Fossils eventually get scientific names, but did you know that many fossils also have nicknames? Researchers who discovered the horned dinosaur Coronosaurus informally called it “Broccoliceratops” for the clumps of little horns on its frill. The adolescent Tyrannosaurus “Jane“, on the other claw, was named after a donor to the Burpee Museum of Natural History, and researchers at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles are calling their as-yet-undescribed Jurassic sauropod “Gnatalie” after the hordes of bloodsucking insects that plagued the researchers soon after they discovered the dinosaur.
That’s just for starters. Paleontologists have given nicknames to plenty of different fossils to honor diligent field workers, reflect the difficulty of an excavation, and even to just have something to call a significant specimen before a formal name’s in place. So, with that in mind, I asked some of my paleontological friends and acquaintances to share some nicknames they’ve coined for their fossil finds.
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh paleontologist Joe Peterson shared this story of a two-for-one title:
We collected a very scrappy hadrosaur from the Hell Creek that was extensively weathered prior to burial and even fed upon by a tyrannosaur. We named it “Constantine” because it looks like it’s been through hell and back, like the DC/Vertigo character.
Actually it’s named after the last name of the volunteer who found it but the description is still accurate so it stuck. Win-win.
Anthony Maltese of the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, meanwhile, shared a slew of names he gave to prehistoric marine life:
I nicknamed a Platecarpus “Cap’n Chuck” after my father in law, a retired navy captain, because I knew when I found it, it was going to be a huge pain in the butt to dig up. Then there was the Tylosaurus “Explodosaurus” for pretty obvious reasons. I once named a Xiphactinus “Bea Arthur” just or the heck of it.
Paleontologist Darren Naish threw in a whole list, too:
The Simpson-Spearpoint Polacanthus was called Spike throughout its excavation (this is the one we have at Southampton). Eotyrannus was called TNT before we named it (The New Theropod.. lazy, I know), the big 7306 titanosauriform was/is Angloposeidon.
Of course, there are plenty of fossils that get nicknames for where they’re found. As University of Otago paleontologist Bobby Boessenecker wrote:
A local one is the type specimen of the [New Zealand] plesiosaur Kaiwhekea katiki, which was collected from Shag Point (shags as in cormorants) on the South Island. For years everybody called it Shagosaurus.
Some names are just too obvious to pass up, as Academy of Natural Sciences preparator and artist Jason Poole explained that he once named an Allosaurus “Urinator” because he found it while taking a bathroom break. And, as paleontologist Denver Fowler explained, some nicknames are a little culture-specific:
I collected a Triceratops brow horn for John Scannella to use in his research. Americans never laugh at my site name “got the horn for john”. That’s probably a good thing. Hopefully it will get on National Geographic TV some day.
Mesozoic critters aren’t the only ones having all the fun, though. While Oklahoma State University paleontologist Anne Weil pointed out that it’d be more than a little ridiculous if every mammal tooth got a title, some fossil mammals are specific enough to earn names. San Bernardino County Museum paleontologist Eric Scott named mastodons extracted from Diamond Valley Lake “Max and “Lil’ Stevie”, and John D. Cooper Center paleontologist Meredith Riven listed a few titles for marine mammals:
“Waldo” is a walrus (from a Mr. Magoo character), “Bonus” is a fur seal that was stuck to the bottom of a right whale skull, nicknamed “The Flying Whale” because it was lifted from the field by helicopter. Also “Willy” the whale, kinda obvious Free Willy reference, and he’s still being freed from extremely hard sandstone 12 years after discovery.
Although not everyone felt comfortable sharing their notable nicknames. “Most specimen nicknames I’ve been part of”, paleontologist Robert Gay wrote, “can’t be repeated in decent company.”
Are you a paleontologist who has nicknamed a fossil you’ve found or worked on? Speak up in the comments!