1. Build background.
Tell students to write “marine reptile” on a piece of paper and then put their pencils down. Then have them try again, this time without using their thumb to grip the pencil. Point out that the thumb is a body part that provides an advantage when using a tool. Explain that writing and spelling words are learned behaviors, and both the thumb and the writing are examples of adaptations.

2. Explain the three ways scientists name plants and animals.
Tell students that scientists use Greek and Latin words and scientific conventions to name plants and animals, including prehistoric marine reptiles. Introduce the three approaches:

  • to reference the location where an organism was found
  • in honor of a person with some connection to the discovery
  • to reference a unique body part or behavior

Tell students that one way scientists name living things is by the location where the animal lived or was first discovered. For example, the mosasaur, a “Meuse River lizard,” is named after a tributary of a river in the Netherlands, where the first known specimen was discovered. Ask: Can you guess where the Argentinosaurus was first discovered? (Argentina)

3. Have students brainstorm names that reference location.
Distribute copies of the handout Greek and Latin Word Parts. Have students imagine prehistoric sea creatures were discovered in your local area. Ask them to brainstorm some names for the creatures. Write the names on the board.

4. Provide examples of names that honor people.
Tell students that other dinosaurs are named after famous people or for the person who found them. For example, the Mosasaurus hoffmanni is named after C.K. Hoffman. Ask:
•    Who is Nedcolbertia named after? (Ned Colbert, or Dr. Edwin “Ned” Colbert)
•    Who is Ricardoestesia named after? (Richard Estes)
As a class, brainstorm some names of imaginary prehistoric sea creatures named after famous people and then after students.

5. Provide examples of names that refer to body parts or behavior.
Remind students that the last approach is to name animals by their body part, behavioral adaptations, or by whole body descriptions. For example, Englishman Richard Owen coined the word Dinosauria from “dino,” (terrible) and “saur” (lizard). An Ichthyosaur is an “ichthy” (fish) “saur” (lizard).

6. Have students invent new names for prehistoric sea creatures.
Write the Greek and Latin word parts below on the board. Explain to students that the activity they are about to do is just for fun. Tell them that scientists would not mix Greek and Latin word parts. Ask students to invent names for imaginary prehistoric sea creatures using three word parts: prefix, root word, and suffix. List these names and descriptions of the animals on the board. For example, a Megabiceratosaurus (‘big two-horned lizard’). 

Greek and Latin Word Parts
odon or oden-tooth
ops-eye or face
ped or pes-foot

Subjects & Disciplines

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • explain how Greek and Latin word parts are used to name an animal
  • describe the science rules and conventions for naming a new animal

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Brainstorming
  • Discussions

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

  • Critical Thinking Skills
    • Applying
    • Understanding

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 17:  How to apply geography to interpret the past

National Science Education Standards

What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Pens

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Optional
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, Projector


  • Large-group instruction

Background Information

Animals undergo adaptations—changes to body parts and behaviors—that help them survive. Referring to adaptations is one way scientists name living things.

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Activities



a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.



This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1114251. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.