The Brontosaurus, or Gone and Back Again

The Brontosaurus was declared gone over a century ago in 1903 and the scientific world has worked for a century to get the public to recognize this. Now science marches on and in 2015, it was declared that the Thunder Lizard is back alongside the Apatosaurus. Even if it’s not exactly the same dinosaur it was originally.

Drawing of the wrong Brachiosaurus-type Brontosaurus head.

Drawing of the wrong, but rather adorable, Brachiosaurus-type skull. Art © Chandra Reyer

Problems with Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus started during The Bone Wars from 1877-1892. Paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh had a heated rivalry that resulted in both men using dishonest, unscientific means in their discovery of fossils. The confusion of the most famous sauropod is Marsh’s fault. Marsh found a sauropod skeleton, put an unrelated dinosaur’s skull on it and declared a new species in Brontosaurus excelsus. Marsh was an excellent namer of dinosaurs, even if he didn’t use the most scientifically approved methods for discovering them. The skull was thought to be wrong as far back as 1903, but the American Museum of Natural History labeled their mount “Brontosaurus” anyway. The name stuck. Arguments against the use of Brontosaurus as a name is that the Brontosaurus’ body was that of an earlier discovered dinosaur named Apatosaurus. The rules are that the first name is the one that’s official. Therefore, Brontosaurus disappeared and skeletons with corrected skulls and labels of Apatosaurus replaced the Thunder Lizard, but not until the 1970s.

Famed Paleontologist Robert T. Bakker argued in the 1990s that the Brontosaurus skeleton was different enough from Apatosaurus to be it’s own species. But it took until 2015 when a team of paleontologists, Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger Benson, used modern methods and new fossil finds to thoroughly study the specimen and discover that it was indeed different enough to be its own species. Although, the announcement is still a bit contested in scientific circles, as the findings are gone over carefully by peers, the media took off with it and the Thunder Lizard was born again.

Drawing of a more correct, Apatosaurus head.

Drawing of a more correct, Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus skull. Art © Chandra Reyer

Bronto still doesn’t have its own skull, but an Apatosaurus-based skull, due to them both being diplodocids and closely related, but its head is still closer to what it would have actually looked like than the randomly added Brachiosaurus skull Marsh topped it with. This won’t have much of an impact on current depictions of Brontosaurus or Apatosaurus, unless of course, they discover that like Tyrannosaurus rex, sauropods were fluffy.

For information that’s up-to-date about dinosaurs, an excellent resource is the science blog of Brian Switek, who has a great fondness for Brontosaurus. He’ll probably also be the first one to report if sauropods turn out to be fluffy.

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