Sunday, October 12, 2014

Place Name-o-saurus

Albertosaurus, a tyrannosaur from Alberta, in case that wasn't clear.

All of these fossil animal names have something in common. Can you guess what it is?

Albertosaurus, Albertaceratops, Albertonykus, Albertonectyes, Edmontosaurus, Edmontonia, Agujaceratops, Coahuilaceratops, Judiceratops, Utahraptor, Utahceratops, Alaskacephale, Sinosauropteryx, Sinornithosaurus, Sinovenator, Sinocalliopteryx, Sinornis, Sinoceratops, Huaxiagnathus, Huaxiaosaurus, Qianzhousaurus, Zhuchengceratops, Zhuchengtyrannus, Montanoceratops, Argentinosaurus, Nigersaurus, Aegyptosaurus, Brasilotitan, Gondwanatitan, Panamericansaurus, Gobisaurus, Afrovenator, Antarctopelta, Europelta, Europasaurus, Hungarosaurus, Hatzegopteryx, Santanadactylus, Santanaraptor, Santanachelys

And that’s just off the top of my head. All of these Mesozoic critters have genus names honoring the places they were found: a country, state, province, town, or geological formation. Look at that list--there are two dinosaurs named after the entire continent of Europe, three named for a particular South American formation, six named after China, and four named for Alberta. Again, I’m only throwing out names that immediately came to mind—there are plenty more, especially when you start throwing species names in there (-sinensis, -utahensis, -albertensis, etc.). China is particularly egregious when it comes to this practice (both “Sin” and “Hua Xia” both mean “China”).

I especially like animals with two place names, like Quianzousaurus sinensis or Sinoceratops zhuchengensis. Agujaceratops mariscalensis is named after the Aguja Formation, which is near Mariscal Mountain in Texas. Redundancy!

I really can’t stand this unbelievably common practice. To my mind, it speaks to laziness and lack of imagination on the part of the person naming the animal. In a multi-author work, I’m not sure who’s in charge of naming the new taxon, but I feel that person has some responsibility to be creative and respectful to the animal in question, and it's up to his cohorts to talk him off the ledge of giving the animal a place-name.

Utahceratops is so boring that its home state is most exciting thing about it. Art by the incomparable Lukas Panzarin. 

Let’s take one of my least-favorite dinosaur names: Utahceratops. It’s mid-sized chasmosaurine from the Beehive State that looks a whole lot like Pentaceratops in the frill, but has an unusually vertical nasal horn (for a chasmosaurine) that sits behind the naris; and small, blunt postorbital horns that are directly laterally instead of up and forward; and a distinct “forehead.” The frill does differ from Pentaceratops in a few subtle ways, but based on frill morphology alone, one might be tempted to sink Utahceratops into Pentaceratops (as Nick Longrich probably should have done, but that’s a topic for another day).

Now are you trying to tell me that, based on that description, the most interesting thing about Utahceratops is the fact that it came from Mormon Country? You can’t be serious. How about a name derived from one of the ancient beasts of Native American lore? How about Uktenaceratops? It’s a “horned serpent” from Cherokee mythology, which doesn’t necessarily totally fit a ceratopsid, but you know what? It took me five minutes to come up with that name after a quick jaunt through Wikipedia. This isn’t hard; you can do better.

Despite what the description claims, there's nothing evocative about Qianzhousaurus sinensis.

Don’t be afraid to let your hair down about it, either. Keep in mind there are some very entertaining dinosaur names: Mojoceratops, Brontomerus, Megapnosaurus, and Gojirasaurus. Travouillon et al. just named a fossil marsupial Crash bandicoot.

Here’s my point: if I can do this, YOU can do this.

So I want to hear from the people out there who gave their new fossil animals place-names. I want you to tell me why you did it. There's gotta be a reason, and you must've thought it was a perfectly good one. Place-naming happens WAY too often, and while I'd like to see it stop entirely, I'd be happy if it least slowed way down. Remember when dinosaur names had some pizzazz? Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Monoclonius, Anatotitan--those were the days. Say what you want about the taxonomic Gordian Knot that the Bone Wars wrought, but I give Marsh and Cope a lot of credit for coming up with some damn good names. Let's get back to that, but it's going to require some imagination. I know that paleontologists have imagination--it's part of the JOB.

We can do better.


  1. *clap clap clap*

    I couldn't agree more. It burns my soul that they found the biggest dinosaur that we have decent skeletal remains for, in Argentina, and called it Argentinosaurus. It's the most appalling lack of imagination. I don't much like the name Dreadnoughtus but, heck, at least they were trying.

    Thanks for the mention of Brontomerus, by the way. It took Matt and me a long time to land up on that name. We had various placeholder names along the way, but we knew they weren't right. We just kept on chewing it over until the day Brontomeron popped into Matt's head. From there, it was a short step to the final version. The moral here, I think, is just not to settle for the first name you land on.

    (But, what, no love for Xenoposeidon, the alien earthquake god?)

  2. Hahahaha, I might edit the post now that you've reminded me of that particular name. It's another winner for sure. I've always felt that Brontomerus is delightfully meta; it's one of my all-time favorite dinosaur names.