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The thagomizer: A stegosaurus’ tail is named after a joke from the ’80s

Despite its lack of any starring or even significant backing roles in the Jurassic Park films, the stegosaurus is one of the most recognisable dinosaurs, thanks to its with plate-covered back, and a spiked tail that would take out a caveman in a single swipe.

Granted stegosaurus and cavemen were separated by 140 million years, but the famous covered lizard’s tail is still named after a dead caveman – albeit a fictional one.

In a Far Side comic published in 1982, a class of neanderthals are being taught the finer points of stegosaurus anatomy, with the lecturer pointing to the tail, saying “Now this end is called the thagomizer… After the late Thag Simmons.”

Thagomizer cartoon by Gary Larson

“So what,” I hear you ask, “a cartoon doesn’t make it science.”

Actually, it kind of does.

Despite Ross Gellar’s best efforts, palaeontologists are not really known for their sense of humour, but they should be.

As the Smithsonian – yes, that Smithsonian – explains, the Larson fans among dino-students picked up the joke and ran with it:

Among palaeontologists, the four-spiked tail of Stegosaurus is called a “thagomizer” It is one of a few terms inspired by one of Gary Larson’s beloved ” Far Side” cartoons… the joke was so perfect that palaeontologists couldn’t help but informally use it.

Larson has long been a bit of a favourite among scientists, with Natural History magazine calling him “the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community”.

Along with his ‘contribution’ to palaeontology, Larson also had a newly discovered animal named after him a few years ago – Strigiphilus garylarsoni. While having a louse that is only found on owls may not be as glamorous as a big cat being named after you, in his book The Prehistory of the Far Side, Larson wrote that he considered it “an extreme honour”, saying, “Besides, I knew no one was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me. You have to grab these opportunities when they come along.”

The Serratoterga larsoni, an Ecuadorian rainforest butterfly, also carries Larson’s moniker, as does the Garylarsonus beetle.

Larson’s comics have also seen the creation of another ‘scientific’ term, the word anatidaephobia, which is defined as “The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you”.

Gary Larson's Anatidaephobia cartoon

Yeah, it’s not a real phobia – although if someone in the world does suffer from it, they have Larson to thank for the name.

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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