Brontosaurus is back!


news.sciencemag.org Brontosaurus-stamp
1989 US postage stamp depicting Brontosaurus.

The mighty thunder lizard, Brontosaurus, one of the most popular dinosaurs, featured in adverts,1 children’s books, films, TV shows, on stamps,2 and a plethora of merchandise, was the dinosaur that never really was—until now.

The initial find

In 1877 Othniel Charles Marsh, Professor of Paleontology at Yale University and avid dinosaur fossil hunter, discovered the bones of an incomplete sauropod dinosaur in the Morrison Formation, Colorado.3 He named this sauropod Apatosaurus ajax (Apatosaurus means deceptive lizard), which he estimated to be 50–60ft (15–18m) in length.4 Two years later in 1879 Marsh discovered the bones of a larger and more complete sauropod dinosaur, again in the Morrison Formation but this time over the state line in Wyoming,5 which he estimated to be 70–80ft (18–24m) long from head to tail.6 Marsh named this second sauropod dinosaur Brontosaurus excelsus (Brontosaurus means thunder lizard) as he thought, due to its great size, the ground must have shook and thundered underneath it as it walked.


A new paper, in a biological and medical sciences journal, has reinstated Brontosaurus as a valid genus of sauropod dinosaur and Brontosaurus excelsus as a valid species.

The name stood until 1903 when Elmer Riggs, a paleontologist working for the Field Museum in Chicago, who had studied Marsh’s work, wrote, “the writer is convinced that the Apatosaur specimen is merely a young animal of the form represented in the adult by the Brontosaur specimen… . In view of these facts the two genera may be regarded as synonymous. As the term ‘Apatosaurus’ has priority, ‘Brontosaurus’ will be regarded as a synonym.”7 Following the rules of taxonomy, that the earlier name has priority, the Brontosaurus genus was dropped and the remains of the almost complete sauropod dinosaur was reclassified as Apatosaurus excelsus in the dinosaur family Diplodocidae. That should have been the end of Brontosaurus, but it was not to be, as the name lingered on.

Oops, wrong head

wikipedia.org Othniel-Charles-Marsh
Othniel Charles Marsh (1831–1899), paleontologist and discoverer of Brontosaurus excelsus

In 1905 the skeleton of the newly classified Apatosaurus excelsus was mounted in the Yale Peabody Museum.8 However, the signage did not give this first ever sauropod mount its new name, but instead it was labelled Brontosaurus excelsus, forever imprinting the name onto the minds of the general public, lasting right up to our own modern times. The original fossil had been missing some feet and parts of the tail, which in the mount were composed of other fossil material found close by, but more notably it was also missing a head. As discussed in an earlier article, in Marsh’s own reconstructions of the Brontosaurus excelsus, in 1893 and 1891, he chose large incomplete Camarasaurus-like skulls9 which had been found in different quarries. These skulls which were short, round-faced, and heavy set, and a cast based on Camarasaurus-like skulls was used to complete the 1905 mount. As early as 1915 this view was challenged with Dr William Holland, Carnegie Museum Director, pointing out that they had no connection with the body as, “the two skulls used by Marsh were found, one four miles from the rest of his skeleton, the other about four hundred miles from it”.10 Dr Holland instead believed that the correct skull for the body should have been more like the long, slender and broad Diplodocus type skull. His view was vindicated in the 1970s, after which the head on the original 1905 mount was changed and all modern reconstructions have long, slender and broad skulls. So, not only did the Brontosaurus excelsus lose its name, it also lost its head.

Reclassified …. again

Now a new paper in PeerJ,11 a biological and medical sciences journal, has reinstated Brontosaurus as a valid genus of sauropod dinosaur and Brontosaurus excelsus as a valid species. The study, carried out over a five-year period by Tschopp and colleagues, examined the bones of dinosaurs which belonged to the family Diplodocidae. 477 key aspects of the dinosaur’s anatomy were examined and statistically analysed to see how close their characteristics were to each other. Upon concluding their study, Tschopp’s team suggested that, due to a number of physical differences, the original Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus could be classified as different genera, and so the Brontosaurus was resurrected.12 The physical differences between the two focused on features of the shoulder blade and vertebral column which showed that the Apatosaurus had a shorter and thicker neck and was considered to be the more robust animal of the two. “The differences we found between Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were at least as numerous as the ones between closely related genera, and much more than what you normally find between species,” explained Dr Roger Benson, a co-author of the study from the University of Oxford.13

It will be interesting to see how the scientific community responds to this [new] publication and whether or not the name Brontosaurus thunders through another generation of boys and girls who love dinosaurs.

The paper itself acknowledged a few problems that it tried to address. First, a number of juvenile and sub-adult specimens were used and, as such, their physical characteristics were not given as much credence because dinosaur body morphology is now known to change and develop with age. Second, some specimens had deformation. Third, a number are incomplete or are composed of more than one individual. Fourth, in their own words, “The most valuable documents to assure genuine association of skeletal parts to one individual are detailed quarry maps and field notes, but these are often absent for historical type specimens.” And finally, by far the most pressing problem with the study, “is where to draw the line between morphological variation among individuals within species, and variation that allows distinction between species or genera. The decision for specific versus generic separation is somewhat arbitrary, in particular in paleontology.” The authors hoped to overcome this problem by basing their decision on a purely quantitative approach, performing the statistical analysis on the bones they examined. However, they surely recognise that basing genus level decisions on small morphological differences may not prove acceptable to everyone. This is due to the very low sample size, the scientists’ inability to perform any tests on these closely related—but now extinct—animals to see if they could reproduce, and their inability to observe breeding patterns.

It will be interesting to see how the scientific community responds to this exceptionally long publication and whether or not the name Brontosaurus thunders through another generation of boys and girls who love dinosaurs, or even lasts the 24 years that it did last time.

So do we have to fit another dinosaur onto the ark?

commons.wikimedia.org Brontosaurus-excelsus
Brontosaurus excelsus in Yale Peabody Museum today, with the correct head.

So now that Brontosaurus has been presented as alive and well again, differing morphologically from Apatosaurus, does this mean that they must go onto the Noah’s Ark as well? Did Noah have to fit yet another dinosaur on board? No, it doesn’t actually change anything, as we discuss here. While Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus are once again in different genera, they are still part of the dinosaur family Diplodocidae which includes, among many others, another well known dinosaur, Diplodocus. It is highly probable that all of the dinosaurs in this family, and possibly other sauropod dinosaurs, descended from the same created kind and are displaying natural variation due to age, natural selection, or even possibly displaying phenotypic plasticity in response to external factors such as diet. None of these factors is helpful to evolution in the sense of bacteria changing into people over billions of years. Noah would not have taken on board all the variations but only the representatives of that kind, in juvenile form, that God sent to him (Genesis 6:19–20).

Dinosaurs—a testimony to the Flood and a pointer to the Saviour!

Interestingly the paper notes that the Morrison Formation, in which both the original Apatosaurus ajax and Brontosaurus excelsus were found, has yielded about three-quarters of the diplodocid genera reported so far! The Morrison Formation is a huge deposit of mudstone, sandstone and limestone covering an area of approximately 500,000 square miles, and contains within it the spectacular Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. The burial and preservation of these huge animals within the Morrison Formation, some of which have complete articulated skeletons, speak of fossilization conditions unlike anything we see today. Rather, they point to a colossal watery catastrophe, laying down huge waves of sediment and entombing these mighty sauropod dinosaurs, which speaks to us of the judgment that God sent 4,500 years ago in response to mankind’s sin. While God is slow to anger he does not forget to perform His judgment—it will surely come (compare 2 Peter 3:5–6 and 2 Peter 3:7–10).

Brontosaurus, or whatever these creatures were originally called or may yet be called, are wonderful displays of the Creator which excite the imagination, but their fossils should ultimately point to the truth of the Bible and the need for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus.

Published: 5 May 2015

References and notes

  1. Such as the Sinclair Oil Corporation using it as part of their logo. Return to text.
  2. For example, see the 1989 United States 25c stamp. Return to text.
  3. Apatosaurus ajax was found in Lakes Quarry 10, Gunnison County, Colorado. Return to text.
  4. Marsh, O.C., Notice of New Dinosaurian Reptiles from the Jurassic formation, American Journal of Science 14(84):514–516, 1877. Return to text.
  5. Brontosaurus excelsus was found in AMNH Quarry 2, Como Bluff, Wyoming. Return to text.
  6. Marsh, O.C., Notice of new Jurassic dinosaurs, American Journal of Science 18:501–505, 1879. Return to text.
  7. Riggs, E. S., Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs, part I: Apatosaurus Marsh, Field Columbian Museum Publications, Geological Series 2(4):165–196, 1903. Return to text.
  8. Unfortunately Marsh never got to see this display as he died in 1899. Return to text.
  9. Berman, D.S. and McIntosh, J.S., Description of the palate and lower jaw of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus with remarks on the nature of the skull of Apatosaurus, Journal of Paleontology 49(1)187–199, 1975. Return to text.
  10. Holland, W.J., Heads and Tails; a few notes relating to the structure of the sauropod dinosaurs, Annals of the Carnegie Museum 9:273-278; p. 276, 1915. Return to text.
  11. Tschopp, E. et al., A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda), PeerJ 3:e857, 2015; https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.857, accessed 29 April 2015. Return to text.
  12. The study allowed for a minimum of six differences, considering this enough for species-level separation, thereby accounting for individual variation. They allowed for a minimum of thirteen differences for genus-level separation. Return to text.
  13. Anon, Brontosaurus is back! Brontosaurus is a unique genus after all, Science Daily, 7 April 2015; www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150407085256.htm, accessed 29 April 2015. Return to text.