Features

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Brontosaurus is back, y'all! Prodigal dino returns to lexicon

Study suggests science should restore the dinosaur to its rightful status.

The mighty Brontosaurus just stomped back into the halls of palaeontology, throwing its 30-tonne weight around to topple the longstanding organisational scheme for a family of ancient dinosaurs.

A five-year effort to sort through hundreds of specimens in major museums worldwide suggests science should undo 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 US Postal Service of pandering to “cartoon nomenclature” when it issued a Brontosaurus stamp in 1989.

An artist's rendering of a Brontosaurus as researchers see it today, with a Diplodocus-like head. Image: Reuters

So, the study published online April 7 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.

In the late 19th century, pioneering palaeontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope competed fiercely over new fossil discoveries hauled out of the rock beds of the US 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, reconsidered 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.

New taxonomy

It took five years for the European research team 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, according to the study.

Mike Taylor, a palaeobiology researcher at the University of Bristol who was not involved in the study, said he found the new evidence convincing.

Still, the study is unlikely to settle the family feuds, Tschopp acknowledged. “There will be a debate on that, and I’m actually looking forward to it.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Lifestyle , Features , Science , palaeontology , brontosaurus , apatosaurus

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