How Do Dinosaurs Get Their Names? (Plus 12 Examples)


Tyrannosaurus rex, Spinosaurus, Velociraptor, Ichthyosaurus—these names are cloaked in mystery and majesty. They are the names of prehistoric beasts that walked the earth before history even began. Yes, we are living in an age in which technology is advancing at the speed of light, but just imagine you were alive when they first started unearthing dinosaur bones. Imagine if you discovered the fossilized remains of an actual dinosaur. What would you name it? It definitely needs to sound cool, but how does one go about naming dinosaurs? 

Dinosaurs are named after their size, a defining physical characteristic, the location in which they were found, a person involved in the dinosaur’s discovery and identification, their resemblance to one of today’s animals, or behavior they are thought to have exhibited. 

There are no special rules for what to call dinosaurs. However, there are patterns that many dinosaur discoverers seem to have followed when they were naming these creatures of days past. 

The Discovery Of Dinosaurs & The Origin Of The Word Dinosaur

In 1676, an English museum curator by the name of Robert Plot came into possession of a fragment of a giant bone. He identified this fragment as the knee-end of a femur (a thigh bone). But to whom, or what, did it belong? Plot eventually decided it must have come from a giant human. The fossil subsequently disappeared, but the Englishman’s sketches, which, fortunately, he made in detail, did not. 

The next notable step in the discovery of dinosaurs came decades later, in 1822. Gideon Mantell and his wife Mary Ann came across a large tooth in a dig in Sussex, England. They found that it resembled an Iguana tooth, and the creature it was claimed to have come from was named the Iguanodon, which means ‘Iguana tooth’. 

In 1824, a geologist and minister named William Buckland discovered a lower jawbone and some teeth belonging to a giant animal. He called this animal the Megalosaurus, which means ‘big lizard’. It was found that the giant femur recorded by Robert Plot, so many years before, also belonged to a Megalosaurus.

Such fascinating discoveries as giant, extinct, reptile-like creatures are sure to spark interest and, with interest, there is usually scandal. So, enter the first scandal of the age of dinosaur hunting. In 1842, Richard Owen elbowed his way into history, not by discovering a dinosaur, but by coining the word Dinosauria. He used this word to group together those massive creatures that others had unearthed. 

Nowadays, we are able to recognize the contributions of all parties. But at the time, Owen was credited more with the discovery of dinosaurs than the people who actually found the fossils. Needless to say, this caused quite an upset. 

Deinos is the Greek word meaning terrible; sauros is the Greek word for lizard. So, dinosaur means ‘terrible lizard’. Even though it is now known that dinosaurs are not lizards, the name has become so familiar that it would be impossible to change it to something more accurate. 

Dinosaur Naming Patterns

Difficulties In Naming Dinosaurs

Even though there are no strict rules, naming dinosaurs is a tricky task. Remember, scientists are trying to piece together a picture of each animal based on a few bones, often found in very different locations. Sometimes, they recreate one dinosaur from a collection of bones and subsequently realize that the bones are actually from two or more different dinosaurs. 

Other times it seems like a new dinosaur has been discovered and is proudly named by its finder, who then learns that the bone or bone fragment actually belongs to an already named specimen. Because of this, some dinosaurs have two names. 

By two names, we do not mean the genus and species of the binomial nomenclature name. We are referring to a dinosaur that was named one thing by the first finder and something completely different by the second. For example, the Apatosaurus (original name) is also called the Brontosaurus.

Dinosaurs Have Two-Part Names

Now, we just threw the phrase binomial nomenclature into the passage above, but what does it mean? It almost sounds like a dinosaur itself! But it’s not a dinosaur; it is a two-term naming system used in science. Your binomial nomenclature name is Homo sapiens. Homo is a Latin word meaning man, and sapiens is the Latin word for wise. So, Homo sapiens are wise men.

Some dinosaurs were given their names based on physical characteristics

The genus (which will always start with a capital letter) is the first part of the name, and the species (which always begins with a lowercase letter) is the second part. You can have multiple different species in the same genus. It’s all about characteristics, DNA, and behavior, and it can get quite confusing, so we are not going to delve into greater detail here. 

Dinosaurs have a genus and a species as well. Often, they are known only by their genus name. This is chosen based on specific descriptors:

  • Their size.
  • A defining physical characteristic.
  • The name of someone involved in their discovery and identification.
  • The location where they were found.
  • Their resemblance to one of today’s animals.
  • The behaviors that the dinosaurs are thought to have shown.

A dinosaur’s full two-part name can be based on more than one of the above descriptors. 

This is quite a lot of information, so let’s make it easier to follow and understand by looking at some examples. 

1. Dinosaurs Are Named After Their Size: Giganotosaurus

Some dinosaurs are named after their size. We have already mentioned one of the first discovered specimens, the Megalosaurus (‘big lizard’), but there are others such as the Giganotosaurus. 

Giganotosaurus sounds like something your little brother would call you in an insult battle. If they do, you have just been called a ‘giant southern lizard’ because that is what this dinosaur’s name means.

The name combines the Greek words gigantas, which means giant, notos, which means south, and sauros, which means lizard. Why did scientists include ‘southern’ in the name? Scientists include this because the Giganotosaurus was discovered in South America—Patagonia, to be exact.

How giant was the Giganotosaurus? Well, according to London’s Natural History Museum, these dinosaurs were 12.5 meters long and weighed approximately 8000 kilograms! If you are not acquainted with the metric system of measurement, this equates to 41 feet and over 17,600 pounds! Well done, scientists, this name fits its owner. 

Remember we said that a dinosaur’s full name can be based on more than one descriptor? A perfect example is the Giganotosaurus (genus) carolinii (species). The species name comes from the name of the man who discovered this dinosaur: Rubén Dario Carolini, who found the first remains belonging to the Giganotosaurus in 1993. 

2. Dinosaurs Are Named After Their Distinctive Heads: Triceratops

Some dinosaurs are named after a distinctive feature of their head. An excellent example of this is the Triceratops, which was first uncovered all the way back in 1887. 

The name is a combination of three Greek syllables—tri, meaning three, kéras, meaning horn, and ops, which refers to the face. Thus, you have a ‘three-horned face’ dinosaur. 

With their massive heads, beaked mouths, bony neck frills, three-horned faces, and forelegs that were shorter than their hind legs, there were many distinctive features to choose from on this dinosaur, but the scientists went with Triceratops, and it certainly works. 

One horn was positioned near the front of the beaked mouth (resembling a rhino), and the other two sat next to each other in front of the great, bony neck frill. 

What was the purpose of these horns? Well, marks on the fossilized skulls of Triceratops indicate that the horns may have been used in defense against Tyrannosaurus attacks or fights with other Triceratops

3. Dinosaurs Are Named After A Distinctive Body Feature: Spinosaurus

Some dinosaurs are named after distinctive body features, such as the Spinosaurus. As you can probably guess, this name means ‘spine lizard’. 

The Spinosaurus is actually the biggest carnivorous dinosaur known to have walked the earth. While they were only half the weight of our previously discussed Giganotosaurus, they were almost 20 feet longer (59 feet). But their size wasn’t their most distinguishing feature. What could top this gargantuan size? 

The Spinosaurus was given its name due to its long vertebral spine

The answer: a row of long, vertebral spines, connected in a sail-like fashion by sheets of skin, arching over the back of these beasts. The longest of these spines (in the middle) stood up to 7 feet tall! 

Evidence has surfaced that these dinosaurs were actually swimmers. They had conical faces with nostrils on the top, near the eyes, very much like a crocodile. Imagine being in the water seeing a giant sail made from bone and skin making its way towards you, knowing that there is a good amount of dinosaur before and after that petrifying spiney flag! 

The first Spinosaurus fossils were found in Egypt, resulting in the dinosaur’s two-part name being the Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. The remains were found in 1915 but, sadly, got destroyed in 1944 by an accidental bombing of the Munich museum where the bones were on display. The next Spinosaurus’ were only found in the 1990s and 2000s. 

4. Dinosaurs Are Named After Their Distinctive Feet: Deinonychus

Some dinosaurs are named after a distinctive feature of their feet. Deinonychus was named after the claws on the second toe of each hind leg. This sounds funny, but the nails on these toes were 5 inches long! To give you some perspective of this claw’s length in relation to the dinosaur’s size, this raptor was only 8 feet long and 100-150 pounds.

The name combines the Greek word deinos, which we already know means terrible, and nychi, which refers to talons or claws. So Deinonychus translates to ‘terrible claw’. This dinosaur’s fearsome talons were used for killing prey—yes, they were carnivores!

The Deinonychus walked on its hind legs, and when their terrible toes were not being used for fighting or feasting, they were kept elevated off the ground so that they would not be filed down and blunted by the terrain. 

The rest of the claws of the Deinonychus are not to be ignored. All of the nails were pretty effective weapons, and they could use their arm-like forelegs to grab and hold onto their prey. 

The Deinonychus is a relative of our birds today. If you think about the talons on eagles, ostriches, and even the spurs of roosters, this makes sense.

As we’re pretty sure our eyes would be focused on the killer claws if we ever came across the Deinonychus, we would say the dinosaur was well named. 

5. Dinosaurs Are Named After Their Distinctive Tails: Caudipteryx

Some dinosaurs are named after a distinctive feature of their tails. The Caudipteryx, for example, was a bird-like dinosaur named for the fanned arrangement of tail feathers at the tip of its tail. 

In Greek, caudi refers to a tail, and pteryx is from the Greek word pterygion, which means feather or wing. So, the Caudipteryx dinosaur can be called the ‘tail feather’. The plumage arrangement was possibly used for display much like a peacock uses his tail. 

The feathers were not isolated to a fan on the end of its tail. The Caudipteryx’s body was covered in downy feathers, and their short wings had longer feathers. Evidence shows that these feathers were symmetrical, suggesting to scientists that these were flightless bird-like dinosaurs. 

6. Dinosaurs Are Named After Their Teeth: Heterodontosaurus

Some dinosaurs are named after a distinctive feature of their teeth. Others were named after their teeth because, at the time, that was the only body part they had with which to identify the dinosaur. 

We have already mentioned the ‘Iguana tooth’ or Iguanadon, which was one of the first dinosaurs the human world knew about. Well, 140 years later, the Heterodontosaurus was discovered, and scientists had no trouble deciding on the name. 

Heterodontosaurus is a mash-up of three words. The first is heteros, a Greek term meaning different. The next is donti, which is the Greek word for tooth. The final word, sauros, we already know, means lizard. Combine these three words into one name, and you have the ‘different teeth lizard’. But what was so different about them?

Well, this dinosaur had three different types of teeth. At the back, they had some square teeth adapted for shearing. At the front, they had small cone-shaped teeth. They also had elongated canines that looked like tusks. So, they had different types of teeth in their mouths. 

Furthermore, most reptilian-type animals have only one type of tooth. Thus, a Heterodontosaurus’ range of teeth shapes and functions made them different from most other dinosaurs. 

Scientists suggest that the presence of multiple types of teeth meant that they were omnivores, eating both vegetation and meat.  

7. Dinosaurs Are Named After The People Who Found Them: Lambeosaurus

The Lambeosaurus was named after the person who first discovered its remains

Some dinosaurs are named after the person who first discovered their remains. The Lambeosaurus has a very distinctive appearance. They have a duck bill-like snout that has no teeth at the front, and they have a protruding crest on the top of their head. This crest resembles a hatchet, so it almost looks as if these dinosaurs were all violently done to death by an ax-murderer. 

The man who discovered this dinosaur in 1902 was named Lawrence Lambe. However, he did not name the dinosaur. He was busy finding and naming other dinosaurs like the Gorgosaurus and the Chasmosaurus, so the hatchet-crested dinosaur was a little neglected. 

Imagine discovering so many dinosaurs that you run out of time to name one of them! A few names were attempted over the years, but they never stuck until 1923, when a fellow paleontologist christened it the Lambeosaurus or ‘Lambe’s lizard’.

8. Dinosaurs Are Named After The People Who Funded The Expeditions And Excavations: Diplodocus carnegii

Once dinosaurs became popular, paleontologists would lure wealthy backers into supporting their expeditions and excavations by promising to name any new dinosaur after them. This is an effective strategy; we would certainly fall for it.

However, most of the time, excavation financiers were honored with a dinosaur named after them because, without their assistance, the dinosaur would not have been discovered.  

One such man who received this honor was Andrew Carnegie. As the founder of the Carnegie Natural History Museum, he probably didn’t need to be convinced to fund a dinosaur-hunting expedition. The dinosaur that was named after Carnegie is the Diplodocus carnegii, which was discovered in Sheep Creek, Wyoming, in 1899. 

Diplodocus means ‘double beam’. These dinosaurs have two rows of bones running along the underside of the tail, hence the name. The purpose of these two rows of bone was to support the rail and improve mobility. But why did the tail need extra support?

The Diplodocus carnegii is a massive herbivorous dinosaur, approximately 85 feet long and over 44,000 pounds. With a neck extending 21 feet and an even longer tail, you can imagine that these dinosaurs needed robust, reinforced skeletons. 

The enhanced mobility provided by the double beamed tail leads scientists to hypothesize that the Diplodocus could whip their tails so quickly that the movement produced a sound like a cannon blast! What a dinosaur to have named after you!

9. Dinosaurs Are Named After The Countries Or States In Which They Are Found: Albertosaurus

Some dinosaurs are named after the country in which their bones were first uncovered. The Albertosaurus is named after Alberta, Canada, where Joseph Burr Tyrrell unearthed the first remains in 1884.

Alberta, Canada was not just the location of one or two sets of remains. Paleontologists found a mass grave, what is known as a bonebed, of twelve Albertosaurus skeletons in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park! 

One of the Paleontologists who discovered the bonebed, Philip J Curie, says that the collection of twelve specimens together shows that these dinosaurs were pack animals. However, other research indicates that there may have been flooding in that area all those years ago, and the Albertosaurus’ gathered together to escape the rising floodwaters.

The name Albertosaurus does not tell you anything about the appearance of this dinosaur. But it was similar to the Tyrannosaurus, with sharp, flesh-ripping teeth, short forelimbs, and powerful hind legs. You definitely did not want to be confronted with a pack of twelve Albertosaurus’!

10. Dinosaurs Are Named After Specific Locations Where They Are Found: Edmontosaurus 

Some dinosaurs are named after a specific location or formation where their remains were first found. Remember Lawrence Lambe? Well, one of the other dinosaurs he was so busy discovering was a 42.5 feet herbivore in the Edmonton Formation of Canada’s Alberta. This dinosaur, Lambe name the Edmontosaurus in honor of its final resting place. 

The generally bipedal Edmontosaurus had forelimbs long and strong enough to allow it to walk on four legs, possibly while grazing. There are two specific and interesting facts that we know about these prehistoric creatures. 

First, they ate coniferous needles, twigs, and seeds. Hardened remains of these foods were found in the stomachs of the Edmontosaurus. Second, the discovery of mummified specimens which still have skin shows that they had leathery skin.

11. Dinosaurs Are Named After Their Resemblance To Today’s Animals: Giraffatitan

The Giraffatitan was named after its ‘giraffe like’ characteristics

Some dinosaurs are named after an animal that still exists because they share a characteristic with that animal. The Giraffatitan is the ‘Giraffe titan’. Just like the Giraffes we know, these dinosaurs had very long necks, and their front legs were longer than their back legs. 

At first glance, this name is straightforward and logical. But to a paleontologist, it can be confusing. This is because including the word ‘titan’ in a dinosaur’s name usually means that it belongs to the group known as the Titanosaurs. However, the Giraffatitan belongs to the Sauropod group.  

The Giraffatitan was found in Tanzania, a country in Africa, during the early 1900s. Several specimens have been found, but they are clinging to their genus as there are suspicions that the Giraffatitan is actually a species of a different genus. 

12. Dinosaurs Are Named After A Behavior They Are Thought To Have Exhibited: Maiasaura

Some dinosaurs are named after a behavior that scientists think they might have exhibited when they were alive. Miaisaura’s name is a combination of the Greek words for a midwife (maia) and lizard (sauros). Thus, this is the ‘good mother lizard’.

But how on earth do scientists know they were good mothers? Well, they discovered something that they call ‘Egg Mountain’. This was a giant Maiasuara breeding ground, and it has been so well preserved that we can deduce a lot about their breeding behavior.

One Maiasaura would lay up to 30-40 eggs at a time. These eggs were laid in carefully prepared nests and incubated with swathes of vegetation (at 5,500 pounds, she couldn’t sit on them!). The rotting vegetation would have produced heat and could have been a food source for hatchlings. 

Another indication that these dinosaurs were devoted mothers is the fossils of hatchlings and juveniles have often been found together with the adult remains. There is also evidence that the Maiasaura was a herd animal and would travel with groups of thousands of other Maiasauras. These were probably made up of many generations descended from a common ancestor —an extended family.  

Find the Meaning of Your Favorite Dinosaurs Name

If it hasn’t been listed in the above examples, you should look at this website and try to piece the meaning together yourself based on the words that make up the name.  

Conclusion

There are several patterns when it comes to naming dinosaurs, but there are no strict rules. Some names are highly descriptive of the animals themselves; they tell you something about the dinosaur’s head, body, tail, teeth, feet, behavior, etc. Other names only tell you something about who found them or where.

Regardless of how each specific dinosaur got its name, all the titles instantly inspire awe and interest. Although sometimes, the English translation is a bit bland when compared to the sound of a name in Ancient Greek!

John

Johns fascination with science, nature and the world started from a young age. His curious mind led him to pursue an education in the sciences and now he loves sharing interesting info with the world.

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