From “T. Rex” to “Pantydraco”: How Dinosaurs Get Their Names

The best monikers are “a way to link science and imagination.” Others are just obvious

Most regular visitors of Chicago's Field Museum are on a first-name basis with Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that adorns the museum's front hall. (Vlad Ghiea / Alamy)
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When it comes to dinosaur names, the classics will always be on the tips of our tongues. There’s Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus and, naturally, the tyrant king Tyrannosaurus rex, so famous that most simply know the carnivorous celebrity as T. rex. These Mesozoic rock stars discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—just when museums were starting to show them off—have more enduring popularity than any movie star. 

But where did these now-iconic names come from? And how did we end up with today’s lesser-known titles like Spinops, Bistahieversor and even—try not to giggle—Pantydraco?

In the early days of paleontology, slapping a –saurus on a Greek or Latin prefix was all that was necessary. The first dinosaur to be formally named was Megalosaurus (the great reptile) in 1824. And even though it was soon followed by Iguanodon (the iguana tooth) in 1825, the bulk of 19th century names were variations of –saurus

The Greek or Latin part was generally used to highlight essential features of the ancient animals. When Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh named Stegosaurus in 1877, for example, he initially—and incorrectly—thought that the dinosaur’s characteristic plates laid flat over the Jurassic herbivore’s back as a kind of crunchy outer wrapping. Hence: the “roofed lizard.” Triceratops, which Marsh described in 1889, practically named itself. There’s no mistaking the “three horned face” for any other type of ’saur. 

Then again, some of the translated names are bummers. Despite being an apex predator of the Jurassic and the quintessential badass of dino movies like 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi, Allosaurus simply means… “different lizard.” At the time, there was only just enough of the first specimen to know it was something distinct from what was found before. 

There’s a method to this dinomania. While individual dinosaurs can get memorable pet names—like “Sue” the famous T. rex at the Filed Museum and “Hatcher” the Triceratops at the National Museum of Natural History—their official scientific titles follow the same rules as every other animal. First there’s the genus name—like Brontosaurus—followed by the species name, which in this case would be excelsus. (Sometimes paleontologists will find a new species of an existing genus. For example, Velociraptor mongoliensis was named in 1924, but in 2008 experts described a second species they called Velociraptor osmolskae.)

For many, naming one of these ancient beasts is serious business. “To me, choosing a name for a new dinosaur species has always been a heavy task,” says North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences paleontologist Lindsay Zanno. Not only are names necessary for scientific communication, but dinosaurs—like planets—have their own pop culture pull that makes naming a new species a way to excite the public. “If wisely chosen, a name can become a vector for connecting nature and humanity through shared culture, for inspiring curiosity, or for awakening a long dead species in our collective imaginations,” Zanno says.

Pantydraco_BW.jpg
Pantydraco caducus, a sauropodomorph from the Late Triassic or Early Jurassic, gets its name from the Pant-y-ffynnon quarry and the word ‘draco,’ which means dragon. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet within that weighty task, there’s still room for silliness. A long-necked dinosaur with muscular legs was named Brontomerus, or “thunder thighs,” by Mike Taylor and colleagues in 2011. And in 2012, Cleveland Museum of Natural History paleontologist Michael Ryan and colleagues looked at a fossil that was thought to be a specimen of the familiar horned dinosaur Centrosaurus (“pointed lizard”) and decided it was something different. The official name ended up being Coronosaurus (“crown lizard”), but, Ryan says, while the specimen was being studied paleontologist Jim Gardner dubbed the dinosaur “Broccoliceratops” on account of the knobbly protrusions on its frill.

“Jim came up with it just to tease me, I’m sure,” Ryan says, “but it is a very evocative name.”

Occasionally a nickname even ends up being the right fit. Wendiceratops, which Ryan described with colleague David Evans in 2015, started out as a nickname in honor of discoverer Wendy Sloboda and ultimately became the horned dinosaur’s official moniker.

Traditionally, dinosaur names are often used to honor the people or cultures near where they were found. Since the 1980s, duckbill dinosaur bones found in the vicinity of Alaska’s Colville River were categorized as Edmontosaurus, a common and well-known Cretaceous herbivore. But last year paleontologist Hirotsugu Mori and colleagues announced that these bones actually belonged to a previously-unknown species, which they subsequently named Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis. The full name, translating to “Colville River’s ancient grazer,” was derived from the Alaskan Iñupiaq language rather than Greek or Latin.

Study co-author Patrick Druckenmiller came up with the idea. “He thought that Alaska's indigenous people knew that the bones were of herbivorous reptiles before modern scientists discovered fossils,” Mori says

Looking to human culture, and especially mythology, has become especially popular with paleontologists, Zanno says. “It seems a way to link science and imagination, two faces that we often fail to recognize are part of the same whole.” As an example, Zanno points to a species of large oviraptorosaur – think of a terrestrial parrot – found in southern Utah. “It was obvious that the name should at least highlight its giant size,” Zanno says, “but I also wanted it to transport the public into a time long lost, when our planet looked like another, almost unimaginable world.”

So Zanno chose Hagryphus giganteus, “a combination of the Egyptian god Ha of the western desert and the mythical bird beast the griffin,” the species name a testament to the dinosaur’s large size. “It’s still my favorite combination,” Zanno says.

We should expect more names like these as more dinosaurs come out of the ground. After all, we’re in a golden age of fossil discovery: Paleontologists are naming a new dinosaurian species on the average of once of every two weeks, and projections of what remains in the rock suggest that we’re still only just beginning to find all the dinosaurs that are likely to be out there.

The culture of science itself has something to do with the shift. “My generation was, I think, the first one not to be offered core curriculum cousins in Latin or Greek,” Ryan says, “so there was and is a growing lack of familiarity with those language and the old conventions of taxonomy.” That, paired with the fact that scientists are just as influenced by pop culture as the rest of us, has changed the nature of dinosaur names. The snaggletoothed, “vicious lizard” Masiakasaurus knopfleri, named in 2001, has a species name that honors Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler because the band’s tunes were cranked when the dinosaur’s bones were found.

Still, Ryan says, basic features like anatomy, location, and who made the discovery all have a role to play in the naming of any species, dinosaur or not. “People still look to the morphology to inform the generic name, with localities and individuals the go-to subjects for the species name,” Ryan says, but “If you find a new beetle with the Superman logo etched onto the abdomen, it would be hard to avoid going with the obvious.” 

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