All those names…
Every two weeks a new species of dinosaur is named. The rate of naming dinosaurs has never been so high, not even in the 1870s, at the height of the great American bone wars, when all the amazing new dinosaurs of North America – Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Allosaurus – were being discovered. Right now there are more people digging up dinosaurs and writing about them than have existed since the first dinosaur was named in 1824. So is this enormous amount of work driven by the public demand for information? Is the science of naming dinosaurs – their systematics and taxonomy – running wild because of the hype?
One way to try to understand what is happening is to look at error rates in naming new species of dinosaurs in the past as a guide to what might happen in the future.
Compiling the database
In two studies, Benton (2008a, b) used a database he compiled from numerous publications. The database tracks every dinosaur species ever named – whether we now regard the name as valid or not. The database runs from 1824, the year in which the first dinosaurian genus was named – Megalosaurus Buckland, 1824 – to the end of 2004.The database documents year by year the status of each genus and species according to then-current publications. The list was compiled from the ‘bible’ of dinosaur studies, Weishampel et al. (2004), together with original papers through 2003 and 2004 to bring the list to the end of 2004, for a total of 1036 named dinosaurian genera and 1401 named dinosaurian species. [Note that Mesozoic birds were included in the listing, so that the clade Dinosauria is complete when viewed from the point of extinction of the non- avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The birds comprise 100 of the 1036 genera.]
Then, an exhaustive search was made of previous publications on dinosaurian systematics, especially monographic reviews and synoptic works, in order to establish a moving total of then-valid dinosaurian taxa. Year by year, new genera and species were named from all over the world, and the cumulative total of named taxa increased. Equally, from time to time, taxonomists pointed out errors in previous determinations, and species are struck from the list.
- About half of all dinosaurs ever named are now regarded as named in error (Benton 2008b)
- Most of the error is not synonymy (giving a new name to something already named) but names optimistically given to incomplete fossils, sometimes even isolated teeth (Benton 2008b)
- Through time, the quality of type specimens (the specimens on which new species names are established) has improved (Benton 2008a)
- Prolific namers of dinosaurs (= those who have named two or more new species) have been over-optimistic in their naming – more species named by these authors have been sunk than those named by people who have only ever named one species (Benton 2010).
Read more about the studies
- Error in naming dinosaurs
- Naming organisms and biodiversity
- Naming and revision
- The dinosaur discovery curve
- (With all the money in the world) How to find new dinosaurs
- Who named most dinosaurs?
- Are we getting any better at it?
- Home – dinosaur names, error, and biodiversity
- Benton, M. J. 2008a. Fossil quality and naming dinosaurs. Biology Letters 4, 729-732. pdf.
- Benton, M. J. 2008b. How to find a dinosaur, and the role of synonymy in biodiversity studies. Paleobiology 34, 516-533. pdf.
- Benton, M.J. 2010. Naming dinosaur species: the performance of prolific authors. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30, 1478-1485. pdf.
- Weishampel, D. B., P. Dodson, and H. Osmólska, eds. 2004. Dinosauria, 2nd ed. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Bristol University press release
- Jonathan Amos for BBC News: Will the real dinosaurs stand up
- Rex Dalton for Nature: In search of Thingummyjigosaurus
- Smithsonian Magazine: Mistakenidentosaurus becoming a thing of the past
- Holly Williams in The Independent: Under the microscope: How many types of dinosaur are there?
- Zoë Corbyn in Nature: Top dinosaur hunters are worst at naming.
- Also, read commentary in Laura Margottini’s article ‘Is it time to declutter the dinosaur roster?’ in Science 332, 782 (May 2011).
- A later, detailed discussion by Maggie Koerth-Baker, using some new plots, ‘All those new dinosaurs may not be new – or dinosaurs’, on the FiveThirtyEight blog (March 2016).