You can’t keep a good dino down.
A new study has good news for people who grew up sleeping on Brontosaurus sheets, reading Brontosaurus books, or watching Fred Flintstone dine on Brontosaurus burgers. The elegant, long-necked herbivore, which enjoyed a prominent place in pop culture for decades despite being reclassified as a boring old Apatosaurus back in 1903, is back. Maybe.
The paper, published in PeerJ, is the result of five years of research and computer modeling. Emmanuel Tschopp and Octavio Mateus compared 477 anatomical features from 81 fossil specimens, letting algorithms “sort through those traits to create a family tree based upon who shares which characteristics.”
The Brontosaurus was named back in 1879, and a nearly complete specimen was discovered by Othniel Charles Marsh during the “bone wars.” But in 1903 paleontologist Elmer Riggs determined by looking at the sacrum bones that join the tailbone and spinal cord that the brontosaurus was really just a juvenile Apatosaurus, a sauropod within the Diplodocidae family. The Brontosaurus lived on in culture—and in more than a few museums that were slow to adapt—but became a dinosaur non grata in the scientific community.
So the study’s authors were surprised to find a significant difference between the “Brontosaurus” specimens and other Diplodocidae. So surprised that they turned to Roger Benson, an Oxford scientist specializing in statistical analysis, who said:
It was a number of small differences that were important, but probably the most obvious features that would help distinguish the two is that the Apatosaurus has an extremely wide neck, where Brontosaurus‘ is more high than wide.
There are a few problems with saying definitively that Brontosaurus is a distinct genus. For one, as Slate contributor (and Brontosaurus aficionado) Brian Switek notes, “the status of Brontosaurus relies on definitions and the philosophy of how scientists go about making divisions in a messy natural world.” In other words, there are no rules about precisely what makes up a species or genus.
The news is exciting not just because of the Brontosaurus’ long-lived popularity. It’s the second big discovery in as many months that demonstrates how much new technology can have a profound effect on our understanding of long-extinct species. In March, Nature featured a study that used a computer reconstruction of a Homo habilis jaw to determine that the hominid species dated back to at least 2.3 million years ago.
And it goes to show that the more we learn, the more we learn about how much more we have to learn. In Scientific American, vertebrate paleontologist Mike Taylor puts it best.
All in all, these findings emphasize “that sauropods were much more diverse and fascinating than we’ve realized,” Taylor says. Indeed, the recognition of Brontosaurus as separate from Apatosaurus is “only the tip of the iceberg,” Taylor adds.