During the couple of decades that I stopped paying attention to dinosaurs, those in the know switched from the term “Brontosaurus” to “Apatosaurus.” It rankled me a little — obviously, it doesn’t take much to get me set in my ways — but not enough to make me seek out an explanation of why the switch occurred, or what was wrong with “Brontosaurus” in the first place.
Now that I’ve read Elizabeth Cody Kimmel‘s Dinosaur Bone War (Random House, 12/06), I understand and then some. Kimmel offers up a fast-paced, highly readable middle-grade account of the Spy vs. Spy-quality treachery that passed between preeminent 19th century American paleontologists O. C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, not long after the term “dinosaur” was first coined.
It was Marsh who, in his rush to add to his rivalry-leading tally of dinosaur discoveries, stuck the wrong head on a large Apatosaurus skeleton and deemed it a Brontosaurus. And it was Cope who placed the head of Elasmosaurus at the end of its long tail instead of its even longer neck, thus getting himself immortalized in, among other places, Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart’s recent Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks & Other Sea Monsters.
Cope and Marsh’s goofs while trying to get ahead (har har) pale in comparison to their many discoveries, but for readers, the big discovery in Dinosaur Bone War may be just how entertainingly petty and paranoid a pair of scientists can be.