After Hours

Geek Trivia: Quite a tail to tell

What famous comic strip gets credit for coining <i>thagomizer</i>, the accepted scientific name for the spikes on a Stegosaurus' tail?

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 eponymous 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 separate 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 is responsible for coining the word thagomizer, which has since become the accepted scientific term for the spikes at the end of a Stegosaurus' tail?

The Far Side, written by Gary Larson, has long been a favorite comic within the scientific community, so it should come as little surprise that one particular Far Side strip ended up coining a scientific term.

In 1982, Larson published a Far Side that depicted a group of cavemen at a meeting or class, where the leader was pointing to an illustration of a Stegosaurus tail. The strip's caption read: "Now this end is called the thagomizer, after the late Thag Simmons."

At that point in time, there was no generally accepted term for the spikes on a Stegosaurus' tail. Paleontologists just called them something indirect—like, well, tail spikes.

Larson's thagomizer riff proved so popular that scientists began using it as verbal shorthand for this particular bit of dinosaur anatomy—paleontology slang, if you will—and eventually thagomizer became a formally accepted scientific term.

If that doesn't convince you of The Far Side's scientific street cred, bear in mind that Gary Larson also has a species of insect named in his honor. Well, honor might be a bit dubious, as we're speaking of a species of louse that preys on owls: Strigiphilus garylarsoni.

Of course, not all of Larson's interactions with professional scientists have been positive. In 1988, Larson was visiting anthropologist Jane Goodall's research area in Tanzania's Gombe National Park when a chimpanzee attacked him. Goodall described the chimp, which she had named Frodo, as a "bully"—one that managed to bruise and scratch Larson in rather memorable fashion.

This occurred after the Jane Goodall Institute had written Larson to complain about a Far Side strip that lampooned Dr. Goodall's research. The "controversial" strip depicts a pair of chimps grooming each other in a tree. The caption reads: "Well, well... Another blond hair... Conducting a little more 'research' with that Jane Goodall tramp?"

The encounter ended happily, however, as Dr. Goodall herself had found the cartoon in question quite amusing. After clearing up the misunderstanding, Larson made arrangements for the Goodall Institute to sell T-shirts featuring the "Goodall tramp" strip. That's not just self-effacing humor—it's scientifically hilarious Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the July 19 edition of Geek Trivia, "First in (space)flight." TechRepublic member Christine.winslow e-mailed me to debate my assertion that Joseph Albert Walker was the first man to reach space in a vehicle other than a rocket.

"Technically, Joe Kittinger was the first man in space (without a spacecraft), and he was the first man to break the sound barrier (without an aircraft). Here's the Wiki on him. Here's a short Discovery Channel blurb about him and gravity and Einstein. And here's an excellent music video (instrumental) by the Boards of Canada, who used the rare Kittinger footage to open up their video."

Well, Christine, I don't usually answer e-mail quibbles (I prefer the article discussions), but yours was so well-written and link-worthy, I couldn't resist. I'm a big fan of Kittinger and Project Excelsior myself, but Joe's title as "the first man in space" is apocryphal.

His balloons never reached altitudes much above 30 kilometers, well short of the FAI or USAF definition of space (100 km and 80 km, respectively). Kittinger doesn't qualify for astronaut wings.

There's also no confirmed evidence that he broke the sound barrier, though some suggest he reached about 90 percent of that velocity. In any case, thanks for bringing the extra factoids to the party, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

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...

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