The system for naming animals has produced some fascinating results. Whoever discovers a species gets to name it, which seems only fair really, but it does mean that the moniker with which the particular creature will forever be branded is totally up to the whims of whichever scientist happened across it first. Are scientists really qualified for such a heavy responsibility? Sure they can tell us all about an animal’s characteristics, how it evolved and how it lives, but do they have the imagination, the poetic inclination and the sense of drama necessary to name a creature?
Sometimes discoverers cop-out of this monumental burden, naming their new species something wholly functional and uninspiring, like the spotted-thighed tree frog. Accurate, but hardly poetic.
Other times you might see someone make a misguided attempt to honour some great forerunner of the zoological world- which is why you have no less than nine species named after David Attenborough.
But the particular naming conundrum I want to hone in on today is this: what if you discover some new animal that you’re pretty sure is the biggest of its kind, and name it accordingly, but it later turns out that it isn’t? What if you named your new type of beetle Gigantus Humongousi, or dubbed your new breed of salamander the Really Freaking Big Salamander, only to find out a few years down the line that it’s pretty middling in terms of size?
There are actually quite a few examples of this, so let’s take a look at some. I’ll start with some animals alive today but I want to spend most of my time on species of dinosaur. Because of course I do.
King Penguin vs Emperor Penguin
This is probably a case where the later-discovered species- the Emperor Penguin- is actually the more well known to the general public. But the King Penguin was discovered a full 80 years before its bigger, more well known cousin, and for all of that time was thought to be the biggest penguin in the world. When Antarctic exploration advanced and the more southerly-dwelling Emperor was discovered in 1844, standing a full 20cm taller than the so-called King, it immediately won the crown.
I guess in terms of naming they sort of got away with it- “Emperor” might not really be any more grand than “King” but it’s still impressive sounding enough in its connotations of bigness. Of course, if another even bigger penguin species is discovered hiding in a cave somewhere then we’re screwed. What’s more impressive than an emperor? Overlord Penguin? Supreme Leader Penguin? King of Kings Penguin?
Giant Squid vs Colossal Squid
Humans have known about the giant squid for centuries and it has inspired the myths and nightmares of many a seafaring culture. But it wasn’t until 1925 that a new species of squid at least two metres longer was documented, and dubbed the colossal squid. As well as being far bigger the colossal is an all-round much more deadly creature- equipped with lethal hooks in its long tentacles, a huge, powerful beak and the biggest eyes in the animal kingdom at up to 40cm in diameter.
And yet the colossal squid is barely known among the general public. Why? Because it just doesn’t sound as cool as the giant squid. Giant squid just has a nice, pleasing ring to it that made sure the animal entered the popular consciousness while other, arguably more deserving monsters of the deep languish in obscurity.
What I would’ve loved would’ve been if the person who discovered the giant squid had hedged his bets and named it the quite big squid, thereby leaving room in case something bigger was discovered later. Ah, hindsight.
Whoever named this guy was clearly having an off day- it’s nowhere near the biggest type of snake! It’s also not even a proper cobra. Seriously! Bet whoever named this thing is kicking himself. He probably doesn’t get invited to animal namer parties anymore, and gets the piss taken out of him in the cafeteria at Animal Naming Inc headquarters.
“Hey Tony, I think I saw a new species of giant bird outside. Think I’m gonna call it the King Finch. Oh, wait. It’s a pigeon.”
“Hang on! I think I see a new breed of rhino out by the car park. Think we should name it the King Rhino? Wait, no, it’s a Jeep.”
Dinosaurs With Big-Sounding Names
In most people’s minds there are maybe six or seven different species of dinosaur, all living at the same time, all chilling in the same prehistoric field. The reality is that there were as many species of animals back then as there are now- there are hundreds of different types of every major group of dinosaurs, living all over the world and often tens of millions of years apart from each other.
There were dozens of dinosaurs that looked a bit like a stegosaurus, or a triceratops or whatever, but have been classified as separate species- in the same way that there are lots of different animals that look vaguely like an otter, or an owl. Dinosaur populations were just as diverse- It’s just that only certain types make it into popular culture, and which ones end up in the movies depends largely on their names.
Obviously when you’re discovering extinct monsters bigger than anything alive today there’s plenty of scope for really BIG names. But can you ever really be sure your dino holds the title as biggest? I’ve already shared my thoughts on the biggest flying lizard of all time, so let’s take a look at some naming quirks that have cropped up in the naming of both the biggest land herbivores and the biggest land predators.
Given that they are the largest order of creatures to ever walk the earth, the long-necked sauropods are surprisingly devoid of impressive-sounding names. One sub-group have been named titanosaurs due to their incredible size, and the archetypal brontosaurus or “thunder-lizard” is appropriately badass-sounding, but most of the actual individual species all have fairly mundane names.
The legendary diplodocus on display in the Natural History Museum has a name that literally means “double beam”, referring to the bone cross-section in its tail. How humdrum. And those super tall giraffe shaped guys from the first Jurassic park movie? Those are Brachiosaurs, or “arm lizards”. Rather misleading to say the least, given their lack of, you know, arms.
And then you have Apatosaurus, the other flagship long-necked dinosaur, whose name “Deceptive Lizard” either suggests that these guys were the con-artists of the Jurassic era or that whoever was naming sauropods wasn’t taking it particularly seriously. Maybe they initially thought it was the skeleton of, I dunno, a sloth or something, but just kept finding more and more neck.
“Dr Johansson, I don’t think this is a sloth we’re uncovering here.”
“Nonsense Percy. I know a sloth when I see one!”
“But it’s over seventy foot long…”
“…Holy crap, you’re right. It isn’t a sloth, it’s a freaking dinosaur! Could’ve fooled me!”
But which is the biggest? And does it have a suitably big, badass name? Well…no. The thing with dinosaurs is that you’re very rarely dealing with complete skeletons- more often than not that you’re extrapolating size based on a single thigh bone or a big toe. I imagine this means that when people discover a new species they’re rather reluctant to come out as naming it something really big in case it turns out that it’s not.
So the current heavyweight title holder of biggest ever land animal is the rather ordinarily-named Argentinosaurus, which was simply named after its country of discovery. I guess you could argue that Argentina is pretty big, but somehow that just doesn’t quite cut it.
Are there any examples of someone naming a new species REALLYBIGOSAURUS only to have it totally backfire? Why, yes…
For the plebs, theropods are the large two-legged carnivores along the lines of T-Rex. Now, if you’re going to give your dinosaur a name that means TYRANT LIZARD KING then you better be pretty damn sure it’s the biggest. Not only are you calling it the king, you’re going so far as to comment on the nature of its rulership. And while no one will contest that Tyrannosaurus Rex is indeed one big, scary fellow, his ultra impressive name kinda puts him on a pedestal when really he was nothing special in the prehistoric pantheon.
There were plenty of other theropods who could rival T-Rex in size. You gotta feel sorry for poor Allosaurus, a marginally lighter version of basically the same blueprint who got saddled with the name “Other Lizard” just because he wasn’t quite as heavy as T-Rex. And then you have Spinosaurus, the crocodile jawed, sail-backed behemoth from Jurassic Park 3, who experts now think was both bigger and heavier than T-Rex.
So calling T-Rex the tyrannical ruler of all dinosaurs might be a bit presumptuous. But at least it’s a cool name. Unlike Giganotosaurus. This fellow was discovered in 1995 based on a rather incomplete skeleton and thought to be bigger than T-Rex. So presumably his discoverer thought “what name could possibly sound more big and bad than Tyrannosaurus Rex?” and settled on the mouthful that is Giganotosaurus, thereby condemning his beastie to never featuring in any movie, ever. Don’t these people know that to qualify as a cool dinosaur it has to be pronounceable by your average eleven year old kid?
And the biggest irony? Giganotosaurus wasn’t as big as initially thought- it was probably no bigger than T-Rex. And yet it was given a name that basically amounts to “my-dinosaur-is-bigger-than yours-osaurus”. Awkward.
The Bigger They are, the Dumber the Name
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my little tour through big-names gone wrong. And hopefully next time you discover a new species you’ll do your research properly before putting “giant” in its name.