Brontosaurus: A faded star rises again

BeyondSouthWallSo much for being the snob who corrected my friends whenever someone mentioned “Brontosaurus.”

As you may have heard, a group of scientists has proposed restoring the name after concluding the original fossils differed enough from Apatosaurus to constitute a separate genus. I’ll leave it to better writers to explain how this resurrection came about. All I know is I’ve lost the pleasure of tut-tutting writers when they included Brontosaurus in their stories.

Make no mistake: Brontosaurus has appeared in a lot of dinosaur books and movies. It is possibly the most famous dinosaur, running neck to neck with T. rex in terms of a dinosaur name everyone knows. Pull someone off the street and ask that person to draw you a dinosaur, I’m willing to bet most drawings will resemble a Brontosaurus: thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.

Brontosaurus may in fact be the first dinosaur ever to appear in a work of fiction. The 1901 pulp adventure novel Beyond the Great South Wall by Frank Savile is about an expedition to Antarctica that discovers a lost civilization that worships a god named “Cay.” The author includes this footnote after the narrator stumbles upon Cay’s lair:

Lord Heatberslie makes a mistake here. Professor Lessatition’s subsequent researches proved “the god Cay” to be without doubt Brontosaurus excelsus, remains of which have been found in the Jurassic formation of Colorado. It was purely a land animal.

Beyond the Great South Wall was probably the first example of dinosaur fiction. Yes, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth was published four decades before Savile’s novel, but Verne’s tale didn’t include any living dinosaurs. Rather, the famous science fiction author populated his book with mastodons and marine reptiles. (Update: I forgot the 1888 novel A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder may actually be the first science fiction novel with dinosaurs, but a quick search through it didn’t turn up any specific species, so my point stands for now.)

Brontosaurus also was absent in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World, possibly because many of the dinosaurs depicted in the novel were known from fossils discovered in Doyle’s home country of Great Britain, whereas Brontosaurus is an American beast. It is ironic then that Brontosaurus would play a major role in the first film adaptation of the book. The 1925 movie features not only a Brontosaurus fighting an Allosaurus, but the animal is transported to London to go on a rampage through the city—a scenario that was copied by countless other B-movies.

BabySecret1
A scene from the 1985 film Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. Image source.

The animal appears again in the 1933 film King Kong during a frightening sequence in which a group of sailors are trying to cross a lake in pursuit of the giant ape. For sake of plot, Brontosaurus is turned into a flesh-eating monster that flips the sailors’ rafts then picks them off one by one as they swim to shore. One sailor manages to climb a tree only to be eaten by the Brontosaurus, which can grab him because of its long neck.

After that, Brontosaurus faded into the background of most imaginative works about dinosaurs. It usually got a shout out but was never the star, lacking both the fierce weaponry of Triceratops and the predatory habits of T. rex. One exception was the 1953 novel Danger: Dinosaurs! by Richard Marsten, in which a herd of brontosaurs plays a small but important role in the plot. More often than not, any references to the dinosaur were more like this throwaway paragraph in David Gerrold’s 1978 novel Deathbeast:

At first, he thought it was a grounded blimp – then his eyes adjusted to the scale of the thing and he realized it was only a brontosaur. Not dangerous at all – well, not deliberately dangerous. There was the case of that hunter who was eaten inadvertently because the brontosaur’s eyesight is so poor it hadn’t see him in the tree – but that one really didn’t count.

The 1980s saw Brontosaurus rumble into the spotlight once again. The dinosaur played a starring role in the 1985 movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, a film so bad it nearly condemned dinosaur films to extinction. Luckily, the animal’s reputation was salvaged in 1988 with the release of The Land Before Time, an animated film about the adventures of a baby Brontosaurus named Littlefoot.

Brontosaurus didn’t make it into 1993’s Jurassic Park. However, the animal did appear in the 2005 remake of King Kong. The film took place on an island where dinosaurs continued to evolve and thrive after the rest of their kind died off 65 million years ago. According to the tie-in book, the island’s brontosaurs had evolved from earlier sauropod ancestors.

Will Brontosaurus rise again now its status has been restored? Hard to say. Still, it is notable that Jurassic World features Apatosaurus as one of the dinosaurs populating the park. Given the park’s staff have been known to get dinosaur names wrong before, who is to say the dinosaurs are not brontosaurs?

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