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Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus

Of all the sauropod giants that lived during the Mesozoic era, the Brontosaurus (or "thunder lizard") is among the most popular despite the fact that its existence has been disputed for nearly a century by the scientific community. It has long been thought that Apatosaurus - one of the earliest sauropods discovered and described by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1877 - and Brontosaurus belonged to the same species of sauropod. But as Apatosaurus was dug up two years earlier than Brontosaurus and in such a situation the laws of paleontology dictate that the oldest species has precedence, Brontosaurus was therefore relegated to oblivion.

The little story of Brontosaurus

It was initially in 1877 that Othniel Charles Marsh, then a professor at Yale University, published the first description of a huge dinosaur whose bones came from the Morrison Formation in Colorado. These are some vertebrae and the sacrum bone. The particular and misleading anatomy of the Apatosaurus tail, very similar to that of the vicious marine lizards mosasaurs, pushes Marsh to grant the animal the name Apatosaurus or "deceptive lizard". Two years later, in 1879, another gigantic dinosaur was discovered in Como Bluff, Wyoming. The 25 cases of bones form an almost complete skeleton of Brontosaurus and are currently on display at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Specimens of Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were extremely similar, but Apatosaurus had three sacral vertebrae in the hip region while Brontosaurus had five. Since it was not known at the time that the number of vertebrae in the sacrum varied with age, Marsh gave the specimens two different names. 25 years later, in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized that Brontosaurus was a mature Apatosaurus and since Apatosaurus was first discovered, its name was retained.

In 2015, however, new development revealed several anatomical differences between specimens and brought Brontosaurus back to life.

A new scientific study

Brontosaurus at Yale Peabody
Yale Peabody

A 2015 study led by Emanuel Tschopp - a vertebrate paleontologist at the New University of Lisbon - and a team of researchers found that Brontosaurus is clearly distinguishable from Apatosaurus by its much higher and wider neck. The study, which required five years of research and numerous visits to European and American museum collections, produced a 300-page report detailing the analysis of 477 different physical characteristics in 81 sauropod specimens.

The purpose of the research was to clarify the relationships between species of the diplodocid family such as Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus. The conclusions are that there are officially 3 distinct species of Brontosaurus:

  • B. excelsus
  • B. parvus
  • B. yahnahpin

One of the interesting things about these finds is that sauropods were a much more diverse and fascinating group of dinosaurs than we realize.

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