Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard” in Latin) is one of the most well-known dinosaurs. It is the poster child of the sauropods, a group of massive four-legged dinosaurs with very long necks and tails, known as some of the largest animals to ever walk on land.
After going extinct around 66 million years ago, the Brontosaurus was rediscovered in fossil form in 1879 by palaeontologist O.C. Marsh, who is infamous for his rivalry with another palaeontologist called Edward Drinker Cope as part of the “Bone Wars”. The Bone Wars was the fierce competition between the two palaeontologists, involving aggressive digging to discover as many dinosaurs as possible, while both tried to slander and impede each other through dishonest, unprofessional means. This dispute resulted in rushed announcements of new discoveries sometimes, leading to fascinating stories such as Cope accidentally putting the skull of the Elasmosaurus on its tail instead of the neck.
So what does the historical context of the Bone Wars have to do with the Brontosaurus? In 1903, another palaeontologist argued that the Brontosaurus was actually a specimen of the already discovered Apatosaurus. Two years later, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first mounted sauropod skeleton and named it a Brontosaurus. However, they had accidentally used the skull of a different dinosaur called Camarasurus, mounted on the skeleton of an Apatosaurus. With no further evidence supporting Brontosaurus as a separate genus, the scientific community agreed that the Brontosaurus was really just an Apatosaurus.
Despite this news, Brontosaurus remained hugely popular amongst the general population thanks to its early publicity. At the same time, Brontosaurus not being a real genus of dinosaur became a popular factoid (false information accepted as fact due to popularity). In a field such as palaeontology where evidence can be scant or incomplete, such misclassification is common. For example, the Triceratops is in fact simply the juvenile form of another dinosaur named the Torosaur.
But then in 2015, a group of scientists used computer modelling to analyse sauropod fossil data including the original fossil discovered by Marsh. What they discovered was that there were enough differences between the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, such as differences in pelvic bone structure, to classify Brontosaurus as its own genus. After more than a century, the Brontosaurus has had its name cleared and restored to its former glory.
The story of the Brontosaurus is a great example of one of the principles in science: nothing is 100% true. Science never proclaims something as the one truth. We can hypothesise, support it with evidence and construct a theory that makes sense of the cosmos, but we can never be sure that we definitely have the answer. In the face of new evidence and re-examination of the analysis, what was once regarded as “truth” can easily be proven to be wrong.
This is an unpopular aspect of science, because people tend to want security and certainty to soothe their anxieties about not knowing. But instead, we get to stay curious and continuously question the nature of the universe and how everything works, making fascinating discoveries and learning something new every day.
For how boring would life be if we had nothing more to learn?