Names of Dinosaurs

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Names of Dinosaurs

Posted: 16th April 2008

Many people wonder how dinosaurs get their exotic names - so here's an explanation:

Plants and animals (including dinosaurs) are all scientifically classified and named according to a standard system of taxonomy. In this system, organisms are classified into hierarchical categories (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species), and individual "types" of animals, technically known as a "species" are identified by a two part name identifying both the species and the genus (this system is called "binomial nomenclature" or "binary nomenclature").

Some examples of names of dinosaur species include "Allosaurus fragilis", "Stegosaurus armatus" and "Tyrannosaurus rex". As you can probably see the first part of the name, the genus (which of course can contain several closely related species) are often more familiar to non-specialists. Most people with an interest in dinosaurs, including kids, for example know the name "Stegosaurus", even if they don't know the individual species within the genus.

The exotic sounding words that make up these names are chosen by the scientist who first discovers or describes the particular species (although their choice must be approved by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature) before it becomes official. These names are usually based on ancient Latin or Greek words or phrases, for example, "Tyrannosaurus" means "tyrant lizard," "Rex" means "king", and thus the combination "Tyrannosaurus rex" means "tyrant lizard king".

It sometimes happens that scientists may discover examples of the same species, without realizing that they are in fact the same species, and thus choose two different names for the same animal. This can happen for many reasons including the fact that it takes time before research is published, the fact that scientists often have to work with partial skeletons, and the fact that juvenile animals may look very different from their adult form. Indeed, it's sometimes even happened that a single scientist has not recognized two of his own specimens of being of the same species, and thus given them different names! Probably the best known example of this situation occured in the 1870s. The great dinosaur hunter, Othniel C. Marsh, named a specimen found in 1877 as "Apatosaurus ajax", and another specimen found in 1879 as "Brontosaurus excelsus". However, it was only recognized years later (in 1903 by Elmer Riggs) that the former was a juvenile example of the latter. It is for this reason that today, the first chosen name, "Apatosaurus" is the official name of the genus, rather than "Brontosaurus".

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