The Thagomizer – the term used to Describe a Stegosaur’s Tail Spikes
Many palaeontologists have a warped sense of humour, this might be due to the fact that they spend many weeks in far flung places looking for fossils or countless hours in the laboratory cleaning and preparing specimens. In these situations, a sense of humour, no matter how warped comes in very handy.
The term “Thagomizer” a word used to describe the arrangement of defensive tail spikes on Stegosaurs, has been adopted as an informal anatomical term, appearing in scientific literature on Thyreophora (Shield Bearers), museum displays and in many texts on prehistoric animals.
This term was invented by the cartoonist Gary Larson, who due to his love of nature often lampooned science in his cartoons, such as the anthropologist Jane Goodall, and her work with the chimpanzees at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania.
In a 1982 Far Side comic strip, Gary depicts a caveman lecturer (prehistoric people and dinosaurs being a favourite source of ideas for Gary); giving a slide-show and pointing out that the back end of a Stegosaurus is called a “Thagomizer – after the late Thag Simmons”.
This term was picked up a few years later by Ken Carpenter, a palaeontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who used the term to describe a fossil at the Society of Paleonotology (American spelling).
The Birth of the “Thagomizer”
The text associated with this Larson cartoon reads: Now this end is called the Thagomizer after the late Thag Simmons.
For those fortunate to meet Gary and to interview him about his work, often they remark how observant he is and how interested Gary is in the world around him. Aware of the misconception of putting cavemen amongst dinosaurs, Gary once suggested that “there should be a cartoon confessional where cartoonists could go and say things like, ‘Father, I have sinned – drawing dinosaurs and hominids together”.
In the Everything Dinosaur offices, amongst all the text books, order receipts and paperwork we have a Far Side Gallery book, with a foreword by Jane Goodall. It helps keep us sane and makes us smile.