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Name games

by Donald Prothero, Mar 20 2013

In the 1990s, this nest of eggs once thought to be from Protoceratops was found with a female Oviraptor (“egg thief”) skeleton in brooding position over the nest, and Oviraptor embryos were found inside. Even though the name is incorrect and implies that the dinosaur is a thief and not the parent of the eggs, it cannot be changed due to the rules of the ICZN.

In my Feb. 13 post, I talked about the basic concepts of taxonomy, including a few of  the rules of how species are named. But how do we pick the names?  In most cases, the name must be based on Greek or Latin roots, or Latin endings on words of non Greek or Latin origin, since that has been the common language of European scholars for centuries. The criterion of Greek or Latin roots and latinization of names has become more relaxed as fewer and fewer scientists are learning the classical languages.  I feel very fortunate that I took six years of Latin and three years of Greek in high school and college, because this knowledge has given me a great advantage in remembering, spelling, and understanding taxonomic names. It has also been valuable in helping me to translate century-old paleontology monographs and in enabling me to correctly compose taxonomic names (and to correct the mistakes made by others).

Knowledge of Greek and Latin is becoming less important now that much work is being done in China, Japan, Russia, India, Latin America, and other less western European-influenced scientific communities. Consequently, scientists have gotten more and more creative with their names, often erecting names that are silly or hard for others to use. For example, mammalian paleontologist J. Reid Macdonald (1963) gave names based on the Lakota language to a number of specimens recovered from the Lakota Sioux reservation land near the old site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota. Most non-Lakotans find them difficult to pronounce or spell. Try wrapping your tongue around Ekgmowechashala (iggi-moo-we-CHA-she-la), which means “little cat man” in Lakota. It is a very important specimen of one of the last fossil primates (or possibly a colugo) in North America. In the same paper, Macdonald also named Kukusepasatanka, a hippo-like anthracothere; Sunkahetanka, a primitive dog; and Ekgmoiteptecela, a saber-toothed carnivore. Then there is the transitional fossil between seals and their ancestors known as Puijila, which comes from the Inuktitut language of Greenland; you’ll need to visit this link to hear the correct pronunciation. In Australia, there are many fossils that have tongue-twisting names with Aboriginal roots, such as Djalgaringa, Yingabalanaridae, Pilkipildridae, Yalkparidontidaem, Djarthia, Ekaltadeta, Yurlunggur, Namilamadeta, Ngapakaldia, and Djaludjiangi yadjana. Some others include Culmacanthus (“culma” is Aboriginal for “spiny fish”), Barameda (Aboriginal for “fish trap”), and Onychodus jandamarrai, after the Jandamarra Aboriginal freedom fighters. Barwickia downunda is named after Australian paleontologist Dick Barwick. Wakiewakie is an Australian fossil marsupial, supposedly named from the Australian way of waking up sleepy field crews in the morning.

There are also sorts of whimsical names out there. Just announced a few weeks ago was a new species of bee named Euglossa bazinga, after the phrase Sheldon utters on “The Big Bang Theory” every time he fools someone. The scientists wanted to honor not only the show, but point out that the bee was an excellent mimic who had the scientific community “bazinga’d” for decades. As Krishtalka (1989) describes it, about a century ago, an entomologist named Kirkaldy got a bit too creative naming different genera of “true bugs,” or Hemiptera. He published the names Peggichisme (pronounced “peggy-KISS-me”) and Polychisme for a group of stainer bugs, Ochisme and Dolichisme for two bedbugs, Florichisme for a plant hopper bug, Marichisme, Nanichisme, and Elachisme for seed bugs. For leaf hoppers and assassin bugs, Kirkaldy used male names such as Alchisme, Zanchisme, and Isachisme. In 1912 the Zoological Society of London officially condemned his naming practices, although they could not abolish the names so long as they were valid taxa.

Several websites devoted to weird names (see here and here) list the gamut of odd inspirations, from puns to wordplay to palindromes that read the same way forward and backward. Some of the more clever names include the clams Abra cadabra and Hunkydora, the beetle Agra vation, the snails Ba humbugi and Ittibittium (related to the larger snail Bittium), the flies Meomyia, Aha ha, and Pieza pi, the wasps Heerz tooya and Verae peculya, the trilobite Cindarella, the Devonian fossil Gluteus minimus, the fossil carnivore Daphoenus (pronounced Da-FEE-nus) demilo, the fossil snake Montypythonoides, the extinct lorikeet Vini vidivici (which echoes Julius Caesar’s famous statement about Gaul: “I came, I saw, I conquered” or “Veni, vidi, vici” in Latin) and the water beetle Ytu brutus, and the “Lizard of Aus,” the Australian dinosaur Ozraptor. After a few too many beers, paleontologist Nicholas Longrich says he named a horned dinosaur Mojoceratops, because it had an elaborate heart-shaped frill that might have improved its ability to attract mates. There is a Cretaceous lizard named Cuttysarkus (named by Richard Estes because my graduate advisor, Malcolm McKenna, promised him a bottle of his favorite brand of Scotch whisky if Estes found a Cretaceous mammal jaw). Leigh Van Valen named a doglike fossil mammal Arfia, and many of his names for archaic hoofed mammals are derived from The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien mythical figures. The oldest known primate fossil is known as Purgatorius, not because the namer had some sort of religious point to make about humans, but because it was found in Purgatory Hill in the Hell Creek beds of Montana (suitably hellish in the summer time with hot temperatures and dangerous slopes). Despite the musty reputation of taxonomists working away in dark museum basements, never let it be said that they have no creativity or sense of humor!

Although taxonomic names sometimes attempt to describe the creature or give some idea of its main features, if the name becomes inappropriate it is still valid so long as no other senior synonyms are known. For example, the earliest known fossil whales were originally mistaken for large marine reptiles and named Basilosaurus, or “lizard emperor.” Only later did scientists realize the fossils were from primitive whales, which are mammals, not reptiles, but the name is still valid even if it is inappropriate. In the 1920s scientists retrieved material of a bizarre predatory dinosaur from the Cretaceous of Mongolia and named it Oviraptor (“egg thief”) from its proximity to nests of eggs they thought belonged to the most common dinosaur there, the horned dinosaur Protoceratops. But in the 1980s and 1990s, expeditions returned to Mongolia and found fossil skeletons of Oviraptor mothers brooding those same eggs, and the bones of unborn Oviraptors inside the eggs. The “egg thief” was actually the parent of the eggs, not a thief at all—but this slanderous name cannot be changed just because it’s now inappropriate.

In addition to names with difficult, odd, or funny pronunciations and meanings, there are  names which honor individuals, such as the Cretaceous lizard named Obamadon to honor the President. There are also names where people have named a tick or a leech or some other parasite after people they wished to dishonor. Even though the ICZN has a clause stating, “No zoologist should propose a name that, to his knowledge, gives offense on any grounds,” the rule has been violated many times. Linnaeus himself named a noxious weedy aster Sigesbeckia after his rival Johann Sigesbeck, who opposed Linnaeus’ sexual classification of plants. A zoologist named a piranha Rooseveltia natteri because he hated President Theodore Roosevelt. Three different species of slime mold beetles are named after former President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. There is a species of louse named after the Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson (Strigiphilus garylarsoni), although this was intended to honor, not dishonor him (and reportedly Larson loved it). The famous late nineteenth-century paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and O. C. Marsh insulted each other with naming wars. Marsh named a marine lizard Mosasaurus copeanus (emphasis on the last four letters), and Cope named a fossil hoofed mammal Anisonchus cophater (emphasis on the last five letters). Cope told his protégé Henry Fairfield Osborn, “Osborn, it’s no use looking up the Greek derivation of cophater, . . . for I have named it in honor of the number of Cope-haters who surround me. . . .” A century later in 1978, Leigh Van Valen returned the compliment by naming another primitive hoofed mammal after Cope: Oxyacodon marshater. The huge piglike mammal Dinohyus hollandi was named by paleontologist O. A. Peterson after his museum director W. J. Holland, who put his name as first author on every paper, even if he didn’t do the research or write any of it. The name means “Holland’s terrible pig.” When the specimen was announced by the Pittsburgh newspaper, they ran the front-page headline, “Dinohyus hollandi, The World’s Biggest Hog!”

For the sake of stability and simplicity, the first available name proposed (after 1758) for a taxon is the valid name, except under highly unusual circumstances; this is known as the Principle of Priority. Problems and conflict usually arise when two different scientists give different names to the same organism because they were unaware of each other’s work, or when more than one name is given to the same organism because some scientists name new species based on the most trivial of criteria. Once the valid name is established, all the later names become invalid synonyms, which cannot be used again. The synonyms can be objective (two scientists actually gave different names to the same specimen) or subjective (a later reviser thinks that two species or specimens are the same, and so one is a synonym of the other).

Normally, this synonymy is established early, so when most scientists learn a name, its priority is no longer in question. Occasionally, however, there are problems. If careful library work or web searches show that some obscure scientist gave a different but prior name to a familiar taxon, that long-forgotten name legally has precedence over the much more familiar name. It doesn’t matter that this obscure name was poorly described and poorly illustrated in a minor journal that nobody reads. As long as the name does not violate any of the rules, it has priority. As Charles Michener put it, “In other sciences the work of incompetents is merely ignored; in taxonomy, because of priority, it is preserved.”

If the overthrow of a well established name causes too much hardship for scientists, there is one final legal recourse: the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature can suppress the obscure name through use of its plenary powers. To suppress the name, the taxonomist submits a formal application and justification to an international committee of about thirty scientists, who then publish the case, invite commentary, and decide it by majority vote. This procedure has served taxonomists very well. For example, the widely studied protozoan Tetrahymena has been mentioned in over fifteen hundred papers published over twenty-seven years using that name. However, there are at least ten technically valid but long-forgotten names that had priority. Because no purpose would be served by resurrecting these obscure names, the Commission voted unanimously to suppress them.

Sometimes the case is not so clear. Take the dinosaur that everyone knows as “Brontosaurus.” In 1877, Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh published two paragraphs without illustrations on a juvenile specimen of a sauropod he called Apatosaurus ajax. Two years later, he described another slightly larger, more complete, and more mature specimen from the same beds as Brontosaurus. Like most paleontologists of his time, Marsh was a taxonomic “splitter” who created a new taxon on every slightly different fossil he found. By 1903, Elmer Riggs realized they were the same dinosaur, and without fanfare sank the name Brontosaurus as a junior synonym of Apatosaurus. As far as scientists are concerned, the case is closed—and the name “Brontosaurus” cannot be used, except in an informal sense.

However, Marsh’s “Brontosaurus” was the most complete sauropod specimen then known, and it became a famous museum display. The reconstructions of this mounted skeleton were then copied and were the basis of hundreds of drawings, paintings, book illustrations, and movie monsters—all bearing the scientifically invalid name “Brontosaurus.” Because children’s books and popular movies seldom check the scientific accuracy of their content with scientists, but shamelessly copy older books and movies, the name was perpetuated, even though no paleontologist has taken the name seriously since 1903. In 1989, the U.S. Postal Service made the news when they issued a “Brontosaurus” stamp and then received criticism from paleontologists for using an invalid name. Some think that the name Apatosaurus should be suppressed, since “Brontosaurus” is much more familiar (see Steven Jay Gould’s essay, “Bully for Brontosaurus.“) However, the Commission is unlikely to agree, since the synonymy was established one hundred years ago and professional paleontologists haven’t used the invalid name since. It may be obscure to the general public (although more and more children’s books and popular books now have it right), but that doesn’t matter—it’s not obscure as far as scientists are concerned.


  • Gould, S.J. 1992. Bully For Brontosaurus. W.W. Norton, New York.
  • Krishtalka, L. 1989. The naming of the shrew, pp. 28-37, in Krishtalka, L., Dinosaur Plots. William Morrow, New York.
  • Macdonald, J. R. 1963. The Miocene faunas from the Wounded Knee area of western South Dakota. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 125:139–238.

9 Responses to “Name games”

  1. Archie Clebberdale says:

    What I personally find irritating about some of the new names is that they aren’t even Latinised names but names from various languages with various spellings or romanisation systems copied letter-by-letter. The result being that you cannot tell how to pronounce many of the new names by looking at the words, something which was no problem previously since Latin pronunciation is highly regular.
    The problem is particularly grave with names copied from languages with highly irregular spellings (like English) or extremely odd/counter-intuitive romanisations (like Mandarin).
    I think the ICZN should allow for re-spellings of names to fit the pronunciation and make an active effort to correct the spelling of at least those species with a higher profile, e.g. those that are likely to appear in the popular media or those that are of exceptional scientific interest.

  2. Peter Damian says:

    Why not identify species with a system of serial numbers eg first few numbers genus then location discovered etc. Works for billions of telephones.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I’m sure it does work. But systematists tend to be very traditional and reluctant to change a system which they have mastered and works pretty well, all things considered. (Look at the battle over Phylocode and the argument over getting rid of many of the higher Linnean ranks, where the concept is genuinely obsolete). Another thing to consider: human memory. Most of us can remember only a few phone numbers (fewer now that we let our cell phones dial for us), but I can remember hundreds of generic and specific names, and communicate that instantly in one word to most other paleontologists, who also have mastered the ability to learn names (especially because we are trained to recognize the Greek or Latin roots that help us remember what the name means). Finally, there’s the personal factor: as you can see from both my posts on the topic, there’s a certain amount of fun and pride in naming a new genus or species, and it’s an honor to have one named after you. I could tell that Michael Shermer was deeply touched when we made the surprise announcement about the new peccary named after him.

      • Peter Damian says:

        Good point.
        I think if I were fortunate enough to name a new species, and had it been discovered in my part of the world, I would be inclined to give it a Khoisan or Xhosa name.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    The problems with the current nomenclature system aren’t particularly bad — and in some lights they look almost charming.

    More to the point, changing the rules opens up a much bigger can of worms. Not just the inevitable confusion and sheer labor involved in renaming species which have been known under a particular name for decades — but the worry that once begun, changing names will never stop. We don’t want species names to be like the names of Russian warships, changing every few years with the shifting winds of scientific fads or personal influence.

    • Archie Clebberdale says:

      Sounds like a Pluto is or is not a planet debate to me. I think there should be some wiggle room to be able to fix errors. Especially since in this day and age the actual labour involved in changing a name has become much less of an issue. If I search for ‘colour’ the search engine is smart enough to know that I’m interested in documents containing ‘color’ too, so this problem is essentially solved already.
      Still, I would argue that for reasons of convenience names should remain the same when they aren’t actually erroneous; part of the purpose of names is that both parties in a conversation know they’re talking about the same thing. As for errors, I would consider e.g. spelling errors (don’t affect conversation), taxonomic errors (affect conversation, but in this case that’s a plus), naming priority mistakes (if that affects conversations, well suck it I say).

  4. Michael Yuri says:

    This discussion of the brontosaurus conflates scientific nomenclature with popular names. But the two are governed by entirely different rules, and there is no reason they need to march in lockstep.

    Consistent nomenclature is important for scientific progress. It’s perfectly reasonable for scientists to insist that they, through accepted conventions and official bodies, have authority over official terminology used in their disciplines. It’s quite another thing entirely for scientists to claim the authority over the English language in its entirety.

    In common language, words are defined on the basis of popular usage. A dog is properly called a dog because that’s the term used and accepted by the overwhelming majority of English language speakers. It matters not one bit that scientists have chosen to call this species Canis lupus familiaris.

    Gorilla is the common name for two species of large African apes. It’s also the scientific name of the genus these apes belong to. Hypothetically, suppose some obscure old article turned up in a dusty archive, proving indisputably that the name Magnasimia argentum actually predated Gorilla gorilla. That might be grounds for the ICZN to insist that the earlier name has taxonomic priority. It does not mean that ordinary people need to start calling the animals magnasimias, or that any new popular science book referring to them as gorillas is somehow wrong, unscientific, or outdated.

    Brontosaurus was (is?) the popular English-language name for the genus scientists refer to as Apatosaurus. That’s just an empirical reality. For 100+ years, it’s been used in books, toys, movies, etc., and learned by generations of children.

    Undoubtedly, there’s some degree of convenience when the popular and scientific name are the same. I’m not unsympathetic to an effort by scientists to convince people to use apatosaurus as the popular name. An honest argument would be, “scientists long ago abandoned the term brontosaurus for apatosaurus — it would be convenient if everyone were to use the same term scientists use.” But the continual insistence that the common use of brontosaurus is wrong, or unscientific, or ignorant, is an example of the arrogance of scientists trying to exercise authority outside their proper domain.

    Using the term brontosaurus instead of apatosaurus as a popular name is no more incorrect or misinformed than talking about chimpanzees instead of troglodytes.

    • Archie Clebberdale says:

      Common words can be wrong though, even if they’re universally used. That you cannot always do anything about it doesn’t make it less wrong. Tinfoil is wrong. Brontosaurus is wrong. And wrong words will remain in use until enough people make a concerted effort to ban them from their speech and writing. And if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem and you should change.

  5. genoboost says:

    When I was a kid I used to read every dinosaur book I could get my hands on. If I recall correctly, there was maybe one book that mentioned that the brontasaurus was called an apatosaurus. I’m even more surprised now that I find that paleontologists have been using apatosaurus since long before my parents were even born! Especially since all the books I read were published in the 80s and 90s.
    Well after I did find out, like the pedantic nerd I am, I have been correcting people ever since.

    As for Marsh and Cope. All those same dino books painted them as noble rivals and not the overcompetitive glory hogs they apparently were.