The 10 Biggest Dinosaur Blunders

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Paleontologists Don't Always Get Things Right the First Time

Oviraptor, the egg thief: absolved of all charges (Wikimedia Commons).

Paleontology is like any other science: Experts examine the available evidence, trade ideas, erect tentative theories, and wait to see if those theories stand the test of time (or flurries of criticism from competing experts). Sometimes an idea flourishes and bears fruit; other times it withers on the vine and recedes into the long-forgotten mists of history. On the following slides, without further ado, you'll find a list of the 10 most notable blunders (and misunderstandings, and out-and-out frauds) in the history of paleontology.

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The Stegosaurus with a Brain in its Butt

The tiny skull of Stegosaurus (Wikimedia Commons).

When Stegosaurus was discovered, in 1877, naturalists weren't used to the idea of elephant-sized lizards equipped with bird-sized brains. That's why, in the late 19th century, the famous American paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh broached the idea of a second brain in Stegosaurus' rump, which presumably helped to control the rear part of its body. Today, no one believes that Stegosaurus (or any dinosaur) had two brains, but it may well turn out that the cavity in this stegosaur's tail was used to store extra food, in the form of glycogen.

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The Brachiosaurus from Beneath the Sea

An early depiction of Brachiosaurus (public domain).

When you discover a dinosaur with a 40-foot-neck and a skull with nasal openings on top, it's natural to speculate about what kind of environment it could possibly have lived in. For decades, 19th-century paleontologists believed that Brachiosaurus spent most of its life underwater and stuck its head out of the surface to breathe, like a human snorkeler. However, later research proved that sauropods as massive as Brachiosaurus would have instantly suffocated in high water pressure, and this genus was relocated to the land, where it properly belonged.

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The Elasmosaurus With its Head on its Tail

An early depiction of Elasmosaurus (Wikimedia Commons).

In 1868, one of the longest-running feuds in modern science got off to a rousing start when the American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope reconstructed an Elasmosaurus skeleton with its head on its tail, rather than its neck (to be fair, no one had ever examined such a long-necked marine reptile before). According to legend, this error was quickly pointed out (in a not-very-friendly way) by Cope's rival, Othniel C. Marsh, the first shot in what came to be known as the late 19th century "Bone Wars."

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The Oviraptor that Stole its Own Eggs

An Oviraptor with its egg (Wikimedia Commons).

When the type fossil of Oviraptor was discovered in 1923, its skull lay only four inches away from a clutch of Protoceratops eggs, prompting the American paleontologist Henry Osborn to assign this dinosaur's name (Greek for "egg thief"). For years afterward, Oviraptor lingered in the popular imagination as a wily, hungry, none-too-nice gobbler of other species' young. The trouble is, it was later demonstrated that those "Protoceratops" eggs were really Oviraptor eggs, and this misunderstood dinosaur was simply guarding its own brood!

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The Dino-Chicken that Ate Washington

Compsognathus was similar to the mythical "Archaeoraptor" (Wikimedia Commons).

The National Geographic Society doesn't put its institutional heft behind just any dinosaur find, which is why this august body was embarrassed to discover that the so-called "Archaeoraptor" it prominently displayed in 1999 had actually been cobbled together out of two separate fossils. It seems that a Chinese adventurer was eager to supply the long-sought "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds, and fabricated the evidence out of the body of a chicken and the tail of a lizard--which he then said he'd discovered in 125-million-year-old rocks.

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The Iguanodon with a Horn on its Snout

An early depiction of Iguanodon (public domain).

Iguanodon was one of the first dinosaurs ever to be discovered and named, so it's understandable that the baffled naturalists of the early 19th century were unsure how to piece its bones together. The man who discovered Iguanodon, Gideon Mantell, placed its thumb spike on the end of its snout, like the horn of a reptilian rhinoceros--and it took decades for experts to work out this ornithopod's posture. (For the record, Iguanodon is now believed to have been mostly quadrupedal, but capable of rearing up on its hind legs when necessary.)

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The Hypsilophodon that Lived Up a Tree

Hypsilophodon (Wikimedia Commons).

When it was discovered in 1849, the tiny dinosaur Hypsilophodon went against the grain of accepted Mesozoic anatomy: this ancient ornithopod was small, sleek and bipedal, rather than huge, quadrupedal and lumbering. Unable to process the conflicting data, early paleontologists surmised that Hypsilophodon lived up in trees, like an oversized squirrel. However, in 1974, a detailed study of Hypsilophodon's body plan demonstrated that it was no more capable of climbing an oak tree than a comparably sized dog.

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Hydrarchos, the Ruler of the Waves

Hydrarchos (public domain).

The early 19th century witnessed the "Gold Rush" of paleontology, with biologists, geologists, and just plain amateurs stumbling over themselves to unearth the latest spectacular fossils. The culmination of this trend occurred in 1845, when Albert Koch displayed a gigantic marine reptile he named Hydrarchos--and which had actually been pieced together from the skeletal remains of Basilosaurus, a prehistoric whale. By the way, Hydrarchos' putative species name, "sillimani," refers not to its misguided perpetrator, but to the 19th century naturalist Benjamin Silliman.  

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The Plesiosaur that Lurks in Loch Ness

loch ness monster
A fanciful recreation of the Loch Ness Monster (Wikimedia Commons).

The most famous "photograph" of the Loch Ness Monster shows a reptilian creature with an unusually long neck, and the most famous reptilian creatures with unusually long necks were the marine reptiles known as plesiosaurs, which went extinct 65 million years ago years ago. Today, some cryptozoologists (and lots of out-and-out pseudoscientists) continue to believe that a gigantic plesiosaur lives in Loch Ness, even though, for some reason, no one has ever been able to produce convincing proof for the existence of this multi-ton behemoth.

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The Caterpillar that Killed the Dinosaurs

A typical caterpillar (Wikimedia Commons).

Caterpillars evolved during the late Cretaceous period, shortly before the dinosaurs went extinct. Coincidence, or something more sinister? Scientists were once semi-convinced by the theory that hordes of voracious caterpillars stripped ancient woodlands of their leaves, prompting the starvation of plant-eating dinosaurs (and of the meat-eating dinosaurs that fed on them). Death-by-caterpillar still has its adherents, but today most experts believe that dinosaurs were done in by a massive meteor impact--which somehow sounds more convincing.