When a dinosaur fossil is excavated, it is not uncommon to find the dinosaur in what is known as the death pose. The long neck is bent dramatically backwards and the mouth is gaping open, as if the dinosaur is letting out one final bellow.
For a long time, palaeontologists believed that dinosaurs found in this pose had remarkable neck flexibility. For example, the Elasmosaurus was originally thought to have a snake-like neck that could bend and curl around, even being able to lift its head above the water, as seen with the image of the Loch Ness Monster. However, in reality, the neck would have been too stiff and heavy to move around like that, meaning that Elasmosaurus would have swam around with a straight neck, barely lifting its head above water.
It is still unclear exactly why dinosaurs are often found in the death pose.
Traditionally, it was believed that the strong ligaments holding the neck bones (vertebrae) contracted as they dried out, bending the neck backwards where there are more ligaments.
Others refute this theory, instead suggesting that the dinosaur remains would be rearranged by water currents, or that the carcass would naturally bend backwards when floating in water.
Finally, another group of scientists believe that the pose happens in the final moments of the dinosaur’s death throes, suggesting that they experience opisthotonus (arching of the back muscles, as seen in tetanus) either due to lack of oxygen in the brain, or poisoning.
It is fascinating to think that although these dinosaurs have been dead for 66 million years, we still have so much to learn from them.
Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard” in Latin) is one of the most well-known dinosaurs. It is the poster child of the sauropods, a group of massive four-legged dinosaurs with very long necks and tails, known as some of the largest animals to ever walk on land.
After going extinct around 66 million years ago, the Brontosaurus was rediscovered in fossil form in 1879 by palaeontologist O.C. Marsh, who is infamous for his rivalry with another palaeontologist called Edward Drinker Cope as part of the “Bone Wars”. The Bone Wars was the fierce competition between the two palaeontologists, involving aggressive digging to discover as many dinosaurs as possible, while both tried to slander and impede each other through dishonest, unprofessional means. This dispute resulted in rushed announcements of new discoveries sometimes, leading to fascinating stories such as Cope accidentally putting the skull of the Elasmosaurus on its tail instead of the neck.
So what does the historical context of the Bone Wars have to do with the Brontosaurus? In 1903, another palaeontologist argued that the Brontosaurus was actually a specimen of the already discovered Apatosaurus. Two years later, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first mounted sauropod skeleton and named it a Brontosaurus. However, they had accidentally used the skull of a different dinosaur called Camarasurus, mounted on the skeleton of an Apatosaurus. With no further evidence supporting Brontosaurus as a separate genus, the scientific community agreed that the Brontosaurus was really just an Apatosaurus.
Despite this news, Brontosaurus remained hugely popular amongst the general population thanks to its early publicity. At the same time, Brontosaurus not being a real genus of dinosaur became a popular factoid (false information accepted as fact due to popularity). In a field such as palaeontology where evidence can be scant or incomplete, such misclassification is common. For example, the Triceratops is in fact simply the juvenile form of another dinosaur named the Torosaur.
But then in 2015, a group of scientists used computer modelling to analyse sauropod fossil data including the original fossil discovered by Marsh. What they discovered was that there were enough differences between the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, such as differences in pelvic bone structure, to classify Brontosaurus as its own genus. After more than a century, the Brontosaurus has had its name cleared and restored to its former glory.
The story of the Brontosaurus is a great example of one of the principles in science: nothing is 100% true. Science never proclaims something as the one truth. We can hypothesise, support it with evidence and construct a theory that makes sense of the cosmos, but we can never be sure that we definitely have the answer. In the face of new evidence and re-examination of the analysis, what was once regarded as “truth” can easily be proven to be wrong.
This is an unpopular aspect of science, because people tend to want security and certainty to soothe their anxieties about not knowing. But instead, we get to stay curious and continuously question the nature of the universe and how everything works, making fascinating discoveries and learning something new every day.
For how boring would life be if we had nothing more to learn?