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Scientists resurrect the Brontosaurus name with a bit of bone magic

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Detailed analysis of the Diplodocidae family suggests the Brontosaurus was wrongly declassified in 1903

Flickr, Creative Commons

Despite being one of the most well-known dinosaurs around, the long-necked, plant-eating Brontosaurus hasn't actually been a recognized type of dinosaur for more than a century. Now a new study published in the open access journal Peer J is seeking to restore the Brontosaurus to its rightful position among dinosaur aristocracy.

Although the first Brontosaurus was classified in 1879 by famed paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, later evaluations in 1903 by one Elmer Riggs suggested that the dinosaur was actually just a younger specimen of the closely related Apatosaurus. The confusion, claimed Riggs, was in the number of bones attaching the tail to the spinal cord. But a new analysis shows that this correction was probably incorrect.

brontosaurus means "thunder lizard"

Using computer algorithms to compare hundreds of anatomical characteristics, an international team of paleontologists carried out the largest-ever analysis of the Diplodocidae family — the family to which both the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus belong. As a result, not only do the researchers suggest that the Brontosaurus genus should be resurrected, but they've also added a completely new subcategory of dinosaur — called a "genus" — to the family: the less catchily named, but equally stout-legged Galeamopus.

The Brontosaurus from top to tail. (Davide Bonadonna, Creative Commons)

The study was mainly about clarifying past discoveries made during the "Bone Wars" — a period during the late 19th century where rival paleontologists charged around the US, digging up dinosaur bones in a frenzy. "[This] resulted in a large amount of species being named, because that’s one of the most prestigious things you can do in science," says lead author Emanuel Tschopp in an interview with Peer J. "Since they were in such a rush to describe new species, many of them were based on fragmentary specimens."

Although Tschopp and his team appear to have properly ordered these fragments, their analysis isn't the final word on the subject — the naming of species is more about consensus than "proving" this or that classification is correct. However, they're confident their work is exhaustive enough to stand up to the criticism. "There will always be details that some people might not like [the research]," Tschopp says, "but others will be more than happy to hear that one of the most famous dinosaur genera of all times — Brontosaurus — is back."

Correction: This article originally stated that "Brontosaurus" meant "noble thunder lizard." It doesn't — Brontosaurus means "thunder lizard;" Brontosaurus excelsus, the animal's full name, means "noble thunder lizard." We regret the error.

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