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Brontosaurus is Back

Brontosaurus as it typically appeared in books or films. Note that this image is somewhat inaccurate: Brontosaurus and long-necked dinosaurs probably did not live half-submerged in water. Source: https://legionofleia.files.wordpress.com

Last week, a group of Portuguese paleontologists scored a striking victory for lost childhoods everywhere, re-declaring Brontosaurus a distinct subspecies of dinosaur.

In 1879, paleontologist Othniel Marsh excavated what he thought to be a new species of sauropod, or long-necked dinosaur. The skeleton was incomplete, but Marsh was in a hurry. He had an intense rivalry with fellow paleontologist Edward Cope, which had evolved into a long-standing rush to discover new species before the other did. In his haste, he stuck on the head of a different dinosaur and named his new discovery Brontosaurus—the “thunder lizard”. Boasting a length of up to 72 feet and weighing 15 tons, Brontosaurus quickly rose to fame and dominated books, museums, and the imaginations of children everywhere.

The dashing Othniel Marsh. Source: wikipedia.org

However, less than three decades after its discovery, Brontosaurus experienced a second extinction. In 1903, paleontologists realized that Marsh’s famous sauropod was nothing more than the skeleton of an Apatosaurus, which had been previously discovered (by Marsh himself, no less) in 1877. Brontosaurus was dead once more—no, it had simply never existed in the first place. But for decades, scientists and dinosaur enthusiasts were disinclined to accept the nonexistence of one of the most popular dinosaurs. Brontosaurus held on. It appeared on the big screen and in children’s books. The U.S. Postal Service purposely printed the defunct thunder lizard on a series of stamps. Some museums even kept the Brontosaurus labeling for their fossil specimens out of sheer defiance.

Thankfully, luck seemed to be on Brontosaurus’ side. The study published last week gave nearly 300 pages of analysis and proof for Brontosaurus’ uniqueness as a dinosaur species. According the head of the study, Emanuel Tschopp, structural differences in the bones and neck prove that although Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were similar animals, they were still distinct enough to qualify Brontosaurus as its own separate subspecies. Close relatives, but not exactly the same animal. Brontosaurus made its comeback.

But why did Brontosaurus even rise to fame, much less stick around even after its declared obsolescence? Because Brontosaurus was more than just an extinct, plant-eating reptile. Unlike its close relative, the Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus’ fearsome name, and frequent appearances in children’s media—coloring books, cartoons, encyclopedias—ensured that when most children thought of a long-necked dinosaur, their minds immediately jumped to Brontosaurus. Its huge size and the terrifying image its name evoked represented all that was unknown and fascinating about the prehistoric world. In a way, Brontosaurus was the defining representative of all dinosaurs and all dinosaur enthusiasts.

So welcome back, Brontosaurus—we’re glad to have you. Now all we’re waiting on is Pluto.

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