How Science Made Your Dino Toys Extinct

May 12th, 2011

Remember when you were a kid how dinosaurs were the coolest ever? In particular, the stories of Big Three—the brontosaurus, the triceratops, and the Tyrannosaurus rex—dominated children’s books, coloring books, cartoons, games, and figurines. Plus, these great beasts weren’t just some mythological creatures like dragons; no, we had the fossils, and everything we learned about them was based on science.

Well, information unearthed during the past two decades proves that everything we thought we knew about the Big Three was wrong. Thanks, science! Here’s how all those books and playthings you cherished as a kid—your educational toys—are completely outdated.

The brontosaurus, a.k.a. ‘Thunder Lizard,’ is a figment of our imagination

The brouhaha around the brontosaurus got its start in the Victorian Era, when paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh accidentally named the same dinosaur twice. By 1903, scientists had deduced that the apatosaurus and the brontosaurus were likely the same species—according to the rules of science, the first name, apatosaurus, was the correct one.

However, the scientific community didn’t let the general public in on this fact until the 1970s. By then the nonexistent “Thunder Lizard” had captured our imaginations: At the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-’34, Sinclair Oil Corporation funded an exhibition called “The Age of Dinosaurs,” featuring a 2-ton animatronic brontosaurus replica. This dino was so popular that Sinclair started offering rubber brontosaurus figurines at its stations, and even put the lizard on its advertising, signsoil cans, and gas pumps. Thanks to all the excitement, the oil company brought the bronto back out for its “Dinoland” exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-’65.

In the 1950s and 1960s, toy company Marx, known for its model trains, and Multiple Plastics Corporation (MPC) put out popular dinosaur play sets with plastic brontosaurus toys. The ’60s primetime TV cartoon, “The Flintstones,” featured Fred Flintstone operating a “bronto crane” and going out for bronto ribs.

Even after the truth about the apato was out, the bronto wouldn’t have its thunder stolen. While toy makers Invicta and Carnegie began producing apatosaurus toys in the ’80s, pop culture, like the 1983 children’s book, “The Little Blue Brontosaurus,” and the 1985 children’s fantasy film, “Baby: The Secret of Lost Legend,” continued to champion the bronto myth. It wasn’t until the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of “dinosaur” stamps in 1989 featuring the “brontosaurus” (top) that the scientific purists began whining about the incorrect name. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, however, stepped into the fray in 1991 to remind people that the names are synonyms, so it’s really not worth the uproar.

But the Thunder Lizard may finally be dying out, as people embrace its true name. Research in the ’70s also found that Marsh had attached the wrong skull to his “brontosaurus” skeleton; the real apatosaurus has an elongated snout. That cute round-faced bronto toy in your attic? Totally out-of-date.

Speaking of formerly adorable dinosaurs …

The cute, cuddly triceratops got uglier

Oh, that little three-horned triceratops with its short neck frill, sort of like an Elizabethan neck ruff! How sweet was it?

According to Montana State University research published last summer, the beloved triceratops is merely a juvenile version of the torosaurus, a much more intimidating dino with a huge, imposing neck frill. Naturally, anyone nostalgic for their third-grade science class was a little upset. The good news is that because “triceratops” was the first name given, it’s the one that will stick. We just have to get used to the news about the skull development that makes our baby dino a homely, albeit more badass, adult.

See the 1955 Marx triceratops compared to the 2004 Safari Ltd. torosaurus, pictured side-by-side above.

The incredible shrinking Tyrannosaurus rex

Remember when the Tyrannosaurus rex was the biggest, most feared predator in town? Its name invokes tyrants and kings (“rex”), and it even had a sexy ’60s glam rock band adopt its moniker. Misconceptions about the dino inspired the original ’50s Marx “potbellied” T. rex toys (at right), and the fearsome Japanese monster Godzilla, before the king dino toys got more accurate in their representation, showing the tyranno hunched over in a running position.

But the King Tyrant’s reign as the biggest and baddest ended 40-some years later. In 1990s, the Giganotosaurus came along (see modern Carnegie toy, above), excavated from Argentina, and outsized ’em. But the T. rex could still boast about having larger teeth, at least. In the mid 2000s, the meat-eating Spinosaurus, with its big, spiky spine and pointy crocodile face was measured even bigger than both, but it wasn’t long before the fossil of T. rex cousin Mapusaurus roseae emerged out of Argentina to fight for the title.

So who was the more agile, more fierce killer between the Tyrannosaurus and Mapusaurus? Scientists are still duking that one out.

And if you insist on authenticity, you can bid on some real dinosaur skeletons, a fighting allosaurus and stegosaurus pair excavated in Wyoming in 2007, going for a cool $2.2 million at Heritage Auctions.

(Toy images from the brilliant resource Chart by derivative work: Dhatfield (talk) & Matt Martyniuk via Wikimedia Commons)

7 comments so far

  1. AR8Jason Says:

    You said … “Thanks to all the excitement, the oil company brought the bronto back out for its “Dinoland” exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-’65.”

    That helps with a child hood memory. We lived in Wichita Kansas and I had three brothers, and I remember one day going to a gas station and getting a 3 foot or so tall blow up green dinosaur to keep for the day. It had to be returned by the end of the day. I knew it had to be a Sinclair station due to the logo, but did not know when Sinclair did this or why. Now I know that it had to be in connection to the NY World Fair.

    “Thanks for the memories.” And thank you for a piece to complete the puzzle.

  2. AR8Jason Says:

    Also, do you remember a 1970s Neiman Marcus catalog having a His and Her Gifts being dinosaur hunts?

  3. Some Paleoartist Says:

    I wonder if anyone in olden days wrote an article where they cried and cried about how the mean scientists retroactively ruined their childhoods because suddenly their favorite childhood toy – an Earth-centric model of the universe – was no longer 100% accurate. (Probably, so this doesn’t help me.)

    Thanks for the genuinely heartbreaking reminder that most adults lose touch with their childhood loves. Your old dinosaur toys aren’t going anywhere just because their anatomy is way off and the actual dinosaurs were -and are- more awesome than we ever imagined back n the 60’s.

  4. garsh Says:

    At least now there’s brontomerus to take up the “bronto” torch (though translated to the less imposing, more humiliating, “thunder thighs”). The cool thing is, though, it’s one of the few dinos whose name ends in something other than a “saurus”. Seriously though, after bullying Pluto, and trying to ruin triceratops, science needs to just stop being a jerk.

  5. Science Says:

    “after bullying Pluto, and trying to ruin triceratops, science needs to just stop being a jerk”

    Well, I’m terribly sorry. I apologize for reclassifying things that do not care what humans call them and are in no way fundamentally altered because we happen to be calling them something else. (Except Triceratops is still Triceratops, but fine keep complaining about that ONE scientist’s not-widely-supported theory if you want.)

    By the way, how are you enjoying the internet, indoor plumbing, easily accessible food, and extended lifespan I’ve given you?

  6. garsh Says:

    Only science could be so passive aggressive. But I’ll do my best to compete.

    And the gall to suggest these things are “gifts”! It’s appalling, really.

    If you’re so generous, Science, how about inventing a money tree so I can pay for your many “gifts” without subjecting myself to daily physical labor that leaves me so exhausted and in so much pain that I can seldom muster the time, energy or state of mind to even appreciate the abundance of wonders you’ve provided for me?

    Excuse me if I sound cranky. The Internet has a way of bringing out the worst moods.

    There are plenty of other folks to ask about their enjoyment of the Internet. My suggestion is to steer clear of anyone involved cyber bullying suicides. Likewise, it seems like a sour topic with the music industry and copyright holders in general these days. Or, you know, print.

    Maybe you could try some of the many World of Warcraft addicts how they’re enjoying the Internet, Science. I mean the survivors, of course. Several of them should have plenty of free time to reply since they’re in prison for neglecting their own children to death. Many of the rest of us are far too easily distracted to form a coherent response thanks to the decay of our attention span. BRB, I have to delete some more spam.

    …Sorry, that took longer than I intended. It’s been almost two weeks, huh?

    That’s spam for you: viruses… reinstalling Windows — you know, just every day modern conveniences.

    Speaking of indoor plumbing, has the Large Hadron Collider devised a method by which my toilet might someday prevent itself from clogging and overflowing?

    You see, all this easily accessible, mostly tasteless, health deteriorating, chemically enhanced, microwavable food that I consume is primarily composed of highly processed ingredients. Some of those ingredients are only dubiously considered fit for human ingestion, and it really gums up the works, if you know what I mean.

    Of course, I shouldn’t have to worry about it for too much longer, since I’ll likely end up in diapers now that you’ve seen fit to add years toward the END of life — the very worst ones! Yes, I’ve seen how those around me have been enjoying those extra years, with their loss of teeth, brittle bones, utter dependence on pharmaceuticals with their many deadly and generally miserable side-effects. And let’s not forget; plenty of cancer for everyone, which you still haven’t cured. That’s really something to look forward to, eh, Science?

    Yeah, thanks a lot.

    By the way, how’s that whole common cold thing coming along? Maybe if you concentrated on that you could leave dinosaurs alone for a while.

  7. Kathleen Christensen Says:

    Thanks for the dino information. I smiled with great memories of the Good Ole’ Days. Today it doesn’t really matter that they were inaccurate. My brothers and I had fun…… watching TV or being on the Internet and we were creative with the toys. The biggest part is that today, kids have lost so much natural creativity. Everyhting is presented for them….sad. Remember the fun with a cardboard box?

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