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The Verge Review of Animals: the Apatosaurus

A cautionary tale of post-extinction humiliation

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

You know you’re famous when you’ve been dead for millions of years and everyone still knows your name. Just ask the Apatosaurus, which was, at 75 feet snout-to-tail, longer than a city block, and weighed at least 16 metric tons, which is about two African elephants, plus a third of another elephant.

The Apatosaurus was one of the largest animals ever to trod upon this dumb space rockHonestly, it’s hard to know a ton, much less 16 tons, about something that’s been dead for more than 100 million years. Usually biologists can observe species in their habitats, get a sense of how the animal interacted with it — and, yes, know exactly what the animal looks like. But Apatosaurus is gone now, and so too is its ancient habitat, so we’re relying on guesswork and paleontology.

apatosaurus

Check out the size on that thing. (Tadek Kurpaski/Wikimedia Commmons)

Sure, they call it a "false lizard" — that’s what the name means — for its size. (You may as well just call me False Liz-ard Lopattosaurus and get it over with. Some scientific research shows that we are fond of things that remind us of our own names, and that is almost certainly the case here.) But it’s also genuinely worthy of consideration: the Apatosaurus was one of the largest animals ever to trod upon this dumb space rock.

In 1909, the skull and full skeleton of an Apatosaurus were found in the Morrison formation in what is now Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. While the Apatosaurus was one of the first dinosaurs to be mounted by archaeologists, it also has the dubious honor of having had the wrong head attached to its skeleton. Originally, there was a Camarasaurus head — and the proper skull wasn’t mounted until 1979.

What, you think because you’ve been dead for millennia, no one can possibly humiliate you?

Death does not preclude humiliation There is a level of existential confusion and ignominy in Apatosaurus’ scientific classification that I would relate to even were I named something else, I expect. Apatosaurus may or may not be distinct from another species, Brontosaurus, which was first named in 1879 by paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. Apatosaurus was first described by Marsh in 1877. In 1903, however, another paleontologist — Elmer Riggs — suggested the two were the same thing. Since Apatosaurus was named first, Brontosaurus was relegated to the scrapheap of history until last April — when paleontologists suggested that the two might be separate after all. Both are big, but Apatosaurus is bigger.

What do we know about the Apatosaurus? It lived during the Jurassic period — about 155 million years ago to 150 million years ago — and was probably stockier than its other sauropod relatives, Diplodocus and Barosaurus. Despite the fact that it’s not as long as either, its skeleton is heavier. Its femur, which is the longest bone in the leg, is massive — and took five summers for a field crew to unearth. Once unearthed, the bone was measured at about 6 feet, 7 inches in length. The leg bone, with packaging for sending to the lab, clocked in at 2,800 pounds — and that’s not even the whole leg. Which is to say: Apatosaurus was thick. Its vertebrae even feature air sacs to lighten them slightly.

That neck was for fightingYeah — so huge that for a while scientists thought that Apatosaurus lived in swamps, at least partially submerged in water. More recent findings, though, show that the Apatosaurus did live on land. The whole swamp thing was some kind of paleontologist size-shaming.

Apatosaurus wikipedia

Artist's rendering. (Wikimedia commons)

Comparatively, its head is tiny. Its chisel-like teeth suggest vegetarianism, and it probably ate plants from the ground, like ferns. In fact, its head is not unlike that of modern mammals called ungulates — a clade that includes horses, rhinos, and pigs. Its long neck was probably used for battle with other members of its species, as well as for browsing for mid-level greenery. What Apatosauruses fought about is lost to us — probably food or mates, though I suppose we can’t rule out the possibility that they also got into brawls over their favorite sports teams.

And since more and more dinosaurs appear to have had feathers, it may be the case Apatosaurus had some, too. That’s just speculation, though. You can imagine it with a feathery crown but given the whole Apatosaurus ethos, I strongly suspect it had weird-looking peach fuzz — the dino equivalent of a teenage boy trying out a mustache.

Sauropods eked out about 100 million years on Earth, which is pretty good; humans have only been a going concern for about 200,000 years

What have we learned? The Apatosaurus was among the largest creatures ever to live and was routinely underestimated by scientists. (We still don’t know if a Brontosaurus is an Apatosaurus or not.) But Apatosaurus was a good sport in its post-death humiliation. I don’t think I can rate anything that’s been extinct this long higher than a 6 — but it's a sauropod, which is one of the longest-lived dinosaur groups. Sauropods eked out about 100 million years on Earth, which is pretty good given that we humans have only been a going concern for about 200,000 years or so.

Listen, there’s not a lot of dignity in death and it’s coming for us all, both individually and as a species. I can’t guarantee you that no one will mount your bones somewhere with an entirely separate head — that of a gorilla, perhaps? — on top. All I know is this: You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another year older and deeper in debt.

The Apatosaurus

Verge Score: 5.0

5.0

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Very huge

  • Cool name

  • Did pretty well as a species, considering

Bad Stuff

  • Extinct

  • Repeated post-extinction humiliation

  • May have made bad feather fashion choices