The Name Game: Brontosaurus Vs. Apatosaurus


By Julianne Glaser

Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era over 245 to 208 million years ago and dominated the planet for 135 million years. Among the largest were the herbivorous sauropods known for their long necks and tails and immense size. For generations of children, the most famous of these giants was the Brontosaurus, or “thunder lizard.”

The Brontosaurus genus was named in 1879 by famed paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. During the “Bone Wars” and subsequent twentieth century debate, the name was discredited when research suggested that the Brontosaurus was actually part of a larger genus of dinosaur, the Apatosaurus. A recent in-depth study of the dinosaur family tree, however, has revealed key information that has resurrected the Brontosaurus genus.

The Diplodocidae Family

The Diplodocidae were plant eaters that roamed North America and Europe between 145 to 160 million years ago and included the gigantic Apatosaurus, Diplodocus and Barosaurus based on their similar characteristics.

A new study, however, has revealed that Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus fossils have significant skeletal differences and are, in fact, two separate dinosaur genus. Emanuel Tschopp, paleontologist at the University of Lisbon and lead author of the study, analyzed 81 dinosaur skeletons and 477 skeletal features from 18 museums in the United States and Europe.

“I didn’t start out trying to resurrect Brontosaurus,” Tschopp states. Yet, his comprehensive findings have impressed the scientific community. Philip Mannion, a paleobiologist at Imperial College London, says, “Emanuel’s data set is now the largest published so far” for plant-eating dinosaurs.

As published in Science Magazine, Tschopp and colleagues found that the Brontosaurus differed from the three other recognized species of Apatosaurus in at least a dozen key skeletal characteristics. As a result, Brontosaurus nomenclature has been reinstated into the scientific community.

Nomenclature Debate Continues

Not all paleontologists are welcoming the name change. John Whitlock, a paleontologist at Mount Aloysius College, expressed hesitation about the recent change: “It’s going to force us to ask questions about what we really mean by genus and species in a paleontological context...”

Mannion, however, has embraced the resurrection of an iconic name, “Brontosaurus has a prominent place in the public imagination; it can only be a good thing that it is back with us.”

Extension Questions

  • What were the “bone wars”? Who was involved and what was at issue?
  • What are some of the theories regarding extinction of dinosaurs?
  • What are the three periods in the Mesozoic Era? During each of these periods, what was the Earth like and which dinosaurs lived?