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Revenge of the Brontosaurus

The Brontosaurus is baaack,” Professor Jacques Gauthier proclaims. And Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History has it.

You might remember the disappointment that ensued when the Peabody had to relabel its beloved Brontosaurus, the biggest and most popular skeleton in the museum’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, as an Apatosaurus.

Now, researchers from Portugal and the UK have restored the Brontosaurus—discovered by Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh, Class of 1860—to its perch as a distinct genus.

I’m delighted,” says Gauthier, the Peabody’s curator of vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology. “It’s what I learned as a kid.”

Marsh, America’s first paleontology professor, discovered the Brontosaurus in 1879. The skeleton of that original specimen has dominated the Great Hall since the 1930s.

But later research led paleontologists to conclude that the Brontosaurus (“Thunder Lizard”) was essentially the same as the Apatosaurus (“Deceptive Lizard”), which Marsh had discovered and named two years before the Bronto. Under scientific naming conventions, the earlier name won out.

Now, along come the European researchers, analyzing 81 sauropod specimens for 477 different physical characteristics. The team examined each skeleton “tooth by tooth, bone by bone,” without regard to how it had been previously categorized, observes Gauthier, who was not part of the team.

They found that the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus are distinct after all. Most notably, Brontosaurus’s neck is “higher and less wide,” lead author Emanuel Tschopp tells Scientific American. “So, although both are very massive and robust animals, Apatosaurus is even more extreme than Brontosaurus.”

The “resurrection” of the Brontosaurus gives the Peabody a boost in prestige, Gauthier says, because the museum’s Bronto is not only the original specimen but also “one of the most complete skeletons.” He hopes the excitement over this news will translate into fund-raising success for the Peabody’s hoped-for $30 million overhaul.

One part of that plan: taking the Brontosaurus apart, removing all the black-painted plaster and “horse-hoof glues” that were added when the exhibit was mounted in the 1930s, and remounting it—with some corrections. Those include replacing the head (currently an Apatosaurus skull) and lifting the tail off the ground.

“These guys thought dinosaurs were lizards,” Gauthier says of those who put the skeleton together. But scientists at Yale and elsewhere have established that dinosaurs were prehistoric birds, and “birds carry their tails off the ground.”

“We have, like, eight zillion dinosaur footprints in Connecticut. Not a tail drag to be found,” Gauthier says. “It’s an embarrassment to me personally” that the Peabody exhibits still show dino tails dragging on the ground.

The scientific community agreed on the Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus convergence in 1903. It took the Peabody a century to relabel its skeleton. Now, barely more than a decade later, it has changed the label back. A ceremonial unveiling, dubbed “This is your life, Brontosaurus,” will take place at 1 pm on April 14 in the Great Hall.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Peabody Museum, dinosaurs
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