Why Laelaps?

20 04 2007

Every time I mention the name of my blog to friends or acquaintances, I usually get a response similar to “Laelaps? What’s that?” It’s an odd term to be sure, not one that you’re likely to be familiar with unless you know your paleontology or Greek mythology, so I thought I would shed a little light on the name and why I used it here.

While you might think you have no idea what Laelaps means, I’m fairly certain you’re already familiar with it. Here’s a painting by celebrated artist Charles R. Knight that may jog your memory;


You see, Laelaps used to be the genus name for the late Cretaceous Dryptosaurus aquilunguis, a member of the Superfamily Tyrannosauroidea and known from a few locations in New Jersey. Why the name change? Parts of a skeleton were found by Edward Drinker Cope in 1866 and named Laelaps, but Cope’s rival O.C. Marsh pointed out that the name was already taken, belonging to a kind of mite. Thus, in 1877, the genus name was changed to Dryptosaurus.

Despite the name change, this “primitive” tyrannosaur had a significant role to play in how we look at dinosaurs. While many of Knight’s paintings feature drab and apparently sluggish dinosaurs, his rendering of two Laelaps in combat is so striking that it is still a very popular image (the “leaping Laelaps” is one the cover of Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack, for example), and the painting was very progressive for its time. Indeed, the skeletal structure of this dinosaur inspired Cope to ponder the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, the prominent paleontologist envisioning Laelaps being active and jumping on unsuspecting prey due to its unusual foot/ankle structure. Cope’s ideas (and those of others who suspected a dinosaur-bird link) were lost for a time, but were eventually reinvigorated by Ostrom’s discovery of Deinonychus decades later. Still, Cope and others were pondering what we can plainly see now, even though it’s not always easy to determine these ideas from the artwork of the time. For the sake of completeness Cope’s rendition of Laelaps should also be included, even though it isn’t quite as striking as Knight’s;

Cope's Laelaps

The choice of the name Laelaps based upon a myth of a dog that always caught its quarry is a bit ironic; all we have of the dinosaur now-known as Dryptosaurus are fragments. I intend on visiting Big Brook this summer in order to look for some bits of this ancient predator, but I won’t hold out hope; what has been found is very rare and fragmentary, every bit of tooth or bone the rocks give up being cause for celebration. Even so, I picked the name because it represents a striking image of a swift, powerful Cretaceous predator from my own state that remains elusive, one that I have to become better acquainted with in the future.



19 responses

30 04 2007

[…] The back cover, however, revealed the answer; the painting is supposed to be of a male and female Dryptosaurus […]

8 07 2007

I thought they changed the name because Laelaps was taken by a dragonfly…
And is this the same mythical Laelaps whom its owner sicced on a legendary vixen that always escaped any dog that hunted it, only to have the Gods solve this paradox by turning both to stone?

8 07 2007

Stanton; every reference I’ve seen to the name change has said that the Laelaps with priority was a mite, a definite tragedy (at least to me). And yes, the name is derived from the dog that always caught what it hunted, except the fox that couldn’t be caught.

8 07 2007

A mite?
Well, that’s, uh, pathetic…

12 08 2007
Mike Haubrich, FCD

Maybe you could get the owner of the Nets to change the name of the team to Laelaps, for some local pride. Kind of like the Nashville Predators being named after smilodon but scarier.

And Laelaps sounds a little like “layups.”

12 08 2007
Christopher Taylor

Mites? Pathetic? Be blody careful – if the mites hear you saying that, there’s no end to the unspeakable things they could do to you in vengeance. And the bloodsucker Laelaps may just be at the forefront of the attack.

21 08 2007

so basically I am biology-stupid. is there some sort of classification “rule” against naming two different organism groups the same thing, as with genus(s) Laelaps? what about JUST the species name? are identical species names for different organisms unheard of (excluding the genus initial as part of the species name)?

21 08 2007

Brennon, it’s not a stupid question; there are lots of specific rules about naming. Scientific names are in place so that scientists all over the world can make sure they’re calling the species by the same name (i.e. I might say groundhog, you might say woodchuck, and someone else might say whistlepig, but the scientific name for the animal is Marmota monax). Because of this no two unrelated animals can have the same genus name, so that’s why Laelaps can’t be given to a mite and a dinosaur; it would only cause confusion. Species names can be “repeated” because they’re directly attached to the genus name, just like our first and last names. If someone was looking for me and just said they were looking for a “Brian” for example, they’d have to weed through lots of people with that name before finding me. If they asked for my proper name, Brian Switek, however they’d find me pretty fast because it’s specific. Also, once a genus name has been proposed and discarded it can’t be used again so there isn’t confusion> Brontosaurus can’t be used again, for example, because it was found that the real animal was already named Apatosaurus, and if someone named a new dinosaur Brontosaurus it’d cause a lot of confusion (which dinosaur is being referred to? the new one or the old one?). There’s an entire group that concerns themselves with these complicated rules, but in essence, genus names can’t be used over and over because they’re pretty specific in terms of the animals being discussed, and re-using them would cause a bit mess when someone wanted to talk about one kind of animal or another.

22 08 2007

Hey thanks. The only reason I ask is that I’ve come across a type of extinct rugose coral, Grewingkia canadensis, and a species of crane, Grus canadensis, obviously with the same species name… and also the same genus initial….

22 08 2007
Christopher Taylor

Same species, different genus is not a problem. Two minutes googling would probably find you many more examples. It’s only genera and family names that have to be unique. (There is one exception to this – because plants and animals are covered by separate codes of nomenclature, it is possible for the same genus name to be used in both codes. So Dryas is both a herb and a butterfly, while Prunella is both a member of the mint family and a bird.)

Classical mythology was a popular source of names in the early days of formal taxonomy, so most classical names were snapped up pretty quickly, usually with only the barest of connections between the classical figure and the organism named after it. My favourite story, admittedly apocryphal, is about the marine worm named Aphrodite by Linnaeus. How did the name of the Goddess of Love get attached to a small invertebrate? Well, a common name for Aphrodite the worm in a number of European languages is “sea mouse”, and apparently in Sweden in Linnaeus’ time “mouse” was a rather vulgar term for a woman’s intimate parts. Linnaeus was by no means above such vulgarities.

14 09 2007
Torbjörn Larsson, OM

OT, but the slang “mus” (mouse) goes back prior to Linnaeus? Go figure. It is still common, especially among women I believe. (Which I think is rather cute.)

Anyhow, in the infant days of computers it was a source of many jokes. 🙂

29 10 2008

RE: unique family/genus vs. species

Yes… take Tarantulas as an example. I swear there must be only 2 or 3 people out there studying/naming them. Half of them have a species name of “schmiti.” 😉 (Yes, I exaggerate.)

19 07 2010
Rick Logan

I found your essay interesting.So atmospheric conditions used to be different and the why some dinosaurs could function.
If I ever finish my website I want to include this.But I don’t want to give the impression that only Creationists are into this if it ain’t so.So far you are the only source I have found that seems to take the Evolutionist side,and believes environmental conditions vary widely over time.I need more examples and sources.Can you help me?
Thank you for your time.

31 10 2010

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26 07 2013

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Why Laelaps? | Laelaps

24 10 2014


Why Laelaps? | Laelaps

30 09 2019

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