The rise, fall, and rise again of the Brontosaurus

I am not that well-informed of the dinosaur world, being able to name only the better-known ones, such as Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and of course Tyrannosaurus Rex. So I was disappointed that the first name had, for some reason probably related to the way things get named in biology, been replaced by the name Apatosaurus. My three-going-on-four year old grandson is at the age when dinosaurs are of great interest and recently when he showed me a model of what he referred to as a Brontosaurus, I said, dispensing what I thought was superior grandfatherly knowledge, that it should be properly called an Apatosaurus. (My grandson calls me ‘Parta’, a Tamil word for grandfather and was what I used to call my own grandfather. My grandson thinks it is hilarious when I pronounce the name of that dinosaur ‘a parta-saurus’, as if it is named after me. That joke never gets old for him. He is not that far off in thinking of me as a dinosaur, though.)

But he said no, it was a Brontosaurus, and it turns out that he is right. The ups-and-downs of the Brontosaurus are described nicely in this article.

Brontosaurus has a colorful history. Named by O.C. Marsh in the 1880s, the dinosaur was identified in 1903 as a member of the Apatosaurus genus, which Marsh had found a few years earlier.

Since taxonomy honors the name that came first, Brontosaurus excelsus became Apatosaurus excelsus.

But the evocative name-which means “thunder lizard” in Greek-would live on for decades, until 1970s researchers ended the debate by showing that Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus had very similar skulls.

So the “thunder lizard” was condemned to the realm of the scientifically invalid, becoming the dinosaur that “never even existed.”

These dinosaurs belong to the family of diplodocids, that consisted of “giant herbivores [that] lived in North America, Europe, and parts of Africa during the late Jurassic period, between 160 million and 145 million years ago.”

But as more and more specimens of diplodocids were found and analyzed, researchers found significant differences among them and concluded that Brontosaurus excelsus and Apatosaurus excelsus were not the same and that the family had to be expanded to include two new genera: Brontosaurus and Galeamopus.

So the Brontosaurus is back, baby! Here is what they now think it looks like.

On the other hand, if you are a fan of Dinheirosaurus or Supersaurus, brace yourself for the news that they are both now considered to belong to the same genus and so one name is likely going to eventually disappear.


  1. says

    I am not that well-informed of the dinosaur world, being able to name only the better-known ones,

    I decided to do a dinosaur alphabet to test myself just now & I got to F before I couldn’t get one off the top of my head, though obviously I could pick up again at G quite easily.

    Apato, Abeli, & Allo both work for A without stretching for any lesser-known dinos.
    Bronto- & Baryonyx
    Camarasaurus is my favorite sauropod for its odd shaped face.
    Diplodocus works for D, but so do others like Dilophosaurus.
    Edmontosaurus is a natural choice for E. (Elasmosaurus is fun, but not a dinosaur. I also remember the name Edaphosaurus, but I have no idea what it is. Dinosaur? Archosaur? Other early reptile? It’s definitely Jurassic or earlier, but I can’t count it since I don’t remember what it is. Best guess is a permian/triassic predatory animal.)

    But F? F I completely drew a blank. So I went hunting and found the UK’s natural history museum website. It has a list of dinos by first letter & found only 2 “F”s listed. Both start with “fukui” -- Fukuiraptor & Fukuisaurus. Fukuiraptor sounds vaguely familiar, but I don’t remember hearing Fukuisaurus ever.

    But at least I know why I had a hard time coming up with an F.

  2. wsierichs says

    I never accepted the name change, based upon impeccable logic.

    1) Fred Flintstone ordered brontosaurus burgers, therefore brontos had to be real.

    2) Apatosaurus does sound like a food, however: Please pass me a pat of saurus to spread on my bread.

    3) Who could ever possibly think of such a magnificent creature as “apatosaurus.” Brontosaurus -- thunder lizard -- is a far more majestic name.

    Therefore, it’s always been brontosaurus to me.

  3. flexilis says

    I looked up the derivation of “apatosaurus”. It’s from the Greek apate’, meaning lying, deceitful. How can a big solid fossil be a lie? Not sure what O. C. Marsh was thinking. Brontosaurus the Thunder Lizard is a much better name. The only worse dinosaur name is Allosaurus, the “other lizard”. How imaginative is that?

    Also, cue the anti-science horde yapping about how “science can never make up its mind.”

  4. Callinectes says

    @1 Whoops, I misread that. Edaphosaurus. A Permian eupelycosaur, with a sail like the more famous Dimetrodon, except it was herbivorous.

  5. woodsong says

    I heard a few years ago about a giant sauropod with a name I found extremely appropriate: Seismosaurus (Earth-shaker lizard). A year or so later, I looked up more info on it, to find it nomen dubium (wrong name). Apparantly, the type specimen was a particularly large example of Diplodocus rather than a new genus.

    I think the traditional name that I’m most disappointed to hear about losing was Eohippus. The first specimen of that genus described for science was named Hyracotherium, under the mistaken impression that it was similar to the hyrax. “Dawn Horse” was such an evocative name…

    On the other hand, there are some really cool recent names. There’s an ankylosaur called Zuul crurivastator (Zuul was the “Gatekeeper” demigod from Ghostbusters, who appeared as a doglike creature with horns, “crurivastator” means “destroyer of shins”!) There’s also a ornithischian dinosaur named Dracorex hogwartsia (Dragon king of Hogwarts). The namers of new species are having some fun!

  6. blf says

    Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay which became the title matter for one of his books, Bully for Brontosaurus (1991) about the name-change. As I recall, he concluded that whilst the name-change was justified (based on the information then available / known), an exception should be made.

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