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The Joke Names Oromys Leidy, 1853 and Pistosaurus von Meyer, 1839
The Joke Names Oromys Leidy, 1853 and Pistosaurus von Meyer, 1839
In observance of April Fools (April 1), and in honor of Hermann von
Meyer, who on died April 2, 1869, and Joseph Leidy, who died on April
30, 1891, I thought I would look at two misunderstood vert-paleo
"joke" names that were chosen with humorous intent by their original
authors, but were never explained. (Again, any errors (factual, in
translations, typographical) are mine.)
Two figures in vertebrate paleontology whose names do not immediately
come to mind for coining "joke" names would certainly be the American
paleontologist Joseph Leidy (1823 – 1891) and the German
paleontologist Hermann von Meyer (1801 – 1869), who both made a point
of avoiding controversy and of sticking to facts in their scientific
descriptions with little or no theorizing.
Traditionally sober images aside, Leidy's name Oromys "mountain mouse"
is clearly a joke on one of Aesop's fables. And von Meyer's name
Pistosaurus "genuine saurian" ["true saurian"] is almost certainly a
joke on Count Münster's earlier name Nothosaurus "mongrel saurian" [
"false saurian"]. The name Pistosaurus may harbor an additional joke
as well, alluding to the bottle-like shape of the skull as "drinkable
saurian"--a possibility explained later on. (However, the commonly
given meaning "liquid lizard" in the supposed sense of "liquid
(inhabiting) lizard" for Pistosaurus cannot be accurate.)
Oromys aesopi Leidy, 1853 "Aesop's mountain mouse"
In 1853 Joseph Leidy briefly described a few fossil mammal teeth found
along the Ashley River in South Carolina. One specimen indicated a
rodent larger than a capybara:
"3. A fragment of an incisor of a large Rodent animal, probably, from
its appearance, allied to Hydrochoerus capybara. It belonged to an
animal intermediate in size to the latter and the Casteroides
Ohioensis. The specimen was found by Prof. Holmes on the Ashley River.
For the species the name of Oromys AEsopi was proposed."
The species name aesopi is obviously named for Aesop, the famous
Ancient Greek author of short, moralizing fables. One of his fables is
known as "The Mountain In Labor":
"A MOUNTAIN was once greatly agitated. Loud groans and noises were
heard, and crowds of people came from all parts to see what was the
matter. While they were assembled in anxious expectation of some
terrible calamity, out came a Mouse.
Don't make much ado about nothing."
In this case, however, it was not a mountain giving birth to a tiny
mouse but, as a joke, a "mouse" as big as a mountain. (The fossils for
Oromys were not found near a mountain and the animal certainly did not
live in the mountains!)
Whether Leidy's choice of the name was inspired as well by some event
in which great expectations or portentous announcements had
disappointing results is harder to determine. Aesop's fable of the
mountain that gave birth to a mouse was sometimes used in political
cartoons. See for example:
The joke name Oromys did not last long. Two years later Leidy decided,
based on additional fossil teeth, that his Oromys was simply a synonym
of the living capybara genus Hydrochoerus "water hog," although the
extinct species aesopi was retained as valid.
In 1927, Oliver Hay erected a new genus based on fossils found in
Texas that he deemed distinct from capybaras (Hydrochoerus).
Neochoerus Hay, 1926 "swimming hog" (NOT "new hog" as now widely, and
"In consideration of the differences between the Sinton rodent and the
existing capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochoerus) it seems that the former
belonged to a line of descent which had parted from that of the
capybara, and that hence a new generic name is appropriate. Neochoerus
is chosen, as suggesting the swimming habits of the animal and its
relationship to Hydrochoerus, the first part of the name being derived
from the Greek *neo*, to swim, the remainder from *khoiros*, a hog."
Hay, O. 1926. A collection of Pleistocene vertebrates from
southwestern Texas. Proceedings of the United States National Museum
Neochoerus aesopi (Leidy, 1853)
In 1984 the Uruguayan paleontologist Alvaro Mones made Leidy's Oromys
a subjective senior synonym of the genus Neochoerus Hay, 1926, and
designated the name Oromys (which had priority) as a nomen oblitum
"forgotten name" under ICZN provisions, but retained the species
aesopi as distinct.
Mones, A. (1984): Estudios sobre la Família Hydrochoeridae, XIV.
Revisión sistemática (Mammalia, Rodentia). – Senckenbergiana
Biologica, 65: 1-17.
This now accepted valid combination--Neochoerus aesopi "Aesop's
swimming hog"--leaves the species name *aesopi* a bit puzzling without
tracing it back to Leidy's original humorous combination Oromys
Pistosaurus von Meyer, 1839 "genuine saurian" (and also "drinkable saurian"?)
Last year I did on post about online resources for the German
paleontologist Hermann von Meyer. A new item to add is a digital
version of Volume 2 "Saurians of the Muschelkalk" of his famous series
of illustrated oversize monographs Zur Fauna der Vorwelt [On the Fauna
of the Prehistoric World], describing the saurians (including
labyrinthodonts) of the Triassic of Germany, now available on the New
York Public Library website. It contains his full descriptions and
illustrations of various Nothosaurus species, Pistosaurus,
Tanystropheus, all from the Muschelkalk, as well as Plateosaurus from
Meyer, H. von (1847 — 1855). Zur Fauna der Vorwelt. 2. Abt. Die
Saurier des Muschelkalkes. VIII, 167 S., 70 Taf. - Frankfurt a. M. (H.
While it's a major plus to have von Meyer's beautiful illustrations
easily available online, the low resolution of the oversize pages
online renders the text portions eye-strain inducing and barely
readable--and in some cases completely unreadable (at least for me).
There is no pdf version and pages can only can be downloaded for free
as jpeg images with blurry text. High-quality images are available for
$50 per page, clearly not practical for anyone interested in a copy of
the whole thing.
[More recently, the urls to individual pages appear to be
malfunctioning, so some links used here may not go to the correct
Quoted passages included here reflect my attempts to decipher the
blurry text and provide rough translations. Any errors in
transcriptions and translations are mine, and corrections are welcome!
A little history may be helpful before addressing von Meyer's name Pistosaurus.
In 1834 the German geologist F. A. Alberti introduced the term Trias
Formation (now called the Triassic Period), based on three distinct
systems of strata found in Germany: Buntsandstein ["colored
sandstone"], Muschelkalk ["shelly limestone"], Keuper [said to come
from an old local word for claystone]. The three can be roughly
associated with what are now called Lower, Middle, and Upper Triassic
Alberti, F. A. von. (1834) Beitrag zu einer Monographie des bunten
Sandsteins, Muschelkalks und Keupers und die Verbindung dieser Gebilde
zu einer Formation. Stuttgart : J.G. Cotta, 366 pp.
Biography of Alberti
The gray Muschelkalk limestone section of the Trias had formed from a
Middle Triassic inland sea. The stone was widely used as a building
material and so was commercially quarried. Quarry workers sometimes
encountered fossils, most often bivalves (thus the name Muschelkalk
from Muschel "mussel"), occasionally fish, and, more rarely, bones of
The most important early collector of Muschelkalk fossils in the
region of Bayreuth (then part of the Kingdom of Bavaria) was the
pioneering German paleontologist Count Georg Münster (Graf zu
Münster) (1776-1844) (also cited as Muenster or von Muenster). Munster
was a government official who served as Kammerherr und
Regierungsdirektor in Bayreuth. In his spare time he collected and
studied the local fossils, eventually assembling a world-famous
private collection. He also participated in the so-called
Kreissammlung [District Collection] in Bayreuth, which pooled the
private natural history collections of the region. The Bayreuth
Kreissammlung was first proposed in 1832 by Ferdinand Freiherr von
Andrian-Werburg (1776-1851), another government official who had a
great interest in fossils and paleontology. Fossils from Munster's
private collection became the Kreissammlung's most famous component.
Biographical info (in German):
Freiherr Andrian (and establishment of the Kreissammlung)
Click on "Andrian-Werburg, Ferdinand Freiherr von" in the Index on the left:
[The German term Kreis "circle" was used as a political division in
Bavaria and was roughly equivalent to a district; the current term
Landkreis is more like a county.]
In 1845, after Munster's death, King Ludwig I of Bavaria purchased his
private collection of around 150,000 specimens (mainly from southern
Germany) to keep the famous scientific resource in the region of
Bavaria. Much of the collection would form the early foundation of
what eventually became the modern Bayerischen Staatssammlung für
Paläontologie und Geologie [Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology
and Geology] in Munich. However, many of Münster's historic specimens
were destroyed in April 1944, when fire spread from a WW II bombing
raid and devastated the Alte Akademie building in Munich, where the
collection was housed along with other important fossils, including
In over 70 published papers and other printed works Münster described
approximately 900 new species, primarily Triassic and Jurassic
invertebrates and vertebrates. However, Münster's name is probably
most familiar now for the genus Nothosaurus, which has become one of
the best known reptiles from the Triassic.
Nothosaurus Münster, 1834 "mongrel saurian" (Greek *nothos*
"illegitimate, spurious, cross-bred, false" + Greek *sauros* "lizard")
Münster, G. Graf von (1834). Vorläufige Nachricht über einige neue
Reptilien im Muschelkalke von Baiern. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie,
Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefaktenkunde 1834: 521- 527
Münster had been carefully collecting fossil bones in the Muschelkalk
around Bayreuth for 25 years and had never found an articulated
specimen and only rarely encountered material that was undamaged.
The various isolated fossil bones studied up to that point had been
attributed to Plesiosaurus, Ichthyosaurus, crocodiles, or turtles by
different authors (including Münster and Hermann von Meyer). Münster
seemed no closer to determining the real identity of the animal.
However, in 1834 Münster's luck changed:
<<... bis ich endlich im Monat März dieses Jahrs so glücklich war, ein
nebeneinander liegendes , zum Theil noch zusammenhängendes, ziemlich
vollständiges Gerippe eines wunderbaren Reptils im Steinbruch des
Oscherberges bei Lainech zu finden.>>
"...until finally in the month of March of this year I was so lucky as
to find an associated and still partly articulated, fairly complete
skeleton of an extraordinary reptile in the stone quarry of Oscherberg
A quarry worker had noticed broken fossil bone exposed in a chunk of
rock and brought the piece to Münster, who went to the quarry in
person to examine where the bone had been found. After removing layers
of overburden, he recovered the rest of the fossil remains, then set
about preparing the new specimen.
The skeleton as preserved was 7-foot (2 m) long, missing the skull,
some vertebrae from the front of the neck and tip of the tail, and the
outer bones of the feet. Münster estimated that the complete animal
would have been about 10 feet (3 m.) long. (A number of sources I
found stated that this specimen of Nothosaurus from 1834 was the first
complete fossil reptile skeleton found in Germany.)
Von Meyer (1847-1855) later published a drawing of the backbone
portion of the specimen:
[NOTE: Holotype: Urwelt-Museum Oberfranken (UMO 100). Münster's
holotype specimen of Nothosaurus mirabilis was recently prepared to
remove plaster, restore original bones to the specimen, and correct
errors in the older reconstruction. The specimen will be redescribed.
According to Münster (1834), the neck and limb bones seemed to show
some resemblance to those of Pleisosaurus, but were also distinctive
in many ways. What struck him in particular, however, was the shape
of the different vertebrae: "Some appear to come from Plesiosaurus,
others from the crocodile, yet others from Teleosaurus...." The thin
gastral ribs also resembled those of Pleurosaurus, while the
obtuse-angled knee joint brought to mind Pterodactylus medius (a
species he had described).
Münster then explained his choice of a new scientific name:
<<Je genauer man die Überreste dieses sonderbaren Thieres untersucht,
desto mehr überzeugt man sich, dass man ein ganz neues Geschlecht von
wunderbarer Bildung vor sich hat, welches die Eigentümlichkeiten
mehrerer Thier-Geschlechter in sich vereinigte; ich habe es daher
Nothosaurus mirabilis genannt (Bastard-Saurier, von verschiedenen
Arten Thieren erzeugt). >>
"The more closely one examines the remains of this peculiar animal,
the more one is convinced that one has here an entirely new genus,
extraordinary in its organization, which combines in one creature the
characteristics of several genera of animals; I have therefore named
it Nothosaurus mirabilis (mongrel saurian, created from different
kinds of animals) "
In German, Bastard applied to animals can mean "crossbreed," "hybrid"
Latin *mirabilis* "wonderful, marvelous, extraordinary, singular"
In the same 1834 paper, Munster added the additional species
Nothosaurus giganteus "gigantic" (much larger than N. mirabilis) from
the same Muschelkalk beds and Nothosaurus venustus "graceful" (for its
smaller size) from the Muschelkalk in northern Germany. He also
mentioned the name Dracosaurus "dragon saurian" without a species for
material that included parts of a skull (= Nothosaurus mirabilis in
Rieppel & Wild 1996 ).
Rieppel, Olivier &Wild, Rubert, 1996: A revision of the genus
Nothosaurus Reptilia: Sauropterygia from the Germanic Triassic, with
comments on the status of Conchiosaurus clavatus. Fieldiana Geology
0(34): I-IV, 1-82
Pistosaurus longaevus von Meyer, 1839
In 1839 von Meyer briefly mentioned a fossil skull that he considered
a new genus and species, and which he called Pistosaurus longaevus.
The skull was said to be almost complete and to come from Bayreuth. He
did not provide a description and did not explain the name.
In 1843 he reported receiving a second fossil skull that he also
identified as Pistosaurus, more complete than the first and also from
Bayreuth, but again mentioned without a description.
It was not until the monograph Die Saurier des Muschelkalkes
(1844-1855) that von Meyer provided full descriptions and
illustrations of both skulls of Pistosaurus.
Here's the introduction to his full description of Pistosaurus in Zur
Fauna der Vorwelt:
<<Nachdem 30 Jahre lang auf die Saurier des Muschelkalkes bei Bayreuth
mit seltener Aufmerksamkeit gesammelt worden war, gelang es doch erst
1839 Ueberreste zu erhalten, welche dem Genus Nothosaurus, das während
dieses ganzen Zeitraume allein sich dargestellt hätte, nicht
angehörten. Es befand sich nämlich unter den Gegenständen, welche ich
in genannten Jahr von Herrn Regierungs-Präsidenten von Andrian aus der
Kreissammlung in Bayreuth erhielt ein gerade erst aufgefundener, nicht
ganz vollständiger Schädel, worin ich ein neues, von mir Pistosaurus
benennten Genus erkannte. Im Jahr 1843 überschickte mir Herr A. Krantz
in Berlin eine Kiste mit Saurierrestes aus dem Muschelkalke von
Bayreuth, unter denen ich einen vollständigeren Schädel von diesem
Pistosaurus vorfand, der nachher in Besitz des Museums von Berlin
gelangte, und von dem Abgüsse bei Krantz zu haben sind.>>
[After 30 years of saurians from the Muschelkalk near Bayreuth having
been collected with singular attention, it was not until 1839 that
fossil remains were obtained that did not belong to the genus
Nothosaurus, which would have represented the sole form found during
this entire period of time. Among the objects was namely a skull,
only just discovered and not entirely complete, that I received in
the year cited from Herr President of Land Administration von Andrian
out of the District Collection in Bayreuth, and in which I recognized
a new genus, which I named Pistosaurus. In the year 1843, Herr A.
Krantz in Berlin shipped me a crate containing saurian remains from
the Muschelkalk of Bayreuth, among which I found a more complete
skull of the same Pistosaurus, which afterwards came into the Berlin
Museum's possession, and casts of which are available through Krantz.]
[NOTE: The holotype first skull (Urwelt-Museum Oberfranken (UMO
BT-682)) survives, but the more complete and less distorted second
skull belonging to the Berlin Museum has been lost at least since the
end of the 19th Century (Edinger, 1935). Only a cast (MB R.47) exists
NOTE: August Krantz (1809-1872) set up a geological supplies business
in 1833 (originally at Freiberg in Saxony, then moved to Berlin, and
finally to Bonn in 1850). The Kranz company is still in business
today. For a brief history in English, see:
Von Meyers' illustrations:
First Pistosaurus skull (missing snout tip) Plate 22 (online page 223):
Second more complete Pistosaurus skull Plate 21 (online page 221):
In the text von Meyer described the skulls in reverse order, beginning
with the more complete and less crushed and distorted second skull.
Regarding the second skull, he noted:
<<Von oben betrachtet lässt sich die Form des Schädels am besten einer
dünnhalsigen Weinflasche vergleichen.>> [Viewed from above, the form
of the skull can best be compared to a narrow-necked wine bottle.]
The less complete first skull was missing the tip of the snout and was
crushed and partly distorted on the right side. As discussed below,
it's not clear if von Meyer noticed a similar wine-bottle shape when
he examined the first skull in 1839 and chose the name
Pistosaurus--but he may have.
Pistosaurus Etymology Puzzle
Von Meyer donated a plaster cast of the second Pistosaurus skull to
the Hunterian Museum in London, as noted in the 1854 museum catalog of
fish and reptile specimens by Richard Owen, who gave the etymology of
Pistosaurus as "true lizard."
Owen's etymology brings up a puzzle. Von Meyer did not provide an
etymology or an explanation for his choice of the name Pistosaurus.
Modern sources now typically give the meaning of the name Pistosaurus
as "liquid lizard," presumably for the aquatic life style for a marine
reptile (in the sense of "liquid (inhabiting) lizard"). However,
Ancient Greek grammar and usage would not support such a meaning with
*pistos* and older paleontological sources give meanings for
Pistosaurus similar to Owen's "true lizard." For example:
Gaudry 1878 *certain*
Ward 1866 *true*
Agassiz 1842 Latin *fretus* "relying on, reliable"
A detailed look at the different meanings of *pistos* in Ancient Greek
cannot be avoided here it seems, so bear with me.
Ancient Greek had two words spelled *pistos* that had very different
meanings and different derivations. Both were adjectives with singular
masculine, feminine, and neuter forms *pistos*, *piste*, *piston*.
Perhaps a logical place to start is a 19th century Greek-German
lexicon from before the 1830s.
Rost, V. C. F. 1829. Griechisch-Deutsches und Deutsch-Griechisches
Wörterbuch Volume 1.
*pistos* ...1) dem man glaubt oder vertraut: glaubwürdig, zuverlässig,
sicher, ehrlich, treu, getreu, überzeugend; wahrhaft, ächt [echt]...
[that one believes or trusts in: believable, reliable, certain,
honest, true, loyal, convincing; real, genuine]
*pistos*...zu trinken, trinkbar [for drinking, drinkable]
Here are meanings in a more recent Greek-English lexicon source:
*pistos* *e*, *on*
A. Passive, to be trusted or believed: I. of persons, faithful,
trusty,... 2. trustworthy, worthy of credit, ...3. genuine... ;
unmistakable... II. of things, trustworthy, sure, .... 2. deserving
*pistos*, *e*, *on* (*pistikos*) *potos*
Note that liquid here is a descriptive adjective, similar to *potos*
"for drinking." As the plural neutral substantive, *pista*, the word
*pistos* could mean liquid medicines or draughts, but not a liquid in
drunk, for drinking,
From: Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon.
revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the
assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940.
Based strictly on Ancient Greek usage then, a name Pistosaurus derived
from the second Greek word *pistos* (an adjective) could mean "reptile
in a liquid state" or "drinkable reptile," but NOT "liquid reptile"
(or "Flüssigkeits-Echse" in German) with "liquid" as a noun in the
sense of a "reptile that lives in liquid" or "liquid (inhabiting)
reptile" as now often given as the supposed meaning.
With von Meyer's original full descriptions and other primary source
materials now available online to check directly, a meaning such as
"liquid (inhabiting) reptile" is very unlikely to be correct, even
allowing for some odd shift in meaning through an otherwise unattested
Neo-Latin noun usage for Ancient Greek *pistos*. It's better to assume
that von Meyer knew the correct Ancient Greek meanings for *pistos*.
As Richard Owen's proposed etymology "true lizard" suggests, von Meyer
almost certainly chose the name Pistosaurus to contrast with Munster's
existing name Nothosaurus "mongrel lizard" ("false lizard") from the
same Muschelkalk beds in Bayreuth.
In Ancient Greek, however, the expected opposite of *nothos* would be
*gnesios*, in particular as Munster intended the name Nothosaurus to
be understood--Bastard-Saurier [mongrel saurian]:
A. belonging to the race, i. e. lawfully begotten, born in wedlock,
2. generally, genuine, legitimate,
For example, this contrast in Greek:
*nothon pheggos* "false light" for the Moon and *gnesion pheggos*
"genuine light" for the Sun.
So, conceivably, von Meyer may have originally considered the name
"Gnesiosaurus" to clearly contrast with the name Nothosaurus. However,
he chose Pistosaurus, a less accurate matching opposite. One reason
might be the TWO words *pistos* in Greek, one meaning (among other
things) "genuine, true" and the other meaning "drinkable." As noted
above, von Meyer stated that the second skull of Pistosaurus resembled
a wine bottle when viewed from above. If he noticed this shape for the
first skull as well in 1839, the name Pistosaurus may have been chosen
for a potential double meaning: "genuine saurian" and "drinkable
At the very least, he must have been amused by the very clear bottle
shape of the second skull in light of the name Pistosaurus and its
potential double meaning as "drinkable saurian."
Edinger, T. 1935. Pistosaurus. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie,
Geologie und Palaontologie, Abhandlungen, Abteilung B, 74: 321-359.
Sues, H-D (1987). Postcranial skeleton of Pistosaurus and
interrelationships of the Sauropterygia (Diapsida). Zoological Journal
of the Linnean Society London 90(2): 109-131