The Brontosaurus technically hasn't existed in the living/breathing sense of the word for 150 million years. But did it ever exist? Was this iconic dinosaur the result of misclassification?
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So our question for the day is “Did the Brontosaurus exist?” The short answer: Yeah. It sure did. But like so many answers, this one spawns a lot more questions.
Let’s back up. Whoa, whoa, not that far – we’re only going to 1877. The confusion over the Brontosaurus stems partially from confusion in biological taxonomy, but also from a bitter rivalry of paleontologists.
Meet Othneil Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. They became good enough friends while studying natural history together that, in the 1860s, they even named newly discovered fossils after each other. But Marsh was ambitious.
Like, Slytherin ambitious.
When Cope showed him around a fossil quarry in camaraderie, Marsh struck a deal with the quarry owner behind Cope’s back. All the fossils found there (and the profits attached to them) went straight to Marsh, and it sparked what history calls the Bone Wars: A fiery race to find -- and publish papers about -- new ancient creatures.
One of those creatures was the Apatosaurus ajax, a huge plant-eater with a long neck and tail that Marsh discovered in 1877.
The skeleton was incomplete, but Marsh wanted the credit for finding it – so he slapped on the head of another dinosaur found nearby (a Camarasaurus) in his published reconstruction.
Then, in 1885, Marsh’s fossil collectors sent him a set of bones belonging to a larger long-necked, long-tailed herbivore. A more complete set.
Marsh decided it was a different animal and published his discovery of the Brontosaurus excelsus. His illustration of its skeleton was the first dinosaur sketch to receive wide lay circulation, and it caught the public’s imagination.
His haste was understandable: Cope was battling Marsh’s superior connections by practicing what’s been called taxonomic carpet-bombing. He would publish 1,400 articles in his 56 years.
The two former buddies slandered and sabotaged each other into financial and reputational ruin. Our friends over at Stuff You Missed in History Class did a whole podcast two-parter on it.
But back to the Brontosaurus. Shortly after Cope and Marsh’s deaths, a paleontologist studying Marsh’s work noticed that the Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus skeletons were really similar – so similar that the scientific community deemed the Brontosaurus excelsus an adult specimen of the Apatosaurus genus.
So in 1903, Brontosaurus lost its official status.
But museums, it seems, didn’t get the memo. Starting in 1905, the sauropod started seeing display around the world, labeled Brontosaurus excelsus. Sometimes with a Camarasaurus head. It wasn’t until the 1990s that these pervasive mistakes were corrected at large.
But the story doesn’t end there. In April of 2015, a group led by paleontologist Emanuel Tschopp published a study analyzing 81 sauropod specimens, including precise measurements of 477 different physical features.
According to their findings, they reported not only that Marsh’s Brontosaurus excelsus skeleton has enough differences to be considered its own species, but that there should be two additional species in the Brontosaurus genus.
For now, the Brontosaurus isn’t back for sure. It’s up to the scientific community to come to a consensus on whether Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus deserve their own separate genera. But the “thunder lizard” certainly wasn’t a fake. Marsh was just a jerk.