look at the chain of events surrounding the now-famous Brontosaurus (for a more in-depth discussion of these matters, see Thompson, 1997).

In the late 1870s, two paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, were bitter rivals searching for dinosaur skeletons in the western United States. Sadly, on occasion their rush to receive scientific acclaim (in what came to be known as the “Bone Wars”) caused them to get sloppy. Such was the case with Brontosaurus. Marsh was a professor of paleontology at Yale when, in 1877, he discovered in Colorado a juvenile dinosaur without a head. In his scientific article discussing the find, he labeled the creature as Apatosaurus. Later, in 1879, his crew (working at Como Bluff in Wyoming) found a spectacular dinosaur. It was the largest dinosaur ever found up until that time, and was nearly complete. All it lacked was a head, feet, and a sizable portion of the tail. Due to the size difference, and some variances in the way bones had fused, Marsh thought that the second find was an entirely different species. He named it Brontosaurus (which means thunder lizard). Marsh decided to mount the whole skeleton at Yale’s Peabody Museum, but it still needed a head, feet, and a tail. He therefore decided to use feet (which seemed to fit fairly well) that had been found in the same quarry, and he “manufactured” the tail to look like he thought it should appear. Evolutionist and dinosaur expert Robert Bakker speculated on how Marsh decided to use a skull that he had collected from another quarry for Brontosaurus’ head.

Marsh left no notes about how he handled the head-body problem. His thinking might’ve gone like this: “Brontosaurus has the biggest, most massive body, so it should have the biggest, most massive head.” Makes sense. So Marsh rejected a Diplodocus-type head for Brontosaurus because diplos had delicate heads with elegantly tapered snouts. And diplo teeth were incredibly thin and pencil-shaped, hardly the biting apparatus fit for a Thunder Lizard. Instead, he chose the biggest, thickest, strongest skull bones, lower jaws and tooth crowns from three different quarries, concocting what he thought was a Brontosaurus cranium complete with Brontosaurus teeth. The theory seemed so logical that for nearly a century most Brontosaurus reconstructions followed Marsh’s lead (1994, p. 29).

Dr. Bakker interrupted his story about Marsh’s headless skeletons to discuss two different types of brontosaurians—what he termed “Tall Shoulders” and “Whip Tails.” The descriptive terms are fairly self-explanatory. Those in the Tall Shoulder group possessed torsos that were more massive, with much higher shoulders and generally shorter tails. Those in the Whip Tail group possessed much shorter shoulders and much longer tails. These two groups, Bakker suggested, would have “walked differently, fed differently, fought differently.... If you dug up a single piece of backbone, you usually could tell with one glance which of the two tribes the bone belonged to” (1994, p. 30). Furthermore, Bakker declared, “...since Whip Tails and Tall Shoulders used unique blueprints for building body parts, then they must’ve had unique cranial trademarks. One should be able to tell the heads apart with ease” (1994, p. 30).

Unfortunately, Marsh either did not see, or ignored, these differences, and instead used the “massive body/massive head” theory in ordering museum technicians to construct a head for his Brontosaurus. Bakker noted:

To manufacture a head for the Yale Bronto, Marsh had chosen heads and teeth from three Tall Shoulder Clan species. He’d used bits and pieces from Morosaurus, Camarasaurus and Haplocanthosaurus. New York and Pittsburgh had done the same, using most Camarasaurus spare parts for their Brontosaurus heads. All this would have been fine if Brontosaurus itself were a bona fide Tall Shoulder, because most clan members had big teeth and jaws. But bronto wasn’t a Tall Shoulder at all. It was a Whip Tail, a close cousin of Diplodocus (1994, p. 30).

So, picture in your mind a skeleton of a large adult dinosaur, with a skull and feet from another dinosaur, and a tail fabricated by imagination. [This would be the equivalent of the modern-day “jackelope” that taxidermists create by using the body of a jackrabbit and the horns of an antelope or deer.] And imagine how terribly embarrassing it must have been when scientists learned, to put it in the words of one one renowned dinosaur expert, that “although everyone has heard of Brontosaurus, it never actually existed!” (Norman, 1993, p. 168). Even after some of the evidence came to light, Marsh was not alone in promoting this dinosaurian equivalent of a “jackelope.” Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City also had a Brontosaur to mount. After examining Marsh’s Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, he concluded that they were the same animal, and that the first name (Apatosaurus) should take precedence. However, Osborn still believed that the head was right, and so he mounted his skeleton like the one at Yale.

The problem almost was solved in 1909—almost. Financier Andrew Carnegie was disappointed that the museums in other cities had better exhibits than those in the museum of his favorite city, Pittsburgh. He provided the equivalent of $10 million to the museum for the sole purpose of finding a Brontosaurus.

In 1909, Carnegie’s crew found just the right one near Jensen, Utah. It was the largest, heaviest brontosaur ever discovered up to that time, and became known as Apatosaurus louisae (yes, Carnegie’s wife was named Louise!). In addition, workmen at the site had discovered a head a short distance from where the skeleton had been found. The head’s ball joint fit perfectly with the neck’s socket, leading the foreman to believe that they finally had found the head and body of a brontosaur together. But, as Bakker lamented, when the museum technicians began to assemble the brontosaur for public viewing, they rejected the head as being far too small for the body.

Unfortunately, when the specimen was shipped back to Pittsburgh, the savants poured cold water on the foreman’s ideas. “No, no, no,” they said emphatically. “It can’t be a Brontosaurus head. It looks too much like a Diplodocus head!” That’s right. The head found with Louise’s bronto was a perfectly good head from the diplo family, just slightly bigger than that of the average Diplodocus carnegiei. That’s why the Pittsburgh professors refused to believe it was a Brontosaurus head: The tradition of using big, boxy cam or haplo heads was too strong. So the head sat forgotten on a basement shelf for forty years until [Jack] McIntosh got it out, dusted it off and reunited it with its rightful Brontosaurus body at last (1994, p. 33).

In 1915, Earl Douglas of the Carnegie Museum entered the picture to try and unravel some of the confusion. He worked at the Carnegie Quarry in Utah (now known as Dinosaur National Monument). While there, he managed to find an Apatosaurus skull just a few feet away from the neck of an Apatosaurus skeleton. His finds also possessed feet and a tail, and so for the first time scientists finally had a complete picture of what the animal looked like. Douglas teamed with Walter Holland, director of the Carnegie Museum, and began the process of mounting the Apatosaurus skeleton. However, Dr. Osborn was so convinced that Brontosaurus possessed the other type of skull that he “dared” Holland to mount that head on the Apatosaurus. Lacking sufficient courage, Dr. Holland decided to mount the skeleton headless. After his death, an old-style Brontosaurus head (which actually was the head of a Camarasaurus) was placed on the skeleton, thus ensuring that the wrong head remained on the Apatasaurus skeleton for additional 40 years. [Ironically, all the while the correct head was sitting in a museum storage room.]

Eventually, in the late 1950s John S. (“Jack”) McIntosh and David S. Berman began to reexamine all the field notes and broken pieces of skull fragments from the sites of the initial finds. They found that the skull fragments identified as Brontosaurus actually were those of Camarasaurus. In 1975, Jack McIntosh of Yale published his research, showing that the heads on the Brontosaurus exhibits in museums around the world were completely wrong. Marsh had erred in his assumptions, and, following his lead, so had his colleagues for the next hundred years. As Bakker went on to note:

Not only did Brontosaurus have the head of the wrong species, it had the head of the wrong genus, and not only the wrong genus but the wrong family. And not only the wrong family, but the wrong family of families. In fact, the head given to Brontosaurus for a hundred years was just about as wrong as you could get and still be within the grand order of brontosaurians. To make a mistake of the same magnitude today, you’d have to put the head of a giraffe on the body of a goat (1994, p. 29).

Marsh no doubt meant well. And his logic seemed sound. But the bottom line is that from 1879 until 1975, museums had the wrong dinosaur head on the wrong dinosaur body, because their assumptions were invalid and their logic was unsound. A century has passed since the initial find of this animal, and additional knowledge of the true anatomy, posture, and feeding habits of this giant creature is just coming to light. Hopefully, the lesson of the Brontosaurus brouhaha has not been missed. There is a vast difference between the actual evidence and what evolutionists speculate “might” be true. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?


Bakker, Robert (1994), “The Bite of the Bronto,” Earth, pp. 26-33, November.

Norman, David (1993), “A to Z of Dinosaurs,” Dinosaurs (Durham, CT: Atlas Editions Partworks).

Steven, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish (1999), “Neck Posture and Feeding Habits of Two Jurassic Sauropod Dinosaurs,” Science, 284:798-800, April 30.

Thompson, Bert (1997), “Special Issue: Questions and Answers,” Reason & Revelation, 17:65-69, September.

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