What’s Wrong With Giraffatitan?

Do dinosaurs such as Spinosaurus and Giraffatitan deserve a name change?

Spinosaurus was named for its long neural spines. What would you call it? Photo by Kabacchi, image from Wikipedia.

Dinosaur names are important. Each moniker is a title that encompasses the various bones and specimens that paleontologists use to bring dinosaurs to life. When I write Tyrannosaurus rex, for instance, the name instantly conjures up an image of a hulking, deep-skulled bone-crusher that roamed western North America during the last two million years of the Cretaceous. A dinosaur’s name conveys a lot of information.

Some names are more mundane than others. Allosaurus is one of my favorite dinosaurs, but her name translates to “different lizard.” Not very inspiring. Alternatively, some dinosaur names can be hard to pronounce. I always pause before I say Amphicoelias to make sure I don’t butcher the sauropod’s name. And, then again, some dinosaur names are unintentionally funny. Pantydraco, anyone?

Just as there are people who are put off by dinosaur feathers, though, some folks are irritated by what they deem “dinosaurs with dumb names.” One of my neighbors over at WIRED, humorist Lore Sjöberg, wrote a brief whine featuring a list of dinosaurs that he thinks should be renamed for dignity’s sake.

Now, there are some dinosaur names that I’m not totally enamored with. While I understand the dinosaur’s symbolic status, Bicentenaria argentina doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and the same goes for the unevocative Panamericansaurus (yes, named after Pan American Energy). Then there are the names that appeal to the more puerile portion of my sense of humor. Read the name Texasetes too fast and you may get the dinosaur confused with a part of the male anatomy (not to mention the actual debate over whether the name of Megalosaurus should really be “Scrotum“), and you should always be careful with the pronunciation of Fukuiraptor unless you’re actually trying to insult the allosaur.

But what baffles me is that Sjöberg didn’t pick any of these names. Instead, his list includes the likes of Spinosaurus and Giraffatitan. I get his beef with dinosaurs named after places (Albertosaurus, Edmontosaurus, etc.), and I agree that Gasosaurus was comically unimaginative, but Iguanodon? The second dinosaur ever named, and one of the most iconic prehistoric creatures named for the clue in its teeth that led Gideon Mantell to rightly hypothesize that the dinosaur was an immense herbivore? I have to wonder whether Sjöberg would consider “Iguanasaurus– the original proposed name for the dinosaur–to be a step back or an improvement.

I just don’t get Sjöberg’s contention that Giraffatitan is “terrible” because–*gasp*–the sauropod wasn’t actually a big giraffe. Strict literalism only in naming dinosaurs, please. And, really, what would Sjöberg suggest as a replacement for Spinosaurus? When Ernst Stromer found the theropod, the most distinctive thing about the dinosaur was its enormous vertebral spines. What would you call it? Suchomimus–a cousin of Spinosaurus–is a little more poetic, but I like Stromer’s choice just fine.

There’s no reason to focus on the negative, though. There are plenty of awesome dinosaur names. Yes, yes, Tyrannosaurus rex will always be the best, but I still get a kick out of saying the names of the enigmatic sauropod Xenoposeidon, the dromaeosaur Pyroraptor, the stegosaur Miragaia, the ceratopsian Spinops, and the oviraptorid Khaan (“KHAAAAAAN!“). Not every dinosaur name is easily pronounced (say Willinakaqe ten times fast) or truly encapsulates the nature of the animal, but at least paleontologists aren’t naming species after online casinos. Not yet, anyway.

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