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Scientists Unexpectedly Discover That The Brontosaurus May Be A Real Dinosaur After All

For the past century, scientists have dismissed the brontosaurus as not a real dinosaur. Now an international team of paleontologists thinks it's time to make the beloved beast official once more.

Posted on April 7, 2015, at 7:02 a.m. ET

The brontosaurus has always been one of the most beloved dinosaurs, but science has made that love a forbidden one.

Mattel / Via

You may or may not know this, but for the past 112 years, scientists have considered the Brontosaurus to be not a real thing. This despite the general public's love for the gentle giant.

Brontosaurus was a proposed dinosaur genus that scientists rejected ages ago. A genus is a classification one step higher than species, and can contain numerous species. New data suggest that this has-been genus might be legit after all.

Brontosaurus was named by famed paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh in 1879.

Othniel C. Marsh

He dubbed the fossil remains of a massive, long-necked dinosaur Brontosaurus excelsus. In doing so, Marsh was describing both this new genus (Brontosaurus) and a new species (Brontosaurus excelsus).

But paleontologists of their day believed it was too similar to a dinosaur genus that had already been described.

Natalie Dee / Via

Marsh's Brontosaurus find was not his first rodeo. He had described many dinosaur fossils before and after this discovery. One such fossil was that of Apatosaurus ajax two years earlier. This dino was superficially similar-looking to Brontosaurus excelsus, but a bit smaller. Marsh found the differences significant enough to merit placing his newest find in its own genus. Unfortunately for Marsh and the Brontosaurus, many others did not.

The dastardly Elmer Riggs came along in 1903 and published a paper claiming the Brontosaurus find was simply a larger and more complete Apatosaurus specimen.

Library of Congress

O. T. Marsh

Elmer S. Riggs ca. 1901

Elmer Riggs

Given the information and methods to which Riggs had access at the time, his was a perfectly valid conclusion. But the conclusion killed the Brontosaurus genus.

Now, in a study published today, a group of scientists has argued that it's time to bring Brontosaurus back!


The study was authored by paleontologists Emanuel Tschopp and Octavio Máteus from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal, and Roger Benson, a paleontologist at the University of Oxford. (Full disclosure: While a graduate student, I participated in fieldwork with Tschopp and Máteus on an unrelated project.)

Led by Tschopp, who conducted five years of research and traveled to museum collections all over the world for his Ph.D. dissertation, the team built a massive data set of the characteristics of these fossils. Then, they plugged this massive data set into computer programs that apply algorithms objectively in order to clump species together by shared traits — a process called cladistics. When the results came back, numerous different mathematical methods came to the same conclusion: The genus Brontosaurus should be separate from Apatosaurus.

At first, Tschopp questioned the findings. He wasn't looking to save Brontosaurus when he started the project.

Researchers Emanuel Tschopp (left) and Octavio Mateus (right), FCT-University NOVA of Lisbon / M. Ladeira

Tschopp told BuzzFeed that this bronto-saving result was simply "a pretty cool side effect" of his larger study. The main goal of the study was to make a detailed analysis of a family of dinosaurs called diplodocids, a topic much larger than the issue of the Brontosaurus genus.

When his first analysis suggested that Brontosaurus stood on its own as a genus, Tschopp questioned it at first. That's when he enlisted the support of Benson, one of the leading experts in using this kind of statistical approach to figure out the taxonomic relationships of dinosaurs. Using Benson’s expertise, they got the same result.

"It's pretty well-supported, I would say," said Tschopp.

Other scientists agree too.

Davide Bonadonna

When asked about the conclusion that Brontosaurus is a valid genus, Martin Sander, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn in Germany who was not involved in the study, told BuzzFeed that he thought their conclusion was well-argued. "This is by far the most detailed analysis [of this family of dinosaurs]," he said.

Tschopp hopes this will highlight the process of science too. "New evidence can overthrow earlier thinkings," he said, "but it can also return to an idea that we had before."

Rejoice! Science may let Brontosaurus be your favorite dinosaur after all!

Charles R Knight

We will have to wait and see if the scientific community agrees with the findings. Until then...

  1. Is it time for Brontosaurus to be a real dinosaur again?

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