Why Brontosaurus is no more

It is a sad fact but one of the best known dinosaur names –  Brontosaurus, cannot be used anymore although you would be hard pressed to believe this as Brontosaurus’s keep popping up all over the place, in books, comics, websites even the occasional scientific journal.  For example, in the film King Kong by Peter Jackson, there is a scene entitled “Stampede of the Brontosaurs”.  It is a great scene but unfortunately the name Brontosaurus had been struck out of the scientific record 30 years before this movie was made.  Scientists now use the name Apatosaurus to describe animals that were once called Brontosaurus.

You have to travel back in time yourself to unravel the mystery of the name change.  It all began in 1877 when the famous American palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh described and named a new sauropod called Apatosaurus from fossils found in Colorado, USA.  Two years later, fossils of what was thought to be a new long-necked dinosaur was found in a quarry at Como Bluff, Wyoming.  This animal was named and described by Marsh, he called it Brontosaurus “Thunder Lizard” in recognition that an animal estimated to have weighed more than 30 tonnes and being over 20 metres long would have made the ground shake as it walked.

However, as more sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) fossils were unearthed it was realised that the animal named and described as Brontosaurus actually was the same genus as Apatosaurus.  Since Apatosaurus was described first, its name took precedence and the name Brontosaurus had to be disregarded.

In 1905 when the world’s first long-necked dinosaur went on display at the American Museum of Natural History, it was wrongly labelled in the press as Brontosaurus.  Thanks to this simple mistake and many Hollywood films, the name Brontosaurus seems to have stuck in people’s imaginations.

A Line Drawing of an Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus as was)

Drawing courtesy of Everything Dinosaur

Apatosaurus does not seem to have been a very lucky animal when it comes to palaeontology.  The skeleton found in 1879 was one of the most complete ever discovered in America, but unfortunately, it lacked a head.  Very often the relatively small head is missing when it comes to digging up sauropods.  In this instance, rather than spoil the look of their wonderful new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, when the skeleton went on display, it was given the head of a Camarasaurus to complete it.

The Camarasaurus skull sat proudly on the fossil Apatosaurus for many years, it was only taken down and replaced by an Apatosaurus skull in the 1970’s.

The name of Brontosaurus continued to linger on in scientific parlance, but it was finally removed from all scientific notes and correspondence in 1974.  This is a shame as Brontosaurus “Thunder Lizard” is a much more evocative name than Apatosaurus, but rules are rules and as Apatosaurus was named and described first this is the name we should use.

Just for the record, Apatosaurus means “deceptive lizard” which is rather appropriate given the what has happened to Brontosaurus.

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