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Misunderstood Giants: Geosaurus, Anteosaurus, Otozoum
October 31st brings the American monster/supernatural/pumpkin-themed
holiday Halloween, a cultural concoction of costumes, candy, and kid
pranks that has been steadily infiltrating other countries (sometimes
to mixed reactions). The month of October also has been declared
"International Dinosaur Month" and since 2010 has included National
Fossil Day as part of Earth Science Week. It might be an appropriate
moment to look at how paleontologists as far back as the 1820s have
celebrated an ancient world of mythical monsters in names for long
The gods and monsters have traditionally come from Greek and Roman
mythology, but lately more adventurous choices from different world
cultures have been gaining favor.
Three of the commonly misunderstood Greek and Latin mythological
references may be a good place to start. (Translations from French are
mine, as are any errors.)
Geosaurus Cuvier, 1824 "Ge's lizard" ("mother of the giants' lizard")
[NOT "land lizard" or "earth lizard"]
Thalattosuchia: Metriorhynchidae (Late Jurassic)
Pioneering French comparative anatomist and paleontologist Georges
Cuvier (1769 -1832) named Geosaurus in 1824, but his choice of the
name is something of a puzzle. Geosaurus has often been taken to mean
"earth lizard' or "land lizard" after the Greek common noun *ge*
"earth, land" as if to indicate a fully terrestrial animal--completely
inappropriate for what turned out to be a highly adapted aquatic form
with paddle-limbs and a tail fin (anatomical details Cuvier was not
aware of). The name is often cited as a "mistake" for that reason. In
fact, Cuvier stated that Geosaurus was named for the Greek goddess Ge
(Gaia) [Roman equivalent goddess = Terra] as "Terra, mother of the
giants"--but how this classical allusion would explain his choice of
the name is not immediately clear.
Greek *Ge* (also *Gaia*, Latinized *Gaea*) [Roman equivalent *Terra*,
*Tellus*], the primordial Earth mother in Greek mythology who gave
birth to races of gigantic beings (titans, cyclopses, giants) and
various monsters, as well as to a number of first-generation gods with
normal human forms. She was typically described as vast in size, but
was sometimes depicted in art in a smaller form similar to other
Ge (Gaia) in mythology:
Mark Young and Marco Brandalise de Andrade (2009) carefully reviewed
the convoluted early nomenclatural history of the name Geosaurus, but
a closer look at primary sources (with links) may add some additional
Young, Mark T., and Marco Brandalise de Andrade, 2009. What is
Geosaurus? Redescription of Geosaurus giganteus (Thalattosuchia:
Metriorhynchidae) from the Upper Jurassic of Bayern, Germany.
Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 157: 551-585.
Cuvier had famously described the then unnamed animal [Mosasaurus]
from Maastricht in 1808 in the Annales du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle,
summarizing and critiquing the descriptions and the identifications
(crocodile, lizard, cetacean, fish) made by earlier authors. Cuvier
concluded that the animal from Maastricht was a kind of monitor
lizard--but as big as a crocodile.
Cuvier, Georges. 1808. Sur le grand animal fossile des carrières de
Maestricht. Ann. Mus. Hist. nat. Paris XII 145-176, pls. XIX-XX.
In 1816 Bavarian anatomist and paleontologist Samuel Thomas von
Sömmerring (1755-1830) described what he took to be parts of the skull
of a juvenile specimen of Cuvier's animal, recently found in Monheim,
Bavaria in Germany, along with postcranial remains that included
vertebrae, ribs, parts of two femurs, and parts of a pelvis.
von Sömmerring, S.T. 1816. Ueber die Lacerta gigantea der Vorwelt.
Denkschriften der Königlichen Akademie der Wisseschaften zu Münch 6:
Classe der Mathematik und Naturwissenschaften: 37–59.
An English translation with a plate illustration was published in the
British journal Annals of Philosophy in 1821 and is used here:
von Sömmerring, S.T. 1821. On the Lacerta gigantea of the ancient
world. Annals of Philosophy. New Series, Vol. 2 : 183--195 (Plate 8)
Sömmerring noted that the Monheim specimen's skull was apparently only
a fourth as large as that of the Maastricht animal:
"If we compare the dimensions of the bones belonging to the Maestricht
and to the Vicentine animal with our own fragments we shall have
reason to suppose that ours was as yet very young, and had hardly
attained a quarter of its full growth, which Cuvier computes to be 23
feet in length."
He proposed what he thought was an appropriate binomen for the animal,
meant to include both Cuvier's reptile from Maastricht and his
"juvenile" specimen from Monheim.
"Since even Cuvier himself considers the nondescript [= previously
undescribed] animal, whose remains we have been here examining, to be
not only the most celebrated of any, and to have occasioned the
greatest difference of opinion, but to be at the same time the most
gigantic of any, " le plus gigantesque de tous," I have the less
hesitation in assigning to it the specific name of Lacerta gigantea
[gigantic lizard] of a former world.
"Lastly, when it is considered that, according to Cuvier's
calculation, which is certainly not an exaggerated one, this gigantic
lacerta was 23 feet in length, we are forcibly reminded of the dragons
so much spoken of in fable. At least, the fact that, at one period of
the world, there existed animals of the lacerta or dragon kind, more
than 20 feet in length, is more astonishing than all that is recorded
in ancient tradition respecting monsters which even the wildest fancy
did not amplify to such enormous dimensions."
In Cuvier's Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles (1824 2nd. edition),
he reviewed Sömmerring's animal (thanks in part to a plaster
impression of the partial skull provided by Sömmerring himself), and
showed it was not a juvenile Mosasaurus but likely a grown animal
clearly distinct from those previously known.
<<D'un grand reptile des environs de Monheim, découvert par M. de
Soemmerring, nommé par lui Lacerta gigantea, et que je considère comme
un nouveau sous-genre intermédiaire entre les crocodiles et les
monitors (Geosaurus Cuv.).>> (Vol. 10, pg. 175)
"On a large reptile from the vicinity of Monheim, discovered by Mr.
von Sömmerring, named Lacerta gigantea by him, and which I consider a
new sub-genus intermediate between crocodiles and monitors (Geosaurus
Cuvier, Georges. 1824. Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles, où l'on
rétablit les caractères de plusieurs animaux dont les révolutions du
globe ont détruit les espèces. 2d ed., (1821-24).
Atlas plate of Geosaurus (figures 2 -8)
Among other details, Cuvier noted sclerotic plates in the eye, found
in monitor lizards but not known at that time in crocodiles. The
vertebrae were quite distinct from those of the animal of Maastricht
and more like those of crocodiles, as were the pelvis and the femurs.
The teeth of the Monheim and Maastricht animals also differed in
In concluding, Cuvier proposed a new name as a sub-genus of Lacerta:
<<Je me crois donc bien autorisé à considérer cet animal de Monheim
comme un nouveau sous-genre de l'ordre des sauriens, auquel je donne
provisoirement le nom de géosaurus (par allusion à la terre mère des
géans). Je ne peux lui laisser l'épithète de gigantesque, car, dans le
grand genre lacerta, nous avons d'abord l'animal de Maéstricht ou
mosasaurus qui le surpasse de beaucoup, et nous allons en voir un
autre (le mégalosaurus) qui lui est aussi très-supérieur.>> (Vol. 10,
"I thus feel well justified in considering the animal from Monheim to
be a new sub-genus of the saurian order, to which I provisionally give
the name Geosaurus (in allusion to Terra, mother of the giants). I
cannot retain the epithet giganteus [gigantic] for it; for in the
great genus Lacerta we have for a start the animal of Maastricht, or
Mosasaurus, that considerably surpassed it, and we are going see
another [in Lacerta] (the Megalosaurus) that is also much superior to
[Geosaurus] in size."
In next describing the Megalosaurus, Cuvier observed as well:
<<Si l'on pouvait donner le nom de Lacerta gigantea à un autre animal
qu'à celui de Maëstricht, c'est l'espèce actuelle qui le mériterait...
"If one could give the name Lacerta gigantea to another animal other
than the one from Maastricht, it is the present species that would
As noted above, Cuvier's name Geosaurus was not meant to indicate an
animal with exclusively terrestrial habits, even though the
characteristic lower parts of the limbs (which would have had paddles)
were missing in the fossil material available. Sömmerring stated that
the remains that became Geosaurus were found in marine limestone clay
(Kalkmergel) with the impression of an ammonite and part of a bivalve
shell, as well as small scales that he thought came from fish or
perhaps from the animal itself.
Cuvier did not explain what he had in mind with the mythological
allusion "Terra, mother of the giants" in the name Geosaurus. He may
have meant a general reference to the fact that fossils of giant
animals such as Mosasaurus and Megalosaurus come out of the earth--and
thus are in a sense "sons of the earth" or "children of the earth"
(phrases used by ancient poets to refer to the race of giants) or
*gegenes* "earthborn." In fact, traditional etymologies explain the
Greek word *gigas*/*gigantes* "giant/giants" as anciently derived from
Greek *ge* "earth" + *genos* "offspring, race" or *genntos*
"begotten" to mean "earthborn."
Cuvier had already discussed how the old legends and reports of bones
of giants were undoubtedly based on fossil bones and teeth of
elephants that people accidentally unearthed in ages past.
For more on fossil bones and legends of giants:
Cuvier estimated the length of Mosasaurus at about 24 feet 3 inches
and that of Geosaurus at about 12 to 13 feet, after "the crocodile of
Caen" (Teleosaurus Geoffroy). Based on the size of the various bones
and teeth Buckland had described as belonging to Megalosaurus, Cuvier
offered different possible estimates for the animal's total length,
including about 50 feet based on its teeth, and more than 70 feet
based on what was identified as a coracoid. From the vertebrae, he
estimated Megalosaurus at 36 or 25 feet in total length depending on
whether its tail was proportioned like that of a monitor lizard or
like that of a crocodile.
Cuvier saw the animals Mosasaurus, Geosaurus, and Megalosaurus as
related, each with features in various ways intermediate between
crocodiles and lizards. In line with Cuvier's anti-evolutionary
theories, however, alluding to the "mother of the giants" was not
meant to imply any ancestral relationship between the smaller and
older Geosaurus and the larger and later Mosasaurus. (Megalosaurus
from the "Oolithic" would be older than Geosaurus.)
The current valid binomen Geosaurus giganteus--understood as "gigantic
mother of the giants' lizard"-- might appear to be a contradiction
according to Cuvier's comments. He rejected the specific name
"giganteus" as inappropriate for Geosaurus but did not provide an
alternative. And as Cope, Dollo, and others later pointed out, it was
Mosasaurus by strict historical precedence that should have the type
species name "giganteus" as Mosasaurus giganteus (Sömmerring, 1816)
from Lacerta gigantea. However, usage has settled on Mosasaurus
hoffmannii (Mantell, 1829) and Geosaurus giganteus (Sömmerring, 1816)
as the respective type species.
For an early discussion of Geosaurus, see the article in the 1838
Volume 11 of the Penny Cyclopaedia. The anonymous article presumably
was written by the British lawyer and naturalist William John Broderip
(1789–1859), who contributed a large number of the articles on zoology
and fossils published in the Penny Cyclopaedia, often with input from
his friend Richard Owen.
Broderip, W. J. (?) 1838. Geosaurus. (pgs. 180-181) in Knight C. 1838.
Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful
Knowledge, vol. XI, Fuego, Tierra Del – Haddingtonshire. London:
Charles Knight and Co., 510.
Dawson, G. 2012. Paleontology in parts: Richard Owen, William John
Broderip, and the serialization of science in early Victorian Britain.
Isis 103(4): 637-667
Anteosaurus Watson, 1921 "Antaeus (Anteus) lizard" ("Antaean lizard")
[NOT "before lizard" as if from Latin *ante*)]
Synapsida: Therapsida : Deinocephalia : Anteosauridae (Middle Permian)
British zoologist and paleontologist David Meredith Seares Watson
(1886-1973) did not explain the name Anteosaurus, but he almost
certainly named it for the powerful African giant *Antaios* in Greek
mythology (Latinized as *Antaeus* or, less often, as *Anteus*), a son
of Ge (Earth) and Poseidon (Terra and Neptune), who lived in ancient
Libya and who gained strength from touching the ground (his mother).
The giant challenged travelers to a wrestling match that always ended
in their deaths. However, Hercules learned his secret and lifted
Antaeus into the air, then crushed him. The type specimen from South
Africa included part of a skull that Watson had originally classified
as Titanosuchus (establishing a mythological giant connection for the
Watson, D.M.S. 1921. The Bases of Classification of the Theriodontia:
Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1921: 35-98.
Antaios in mythology:
Anteus as an alternate Latin spelling of Antaeus:
Rose, Carol. 2001. Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of
Folklore, Legend, and Myth. W. W. Norton & Company. 428 pages
(Antaios, Antaeus, Anteus: pages 19-20)
The generic name Anteus Perrier, 1872 was also used for a giant earthworm.
Both *ae* and *e* are common Latinizations for the Greek diphthong
*ai*, as with the alternate British/American spellings
palaeontology/paleontology from Greek *palaios*. (Note as well the
Italian and Spanish spelling Anteo, Portuguese Anteu, and French Antée
Both Antaeus and Anteus are pronounced with the accent on the second
syllable in English: an-TEE-us.
Derived adjective "antaean" (also "Antaean"):
Watson's chosen spelling "Anteosaurus" has led to confusion with Latin
prefix *ante* "before"--thus incorrect meanings such as "before
lizard," "previous lizard," or "primitive lizard" now given for
Anteosaurus in various sources. It's hard to see a reason for a
meaning such as "before lizard," which would imply some special
primitive evolutionary position for Anteosaurus among deinocephalians.
Watson says nothing about primitive features in the original partial
skull, which he found differed from Titanosuchus in the shape of the
snout and in the number of teeth.
In addition, Watson would have no grammatical reason to spell the name
with a connecting "o" after the Latin prefix *ante* (compare
Latin*antebellum*,*antecessor*, etc.), whereas a Greek-derived
combination with the Latinized form *Anteus* (from *Antaios*) in three
syllables would drop the inflected ending -us and take a connecting
vowel "o" before *saurus* [Greek *sauros*] (word stem Ante- + o +
saurus) in the standard way.
Otozoum Hitchcock, 1847 "animal Otus [a giant]" [NOT "ear animal"]
Dinosauria : ichnofamily Otozoidae (Late Triassic-Early Jurassic)
American geologist Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) named a number of the
fossil tracks he described from Connecticut for mythical giants, in
particular, the Cyclopes, also sons of Ge:
Brontozoum, Eubrontes for Brontes "thunder"; Argozoum for Arges
"brightness"; Steropezoum for Steropes "lightning"
His ichnogenus Otozoum (based on bipedal "prosauropod" tracks) was
also named for a giant, but its name has been confused with the Greek
word *otos* "ear"-- thus "ear animal" sometimes wrongly given as the
Hitchcock clearly stated that it was named for a mythical giant:
"For this remarkable animal I have selected the generic name of
Otozoum, from that of Otus, one of the fabled praeadamic giants. The
meaning of Otozoum is, an animal Otus or giant." [pg. 52]
Hitchcock, Edward. 1847. Description of two new species of fossil
footmarks found in Massachusetts and Connecticut, or of the animals
that made them. American Journal of Science and Arts Ser. 2 (3): 46-57
Otus was a giant son of Poseidon.
For a brief survey of some of the other generic names for fossil
vertebrates based on giants, demons, spirits, and gods from different
cultures see these links:
Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature
Curious Scientific Names