The 10 Best Prehistoric Nicknames

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Who Can Resist the Demon Duck of Doom?

Kaprosuchus, the BoarCroc (Nobu Tamura).

When a prehistoric animal has a difficult-to-pronounce name like Cretoxyrhina or Oreopithecus, it helps if it also has catchy nickname--the "Demon Duck of Doom" is more likely to to feature in newspaper headlines than the more ordinary-sounding Bullockornis. On the following slides, you'll find a list of the 10 best prehistoric nicknames, which have been bestowed on animals as diverse as sharks, dogs and parrots.

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Bullockornis, the Demon Duck of Doom

bullockornis demon duck doom
Bullockornis, the Demon Duck of Doom (Wikimedia Commons).

Measuring an imposing eight feet tall, and weighing in the neighborhood of 500 pounds, Bullockornis wasn't the biggest prehistoric bird that ever lived, but it was surely one of the most dangerous--equipped as it was with a thick, heavy, curved beak that it used to hatchet its unfortunate prey. Still, this Miocene feather-duster would be a mere footnote in evolutionary history, were it not for the clever Australian publicist who dubbed it the "Demon Duck of Doom."

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Enchodus, the Saber-Toothed Herring

Enchodus, the Saber-Toothed Herring (Wikimedia Commons).

Sadly, the popularity of Enchodus is based on a lie: this "Saber-Toothed Herring" was actually more closely related to modern salmon. The dangerous-looking Enchodus plied the shallow Western Interior Sea (which once covered much of the western U.S.) for about 10 million years, from the late Cretaceous period to the early Eocene epoch. No one knows if it hunted in schools, but if it did, the Saber-Toothed Herring might have been every bit as deadly as the modern piranha!

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Secodontosaurus, the Fox-Faced Finback

secodontosaurus fox faced finback
Secodontosaurus, the Fox-Faced Finback (Dmitri Bogdanov).

As prehistoric animals go, Secodontosaurus has two strikes against it. First, it belongs to a relatively obscure family of reptiles known as pelycosaurs, and second, its name sounds almost exactly like the better-known dinosaur Thecodontosaurus, which lived tens of millions of years later. So it's no surprise that the paleontologists who discovered Secodontosaurus immortalized it as the "Fox-Faced Finback," a reference to its narrow snout and the Dimetrodon-like sail along its back.

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Kaprosuchus, the BoarCroc

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Kaprosuchus, the BoarCroc (Nobu Tamura).

"Suchus" ("crocodile") is a fairly undignified Greek root when used in genus names, which explains why so many paleontologists prefer the more dramatic suffix "croc". The 20-foot-long Kaprosuchus came by its nickname, BoarCroc, because the jaws of this Cretaceous crocodile were studded with hog-like tusks. Intrigued? Check out the SuperCroc (Sarcosuchus), the DuckCroc (Anatosuchus), and the ShieldCroc (Aegisuchus) for more crocodile-name hijinks.

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Oreopithecus, the Cookie Monster

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Oreopithecus, the Cookie Monster (Flickr).

As far as we know, the primates of late Miocene Europe didn't partake of tasty, baked, cream-filled snack treats. Oreopithecus isn't known as the "Cookie Monster" because of its presumed diet; rather, it's because the Greek root "oreo" (meaning "hill" or "mountain") conjures up images of you-know-what. This is somewhat ironic, because, with about 50 near-complete fossil specimens, Oreopithecus is one of the best-understood occupants of the hominid family tree.

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Cretoxyrhina, the Ginsu Shark

cretoxyhrina protostega
Cretoxyrhina, the Ginsu Shark (Alain Beneteau).

Readers of a certain age may remember the Ginsu Knife, a piece of cutlery advertised ad nauseam on late-night TV ("It slices! It dices! It even cuts through tin cans!") With its otherwise unpronounceable name--Greek for "Cretaceous jaws"--Cretoxyrhina might well have faded into obscurity if an enterprising paleontologist hadn't dubbed it the "Ginsu Shark." (Why? Well, judging by its hundreds of fossilized teeth, this prehistoric shark did its own share of slicing and dicing!)

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Eucritta, the Creature from the Black Lagoon

eucritta creature black lagoon
Eucritta, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The ancient tetrapod Eucritta comes by its nickname more honestly than the other animals on this list: its full genus and species name is Eucritta melanolimnetes, which translates from the Greek as "creature from the black lagoon." Unlike the 1950's movie monster, which was played by a grown man in a rubber suit, Eucritta was a small, inoffensive critter, less than a foot long and weighing only a few ounces. It may have been an important "missing link" in vertebrate evolution.

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"Big Al" the Allosaurus

big al allosaurus
A mounted relative of "Big Al" the Allosaurus (Wikimedia Commons).

There's a long tradition of paleontologists treating their fossil finds like old friends, to the extent that they assign them easy-to-pronounce nicknames. One of the most famous of the bunch is "Big Al," a 95-percent complete Allosaurus fossil discovered in Wyoming in 1991. This tradition also applies when the animal in question has a difficult-to-pronounce genus name: for example, the marine reptile Dolichorhynchops is affectionately called "Dolly" by experts.

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Mopsitta, the Danish Blue

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Mopsitta, the Danish Blue (David Waterhouse).

Modern-day Scandinavia isn't exactly known for its parrots, which tend to be restricted to more tropical climates. That's why a team of researchers had fun nicknaming their Paleocene discovery Mopsitta the "Danish Blue," after the dead parrot of the famous Monty Python sketch. ("This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace!") Unfortunately, Mopsitta may turn out not to be a parrot after all, in which case it would qualify as a true ex-parrot.

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Amphicyon, the Bear Dog

Amphicyon, the Bear Dog (Sergio Perez).

Compared to the other animals on this list, Amphicyon is a bit of an anomaly; its nickname, the Bear Dog, actually applies to a whole family of bone-crushing mammals that lived about 25 million years ago. In fact, during much of the Cenozoic Era, bears, dogs and other mammalian predators like hyenas were still relatively undifferentiated, and as impressive as they were, "bear dogs" were directly ancestral to neither bears nor dogs! (See also 10 Real-Life Chimaeras from the Annals of Paleontology.)