The U.S. Postal Service received a lot of flak in 1989 for releasing a stamp featuring a Brontosaurus, with many protesting that it wasn't the proper term to use for the dinosaur. It may have taken more than 25 years but a study has vindicated the USPS, showing that the Brontosaurus is indeed real and very much a legitimate dinosaur like the others.
In a study published in the journal PeerJ, Emanuel Tschopp, Roger B.J. Benson and Octavio Mateus detailed how they discovered that the Brontosaurus had an identity of its own. Actually, they didn't start out aiming to prove that the dinosaur was real. Instead, the researchers were analyzing different diplodocid specimens to review how fossils have been classified and to check whether differences in anatomy between the specimens translated to variations within and between species.
Tschopp and colleagues examined almost 500 anatomical traits across dozens of specimens part of at least 20 species from the diplodocid group, creating a family tree. They also visited 20 museums all over the United States and Europe, dedicating five years of their time to gathering all the information they need.
Very broadly, the family tree the researchers came up with showed evolutionary relationships present among diplodocid species. But though appearing related, the Brontosaurus is different enough from the Apatosaurus to warrant its own genera. Many of the two's anatomical differences are obscure but the Apatosaurus has a stouter neck, for one. Both dinosaurs are massive and robust but the Apatosaurus dominated the Brontosaurus in size.
Aside from reinstating the Brontosaurus, the study also reshuffled other dinosaurs. The Diplodocus hayi, for instance, got its own genus, Galeomopus, while Portugal's Dinheirosaurus was classified as a Supersaurus, a genus that was only found in North America before.
Tschopp recounted how he and his team thought very hard about the results of their study knowing that resurrecting the Brontosaurus would result in some resistance.
"We knew it would be a major finding because Brontosaurus is such a popular name. I'm pretty sure there will be a scientific discussion around this," he said, adding he actually hopes there will be since that's how science is supposed to work.
The Brontosaurus originally lost its place in the dinosaur world after Othniel Marsh, a paleontologist, published two brief reports on fossils he had found. As the two were too similar, other paleontologists decided not to divide them into separate genera. As the Apatosaurus was named first, the Brontosaurus was considered an invalid name for the dinosaur, based on rules governing scientific nomenclature.
Photo: Patrick Feller | Flickr