The Return of the Brontosaurus

I wanted to be a paleontologist before I could even pronounce the word.  Like a lot of little boys, I was fascinated by dinosaurs.

But, like most dinosaur-loving boys, I eventually outgrew my fondness for them.  Still, even though dinosaur stuff has been way down on my list of priorities for the past 45 years or so, I enjoyed coming across this article, and learning of the return of the mighty brontosaurus.

The story of the brontosaurus’ demise is told in the article:

Brontosaurus has not been a valid taxonomic name since the early twentieth century. (Just ask the US Postal Service, which was roundly criticized after it released a Brontosaurus postage stamp in 1989.)

The rise, fall and now rise of the Brontosaurus has its roots in the ‘bone wars’ of nineteenth-century palaeontology. While some prospectors dug up the American West in search of mineral fortunes in the middle to late 1800s, others looked for giant lizards. A race between palaeontologists Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh defined the era.“Cope and Marsh were big rivals,” says Emanuel Tschopp, a palaeontologist at the Nova University of Lisbon, Portugal, who led the latest study, published on 7 April in the journal PeerJ. “They really rushed new species into press as fast as possible, and many of these reference specimens on which they based new species are extremely fragmentary and are not comparable directly.”

Working in Colorado’s Morrison formation in 1877, Marsh’s field crew uncovered the gargantuan bones of a species he dubbed Apatosaurus ajax — a genus name that translates to deceptive lizard, and a species name that references the Greek hero Ajax. Two years later, Marsh found another giant dinosaur in the same rock formation and named it Brontosaurus excelsus, the noble thunder lizard.

In the early 1900s, after discovering a fossil that was similar to both Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, other researchers decided that the two dinosaurs were distinct species of the same genus. Subsequent studies only raised further questions about the status of Brontosaurus.

Palaeontologists eventually agreed that Brontosaurus is properly called Apatosaurus, under taxonomic rules drafted by the eighteenth-century Swedish systematist Carl Linnaeus and still in use today. The rules state that the first name given for an animal takes priority. The bones attributed to Brontosaurus excelsus, therefore, belonged to Apatosaurus excelsus.

So despite the enduring popularity of the “Brontosaurus” name, the dinosaur’s proper name was the decidedly less cool Apatosaurus.

But now scientists have concluded that there are in fact enough differences between the two to resurrect the Brontosaurus category.  That should bring a smile to Brontosaurus-lovers out there, many of whom may know the Bronto best from this:

Fred and Bronto

Brontosaurus Burger

Brontosaurus Burger

A comment to the article tells another interesting story–the near loss of the beloved Tyrannosaurus Rex.

There’s another great story about name confusion and dinosaurs. In 1892 E D Cope discovered a single vertebrate and used it to describe a new species of ceratopsian he called Manospondylus gigas. Fast forward 100 years and some scientists find his vertebrate in a museum and reanalyze it. They find that it actually belongs to another already named species: Tyrannosaurus rex. Now Tyrannosaurus rex was originally conceived as two genera, the other being Dynamosaurus imperiosis. Only because Barnum Brown happened to use the name T. rex earlier in his paper than D. imperiosis did that name become standard. Now it appeared that M. gigas was the real official name of T. rex, and that Tyrannosaurus would go the way of Brontosaurus (until today apparently). So the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature had to do something, because they’d already killed Brontosaurus, there would be riots in the street if T. rex was announced invalid as well..! so they made up some new rules that allowed for an exception. The rules were that a name that had been accepted as official for 100 years, and had been referenced 25 in peer reviewed papers by 10 different authors, would be considered valid over the original name. And thus did Tyrannosaurus rex narrowly avoid being renamed Manospondylus gigas, which to be fair isn’t a terrible name. It just isn’t suitable for the Tyrant King. They really should recycle it for another genus.

Thank goodness for that.  Prehistory would certainly be diminished by the absence of the T-Rex.