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Fearfully great creeping reptiles: the naming of dinosaurs

The names of dinosaurs seem to resonate, almost magically, with youngsters. Once they have seen a skeleton in a museum, or a vivid reconstruction of one of these animals in a book, even a three year old rapidly learns to identify each one pretty reliably (much to their parents or grandparents amazement and occasional befuddlement). And they can pronounce such multisyllabic posers as Brachylophosaurus, Deinonychus, or Euoplocephalus with an ease and fluency that their intellectually more sophisticated grown-ups struggle for. Of course the majority of these neonate dinophiles (‘dinosaur lovers’) simply pass through the dinomania (‘dinosaur-crazy’) phase in their lives before moving on to other interests and hobbies. But the sheer intensity (verging on the obsessional) of their interest in dinosaurs is quite striking.

But why do dinosaurs have such sonorous and yet tongue-twisting names? They seem (to adults at least) to be almost unfairly linguistically challenging. Using language to describe living animals seems far easier – doesn’t it? I can easily cope with names such as elephant, robin, frog, or goldfish: simple, short, and memorable! So why do dinosaur names have to be so complicated?

The answer, of course, has scientific roots. The names I have just used for some living animals are general and vernacular: they have a history that extends back across generations of humans, but these are, dare I say it, very imprecise! The need for greater precision over the naming of organisms, in order to avoid unnecessary confusion, was highlighted by the work of the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. He established what we now refer to as the Linnaean binomial system for the naming of all organisms. For example we, as a species, have the Linnaean binomial Homo sapiens (from the Latin meaning ‘thinking man’). The international languages of science at the time of Linnaeus tended to be Latin and Greek, so many (but not all) Linnaean names have Greek or Latin origins.

Elephants are just elephants? No!

Take the first example I give above: the elephant. We all know what an elephant is of course, so you might think that the name would be sufficient to describe all elephants that we see today: well yes, in a way elephants are all similar to look at (big and grey, with flappy ears and long trunks) but they are not all the same! If we ignore differences between organisms then we deny the variety of Nature.

Elephants are found today in Africa and across southeast Asia and if we study them with care it can be seen that they are rather different: African elephants are larger than Asian elephants, have higher shoulders, larger ears and very distinctively shaped grinding teeth; they are clearly quite distinct from, and unrelated to, the Asian forms of elephant. To recognize these morphological and genetic differences they have been given distinct (Linnaean) scientific names: Loxodonta africana (from the Greek meaning ‘sloping tooth from Africa’) for the African elephant and Elephas indicus (meaning ‘elephant from India’); however, even this is not completely accurate because there are two recognized species of African elephant: L. africana – the bush elephant and L. cyclotis (‘sloping tooth with round ears’) the forest elephant. And there are at least three varieties of the so-called Indian elephant!

The ‘robin’

Another example could be the robin. Everyone is familiar with the small, red-breasted bird of British and European hedgerows and gardens. However, it is the case that British settlers who established themselves in other countries around the world often noticed and referred to local birds with red breasts as ‘robins’ in memory of the British bird. The American robin is a classic example of this phenomenon. Again it is necessary for scientists to describe each of these birds in detail and name them scientifically: so the British/European robin is a member of the flycatcher family and is given the scientific name Erithacus rubecula (‘robin red-breast’) while the larger American robin is a member of the thrush family and named Turdus migratorius (‘migratory thrush’). All of a sudden our familiar animals are becoming slightly less familiar when their scientific (Linnaean) names are given.

Fearfully great creeping reptiles

In the case of dinosaurs we simply do not have a folklore built on vernacular names that have been handed down to us across the generations. All dinosaurs had become extinct (apart from their lineal descendants the birds, of course) over 65 million years before humans were around to have conversations about such animals. All we now have are ancient bones that palaeontologists  carefully study, describe, and name (using the Linnaean system) so that they can be compared to others, as they are discovered, to establish whether they are the same animal or something that is new to science (and therefore requires another new name).

Dr Richard Owen invented the name Dinosauria in 1842 to recognize an unusual, and until that moment unrecognized, group of fossil reptiles. In doing so Owen also used ancient Greek words, combining deinos meaning ‘fearfully great’, with sauros, which means ‘creeping animal or reptile’. The earliest recognized members of Owen’s Dinosauria came from England and comprised Megalosaurus (‘very large reptile’), Iguanodon (‘iguana tooth’) and Hylaeosaurus (‘forest reptile’). It will be noticed that none of these dinosaurs was given a formal Linnaean binomial, and this led to much initial confusion as more and more fossils of these types of creatures began to be discovered.

More often than not the naming of dinosaurs owes much to some distinctive feature that they exhibit or where they were discovered. To take the examples that I gave at the beginning of this article: Brachylophosaurus canadensis (‘short crested reptile from Canada’) is a member of the duckbilled or hadrosaurian group of dinosaurs, and its skull does indeed have a short, flat crest on the top of its head; Deinonychus antirrhopus (‘fearful-claw with counterbalance’) is a remarkably fleet-footed predatory dinosaur from Montana with a gaff-like claw on its hindfoot and a remarkably stiff, thin, counterbalancing tail; Euoplocephalus tutus (‘completely protected, well-armoured head’) is, as its name suggests, an armour-plated dinosaur whose body was protected by plates and studs of bone embedded in its skin, or even welded to the bones of its head; it must have been extremely slow moving and was certainly ‘built like a tank’.

Most memorable names?

One of the most memorable and euphonious dinosaur names ever invented can be credited to Henry Fairfield Osborn (then Director of the American Museum of Natural History, New York). In 1905 he proposed the name Tyrannosaurus rex (‘king of the tyrant reptiles’) for a partial skeleton and well-preserved skull of a truly enormous 13 metre long predator which is, to this day, regarded as one of the largest and most truly ‘fearful reptiles’ ever to have walked the Earth.

Othniel Charles Marsh (who was at the Peabody Museum, Yale University) came up with the equally memorable Brontosaurus excelsus (‘thunder reptile greater than all others’) for some huge bones discovered in Colorado, but very sadly (it was such a good choice) this name had to be dropped in favour of Apatosaurus excelsus (‘deceptive reptile greater than all others’).

Most obscure?

So, although dinosaur names are not exactly easy to pronounce their names often convey hidden messages, if you are able to decipher them: obviously having a knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin may help. However dinosaur naming can also be a somewhat arbitrary and obscure business in which having some knowledge of ancient languages is of little help. Some dinosaur names can simply perplex the linguistically inclined: Eolambia caroljonesa (‘Lambe’s dawn reptile [discovered by] Carole Jones’); Minmi paravertebra (‘Ghostly light with bones outside the spine’) and Gilmoreosaurus mongoliensis (‘Gilmore’s reptile from Mongolia’).

In these instances you simply have to know who Lawrence Lambe was (a Canadian palaeontologist who studied dinosaurs); that the ‘minmi light’ (something akin to a poltergeist) is supposed to appear in the air at night in Queensland, Australia in the area where this dinosaur was discovered; or that Charles Gilmore was an American palaeontologist who worked on dinosaurs from Mongolia.

Childish preference

The language associated with the names of dinosaurs may appear to be quite complicated, but clearly the challenge of being able to pronounce Parasaurolophus (‘parallel-sided ridged reptiles’) or Carcharodontosaurus (‘great white shark-toothed reptile’) is, and probably always will be, just irresistible to youngsters – and long may it be so if it stimulates them and encourages an interest in science and nature.

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