Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Defence of the Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus or apatosaurus? The great question that mystifies us all. Have you ever been corrected and told "brontosaurus is the old name, now its called apatosaurus!". 20 or so years ago this happened to me and I thought, fine ok, so it's apatosaurus. Just the other day, my 5 year old son and one of his friends were engaged in the same conversation. My, oh, my, I thought, the brontosaurus still lives on!

My curiosity was peeked. Why was brontosaurus the "incorrect" name? The brontosaurus, probably lacking any sophisticated system of symbolism and extinct since...oh...150 million years, couldn't care less. So what popular misconception were paleontologist fighting in their insistence it should be named apatosaurus? It must be some great misconception since apatosaurus falls off the tongue like an old piece of jello and brontosaurus thunders from the guts. At least in most Germanic and Romance languages, brontosaurus seems just the right name for a herbivore the size of this ancient beast.

Wikipedia...tack, tack, tack...ah...bronotosaurus an obsolete synonym of apatosaurus. Obsolete? Well, it can't be that obsolete given the discussion between two 5 years old kids anno 2010. After a little further reading, I find out that the controversy surrounds an issue of incorrect differentiation. Apparently a specimen named Apatosaurus ajax was hypothesized in 1877. 2 years later, another species is described under the name of Brontosaurus. But in 1903, it was deemed that the two were so similar that they aught to be considered the same genus. Therefore the Bronotsaurus was renamed Apatosaurus excelsus. The Apatosaurus might even have simply been a juvile Brontosaurus.

The Principle of Priority, article 23 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature dictates that the name first used for a taxon (a group of organisms judged to be a unit) in a published piece is to be considered the senior synonym. Other names are deemed junior synonyms and should not be used. The case of the Brontosaur versus the Apotasaur seems to clearly fall under this rule. Case closed! I mean, If I go along and name something Jabberwocky and the next day someone else decides to name it the Cheshire Cat, just to grab the glory. That's just not proper! And we need some kind of rule after all to remain taxonomically sound. Right?

Hold on. Further reading reveals that both specimens were assembled and named by the great but sometimes careless paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. So the fairness argument goes out the window. And honestly, the fairness argument is weak anyway. If someone manages to find a word which sound qualities better captures the thingness of a thing, that's the word to go for. We don't call a thump a pling after all. Thingness may we ambiguous, but clearly that massive heap of bones, that lumbering quadropede is best described as a thunder lizard (Brontosaurus), not a deceptive lizard (Apatosaurus).

I'm a software engineer and I don't take taxonomy lightly. Accuracy and clarity in class structures are important. We need guidelines for how to name things. But sometimes an ornery beaurocratic stick-to-the-rules attitude can cause more damage than good. Brontosaurus was on the level of T-rexity in capturing our imagination. For kids all around the world the Brontosaur was the emblem of the plant-eating giants. The name packed it all in and and expanded like a Lost World when whispered over yet-to-be-written essays and stories. I'm sure that in some the Brontosaurus even brought out the potential paleontologist. Give us back our Brontosaurs!

So what can we do? How can we, without espousing scientific confusion, get our daughters and sons to not stumble confusedly around the neighborhood with their aplaplapoposaurus toys, but to rumble and thunder to the beat of their mighty Brontosaurian friends? The answer, in my view, is simple: rename the entire genus from Apatosaurus to Brontosaurus. Let the mighty Bontosaurus excelsus be the measure of the taxon. If a fossil is deemed sufficiently deviated, let it be known under some other less spectacular name.

I believe the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature has the authority to overrule the Principle of Priority. How about it ladies and gentlemen?

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