Sep 17 2008

What’s in a Dinosaur Name

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I have a fascination with naming conventions. It probably derives from my predilection for systems and organization. (This is a predilection I believe my younger daughter has inherited – she obsessively sorts and organizes everything, like lining up all her stuffed animals by size, just because.) I was enthralled, for example, by the whole hubbub over the categorization of Pluto. I do think this kind of thing matters – language reflects thought, and how we organize our taxonomy reflects how we think about how things relate to each other.

At the same time I detest “language Nazis” who pedantically obsess over minutiae of language that do not reflect underlying organization of thought. For example, someone took me to task once for saying “hieroglyphics” instead of “hieroglyphic writing,” simply because the latter is correct.  I pointed out that language is a living thing that changes with usage, and when a word or phrase can be shortened for convenience without any loss of information, meaning, or unambiguity – that’s a good thing. Let it happen. “Hieroglyphics” is a perfectly cromulent word. (Incidentally, he later conceded the point when he heard a world expert in “hieroglyphics” use that term.)

An example of the importance of a system of naming is the taxonomy of living things. A recent paper published by Professor Michael Benton from Bristol University, UK, looks at the naming of dinosaurs to see how often more than one name is given to what turns out to be one species.

Benton discusses the fact that in the past species names were given prematurely based upon small bits of fossils, later to discover that the thigh bone of one species and the skull cap of another are actually the same species. The 1000 species names between 1870-1890 (during a period of intense competition) were later reduced to about 500 once duplicates were eliminated.

The procedure used for such conflicts is to give precedence to the earlier name, even if a later name is more accurate.  My personal most irritating example of this was when eohippus –  a lovely name meaning “dawn horse”, was replaced with “hyracotherium” which is an entirely inaccurate name. The first specimen was found by Richard Own in 1841 who thought from its teeth that it looked like a hyrax. He was wrong, but now we are stuck with the name.

Stephen J. Gould decried this practice in his book Bully for Brontosaurus – the name deriving from the fact that the famous Brontosaurus is now the Apatosaurus. Where is Fred Flintstone going to get his brontosaurus burgers now?

In the study Benton looked at the 1,047 dinosaur species ever named since 1824.  He found that since 1960 new dinosaur names have been based on nearly complete or complete skeletons and that most of them do represent new and unique species. So the problem rampant at the end of the 19th century seems to have been solved by better procedures.

That’s a good thing. Names are important enough to get right. I also don’t have to worry that some of my favorite dinosaur names, like pachycephalosaurus or Protarchaeopteryx, will go away.

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