For years paleontologists have been trying to convince the public that Brontosaurus doesn’t, and never, existed but now a new study has been published that returns this name to the ranks of the dinosaurs.
“I didn’t start out trying to resurrect Brontosaurus,” says lead author and paleontologist Emanuel Tschopp. He was just trying to better understand the evolutionary relationships among all Diplodocidae as part of his Ph.D. thesis at the New University of Lisbon.
Indeed, paleontologists are impressed by the scope of the new study, which included 81 skeletons and 477 skeletal features or characters, far more than any previous analysis. “Emanuel’s data set is now the largest published so far” for plant-eating dinosaurs, says Philip Mannion, a paleobiologist at Imperial College London. The name change is likely to stick, adds paleobiologist Paul Upchurch of University College London: “I will be happy to start using Brontosaurus again.”
A little more about how Brontosaurus lost its name in the first place – During the “Bone Wars” of the late 19th century, paleontologists Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh marauded through the American West bitterly competing for dinosaur fossils, which led to some rapid and slapdash descriptions. In 1877, Marsh published a brief note on one of his skeletons, calling it Apatosaurus (“deceptive lizard”). Two years later he published an equally brief report on a supposed new genus, Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard”). By 1903, paleontologists had decided that the two beasts were too similar to be divided into separate genera.
Because Apatosaurus had been named first, it had precedence under the rules of scientific nomenclature. Paleontologists confirmed this conclusion in the 1970s.
But in the new study, researchers claim that there really are enough differences between Apatosaurus excelsus and Apatosaurus ajax to put them back into separate genera. That would mean a rebirth of the Brontosaurus line.
“The differences we found between Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were at least as numerous as the ones between other closely related genera, and much more than what you normally find between species,” co-author Roger Benson of the University of Oxford said in a statement.
When it comes to the return of Brontosaurus, John Whitlock, an associate professor at Mount Aloysius College who wasn’t involved in the study, doesn’t expect much controversy. “It matches up to a suspicion that I think a lot of workers had — that there is a lot of diversity in Apatosaurus that might be going unrecognized,” he said. “And it really is a catchy name.”