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Tyrannosaurus. Triceratops. Velociraptor. Though dinosaurs remain popular as ever, the general public knows very few genera by name. And, for many years, one of the most famous dino names ever coined has been considered invalid. But today, some scientists have announced that long-dormant Brontosaurus might deserve to be reinstated.
After an enormous skeleton belonging to a long-necked herbivore was discovered in 1879, paleontologist Othneil Charles Marsh (1831-1899) called the creature Brontosaurus excelsus. A prolific fossil-hunter, Marsh named over a dozen brand-new dinos that his field teams had discovered lurking beneath the American West—including fan favorites like Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.
Unfortunately, his earlier work condemned Brontosaurus (which means “Thunder Lizard”) to a second extinction of sorts. In 1877, he’d dubbed a related animal Apatosaurus ajax. Twenty-six years later, geologist/paleontologist Elmer Riggs compared that animal to Brontosaurus and concluded that, because these creatures were so similar-looking, they truly belonged to the same genus. Since the name Apatosaurus had seniority, Brontosaurus excelsus became Apatosaurus excelsus.
However, some new research argues in favor of extracting Brontosaurus from history’s dustbin. A comprehensive study comparing numerous anatomical features was recently published in PeerJ, and according to lead author Emmanuel Tschopp, Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus are distinctive enough to be re-divided into separate genera again. “Generally,” he said, “Brontosaurus can be distinguished from Apatosaurus most easily by its neck, which is higher and less wide … So, although both are very massive and robust animals, Apatosaurus is even more extreme than Brontosaurus.”
Previously, dinosaur expert Robert Bakker had advocated splitting up the two—but no one has made that case more forcefully than Tschopp and his colleagues just did. And, as an added bonus, the team also believes that Brontosaurus excelsus might have some company: Two other species (Brontosaurus parvus and Brontosaurus yahnahpin) may also belong to the genus.
Still, the case isn't closed. There are still debates to be had about whether Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus truly are one-and-the-same. But for the first time in the history of this awkward situation, there’s a legitimate ray of hope for the “Thunder Lizard.”