My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek

Back in January, thinking about science topics to add to the book-in-progress, it occurred to me that I would really be letting down SteelyKid (and pre-schoolers everywhere) if I didn't take the opportunity to include something about dinosaurs. The problem with that, of course, is that I know next to nothing about dinosaurs, especially discoveries made since, say, 1981 or so. I remembered, however, that blogger extraordinaire Brian Switek had written a book about the latest on dinosaurs, My Beloved Brontosaurus. Sadly, a quick trip to Amazon revealed that it wasn't out yet, and in fact won't be released until next Tuesday.

So, you can imagine how happy I was to get to Science Online and find a giant pile of ARC's of Brian's forthcoming book on the giveaway table. I snapped one up right away, and read basically the whole thing on the plane flight home. And have been flipping through it intermittently for the last couple of months, working on the idea for a dinosaur chapter.

The title might seem a little incongruous, given that Brontosaurus is no longer an accepted dinosaur. This was a development that penetrated out to the general public around the time I was obsessed with dinosaurs, back in the late 1970's. The species name Brontosaurus was mistakenly assigned to an incomplete skeleton of the previously named Apatosaurus, with the head of a completely different dinosaur grafted onto it. While the relevant fossils were all uncovered in the early 20th Century, it took until 1979 before major museums began changing their displays to correct the error. It was a bit of a Pluto moment, at the time, but has been generally accepted for a long time now. Brontosaurus is dead, long live Apatosaurus.

It's not that Brian doesn't understand the change-- in fact, his explanation of the history of the issue is one of many excellent and clear historical anecdotes in the book. Instead, he's using "Brontosaurus" as a metaphor, for all the outdated ideas about dinosaurs that I learned as a small child (most of which were being phased out by Brian's early dino phase a decade later). For whatever reason-- probably because it's fun to say-- the name "Brontosaurus" escaped the world of paleontology into pop culture, and achieved iconic status. As an indicator of just how much, I will note that the spell check in WordPress recognizes the obsolete name "Brontosaurus," but flags the technically correct "Apatosaurus" as an error.

So, in this book, "Brontosaurus" stands in for all the ideas that scientists no longer believe about dinosaurs: that they were cold-blooded, sluggish, tail-dragging, olive drab lizards, living exclusively in swamps so that water could support their bulk. The modern picture of dinosaurs is dramatically different: they're active, agile, land-based creatures, holding their tails aloft as they dominate all sorts of ecosystems. And most surprising of all, they're fuzzy, if not fully feathered. Over 220-odd pages, My Beloved Brontosaurus walks readers through the new science of dinosaurs, and most importantly how scientists know these things to be true. It's a fascinating read.

As you might guess from the other two words in the title, this is also a personal story. The outdated science of "Brontosaurus" is recalled with some affection, not scorn, looking back at Brian's days as a dinosaur-obsessed child who dreamed of having a "Brontosaurus" as a pet (by the way, the cover art for this book is just awesome...). This turns out to be one of the great strengths of the book, because it casts the change in our knowledge as a shift from really cool to totally awesome. While there is some nostalgia for the old-style dinosaurs, it's clear that as Brian has grown from a dino-obsessed child to a dino-obsessed adult traveling the country to visit important fossil sites and research institutes, the "terrible lizards" have only gotten more amazing. His enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and more than compensates for the potentially dizzying array of Latin genus and species names and technical details of dinosaur anatomy.

Along with the big words, there's also a big chapter on dinosaur sex, so I'm not going to be giving this to SteelyKid any time soon (she does have Daniel Loxton and Jim Smith's Ankylosaur Attack, and I just ordered Pterosaur Trouble, which are fairly up-to-date dino books that are a little more appropriate for a 4.5-year-old...). My Beloved Brontosaurus makes an excellent case, though, that while the dinosaurs of today are not the dinosaurs I remember from when I was a little kid, they're at least as fascinating as they were back then, and the kids of today get the benefit of another three decades of amazing scientific discovery.

(In a self-interested sense, it's also been extremely useful in providing information for my prospective dino chapter in How to Think Like a Scientist, and pointers to research articles. Since my contrarian nature means that I have to say something negative about the book, I'll mention that I hate, hate, HATE the un-noted endnotes used here, but that's a long-standing gripe with publishing, not a complaint specific to this book. It's doubly annoying because the page references haven't been put in for the advance proofs, so trying to find the specific mention associated with a particular note is kind of maddening, but that will be fixed in the final edition, which I'll be buying as soon as it comes out.)

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Ahh, that's bringing back memories of a much-thumbed How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs that I would have been reading circa 1970.

When I bought my daughter a dinosaur book ten years ago, I too was shocked to learn that all my favourites didn't seem to exist anymore!

By Hamish Johnston (not verified) on 10 Apr 2013 #permalink

It sounds neat. I haven't been updated since The DInosaur Heresies which I bought by accident while researching various Christian heresies in late medieval Europe. (Not really, but I was read Pursuit of the Millennium).

Also, I always thought that brontosaurus was no longer a species name, but is now just a common name. Scientifically, there is no such animal as an elephant or horse, but that doesn't mean people have stopped talking about elephants or horses. If I ever see a brontosaurus in a zoo, I'm sure they will put its scientific name right where it belongs, on the sign right under the common name.