Photo: 3dmotus (Shutterstock)
When I say “Brontosaurus”, a very specific image of a long-necked, long-tailed sauropod comes to mind. It was one of the few dinosaurs we got to know as children – at least in my day – along with the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Pterodactyl, and Stegosaurus. But the Brontosaurus as we knew it was actually the Apatosaurus. Or was it?
Scientific American will start us with an explanation:
The first of the Brontosaurus genus was named by the famous paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh in 1879. The specimen is still in the Great Hall of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History today. In 1903, however, the paleontologist Elmer Riggs found that Brontosaurus was apparently identical to the genus Apatosaurus, which Marsh first described in 1877. In such cases, the rules of scientific nomenclature state that the oldest name takes precedence and does not allow Brontosaurus to become extinct again.
So if we scientists knew this as early as 1903, why did I – a kid of the 1980s and 90s – grow up learning about a dinosaur that apparently never existed? Well, it seems that museums have been adjusting to change very slowly and some have disagreed that they should be changed at all. His image and name lived on in pop culture and was featured in Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 and The Land Before Time in 1988.
Before we knew it, we were adults and our little kids were learning about the Apatosaurus and saying, “No, no, that’s a brontosaurus, fool!” Fortunately in 2015 another paleontologist has decided In fact, there were enough differences between the two groups of fossils to classify them as separate species. So the brontosaurus existed. May be.