Brontosaurus

Answer by John Mackay and Diane Eager

This question arose following an item in our Evidence News 22 March 2017 about a study of dinosaur neck bones where we listed Brontosaurus as an example of a group of very large four legged herbivorous dinosaurs with long necks and tails, small heads, and massive limbs technically called sauropods.  Read here.  Puzzled readers contacted us to tell us that the name Brontosaurus was no longer an official dinosaur name, so we should not be using it.

A little history helps. After the revelation that the original and very popular thundering monster “brontosaurus” was actually a composite dinosaur with one dinosaur’s head on a different dinosaur body, the name was conveniently abandoned. So it is true that for many decades Brontosaurus was considered an incorrect name for a genus of sauropod dinosaurs, and the specimens originally given this name we relabelled Apatosaurus.  However, we can now report Brontosaurus is ‘officially’ back.

A little more detailed search reveals that in 1870 a team of fossil hunters led by Othniel Charles Marsh found two long necked sauropod dinosaurs to which they gave the splendid names of Apatosaurus ajax (meaning “deceptive lizard”), and Brontosaurus excelsus (meaning “thunder lizard”).  Several years later, after Marsh had died, palaeontologists from Field Museum of Chicago found another dinosaur skeleton that had similarities to both Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, so they concluded these two dinosaurs belonged to the same genus.  As Apatosaurus had been named first, this name had precedence as a genus name, and Brontosaurus was renamed accordingly.  In spite of this, the name Brontosaurus remained in the popular literature, movies, kids’ books and common language as the example of the long necked sauropod dinosaurs.  The term “thunder lizard” definitely seemed to have struck a chord with people.

To add to the confusion was the fact that the Marsh’s original finds did not have heads, and Marsh had topped off Brontosaurus with the head of another dinosaur. Since then many more of Marsh’s Brontosaurus sauropod fossils have been found with fossil heads attached that were clearly Apatosaurus. This further condemned the name Brontosaurus. However, new finds were about to rewrite even that name change.

In 2015 Emanuel Tschopp and Octávio Mateus of Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Monte de Caparica, Portugal, and Roger Benson of Oxford University, UK, published the results of a detailed survey of 81 sauropod skeletons.  They studied 447 skeletal features and found that Brontosaurus was sufficiently distinct from Apatosaurus so they argued successfully it should be classified as a separate genus, and given its original name back. So, Brontosaurus has risen from the grave of obsolete names, and is back – although he never really left.

(Reference: Emanuel Tschopp, Octávio Mateus, Roger B.J. Benson. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ, 2015; 3: e857 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.857)

You may not have read about this as the science media usually doesn’t like to spread far and wide the history of science faux pas, or mind changes at all. So, we will continue to use this name, and make the point that to even find whole Brontosaurus specimens with heads and necks attached means the sedimentation was very rapid. Furthermore, when you find them with both necks and tails recurved over their bodies, which indicates they drowned, so Noah’s flood is actually very consistent with the evidence. See our report Dino Death Pose Recreated here.

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About The Contributor

John Mackay