Friday, April 29, 2011

"Best" and "Worst" Dinosaur Names

A couple of articles I've come across recently have gotten me thinking about dinosaur names, in particular a pair of (admittedly fluffy) articles on, the "10 Worst Dinosaur Names" and the "10 Best Dinosaur Names".

It is interesting but somewhat disheartening to see how the public (and even other scientists, to be honest) react to certain dinosaur names, identifying them as 'good' or 'bad'. What makes a dinosaur name good or bad? I would argue that good names include something descriptive about the animal that sticks in your head, and that can be as simple as a location-based name or as complex as a clever word-play about the morphology or behaviour. Personally, I enjoy when new words, languages, or ideas are introduced into the name, things that haven't been used much previously. There's a lot of 'eo' and 'giganto' out there, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, I certainly derive enjoyment from something unique. I'm not sure what would make a really bad name...perhaps something deliberately meant to look or sound similar to an existing name, thus causing confusion? Something offensive or rude? I can't think of any off the top of my head.

I am therefore disheartened when I see names considered 'bad' because they are too hard to pronounce. You know what? Lots of the dinosaur names are hard to pronounce...if English isn't your first language. In the "10 Worst" list, Futalognkosaurus (with futalognko derived from Mapudungun) sounds "like a hot dog", and Piatnitzkysaurus (named after a Russian-born Argentinian palaeontologist) has perhaps the worst writeup: "...the problem is that some paleontologists have cooler names than others." Yeah. By this logic, people with non-English names have less cool names, and that strikes me as an awfully wrong sort of thing to say or think. I see a lot of complaints whenever a Chinese dinosaur has a (gasp!) Chinese place name, and Zhuchengtyrannus comes to mind. Zhuchengtyrannus is a perfectly fine name. If you're not sure what to do with the 'zh' combination, look it up.

Just as an example, let's look at the list of names in the 10 worst and 10 best lists and see what languages they're derived from.

The ten worst:
1. Becklespinax: after fossil collector Beckles (England), spinax is either Latin or Greek
2. Futalognkosaurus: futalognko is from Mapudungun (Argentina), Greek saurus
3. Leaellynasaura: after the collector's daughter Leaellyn (Australia), Greek saura
4. Monoclonius: Greek
5. Mymoorapelta: from the Mygatt-Moore quarry, pelta from Greek
6. Opisthocoelicaudia: opisthocoel from Greek, caudia from Latin
7. Pantydraco: from Pant-y-ffynnon quarry (Wales) and Latin draco
8. Piatnitzkysaurus: after palaeontologist Piatnitzky (Russia) and Greek saurus
9. Sinusonasus: although I'm not sure, pretty sure sinusoidal and nasus are both Latin
10. Uberabatitan: from Uberaba locality (Brazil), Greek titan

The ten best:
1. Achillobator: from Greek Achilles and Mongolian bator
2. Gigantoraptor: Latin or Latin and Greek
3. Iguanacolossus: Latin
4. Khaan: Mongolian
5. Raptorex: Latin
6. Skorpiovenator: Greek
7. Stygimoloch: Styx is Greek, moloch is Hebrew
8. Supersaurus: Greek
9. Tyrannotitan: Greek
10. Vulcanodon: Greek

I think it's pretty safe to say that the 'best' names are overwhelmingly Greek and Latin, and therefore relatively easy to pronounce by English speakers. I realize that this is a very small sample and perhaps I should not read so closely into it, but it bothers me when I hear people complain that dinosaur names are hard to say just because they are foreign-sounding. Palaeontology is not just for anglophones.

To end on a lighter note, here are a few names incorporating non-Latin or Greek words that I really, really like.
1. Balaur (a dromaeosaur): Romanian for dragon
2. Banji (an oviraptorosaur): Chinese for striped crest
3. Citipati (another oviraptorosaur):  Sanskrit for funeral pyre lord, and a character in Tibetan Buddhist mythology
4. Ilokelesia (an abelisaur): Mapuche for flesh lizard
5. Jeyawati (a basal hadrosauroid): Zuni for grinding mouth
6. Kakuru (a theropod, maybe a coelurosaur): Guyani (Australian) name for the mythical Rainbow Serpent
7. Kol (an alvarezsaur): Mongolian for foot
8. Seitaad (a prosauropod): a sand-desert creature from Navajo mythology


  1. This is an interesting topic.

    I'm not sure good or bad are good descriptors either myself, but I do have big problems with many of the new hip happening types of names Dinosaurs are getting for the sole purpose they don't help the common lay person connect what the animal is.

    For example the new Utah Tyrannosaurid Teratophoneus, while an interesting name, is counter productive for science outreach with the public. In addition to not being the easiest name to pronounce, there is nothing to say it is a Tyrannosaur that alone even a Dinosaur. Zhuchengtyrannus at least has something to connect it to its base family.

    Oh all animal groups I can think of, many Ceratopsians have great names. The various insert preamble name "ceratops"es are fantastic as you know exactly what sort of animal they are just by hearing the last part of their name.

  2. I completely agree on the concept of "good" and "bad" names and the fact that we shouldn't base them on how hard they are to pronounce (for English speakers). I do like a lot of the unique, often foreign-sounding names.

    Traumador does have a good point with suffixes and public outreach though. Having suffixes like "-ceratops" for ceratopsians, "-raptor" for dromaeosaurids, and "-nykus" for alvarezsaurids does make them easier to keep track of and explain to the public!

  3. "Palaeontology is not just for anglophones."
    Very good point :-)
    I'm italian: almost all dinosaur names are very easy to pronounce in my neolatin language.

  4. I'm Italian and agree with Cau.
    Monoclonius and Pantydraco could be in "the ten best" for an italian reader.


  5. You forgot to mention that their 10 Best list fails on not including even a single ankylosaur!

    Gotta disagree about Kol being a cool name. It's exactly as if someone named a dinosaur "Foot." All dinosaurs had feet, there is nothing evocative about it.

  6. Thanks for all the comments everyone!

    Traumador and Albertonykus: I think it can definitely be useful to use the informal conventions for different groups (ceratopsians are a good example), although I have sometimes wondered if they could be confusing. Would someone who is not a specialist know that something ending in 'tyrannus' is not just Tyrannosaurus?

    Anonymous: I was surprised to see Monoclonius on the 'bad' list!

    Brad: Yes, it's a shame that there weren't any ankylosaurs - I really like Saichania ("Beautiful" in Mongolian) and Tarchia ("brainy", also Mongolian) as rather clever puns. Although strictly speaking Saichania is named after a mountain/mountain range. And I think there's something wonderfully blunt about naming your dinosaur "foot", but we can agree to disagree there.

  7. Don't like Opisthocoelicaudia? It's probably synonymous with N. mongoliensis. Someday, with luck, it may be sunk into the latter.

  8. I disagree with Mymoorapelta being a bad name, its better than Raptorex, which, to me, is a lame way to make something sound sexier than it is.

  9. I don't mind Mymoorapelta either.

  10. No mention of Nqwebasaurus, the only dinosaur name with a click consonant!

  11. How about Micropachycephalosaurus???

  12. Love that you brought this up here! I also have a gross feeling when I read people diss a name that's only "bad" because it's in a foregin language. I sort of touched on the point that dinosaurs aren't only for anglophones in my SciAm Guest Blog post, too (

  13. Just a fun article, insult intended to other cultures. There were some genera I didn't include on the list, because I also have a couple of articles about the strangest dinosaur names, and I didn't want too much overlap. My hands-down favorite: Colepiocephale (knucklehead).

    You have to admit, though, that no dinosaur has any business being named Sinusonasus.

  14. "You have to admit, though, that no dinosaur has any business being named Sinusonasus." - Bob Strauss

    Whats so bad about Sinosonasus? Just because it has "sinus" in its name doesn't mean its a disease.
    It was given that name because of the unusual lateral view of the nasals, I think that anything that gives good insights into its anatomy, or gives a nice description of the anmimal is a good name. Whatever sounds "bad" and "good" to you is because of the different languages the name is in, the English tongue is just not used to it.
    "Raptorex" is on the best list?! That's too obvious and not unique.
    What's bad about Monoclonius? Its name means "single sprout," which was pretty descriptive back then.
    "The name in fact means "single sprout", in reference to the way its teeth grew compared to its relative Diclonius ("double sprout"), which was named by Edward Drinker Cope in the same paper as Monoclonius. In Diclonius, Cope interpreted the fossils to show two series of teeth in use at one time (one mature set and one sprouting replacement set), while in Monoclonius, there appeared to be only one set of teeth in use as a chewing surface at any one time, with replacement teeth growing in only after mature teeth had fallen out."
    I'm sure that's very descriptive.

  15. Sorry to necro, but I need to comment on something widely ignored by paleontologists.

    The potential for abuse of names.

    Specifically, Nigersaurus. While to us it may seem a simple place-name-o-saur, this is the era of the Internet and its legions of trolls. It was obvious what would happen with such an obvious target, and giving that name to a dinosaur whose most distinctive and comment-worthy trait was a super-wide mouth only added fuel to the fire.

    If you still don't get what I'm referring to, please read any unmoderated comments on a Nigersaurus article.