GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 11-6
Presentation Time: 9:45 AM


SIME, John A., Department of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Pennsylvania, 251 Hayden Hall, 240 South 33rd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6316,

Scientific names for animals are a largely untapped archive of hypotheses about the biology of extinct species. The names of dinosaur genera in particular illustrate how both observation and theory are incorporated into the portmanteau of the Linnaean binomen. The etymology of dinosaur names reveals associations of cultural and scientific ideas that were linked in the mind of the nomenclator. Visual representations have garnered significant attention in discussions of the changing image of dinosaurs from plodding behemoth lizards to active, bird antecedents and are prominent in accounts of the history of vertebrate paleontology. Scientific names are another form of reconstruction that evokes an image in the mind of the reader or listener; they complement the history of mounted museum skeletons, paleoart in murals and paintings, and literary accounts of the past. In the context of these other media, names are symbols, signifying the extinct animal by convention. In all cases, the deteriorated state of fossil evidence provides a space for creativity. It becomes the artist’s prerogative, often with scientific collaboration, to fill in the gaps. Scientists have sought linguistic expertise to compose euphonious names that have broad appeal. Scientific names have several characteristics that make them a promising subject for historical research. The usage and meaning of names are conserved through time by codes of nomenclature and their Latin and Greek roots. Dinosaur names often a synecdoche, as in “terrible claw,” where a salient or diagnostic feature signifies the whole. The roots of names refer to life mode, functional morphology, affinity, evolution, geography, discovery, mythology, etc. Capturing the meaning of names in a quantitative dataset presents complications. Just as there are differences in taxonomic philosophy between paleontologists there are likely to be differences in their stylistic preferences in the derivation of names. Certain roots may also acquire connotations over time. The names of dinosaur genera offer an excellent opportunity to revisit the canonical narrative of vertebrate paleontology and explore the relationship between fossil evidence and scientific inference.