The Brontosaurus never existed – or did it?

Update: 7th April 2015

Emanuel Tschopp, from the New University of Lisbon, has published a paper with colleagues suggesting that the Brontosaurus may be an individual species after all. They examined high-resolution images of as many diplodocoid bones as they could find (diplodocoids are dinosaurs with long necks, short legs and long, whip-like tails. Diplodocus and Apatosaurus are good examples). They used mathematical equations called algorithms to measure over 500 anatomical differences between the bones; if more than 20% of the traits were different they were deemed to be a different species.

Surprisingly, the Brontosaurus emerged from this research as being a distinct species. The team were so surprised, in fact, that they called in another researcher to check their findings. Roger Benson, from Oxford University, confirmed the results; the analysis showed that Brontosaurus had enough differences from Apatosaurus to be categorised as a separate species.

(The original article follows below). 

The Brontosaurus, the much loved “thunder lizard” with the long neck, stout legs and huge body – well, it was never real. It was the result of rivalry between a pair of nineteenth century palaeontologists.

The Flintstones are going to be very disappointed. Image credit: Hanna Barbera
The Flintstones are going to be very disappointed. Image: Hanna Barbera

How did this happen? In the 1870s two of the most prominent American palaeontologists were Edward D. Cope and Othneil C. Marsh. Originally friends, their ambition and hunger for fame eventually turned into a bitter rivalry. A key event in this competitiveness was the discovery by Marsh that Cope had incorrectly reconstructed the skeleton of the Elasmosaurus, a matter which Marsh made sure was spread far and wide among the fossil hunting community. There were even reports that both Cope and Marsh had instructed their staff to destroy skeletons that were still in the ground, in order to prevent their rival from claiming them.

In 1877 Marsh discovered the incomplete skeleton of an Apatosaurus, and in 1879 he discovered the remains of another, larger sauropod. He was convinced that it was a different species but unable to prove it as the skeleton was lacking a skull. In desperation he took the nearest skull he could find (belonging to a Camarasaurus from a site 4 miles away) and declared that it belonged to the new species, which he named Brontosaurus.

The error (or fraud if you prefer) was discovered by the scientific community at the beginning of the twentieth century but the Brontosaurus was too popular with the general public and the name stuck. Even today the Brontosaurus is one of the more popular dinosaurs, although in the scientific community it is merely a synonym for the Apatosaurus.

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