My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs

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9780374534264: My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs


One of Amazon's Best Science Books of 2013

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One of Publishers Weekly's Top Ten Spring Science Books

Selected by Apple's iBookstore as one of the best books of April

A Bookshop Santa Cruz Staff Pick

Dinosaurs, with their awe-inspiring size, terrifying claws and teeth, and otherworldly abilities, occupy a sacred place in our childhoods. They loom over museum halls, thunder through movies, and are a fundamental part of our collective imagination. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, the dinosaur fanatic Brian Switek enriches the childlike sense of wonder these amazing creatures instill in us. Investigating the latest discoveries in paleontology, he breathes new life into old bones.
Switek reunites us with these mysterious creatures as he visits desolate excavation sites and hallowed museum vaults, exploring everything from the sex life of Apatosaurus and T. rex's feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished. (And of course, on his journey, he celebrates the book's titular hero, "Brontosaurus"―who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed at all―as a symbol of scientific progress.)
With infectious enthusiasm, Switek questions what we've long held to be true about these beasts, weaving in stories from his obsession with dinosaurs, which started when he was just knee-high to a Stegosaurus. Endearing, surprising, and essential to our understanding of our own evolution and our place on Earth, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a book that dinosaur fans and anyone interested in scientific progress will cherish for years to come.

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About the Author:

Brian Switek is an online columnist for National Geographic and is the author of Written in Stone. He has written for Smithsonian, Wired, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, Nature, Scientific American, and other publications. His examinations of fossil discoveries have been featured by the BBC and NPR. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Dragons of the Prime
Brontosaurus” will always be special to me. For my younger self, especially, the shuffling, swamp-dwelling hulk was an icon of everything dinosaurs were supposed to be—big, scaly, and, most of all, so thoroughly bizarre that they could only have belonged to a primeval past. And, though dead for over 150 million years, “ Brontosaurus” lived on in my imagination. From the time I was a toddler, I desperately wanted to meet the gigantic herbivore. In my preschool scribblings, I included a pet “ Brontosaurus” in crayoned portraits of my family. I kept it reasonable. I knew we could never afford an eighty-foot dinosaur, so I went with a Bronto roughly the size of a Great Dane. She was big enough to let me ride on her back, but small enough that my parents wouldn’t go poor providing appropriate forage for my friend.
Resuscitating the dinosaur in Crayola colors barely even touched the depths of my dinomania. When my parents drove my siblings and me to Disney World for the first time, I so fiercely harried them about seeing the animatronic “ Brontosaurus,” Stegosaurus, and kin at the Exxon-sponsored Universe of Energy attraction that Mom and Dad didn’t even unpack the car before putting us on the right bus to see the dinosaurs. Forget Mickey and Minnie. The jerking, wailing robotic dinosaurs were at the top of my list. And while I would later curse being stuck in the mind-numbingly mundane confines of central New Jersey, my captivity in the suburban sprawl carried at least one advantage. There was scarcely a better place for a young dinosaur fan than the nearby American Museum of Natural History, just over the river in New York City. That’s where I first met my favorite dinosaur.

The museum no longer looks like it did when my parents guided my younger self up to the fourth-floor dinosaur halls in 1988. Today, the white walls, high ceilings, and ample illumination make the skeletons of Tyrannosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Triceratops, and other dinosaur celebrities stand out in sharp contrast from their surroundings. This open, airy vibe was created by a renovation project in the mid-1990s to adjust the prehistoric stars in accordance with new discoveries. Arranged in an evolutionary rank and file, the revised halls are a testament to how much dinosaurs have changed since nineteenth-century naturalists first recognized them. The AMNH dinosaurs stand alert, skeletal heads and tails at attention as if they’re scanning a vanished landscape for food, friend, or foe.

During my early twenties, when I had the freedom to visit whenever I pleased, I took any chance I could get to wander among these skeletons and imagine flesh on their bones. And, as I strolled through those halls, the floors scuffed by the feet of so many youngsters on their first trips into the presence of dinosaurs, what I missed most was the dim, dusty Jurassic Dinosaur Hall that I encountered so many years before. The old dinosaurs were horribly wrong when I viewed them back in the 1980s—awkward aberrations ultimately sent to the scientific trash heap—but that doesn’t diminish my memory of seeing them for the first time. Way back then, in the forbidding gloom of the hall, my imagination gave the bones a thin cast of vitality. The skeletons felt less like perished monuments to paleontology and more like bony scaffolding waiting to be connected by sinew and wrapped in scaly hides. My young mind didn’t see dead dinosaurs, but the osteological architecture of creatures that might walk again.
*   *   *
I was so consumed by the idea during my first trip to the AMNH that I can hardly remember my parents being there. Standing beneath the prehistoric skeletons, I was entranced. I couldn’t take my eyes off the museum’s “ Brontosaurus,” with her neck stretched low, tipped with a moronic blunt skull full of spoon-shaped teeth. I was in the court of the queen of all sauropods—the long-necked, heavy-bodied dinosaurs that were the largest creatures ever to walk the Earth. After all, as my schoolbooks told me, “ Brontosaurus” was so massive that her name meant “thunder lizard.” When she walked, it must have sounded like a storm rolling across the Jurassic landscape. I imagined that sound as I admired her skeleton. She seemed poised to step off the platform, duck out the exit, and plod right down to the foliage along Central Park West. In the intense quiet of that moment, I could have sworn that I heard the ethereal remnant of the dinosaur’s breathing. In a place with so many prehistoric bones, there had to be ghosts.

Yes, the old mounts of Tyrannosaurus and other dinosaurs were impressive, too. But they didn’t stick with me quite like the “ Brontosaurus.” I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to catch a glimpse of the dinosaur trundling down my street, picking succulent leaves from the oaks of my neighbors’ lawns. I drew sluggish brontosaurs in my school art portfolios, made my plastic sauropod models bask in an improvised mud puddle I created in the driveway’s storm drain, and dreamed of some far-off swamp where the dinosaur might still sun itself, enjoying a reprieve from extinction.
And then I heard the bad news.
*   *   *
Brontosaurus” was dead to begin with. My favorite dinosaur wasn’t real, but only a misconstrued amalgamation that had been borne and slaughtered by science. The dinosaur’s true name was Apatosaurus—a creature that paleontologists envisioned as vastly different from my brontosaur. Apatosaurus was not a waterlogged grubber of algae and water lilies, but in fact was a taut, active animal that trod Jurassic floodplains with its neck and extended whiplash tail held high off the ground. “ Brontosaurus” as I knew the beast—a hulking pile of flesh and bone that bathed in Jurassic swamps—never actually existed. Almost everything about the monstrous creature—its lifestyle, its skull, and, most regrettably, its name—were human inventions drawn from prehistoric skeletons that actually supported a different form. I had been fooled! The dinosaur I met was a petrified museum zombie, shuffling on even though scientists had shot it down decades before.

You see, the dinosaur’s major makeover wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fast. I had encountered the brontosaur only as it was slowly fading from books and museum halls. A few years before I made my first museum visit, a groundswell of scientific interest in sauropods, stegosaurs, tyrannosaurs, and their varied kin—given the dramatic title “The Dinosaur Renaissance”—had crushed the image of dinosaurs as stupid, abominable reptiles and recast them as animals that had more in common with birds than with any lizard or crocodylian (a term for the group encompassing alligators, crocodiles, and gharials). The fossil bones were the same as they ever were, but paleontologists saw the petrified remnants in a new light. And in the special case of “ Brontosaurus,” the dinosaur’s name, skull shape, and cultural identity are all bound together in a complicated knot where science and imagination meet.

The story started over a century ago during one of the most fruitful times in the history of paleontological discovery. In 1877, the Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh applied the name Apatosaurus ajax to the partial skeleton of a juvenile sauropod that Arthur Lakes, later one of Marsh’s field assistants, had discovered in Colorado. Two years later, Marsh coined Brontosaurus excelsus on the basis of a more complete skeleton his men had found, this time at Como Bluff, Wyoming.
The dinosaurs were only subtly different, but in Marsh’s day, paleontologists interpreted even the slightest of skeletal differences as indicators of previously unknown genera and species. After all, Marsh and his contemporaries were among the first to scientifically catalog a prehistoric lost world full of creatures no one had ever seen before. Who could say how many different forms there were?

In 1896, the paleontologist O. C. Marsh published this reconstruction of “ Brontosaurusexcelsus in his major monograph The Dinosaurs of North America. (Image from Wikimedia Commons: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brontosaurus_skeleton_1880s.jpg)
In this case, though, what Marsh thought were two different dinosaur genera were merged into one. In 1903, the paleontologist Elmer Riggs argued that Marsh’s “ Brontosaurus” wasn’t distinct enough from Apatosaurus to justify a new genus name. The “ Brontosaurus,” Riggs reasoned, was only a new species of Apatosaurus, and since Apatosaurus was named first, it had priority of title. Thus “ Brontosaurusexcelsus became Apatosaurus excelsus. The trouble was that the name change didn’t filter from technical journals to pop culture (or, clearly, to museum displays). As institutions such as the AMNH erected Apatosaurus skeletons, they slapped the mounts with the old “ Brontosaurus” label for reasons that have never been resolved. Maybe they thought the old name sounded better, or were unsure about rebranding one of the most famous dinosaurs in their halls. Whatever the reason, “ Brontosaurus” was given a second life.

For the moment, let’s follow the lead of Riggs’s stubborn contemporaries and call the animal “ Brontosaurus.” In general form, the “ Brontosaurus” skeletons museums so proudly displayed weren’t very different from other huge sauropods, such as Diplodocus. These two dinosaurs—who lived alongside each other in western North America about 150 million years ago—shared the same body plan, with “ Brontosaurus” being a bit bulkier than its more slender counterpart. What made “ Brontosaurus” different, and seemed to characterize the dinosaur’s personality, was its skull.
When I met the skeletal “ Brontosaurus” in 1988, the dinosaur’s neck was capped with a skull that made it look about as dumb as early-twentieth-century scientists insisted the animal must have been. As the AMNH paleontologist William Diller Matthew wrote, “We can best regard the Brontosaurus as a great, slow-moving animal automaton, a vast storehouse of organized matter directed chiefly or solely by instinct, and to a very limited degree, if at all, by conscious intelligence.” To my mind, this man, who oversaw the construction of the mount I was so fascinated by, viewed the dinosaur as a bad evolutionary joke, a heavyweight that was all brawn and no brain.

Unbeknownst to me at the time of my first museum trip, this reptile’s skull was a conglomeration of bone fragments and speculation.
*   *   *
When Marsh’s field crew discovered the original “ Brontosaurus” material at Como Bluff, they were frustrated that the specimen lacked a cranium. (Sauropods had a habit of losing their heads between their death and burial.) So, when it came time for Marsh to commission an illustration of what the animal’s skeleton would have looked like, he drew on several skull bones found at another Como Bluff quarry. These pieces actually came from a different animal—a short-snouted, high-skulled sauropod called Camarasaurus that lived at the same time—but Marsh didn’t know that. He assumed that the skull and skeleton belonged to the same animal, and so he used the fragments to re-create a “ Brontosaurus” skull. Other museums followed suit. It was years before anyone found the dinosaur’s true skull.
*   *   *
The beginning of the end for “ Brontosaurus” goes back to Dinosaur National Monument, one of the richest boneyards ever found. You know you’re getting close to the park when goofy, tourist-trap dinosaurs start appearing along Highway 40 in Vernal, Utah. You can’t miss them. Some of them snarl, others pose outside hotels, and my favorite—a rendition of the town’s long-necked mascot Dinah—wears a polka-dot bikini and stands above a sign that reads: “Let’s swim!” Dinosaurs didn’t have mammary glands, so I’m not sure what good a bikini top would do. Maybe that’s just the Utah sense of modesty at work.

Vernal’s dinosaurs have a gleefully outdated feel. They’re mostly holdouts from an earlier era, from a tourism boom after a glass-walled museum was erected over Dinosaur National Monument’s quarry of bones in 1957. The protected excavation was the dream of Earl Douglass—the man who struck a rich vein of fossils among the area’s rocky hills in 1909, and extensively quarried the site under the employ of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Even though Douglass shipped tons of bones back east, he wanted the enormous bonebed to become a living museum where visitors could come and see paleontology in action. Some of his dreams—such as an airstrip on the site and fine dining for high-class clientele—didn’t come to pass, but the heart of his vision was realized and continues to show visitors that prehistory can seem as alien as another world.

Cruise past decaying rock shops, a few more cracked and faded dinosaurs, and emerald swaths of farmland that spring from the banks of the Green River, and you’ll finally arrive at the park. A dopey Diplodocus grins sheepishly at visitors from a parking lot just outside the park limits. And if you know your geology, the winding drive to the recently renovated museum is a literal trip through time. Millions of years of deposition, uplift, and erosion cracked the depths of the earth into a series of sharp slices, each sliver older than the last. Remnants of ancient oceans transition into traces of fern-covered floodplains, divided from the vestiges of dune-filled deserts by the incursion of another vanished sea, and so on down through time. Even if you’re not well versed in the paleontological particulars, you can follow the changes by color. Each formation is set off from the others by its own range of hues, from mint green to rust red. I could never dream of a more wondrous landscape. This is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
The road leading up to the quarry wall is a mixture of maroon slices interspersed through grayish-purple stacks. This is the classic color scheme of the Morrison Formation, the roughly 150-million-year-old deposits that herald the presence of dinosaur giants. This was the era of Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and many other favorites, including—of course—the dinosaur formerly known as “ Brontosaurus.”

Picking out each species on the sheltered quarry wall isn’t easy for anyone who doesn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaur anatomy. The exposed rock face is a logjam of bones created by an unfortunate twist of Mesozoic fate. Dozens of dinosaurs died in a Jurassic drought, and when the rainy season finally broke the dry spell, the bodies of the poor dinosaurs were washed together into this one place. Disembodied limbs and segments of tail are interspersed with isolated skeletal elements in a slurry of tan-shaded bone. Bad luck for the dinosaurs, but a bonanza for Earl Douglass and other paleontologists that followed him.

The quarry was bigger a century ago. The slanted bonebed extended another one hundred feet upward, and another hundred feet to either side. Those portions were uncovered, excavated, and shipped to museums long ago. And while most dinosaurs in the quarry wound up as isolated bones and body parts, Douglass also exhumed a few complete skeletons. In Septe...

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Descrizione libro Scientific American. 1 Paperback(s), 2013. soft. Condizione libro: New. Dinosaurs have become a fundamental part of our collective imagination, looming over museum halls, thundering through movies, and occupying a sacred place in many a childhood. National Geographic columnist and fossil fanatic Brian Switek here explores the childlike sense of wonder that these amazing creatures instill in us, breathing new life into old bones as he visits desolate excavation sites and dusty museum vaults. Switek looks at everything from the sex life of Apatosaurus and T. rex's feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished, while the book's titular hero, Brontosaurus—who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed at all—becomes a symbol of scientific progress."My Beloved Brontosaurus is, in many ways, science writer Brian Switek's love letter to his favorite animal. But the book is more than a personal ode to fossils. Switek meets experts, tours museums and visits excavation sites. He is searching no longer for preserved eggs that might one day hatch dino-babies but rather for an understanding of what life in the age of dinosaurs was like."—Washington Post"Switek passionately and playfully explores scientists' evolving perception of the wild, wonderful dinosaur world, emphasizing at every turn the dynamic nature of their field despite its now inanimate subjects. Switek intersperses his rich, well-researched scientific and historical discussions with personal anecdotes and cultural signposts, weaving together a narrative that reveals the current state of the field as well as some of the wrong turns along the way."—Science 256. Codice libro della libreria 70058

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Descrizione libro Scientific American, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. One of Amazon s Best Science Books of 2013 A Hudson Booksellers Staff Pick for the Best Books of 2013 One of Publishers Weekly s Top Ten Spring Science Books Selected by Apple s iBookstore as one of the best books of April A Bookshop Santa Cruz Staff Pick Dinosaurs, with their awe-inspiring size, terrifying claws and teeth, and otherworldly abilities, occupy a sacred place in our childhoods. They loom over museum halls, thunder through movies, and are a fundamental part of our collective imagination. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, the dinosaur fanatic Brian Switek enriches the childlike sense of wonder these amazing creatures instill in us. Investigating the latest discoveries in paleontology, he breathes new life into old bones. Switek reunites us with these mysterious creatures as he visits desolate excavation sites and hallowed museum vaults, exploring everything from the sex life of Apatosaurus and T. rex s feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished. (And of course, on his journey, he celebrates the book s titular hero, Brontosaurus --who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed at all--as a symbol of scientific progress.) With infectious enthusiasm, Switek questions what we ve long held to be true about these beasts, weaving in stories from his obsession with dinosaurs, which started when he was just knee-high to a Stegosaurus. Endearing, surprising, and essential to our understanding of our own evolution and our place on Earth, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a book that dinosaur fans and anyone interested in scientific progress will cherish for years to come. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780374534264

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Descrizione libro Scientific American, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. One of Amazon s Best Science Books of 2013 A Hudson Booksellers Staff Pick for the Best Books of 2013 One of Publishers Weekly s Top Ten Spring Science Books Selected by Apple s iBookstore as one of the best books of April A Bookshop Santa Cruz Staff Pick Dinosaurs, with their awe-inspiring size, terrifying claws and teeth, and otherworldly abilities, occupy a sacred place in our childhoods. They loom over museum halls, thunder through movies, and are a fundamental part of our collective imagination. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, the dinosaur fanatic Brian Switek enriches the childlike sense of wonder these amazing creatures instill in us. Investigating the latest discoveries in paleontology, he breathes new life into old bones. Switek reunites us with these mysterious creatures as he visits desolate excavation sites and hallowed museum vaults, exploring everything from the sex life of Apatosaurus and T. rex s feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished. (And of course, on his journey, he celebrates the book s titular hero, Brontosaurus --who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed at all--as a symbol of scientific progress.) With infectious enthusiasm, Switek questions what we ve long held to be true about these beasts, weaving in stories from his obsession with dinosaurs, which started when he was just knee-high to a Stegosaurus. Endearing, surprising, and essential to our understanding of our own evolution and our place on Earth, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a book that dinosaur fans and anyone interested in scientific progress will cherish for years to come. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780374534264

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Descrizione libro Scientific American, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. One of Amazon s Best Science Books of 2013 A Hudson Booksellers Staff Pick for the Best Books of 2013 One of Publishers Weekly s Top Ten Spring Science Books Selected by Apple s iBookstore as one of the best books of April A Bookshop Santa Cruz Staff Pick Dinosaurs, with their awe-inspiring size, terrifying claws and teeth, and otherworldly abilities, occupy a sacred place in our childhoods. They loom over museum halls, thunder through movies, and are a fundamental part of our collective imagination. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, the dinosaur fanatic Brian Switek enriches the childlike sense of wonder these amazing creatures instill in us. Investigating the latest discoveries in paleontology, he breathes new life into old bones. Switek reunites us with these mysterious creatures as he visits desolate excavation sites and hallowed museum vaults, exploring everything from the sex life of Apatosaurus and T. rex s feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished. (And of course, on his journey, he celebrates the book s titular hero, Brontosaurus --who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed at all--as a symbol of scientific progress.) With infectious enthusiasm, Switek questions what we ve long held to be true about these beasts, weaving in stories from his obsession with dinosaurs, which started when he was just knee-high to a Stegosaurus. Endearing, surprising, and essential to our understanding of our own evolution and our place on Earth, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a book that dinosaur fans and anyone interested in scientific progress will cherish for years to come. Codice libro della libreria BTE9780374534264

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