Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Is the Thunder Lizard back?

My childhood love affair with dinosaurs has already been noted in this blog:  The Lost World and the Mating Mind.   The obsession, however, lasted only until I was about 11 or 12, and I never pursued my childhood dream of becoming a paleontologist.  But, just as in later life we still like to hear about how our old high school sweetheart is doing, I remain interested in any news I can pick up from the Mesozoic era.

I should add that of all the members of the dinosaur pantheon, my absolute favorite was the Brontosaurus, inspired as much by the name -- thunder lizard -- as anything.  But the object of my greatest love turned out to be a phantasm that disappeared as I reached adulthood. 

Back in 1877, the famed but unusually named paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh discovered a partial skeleton of a juvenile dinosaur he named apatosaurus ajax ("deceptive lizard").  Two years later, Marsh found a more complete remains of a dinosaur he believed to be a different genus and called it Brontosaurus excelsus.  In 1903, however, Elmer Riggs re-examined Marsh's specimens and concluded that they represented the same genus.  In such cases, the ICZN (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature) mandates that the oldest name has priority -- which means that the rather dull Apatosaurus wins out over the much more resonant "Brontosaurus."  Because (1) Riggs' findings were published in a rather obscure journal; and (2) American culture seem enamoured of the Brontosaurus (Sinclair Oil pushed Brontosaurus as the name of its logo), the general public never really learned about Marsh's error until 70 years later when museums started making the correction.  So, it wasn't until the 1980's, when I started to buy recently published dinosaur books for my kids, that I learned that Brontosaurus had never existed.   I have never fully recovered from the devastation.

That is, until now.  Yesterday, a team of Portugese and British scientists published an article which described their exhaustive taxonomic analysis of Diplodocidae family of dinosaurs.  See "A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda)."  As the authors describe it, the study resulted "in the proposal that some species previously included in well-known genera like Apatosaurus and Diplodocus are generically distinct.  Of particular note is that the famous Brontosuarus is considered valid by our quantitative approach." (emphasis added)  In other words, these fellows contend that Marsh got it right and that Riggs made the error. 


This, of course, is just the beginning of probably a long debate.  But, it at least opens the possiblity that all my childhood affection for Brontosaurus may not have been in vain.  And -- hey -- things change.  Pluto is out; maybe Brontosaurus will be in.

Read all about it here:   The Brontosaurus Is Back


James R said...

I was waiting for your post, though the news is still a bit unsatisfying. What's in a name? Why not just exchange the two names? The larger one should be the true "thunder lizard".

Big Myk said...

C'mon, you know that the ICZN doesn't work that way.