A five-year effort to sort through hundreds of specimens in major museums worldwide suggests science should un-do a century-long relegation of the Brontosaurus genus to a species within Apatosaurus. It also re-orders other members of the Diplodocidae family of dinosaurs.
Of course, if you grew up watching “Land Before Time” or “The Flintstones,” Brontosaurus probably never left your lexicon. But uttering the B-word might have elicited eye rolls and a tart rejoinder at the local natural history museum. The Smithsonian Institution famously accused the U.S. Postal Service of pandering to “cartoon nomenclature” when it issued a Brontosaurus stamp in 1989.
So, the study published online Tuesday in the journal PeerJ amounts to a voluminous “whoops, sorry” to sore fans of the long-necked sauropods that roamed Earth some 150 million years ago.
“As our study shows, a question, even though it’s considered scientific fact for more than 100 years, can still be overthrown,” said the study’s lead author, Emanuel Tschopp of Nova University in Lisbon, Portugal.
It’s hardly Brontosaurus’ fault — fossil specimens didn’t come out of the rocks of the U.S. West with a label. A string of quintessentially human foibles, including some Brontosaurean egos, led to the name shuffling.
In the late 19th century, pioneering paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope competed fiercely over new fossil discoveries hauled out of the rock beds of the U.S. West. The Bone Wars were marked by allegations of theft, bribery and hastily published research.
Marsh wound up naming two of his incomplete specimens: Apatosaurus ajax and Brontosaurus excelsus. Scientists at the Field Museum in Chicago, however, re-considered the specimens after finding another that looked to be something in between the two species. They decided Apatosaurus ajax was a juvenile Brontosaurus, but since the Apatosaurus name came first, that’s the genus that stuck — for science, if not pop culture.
It took five years for the European research team, which included Octavio Mateus, also of Nova University, and Roger Benson, of Oxford University, to sketch out their new taxonomy for the Diplodocidae family.
Brontosaurus, they suggest, should be its own genus, ranked alongside a new one, Galeamopus. They also relegated a genus named for a Portuguese specimen, Dinheirosaurus, to a species of Supersaurus, first identified in the U.S. West, according to the study.
“People are of course surprised,” Tschopp said. “Because Brontosaurus is such a popular dinosaur, we knew that we would have to explain very well what we did and how we did it — that we would have to have very good evidence for this claim that brontosaurus should come back.”
Mike Taylor, a paleobiology researcher at the University of Bristol who was not involved in the study, said he found the new evidence convincing.
“The real significance of this work doesn’t lie in the specific findings but in the detail and rigor of their work, and the way that have taken pains to ensure that it can be validated, reproduced and extended by others,” Taylor said.
Still, the study is unlikely to settle the family feuds, Tschopp acknowledged.
“We felt very confident to publish this and get this debate started again,” he said. “There will be a debate on that, and I’m actually looking forward to it.”