Return of the Brontosaurus: Q&A with the Peabody's Jacques Gauthier

The dinosaur with an identity crisis is standing on its own four legs again.

The venerable Brontosaurus excelsus, that gargantuan, long-necked sauropod that roamed the earth 150 million years ago, has reclaimed a distinct spot in the fossil record. New research by Emanuel Tschopp of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal recently concluded that Brontosaurus was, in fact, a distinct species from Apatosaurus based on unique physical characteristics.

Scientists had stripped Brontosaurus of its separate status in the early 1900s, saying that Brontosaurus fossils were, in fact, specimens of the previously named Apatosaurus. This was of particular importance at Yale, where pioneering paleontologist O.C. Marsh had given the Brontosaurus its name in 1879, and where the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History had the most complete Brontosaurus skeleton — discovered in Wyoming — on display in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs.

On April 14, the museum will officially re-label its specimen Brontosaurus.

YaleNews spoke with Jacques Gauthier, professor of geology and geophysics and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Peabody, to talk about all things Brontosaurus.

Jacques Gauthier

Were you surprised by the reclassification?

I knew this was coming. More than one set of researchers was beginning to look into it, and then Emanuel locked in. His approach was to say: I’m going to look at each specimen independently, take down the data from each one of them, run it through phylogenetic software packages, and create a family tree that will tell me, ‘this specimen goes here and that specimen goes there.’ That way, you discover the species, rather than frontload them into your analysis.

Do you agree with this approach?

Yes, I believe it’s the most modern method for doing the sort of analysis we’re talking about here. You’re not deciding on the boundaries of each species in advance. I’ve had students who have used this method with turtles, for example. This is a modern approach to paleontology.

Did the researchers looking at Brontosaurus visit Yale?

Yes, they were here last year to look at and measure our specimens. We were delighted.

So you’re happy about the name change.

I am, and I don’t know why, exactly. But I really am. I like the idea that we’re finding out more about the structure of nature because of this. I also thought it was good that this result came from someone who doesn’t have a dog in the fight, like I do. I’ve always liked the name Brontosaurus, which means “thunder lizard.”

What does the name change mean for the museum, in practical terms?

We have a lot of labels in the museum that make mention of Apatosaurus. Now we need to go change them, which is a painful thing. Also, we’re racing around now to see if we can find an Apatosaurus neck rib that we can show, to compare it with the neck ribs of Brontosaurus. It’s easy to see the difference between them. Tschopp’s study discovered at least seven different anatomical characteristics separating Brontosaurus from Apatosaurus.

The Brontosaurus neck ribs are one of the characteristics that separates it from the Apatosaurus.

What does this new information say about Brontosaurus beyond particular physical differences from Apatosaurus?

It says that Brontosaurus was not merely a variation. It says Brontosaurus was on its own, independent evolutionary path. It also means there were more kinds of giant sauropods lumbering about than we once thought.

Does it also create educational and research opportunities for Yale?

I hope it will be a springboard for renewed interest, both here on campus and in the international scientific community, for what we have in the Great Hall. Bully for Brontosaurus!

Peabody to hold renaming ceremony on April 14

In celebration of the reinstatement of the Bronotosaurus as a separate species from Apatosaurus, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, will hold an official renaming ceremony at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14.

The Yale Peabody Museum, located at 170 Whitney Ave., is home to the original specimen of Brontosaurus, to which Othniel Charles Marsh, professor of paleontology at Yale, gave the name Brontosaurus excelsus in 1879.

Using the mounted bones of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus in the Great Hall, as well as other bones from the Peabody collections, Jacques Gauthier, Peabody curator of vertebrate paleontology, will highlight some of the anatomical features now being used to differentiate Brontosaurus from Apatosaurus.

A slide show, “This is your life, Brontosaurus,” will feature historic images of the Peabody specimen from its discovery in the late 1870s to today. Commemorative buttons marking the day will be handed out. The event is free with museum admission of $5-$9. There is no charge for museum members, Yale I.D. holders and children under the age of three.

Brontosaurus excelsus is one of some 80 dinosaur species that Marsh named and described in his lifetime. Today only about a third of those species are considered by paleontologists to be valid, but that number once again includes Brontosaurus excelsus.  Marsh was not only the first professor of paleontology at Yale but also the first in the United States. He served as a trustee and the defacto first director of the Peabody Museum. It was at his behest that in 1866 his wealthy uncle George Peabody made a gift to Yale “for the foundation and maintenance of a Museum of Natural History.” The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2016.

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Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332