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Paleontologists Bring Back Brontosaurus

Paleontologists Bring Back Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus lives again — in name, anyway, according to paleontologists from the U.K. and Portugal. If you’re a dinosaur fan, this news may come as a bit of a surprise. For more than a century, scientists have dismissed the existence of Brontosaurus as a case of mistaken identity: The dino formerly known as Brontosaurus, the general consensus went, was actually made up of Apatosaurus fossils.


But the Brontosaurus saga continues, thanks to paleontologists like Emanuel Tschopp, a researcher at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal. Tschopp and his colleagues combed over fossilized skeletons of sauropods (those are long-necked vegetarian dinos with sweeping tails), to inspect hundreds of different body parts.

“It's like sharpening a slightly blurred picture,” Tschopp said, who published the research Tuesday in the scientific journal PeerJ. Based on this enhanced version of the sauropod family tree, Tschopp and his colleagues believe that Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus existed as separate animals.

“Their results show that Brontosaurus should be resurrected,” said Louis Jacobs, a dinosaur expert at Southern Methodist University in Texas. “Good for them and bully for Brontosaurus!”

Attack of the Bones

Sauropods lived 150 million years ago, but confusion between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus didn’t pop up until the late 1800s. By then, the so-called Bone Wars — a race between American paleontologists O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope to be the very best at collecting new dinosaur fossils — was in full swing. In 1877, Marsh found a dinosaur he named Apatosaurus, meaning “Deceptive Lizard.” Two years later, he came across a similar dinosaur, dubbing it Brontosaurus, or “Thunder Lizard.”

Thunder Lizard caught on — because, frankly, something the size of a dozen SUVs would be terrible at hide-and-seek — but experts later dismissed Brontosaurus as a hasty mistake. Like Pluto’s demotion a hundred years later, the name “Brontosaurus” was plucked from scientific records (but never from our hearts).

Tschopp told The MindHut the scientists didn’t set out to bring Brontosaurus back with this new study. Instead, their goal was to analyze all of the sauropods in a Swiss collection, skeleton by skeleton. The differences they uncovered between Apatosaurus fossils and the once-and-future Brontosaurus bones, however, were too numerous to ignore.

Thunder Lizards are Go!

There’s no doubt that Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus are closely related. “The most obvious and visual feature would be that Apatosaurus has a wider neck than Brontosaurus, which has a rather high instead of a wide neck,” Tschopp said. But it’s not just that a Brontosaurus has a skinny neck, he pointed out. “It's the number of differences that is important, not so much the single details.”

As dino discoveries almost always go, the study leaves a few questions unanswered. If Brontosaurus truly is a different beast, we’re not really sure what its face looks like — unlike Apatosaurus, the skull of a Brontosaurus has never been found. Tschopp expects other paleontologists to have their doubts as well. “We have good evidence now for starting the discussion again,” he said, “and for a resurrection of Brontosaurus.” At the very least, he’s convinced that “Brontosaurus will have one chapter more now!”

Image by Sauropod, via Creative Commons

Tags: technology, science, dinosaurs, paleontology, brontosaurus

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