So, What’s the Deal with Brontosaurus?
After being relegated to the dustbin of science and pop culture for a few decades, Brontosaurus has come roaring back to validity thanks to a recent study of sauropod anatomy.
First named by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1879, Brontosaurus later turned out to include two different skeletons, Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus, mistaken for one new species. Marsh’s mistake came about in part because of his rivalry with fellow paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope—a rivalry later known as the Bone Wars. These guys suspected each other of theft so much that they took to blowing up their dig sites with dynamite at the end of the dig season just to keep the other guy from discovering something before they could. Despite the nastiness, together they advanced paleontology considerably, but they also caused a lot of problems like Brontosaurus in the meantime.
Marsh’s identification was met with skepticism by some, but it took 30 years for science to catch the mistake. Pop culture didn’t catch up until nearly 100 years later, in part because of the wonderfully poetic name, partly because it was one of the largest mounted dinosaur skeletons for several decades, and partly because of an odd decision on the part of museum curators regarding that skeleton. For years, they left the head off of the mount because the misidentification made scientists overlook the fact that they had found the animal’s actual skull—they had assumed it belonged to a similar animal, Diplodocus. Speculative sculptures were created to complete the skeleton, but in the 1930’s they finally went with a cast of a Camarasaurus skull for reasons unknown. This created the popular image of a long-necked Brontosaurus with a boxy head, like Littlefoot from The Land Before Time. The head was finally switched to the correct one in the late 70’s.
Why the comeback, then? An exhaustive 2015 study of sauropod anatomy has determined there are enough differences to justify reinstating the Brontosaurus name. This study, conducted by Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger Benson, examined individual specimens and compared them both with other diplodocids and other sauropods from the same era and geography. They did not, however, address issues beyond the bodies of the animals themselves, nor did they account for possible physical differences between the sexes. As a result, though they have solid evidence for Brontosaurus, their interpretation of that evidence could be overturned in the future when scientists can answer the larger questions their paper creates. So YES, Brontosaurus is back, but whether it will STAY back and for how long remains a subject for debate. —Jeff Bond
Tschopp, Emanuel, Octávio Mateus, and Roger BJ Benson. "A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda)." PeerJ 3 (2015): e857. https://peerj.com/articles/857/