Welcome back, Brontosaurus! And other first thoughts on Tschopp et al. (2015)
April 7, 2015
Today is a good day for sauropod science. Since we’re not getting this up until the afternoon, you’ve probably already seen that Emanuel Tschopp and colleagues have published a monstrous specimen-level phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocidae and, among other things, resurrected Brontosaurus as a valid genus. The paper is in PeerJ so you can read it for free (here).
I’ve already been pinged by lots of folks asking for my thoughts on this. I know that the return of Brontosaurus is what’s going to catapult this paper into the spotlight, but I hope what everyone takes away from it is just what a thorough piece of work it is. I’ve never seen so many phylogenetic characters illustrated so well. It sets a new standard, and anyone who wants to overturn this had better roll up their sleeves and bring a boatload of data. I’m also very, very happy that it’s open-access so everyone in the world can see it, use it, question it, tear it apart or build on it. Getting Brontosaurus back is just gravy. Although, being pro-brontosaur enough to have named a dinosaur in honor of Brontosaurus, I’m also pretty happy about that. If you need a quick guide to who’s who now, A. ajax and A. louisae are still Apatosaurus, and B. excelsus, B. yahnahpin (formerly Eobrontosaurus), and B. parvus (originally Elosaurus) are all Brontosaurus. For more details, go read the paper.
My personal feelings aside, a lot of people are asking how solid is this generic re-separation. I haven’t read the entire paper yet – it’s 299 pages long, for crying out loud – but the separation of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus seems solid enough. Tschopp et al. didn’t do it lightly, they justify their decision in detail. I don’t hold with the idea that just because two taxa are sisters, means that they cannot be separated generically. As usual in phylogenetic taxonomy, it comes down to what we decide as a community constitutes “diagnosably distinct”. Tschopp et al. have actually put some thought into what that might mean here, and whether you agree with them or not, they’ve at least made all of their evidence and reasoning explicit. That’s both an opportunity and a challenge for critics: an opportunity to pin down exactly where and why you may disagree, and a challenge to do exactly that. You can’t just sit back and say, “I think the analysis is flawed” or “I wouldn’t have coded that character that way” (well, you can, but if that’s all you say, no-one is obliged to take that kind of lazy, drive-by criticism seriously). There are 477 characters here, most of them illustrated, for 81 OTUs, and a lot of post-hoc discussion of the results. So whether you agree with the authors or not, in whole or in part, both fans and critics should dig in and build on this work. Is it the last word on diplodocid taxonomy? Of course not. But it does move the field forward significantly, and the Tschopp et al. should be applauded for that.
There’s a lot more in there than just bringing back Brontosaurus. “Diplodocus” hayi is elevated to its own genus, Galeamopus. Neither of those things are super surprising. There have been rumors since the 90s at least that Brontosaurus might be coming back, and everyone has known for a while that D. hayi was a bit wonky. I was also not surprised to see Australodocus returned to Diplodocidae – when I saw the type material in 2011, it looked diplodocid to me (based on some characters I’ll have to unpack in some other post). More surprising to me are the sinking of Dinheirosaurus into Supersaurus, the finding that Tornieria is not particularly close to Diplodocus, and the uncertain positions of AMNH 460, the American Museum mount, which is an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study, of FMNH 25112, the Field Museum “Apatosaurus”, which might not even be an apatosaurine at all(!). In several cases, Tschopp et al. come right out and say that X is going to need further study, so if you want to work on sauropods and you’re stuck for project ideas, go see what needs doing.
As I was scanning the paper again while composing the last paragraph, I almost fell down the rabbit hole. So much interesting stuff in this paper. Even if all you care about is morphology, the hundred or so figures illustrating the phylogenetic characters ought to keep you happy for a very long time. I look forward to reading through the vertebral characters in detail and seeing what I’ve been missing all these years.
I’m contractually obliged to point out that the authors chose to publish the complete peer-review history of the paper, so you can see what the editor (Andy Farke) and reviewers had to say. As always, I think this transparency (and credit for the reviewers) is great for science, and I can’t wait until it’s the norm at more journals.
In addition to the paper, there’s also an interview with lead author Emanuel Tschopp on the PeerJ blog, and a nice shout-out for SV-POW!
Parting shot: why did Tschopp et al. get different results than anyone had previously? Because they used more specimens and more taxa – more data full stop. That’s also why their paper warrants serious consideration. It’s serious work. Let’s go stand on their shoulders.