I Miss Brontosaurus...

There are times some folks might think I grew up in the age of the dinosaurs, although a check of my driver's license and other official paperwork continues to prove I am not quite that old.

Nevertheless, I am here to say I miss Brontosaurus.

Actually, I called him Bronto. He was a green sauropod dinosaur with a long neck and tail. I played with him when I was little and will tell anyone who will listen that Bronto was very cool.

But then science came along. 

It turns out that Brontosaurus never really existed. The creature’s real name is Apatosaurus. It lived from about 154 to 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period. It was also one of the largest land animals to ever exist. Imagine a giant creature about 23m (75 ft) long and weighing roughly 16 metric tons (18 tons). That’s about the weight of four elephants! The front legs were slightly shorter than the back. As it moved its tree-trunk like legs, it held its long, whip-like tail above the ground. It was an herbivore, eating leaves from trees and grasses.

But again, it was not Brontosaurus. Although I am happy to say that Dr. Lindsay Zanno, of North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, tells me I’m not the only person that misses Brontosaurus. She is asked about everybody’s favorite sauropod all the time. So what’s up?

It turns out that back in 1877, a paleontologist named Othniel Charles Marsh published the name of a dinosaur species Apatosaurus ajax (Apatosaurus meaning “deceptive lizard” while Ajax was a hero in Greek mythology). Two years later, he published another dinosaur and named it Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard”). 

The name stuck until 1903, when another paleontologist named Elmer Riggs took another look at Marsh’s fossils and his work and concluded the dinosaurs weren’t really separate species but instead represented the same genus. That means the names were synonyms and the rules of the ICZN (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature) mandates that the oldest name has priority. So, Apatosaurus wins out over Brontosaurus.

As for the confusion, Rigg’s work was published in a fairly obscure scientific journal. Not many people saw it. Plus, for years, children’s books and popular media sometimes used the term Brontosaurus. Adding to the name confusion, the Sinclair Oil Corporation used a Brontosaurus in its logo. 

Ironically, an additional study shows Dr. Marsh’s original two specimens are now considered different enough to represent separate species. The older fossil is named Apatosaurus ajax and the new fossil is Apatosaurus excelsus.

It all makes sense, but I still miss Brontosaurus.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!


Related Resources:

  • Video: Digging Dinos
  • Lesson Plan: Dinosaur Fossils
Blog: 
North Carolina Science Now