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 Here’s how all those books and playthings you cherished as a kid—your educational toys—are completely outdated.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, signs, oil 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.
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.