Z is for Zuul

Zuul crurivastator (Zuul, destroyer of shins), wikipedia.
Zuul, the Gatekeeper of Gozer, photo from collider.com.

Yes, Zuul from Ghostbusters. Zuul who inhabits Sigourney Weaver’s body in order to search for the Keymaster, schlubby Rick Moranis, so that their coupling will release the demon Gozer into the world. A nerdy fantasy written by nerds for nerds.

I was never a fan of the movie, but yesterday, when I was running down the list of which “Z” dinosaur would get the honor to front my very last post, and I said Zuul, my spouse immediately said Oh! The Gatekeeper of Gozer. Paleontologists, I suppose, are as nerdy as romance writers, medieval historians, and Hollywood directors, so, yes….

They did indeed name a dinosaur for Zuul.

Instead, it could have been one of the following… (list thoughtfully provided by thoughtco.com although it’s incomplete, since they forgot about Zuul).

  • Zalmoxes – A strange-looking ornithopod from Romania.
  • Zanabazar – Named after a Buddhist spiritual leader.
  • Zapalasaurus – This “diplodocoid” sauropod lived in early Cretaceous South America.
  • Zby – This dinosaur’s name was inversely proportional to its size.
  • Zephyrosaurus – Otherwise known as the Western Wind Lizard.
  • Zhanghenglong – A transitional hadrosaur of late Cretaceous Asia.
  • Zhejiangosaurus – The first identified nodosaur from Asia.
  • Zhenyuanlong – Also known as the “fluffy feathered poodle from hell.”
  • Zhongyuansaurus – The only known ankylosaur to lack a tail club.
  • Zhuchengceratops – It probably figured on the lunch menu of Zhuchengtyrannus.
  • Zhuchengosaurus – This hadrosaur was even bigger than Shantungosaurus.
  • Zhuchengtyrannus – This Asian tyrannosaur was the size of T. Rex.
  • Zuniceratops – This horned dinosaur was discovered by an eight-year-old boy.
  • Zuolong – It was named after General Tso, of Chinese restaurant fame.
  • Zupaysaurus – This “devil lizard” was one of the earliest theropods

But, nope, I picked Zuul.

For this last post on dinosaurs (*sniff* now I’m getting a bit verklempt), I will share some information on dinosaur naming conventions, as well as a few final thoughts on why we find dinosaurs so fascinating.

What’s in a Name?

Dinosaur names, like any other kind of creature extant or extinct, have two parts. There’s a genus part and a species part. Even though the classification system now has lots more tree branches than the old Kingdom-Phylum system, the branches always ends with genus and species. Remember those clades of letter “C,” which turn out to run everything? Good thing it was so high in my alphabet! Genus-species is at the tip of the clade.

The first part, the genus defines a group of animals that have similar characters. Homo is a genus because there were versions of humans before us sapiensHomo neanderthalis, Homo erectus. The first part of the name, the genus, is always capitalized. The second part, the species, is never capitalized. Note: You are supposed to put the Latin names in italics, but I reserve the right for this post to be inconsistent. If I forget the italics, just ignore it.

Oops! I’ve been doing it wrong. It’s Tyrannosaurus rex, or T. rex. Never T. Rex… Now I have to back to previous posts and fix that!

By the way, I asked last week, why it wasn’t T. regina? Apparently, there is a species with that name! Just in 2022, paleontologists Person, Van Raalte, and Paul noted that everyone was constantly chucking anything that looked like a T. rex skull into the same pot, but they were actually different species. They argue for a T. imperator, too, a T. king, queen, and emperor. This analysis is causing quite a stir, as scientists disagree that the distinguishing features, such as number of teeth and size of the femurs, are not different enough. If the scientists have their way, it might reclassify famous statues, Sue in particular. The scientific debate will rage on!

Should this be T. regina? Research from Scott Persons et al suggests it should be its own species.

Construction of Names and Clades

These two-pronged dinosaur names follow the general International Code for Zoological Nomenclature–back to the polysyllabic scientific world, whoopee! Also called the ICZN code, this shared agreement on naming conventions dates back to the late 19th century. Scientists were making up their own naming systems (Merton’s rules, Strickland’s codes) which got very confusing, so they got together and agreed they had to pick one. The ICZN is kept updated, but there’s some suggestion of tension in the wikipedia description of it that mentions…

Such new editions of the ICZN Code are not democratically approved by those taxonomists who are forced to follow the code’s provisions, neither do taxonomists have the right to vote for the members of the commission or the editorial committee.

Wikipedia explanation of ICZN codes

Sounds to me like some of those taxonomists weren’t too happy. But what’re they going to do, just make up a name? They have to get everyone to agree. Taxonomist, remember, is the person classifying the “thing.” If you want to give a dinosaur a name, you have to figure out what kind of dinosaur it is.

Most of the dinosaur naming relates to finding new dinosaurs. You can even find a list of all the scientific publications about dinosaurs, per year, which describes all the new and pending research arguments about new names. Just as of today, there are 18 pending new names for dinosaurs alone, including things like Titanomachya gimenezi, a small “big” titanosaur named after (1) the battle of Titans and (2) famous Argentine paleontologist Olga Gimenez. That’s a classic strategy, to use a combination of Greek and a person.

More often, the Greek genus name is descriptive of body parts. In 2015, a skeleton that was mis-classified was renamed Sefapanosaurus zastronensis. Sefapanosaurus referred to the cross-shaped ankle bone, while the species name mentions the South African town of Zastron, where the bones originated. These were actually found 80 years ago, and misclassified with Aardonyx. But scientists re-examined the structure and changed the name.

Zuul’s friends, differentiated skulls. From RoyalSocietyPublishing.

That’s the second part of the classification dance. While much of naming relates to new dinosaur parts found and constructed, there is a lot of re-classification occurring as well. What happens over time is that more bones are found, more evidence, which allows the tree to shift and split and reorganize. Start with what you have, but when you know more, then fix your mistakes.

When Zuul was first discovered, they thought it was another type of Euplocephalus (“well-armored head”). But they found a lot of pieces of Zuul, enough to be sure that it was on a distinct branch of the tree and that it should be put with the other ankylosaurs. They did call it Zuul, after the movie character who had that horned head. But then they added the species of crurivastator, which means destroyer of shins, because they thought the club tail would basically take out the bottom parts of attacking predators.

Life Imitates Art Imitates Life

Lots of dinosaurs have been named for fictional creatures–like Zuul– which is funny since the fictional creatures are often given names that sound like real creatures. There are new species discovered all the time. Actually, the majority of new names seem to be going to spiders, wasps, and beetles, so if you want to see all the creatures named after H.P. Lovecraft characters, look in the insect section of the ICZN.

Meanwhile every single species, dinosaur or otherwise, has a torturous path to its name. For example, the pterosaur (not a dinosaur!) named Targaryendraco wiedenrothi was originally named Ornithocheirus wiedenrothi, and grouped with other ornithocheirids. (Wiedenroth was an amateur fossil hunter who found it). After five more studies, though, it was put into its own tree branch and renamed, indeed for the House of Dragons from Game of Thrones.

Medusaceratops loki, Wikipedia

More fun fictional-character-inspired dinosaurs (mostly):

  • Pantydraco caducus, after Pant-y-ffynnon in Wales, a thecodont
  • Hagryphus giganteus, Egyptian god Ra + griffin + big, an oviraptor
  • Gojirasaurus quayi, already noted after Godzilla, a theropod
  • Bambiraptor feinbergi, a theropod
  • Medusaceratops lokii, because of the Loki-like horns, a ceratopsian
  • Thanos simonattoi, a mean-looking theropod
  • Ozraptor subotaii, a thief, egg-stealer, from Subotai of the Conan series
  • Bradycneme draculae, found in Transylvania, another theropod
  • Irritator challengeri, from Conan Doyle’s Lost World, yet another theropod
  • Borogovia gracilicrus, like Carroll’s “borogoves,” still another theropod
  • Lohuecotitan pandafilandi, after Pandafilando, a giant in Don Quixote, a titanosaur
  • Dracorex hogwartsia

Now, the story about this last one is a bit sad. They found pieces of this dinosaur in South Dakota. After the skeleton was assembled and acquired by an Indiana children’s science museum, the museum had a naming contest. It resulted in the name related to Harry Potter, Dragon King of Hogwarts in Greek.

Dracorex hogwartsia, but probably not. Wikimedia.

However, they apparently named it too quickly because it’s now thought to be a juvenile version of Pacycephalosaurus, a well-known and widespread group that includes the bony head vegeterians. It will probably get renamed and reclassified before ere long. Maybe Pacycephalosaurus hogwartsia???

Could Have Had a Spielberg Action Figure!

There is a Spielberg action figure! Photo from slashfilm.

I talked about the Jurassic legacy back under letter “J,” that Spielberg had actually hired dinosaur experts for his 1993 film which made his dinosaurs more accurate than had ever been seen before and, in turn, influenced and inspired future dinosaur enthusiasts. The dinosaur enthusiasts wanted to return the favor.

In 1993, the group that had discovered the impressive Utahraptor wanted to give it the genus name spielbergi in anticipatory honor of the director. (Letter “U”–I didn’t even come across this story last week when I was writing about Utahraptors.) At the time, the group said they were looking for a funding source from either Spielberg or Universal Studios, and, when it wasn’t forthcoming, they changed the name.

But more recently, a different story has emerged that makes more sense because scientists usually aren’t blackmailers. According to a 2021 story in Inverse, Universal screwed it up for Steven, or themselves, depending on your point of view. There was a tiny Pennsylvania museum that planned to exhibit the Utahraptor, and they used the word Jurassic in their promotional materials. It’s kind of like using the word Gondwanaland or Oligocene–if you know what that is scientifically, you do, but other people don’t. At the time, in late 1992, it wasn’t a household word. But Universal was thinking about the trademark side of things, so they threatened this poor little Erie Zoological Society with legal action. The Putnam Museum had printed up T-shirts with Utahraptor spielbergi already on it, but they had to take the word “Jurassic” off all their signage, even though they had been using it for months before the movie was even advertised.

Utahraptor spielbergi became Utahraptor ostrommyi. Creative Beast Action Figures.

As a result, the Utahraptor scientist decided to choose the species name ostrommyi since the Spielberg Studios were making such a fuss. This was after none other than John Ostrom, the guy who made Deinonychus famous and helped push forward the dinosaur renaissance, which had influenced Spielberg’s choices.

Dreaming of Dinosaurs

It’s curious that humans have such a strong affinity for these creatures, which lived so long ago and have left mostly only bones. We don’t generally feel that way about trilobites, bacteria, or bark beetles even though they, in various ways, also ruled. We don’t even feel that way about our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees and gorillas. Instead, we write dystopian stories where we go to war with the apes on our clade.

But dinosaurs fill stories–I’ve even got one I’m playing around with that has to do with the stegosaurus shaped like a statistical chi-squared graph. It’s a children’s story, I’m working on it, still a little rough. KK reminded me the other day of the wonderful story by Guy Endore, “Day of the Dragon,” where a scientist fixes a flaw in a crocodile’s heart and it becomes a dragon. Are dragons dinosaurs? They seem like close cousins. Perhaps there was an undiscovered clade-line in remote parts of Siberia or China where pterosaur/dinosaurs really were dragons. Still, dragons are imaginary, but dinosaurs were real.

We’d like to think that we could tame them, or that they could teach us something, even though it’s hard to imagine actually doing that. And as the Jurassic movies showed, it’s dangerous to think about trying.

As others have pointed out, they feel half real and half imagined. Even though we can draw flesh on their bones, they seem like something we’ve only dreamed about. Because they ruled the earth and succumbed to climate change, we want to understand what happened to them, as hard as that may be (see “Y”). We want to know what these bones are trying to tell us, 200 million years later. Given that we’ve only been studying them in earnest ourselves for a couple of centuries, we’ve probably barely scratched the surface.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Blue (Raptor) with Chris Pratt as Owen

There’s a lot more, I’m sure, that they could tell us.

Thanks for reading!

4 Replies to “Z is for Zuul”

    1. I thought it turned out pretty well, so I might try packaging this into a little mini-book. Blogging works better for me when there’s a theme and a schedule, so I have to figure something out. Pick a “summer theme” or something. The alphabet provides such a nice structure! And/or some variation in November for NANOWRIMO, just not fiction. Glad you liked it.

    1. A fan-freakin’ tastic post about ALL the words. Great! I’m going to add it to my stack of “research” (it has your name, so I know where it came from). Thanks for sharing and your comment!

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