The dinosaur they could not kill: Brontosaurus is back

It would be pretty safe to say that everyone has heard of Brontosaurus, but in the 1970s the genus vanished from the palaeobiology lexicon. The ‘Bone Wars’ of post-Civil War US palaeontology stemmed from the astonishing prices that dinosaur skeletons fetched. The frenzy of competition to fill museums unearthed hundreds of specimens, but the financial enthusiasm did not extend to painstaking anatomy. Finding a new genus meant further profit so a slapdash approach to taxonomy might pay well. So it did with the dinosaur family Diplodocidae for Othniel Marsh, one of the fossil marauders. He along with his main competitor, Edward Cope, was a wizard fossicker, but lacked incentive to properly describe what he unearthed. In 1877 Marsh published a brief note about a new genus that he called Apatosaurus, then hurried off to for more booty. Two years later he returned from the field with another monster reptile, and casually made a brief case for the ‘Thunder Lizard’, Brontosaurus. Unlike his usage of ‘Deceptive Lizard’ for Apatosaurus, the English translation of Brontosaurus caught the public imagination and lingers to this day as the archetype for a mighty yet gentle, extinct beast. Yet, professional palaeontologists were soon onto the lax ways of Marsh and Cope, and by 1903 deemed Brontosaurus to be taxonomically indistinguishable from Apatosaurus, and as far as science was concerned the ‘Thunder Lizard’ was no more.

Illustration of a Brontosaurus (nowadays calle...

Artist’s impression of a Brontosaurus . The idea that it was wholly or mostly aquatic is now considered outdated. (credit: Wikipedia)

But, the legacy of frenzied fossil collecting of a century or more ago is huge collections that never made it to display, which form rich pickings for latter-day palaeontologists with all kinds of anatomical tools now at their disposal: the stuff of almost endless graduate studies. Emanuel Tschopp of the New University of Lisbon with colleagues took up the challenge of the Diplodocidae by examining 49 named specimens and 32 from closely related specimens as controls, measuring up to 477 skeletal features (Tschopp, E. et al. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ, v. 3, doi10.771/peerj.857). An unintended consequence was their discovery that 6 specimens of what had become Apatosaurus excelsus (formerly Marsh’s Brontosaurus) differed from all other members of its genus in 12 or more key characteristics. It seems to taxonomists a little unfair that Brontosaurus should not be resurrected, and that looks likely.

Had this been about almost any other group of fossils, with the exception perhaps of the ever-popular tyrannosaurs, the lengthy paper would have passed unnoticed except by specialist palaeontologists. In a little over a week the open-access publication had more than 17 thousand views and 3300 copies were downloaded.

See also: Balter, M. 2015. Bully for Brontosaurus. Science, v. 348, p. 168

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