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After more than a century of extinction in the scientific community, the name Brontosaurus may be ready to return to the ranks of its dinosaur brethren.
A study published on Tuesday by the open-access journal PeerJ concluded that the dinosaur currently known as Apatosaurus excelsus — known as Brontosaurus until the year 1903 — possesses enough differences from others within the Apatosaurus genus to be returned to its own separate genus and name.
The Brontosaurus name originated during the era known as the “Bone Wars” in the late 1800s, when competing teams of paleontologists and fossil hunters competed to find dinosaur fossils in the western United States. A team led by Othniel Charles Marsh discovered two dinosaurs belonging to the Diplodocidae family — specimens that could be described as possessing short legs and the famous long necks. Marsh named the first Apatosaurus, or “deceptive lizard,” and the second Brontosaurus, or “noble thunder lizard.”
However, in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs contested the idea that the two dinosaurs belonged to separate genera. Wired described how the Brontosaurus name lost out:
The mistake, he said, was in the number of sacrum bones (where the tail attaches to the spinal cord). The Apatosaurus sacrum was made of three bones, while the Brontosaurus had five. Rather than being different species, Riggs contended the Brontosaurus was just a younger version of the Apatosaurus, and the sacrum bones would have fused together as the dinosaur aged (bone fusing happens in many species, including humans). According to Riggs, the two skeletons were the same species. And scientific decorum dictated that older name should stick.
More than 100 years later, a team of European scientists, while cataloging various features in Diplodocidae dinosaurs using a statistical method to quantify differences between genera and species, noticed that the fossil formerly known as the Brontosaurus wasn’t as similar to the Apatosaurus as originally thought.
“We found that the differences between the genus Brontosaurus and the genus Apatosaurus are so numerous that they should be kept apart as two different genera,” lead researcher Emanuel Tschopp said.
However, don’t expect the Brontosaurus name to reappear so quickly. According to Live Science, the restoration of the Brontosaurus genus will not only require more debate among the scientific community, but also a ruling by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.
“For sure, there will be other researchers that are maybe not convinced or have their own evidence against the separation of the two,” Tschopp said to Live Science. “In the end, this is how science works.”
Justin Scuiletti is the digital video producer at PBS NewsHour.
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