D is for Diplodocus

Diplodocus casts in the Carnegie Museum, photo from Carnegie museum.

Diplodocus was one of the oldest dinosaurs discovered. Language is so imprecise, though. Were they the bones of a 120-year-old? Was he from the Triassic, the earliest dino-era? Nope. He was among the first dinosaurs found by the dinosaur hunters during the late 19th century. So Dippy–that’s what that first skeleton came to be known as–Dippy was famous because he was one of the first, but he became more famous for a bigger reason. Dippy was copied.

Diplodocus was one of those “big” dinosaurs I mentioned back with the letter “B.” He is classified as one of the sauropods, those giant, the huge, long-necked, long-tailed dinos who were vegetarian and too humongous to be messed with. The family tree of the Diplodocus, (or the clade called Diplodocidae) groups the Apatosaurs with the Diplos. Both groups had long necks and tails, but the Apatosaurs were stockier, whereas the Diplos tended to be skinny in the front and all the way to the back, with an almost whip-like tail. (Like Anne Elk said, if you remember *ahem* Anne Elk, they were thin to start with, then much much thicker, then thin again. *ahem*.)

diplo (double) + docus (beam)

Clade diagram from Wikipedia.

The tail of diplodocus was its stand-out feature and helped generate its name. The name double-beamed refers to the way that its vertebrae (back bones, tail bones) had two bits of bone sticking out the bottom, referred to as chevron-shaped, though they look like skis to me. It’s thought that these gave the tail better stability, which allowed it to extend that much farther across that football field. Reminds me of those segmented Leviathan ships that attack New York in The Avengers.

Chevron vertebrae displayed in British Museum, photo from Wikipedia.

Dinosaur Diplomacy

Of all the dinosaur skeletons unearthed, Dippy has one of the most most curious history. Andrew Carnegie, the steel robber baron magnate at the beginning of the 20th century, saw a news story about the diplodocus bones discovered in Wyoming @1898. Supposedly, Carnegie barked to somebody, “Go buy that for us!” He financed additional bone-digging expeditions and ultimately financed having a giant cast made of the entire skeleton. He then paid to have ten copies of the skeleton made out of plaster and sent to natural history museums around the world. His vision was that if nations all realized they had mutual interest in science, they would find more in common than not. (Kind of like the Olympic ideal of de Coubertin, that peace could emerge from sport, only this is peace emerging from dinosaur bones.)

This “dinosaur diplomacy” also garnered a huge amount of publicity, so the diplodocus skeleton in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh became famous (along with all its clones presumably). The museum came to be known as “the house that Dippy built.” Wikipedia suggests that it may have single-handedly made the word “dinosaur” a household word, well, until Jurassic Park came along.

DippyGate in London

But the story doesn’t quite end there. The discovery of the diplodocus was of great fascination to Edward VII, who was a big supporter of the British museum. Supposedly, he saw drawings of the dinosaur when visiting Carnegie in the tycoon’s Scottish home. That prompted the original plaster casting idea, and the British copy was donated to the British Natural History Museum, and installed in one of the main halls. The London statue ended up being dedicated in 1905, two years before the dedication of the one in Pittsburgh, because the American museum’s hall had to be renovated to fit.

The British Dippy…(they call him Dippy as well, so it really must be a clone, though you’d think one of them would come up with a slightly different name. Is there a unique British pronunciation of Dippy, do y’suppose?)… The British Dippy was a great favorite for nearly a hundred years. During WW2, they housed the plaster skeleton in the basement so that it wouldn’t get destroyed when the Germans bombed London.

But the museum decided in 2017 to re-theme itself and get rid of Dippy in favor of a blue whale. A boring-old real bone skeleton. The decision-makers argued that they much preferred using real bones and, after all, Dippy was not the original bones, but made out of plaster. Lots of dippy-lovers in London were up in arms over the choice — 30,000 people signed a petition– and a few called it “Dippygate.” However, decisions were made. Maybe they didn’t want to have the taint of robber baron American steel magnate in their museum. Who knows? So the whale skeleton is now installed in the British Museum.

Meanwhile, the plaster Dippy has been on a tour round the parts of Britain… Dorset, Birmingham, Ulster, Norwich, Kelvingrove, and Wales.

The Welsh word for museum is Amgueddfa, but there doesn’t appear to be a Welsh word for diplodocus. Yet.

Diplodocus from “A to Z animals”

A sauropod once named Hieronymus
Belonged to the genus Diplodocus
His tail was so long
When he swung it aroun’
They cried–Yikes! You have struck down the lot of us!

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