Thursday, May 05, 2022

Brontosaurus is back

If, like me, you were brought up with brontosaurus as the giant of the dinosaur world, and were wistful and disappointed when our kids learned all about apatosaurus instead, you might raise a tiny cheer to the news that brontosaurus is back

The brontosaurus/apatosaurus dichotomy dates back to the late 1870s, when rival dinosaur hunters Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope discovered two giant lizards in the rocks of Colorado's Morrison formation. Marsh named his apatosaurus ("deceptive lizard") and Cope named his brontosaurus ("thunder lizard"). In the early 1900s, as more fossil skeletons of similar animals were discovered, it was eventually ruled that they were all different species of the same genus, and as the apatosaurus was discovered two years before the brontosaurus, that was the name that was officially given to all such long-necked dinosaurs in the diplodocid family of sauropods. For some reason, though, the name brontosaurus continued regardless (maybe because "thunder lizard" sounds more impressive than "deceptive lizard"!), particularly in the less scientific kids books that I remember.

However, more recently, a new study from the Nova University in Lisbon, Portugal, spent five years analyzing nearly 500 diplodocids in an attempt to definitively draw the family tree. In April of this year, it finally released its report, which it knew would be contentious among paleontologists, concluding that apatosaurus and brontosaurus were different enough to merit their own separate genera. 

Now, many of the differences are rather obscure and subtle, and the report authors thought long and hard before making their recommendations. But there it is. Let's see if paleontologists (and dinosaur-crazy 6-year olds) take it to heart. Since my day, many other supersaurs, ultrasaurs, titanosaurs, giganotosaurs and brachiosaurs have been discovered that are much larger than either apatosaurus, brontosaurus or diplodocus. It's become a competitive sport - Argentina claims the longest, so does America, so does China. But I still fondly remember brontosaurus as being the king of the dinosaurs (well, the herbivores at least).

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