How to Name a Dinosaur

Digital illistration of leaellynasaura dinosaur.

Nobu Tamura / CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Most working paleontologists don't get the opportunity to name their own dinosaur. In fact, for the most part, paleontology is a somewhat anonymous and tedious occupation--the typical Ph.D. candidate spends most of her days laboriously removing encrusted dirt from newly discovered fossils. But the one chance a field worker really gets to shine is when he or she discovers--and gets to name--a brand-new dinosaur. (See The 10 Best Dinosaur Names, The 10 Worst Dinosaur Names, and the Greek Roots Used to Name Dinosaurs.)

There are all sorts of ways to name dinosaurs. Some of the most famous genera are named after prominent anatomical features (e.g., Triceratops, Greek for "three-horned face," or Spinosaurus, the "spiny lizard"), while others are named according to their presumed behavior (one of the most famous examples is Oviraptor, which means "egg thief," even though the charges later turned out to be overblown). A bit less imaginatively, many dinosaurs are named after the regions where their fossils were discovered--witness the Canadian Edmontosaurus and the South American Argentinosaurus.

Genus Names, Species Names, and the Rules of Paleontology

In scientific publications, dinosaurs are usually referred to by their genus and species names. For example, Ceratosaurus comes in four different flavors: C. nasicornus, C. dentisulcatus, C. ingens, and C. roechlingi. Most ordinary people can get by with just saying "Ceratosaurus," but paleontologists prefer to use both the genus and species names, especially when describing individual fossils. More often than you might think, a species of a particular dinosaur is "promoted" to its own genus--this has happened numerous times, for instance, with Iguanodon, some former species of which are now referred to as Mantellisaurus, Gideonmantellia, and Dollodon.

According to the arcane rules of paleontology, a dinosaur's first official name is the one that sticks. For example, the paleontologist who discovered (and named) Apatosaurus later discovered (and named) what he thought was an entirely different dinosaur, Brontosaurus. When it was determined that Brontosaurus was the same dinosaur as Apatosaurus, official rights reverted back to the original name, leaving Brontosaurus as a "deprecated" genus. (This sort of thing doesn't only happen with dinosaurs; for example, the prehistoric horse, formerly known as Eohippus, now goes by the less user-friendly Hyracotherium.)

Yes, Dinosaurs Can Be Named After People

Surprisingly few dinosaurs are named after people, perhaps because paleontology tends to be a group effort and many practitioners don't like to call attention to themselves. Some legendary scientists, though, have been honored in dinosaur form: for example, Othnielia is named after Othniel C. Marsh (the same paleontologist who caused the whole Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus brouhaha), while Drinker wasn't a prehistoric alcoholic, but a dinosaur named after the 19th-century fossil hunter (and Marsh rival) Edward Drinker Cope. Other "people-saurs" include the amusingly named Piatnitzkysaurus and Becklespinax.

Perhaps the most widely recognized people-saur of modern times is Leaellynasaura, which was discovered by a married pair of paleontologists in Australia in 1989. They decided to name this small, gentle ornithopod after their young daughter, the first time a child had ever been honored in dinosaur form--and they repeated the trick a few years later with Timimus, an ornithomimid dinosaur named after the husband of this famous duo. (In the past few years, there have been many more dinosaurs named after women, correcting a long-time historical imbalance.)

The Silliest, and Most Impressive, Dinosaur Names

Every working paleontologist, it seems, harbors the secret desire to come up with a dinosaur name so impressive, so profound, and so just-plain-cool that it results in reams of media coverage. Recent years have witnessed such unforgettable examples as Tyrannotitan, Raptorex and Gigantoraptor, even if the dinosaurs involved were less impressive than you might think (Raptorex, for example, was only about the size of a full-grown human, and Gigantoraptor wasn't even a true raptor, but a plus-sized relative of Oviraptor).

Silly dinosaur names--if they're within the bounds of good taste, of course--also have their place in the hallowed halls of paleontology. Probably the most famous example is Irritator, which received its name because the paleontologist restoring its fossil was feeling, well, particularly irritated that day. Recently, one paleontologist named a new horned, frilled dinosaur Mojoceratops (after the "mojo" in the expression "I've got my mojo working"), and let's not forget the famous Dracorex hogwartsia, after the Harry Potter series, which was named by pre-teen visitors to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

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Strauss, Bob. "How to Name a Dinosaur." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Strauss, Bob. (2021, February 16). How to Name a Dinosaur. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "How to Name a Dinosaur." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 3, 2022).