Nasa / Space

Geek Trivia: Quite a tail to tell

What famous comic strip is responsible for coining the word <em>thagomizer</em>, which has since become the accepted scientific term for the spikes at the end of a Stegosaurus' tail?
Editor's note: The Trivia Geek decided to take off Presidents' Day, so he's used his executive authority to resurrect this Classic Geek, which originally ran on Aug. 15, 2006, from the archives. Look for fresh Geek Trivia on Feb. 26, 2008.

If someone were to compile a list of the most recognizable species of dinosaurs, it's a fair bet that the Stegosaurus would make the top five. Even though the original Jurassic Park film snubbed the mighty Stegosaurus -- a scenery-chewing CGI Triceratops supplanted its role in the Michael Crichton novel -- there are still plenty of closet dino-philes who could readily identify this thunder lizard by virtue of its distinctive dorsal plates.

Ask the average Jane or Joe what those dorsal plates were for, however, and it's unlikely you'll get a coherent or correct answer. Of course, a paleontologist probably couldn't do much better -- that's because the exact form and function of the Stegosaurus' most distinctive physical feature is still a topic of passionately unsettled scientific debate.

Unlike what untold number of Godzilla movies may have led you to believe, a Stegosaurus' plates were not exposed bits of razor-sharp bone designed to fend off the predations of the nearest Tyrannosaurus Rex -- several million years actually separated the two species. While possessing a bone core that survives in the fossil records, stegosaur plates were actually much more similar to the spines and ridges found on the backs of contemporary crocodiles -- covered in scaly hide and containing circulatory vessels.

Given these characteristics, the plates would have been far too sensitive and fragile to serve any serious defensive purposes. Instead, paleontologists are left to wonder whether the Stegosaurus employed these rather specialized physical features for one of the following purposes:

  • Regulating body temperatures by cooling the blood along the exposed area of the thin plates
  • Increasing the apparent size of the Stegosaurus -- thus intimidating predators -- without a significant increase in body mass
  • Serving as a means of identification -- either between species, herds, or prospective mates

Dorsal plates aren't the only part of the Stegosaurus anatomy that have troubled paleontologists. The spikes on the end of the Stegosaurus' tail -- known as the thagomizer -- also serve an uncertain function. Of course, the general public makes many of the same assumptions about the tail spikes as they do the dorsal fins -- that they existed for some martial purpose.

That assumption goes a long way toward explaining where the thagomizer got its name -- from a famous comic strip that riffed on the "deadly" nature of the Stegosaurus' tail spikes and thus coined the accepted scientific term for the dinosaur's anatomical feature.

WHAT FAMOUS COMIC STRIP GETS CREDIT FOR COINING THAGOMIZER, THE ACCEPTED SCIENTIFIC NAME FOR THE SPIKES ON A STEGOSAURUS' TAIL?

Get the answer.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

41 comments
bladedragonlord
bladedragonlord

Forgive me, I'm not entirely sure what you mean, could you explain more clearly?

santeewelding
santeewelding

You expend 10 paragraphs. In the seventh -- "I can't share" -- you close off your world of God. In the eighth, what is the point of asking, your having closed the door, removing your system from scrutiny? And in the ninth, "open" does not comport with closure, nor does "point of view" with God. Yours are tracings. I see how in their spareness they may frustrate your meaning, given the enormity of the task.

ozi Eagle
ozi Eagle

You mentioned that there were three suggestions as to the function of Stegs plates. I had come across another thought that the plates were there to collect early morning heat from the sun, so that Steg would be active before predators. I presume that this is based on the hypothesis ( unproven theory ) that Steg was reptile like and became somnulent at night. Herb

RealGem
RealGem

Good Geek Trivia. I just wanted to offer a small objection to your use of the term thunder lizard. The work dinosaur actually means "terrible lizard" and covers all dinosaurs. Thunder lizard is a literal translation of Brontosaurus, and just refers to the one genus. And, the term Brontosaurus has fallen out of favour, deprecated even, and is now just called Apatosaurus.

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

I don't want to start a flame war with this, but I find it a little bit disappointing that you present a gap of millions of years between the T'rex and the Stegosaurus as fact. This is no conclusive scientific proof for the earth even being millions of years old, so a gap between these two species wouldn't be possible. I personal believe that it would have been more correct for you to say "we think there might have been a gap of millions of years" or "some people believe...". I respect your opinion and enjoy reading your articles, but I just felt that I had to bring this up. For the record I am a christian and a creationist and would be delighted to talk with others about this subject if they want.

jgaskell
jgaskell

I actually feel sorry for Robby-rice, as you are presumably a product of your environment. It is actually quite sad and shows just how far we have to go. I prescribe a course of Richard Dawkins books immediately.

coderancher
coderancher

The evolution vs. creation debate aside, I find it disappointing that there people who still hold on to medieval myths about the age of the earth and/or universe in spite of logic and evidence. The belief that the earth and universe are at least millions if not billions of years old is far more consistent with what we know now from physics, chemistry, and geology than the belief that they are a few thousand years old. Even if one were to assume everything in the Christian Bible to be fact, there is still no evidence in it for the earth or universe being only a few thousand years old. Show me the verse that says how long ago God created the earth or universe then maybe I will reconsider my beliefs.

Fimbulwinter
Fimbulwinter

rice - Please explain how a computer works in your best literal explanation?

VirtualGardener
VirtualGardener

First, would you agree that the Speed of light is constant? Second, how is it then possible for me to see the light emitted from a star that is millions of light years away? Did your god create the universe with everything already fully formed and the light that it emits already on it's way to us? Seems like an aweful lot of trouble for something so silly. The simplest answer is usually the correct one. Seems to me that your argument is based on belief. You choose to believe in creationism, because of personal faith. You have also chosen to DIS-believe any evidence that goes against your faith. That is your choice, but it does not invalidate the enormous amounts of PROOF that you are incorrect. Denying that this proof exists, does not make it true. Leaving out all the evolution stuff, explain the cosmos to me. The universe is much larger than the little dust ball upon which we currently reside. Need proof? Look up at the stars.

Bee Jay
Bee Jay

We all know the world is flat and is carried around on the back of a giant tortoise...

DNSB
DNSB

The world is indeed flat and carried on the back of a giant tortoise. However, you failed to acknowledge the existence of the 4 elephants who stand on the tortoise's back and on whose backs the world rests. By Imbal's brazen pizzle, the sheer audacity of the elephant denier is not be believed!

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

The Scummy Religion is the one to be in. All Hail The Scummy One! :^0 :^0

DNSB
DNSB

I had to disagree with someone with your choice in nom-de-plumes but you're wrong on both counts. It's not global warming, it's global cooling and it's not the decline in the number of pirates, it's the decline in the number of Norse raiders. You will have noticed that since the Vikings stopped roaming the seas, Greenland, as an example, has frozen over and the average temperature has dropped like a paralyzed falcon. Bring back those Norsemen and get the world back to those warm temperatures of 1000 AD. If I am wrong, may Thr?d twist my head off!

Fimbulwinter
Fimbulwinter

The correct answer is The Church of the FSM. If any of you doubt this I ask you this. Since the decline in number of pirates world wide has not global warming increased? The world needs more priates to negate this impending global tragedy.

RealGem
RealGem

If there's no evidence for evolution, which is not true but let's pretend that it is, then there's also no evidence for creationism or intelligent design. End of debate, believe what you want, and leave the rest of us alone.

TechInsider
TechInsider

He's just quoting "Christian Science". It's not like it really means anything. It's just a security blanket for educated, conservative Christians. Read one of the Christ-Sci mags one day, and you'll see what I mean. If you have any kind of hard-science education (like basic college physics), it'll leave you feeling dirty, like you've been injected w/ some kind of horrible sci-propaganda. Christian Science is kind of like real science, except that instead of making educated, secular people happy with flowing logical answers to tough questions, Christian Science only provides 'answers' to Christians willing to suspend belief in what their senses often say cannot be true... The Christian Scientists ultimately call those contradictions of evidence "Faith". He'll follow up by misusing the common english use of the word 'theory', in the context of a scientific discussion of well-written and debated Theories (you know, like Gravity, Relativity, and other working Theories of how the universe works). Hell, even humans show obvious signs of evolution. How many races (mid-evolution sub-species)of human are there now? Like 20? We should have just kept the discussion focused on Gary Larson =/

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

There have been many pieces of so called "evidence" that have been brought forth to try and prove the theory of evolution. However, nothing conclusive and undeniable has ever been presented. On the other hand, I will admit that creationism remains a theory (albeit with a much surer foundation than evolution) because it cannot be proven by scientific methods alone. It takes faith, just as believing in evolution takes faith because nobody (other than God himself) was there at the beginning.

RealGem
RealGem

Evolution = mutation + natural selection. That's all that evolution is. There is ample evidence of both mutuation and NS. Mutation is random, but natural selection culls out the disadvantageous mutations. You can deny it, but you'd be lying to yourself. Evolution over a long timescale is the sum of a series of small evolutions. If you can accept short-term evolution, then long-term evolution is THE logical conclusion. Our knowledge of the fossil record is just at the earliest stages. More fossils are discovered all the time. As the fossils accumulate, the flow of evolution will become even more apparent than it already is.

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

You can believe something to be a true fact, and find out that it is actually false. I don't state the creation model as a fact because once again it can't be proven. You certainly have the right to your beliefs, but until they are confirmed as fact (and neither evolution nor creation has been yet) you cannot present them as such. I have nothing against your beliefs, as I mentioned already, but we cannot be dogmatic scientifically in this area of the origin of the universe.

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

"Other people choose to exercise their faith and believe in evolution. I have no problem with that." "All I want is for the facts to be stated correctly, and saying that millions of years of years separated some dinosaurs is a fact, is simply not true." These two statements are in conflict with each other. I personally believe 'millions of years' to be fact, and as you stated, you should have no problem with that belief. For you to state that "millions of years...is simply not true" conflicts with your statement that I have the right to my beliefs. Not only that, but several sound, scientific methods have been used to support my beliefs - you have, essentially, one 'test' supporting yours.

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

Both creation and evolution require faith to accept them. I choose the exercise my faith and believe in creation. Other people choose to exercise their faith and believe in evolution. I have no problem with that. Where the problem comes in, is when things that are not fact (the original reference to millions of years) are presented as such. My goal is not to convince everybody that I am right (I may not be). All I want is for the facts to be stated correctly, and saying that millions of years of years separated some dinosaurs is a fact, is simply not true.

Iam_Mordac
Iam_Mordac

"On the other hand, I will admit that creationism remains a theory (albeit with a much surer foundation than evolution) because it cannot be proven by scientific methods alone." So something that cannot be proven, PERIOD, has a "surer foundation" in fact?!? So tell us, what day did DOG create the fossils?

padraig1
padraig1

"End of debate, believe what you want, and leave the rest of us alone." Translation:"Lalalalalalalala-don't want to hear it-lalalalala" Here's a shift in your paradigm - there IS no "Evidence" for evolution either. There has not been a single species that has been observed to "evolve" into another species, it is still called the "THEORY of Evolution" for a reason. Even Darwin didn't believe in Evolution as most people talk about it in modern times. But thank you for playing anyway.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Your gentle deportment takes us nevertheless to a "where."

RealGem
RealGem

I'm not going to shake your faith, nor am I trying to. Faith is one of those things that, like you have done, leads you to believe that everything worked out just the way you wanted simply because you wanted it that way. It must have, otherwise your faith would be wrong. That's why my original post was "leave it alone" ... I could foresee that this would degenerate into yet another faith/science debate that would go nowhere.

santeewelding
santeewelding

I am stopped by the bar you raise in your otherwise accommodating and adept explanations. Can you see it?

bladedragonlord
bladedragonlord

I totally agree, a world wide flood is going to be noted by other cultures / races. God predates the Hebrews too! Can we say for certain that this was 'borrowed' or the telling of the same same story by another culture / racial group? Interesting things with names, Persia is a good one, it's had some many names it's almost not funny. However these names derived from different cultures and language groups, both talking about the same place. Noah or Gilgamesh indeed, both one in the same man!? I'm not a scared Christian, I can't see the point in just saying I have to take that by faith. Yes, my relationship with God the Father, is faith based and that again is based on personal experience, which I can't share with people in a way that would make it personal to them, you have to experience it for yourself. However if my belief system, based on what I believe to be the Word Of God the Bible, can't stand up to scrutiny then what is the point of my faith in the first place? I don't have all the answers, however I can look at the questions with an open mind, even if from a certain point of view and we all do that! Anyway thanks for your post! :)

Kassandra_Fl
Kassandra_Fl

There are older tellings of the flood. The Sumerians who predated the Hebrews had a tale of the flood. Much research is showing that much of the Old Testatment was 'borrowed' from older cultures.

bladedragonlord
bladedragonlord

The Bible says that God called 2 of all the kinds of "creatures" to the Ark, that's important, that means God knew that these were going to be the what I believe were the proto parents of creatures we see today. I'll get back that in a minute. Second, God knew that man would struggle in a world filled with monsters, so he chose the creatures that would be suitable for the ecosystems of today. See I start with the assumption that God is in fact God, He knows all things, He sees all things, He is the creator of all things! He sees time like a stick, he sees both ends, how it started for us and how it will end for us. The book of Revelation in the Bible isn't called the book of prediction it's called the Revelation, these things have been Revealed to the writer by God himself. God sees the end of time. All todays dogs are known to come from some form of wolf, yet we have sausage dogs and we have german shepards, 2 very different dogs, but from the same progenitor of animal. Why not all of today's animals? Did God chose those animals that went on the ark so that we have balanced ecosystems? I think so! Dinosaurs, which I also think are awesome, were perfect in a Perfect Earth, before the fall of mankind, before sin affected them (the Bible states that our sin affected the animals) animals that once ate plant matter, now eat meat, they kill. Huge amazing creatures, a testiment to God's creation are now Monsters, probably why no dinosaurs after the flood! Is God a fool? Certainly not! God planned this, I really don't think, God brought 2 of every kind of creature onto the Ark, and went, "Oh dear they are eating one another! Didn't think of that one!", we have to assume if the Bible is truly the word of God, that God had planned this He knew the beginning and the end of this part of the story. We aren't told why they didn't eat each other and I don't believe we are told what the food stores where brought onto the Ark, but there are some interesting thoughts out there about this, possibly God made them fall into a sleep, a slowing of metabolism, or did God chose creatures that had great temperaments, but I can't state either as fact, even from a Bibicial perspective, I just don't know. I was a little annoyed at a statement I saw on this section though, it was something along the lines of why are Christians talking in a science forum. Well at least from my point of view, my God created the Laws of Physics, so why can't I be interested in science, why do they have to mutually exclusive? I know this is long... but let me finish on this. If you were making a huge project and everything about it was bad, nothing fitted right, the glue didn't stick, even if one piece was perfect extactly how you wanted it, wouldn't you scrap the whole thing and start again? God didn't destroy everything for one reason, God wanted to have a relationship with one man Noah, and Noah wanted to have a relationship with God, he obeyed God and built this nuts idea of an Ark, as proof that Noah was going to believe and follow what his God had said. God saved Noah because He loved him. God loves you and wants to have a relationship with you. We were created for a relationship with God, admittedly it's a choice. So accept the work of Jesus Christ, when He died for your sins that seperates you from your Heavenly Father and start living that relationship with God today! Funny thing about us Christians, why do we promote it? There must be something in it, you can find out for yourself!

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

I wouldn't exactly call Trivia-Geek a science based website, not when possible topics include Star Trek characters and other non-science subjects.

RealGem
RealGem

I certainly didn't meant to offend. I was simply trying to stem the debate that was sure to follow Rice's provocative statement. Posting religious opinion on a science-based site is a bit troll-like. But, since everyone's going full-tilt anyway, I'll chime in with this one: why didn't Noah save the dinos too? Noah gathered up all the animals two by two ... no mention of any exceptions. How could the dinos have died in the flood if Noah was going to save them? Also, if animals as amazing as dinosaurs were around before Noah, it's odd that they get no mention. Genesis only mentions cattle and snakes. By the way, with millions of species on the earth, including the crawling insects, how do you get them into a three-story wooden boat with enough food to last for 150 days? Just doesn't work, in my mind. Top predators eat a lot of meat - how would they keep it fresh for 150 days to feed the lions and tigers? Oh my. By the way, Gary Larson had one for this: the predators on the ark ate the unicorns ... that's why we don't have any today.

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

I'll do some googling myself and see what I come up with.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

but it was all based on memory from over 15 years ago. Here are a few links. Not really what I was looking for but interesting anyway http://news.mongabay.com/2005/1205-diversity.html http://www.geocities.com/we_evolve/Plants/resistance.ht ml http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/07/072 7_050727_evolution.html But, a good example would be the tolerances built up for pesticides. After a few generations, many insects become immune to pesticides that are used continually. Also to mention about plants, I have crossed many plants (easily) to create hybrids, and this is common. In fact, not even trying, just putting several plants that flower at the same time (or near) can produce hybrids of the 2, just from the birds and bees.

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

would you mind providing some links for what you mentioned. I would be more than happy to research this because it is something that I hadn't heard about before.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

"There has not been a single species that has been observed to "evolve" into another species" Back in the 90's in the rainforests, when certain blocks were cut through, the insects habitat was ruined and they 'evolved'. At the time there were dozens of new insects discovered each week after a few weeks of cutting an area down. If that is not an example of possible of evolution, what are you looking for?

dcawley
dcawley

Fitting that Copernicus's birthday was yesterday. He was the first to postulate that the earth was not the center of the universe and it orbited the sun. However he only got it partially correct in that he proposed the sun was the center.

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

Thank you for a very clear, polite, and thought out response. I respect your position, and I am thankful that you respect mine. It is true that I accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. However, that doesn't mean it is the only source for my beliefs. You are right, this is something that will not be resolved in our lifetime because each person has to be convinced of what he believes to be truth. I completely agree that God gave us our minds so that we can think rationally and logically about ourselves and the world around us. Man is a rational being with a free will to choose what he wants. In any case, I appreciate the good open discussion.

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

When you stand back and look at the Grand Canyon from afar - the rim, e.g. - you can logically come to either conclusion you mention. However, when you take the time and effort to actually climb inside the thing to study the rock formations, you come to only one possible conclusion - the canyon was formed over a period of millions (yes, millions) of years. The evidence is there, and it's obvious. Same with the evolution of all other things around us. If you take the perspective of 'that's just the way it is,' then it's easy to accept creationism. However, if you take the time to study the clues all around us (as has been done by many generations of scientists), you'll find evolution to be far more plausible than your first observation allows. There's essentially one source for your beliefs - the Bible. However, there are many, many sources supporting the theory of evolution. If we were to place the respective sources on an imaginary scale, the scale would tip differently for you than it does for me, and I don't believe either of us will ever fully understand why. This is a discussion that will never be resolved in our lifetimes. You're welcome to believe what you wish, and I should be welcome to believe what I wish. Personally, I believe God gave us our minds for a good reason - so that we could explore our world and learn more about it. I seriously doubt he wanted us to accept our first assumptions as complete, unwavering fact. (Don't forget - at one time, the Christian world condemned as a heretic anyone who was bold enough to suggest that the earth wasn't the center of the cosmos. It's now pretty much accepted by everyone that the only natural thing that actually revolves around our planet is the moon.)

Robby-rice
Robby-rice

First, I do believe in micro-evolution such as the examples that you mentioned. This would also apply to evolution and adaption inside of different species. However, I see no rational or logical basis to believe that since micro-evolution exists, that we must make an extrapolation and say the macro-evolution must exist as well. One species has never been observed or confirmed to have evolved into a new species. One can take a look at the facts and come to a different conclusion than somebody else. An evolutionist might look at the Grand Canyon and say "look what that river did over millions of years". A creationist might look at the Grand Canyon and say "look what the flood did in a matter of days or weeks". Both creationism and evolution remain theories because neither one can be proven with purely scientific methods. I happen to be convinced that the creationist model is much more believable.

jbehounek
jbehounek

Holy crap. Are we really going to do this here? Main Entry: the?o?ry Pronunciation: \thē-ə-rē, ˈthir-ē\ Function: noun Inflected Form(s): plural the?o?ries Etymology: Late Latin theoria, from Greek theōria, from theōrein Date: 1592 1: the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another Didja get that? A set of facts in their relation to one another. Not "just something that people want to think because it makes them feel good". That would be a "belief". Gravity is a theory. Can its effects be seen, yes. Can it be directly tested or is it fully understood? No. You cannot see gravity, you can only see it's effects. Do we know how gravity works? No. Do you argue there is no gravity? Can you see evolution? No. Can you see its effects? Yes. Do we know fully how it works, no. But like gravity, we understand enough to accept it as the basis of biology. Also, evolution is not a purely biological concept. Erosion is an example of geologic evolution. As is compression. Do you argue that diamonds do not come from graphite deposits that have evolved over enough time, heat and pressure? That canyons do not come from the relentless carving of water? This is so not the place for this conversation. More on topic, Strigiphilus garylarsoni seems to not be the only creature named for Gary Larson (the Great Gary Larson as I call him). There is an entire genus of beetle named Garylarsonus and an Ecuadorian butterfly named Serratoterga larsoni.