When I was a lowly freshman hanging around the Yale Peabody Museum, one mind-opening surprise was the unrestrained joy of paleontological language. I’d been a dino-geek since the fourth grade. I knew a dozen duck-billed dinosaurs by name — their technical names. I’d met Corythosaurus casuararius and Saurolophus osborni face-to-face in the exhibit halls of the New York museum.
But real-life paleontologists in the Yale lab addressed their favorite fossils as if they were family pets. The great Tyrannosaurus rex had been known as “that big bug” since 1909. The Montana canyon where the finest rex had been dug was “Bug Creek.” And the whole slice of geological time recorded by the rocks there had become the “Bug Creekian Age.”
The term “bug” was a term of paleontological endearment. Tiny, microscopic fossils were “bugs.” The paleo folks squinting down their microscopes searching for single-celled fossils said they were searching for “my beloved Early Paleocene bugs.” Field expeditions looking for tiny Jurassic mammals spoke of “furry bug jaws,” a.k.a. the dentigerous rami from Paurodon, Docodon, and Ctenacodon.
Gigantic species, too, were encompassed by the affectionate buggy label.
Trilobite specialists — and I have met many — always smiled when they showed us students an especially ornate Devonian phacopidan: ”Check out this elegant bug,” they’d say. Trilobites with smooth, streamlined shells — adaptations for burrowing through the sediment — invariably were “mud-bugs.”
“Puppy” was popular for Mammalia of gargantuan sizes. The immense, multi-ton Eobasileus cornutus, an herbivore with six horns and giant saber-teeth, was “that bumpy-headed puppy.” Even cold-blooded Amphibia could enter that category. When we moved a cast replica of the Triassic Mastodonsaurus, with its yard-long skull, we were cautioned to be especially careful with that “monstrous puppy.”
The term “Dinosaur” was an honorific as well as a narrowly defined taxonomic category. Any fossil that evoked the mystery of the Deep Past could be an “honorary dinosaur.” Mastodons and mammoths, saber-toothed cats and fin-backed Dimetrodons were all included in the “dinosaur exhibit.” Trilobites, because they were so captivating, were honorary “dinosaur-bugs.”
The labels in our new HMNS fossil hall follow the paleontological tradition of using both technical and affectionate terms. The free app, which be available soon, will give even more scientific data, plus stories from the scientists. Our superb skeleton of an Early Permian lake amphibian is labeled as an Early Permian archegosaurid. But it also goes by the nickname bestowed by the collection-management crew when the crate was opened — “Happy Puppy.”
The breathtaking sea reptile with seven unborn embryos is described in the signage as “Stenopterygius from the Toarcian Age of the Early Jurassic.” And also as “Jurassic Mom.”
Our HMNS trilobite display is among the very best in the world. All our many trilobites are identified by genus and species, family and geological age. There’s a compact but precise scientific family tree of all trilobites, showing their Darwinian booms and the puzzling busts of extinction. But, since we are very fond of every single trilobite specimen, we are are quite happy to call them “bugs,” too.
The only way to experience the joy of paleo-nomenclature in all its multi-levels is to visit our hall, stroll past the petrified bugs, puppies and mini-monsters, and thereby absorb the wonder of the Deep Past.