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How Dinosaurs Were Named

Dinosaur expert Don Lessum shares the meaning behind dinosaur names as he answers students' questions.

  • Grades: 3–5

Q: How are names given to dinosaurs? Is it based on their characteristics?
A: Dinosaurs are often named for characteristics, like earth shaker lizard, the Greek name for the longest dinosaur, seismosaurus. But the scientist who finds it and describes it can name it for a place, a mythical animal, a friend... anything.

Q: Why are dinosaurs given such long names and who decides on the long names?
A: Dinosaur names are largely taken from the Greek or Latin versions of descriptions of the dinosaur, the place they come from, or a person to be honored by the scientist who describes it first in a scientific paper — usually the same scientist who dug it up. So, seismosaurus, the longest dinosaur, was named "earth shaker lizard." The "saurus" part is a tradition that goes back to the name first given to these creatures — dinosaur — which means terrible lizard. Of course they're not lizards but the name has stuck. The longest dinosaur name of all is "micropachycephalosaurus" which means "little thick-headed lizard." Its a dome-headed little dinosaur. The shortest dinosaur name is Minmi an Australian armored dinosaur named for Minmi Crossing where it was found. These are all GENUS names, the group to which the dinosaurs belong. They also belong to a smaller group within the GENUS, the species that have even more features in common. So dinosaurs all have a second name but we only use it in conversation with one dinosaur — Tyrannosaurus rex. It has an Asian cousin that looks nearly the same as the familiar North American rex, only its name is Tyrannosaurus bataar.

Q: What is your favorite dinosaur name and what does it mean?
A: My favorite dinosaur name is the longest, micropachycephalosaurus. It means "little thick-headed lizard."

Q: How did the dilophosaurus get its name? What does it mean?
A: Dilophosaurus means, loosely, "double-crested lizard," since it had one on its head. It was nearly 20 feet long.

Q: Do you know if Tyrannosaurus rex always had that name?
A: T. rex wasn't called T. rex by other dinosaurs. But it was the first name given that animal. It was also, mistakenly called dynamosaurus, but we stick with the 1905 name "Tyrannosaurus rex," which means "tyrant lizard king."

Q: Is the maiasaura considered the good mother of the dinosaurs? If so, why?
A: Maiasaura means "good mother." Dr. Jack Horner gave it this name because he saw evidence that it took good care of its babies — feeding them chewed up plants while they were newly hatched babies — too weak to leave the nest. Other dinosaurs were probably good parents, too. Oviraptor dinosaurs from Mongolia have been found on top of their eggs. Other dinosaurs, like the orodomeus, the little planteater from Montana in maiasaura's time, were born up-and-running. They didn't need parents to take care of them and so those babies probably didn't have good mothers. Maisaura is just one of two dinosaurs with a female name. The other is Laellynasaura named for a little girl, Laellyn Rich, who asked her parents to find her a dinosaur. Since they are dinosaur scientists, they did!

Q: Why do scientists call the brontasaurus the apatosaurus?
A: Apatosaurus is the name first given to the dinosaur which just a few years later — back in the late 1800's — was given the name brontosaurus by another researcher. It's often hard to tell from a few bones if you truly have a new kind of dinosaur, and in those days scientists competed to have the most dinosaurs named. Nearly 100 years ago scientists were already aware that apatosaurus and brontosaurus were really the same animal and that the first name used is the one that should stick. But people like the name brontosaurus so much they keep using it. Also, we goofed in sticking the wrong head on apatosaurus in many museums. The head of a camarasaurus, which was found at the other end of a quarry, was put on the apatosaurus' body. That mistake wasn't discovered until little more than a decade ago and many museums had to change the heads on their apatosaurus displays.

Q: How did the oviraptor get its name?
A: Oviraptor means "egg eater", and it was given that name because it was found on top of a nest of eggs. Scientists back in the 1920's, thought it was eating those eggs. Because more oviraptors were found recently, and one was straddling a nest of eggs, including an embryo, we believe that the oviraptor was there because the eggs were its own babies that it was taking care of! Oviraptors have been found with lizard skeletons in their stomach openings. So they probably ate lizards more than eggs.

Q: How do you spell "ultrasaurus"?
A: You spelled ultrasaurus right and wrong. Huh? Well, it seems that when Jim Jensen found and named ultrasaurus he didn't know another scientist had already used that name on another animal. So some researchers suggested the dinosaur's name be changed to ultrasauros instead. But the other scientist's naming was based on not enough fossil information, so Jensen's name might be OK after all. All in all, I think it's easier to stick with ultrasaurus.

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  • Subjects:
    Word Origins and Usage, Dinosaurs
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