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Episodes from the History of Paleontology and Geology Chapter Two: Most Popular Dinosaur Ever?

What is the most famous dinosaur? When I ask my undergraduate geology students this question, the first opinion offered is invariably “Tyrannosaurus rex.” The Ngram viewer allows us to assess the answer quantitatively. I conducted an analysis of the following eight dinosaur genera: Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus (Apatosaurus is the correct name, but barely registers relative to Brontosaurus in the Ngram database [see for yourself!]), Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor. The results are shown in Figure 4.

Fig. 4. Results of Ngram analysis (1800-2000) of the following search terms: “Iguanodon” (dark blue line), “Megalosaurus” (red line), “Tyrannosaurus” (orange line), “Brontosaurus” (dark green line), “Diplodocus” (purple line), “Stegosaurus” (light blue line), “Triceratops” (pink line), “Velociraptor” (light green line). In addition, “Archaeopteryx” (dark red line) is included.

Iguanodon and Megalosaurus were two of the first dinosaur genera to be named; in fact, both were named before Owen coined the term dinosaur. These two dinosaurs were quite popular until the late 19th century when they were surpassed in popularity by other dinosaurs, particularly iconic forms discovered in the American West. As a percentage of the total words appearing in the Ngrams corpus for a particular year, no dinosaur was ever as popular as Iguanodon; in the year 1850, “Iguanodon” represented 1 of every 10,000 printed words in the Ngram database!

The most popular dinosaur today in the published literature (if not in the public arena) is Archaeopteryx, not T. rex. Archaeopteryx is famous because it shows a combination of features that link birds and dinosaurs (bird-like features of this animal included wings and feathers; dinosaur-like features included a mouth full of teeth and a long, bony tail). Most people (especially children) know T. rex, but few know anything about Archaeopteryx. Why is Archaeopteryx more popular then according to the Ngram database? Undoubtedly this is because of the important status that Archaeopteryx has had since the 1860’s in demonstrating evidence for evolution; it is featured in many popular and textbook accounts of evolution, while T. rex is not.

Jonathan Hendricks is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geology at San Jose State University and is also a research associate at the Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York. Email Dr. Hendricks at [email protected]

Check back next week for Chapter Three of Dr. Hendricks’ series on Culturomics and Paleontology!

Missed Chapter One? Find it here!


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Semonin, P. 2000. American monster: how the nation’s first prehistoric creature became a symbol of national identity. NYU Press, New York, New York. 502 pp.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.



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