Thursday, 9 April 2015

In From The Cold: The Return Of Brontosaurus

I daren't let this story rumble on by without throwing in some of my own observations. Indeed, Brontosaurus was an important dinosaur during my early flirtations with dinosaurology when, perhaps, the palaeontologists of the early '80s would rather it hadn't been - or at least not by the that name. This is such a big story right now, that it's barely worth summarising it yet again, but for the benefit of someone finding this article out of the context of the media 'frenzy', we're talking about the the issue of the genus erected for a fossil sauropod discovered by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1879. In 1903 Brontosaurus was reclassified as a species of Apatosaurus, but despite this, the name Brontosaurus stuck fast. Whatever the actual reason, or reasons, it's not hard to see the appeal of Brontosaurus. It's the 'Thunder Lizard', a veritable superhero of the Mesozoic world, splitting the rocky ground upon which it walked and announcing its approach long in advance of its arrival. Apatosaurus, well, it just sounds kinda vague. Less thunder and more rain: A-pitter-patter-saurus. Apatosaurus is Betamax.

Exactly how it happened. (Copyright © 2015 Gareth Monger)
Back then, and compared with Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus lacked airtime. The authors of the kids' books I owned didn't really imbue it with any personality - if they mentioned it at all. Also discovered by Marsh, and only a couple of years earlier, Apatosaurus ajax shares the same overall 'layout' as Brontosaurus excelsus, being a heavy-set quadruped with an enormously long neck and tail. It's slightly stockier than Diplodocus and holds itself more-or-less horizontally, especially when compared with that other famous sauropod, Brachiosaurus. Certainly in the popular children's books of the '70s and '80s, Brontosaurus was depicted as Diplodocus's squatter cousin, and much of the scientific laziness can probably be attributed to their authors simply taking their lead from existing books they were hoping to emulate and, if only in terms of style, update. The reasoning behind the pair rarely receiving the same attention in the same book probably boils down to the simple reason that since both animals share very similar bauplans, why include both? After all, dinosaur-overview books tend to focus on the most famous and the most disparate forms.

Old and new (and old again). Interesting news but, unfortunately, it won't create much new work in the palaeoart community. (Copyright © 2015 Gareth Monger)
So what does this mean for Brontosaurus's future, as far as its ranking as a kids' favourite? Based on my horribly vague recollections of my friends' dinosaur knowledge in the mid-'80s, if I'd taken a poll and asked my five-year-old friends to name five dinosaurs, you'd almost certainly hear Tyrannosaurus (never "T. rex" back then), Brontosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus and perhaps Diplodocus - and probably not much else. Of course, if you asked the same demographic now, there'd be a whole host of new names, minus Brontosaurus. To be fair, it's to be expected, and for all the obvious reasons: new discoveries, better restorations, better reach, and everything in between - and several years of authors honouring Brontosaurus's 1903 reclassification. But for today's younger dinosaur enthusiasts, they may only have come across Brontosaurus whilst reading about Apatosaurus. For them, Brontosaurus is just an interesting little quirk of the scientific process recorded in the footnotes of an Apatosaurus profile. Whether it recovers its position as a firm favourite with the next generation of dinosaur fans remains to be seen. Can Brontosaurus bounce back from its second extinction?

Read the paper by Tschopp, Mateus and Benson here. It's got all the science bits I ignored in it.

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