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Dinosaurs Max's Random Ramblings The History of Paleontology

The First Dinosaur was Named What now?

While today we recognize fossils as the remains of extinct animals, our ancestors weren’t so observant. This led to a few… peculiar name choices, including that of the first known dinosaur fossil…

The first scientific name attributed to a dinosaur is, technically, Scrotum.

No, you did not read that wrong.

Here’s the story.

The year is 1677. Western civilization, while far more advanced than in the centuries prior, is still rather clueless in terms of general scientific knowledge. Over half the population was illiterate and basic biological concepts such as evolution and extinction would not be theorized until over a century later. What little understanding people did have of the world came from the Catholic Church, whose teachings, which included that the world was only a few thousand years old and that the earth was the center of the universe, were… shall we say dated. Most importantly, nobody knew what a Dinosaur was – nor would they for the next 165 odd years.

So, when massive bones were unearthed across the globe, humanity had no idea what to make of them. Some societies crafted myths and legends to make sense of these oddities, such as Chinese dragons or the Greek Cyclops (perhaps inspired by dwarf elephant skulls). Others used pre-existing myths to explain these fossils; the idea that the bones belonged to Biblical giants was an ever-popular theory in Christian Europe. Recollections of “giant bones” appear in medieval literature with some regularity, albeit with unclear descriptions and no illustrations that have left paleontologists clueless as to what animals the remains could have belonged to.

This lack of adequate depiction changed in 1677 with Robert Plot’s book The Natural History of Oxfordshire. While the book focused on the flora and fauna of the Oxfordshire county of central England, there are a few exceptions – most notably the description and illustration of a massive, fossilized thighbone. The size of the bone led Plot to two conclusions. First, he theorized that the bone had belonged to an elephant, specifically one utilized by the Roman armies in their conquests of England. His other guess was that it was another one of those pesky old giant bones, straight out of the Old Testament. In the end, Plot favoured the giant bone theory and included it within the book alongside the first illustration of a dinosaur.

Unfortunately for the fossil, its shape is rather… unconventional. More than half the bone is missing, with only the lower extremity (joint) of the femur being present. For those unfamiliar with anatomy, the lower end of the femur ends in two circular structures, the lateral and medial condyle. To the untrained eye, these two circular structures take the shape of… (sigh) human testicles, a fact that did not go unnoticed by English physician Richard Brookes in 1763. After examining Plot’s illustration, Brookes chose to re-publish the fossil using the modern binomial naming system under the name “Scrotum Humanum.” How ironic is that a man named “Richard” would choose to call the giant fossils Scrotum? Truly a match made in immature 12-year-old heaven (or immature 18-year-old in my case).

If the first dinosaur was named Scrotum, then why isn’t the first dinosaur and subsequently the entire field of paleontology deemed a massive joke? Luckily for paleontology, there were a few issues associated with the naming of Scrotum. First, its name was published as a caption of the illustration and not in a formal piece of literature. Second, the caption came without any form of formal description of the fossil material. Lastly, the fossil was lost to time and paleontologists cannot confidently say which species it belonged to, though it probably belonged to a theropod along the lines of Megalosaurus. These reasons were enough for the International Commission of Zoological Naming to deem it invalid in the late 20th century, thus ending the legend of Scrotum Humanum.

Presently, it is a well-known fact that the first named dinosaur species is the theropod Megalosaurus bucklandii, named in 1824 by British theologian William Buckland. While Megalosaurus is a pretty good (albeit overused) name, it will never be as NUTS as Scrotum Humanum.

Works Cited:

I do not take credit for any images found in this article.

Cyclops next to an elephant skull found here

Old School Megalosaurus found here

Scrotum Humanum found here

Prothero, Donald R. Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them. Columbia University Press, 2021.

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