Sugar-coating the past

Brontosaurus (above) as it was thought to have looked in the 19th century – semi-aquatic with rich orange chocolate surrounding a crunchy dinosaur-bone center.

In dinomenclature news, paleontologists were dealt a major setback after another failed attempt to convince people there are more than six kinds of dinosaurs.

Every child learns that there are six types of giant prehistoric lizards (Tyrannosaurus Rex, brontosaurus, stegosaurus, triceratops, pterodactyl, and Houseasaurus).  Scientists classify these animals as dinosaurs (from the Latin dinosaur “thing that’s a dinosaur”).  Another category of creatures, called nameosaurs (such as Bambiraptor and Draconex hogwartsia), consist of vanity species discovered by putting two random bones next to each other and giving it a cute name in a bid for grant money.

Brontosaurus was discovered by prolific paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh during the Bone Wars of the 19th century — the rivalry between Marsh and fellow paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope over grant money that was responsible for over 650,000 deaths worldwide.

In 1879 Marsh announced that he had found two almost complete skeletons at Como Bluff in Wyoming — missing, crucially, their skulls.  He modeled the skull on the skull of another dinosaur he had found – also a brontosaurus — and called one of the skeletons Brontosaurus excelsus, or “brontosaurus that is complete now that it has a head”.  The other one was named Mabel, after his mother.

But in 1903, after Marsh’s death, another brontosaurus was discovered that resembled both Mabel and Cope’s cousin Marjorie.  Paleontologist Elmer Riggs concluded that there were not enough differences between Mabel and Marjorie to warrant two different genera, so he folded the brontosaurus into the latter, renaming it Apatosaurus excelsus — “folded brontosaurus”.

The name stuck around, though — until the 1970s, when researchers discovered a triceratops femur laying next to a half-eaten chicken wing and subsequently named it Apatosaurus after filmmaker Judd Apatow, who was still in middle school at the time.  (Apatow later directed a movie about the discovery called The 40,000,000 Year Old Virgin, starring Steve Carell as Elmer Riggs, Seth Rogen as the triceratops, and Paul Rudd as the guy who ordered chicken wings.)

Emanuel Tschopp, a Swiss national, led the study at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal.  (Disclaimer: The Old University of Lisbon in Portugal was wiped out by a meteor impact 65 million years ago.  Their PhD program was closed down a few years later.)

The 300-page study examines 81 different brontosaurus skeletons, 49 of which do not include triceratops femurs or chicken wings, across 477 morphological characters using statistical approaches to establish a boundary between species and genera — making it the most extensive use of technobabble to justify playing with dinosaur bones ever completed.

“This detailed data on Diplodicidae (brontosauruses) led us to three main findings: first, we found conclusive evidence for an additional new genus, which we call Galeamopus (‘Gale stuck a brontosaurus skull on a mop handle’).  Second, Supersaurus, a genus of brontosaurus previously known from Smallville alone, now also includes the Metropolis genus Dinheirosaurus (the so-called ‘last brontosaurus of Krypton’),” Tschopp said.

“And finally, we found that the differences between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus are primarily due to plot holes and continuity errors in Judd Apatow’s film that totally ruin the mise-en-scène.”  Study co-author Roger Benson noted that he and Tschopp have no idea what a mise-en-scène is, or how it got ruined.

Most dinosaurs are thought to have died out from diabetic comas caused by eating too many chocolate-covered brontosauruses.  Excavations near the La Brea Fudge Pits outside Los Angeles suggest that brontosaurs became extinct because it was too hard to breathe with their heads encased in rich, creamy milk chocolate.

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