Is It Time To Resurrect The Brontosaurus?

Apr 7, 2015
Originally published on April 12, 2015 4:46 pm

The Brontosaurus may be back.

Not that it ever really went away, at least not in the minds of generations of people who grew up watching Fred Flintstone devour one of his beloved Brontosaurus burgers.

But if you're a scientist, you have to stick to the rules, and in 1903, the name Brontosaurus was struck from the record. That was when paleontologist Elmer Riggs deemed that the Brontosaurus was really just a different dinosaur, Apatosaurus.

Both were long-necked and long-tailed creatures, among the largest to roam the Earth in their time. But now an extensive study published online in the journal PeerJ, finds that there are considerable differences between the two — enough, the researchers say, to conclude that they belong to separate groups.

A team of paleontologists spent five years researching and analyzing hundreds of different physical features of dinosaur specimens. The study's lead author, Emanuel Tschopp from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal, says, "Generally, the Brontosaurus can be distinguished from Apatosaurus most easily by its neck, which is higher and less wide," according to Scientific American.

Tschopp tells the magazine that while both dinosaurs are massive and robust animals, Apatosaurus is "even more extreme than Brontosaurus."

A name change is a normal part of the constant updates and revisions associated with identifying and naming new species, according to The Guardian. The newspaper says evolution doesn't happen in big leaps and it takes time for changes and differences to accumulate, but eventually populations are different enough that they're recognized as separate entities and given a name.

Or, in the case of the Brontosaurus — getting back its name. As NPR reported in 2012, the tussle over naming the dinosaur goes back to the so-called Bone Wars of the late 1800s, when rival fossil hunters raced to name new dinosaurs. Othniel Charles Marsh led a team that found the skeletons of two creatures.

The first was found in 1877 and named Apatosaurus. But, as the story says, "it was missing a skull, so in 1883 when Marsh published a reconstruction of his Apatosaurus, Lamanna says he used the head of another dinosaur — thought to be a Camarasaurus — to complete the skeleton."

The second dinosaur, found in 1879, was named Brontosaurus, or "thunder lizard."

But then, in 1903, Elmer Riggs said that classification was wrong. He based his premise on the number of sacrum bones (where the tail attaches to the spinal cord) of each dinosaur, according to Wired magazine. The Apatosaurus sacrum has three bones, while the Brontosaurus had five. Instead of being a different species, Riggs contended the Brontosaurus was a younger version of the Apatosaurus.

In such cases, scientific rules state that the oldest name — in this case Apatosaurus — takes precedent.

As Smithsonian notes, "The fate of Brontosaurus now relies upon whether other paleontologists will be able to replicate the results, as well as what those researchers think about the threshold for when dinosaurs merit different names."

It's taken more than 100 years, but the Brontosaurus may be on the road to redemption.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And this morning we've got a new take on a fossilized favorite. It's a new theory about the Brontosaurus.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS")

JOHN CLEESE: (As Anne Elk) All Brontosauruses are thin at one end...

(LAUGHTER)

CLEESE: (As Anne Elk) Much, much thicker in the middle...

(LAUGHTER)

CLEESE: (As Anne Elk) And then thin again at the far end.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEESE: (As Anne Elk) That is my theory. It is mine and belongs to me.

GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (As television host) That's it, is it?

MONTAGNE: OK, OK, that's not our theory. That's from "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The theory we're thinking about, (in British accent) my theory - actually not mine - is the name. You know, the Brontosaurus, that big, lumbering dinosaur with the long neck, seems like such a gentle plant eater.

MONTAGNE: And this particular dinosaur has been a favorite in popular culture. In the science world, the Brontosaurus has not been such a favorite.

INSKEEP: Scientists always used a different name, the Apatosaurus, meaning deceptive lizard, for this dinosaur. Or at least they did use that name until now.

MONTAGNE: A study published in the science journal PeerJ this week finds the Brontosaurus is just different enough from the Apatosaurus that it deserves its own name.

EMANUEL TSCHOPP: They are quite similar. But still, the study said that they are enough different to keep both of them as distinct...

INSKEEP: That's Emanuel Tschopp. He's the lead author of the study, which looked at almost 500 traits of the two distinct dinosaurs. He says, look carefully at that long neck of the Apatosaurus.

TSCHOPP: Below the neck vertebrae, they have these extremely robust so-called neck ribs. And it's similar, but not so developed, in Brontosaurus.

MONTAGNE: OK, but still, not everyone is convinced.

BRIAN SWITEK: I'm not holding my big Brontosaurus bash just yet. I want to see if it's going to stick around.

MONTAGNE: That's Brian Switek. He's a science writer and author of the book "My Beloved Brontosaurus." Though he's unconvinced, he's not dismissive.

SWITEK: To me, it's as magnificent a dinosaur as if it's called Apatosaurus. You know, a dinosaur by any other name would be just as wonderful.

INSKEEP: Although, the name Brontosaurus means thunder lizard. It's hard to beat that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.