Versperopterylus, Aviatyrannis, and Megalania: Bogus but Better Etymologies?
The recent posts on the vrtpaleo and dinosaur mailing lists about the name Versperopterylus bring up a number of points concerning spellings and etymologies for scientific names.
To begin with, the Ancient Romans borrowed many Greek words into Latin, giving them Latin spellings (c for k, ae for ai, etc.) and Latin grammatical endings (-us for -os, etc.). Modern zoological names are considered Neo-Latin (or New Latin), a Renaissance-onward version of Latin and Latinized Greek used in creating new scientific, technical, and medical terms.
It's probably OK to refer to Greek words with Latin spellings as Latin, but not the other way around (*venator* is Latin, not Greek, as was pointed out). It's also become common practice to mix words from both Latin and Greek in the same Neo-Latin name (a hybrid method that pickier older authors usually tried to avoid, sticking to all-Greek or all-Latin combinations apart from endings). In one sense, mixing Greek and Latin may help to avoid preoccupied names by increasing the range of possible combinations.
Neo-Latin names may or may not follow all the complicated grammar and spelling rules dating back to ancient Greek and Roman times when many Greek terms were borrowed into Latin.
In terms of the ICZN, the published spelling and a few Latin grammar rules matter, especially for name endings. What counts most for zoological nomenclature is a unique spelling for a each generic name (it can be only a single letter difference), and the intended etymology is not critical, although it may be of historical or cultural interest, and could affect the correct spelling in some cases.
Versperopterylus, from "Dursk" to Dusk
Junchang Lü, Qingjin Meng, Baopeng Wang, Di Liu, Caizhi Shen and Yuguang Zhang (2017)
Short note on a new anurognathid pterosaur with evidence of perching behaviour from Jianchang of Liaoning Province, China.
Geological Society, London, Special Publication SP455: New Perspectives on Pterosaur Palaeobiology (advance online publication)
International Code of Zoolological Nomenclature:
"32.5. Spellings that must be corrected (incorrect original spellings).
32.5.1. If there is in the original publication itself, without recourse to any external source of information, clear evidence of an inadvertent error, such as a lapsus calami or a copyist's or printer's error, it must be corrected. Incorrect transliteration or latinization, or use of an inappropriate connecting vowel, are not to be considered inadvertent errors."
"Versper-, Latin word for ‘dusk’ implying that the new pterosaur may seek food at dusk; -pteryl, Latin word for ‘wing’. The specific name is referred to the fossil locality, lamadong of Jianchang County, Liaoning Province."
As noted by David Hone, a case could be made that ICZN rules would allow a correction to the spelling of Versperopterylus to Vesperopterylus, since the authors stated in the original description that the name was derived from the Latin word for "dusk," which is spelled *vesper*, not "versper"--an error that arguably could qualify as a lapsus calami or printer's error. The text is in English and English has the words "vesper" and "vespers" derived from Latin. For example, "vesper sparrow" is a common name for a bird [Pooecetes gramineus]. Strictly speaking, Versperopterylus would not be simply an incorrect "transliteration or latinization." The name is also spelled Vesperopterylus once in the text.
Note, though, that zoological nomenclature is stuck with clear misspellings of names from Greek and Latin, such as Simoliophis (for "Cimoliophis" "Cretaceous snake"). There are cases in which misspellings or incorrect latinizations are used to distinguish names that might be homonyms based on the etymologies (such as Icthyophaga Lesson 1843 (a bird) and Ichthyophaga Syromiatnikova 1949 (a parasitic worm)).
The "pterylus" part of the name does not have such an obvious or simple ICZN fix such as removing one intrusive letter (r) in "versper." I don't know if the pterosaur volume editors were planning to revise the "pterylus" part of the name, since it involves two letters.
The authors of the paper state *pteryl* means "wing" in Latin--for which there does not appear an exact source in Greek or in Latin--Greek had *pteron* and *pteryx* (*pteron* borrowed into Latin was used an architectural term for a type of wall).
When I first saw the spelling Versperopterylus and read the abstract, before I was able to read the full paper (now free) and see the official etymology, I thought that the last part of the name might be from Greek *pteron* "wing" + Greek *hyle* "forest," and that the name Versperopterylus was supposed to mean something like "evening wing of the forest," which, as it turns out, would fit with the description even if the grammar would not be perfect ("hylopterus" "forest wing" would be better in classical grammar terms...).
The authors propose in the abstract and in the text that the small pterosaur was arboreal and habitually lived in trees:
"The reversed first toe of Versperopterylus indicates that it had arboreal habitats, which seems like more of a gripping adaptation: vertical clinging, branch climbing and/or branch clinging"
The evocative artistic reconstruction by Chinese paleoartist Zhao Chuang shows a batlike, tree-climbing, insect-eating crepuscular pterosaur.
Greek word order could be flexible to a point, and Neo-Latin has been much more inventive (or reckless) in combining word elements, with names such as Saurolophus and Lophosaurus, etc. Getting "wing of the forest" out of "pterylus" is a bit of stretch, but some proper names in ancient Greek such as Anaxandros "ruler of men" (*anax* "ruler, king" + -*andr-* (from *aner* (genitive *andros*) "man" + -os) suggest it's at least possible.
So, even if a guessed etymology "vesper + pteron + hyle +-us" that would possibly mean something like "dusk wing of the forest" may be bogus and not what the authors gave as the original derivation, it would still fit the authors' description, and could partly repair etymologically (after-the-fact) the otherwise odd combination "pteryl-" in the spelling of the name.
Another possibility (really pushing things) would be to consider the -ylus ending an obscure Greek diminutive suffix *-ylos* as in Ancient Greek *arktylos* "bear-cub" (from *arktos* "bear"). However, there is no record of "pterylos" to mean "little wing," but I suppose it could have existed after Ancient Greek combinations such as *stomylos* "chatty" (Gr. *stoma* "mouth" + -ylos).
For a discussion (in Modern Greek) of the -ylos ending in modern and ancient Greek words, see:
Maybe something can be done to fix issues with the name. I think a respelling Vesperopterylus should be authorized in ICZN terms by removing the extra r (which is a clear spelling mistake for both Latin and English) but leaving -pterylus as-is, with the possible (but not officially stated) meaning "wing of the forest."
Are such bogus etymologies for scientific names of any use or interest? In other words, are there cases of "bogus but better" etymologies where misreadings or after-the-fact reinterpretations of names are worth noting? Some possible examples come to mind...
Aviatyrannis, Saved by the Spelling
Under the ICZN rules, the original published spelling counts, not the given or assumed etymology. The spelling needs to make a name unique and meet certain grammatical requirements.
Case in point, the name Aviatyrannis...
Free link to the original paper here:
The derivation was explained as:
"Latin, avia, grandmother, and tyrannis, genitive form of tyrannus, tyrant."
There are a couple of technical grammar issues here.
First, both Greek and Latin had complicated systems of declensions for nouns (and adjectives), with three main declensions plus a few more limited ones. Each of the declensions required special endings to show what a noun did in a sentence, such as be the subject (nominative case), or a possessive (genitive case), or a direct object (accusative), etc. There were different singular and plural forms as well. Confusingly, the same spellings such -a, -i, -is, were used as endings to indicate different grammatical meanings in the three main declensions.
Greek *tyrannos* and the borrowed *tyrannus* in Latin were second declension nouns, with a genitive (possessive case) singular *tyrannou* in Greek and *tyranni* in Latin (that is, the etymology should have said "*tyranni*, genitive form of *tyrannus*").The -is ending is a genitive singular in THIRD declension Latin nouns (such as *canis* "dog," *felis* "cat," etc.), not second declension nouns ending in -us. In SECOND declension nouns in Latin, the spelling *tyrannis* would be a plural dative ("to") case or a plural ablative ("with, by") case. See:
The second problem is that, under the ICZN, generic names derived from Latin (or from fully Latinized Greek, or given a Greek or Latin ending) MUST end in a nominative case singular form.
"11.8. Genus-group names. A genus-group name (see also Article 10.3) must be a word of two or more letters and must be, or be treated as, a noun in the nominative singular."
In other words, a generic name cannot be composed so that it ends in a Latin genitive case. (Of course, a Latin genitive ending is allowed for a species name!)
Importantly in the case of Aviatyrannis, in both Greek and Latin (and later Neo-Latin), -is was often used as a nominative singular suffix ending in composing names of animals and plants. Ancient Greek *enydris* "otter" (from *en* "in + *hydros* "water") *synodontis* a fish (from *syn* "together" + *odont-* tooth), etc.; Latin *enhydris* (for a snake), *carduelis* , etc. ; modern Neo-Latin Gavialis, Podarcis, Chelonoidis, etc. In Latin, the -is could be masculine or feminine. In Greek, an -is suffix was typically feminine in animal names and would often suggest a smaller animal.
(For example, in Ancient Greek, *teuthos* was a larger type of squid than *teuthis*--so the -is ending may not be so appropriate in the Neo-Latin giant squid name (from Greek) Architeuthis "chief squid" as sometimes pointed out.)
Thus, based on spelling alone (and NOT the stated derivation), Aviatyrannis can pass ICZN muster as a Neo-Latin compound with a nominative singular ending with a feminine gender. The meaning "grandmother tyrant" remains as if formed from avia+ tyrann- + -is (nominative case singular suffix). The feminine -is ending allows the species spelling *jurassica* (originally intended to match feminine *avia*) and would even suggest a smaller animal, which would fit for a "small tyrannosauroid theropod." Leaving Latin *avia* "grandmother" as-is would be acceptable to avoid possible confusion with *avi-* from Latin *avis* "bird."
Megalania, Roamer or Ripper?
Sometimes a later false etymology can be more interesting than the original. Case in point is Richard Owen's Megalania (now a junior synonym of Varanus). Owen explained his generic name Megalania as meaning "great roamer," mainly for its limb bones, and he later added the name Meiolania as "lesser roamer" for a supposedly related, but smaller, reptile.
*Megas*, great, and *elaino*, to roam about; in reference to the terrestrial nature of the great Saurian, which was noticed under the above name in the author’s ‘ Lectures on Fossil Reptilia,’ delivered in the Theatre of the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street, ‘Synopsis,’ March 1868."
Owen, R. (1859) Description of Some Remains of a Gigantic Land-Lizard (Megalania Prisca, Owen) from Australia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 1859 149 43; DOI: 10.1098/rstl.1859.0002.
Owen later got things a bit confused when a collector in Australia provided him with what were actually parts of horned turtle skulls, but which Owen assumed belonged with his new giant lizard.
In 1886, he recognized another taxon of supposed horned saurian and named it Meiolania:
"These fossils, referable to the extinct family of horned Saurians described in former volumes of the 'Philosophical Transactions' under the generic name Megalania, form the subject of the present paper. They represent species smaller in size than Megalania prisca, Ow., and with other differential characters on which an allied genus Meiolania is founded. ... Both species, as in Megalania, are edentulous with modifications of the mouth indicative of a horny beak, as in the Chelonian order. The cranial and vertebral characters are, however, sauroid..."
Owen, Richard. 1886. Description of fossil remains of two species of a megalanian genus (Meiolania, Ow.), from Lord Howe's Island. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London XL 315-316.
The obvious etymology would be Greek *meios* "less" (for a smaller size) and *elaino* roam.
Owen, Richard. 1886. Description of fossil remains of two species of a megalanian genus (Meiolania) from "Lord Howe's Island.". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London CLXXVII 471-480, pls. XXIX-XXXII.
For a full list of Owen's papers on Megalania and Meiolania with free pdfs, see:
in 1888 Woodward revised the material and separated out what Owen had mixed together into a lizard (Megalania) and a turtle (Meiolania), citing other recent work by Huxley and Boulenger.
Woodward, A. Smith (1888)
Note on the extinct Reptilian genera Megalania, Owen, and Meiolania, Owen.
The Annals and Magazine of Natural History; Zoology, Botany, and Geology 1(6): 85--89
Owen's spellings Megalania and Meiolania make his intended etymologies fairly indecipherable without a full explanation. In Greek, *elaino* was the "epic" form of *alaino* "wander about." Owen dropped parts of the word root so that *elain-* ends up *lan-*, probably based on some obscure Greek word formation pattern.
Not surprisingly, later authors who did not have direct access to Owen's first description misread the etymology and recognized in *lania* a feminine form of Latin *lanius* "butcher" as in the shrike "butcher bird" genus Lanius (from Latin *lanio* "cut up, rip apart"), which seemed to fit with a giant predatory lizard (not so much for a lumbering, heavily armored turtle). In popular usage, Megalania gained the names "giant butcher," and then "great ripper," after the supposed etymology from *lanius*.
The meaning "giant butcher" for Megalania shows up in popular sources as least as early as the first decade of the 20th century, such as in the 1910 English Mechanic and World of Science 91 (2364): 533
"Megalania prisca (great butcher of olden times)"
The 1915 popular geology book by J. W. Gregory, Geology of To-Day, states on page 250:
"The largest of the lizards, Megalania (Gr., megas, big; and Lat. , lanius, a butcher), was about thirty feet long..."
This bogus etymology was pointed out in a book review in the technical journal Geological Magazine (pg 82) in 1916, which noted the original derivation from *elaino* "I roam":
However, in popular circles it appears, Megalania became the great-big-giant "butcher."
When exactly "great ripper" or "giant ripper lizard" became the preferred "etymology" for Megalania over "giant butcher" is not completely clear to me at the moment--probably in the 1970s. The meanings "great butcher" and "giant butcher" still show up in popular books. In any case, as nicknames, "great ripper" and "giant ripper lizard" have taken on a life of their own, Owen's original intended etymology aside.
(It should be pointed out that Owen was usually a stickler for not mixing Greek and Latin (considered bad nomenclatural form at the time), so if he had wanted an all-Latin meaning "great butcher" or "great ripper," he could have used "Magnilania" (from Latin *magnus* "great")--in other words, it's VERY unlikely that he intended a double reading of the name "great roamer" AND "great ripper" based on Greek and on Latin)
The true etymological history of the name Megalania aside, using Latin *lania* in a name to indicate a predatory animal is no problem and can be completely unrelated to the name Megalania.
The names Nanolania and Lanthanolania were explained as "dwarf butcher" and "forgotten butcher" based on Latin *lanius.*
Nanolania "dwarf butcher"
Adam M. Yates (2000) A New Tiny Rhytidosteid (Temnospondyli: Stereospondyli) from the Early Triassic of Australia and the Possibility of Hidden Temnospondyl Diversity. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 20(3): 484-489
Lantholania "forgotten butcher"
S. P. Modesto and R. R. Reisz (2002) An Enigmatic New Diapsid Reptile from the Upper Permian of Eastern Europe. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22(4):851-855
Where the use of " -lania" gets a bit messy is when it's used like a suffix to indicate members of the turtle group Meiolaniidae. Since Owen clearly based the name Meiolania on his earlier name Megalania, intending a contrast based on size, his derivation from *elaino* "roam" applies even if he did not state the source.
Ameghino (1899) named a relative from the Eocene of Argentina Niolamia, formed as an anagram of the revised respelling "Miolania," switching the m and the n (and avoiding the etymology issue).
Ameghino, F. 1899. Sinopsis geológico-paleontológica, in : Segundo Censo Nacional de la República Argentina, vol 1, pag. 111-225 with 105 figuras, Buenos Aires, 1898, Suplemento (adiciones V Correcciones), July 1899, La Plata, 1899.
Things get more complicated with the name Warkalania Gaffney & White, 1992.
"Etymology. Warka, Queensland aboriginal for turtle; lania, in reference to the usual endings for meiolaniids (Lanius is Latin for "butcher" but Owen (1886b) gave no indication of an etymology when he erected Meiolania)."
Gaffney ES, Archer M, White A. 1992. Warkalania, a new meiolaniid turtle from the Tertiary Riversleigh deposit of Queensland, Australia. The Beagle, Records of the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences 9: 35–48.
Free pdf here:
However, in their description of the new genus Gaffneylania in 2015, the authors state, regarding the derivation:
"Gaffneylania gen. nov.
Derivatio nominis: Gaffney, named after Dr Eugene S. Gaffney in recognition of his enormous contribution in the understanding of the anatomy and phylogeny of turtles and especially for his work on meiolaniids. The etymology for lania is confusing. Originally, Owen (1858) described the first remains of meiolaniids as belonging to the land lizard Megalania priscaOwen, 1858. He provided the etymology of Megalania as: Mega, from the Greek word for great (Μέγας) and lania from the ancient Greek word from ‘to roam about’ (ήλaίνω). Later, Gaffney et al. (1992) concluded that lania comes from the Latin lanius that means ‘butcher’. In this case, we follow Owen (1858)."
J. Sterli, M. S. de la Fuente, and J. M. Krause (2015). A new turtle from the Palaeogene of Patagonia (Argentina) sheds new light on the diversity and evolution of the bizarre clade of horned turtles (Meiolaniidae, Testudinata). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 174: 519-548 doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/zoj.12252
Free pdf here:
So officially (based on the original descriptions and stated etymologies), the "lania" in Warkalania means "butcher" but means "roamer" in the names Meiolania and Gaffneylania!
For more info on Megalania, see:
Australia’s Giant, Venomous Lizard Gets Downsized
Molnar, Ralph E. (2004) Dragons in the Dust: The Paleobiology of the Giant Monitor Lizard Megalania Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 210
SIDE NOTE: On an historical note, at one point Owen created a special taxonomic group for both Megalania and Meiolania, which he called Ceratosauria "horned saurians" and which supposedly combined features of both turtles and "saurians."
"a distinct Reptilian sub-order, for which I venture to propose the name Ceratosauria" (pg. 189)
Owen, Richard. 1888. On parts of the skeleton of Meiolania platyceps (Ow.). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London CLXXIX (B) 181-191, pls. XXXI-XXXVII.
Of course, the name Ceratosauria Owen, 1888 is preoccupied by Ceratosauria Marsh, 1884 (for a group of theropods), and was a misbegotten taxonomic concept in the first place.
In fact, Owen (famous for Dinosauria, Sauropterygia, etc.) created a host of now forgotten taxonomic groups. One I came across recently explains a mystery in a post I did last year about Cope's Permian vertebrates from Texas.
DECODING COPE'S TEXAS TAXA: Eryops and Dimetrodon natalis
Theromorpha Cope, 1878 (non Theriomorpha Owen, 1866)
Cope (1889) stated in a footnote that his name Theromorpha [for protomammal synapsids] was preoccupied, without citing the supposed earlier use of the name, and replaced it with Theromora Cope, 1889. Williston later alleged that there was no earlier ordinal usage of the name and restored Cope original form of the name Theromorpha. I assumed Williston was correct in my original post and suggested Cope might have been thinking of the old medical term "theromorphia."
Cope, E. D. 1889. Batrachia of North America. (pg. 13)
After more research, I think Richard Owen's obscure higher category name Theriomorpha (similar etymology, one letter difference) is almost certainly what Cope was referring to:
Theriomorpha Owen, 1866 (pg. 15) [for tailless amphibians (frogs)]
Owen, R. (1866) On the Anatomy of Vertebrates: Fishes and Reptiles. Longmans, Green, & Company, London
Also, many (belated) thanks to David Marjanovic for his useful comments and corrections for the post:
In a missed editing error, I had put Cope's name *Lysorophus* under "reptilomorphs" instead of under "lepospondyls." Many thanks for catching this flub. However, it's recently been proposed that lysorophids and most other "lepospondyls" may be amniotes, so my lapsus might not be quite so far off the mark as it appeared!