Josh Shaffer

How Durham’s brontosaurus got lost in the woods – and why we should bring it back

Is it time to bring back Durham’s brontosaurus?

The relic of the Museum of Life and Science’s “Pre-History Trail” is mostly a curiosity made obsolete by the apatosaurus and newer, interactive displays. But a study shows the brontosaurus may be more important, so let’s bring it back.
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The relic of the Museum of Life and Science’s “Pre-History Trail” is mostly a curiosity made obsolete by the apatosaurus and newer, interactive displays. But a study shows the brontosaurus may be more important, so let’s bring it back.

For more than 20 years, the Durham brontosaurus has lingered in obscurity, an outdated curiosity hidden in the woods.

With its fading green paint, this 77-foot model made from concrete and plywood keeps a lonesome post behind a chain-link fence on the Ellerbee Creek Trail. Joggers and dog-walkers wonder at the giant reptile peeking out of the kudzu, its teeth clenched in frustration.

Across Murray Avenue, a collection of sleek, interactive, scientifically updated dinosaurs get star treatment at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science. The orange and yellow parasaurolophus has appeared in countless Facebook photos, gangs of happy children on its back.

Meanwhile, over in the forest, the brontosaurus suffered from several cruel facts, most notably that modern science long ago renamed it apatosaurus and dismissed its older version as obsolete – no more meaningful to paleontology than Dino from “The Flintstones.”

But I’m here to advocate for this prehistoric has-been.

In 2015, a research team concluded that brontosauri are a valid genus of their own, distinct from the larger apatosaurs, effectively pulling the thunder lizard out of the scientific trash bin. Not all paleontologists share this conclusion, but to my mind, the aging structure on Ellerbee Creek serves a vital purpose.

With his angry black eyes and tail longer than a limousine, Durham’s brontosaurus demonstrates the rough-draft nature of research and the possibility of discovery in the dirt. I asked the museum if it might embrace its estranged cousin across the road if only to lively up the debate.

“I think it’s a wonderful question to pose to our visitors,” said Michele Kloda, director for leaning environments. “Here’s the evidence. What do you think? That’s one of the most exciting things about science. It’s not finished.”

QAHMS1U_BRONTO1.NE.060309.CEL.JPG_06-06-2009
Jennifer Lemons and her children stare silently at the brontosaurus on the old dinosaur trail in 2009, after vandals took the head off. It was restored after Durham’s Northgate Park community rallied to pay for repairs. CHUCK LIDDY N&O file photo

Durham’s brontosaurus dates to 1967, when Richard Wescott and his son Dusty built it for what was then the Bull City’s Children’s Museum, part of a “Pre-History Trail” that featured an array of exotic creatures. Hurricane Fran wiped out much of that early attraction just at the time the museum was expanding across the street, adding hands-on and up-to-date exhibits.

Kloda emphasizes that the trail and its remnants weren’t exactly exiled.

“There was a mammoth,” Kloda said. “There was the brontosaurus. I believe there were some early hominids. It was known to be obsolete, but also the timeline was so expansive that we thought, ‘We can improve on this.’ ”

Some of the crumbled remains are scattered through the woods, but only the brontosaurus exists in full, hemmed in between the fence and the creek. It enjoyed a bit of revival in 2009 when vandals stole its head and the Northgate Park community rallied to pay for its reattachment and other repairs, even printing T-shirts.

A decade later, newcomers still scratch their heads over the lizard. A Reddit post last weekend showed the creature’s picture with the caption, “Please explain.”

After 50 years, the brontosaurus isn’t fit for climbing or close-up kiddie pictures. But the museum seems amenable to giving this relic a more prominent role – a cast-off given a good dusting and placed back on the shelf.

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