Brontosaurus. It may surprise you to find out that the iconic, long-necked, giant, plant-eating dinosaur hasn’t existed for more than a hundred years.
Wait a minute, you might say, didn’t the dinosaurs die out millions and millions of years ago? Yes, that’s true, but the Brontosaurus many of us might remember from our school days actually hasn’t existed for over a hundred years in the scientific sense – but now that’s all changing.
Let me explain. In 1903, paleontologists decided that what was being referred to as a Brontosaurus was actually a different dinosaur. It was decided that the Brontosaurus fossils that had been found were actually more complete examples of Apatosaurus, another long-necked sauropod, a very large quadrupedal herbivorous dinosaur with a long neck and tail, small head, and massive limbs. Hence, the Brontosaurus ‘name’ was discarded.
But how can that be? Didn’t we all learn about the Brontosaurus in elementary school? I believe my children have purchased toy dinosaurs that are clearly marked as Brontosaurus right next to the Tyranosaurus Rex and the Triceratops…?
Here’s what scientists and anthropologists believe happened. Something called the “Bone Wars” happened in the late 1800s, when two rival fossil hunters were racing to complete the fossil record… sometimes at any cost. The two men, one named Othniel Charles Marsh and the other Edward Drinker Cope, hated each other and both discovered rich fossil beds in the American west. Marsh and his team of researchers found what he thought were two individual sauropods. Marsh called one of them Apatosaurus ajax and the other Brontosaurus excelsus.
When the Bone Wars were raging, news of both Marsh and Cope’s accomplishments were front page news. Pictures of the fossils and drawings of what the men thought the dinosaurs they had found fascinated the country, making terms like Brontosaurus and Tyranosaurus a part of common current event conversations.
When Marsh died in 1899, a team from the Chicago Field Museum found yet another sauropod that was extremely similar to both the Brontosaurus excelsus and the Apatosaurus ajax. The new fossil had qualities and “parts” of both of Marsh’s sauropods, and it was decided that Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were actually the same dinosaur. Apatosaurus was the first dinosaur to be found by Marsh, and hence, officially, Brontosaurus was dropped and the sauropod was known as Apatosaurus excelsus from then on.
And yet, Brontosaurus had stuck around for more than a century even though it’s not the official name. Teachers might even be surprised to know that as they were teaching the name Brontosaurus for the last hundred years as a definition for the entire family of sauropod dinosaurs, they were actually incorrect. Anthropologists feel that the reason the name Brontosaurus stuck was become it became so popular with the general public during the Bone Wars and just kind of took a life of its own. In addition, the meaning of the name Brontosaurus is “thunder lizard,” and lets face it, that sounds pretty cool.
Now, Brontosaurus is officially back.
Recently, a team of researchers led by Emanuel Tschopp from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal examined several samples of sauropods utilizing a new statistical categorization method that led them to some surprising findings.
“Until very recently, the claim that Brontosaurus was the same as Apatosaurus was completely reasonable, based on the knowledge we had.”
However, Roger Benson from the University of Oxford explained what their new research yielded.
“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.”
In other words, the Brontosaurus and the Apatosaurus are two completely different kinds of dinosaurs. As such, Brontosaurus has been resurrected as the correct name of a certain kind of sauropod. The complete research paper on bringing back the Brontosaurus can be found in the scientific journal, PeerJ.
[Photo by David McNew and the Hulton Archive/Getty Images]