One of the most well known dinosaurs has reclaimed its famous name, thanks to a new study that set out to resolve the decades-long debate over whether Brontosaurus was really just a funny-looking adult Apatosaurus.
From Jurassic Park to U.S. postage stamps, from stickers and tattoos to The Land Before Time, Brontosaurus has been making appearances in pop culture dino venues for a long time. What many don’t know, however, is that Brontosaurus has been fighting for its own name in a bitter paleontological battle that began more than a century ago.
Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were the original purveyors of the Brontosaurus debacle – two of the oldest and most renowned paleontologists whose famed “bone wars” erupted in the late 1860’s. Each man claimed the other was damaging or stealing his fossils that belonged to his rightful digging site. A species-naming race ensued – in which each scientist tried in vain to name the most species. Marsh named a partial specimen he found Apatosaurus, then soon after found another more complete fossil and called it Brontosaurus. But, the story goes, Marsh was a bit too over-zealous in his struggle to out-name Cope. A later study by paleontologist Elmer Riggs reviewed Marsh’s work in 1903 and declared that Marsh’s Apatosaurus was merely a young Brontosaurus specimen.
Riggs’ findings ostensibly put the naming battle to rest – it was decided among paleontologists that Apatosaurus would be the scientific name for the genus including both of Marsh’s specimens – as this name was used first. But Brontosaurus still retained its popular name in many places – due in part to the remarkably complete skeleton found by Marsh and used as the template for dinosaur reconstruction worldwide. Most notably, Brontosaurus’ then-false name appeared on the 1989 U.S. postage stamp, causing many scientists at the time to express outrage about the mis-nomenclature that apparently promotes scientific illiteracy.
The 1989 U.S. postage stamp which bore the name Brontosaurus
Fast forward to this year, when a team of international scientists decided to figure out once and for all whom – and if – Brontosaurus really was. In their April 2015 study in the journal Peer J, Emanuel Tschopp from the University of Torino in Italy, Octavio Mateus from the Museu da Lourinhã in Portugal, and Roger Benson from the University of Oxford in the U.K., examine fossils from the sauropod group Diplodocidae – to which both Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus belong to – to determine if their differences classify them as separate genera.
Tschopp and colleagues analyzed 81 operational taxonomic units, using statistical methods to determine if the differences among and between species and genera were significant enough to classify them into their own OTU. Such a widespread statistical analysis has never before been conducted on Diplodocidae, and a number of findings emerged. Some species presumed to have been in genera such as Diplodocus or Apatosaurus were found to be different enough to exclude them from these groups. A new genus was discovered, and named Galeamopus. But the most exciting find for most dino enthusiasts is that Brontosaurus is in fact a unique and legitimate genus. Welcome back, Brontosaurus.
Read more about the Brontosaurus name debate at www.unmuseum.org.