Monday, 2 April 2018

What's in a name?

Twitter has recently had many scientists highlighting the first species they have named (#Myfirstspecies). I am yet to get such a privilege, although got awfully close with finding a new fish species for India.

Whilst we all know a lot of species by their common names, in science we have been using a two part (binomial) naming system officially since Carl Linnaeus in 1753. These include things like Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex), Felis catus (domestic cat), or Gorilla gorilla (Western gorilla). On a computer they are italicised and the first name (genus) is capitalised whilst the second (species) name is always lower case. If hand-written we underline both names beacuse italicising is tricky in handwriting. Sometimes a subspecies name also exists e.g. Gorilla gorilla gorilla (Western lowland gorilla) as opposed to Gorilla gorilla diehli (Cross River gorilla).

So why do we have this system for naming? It was a way to standardise all naming as previously we may have had many common names for different species. My favourite crazy example concerns the largest deer species from North America and Europe. What is an elk, and moose? In Europe (at least to Brits), an elk is what North Americans would call a moose (Alces alces), whilst an elk/wapati (Cervus canadensis) to North Americans is a smaller species of deer resembling a European red deer (Cervus elaphus).

Cervus canadensis. By MONGO - Own work, Public Domain,
Alces alces. By USDA Forest Service -, Public Domain,
Cervus elephas. By Lviatour - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So we in science have done away with common names for our sanity and stick to binomial names in publications. Usually the binomial names indicate something about the animal, e.g. C. canadensis from Canada (well N. America, but you get the idea), the discoverer/person who contributed to the field e.g. Lambeosaurus (after Lawrence Lambe who did a lot of work in Canada and on the genus before its naming), or something interesting/distinct about the animal e.g. Dilophosaurus (two-crested lizard - after the two ridges running down its skull) and Maiasaura (good mother lizard - as hatchlings were found in nesting colonies), but the naming can be as wild or weird as the naming people want as long as it follows certain rules (e.g. the name isn't already in use, you've correctly joined all the bits of the name depending on the language used - this is why its the feminine Latin Maiasaura rather than Maiasaurus, you can't name it after yourself etc. etc.).

I don't know if this is the case for everyone, but below are some names that have stuck with me for all sorts of reasons:

1. Scrotum humanum - Plot, 1677. Technically this is no longer a valid binomial name as it fell out of common usage before 1900 (the cutoff for a lot of old names), but this was actually the first binomial name given to a dinosaur (and before Linnaeus got around to standardising binomial naming). Now known as Megalosaurus bucklandii. The naming is perhaps not surprising when you see the figure below, but it is actually the broken bottom end of a femur. I'm kind of hoping someone revives this name.

Figure from The Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677). Taken from 
2. Nqwebasaurus thwazi - de Klerk et al., 2000. This dinosaur name is a proper mouthful, but not how it looks. The Nq is actually a "click" sound from the southern African Xhosa tribe. I sadly have never heard anyone pronounce it correctly at a conference and most talk about it in the anglicised version where it is said as it spelt.

3. Tianchisaurus nedegoapeferima - Dong, 1993. The genus name here isn't the reason for loving the name, it is the species name. The jumbled nedegoapeferima are the first two letters of the original cast of Jurassic Park's surnames (except Attenborough who only got the A): Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello. Added factoid is that the genus name was originally Jurassosaurus by Spielberg himself who funded the Chinese dig, but that name did not stick. Whilst not unique in being a species named after a celebrity, it may be the one named after the most!

4. Mei long -Xu & Norell, 2004.  Whilst originally most species were named using Latin, as you can see from the above examples this is no longer the case with other languages such as Chinese becoming commonly used. Mei is a favourite just because the binomial name means "sleeping dragon" and was named because the dinosaur was found with its head behind an arm like modern birds.
Mei long. Figure from Xu & Norell, 2004.
5. Protoceratops andrewsi - Granger & Gregory, 1923. This is the answer I give to the question "which is my favourite dinosaur?" after T. rex. The reason? My name appears in it. Well actually the famous Roy Chapman Andrews name appears in it, but I'm taking it for now. Roy Chapman Andrews was a very interesting person. Thinking that humans originated in east Asia, he led expeditions to Mongolia where he would go on to discover an enormous wealth of dinosaurs, and the first dinosaur eggs. His expeditions may also have provided the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

I went and picked some other people's heads to so you didn't just get a list of funny dinosaurs names (although there are still a lot on here).

1. Zanabazar junior - Barsbold, 1974 (Genus was Norell et al., 2009). Alessandro Chiarenza's choice because of the great sounding name, which actually derives its name from the first Tibetan Buddhist figurehead Zanabazar.

2. Irritator challengeri - Martill et al., 1996. Ryan Felice's choice due to the name being an apt description of the difficulties of fieldwork. The name comes from the specimen being illegally collected and "enhanced" with plaster with Irritator specifically "from irritation, the feeling the authors felt (understated here) when discovering that the snout had been artificially elongated."

3. Babyrousa babyrussa - Linnaeus, 1758. Amber Collings' choice as the common name is the Buru babirusa (Buru being the island it is native to and babirusa being the name for the pig-like animals). Just for the mess of a brain tease it is, none of the names are the same, so best of luck remembering it all!

4. Vampyroteuthis infernalis - Chun, 1903. Mary Offutt's choice as the name literally means the vampire squid from hell. What's not to like?

5. Ninjemys oweni - Woodward 1881 (Genus was Gaffney, 1992). One of Thomas Haliday's choices for the reason for the Ninjemys genus name was created by Gaffney: "Ninja, in allusion to that totally rad, fearsome foursome epitomizing shelled success; emys, turtle". I think we all accept that we are nerds...

6. Yi qi - Xu et al., 2015. Another of Thomas' choices.This is a crazy dinosaur with bat like wings and also holds what may well be the shortest binomial name.

7. Dicraeosaurus sattleri - Janensch, 1914. Franzi Sattler's choice. Apparently it is "the best sauropod." I don't think I need to elaborate on why as it is less tenuous than the P. andrewsi I went for...

8. Turdus migratorius - Linnaeus, 1766. Catherine Early's undergraduate course choice. Mainly for the genus name giving her, and most people, a good chuckle. Poor American robin.

There are countless more that probably deserve to be elaborated on that have been discussed. Feel free to check out these: the fungus Spongiforma squarepantsii, the moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, the horse fly Scaptia beyonceae, the 19 (as of 2017) species named after Sir David Attenborough, the hundreds named after Alexander von Humboldt (if you don't know much about him, I thoroughly recommend reading "The Invention of Nature" by Andrea Wulf), or the countless other species with names that actually are informative about the animal or where it was found.

Hopefully binomial naming makes as much sense as it is going to. If you want to get a proper brain melt, oology (study of eggs), or at least for the fossils, has a similar binomial system that does not link to the species that laid them (if that is even known), as does ichnology (trace fossils). In fact ichnology may have multiple "Genus species" names for different steps as part of an trackway depending on the sediments (e.g. if the animal goes from wet to dry) despite it being a single maker.

If you have any good ones, please do comment!


  1. Some of my picks:
    -Haplocheirus sollers, "skillful simple hand", for signalling its scientific significance very clearly (it's an early alvarezsaur with "normal" theropod hands)
    -Animantarx, "living fortress", a great name for an ankylosaur
    -Theiophytalia, "Garden of the Gods", which I just find an aesthetically pleasing name in general (it's named after the park where it was discovered)
    -Cathartesaura, which can be seen as both "vulture lizard" (Cathartes-saura) as well as a portmanteau of Cathartes aura (the scientific name of the turkey vulture, a common sight at the dig site where it was found)

    1. A nice set of choices. I particularly love the last one!