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Bringing Back the Brontosaurus

Illustration for article titled Bringing Back the Brontosaurus

One could say that I was raised by a Brontosaurus.

As a child, I spent many an afternoon running wildly through the Yale Peabody Museum, desperately attempting to get to the museum's Great Hall of Dinosaurs. The now blatantly scientifically inaccurate mural, "The Age of Reptiles," was meticulously placed around my childhood bedroom's walls. I would stubbornly stay there for hours, gazing at one of the "real" fossils that the Peabody had. The fossil was one of a Brontosaurus. I knew that Brontosaurus was not the dinosaur's true name, as scientists, thanks to the work of Elmer Riggs, had classified them as a subset of the Apatosaurus family back in 1903. Which is a shame, due to the fact that Brontosaurus translates to something much more metal (thunder lizard) than Apatosaurus (deceptive reptile).

How can an animal with an average size of 22.8 m (or 75 ft) be deceptive, you ask? Surely an Apatosaurus did not rely on stealth or camouflage! The answer lies within the fossils of Apatosaurus first being examined. In 1877, O.C. Marsh published the very first description of the excavated remains of a large dinosaur. Prior to publication, an isolated vertebrae and a sacrum were sent to Marsh from Morrision, Colorado. The bones that Marsh were presented were alarmingly similar to skeletal features of the tail of a previously discovered marine lizard, mosasaurs. The fossils of mosasaurs and Apatosaurus, to Marsh, were deceptively alike. Thus the Apatosaurus' moniker was born. Two years later, Marsh received a complete skeleton of another large dinosaur, which was discovered at Como Bluff, Wyoming. Marsh named this specimen Brontosaurus in 1879. The Yale Peabody Museum is unique in the fact that the fossil I looked at for long periods of time in the Great Hall was the original fossil that was presented to Marsh. Because of this fact, the fossil at the Peabody keeps its name due to the rules of scientific nomenclature (how new species are named), as part of that specimen's permanent record. The Yale Peabody Museum website states:

"So the Yale Peabody Museum is the only museum in the world that can accurately say, "This is Brontosaurus."

That may change. Numerous news agencies, such as The Guardian, (in an excellent piece by Hannah Devlin) are reporting that after recent analysis, Brontosaurus are sufficiently distinct enough to be their own species. Devlin quotes Roger Benson from the University of Oxford, a coauthor of a recent Brontosaurus study. Benson worked under the tutelage of the study leader, Emanuel Tschopp, at Nova University in Lisbon. Benson states:

"The differences we found between Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were at least as numerous as the ones between other closely related genera, and much more than what you normally find between species..."


Although Brontosaurus is not out of the proverbial woods yet, as more researchers will need to test the validity of these new findings. Regardless, this exciting new discovery is a testament to the ever evolving word of science. Devlin reports Tschopp saying:

"Our research would not have been possible at this level of detail 15 or more years ago.....In fact, until very recently, the claim that Brontosaurus was the same as Apatosaurus was completely reasonable, based on the knowledge we had."

To me personally, this resurrection is much more important than anything that allegedly occurred on Easter. I hope that the thunder lizard roams again through the imaginations of thousands of children and adults. As someone who immediately devolves into a child when standing in the presence of specters of the past, I beseech the scientific community: if evidence continually supports these findings, bring back the Brontosaurus.

Image of a piece of Rudolph Zallinger's "The Age of Reptiles" mural via Britannica Kids Encyclopedia

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