How Do Dinosaurs Get Their Names?

If you lived on Earth during the time of the dinosaurs, you might have encountered creatures like Tammy the Triceratops, Tom the Tyrannosaurus, and Stan the Stegosaurus. How did they acquire names like Tammy, Tom, and Stan? They most likely received them in the same way you did: from their parents!

What? Oh! You want to know the origins of the names Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, and Stegosaurus. Well, that’s a completely different story…

Sir Richard Owen coined the term “dinosaur” in 1841. He needed a new word to describe the fossils of extinct reptiles that were being discovered. “Dinosaur” was created by combining the Greek words deinos, which means “terrible,” and sauros, which means “lizard.”

We now know that dinosaurs are not lizards. However, “terrible lizard” did seem to describe the early fossils that were found!

Today, new dinosaurs are named either by the person who discovered the remains of the new dinosaur or by the paleontologist who confirms that the found fossils are indeed from a new dinosaur. But how do they decide what to name it?

There aren’t any specific rules for naming new dinosaurs. However, dinosaur names seem to come about in a few common ways.

Sometimes new dinosaurs are named after individuals. For example, Diplodocus carnegii was named after Andrew Carnegie, the person who donated the money to finance the expedition that uncovered the new dinosaur.

Similarly, Chassternbergia was named after Charles Sternberg, the person who discovered the dinosaur’s fossils. Leaellynasaura was named after the daughter (Leaellyn) of the paleontologists (Tom Rich and Patricia Vickers) who discovered the dinosaur’s skull.

Other dinosaurs might be named after the location where they were found. For instance, Utahraptor and Denversaurus were named after Utah and Denver. Albertosaurus was discovered in Alberta, Canada, and Arctosaurus was found near the Arctic Circle.

In a similar way, Muttaburrasaurus was discovered near Muttaburra, Australia. Huayangosaurus was found in Huayang, China.

However, most of the time, a dinosaur’s name provides some information about the dinosaur itself. Scientists often use Greek or Latin root words to give a new dinosaur a name that describes the dinosaur in some way.

For example, Triceratops means “three-horned head,” which accurately describes the appearance of Triceratops. Similarly, Gigantosaurus means “gigantic lizard.”

Iguanadon has teeth resembling those of an iguana. The scientist who discovered Pachycephalosaurus believed it looked like a lizard with a thick head, which led to its name. In Greek, pachy means “thick,” cephale means “head,” and saurus means “lizard.”

Once a new name is chosen, it must undergo review by a panel of scientists. Finally, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature must give final approval for the name to become official.

Try It Out

Are you ready to learn more about dinosaur names? Don’t forget to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

If you were a dinosaur, what name would you want to have? Would you be fine with being called Tyrannosaurus Rex? Or would you prefer something like Tyrannosaurus Billy? How about T-Ralph? Let your imagination run wild as you travel back in time and try to think like a dinosaur. Create a list of dinosaur names that you think dinosaurs would have liked. Have fun making your list and share it with a friend or family member.

Are you ready to name your own dinosaur? Pretend that you’re a paleontologist who has just uncovered the fossilized remains of a completely new dinosaur. What would you name it? You could use your own name or the name of someone you know. You could also choose a name related to the location where you found your dinosaur. Did you find it in your hometown? Maybe you’d like to name it after your state or country? Alternatively, you might want to give your dinosaur a name that describes its appearance. What does your dinosaur look like? Does it have any unique features? Use the following root words to come up with a name that suits your new dinosaur: Anklo – crooked, Anuro – tail, Cephalo – head, Cero – horn, Dont – tooth, Masso – body, Ornitho – bird, Ptery – wing, Raptor – thief, Spino – spine, Styrax – spike, or Tany – long.

Interested in learning more about some fascinating dinosaurs? Explore DinoGuide to discover more about the dinosaurs exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Write down at least five interesting facts to share with a friend or family member. If you could have any dinosaur as a pet, which one would you choose?

Sources of Wonder



1. How are dinosaurs named?

Dinosaurs are named by scientists who discover and study them. When a new dinosaur species is found, the scientist who made the discovery gets the honor of naming it. The name usually reflects something about the dinosaur’s characteristics, such as its size, shape, or where it was found.

2. Are dinosaur names based on their appearance?

Yes, dinosaur names often describe their appearance. For example, the name “Tyrannosaurus rex” means “tyrant lizard king” in Latin, which reflects its large size and fierce nature. Similarly, the name “Stegosaurus” means “roof lizard,” referring to the plates on its back.

3. Can anyone name a new dinosaur?

No, only scientists who study dinosaurs can officially name a new dinosaur species. This ensures that the names are accurate and follow certain rules. However, there are sometimes competitions or auctions where people can win the right to suggest a name for a newly discovered dinosaur.

4. Are dinosaur names always in Latin?

No, dinosaur names are not always in Latin. While many dinosaur names are based on Latin or Greek words, as these languages are commonly used in scientific naming, names can also be derived from other languages or be a combination of words. The important thing is that the name is unique and accurately describes the dinosaur.

5. Can dinosaur names be changed?

Yes, dinosaur names can be changed if new evidence or research suggests that the original name was incorrect or if a more suitable name is proposed. However, changing a dinosaur’s name is a complex process and requires scientific consensus. The goal is to have a standardized and accurate naming system to avoid confusion in the scientific community.

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