How describing a new species by referencing its closest relative often results in misinformation... and hilarity.

The most complete fossils ever found of a transitional fish with limbs,  known as Tiktaalik.  Credit: Ted Daeschler/The Academy of Natural Sciences

The Demon Duck of Doom, as it’s known colloquially, has a terrible name. This prehistoric animal, which indirect evidence had previously suggested the existence of, became an official part of the fossil record when a team of paleontologists at the University of New South Wales discovered its fossilized bones as part of a trove of 20 previously unknown species.

When quoted in reports on the discovery, the researchers took the opportunity to correct the record: They asserted that the Demon Duck of Doom is not a duck per se, merely “a duck-like bird.”

The “-like” device is common in paleobiology given that most of prehistory is a mystery to laymen. So, scientists adopt the “-like” description as a bridge between total ignorance and close-enough knowledge. It is similar to the Hollywood tactic of describing a film as “A meets B”—say, “Jurassic Park meets West Side Story.” The idea is to mash up two familiar concepts in the hopes that some pseudo-familiarity will result. Remember last year’s California “bear-dog”? Or the lesser-known “gazelle-camel”?

“It’s a good way to have to describe things to the lay public, but it’s so restrictive as well,” said Peter Makovicky, curator of dinosaurs at the Field Museum, in Chicago, for whom this problem is of special concern, given his expertise is in primitive birds like the archaeopteryx and velociraptor. “People hear something described as ‘bird-like’ and they basically think of it as an actual bird.”

“It’s all too easy to imagine a biologist discovering a giraffe today and describing it as a spotted, long-limbed, horse-like creature.”

Scientists’ use of these characterizations is not merely common, it’s been taken to quasi-cancerous extremes. A cursory search turns up animals described as badger-like (not to be confused with mole-like or shrew-like), lizard-like (rather than reptile-like), giraffe-like, beaver-like, rhinoceros-like, worm-like, eel-like, bear-like (though not necessarily koala-like), mastodon-like (but not quite elephant-like), squid-like, octopus-like, armadillo-like, pig-like, shrimp-like, crocodile-like, penguin-like and deer-like.

Sometimes comparisons can abandon any sense of familiarity, as in various lotosaurus-like, trilobite-like, pakicetus-like and onychophoran-like creatures. Perhaps the least helpful of all these descriptions is: alien-like (not that there’s any consensus on what an alien actually looks like.)

And, of course, there’s the infamous Flores Man, widely described as a Hobbit-like early human despite the fact that Hobbits are mythical creatures.

“It’s not as though you can just put any animal in that spot; it needs to be something known iconically for its distinguishing characteristic—a tiger’s stripes, a cheetah’s speed, a rabbit’s ears, a shark’s fin,” said Jim Lowe, a Merriam-Webster senior editor, who has worked at the dictionary giant for nearly 40 years. “So I think one way to clarify things would be to talk about the characteristics more than the animals. ‘Striped like a tiger’ instead of just ‘tiger-like.’”

Perhaps scientists could take a cue from some of the most familiar extinct animals—wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and dodo birds, for example—which were named by laymen themselves. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to imagine a biologist discovering a giraffe today and describing it as a spotted, long-limbed, horse-like creature.

“You have to be careful with how you use comparison and how far you take it,” said Jack Conrad, a paleobiologist with a specialty in lizards and snakes at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. He points specifically to Tiktaalik, the recently discovered four-legged fish that lived a life similar to a crocodile, ambushing its prey at the edge of swamps. “It can come out all wrong, and especially messes with people’s heads when you’re talking about things that are intermediary creatures—a feathered reptile, for example. Everyone wants it to be simple and sometimes it’s just not.”

Generally the situation is a classic case of scientists not being skilled public relation agents.

“Think about what happened with the periodic table of elements in chemistry,” said Lowe. “It starts off with hydrogen and gold and silver and lead and things like that, then gets into people’s names, but now it’s all these horrible amalgamations of scientific terminology agreed on by an international body. Can you imagine what our metals would be called if we had such groups deciding these matters in ancient times?”

When the task at hand is naming an animal or describing it, relating its existence to the public in some way, accessibility— some manner of PR—is a must. And that can irritate scientists who prefer not to think of themselves as publicity hounds.

“I try to describe animals without analogy, instead saying something that accomplishes a similar result but stays entirely within scientific fact—something like ‘The wooly mammoth, whose closest living relative is the Asian elephant,’” said Pamela Owen, senior paleontology educator at the Texas Natural Science Center. “It conveys evolutionary relationships as well as visualization.”

Any solution, though, inevitably resembles another Hollywood trope: one called “Want, Settle, Get.” The cliché proceeds by the following logic: You want Denzel Washington to star in the movie. You’ll settle for Will Smith. You get Martin Lawrence.

In the case of paleontologists, the progression is amended: Scientists want to announce their discoveries. They settle for describing them to the public via metaphor. They get misunderstood.

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Originally published July 27, 2006

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