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11 Epic Controversies in Dinosaur Naming

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Naming a dinosaur is no easy task. Beneath the apparent mess of prolonged syllables and technical jargon, a vast array of unexpected factors—from politics and religion to wordplay and spelling—can dictate which dino moniker gets officially recognized and which “-saurus” goes extinct. Here are eleven of the all-time greatest showdowns in the storied history of dinosaur nomenclature.

1. “Scrotum humanum,” The World’s First Dinosaur


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Behold “Scrotum humanum”, the very first dinosaur name ever coined. In 1763, British naturalist Richard Brookes was shown a femur fragment which he named for the infamous piece of the male genitalia he felt it resembled (I’ll let you figure out which). Scientists never took this seriously and now know the creature as Megalosaurus. In the 1980s, a vocal minority contended that, due to seniority, “Scrotum” should be reinstated. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) disagreed and ruled in favor of its more tasteful alternative.

2. T. rex on Trial (Part I)


Thinking he’d found two new dinosaurs, paleontologist H.F. Osborn named them Tyrannosaurus rex and “Dynamosaurus imperiosus” in the same 1905 paper, before realizing that these bone-crunching predators were one and the same. Scientifically, the first name given to an organism in an academic paper takes priority and Osborn happened to have mentioned T. rex on page 262 and “D. imperiosus” on 263—meaning one page of data saved T.rex. BUT WAIT! Stay tuned for another threat to the “tyrant lizard king!”

3. Triceratops vs. Torosaurus

Renowned paleontologist Jack Horner has recently argued that Triceratops and fellow frilled dino Torosaurus were really the same beast. But fear not, Triceratops groupies: the more recognizable name emerged 2 years earlier. Ergo, regardless of the debate’s outcome, everyone’s favorite three-horned herbivore is perfectly safe (if it weren’t already extinct, that is).

4. “Ultrasauros” vs. Procrastination

BYU’s late, great James “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen coined the name Ultrasaurus in 1979. Unfortunately, he didn’t publish his paper on the long-necked dinosaur (“sauropod”) until 1985. By then, Korean paleontologist Haang Mook Kim had independently used Ultrasaurus to designate a completely different animal. D’Oh! Not wanting to lose his awesome name, Jensen replaced the third “u” with an “o” to create “Ultrasauros.” Alas, it later turned out that the “Ultrasauros” material really belonged to a Supersaurus, which had been dubbed earlier by none other than Jensen himself. At least Supersaurus is still pretty cool, unlike the name a certain sauropod got saddled with. More on that later…

5. Arkansaurus vs. “Arkanosaurus” (vs. Bill Clinton)

“Arkanosaurus” and Arkansaurus fridayi were both used as names for Arkansas’ only known dinosaur, until the latter eventually won. Some speculate that Arkansaurus may have been intended as a state-based pun. While this is uncertain, at least a few political punsters definitely did latch onto the dinosaur: former governor Bill Clinton was nicknamed “Arkansaurus taxandspendus” by American conservatives in his 1996 presidential run.

6. Iguanodon vs. the World


Replica tooth. Wikimedia Commons

Before the word “dinosaur” was even invented, the wife of Sussex doctor Gideon Mantell stumbled upon a fossilized tooth in 1825 and the scientific community laughed at his imaginative assertion that it had belonged to an enormous, plant-eating reptile. Since huge, scaly herbivores don’t exist in his day, referring to the tooth’s owner as Iguanodon—or “iguana tooth”—seemed ludicrously inappropriate when an ancient rhinoceros looked like its most likely source. But as more complete fossils confirming Mantell's hypothesis began to turn up en masse, the magnificent reality of these creatures was celebrated the world over, and Iguanodon turned into a household name.

7. T. rex on Trial (Part II)

For two incomplete vertebrae, famed paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope invented the clunky moniker Manospondylus gigas in 1892. In 2000, it was confirmed that his specimens were identical to T. rex backbones, and some worried that the world’s most famous dinosaur would have to be rechristened. However, a new ICZN rule enacted that year included a loop-hole allowing secondary names to take priority if the original wasn’t deemed valid after 1899. Since M. gigas was never widely used after the cutoff date, the “tyrant lizard king” was saved.

8. Archaeopteryx vs. “Griphosaurus”


Wikimedia Commons

Named by in 1861 by Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer and meaning “ancient wing,” Archaeopteryx lithographica has long been recognized as a “missing link” between modern birds and their dinosaurian ancestors. Von Meyer's rival, Johann Andreas Wagner, denied that this was a transitional fossil and proposed calling it “Griphosaurus problematicus” (“the problematic griffin lizard”) later that year. “Darwin and his adherents,” he wrote, “will probably employ the new discovery as … justification of their strange views upon the transformation of animals. But in this they will be wrong.” His pointed words fell on deaf ears, and Meyer’s name (like Darwin’s theory) won out.

9. The “Big Dead Lizard”

The name Syntarsus was accidentally given to two creatures: a predator, discovered by paleontologist Mike Raath in 1969, that lived approximately 180 million years ago; and a modern beetle that had been found a century earlier. So insect expert Michael Ivie formally re-named Raath’s dino Megapnosaurus, which literally means “big, dead lizard” as a joking dig at dinosaur science. Paleontologists weren’t laughing. Livid that his life’s work underwent a name change without his input, Raath wrote, “I am myself very disappointed that the normal dictates of professional courtesy, let alone professional ethics, have apparently been disregarded.” To many colleagues, the fact that this dinosaur now went by a deliberately silly title was salt thrown on an open wound. Ivie’s actions remain a touchy subject worldwide.

10. Presumptuous Protoavis

Wikimedia Commons

Protoavis really ruffles some feathers. When Sankar Chaterjee called a partial skeleton he’d found Protoavis texensis in 1991, he believed that it was a primitive bird, thus pushing the date of avian origins back by roughly 60 million years. His bold claim has since been almost universally rejected, making a name that literally means “first bird” one of the most controversial in modern science (in fact, Protoavis might not have even existed at all, for its bones appear to belong to several different animals).

11. “Brontosaurus” Thunders Off

As many of us know, the celebrated “Brontosaurus” never existed. In 1879, legendary fossil hunter Othneil Charles Marsh discovered a nearly-perfect sauropod skeleton. Calling it “Brontosaurus” (“thunder lizard”), he put it on display with the head of a Brachiosaurus that had been found nearby at a different site (since nobody likes a decapitated dino). “Brontosaurus” sank into limbo in 1903, when paleontologists found that it was identical to Apatosaurus (“deceptive lizard”), a sauropod named in 1877. Yet, bronto-lovers can take heart in maverick paleontologist Robert Bakker, who’s argued that the original “Brontosaurus” skeleton is unique enough to merit its own genus, meaning its name would be at long last restored. Most scientists dismiss these claims, so the odds are slim. But maybe one day, “Brontosaurus” will stomp into our museums once more, just as it roams through our imaginations.

Mark Mancini attends Stony Brook University.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Word 'Meme' Come From?
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group

By Jenna Scarbrough

Certain fads, catchphrases, dances, and songs bombard our society—nowadays, almost all of these are either born on or popularized through the Internet. Grumpy Cat, Rickrolling, Left Shark, the optical illusion dress—all of these ubiquitous cultural sensations have this in common. Some of these stick for a while, some don’t. Those that stick are branded as memes. But what exactly is a meme?

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, the English evolutionary biologist, proposed an idea in his book, The Selfish Gene: What if ideas were like organisms, where they could breed and mutate? These ideas, he claimed, are actually the basis for human culture, and they are born in the brain.

Dawkins’s research is primarily in genetics. He has argued that all life relies on replication. But unlike cells, ideas do not rely on a chemical basis for survival. They begin from a single location—the brain—and spread outward, jumping from one vessel to another, battling for attention. Some ideas are more successful, which may be due to an element of truth they carry, while others slowly die out. Some may not be accurate, but society has accepted these ideas for so long that they are just accepted (think about pictures of Jesus or George Washington; while these may not be what they actually looked like, almost all art now portrays these men in the same way).

Dawkins needed a name for this concept. He proposed calling it mimeme, from the Greek word meaning “that which is replicated.” He wrote in his book, “I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.” He felt the monosyllabic word would be more fitting because it sounds similar to "gene." “If it is any consolation,” he continued, “it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”

Although he probably couldn’t imagine the possibility of Internet memes during his initial research in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dawkins has now accepted the appropriation. Because it’s still viral, he said in an interview with WIRED, this popularity increase goes right along with his theory that ideas are similar to living things.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Words
25 Awesome Australian Slang Terms
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by Helena Hedegaard Holmgren 

Australian English is more than just an accent, and the Aussie vernacular can easily leave both English speakers and foreigners perplexed. Australian English is similar to British English, but many common words differ from American English—and there are many unique Aussie idiosyncrasies, slang terms, and expressions.

The term for Aussie slang and pronunciation is strine, and it is often characterized by making words as short as possible; the story goes it developed by speaking through clenched teeth to avoid blowies (blow flies) from getting into the mouth. So if you plan to visit the world’s smallest continent, this list of some of the most commonly used slang expressions is for you.

1. Arvo: afternoon

2. Barbie: barbeque

3. Bogan: redneck, an uncultured person. According to the Australian show Bogan Hunters, a real bogan sports a flanno (flannel shirt), a mullet, missing teeth, homemade tattoos (preferably of the Australian Flag or the Southern Cross), and has an excess of Australia paraphernalia. This "species of local wildlife" can be found by following their easily distinguishable tracks from burnouts or the smell of marijuana.

4. Bottle-O: bottle shop, liquor store

5. Chockers: very full

6. Esky: cooler, insulated food and drink container

7. Fair Dinkum: true, real, genuine

8. Grommet: young surfer

9. Mozzie: mosquito

10. Pash: a long passionate kiss. A pash rash is red irritated skin as the result of a heavy make-out session with someone with a beard.

11. Ripper: really great

12. Roo: kangaroo. A baby roo, still in the pouch, is known as a Joey

13. Root: sexual intercourse. This one can get really get foreigners in trouble. There are numerous stories about Americans coming to Australia telling people how they love to "root for their team." If you come to Australia, you would want to use the word "barrack" instead. On the same note, a "wombat" is someone who eats roots and leaves.

14. Servo: gas station. In Australia, a gas station is called a petrol station. If you ask for gas, don’t be surprised if someone farts.

15. She’ll be right: everything will be all right

16. Sickie: sick day. If you take a day off work when you are not actually sick it’s called chucking a sickie.

17. Slab: 24-pack of beer

18. Sook: to sulk. If someone calls you a sook, it is because they think you are whinging

19. Stubbie holder: koozie or cooler. A stubbie holder is a polystyrene insulated holder for a stubbie, which is a 375ml bottle of beer.

20. Sweet as: sweet, awesome. Aussies will often put ‘as’ at the end of adjectives to give it emphasis. Other examples include lazy as, lovely as, fast as and common as.

21. Ta: thank you

22. Togs: swim suit

23. Tradie: a tradesman. Most of the tradies have nicknames too, including brickie (bricklayer), truckie (truckdriver), sparky (electrician), garbo (garbage collector) and chippie (carpenter).

24. Ute: Utility vehicle, pickup truck

25. Whinge: whine

Good onya, mate! Understanding the Aussies should be easy as now.

Additional Sources: Urban Attitude; All Down Under - Slang Dictionary; Australian Words - Meanings and Origins; Australian Dictionary; Koala Net; Australian Explorer; Up from Australia; YouTube, 2; McDonalds.

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