How did the horrible Yale “Brontosaurus” skull come to be?

November 14, 2014

A while back, Ben Miller reminded me that when I posted about the old Yale “Brontosaurus” skull, I promised:

So how did the YPM come to make such a monstrosity? What was it based on? Tune in next time for the surprising details!

I told him at the time that I’d soon get around to writing a post. But before I did, he wrote a post on this himself: Bully for Camarasaurus. And it’s excellent. Go and read it!

I don’t have a lot to add to what Ben has written, except regarding this:

What Marsh had instead [when restoring the skull for his 1891 “Brontosaurus” reconstruction] were a few fragmentary bits of Camarasaurus cranial material, plus a snout and jaw (USNM 5730) now considered to be Brachiosaurus.

Here’s what Marsh came up with:


But what of the supposed Brachiosaurus skull that he used as a reference? It was finally described 107 years later by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998), in a paper that helpfully also lays out the history behind it. Here’s how it looks:


The skull was found by a crew under the supervision of M. P. Felch in the western part of his Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Felch reported it to O. C. Marsh in a letter of 8 September 1883. It was found by a meter-long cervical vertebra that probably belonged to Brachiosaurus “which was destroyed during attempts to collect it” (McIntosh and Berman 1975:196). [Of course, Felch and Marsh could hardly have been expected to identify this vertebra correctly, as Brachiosaurus would not be discovered and named for another twenty years (Riggs 1903), and the nature of its neck would not become apparent until Janensch (1914) described the related brachiosaurid Giraffatitan (= “Brachiosaurus“) brancai.]

The Felch skull, along with other material from the quarry, was shipped to Marsh at Yale in October of that year, and was initially assigned the specimen number YPM 1986. At that time it was only partially prepared, hence the rather poor resemblance between the restored version above and Marsh’s hypothetical “Brontosaurus” [= Apatosaurus] skull that was based on it.

It’s notable that Holland (1915) was quite certain that this was not a skull of Brontosaurus, and that a Diplodocus-like skull found with the A. louisae holotype belonged to it. It’s worth reading the skull section of his paper to see just how solid his reasoning was. And it’s extraordinary to think that Osborn’s power, all the way over in New York, was so great that he was able to successfully bully Holland, 370 miles away in Pittsburgh, into not putting the evidently correct skull on the Carnegie Museum’s Apatosaurus mount. That mount remained sadly headless until after Holland’s death.

Aaanyway, YPM 1986 was pretty much ignored after Marsh’s abuse of it as a reference for the Brontosaurus reconstruction’s skull. After Marsh’s death in 1899, much of the material collected by Felch was transferred to the Smithsonian (US National Museum of Natural History). The skull was among these specimens, and so was re-catalogued as USNM 5730.

As so often, it was Jack McIntosh who rediscovered this skull and recognised its true affinities. Some time after his tentative identification of the skull as pertaining to Brachiosaurus (presumably on the basis of its resemblance to that of Giraffatitan), Carpenter borrowed the skull, had it more fully prepared, wrote the description, and had a restored model constructed from casts of the preserved elements and models of the missing ones.

Carpenter and Tidwell (1998:fig. 2) also handily showed the restored Felch quarry skull alongside those of other sauropods:


By re-ordering the top row, we can see what a neat intermediate it is between the skulls of Camarasaurus (left) and Giraffatitan (= “Brachiosaurus” of their usage):


I provisionally accepted USNM 5730 as belonging to Brachiosaurus in my re-evaluation of 2009, and included it in my reconstruction (Taylor 2009:fig. 7):

Taylor (2007: figure 7). Skeletal reconstruction of Brachiosaurus altithorax. White bones represent the elements of the holotype FMNH P 25107. Light grey bones represent material referred to B. altithorax: the Felch Quarry skull USNM 5730, the cervical vertebrae BYU 12866 (C?5) and BYU 12867 (C?10), the "Ultrasauros" scapulocoracoid BYU 9462, the Potter Creek left humerus USNM 21903, left radius and right metacarpal III BYU 4744, and the left metacarpal II OMNH 01138. Dark grey bones modified from Paul's (1988) reconstruction of Giraffatitan brancai. Scale bar equals 2 m.

Taylor (2007: figure 7). Skeletal reconstruction of Brachiosaurus altithorax. White bones represent the elements of the holotype FMNH P 25107. Light grey bones represent material referred to B. altithorax: the Felch Quarry skull USNM 5730, the cervical vertebrae BYU 12866 (C?5) and BYU 12867 (C?10), the “Ultrasauros” scapulocoracoid BYU 9462, the Potter Creek left humerus USNM 21903, left radius and right metacarpal III BYU 4744, and the left metacarpal II OMNH 01138. Dark grey bones modified from Paul’s (1988) reconstruction of Giraffatitan brancai. Scale bar equals 2 m.

But as noted by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998:82), the lack of comparable parts between the Felch skull and the Brachiosaurus holotype (which remains the only definitive Brachiosaurus material) means that the assignment has to remain tentative.

What we really need is a more complete Brachiosaurus specimen: one with both a skull and good postcervical elements that let us refer it definitively to Brachiosaurus altithorax by comparison with the holotype. And heck, while we’re at it, let’s have a specimen with a good neck, too!

The real question remains: how did Marsh, using a brachiosaur skull as his basis, come up with this?



And stranger still, how someone at the Yale Peabody Museum — we don’t know who — used it, or more likely Marsh’s reconstruction, as a basis for this sculpture:



The Yale mount didn’t go up until 1931 — the last of the Big Four Apatosaurus mounts after the AMNH, Carnegie and Field Museum, which is surprising as it was the first of those specimens to be found. So by the time the skull was sculpted, sauropod skulls were actually reasonably well known. It’s not clear quite how anyone working from a decent reconstruction of, say, a Camarasaurus skull — the one in Osborn and Mook (1921:figure 30), say — could come up with this monster.

The last thing to say is this: it does credit to the YPM that they display this historically important sculpture rather than hiding it away and pretending it never happened. For me, part of the fascination of palaeontology is seeing not just how organisms evolved through prehistory but how ideas evolved through history. It’s great that we can still see important mistakes, alongside their corrections (i.e. the new and lovely skull on the YPM Apatosaurus mount.)



  • Carpenter, Kenneth, and Virginia Tidwell. 1998. Preliminary description of a Brachiosaurus skull from Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Modern Geology 23:69-84.
  • Holland, William J. 1915. Heads and tails: a few notes relating to the structure of the sauropod dinosaurs. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 9:273-278.
  • Janensch, Werner. 1914. Ubersicht uber der Wirbeltierfauna der Tendaguru-Schichten nebst einer kurzen Charakterisierung der neu aufgefuhrten Arten von Sauropoden. Archiv fur Biontologie, Berlin III, 1(1):81-110.
  • Marsh, O. C. 1891. Restoration of Triceratops (with plates XV and XVI). American Journal of Science, 3rd series 41(244):339-342.
  • McIntosh, John S., and David, S. Berman. 1975. Description of the palate and lower jaw of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus (Reptilia: Saurischia) with remarks on the nature of the skull of Apatosaurus. Journal of Paleontology 49(1):187-199.
  • Osborn, Henry Fairfield, and Charles C. Mook. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, n.s. 3:247-387, and plates LX-LXXXV.
  • Riggs, Elmer S. 1903. Brachiosaurus altithorax, the largest known dinosaur. American Journal of Science 15(4):299-306.
  • Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.


9 Responses to “How did the horrible Yale “Brontosaurus” skull come to be?”

  1. […] So how did the YPM come to make such a monstrosity? What was it based on? Tune in next time for the surprising details! […]

  2. Tom Johnson Says:

    Keith Parsons, in his essay titled “The Wrong-Headed Dinosaur” considered the much-repeated story that H. F. Osborn intimidated Holland into backing off from mounting CM 11162.

    Holland’s own account (in “Heads and Tails”) read as follows: “My good friend, Dr. Osborn, has in a bantering mood “dared” me to mount the head…at moments I am inclined to take the dare…”

    Parsons provides an alternate explanation: “Why didn’t Holland attach a cast of CM 11162 if he thought it was the right one? Some have suggested that Holland wanted to avoid conflict with Henry Fairfield Osborn, head of the American Museum of Natural History, who had dared Holland to mount the Diplodocus-like skull. Holland, though, was not afraid of controversy. On the contrary, he was a skilled polemicist who could devastate opponents with a combination of biting sarcasm and airtight logic.

    “A more likely explanation is that Earl Douglass continued to make spectacular discoveries at Carnegie Quarry, and as long as Douglass’ excavations continued, there was a chance that he would find an Apatosaurus neck with the skull attached.”

    In other words, Holland may have been motivated by scientific caution rather than intimidated by HFO.

    An example of Holland being combative can be found in the following reference:

    Holland, Dr. W. J., “A Review of Some Recent Criticisms of the Restorations of Sauropod Dinosaurs Existing in the Museums of the United States, with Special Reference to that of Diplodocus carnegii in the Carnegie Museum”, The American Naturalist, 44:259–283. 1910.

    It is enjoyable to read, and, as Parsons said, devastating.

    Tom Johnson

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Tom, that’s very interesting.

  4. kattato garu Says:

    You can’t get away with being called Felch nowadays, though.

  5. Brad McFeeters Says:

    It’s interesting that the Marsh/Yale reconstruction is still longer-snouted than what a lot of life restorations went with. For an extreme example, see Roy Andersen’s Brontosaurus in the August 1978 National Geographic (or here: that head doesn’t look based on Marsh’s reconstruction, so what is it based on?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yikes! that is one ugly-ass brontosaur. I assume the head is supposed to be basically a Camarasaurus with inflated nasal sacs?

  7. Tom Says:

    It would be interesting to note the latest illustration of Apatosaurus with the Camarasaurus (or Camarasaurus-morph) head, after the two papers by McIntosh and Berman in 1975 and 1978 demonstrated the diplodocid affinities of Apatosaurus. I don’t think I’ve seen one later than the National Geographic article. Peter Zallinger published a children’s dinosaur book with a bronto wearing the cammie style head in 1977, but came out with a poster shortly thereafter in which the apato had the sleek diplo noggin.

    I visited the American Museum in New York in November 1977, and a volunteer told me at that time that the “Brontosaurus” skull was going to be replaced because it “looked like George Washington.”

  8. […] of Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus, a camarasaurish skull seemed a good fit. (As for anything sauropodal, read SV-POW for more […]

  9. […] we described in a previous post, this skull was also apparently the inspiration for the horrible, horrible sculpted skull that was […]

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