Man Gave Names To All The Animals: I think I’ll call it Masiakasaurus knopfleri

Man Gave Names To All The Animals (1979)

by Jochen Markhorst

 The Strigiphilus garylarsoni is a species of louse belonging to the Ischnocera family that, as we all know of course, mainly affects the Ptilopsis leucotis, the northern white-faced owls (not to be confused with ptilopsis granti, the southern white-faced owl). The garylarsoni, an ugly little parasite, was discovered fairly recently and – obviously – named after Gary Larson, the creator of The Far Side, the insane, sometimes lurid, frenzied, hilarious cartoons particularly popular in scientific circles, which were eventually published in more than 1900 newspapers between 1979 and 1994.

Biologist Dale H. Clayton, who discovered and named the louse, wanted to honour Larson “in appreciation of the unique light he has shed on the workings of nature,” as he writes in the official publication, in the Journal Of Medical Entomology, May 1990. A few months earlier, he had already put his feelers out to the cartoonist, writing him a personal letter, also thanking Larson for “the enormous contribution that my colleagues and I feel you have made to biology through your cartoons.” Larson feels honoured, and proudly and quickly incorporates the naming of “his” louse into the retrospective The PreHistory of the Far Side (1989):

“I considered this an extreme honor. 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.”

Friendly and witty, though presumably Larson knows as well: it really is not that “an extreme honor”, not that special. New insect varieties, ferns, mosses, flowers, fungi or deep-sea monsters are discovered every day, extinct or not, and most of them are named after celebrities. There are four related trilobites named after the four Ramones (Mackenziurus ceejayi, deedeei, joeyi and johnnyi), the Ptomaphagus thebeatles is a beetle that has been discovered in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, the Alviniconcha strummeri is a sea slug, Henry Rollins is honoured with a jellyfish (Amphinema rollinsi), and The Beatles have been immortalised individually in four related trilobites also… and these are just a few examples of only rock stars.

There are, in fact, thousands of writers, kings, musicians, politicians, actors and other celebrities to be found in the records of university libraries. Dylan has to make do with an Italian stonefly: the Leuctra dylani. For which naming in 2007, by the way, the Austrian entomologist Wolfram Graf has a somewhat peculiar motivation: “dedicated to Bob Dylan, poet, composer, singer and dancer.” Well, perhaps the researcher associates the stonefly’s stiff motorics with Dylan’s dancing skills.

A lot cooler and more special already is when a dinosaur is named after you. Clint Eastwood is proud of the Europatitan eastwoodi, a giant sauropod from the early Cretaceous, and Gary Larson has the next best thing: the thagomizer. After Larson created the cartoon about a group of cavemen being taught about the Stegosaurus, in which the professor teaches that the four spikes on its tail are called a thagomizer, “after the late Thag Simmons”, scientists actually start calling this spiny part of the tail a “thagomizer” – as it turned out, the thing did not yet have a name, and Larson’s joke has since been gratefully adopted. Even by the respectable Smithsonian Institution, as well as in academic papers, books and the successful BBC programme Planet Dinosaur (2011).

In the rock world, meanwhile, there is only one prominent who gets this special honour, a dinosaur naming. Not Dylan. Eastwood’s Europatitan may be classified as a Somphospondylan, but that really just means “spongy vertebra”, and has nothing to do with Bob Dylan. No, Dylan is passed over by a dear colleague: in 2001, scientists Scott D. Sampson, Matthew Carrano, and Catherine A. Forster name and describe in Nature the Masiakasaurus knopfleri, a carnivorous theropod dinosaur that lived in the Late Cretaceous in the area of present-day Madagascar. Unfortunately, the motivation is not too remarkable and extremely brief. “After singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler, whose music inspired expedition crews.” Still: very, very honourable.

Dylan will be at peace with it. To Mark Knopfler we owe the exceptional, ethereal beauty of “I Believe In You”, the goosebumps on “Precious Angel”, and the breath-taking restraint of the twelve-string contribution to the acoustic outtake of “Blind Willie McTell”. And the percussive perfection of the acoustic guitar on “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, the very last recording for Slow Train Coming, on the fifth and final session day, 4 May 1979. Would have deserved a reverential, explicit reference from Dylan, actually.

He saw a vicious lizard devouring meat
Six feet long, procumbent front teeth
A carnivorous mutt on the late Cretaceous prairie
Ah, I think I’ll call it a Masiakasaurus knopfleri

Something like that anyway.


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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