Sciency Words: Brontosaurus (An A to Z Challenge Post)

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, B is for:


I’ll never forget that sad moment in my childhood when I found out that brontosaurus is not a real dinosaur. Someone made a mistake, and we had to call brontosaurus apatosaurus instead.

Here’s a quick rundown of events in the brontosaur/apatosaur naming controversy:

  • 1877: A dinosaur skeleton is discovered and given the name scientific name (genus and species) Apatosaurus ajax.
  • 1879: Another dinosaur skeleton is discovered and given the name Brontosaurus excelsus.
  • 1903: Upon further examination, it’s determined that these two dinosaur specimens are too closely related and should be classified as the same genus. Since the genus Apatosaurus was identified first, Brontosaurus excelsus became Apatosaurus excelsus.

On a personal note, I was stunned to find out all this happened way back in 1903. When I was a kid, I was under the impression that this was a much more recent development.

Anyway, there’s some good news for brontosaurus fans. In 2015, Brontosaurus was reinstated as its own genus. Turns out that while those two skeletons are very similar, there’s enough of a difference in the structure of the neck to justify classifying them separately.

By the way, brontosaurus means “thunder lizard,” because of the sound it must have made when it walked. Apatosaurus apparently means “deceptive lizard.” I’m not sure why they called it that back in 1877, but after this case of attempted identity theft, I’d say the name fits.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z Challenge, we’ll head out into space and meet some centaurs.

13 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Brontosaurus (An A to Z Challenge Post)

      1. I had no idea the mistake was found so long ago. I remember being taught about the brontosaurus when I was in school in the 1980s. I wonder why they kept teaching it so long after they found out it was wrong. It wasn’t until years later that I learned there was an apotosautus at all. “A US public school education” is the answer to that. Thunder lizard, though, is great. Reminds me of what we’re all taught, that the word dinosaur means terrible lizard, which means the Flintstones had a pet that they called Terrible.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve spent a lot of time unlearning the things I was taught in school. American schools… let’s just say they could be better. I think I learned about the brontosaur/apatosaur thing from a TV special on dinosaurs.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Nice post – I keep on having to remind my self how this got sorted out – these things seem to happen a lot in paleontology.

    One of the things that I constantly find amazing is the vanishingly small number of dinosuars tht we know anything about, compared with the number of species that must have existed over the time frame we’re talking about. Further, the number of completely intact skeletons is a riduclously small proportion of all the fossils found.

    I also love that, despite dinosaurs and cavemen not overlapping, the spikes on the tail of a stegodon are called thagomisers (‘after the late Thag Thagson’), because of a Gary Larson Faride cartoon. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humour?

    @breakerofthings from
    A Back of the Envelope Calculation

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, paleontology and taxonomy are full of these sorts of naming controversies. Assigning names to things is really, really hard.

      I didn’t know about thagomisers. That’s a great story. I already have something lined up for the letter T, but now I’m thinking about doing thagomisers instead.

      Liked by 1 person

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