In 1989, the United States Post Office issued a series of four stamps depicting dinosaurs, little realizing that it was re-igniting the infamous Bone Wars of more than a hundred years earlier.
The Bone Wars, also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush, was a period of fossil fever during the late 19th century during which a heated rivalry between two paleontologists (yes, it sounds bizarre) led to dirty tricks, bribery, theft, and even the destruction of bones. Each scientist also attacked the other in scientific print, hoping to ruin his credibility and have his funding cut off. During this period, one of the combatants hastily brought to public that big cuddly dinosaur we’ve come to love, the brontosaurus. Turns out he had gone public with that same dinosaur a couple of years earlier under an entirely different name, apatosaurus.
Another paleontologist brought this mistake to light in 1903, pointing out that protocol required the first name used, apatosaurus, to be the official name. Why did the name continued to be used in popular books, articles and even on museum displays? It seems the 1903 discovery was only presented in a very obscure scientific journal. It took another 70 years for the brontosaurus to officially get the boot to synonym status.
And along comes the U.S. Post Office in 1989 identifying the big guy as a brontosaurus. Well, didn’t some dinosaur groupies with not enough to keep themselves busy get all hot and bothered, accusing the Postal Service of promoting scientific illiteracy. And even after this brouhaha, most of us still insist on having our brontosaurus.
Maybe it’s because brontosaurus means “thunder lizard” and apatosaurus means (ho-hum) “deceptive lizard.”