Vampire Apocalypse Calculator

Dominik Czernia

Institute of Nuclear Physics, Polish Academy of Sciences, Kraków, Poland.

Email: dominik.czernia (at) gmail (dot) com

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Welcome to the Vampire Apocalypse Calculator[1], you lovely, tasty human. This sophisticated tool is based on the predator-prey model, a model that successfully describes the dynamics of ecosystems, chemical reactions, and even economics. Now it’s time to use it to answer the question: “what if vampires were among us?” You might think we’re joking, but the facts are clear. If we compare the actual world’s population[2] (Fig. 1: red points) to the exponential growth model[3], it reveals there are some hidden causes preventing the expansion of humanity.

We could theorise all day why this is, but there’s one idea we’d like to check and discuss: vampires. Are you ready to unveil the ancient mysteries of vampirism?

Figure 1. Earth’s population growth: expected logarithmic scale vs actual data. Extracted from Strielkowski et al. (2013).

What is vampirism?

Nearly every culture around the world has its blood-drinking creature. The ancient world had the female demons Lilith (Fig. 2; Babylonia) and Lamia (Greece). In Africa, the Ewe folklore believes in Adze, a vampiric being that can take the form of a firefly. Chilean Peuchen was a gigantic flying snake that could paralyse, and in Asia Penanggal was a woman who broke a pact with the devil and has been forever cursed to be a bloodsucking demon. So, why is it that vampires are known around the globe? Isn’t it suspicious?

Figure 2. Lilith, by John M. Collier (1892), oil on canvas. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What about the vampires themselves? Today, they are usually believed to be undead creatures with supernatural powers: they don’t age, can fly, and can fully regenerate from almost any wound. They have a taste for human blood (Fig. 3), but are afraid of sunlight, silver, religious symbols, and garlic. Vampires can be killed by decapitation or a wooden stake through the heart. The last but most important thing is that vampires can’t reproduce; they can only turn a human into a vampire.

Figure 3. The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones (1897). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Calculator

What if vampires were among us? The Vampire Apocalypse Calculator allows you to check how humanity would fair in some selected scenarios from popular books and movies, as well as creating your own story from scratch. It’s your decision!

We present the result in the form of a graph that plots how three populations change: humans (blue points), vampires (red points), and vampire slayers (yellow points). You can adjust the graph if needed by setting an appropriate time scale (days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries) and type of chart (linear or logarithmic[4]).

The vampire apocalypse calculator performs real-time numerical calculations that might sometimes be a little demanding, depending on your machine specifications. But, please, be understanding! The algorithm can receive up 13 parameters from the three populations:

  • Humans: if not interrupted by vampires, their population size will grow exponentially. The available settings are the initial population, the probability of turning into a vampire when attacked, and annual population growth. Humans’ unique ability is to grow faster when their population becomes smaller than its starting value.
  • Vampires: bloodthirsty humanoids that hunt people and turn them into new vampires. The available parameters are their initial population and their aggression level towards humans and slayers. You can make vampires smarter with their special ability. When activated, vampires will refrain from killing too many humans, so they do not lose their only source of blood.
  • Vampire slayers: an organization of brave people with one objective: save the world from vampiric domination. The available parameters are their initial population, annual recruitment speed, aggression level towards vampires, and vampire transformation probability. They cannot afford their members’ salaries if the entire world population is made up of vampire slayers, so you can turn on the vampire slayers special ability to limit the maximum size of the organization.

So, go ahead and test the Vampire Apocalypse Calculator. It’s freely available online: If you find a set of parameters that creates an incredible story, don’t hesitate and share it with your friends and us (there is a ‘Send this result’ on the website). See also the Box 1 below for more information on how the calculator came to be.

Box 1. How the Calculator came to be

The Vampire Apocalypse Calculator combines two things that I find fascinating: fiction and science. I love it when we can apply mathematical models to even the most surprising things and describing a vampire apocalypse using differential equations definitely makes the top of my list. I got inspired when I found an interesting paper regarding vampires, where the authors subtly suggested the existence of vampires based on real-life data.

That drew my attention and I decided to test it out in a scientific way with the well-known theory of the predator–prey model, based on game theory. Secondly, I needed to prepare an algorithm itself with adequate populations (humans, vampires, vampire slayers) and to create proper relationships between them. Lastly, the implemented calculations are numerical, so I needed to make them stable, no matter the set-up. That required, for example, setting a time step that on one hand, wasn’t too small (to avoid the calculations taking literally forever) and that on the other hand, wasn’t large enough to make the algorithm unstable. All of this was challenging and because I focused on the Calculator in my free time, it took me about a month to finish everything.

The last part was the hardest. I wanted my calculator to work with various input parameters so everyone could create their own scenarios. The problem with numerical calculations is their stability and the time required to compute them. A stable algorithm requires more time, but it has to be executed within a finite time, even on mobiles. So, depending on the user’s input, I needed to predict the appropriate time-step of consecutive calculations to make sure that everything will be estimated in a reasonable period. Choosing sensible parameters was a challenging task too! I had to give meaning to raw numbers to build the atmosphere of a vampire apocalypse. I’m happy that I built a tool that people find interesting and fun.

Predator–prey model: Lotka–Volterra equations

Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (known for his experiments with falling bodies and inclined planes) once said that “mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe”. Indeed, scientists all around the world try to find suitable mathematical equations that describe the natural world properly.

If you consider a simple ecosystem with two species, e.g., foxes and rabbits, the Lotka–Volterra equations[5] generally work just fine. They are also called the predatorprey model. Why? Let’s stick with our example. The population of rabbits can peacefully live and reproduce if we assume that they have access to an unlimited source of food in the forest. On the other hand, foxes are carnivorous, so their population size depends on the accessibility of food, i.e., rabbits. Can you see where the problem is? More rabbits mean more foxes, but more foxes mean fewer rabbits.

A similar situation exists with humans (prey) and vampires (predators). Our calculator makes use of the Lotka–Volterra equations, with a few modifications. First of all, we created some vampire slayers that control the population of vampires. Secondly, we gave each group a special ability that is implemented indirectly in the algorithm. Eventually, we came up with the following differential equations:

dx/dt = x(k1 – a1y)

dy/dt = y(b1a1x + b2a2y – cz)

dz/dt = z(k2 – a2y)


  • xy, and z are the sizes of the human, vampire, and vampire slayers populations, respectively;
  • k1 and k2 are the growth rates of the human and vampire slayer populations;
  • b1 and b2 are the probabilities that a human and a vampire slayer will turn into a vampire;
  • coefficients a1a2, and c describe the aggression levels: vampires towards humans, vampires towards vampire slayers, and vampire slayers towards vampires, respectively.

For more explanations, please refer to Strielkowski et al. (2013). We based this calculator on the fourth-order Runge–Kutta method to solve the problem of differential equations.

Bloodsuckers – are vampires among us?

There are species in the animal kingdom that suck and feed on their preys’ blood. This practice is called hematophagy, and many small animals adopt it because blood is basically a fluid tissue rich in nutrients.

So, what’s the main difference between animal bloodsuckers and fictitious vampires? The former can’t turn their prey into something else by biting it or killing it. Lucky for us![6]

Some known bloodsucking animals are (Fig. 4):

  • Vampire bats: they mainly hunt birds and reptiles, but they occasionally turn their fangs on humans. Interestingly, vampire bats often share the blood that they have sucked with their hungry compatriots. That’s a real friendship!
  • Leeches: bloodsucking annelid worms that live in water. They can be used medicinally, as they can restore blood flow to damaged veins.
  • Mosquitoes: flying insects that you’re probably familiar with. They can be dangerous to humans, since mosquitoes can carry many diseases. An interesting fact is that only female mosquitoes suck blood from their victims (they need it to fuel egg production).
  • Vampire finches:  don’t let these lovely looking birds deceive you! When other food sources are scarce, they sometimes feed by drinking the blood of other birds.
Figure 4. Top left: vampire bat Desmodus rotundus, from Peru; source: Wikimedia Commons (Acatenazzi, 2005). Top right: medicinal leech Hirudo medicinalis; source: Wikimedia Commons (GlebK, 2011). Bottom left: Aedes (Ochlerotatus) sp.; source: Wikimedia Commons. Bottom right: vampire finch Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis; source: Wikimedia Commons (P. Wilton, 2009; cropped).

Humans also practice hematophagy! There are meals that contain animal blood. For example, many people around the world eat blood sausages – sausages filled with blood that has been cooked or dried. With that, we can conclude that vampires are actually among us! Of course, that’s only a half-truth; real bloodsuckers can’t turn people into vampires.


Strielkowski, W.; Lisin, E.; Welkins, E. (2013) Mathematical models of interactions between species: peaceful co-existence of vampires and humans based on the models derived from fiction literature and films. Applied Mathematical Sciences 7(10): 453–470.

Yorke, J.A. & Anderson, W.N. Jr. (1973). Predator-prey patterns (Volterra–Lotka equations). PNAS 70(7): 2069–2071.

About the author

Dominik Czernia is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences. When he was a child, he really liked mysterious and bloody stories. As an adult, he realized that blood doesn’t give you immortality in the literal sense, but it can save someone’s life! Since he turned 18, he has been donating blood regularly: 16 liters so far and feeling the need to donate more. One could say he’s the perfect prey for vampires! 😉

As part of his involvement with The Omni Calculator Project, Dominik has built a few interesting tools such as The Hot Car Calculator (, which helps people understand the lethal consequences of leaving kids unattended in cars, and The Coffee Kick Calculator (, in collaboration, which allows you to maximize your caffeinated efficiency. He’s also created many more super scientific ones that may not be as fun but are still worth a mention, such as the Space Travel Calculator, the Acceleration Calculator, and a few Velocity tools.

[1] You can find it at:

[2] World Population Clock, available from:

[3] Exponential Growth Prediction Calculator, by M. Mucha, available from:

[4] See also Log Calculator, by Haponiuk & Pal, available from:

[5] See also Yorke & Anderson (1973).

[6] Although some can transmit diseases.

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What is the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything?

Deep Thought


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This is quite definitely the answer to the ultimate question. The problem, though, is that no one ever actually knew what the ultimate question was. As such, the next step for this research is to design an even more powerful computer, which can calculate the question to the ultimate answer.


Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Pan Books, London.


This is a little homage from the editors of the Journal of Geek Studies to Douglas Adams, one of the most influential authors in geekdom. This is the forty-second article in the history of the Journal, so this seemed rather appropriate. Don’t panic, and always know where your towel is.


Deep Thought is the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space. After calculating the answer to the ultimate question for seven and a half million years, and designing the computer to find the ultimate question, it now spends its time watching television.

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Zoological Nomenclature of Ice and Fire

Evangelos Vlachos

CONICET & Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Chubut, Argentina.

Email: evlacho (at) mef (dot) org (dot) ar

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Valar gūrēñis — All men must learn

The diversity of the World of Ice and Fire (Westeros, Essos and the other continents combined) is remarkable. All kinds of species of animals and plants are known, including some mythical creatures. The purpose of this contribution is to provide a system of nomenclature for the most important animal species from the World of Ice and Fire. This new system is based on the High Valyrian language, and aims to provide a set of names that can be applied to the various species of life that survived, or even became extinct, in this world.

The World of Ice and Fire is a fictional world. Although most of the wild and domesticated animals are the same or similar to our own, there several animals that are unique to it. Also, more than one ‘species’ of humans survive in this world, now mostly isolated in remote islands like Ibben and the Sothoryos. The Common Tongue, spoken mainly in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, is given to us through the books in English; but this doesn’t mean that it is English. Even if a direwolf is called a direwolf in the books, it probably sounded differently in the Common Tongue.

Back to our world, following the pioneering work of C. Linnaeus in 1758 the need of a stable and universal system of biological nomenclature became necessary. Since then, a set of rules has been created, revised, used and applied to Zoological Nomenclature, forming the so-called International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN, or simply ‘the Code’). The latest edition was published in 1999, and some parts of the Code have been recently (2012) amended to include names and acts published in electronic-only journals.

I will briefly present the main features of this system of nomenclature for those not entirely familiar with it. The backbone concept of nomenclature is the binomen: each species name is formed by two components, the genus name and the specific name; both are written in italics and the genus name is capitalized (e.g., Homo sapiens). The ICZN offers a graphical summary of the whole process of naming animal taxa[1], which is summarized in Box 1 below. The reader should, of course, consult the Code for further details.

Box 1. Basic steps for naming taxa

  1. The name must be contained in a published work (published sensu the ICZN);
  2. The name must be available (sensu the ICZN);
  3. The name must be properly formed, following the instructions of the ICZN.

Names that do not conform these rules are unavailable names (including the so-called ‘naked names’), and can be made available later for the same or different concept. If these conditions are met, the available names enter the zoological literature. Once part of the literature, the names ‘compete’ for validity, which mainly refers to the so-called ‘Principle of Priority’. Simply put, the oldest available name applied to a taxon is the valid name for this taxon (Art. 23.1, ICZN). The other names are invalid names, including synonyms, homonyms, and dubious names. Of course, in real life things are not so simple, as there are several exemptions from these rules and a multitude of complicated cases; the Code contains numerous articles and examples that try to account for all these situations.

Obviously, the purpose of this article is to propose a set of names for the animals of the World of Ice and Fire, but a curious reader might ask: do those names also become part of the ‘real life’ zoological nomenclature? The answer is no, these names will not form part of the zoological nomenclature for the main following reasons:

  1. As the Journal of Geek Studies is an electronic publication, any name (or nomenclatural act) published in it should conform to the rules of Art. 8.5 (ICZN) for works published/distributed electronically. But it fails to conform to the provisions of the sub-article 8.5.3, which mandates the registration of the work and the names on the Official Register of Zoological Nomenclature (a.k.a. ZooBank).
  2. Even though several of the animals of the World of Ice and Fire are referred to the Common Tongue with similar names and concepts of wild and domesticated animals that exist or existed in our world (e.g., a dog, a horse, a mammoth), those animals are actually purely hypothetical concepts (sensu Art. 1.3.1, ICZN) that exist in the fantasy World of Ice and Fire and the mind of G.R.R. Martin. Thus, they are excluded from the zoological nomenclature.
  3. The names, as published herein, are not formed properly according to the Code. Both words are capitalized, not italicized, with diacritic signs, and are connected by a dash.

Therefore, all the names herein are unavailable names for our ‘real life’ zoological nomenclature. I suppose that a similar need of a system of nomenclature would be eventually necessary in the World of Ice and Fire as well, most probably among its scholars—the Maesters. The study of the natural world has largely been neglected by the great Maesters of the Citadel, in Oldtown. Maester Yandel in his work (Martin et al., 2014) provides some basic information on various animals — in many cases by citing other authors — but without any specific focus on nature. However, one cannot understand and explain the mysteries of the world, unless they are able to explain and describe the life on it. Therefore, and to avoid misunderstandings among Maesters across the continent, this new system of nomenclature would greatly assist in the communication among scholars in the World of Ice and Fire.

I strongly insist that the Maesters of the Citadel should try to promote the study of the natural mysteries of the world. I further propose that the Maester who will complete the study of a significant portion of the natural world should be awarded a wooden link to add to his chain. This link should be made by a weirwood tree and would symbolize that all life on the World is related, and originated from a common root, just like the branches and leaves of a weirwood tree.


In order to differ from the common, vernacular, names of the animals in the Common Tongue of the World of Ice and Fire, their scientific names will be created in the High Valyrian.

The Valyrian languages are a group of languages that were spoken in the past, with High Valyrian being spoken in Valyria and its descendants languages (Astapori and Meereenesse Valyrian) spoken in Astapor and Meereen respectively, as well as a variety of dialects and corruptions of the pure High Valyrian spoken in the Free Cities (Martin et al., 2014). Although several words in High Valyrian were already present in the books of the series The Song of Ice and Fire written by G.R.R. Martin, the language was created by D.J. Peterson for the TV series (Peterson, 2013).

For the purpose of establishing the ‘Zoological Nomenclature of Ice and Fire’, the names will be written in High Valyrian, with the use of the letters of the Latin alphabet (High Valyrian was certainly written in its own alphabet). The source of linguistic information is the Dothraki Wiki (2018; information stored therein is copyrighted by the Language Creation Society, HBO, and G.R.R. Martin).

The main objective of this work is to name the main species of animals (e.g., the species of humans) and also provide some names for large groups (e.g., a name for ‘mammals’). The basic information comes from the bestiary of A Wiki of Ice and Fire (2018, and references therein). Parts of this work have been preliminary published in the subreddit r/asoiaf ( by the author, under the alias E_v_a_n (2017, and references therein). Very few names have been proposed by some other redditors and they are not included herein. The terms ‘species’, ‘subspecies’, and ‘genus’ are used in a similar sense as in modern taxonomy and nomenclature for simplicity.

The various names were created based on the following basic rules and recommendations, which are illustrated by examples where necessary. The formation of the majority these rules is based largely on valuable comments of David J. Peterson, whom I deeply thank.

Rule 1. Names for large groups consist of a single word, whereas names for ‘species’ consist of two words. Example: Valar for humans, Sylvie-Valar for the wise humans, which is included in Valar.

Rule 2. The two words comprising the ‘species’ names are hyphenated and each start with a capital letter. We do not know if such kind of punctuation was present in High Valyrian. The purpose of adding the hyphen here is mainly to distinguish these names from original binomina in nomenclature.

Rule 3. Group names are written in small capitals. This rule is only for stylistic purposes.

Rule 4. All original diacritics of High Valyrian must be kept. Besides its stylistic purpose, the application of this rule further distinguishes the names herein from original names in nomenclature.

Rule 5. Formation of group names is done either with nouns in the collective or adjectives with the addition of the derivational affix –enka (meaning ‘like’). Example A: To form the name of the group of humans (‘equivalent’ to a genus name) we could use the word ‘vala’ (1lun; man) in the collective, as Valar. Example B: To form the name of the group of reptile-like animals we could use the word ‘rīza’ (1lun; reptile, lizard) with the addition of the derivational affix –enka (adj. I), as Rīzenka. Note that in this case we need to use only the root of the word ‘rīza’ (rīz–).

Rule 6. Formation of a species name is done with the combination of an adjective and a noun in the collective. Note that adjectives must agree in gender (i.e., lunar, solar, terrestrial, aquatic), case, and number, with the noun they modify; however, as the noun is in the collective, the adjective should be in the singular. Also, the adjective goes before the noun it modifies. Example A: To create the name for the wise humans we could use the combination of the noun ‘Valar’ (1lun; ‘all the men’, in the collective) with the adjective ‘Sylvie’ (adj. III). The singular of this adjective would be ‘Sylvie’ for lunar/solar and ‘Sylvior’ for terrestrial/aquatic (in the singular; see Rule 5 above). As the word ‘Valar’ is of lunar gender, it should be combined with the adjective in the lunar gender as well, as Sylvie-Valar. Example B: To create an adjective from a noun one should use one of the derivational affixes like –enka (adj. I) (see Rule 5). Again, there must be agreement in gender.

Rule 7. To create a name that consists of three components (‘equivalent’ to a subspecies or for other purposes), insert the third component in its proper place according to the desired meaning, again in agreement to Rule 6. Example: For the name of the white walkers, supposedly a further subdivision of the wise humans, we could use the name Sylvie-Valar, inserting in between the adjective ‘Timpa’ (adj. I) in the lunar gender and in singular, as Sylvie-Timpa-Valar. In this arrangement it reads: ‘all the wise white men’. Contrary to our own nomenclature, the position of the components may vary depending on the desired meaning. For example, ‘all the white wise men’ would read as Timpa-Sylvie-Valar. Both versions are equivalent for nomenclatural purposes herein.

Rule 8. To form a name from a toponym, one should add the derivational suffix –sīha, or –īha (depending if the root ends in consonant or vowel), to form an adjective of Class I. It then follows in agreement to Rule 6. Alternatively — and this could be done with other names as well, not only with toponyms — one could use the derivational suffix –ōñe (which means ‘from the’) to form a Class II adjective. Example A: To name the species of humans from Ibben, we could add the suffix –īha, as Ibbenīha-Valar. In this form it reads: ‘all the Ibbenian humans’. Example B: Ibbenōñe-Valar. In this form, it reads: ‘all the humans from Ibben’. This is a quite useful suffix to form many other names as well (see below).

All original information below comes from The Song of Ice and Fire books (Martin, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2011) and The World of Ice and Fire (Martin et al., 2014). For simplicity, I will not add these citations below.

The relationships among the main ‘species’ named herein are depicted across the branches of a weirwood tree (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. The taxonomy of the animals of the World of Ice and Fire, depicted on the branches of a weirwood tree.

The maps presented herein (Figs. 2 and 4) are based on the original map available in Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0), which was subsequently edited in Adobe Photoshop (removing words) and Adobe Illustrator (tracing) to create the final ‘clean’ version for this article. Silhouettes of animals are re-drawn manually from pictures available online with permission to be modified.

Figure 2. The distribution of known animal species in the World of Ice and Fire, excluding those with cosmopolitan distribution.

Abbreviations: Nouns: numbers denote the declension, followed by the abbreviated gender (aq, aquatic; lun, lunar; sol, solar; ter, terrestrial). Adjectives (adj.): Roman numerals indicate the class.



(all the names; from the noun ‘brōzi’, 5lun, meaning ‘name’)

Dȳñenka, animals.

Etymology. Dȳñenka, from the word ‘dȳñes’ (4sol; animal) and the suffix –enka (adj. I), which means ‘like’; altogether the name means ‘animal-like’.

Remarks. The distribution of the animals of the World of Ice and Fire is shown in Figure 2. Those with a roughly cosmopolitan distribution (e.g., horses) were excluded for simplicity.

Jūlrenka, mammal-like animals.

Etymology. Jūlrenka, from the word ‘jūlor’ (3aq; milk) and the suffix –enka (adj. I).

Uēpys-Nusper, all the ancient cows or aurochs.

Etymology. Uēpys from the adjective ‘uēpa’ (adj. I; old); Nusper from the nominative collective of the noun ‘nuspes’ (4sol; cow).

Remarks. This is the ancestor of the modern-day cows, and was larger, with longer and more robust horns. Although not present in most of Westeros as a result of domestication, their presence is reported beyond the Wall, and are served in feasts in some of the Great Houses of the North.

Lantarōvatsienkys-Ñomber, all the elephants with two big teeth.

Etymology. Lantarōvatsienkys, from the combination of the words ‘lanta’ (adj. I; two), ‘rova’ (adj. I; big), ‘atsio’ (3lun; tooth), and the suffix –enkys, referring to the animals’ large tusks; Ñomber from the noun ‘ñombes’ (4sol; elephant).

Remarks. Native to Essos, quite common in Astapor.

Krubenkys-Ñombītsor, all the dwarf elephants.

Etymology. Krubenkys, from of the word ‘krubo’ (3lun; dwarf) and the suffix –enkys; Ñombītsor from the noun ‘ñombes’ (4sol; elephant) and the diminutive suffix –ītsos (2sol), in the collective.

Remarks. Related to elephants, but never reaching a large size; used as transportation in Volantis.

Timpa-Kēlior, all the white lions or hrakkars.

Etymology. Timpa from the adjective ‘timpa’ (adj. I; white); Kēlior, from the collective of the noun ‘kēlio’ (3lun; lion).

Remarks. A rare species of white lion, native to the Dothraki Sea.

Dothrakōñe-Anner, all the horses of the Dothraki.

Etymology. Dothrakōñe, from the Dothraki, the horselords, and the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Anner, from the nominative collective of the word ‘anne’ (4lun; horse).

Remarks. Widespread on the entire world, medium of transportation, and used in combat as well. They are especially important for the Dothraki horselords.

Rizmenkys-Annītsor, all the dwarf horses of the sand or sand steeds.

Etymology. Rizmenkys the word ‘rizmon’ (3ter; sand) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I); Annītsor from the word ‘anne’ (4lun; horse) and the diminutive suffix –ītsos (2sol) in the collective.

Remarks. Long neck, narrow head, slim and swift, with red, golden, black or pale fur. Bred in Dorne.

Starkenka-Zoklar, all the wolves of the Starks or direwolves.

Etymology. Starkenka, from the name of House Stark, whose sigil is the direwolf, and the suffix –enka (adj. I); Zoklar from the nominative collective of the word ‘zokla’ (1lun; wolf).

Remarks. An ancient relative of the common wolf, but much more robust and strong. Absent south of the Wall. However, a dead female direwolf was found south of the Wall; Ned Stark’s children and Jon Snow were allowed to keep and raise the pups (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. The first known occurrences of Starkenka-Zoklar south of the Wall, seen here as two pups of a female direwolf. A typical example of Sylvie-Ēlie-Valar (Jon Snow) for scale. Screen capture from Episode #1 (‘Winter is Coming’), Season #1, of Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–present).

Qohorōñe-Valyrītsor, all the Little Valyrians from Qohor.

Etymology. Qohorōñe from Qohor and the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Valyrītsor from the word Valyria and the diminutive suffix –ītsos (2sol) in the collective.

Remarks. Lemur-like primates with silver-white fur and purple eyes, living in the forest of Qohor.

Lannenka-Kēlior, all the lions of the Lannisters.

Etymology. Lannenka from Lann the Clever, founder of House Lannister whose sigil has a golden lion, and the suffix –enka (adj. I); Kēlior, from the collective of the word ‘kēlio’ (3lun; lion).

Ōgharenkys-Ñomber, all the great woolly elephants or mammoths.

Etymology. Ōgharenkys, from the word ‘ōghar’ (1aq; hair) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I); Ñomber, see above.

Remarks. Related to elephants, but more robust, with thick fur and curved tusks, from beyond the Wall. Giants usually ride them.

Sōnōñe-Gryver, all the snow bears.

Etymology. Sōnōñe, from the word ‘sōna’ (1lun; snow) and the suffix –ōñe; Gryver from the collective of the word ‘gryves’ (4sol; bear).

Remarks. Related to the brown bears, but adapted to survive in the cold environments beyond the Wall.

Μēremolrenkys-Epser, all the goats with a single horn or unicorns.

Etymology. Μēremolrenkys from the combination of the words ‘mēre’ (one) and ‘molry’ (2lun; horn) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I); Epser, from the nominative collective of the word ‘epses’ (4sol; goat).

Remarks. Goat-like animals with a single horn, believed to survive in Skagos and on the tall mountains of Ib. This disjointed distribution could be explained by two hypotheses: either they are native to one island and their presence on the other is explained by human interference; or this animal used to be widely distributed in the past (perhaps in times when the sea-level was lower and the two islands were connected to each other or to the mainland), and the present distributions are remnants.

Zōbritimpa-Anner, all the black-and-white horses or zorses.

Etymology. Zōbritimpa from the combination of the words ‘zōbrie’ (adj. III; black), ‘timpa’ (adj. I; white); Anner, from the nominative collective of the word ‘anne’ (4lun; horse).

Remarks. Related to horses, but with black and white stripes; they live in eastern Essos.

Valenka, the group of humans and human-like creatures.

Etymology. From the word ‘vala’ (1lun; man) and the suffix –enka (adj. I), meaning all-together ‘like humans’.

Remarks. This is the group that contains all human-like sentient species. Besides the group of humans, Valar (see below), there are several other species, mythical or not, that are most probably more closely related to the Valar than anything else. Although some of the species mentioned below could be myths and the product of fantasies and stories, I still prefer to properly name them. The distribution of Valenka is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. The distribution of known species of Valenka and Valar, the human-like species in the World of Ice and Fire.

Guēsōñe-Riñar, all the children from the forest.

Etymology. Guēsōñe from the word ‘guēsin’ (4lun; forest) and the suffix –ōñe; Riñar from the nominative collective of ‘riña’ (1lun; child).

Remarks. Dark and beautiful, less barbarous than the giants; renowned for working with obsidian and beautiful songs. Currently live beyond the Wall.

Rōvalar-Rōvalar, all the giants.

Etymology. Rōvalar (all the giants) from the nominative collective of ‘rōvala’ (1lun; giant). Both components of the name are identical for emphasis.

Remarks. Giants once had a broader distribution in the World of Ice and Fire, but currently are restricted to the lands north of the Wall.

Hagedornōñe-Annevalar, all the horsemen of Hagedorn, also known as the Centaurs.

Etymology. Hagedornōñe, in honor of the great Archmaester Hagedorn, who wrote that centaurs never existed and were simply mounted warriors; Annevalar, from the combination of the words ‘vala’ (1lun; man) and ‘anne’ (4 lun; horse), meaning horsemen in the nominative collective.

Remarks. Most probably, the specimens examined in the Citadel are artifacts of mixtures of skeletons of humans and horses, probably confused with the Dothraki. Even so, it is still possible, especially in a world of magic like the World of Ice and Fire, that they once existed. Supposed distribution in the eastern grasslands of Essos during the Dawn Age.

Theronōñe-Valītsor, all the little humans of Theron, also known as the Deep Ones.

Etymology. Theronōñe, in honor to Maester Theron who first wrote about these creatures; Valītsor from the word ‘vala’ (1lun; man) and the diminutive suffix –ītsos (2sol) in the nominative collective.

Remarks. Supposedly misshapen creatures that fathered the merlings (see below). Their exact distribution is not known, but reports mention the destruction of the Lorathi mazemakers by sea creatures and the sacrifice of sailors on the Thousand Islands to fish-headed gods, likely connected to the Deep Ones. As such, we can speculate that the Deep Ones had a Shivering Sea distribution.

Klihenka-Valar, all the fish-men, also known as merlings.

Etymology. Klihenka, from ‘klios’ (3sol; fish) and the suffix –enka (adj. I); for Valar, see below.

Remarks. Aquatic human/fish hybrids, with a cosmopolitan distribution. House Manderly has a merling at its sigil.

Guēsōñe-Dekurūptyr, all the walkers of the forest, also known as the Ifeqevron.

Etymology. Guēsōñe (of the forest) from the word ‘guēsin’ (4lun; forest); Dekurūptyr comes from the word ‘dekurūbagon’ (to walk) and the suffix –tys (2sol) to form the word ‘walker’ in the nominative collective.

Remarks. Ifeqevron means, in the Dothraki language, ‘those who walk in the woods’, which served as the inspiration behind the name in High Valyrian. They inhabit the great forest of the Kingdom of Ifeqevron in northern Essos, between Vaes Dothrak and the Ibben Islands.

Valar, the group containing all humans.

Etymology. From the nominative collective of the noun ‘vala’ (1lun; man), meaning ‘all the humans’.

Remarks. Besides the major ethnic groups of Valar described below (the First Men, the Andals, and the Rhoynars), there are other ‘species’ of Valar that deserve their own name, some of them clearly distinct (e.g., the Ibbenese and the Hairy Men) and others probably distinct from Sylvie-Valar, like the Valyrians. In other cases, we do not have enough information to discern if some ethnic groups are truly distinct from those mentioned above. The horselords Dothraki are, of course, the most important example, including the tribes around them (e.g., the Lhazareen, Jogos Nhai, Qathii). As the First Men originate from the grasslands of Essos, and the Andals were also a nomadic group that stretched eastward in Essos, it is likely that the origin of these groups could be found in them. In the absence of convincing evidence, I prefer not to name all these Sylvie-Valar groups for the moment.

Ibbenīha-Valar, all the Ibbenians.

Etymology. Valar, see above; Ibbenīha comes from the combination of the word Ibben, their island of origin, and the suffix –īha (adj. I), which would mean in the Common Tongue ‘Ibbenian’.

Remarks. They are included in their own species of Valar, as they are apparently unable to produce viable offspring with other species of humans.

Ōgharenka-Valar, all the Hairy Men.

Etymology. Valar, see above; Ōgharenka, from the word ‘ōghar’ (1aq; hair) and the suffix –enka (adj. I).

Remarks. As the Hairy Men are supposed to be closely related to the Ibbenians, I assume that they represent a distinct species of Valar. Some say that they originated in Ibben and then spread out to Essos, settling in places like Lorath.

Sothorīha-Valar, all the Sothorysians.

Etymology. Valar, see above; Sothorīha comes from the combination of the word Sothoryos, their island of origin, and the suffix –īha (adj. I), which would mean in the Common Tongue ‘Sothorysian’.

Remarks. As the humans from Sothoryos, or Brindled Men, were unable to produce viable offspring with other species of humans, I suppose that they represent a distinct species of Valar.

Jaedrōñe-Valar, all the humans from the Summer Islands.

Etymology. Jaedrōñe comes from the word ‘jaedria’ (Summer Islands; 1aq.), and the suffix –ōñe, in allusion to the Summer Islands, their place of origin; Valar, see above.

Remarks. They are included in their own species of Valar, as they, throughout their history, apparently lived isolated from the rest.

Sylvie-Valar, all the wise humans.

Etymology. Sylvie, from the nominative singular of the adjective ‘sylvie’ (adj. III; wise);  Valar see above.

Remarks. The First Men, the Andals and Rhoynars represent the three major ethnic groups in the World of Ice and Fire and we have evidence of their interbreeding producing viable offspring. As such, I include them in the same ‘species’, with different ‘subspecies’.

Sylvie-Ēlie-Valar, all the wise First Men.

Etymology. Ēlie comes from the adjective ‘ēlie’ (adj. III; first, primary).

Sylvie-Andalōñe-Valar, all the wise Andals.

Etymology. Andalōñe comes from the word for the Andals and the suffix –ōñe (adj. II).

Sylvie-Rhoynarīha-Valar, all the wise Rhoynarians.

Etymology. Rhoynarīha comes from Rhoynar and the suffix –īha (adj. I), denoting their place of origin.

Sylvie-Valyrīha-Valar, all the wise Valyrians.

Etymology. Valyrīha comes from Valyria and the suffix –īha (adj. I), denoting their place of origin. 

Sylvie-Timpa-Valar, all the wise white humans.

Etymology. Timpa comes from the adjective ‘timpa’ (adj. I; white).

Remarks. Although their origin remains unclear, they probably represent a variation of the First Men. As such, they are tentatively included in the same ‘species’, but in a different ‘subspecies’ (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. A typical specimen of Sylvie-Timpa-Valar, a white walker from beyond the Wall, from the Lands of Always Winter. Screen capture from Episode #8 (‘Hardhome’), Season #5, of Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–present).

Hontenka, the group that contains all the birds.

Etymology. Comes from the stem of the nominative collective of the word ‘hontes’ (4sol; bird) and the suffix –enka (adj. I).

Remarks. This group contains all birds. Note that birds are not defined by their flight ability, which was developed independently in other groups, such as dragons and insects.

Bantenka-Lārar, all the crows of the night.

Etymology. Bantenka, from the word bantis (5sol; night) in honor of the Night’s Watch, whose members are called ‘crows’, and the suffix –enka; Lārar, from the collective of ‘lāra’ (1lun; crow).

Remarks. Iconic birds, mainly because of their association with the Night’s Watch.

Hontenkys-Dāryr, all the birds of the king, also known as the Eagle.

Etymology. Hontenkys, from the word ‘hontes’ (4sol; bird) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I); Dāryr, from the collective of the word dārys (2sol; king).

Udrenkys-Vōljer, all the ravens.

Etymology. Udrenkys, from the word ‘udir’ (5aq; word, news) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I); Vōljer, from the collective of the word ‘vōljes’ (4sol; raven).

Remarks. One of the animals with special importance to humans, as they are used in long-distance communication between settlements. They are usually under the care of the Maester of each castle.

Sōnenkys-Vōljer, all the ravens of the winter, also known as the White Ravens.

Etymology. Sōnenkys from the word ‘sōnar’ (1lun; winter) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I), in allusion to their use by the Maesters of the Citadel to announce the change of seasons; Vōljer, from the collective of the word vōljes (4sol; raven).

Remarks. A different species of raven, kept and raised in the Citadel. They are used to announce the changing of seasons in Westeros.

Sōnenkor-Vāedar, the song of the snow, also known as the Snow Shrike.

Etymology. Sōnenkor, from the word ‘sōna’ (1lun; snow) with the suffix –enkor (adj. I); Vāedar, from the nominative of the word ‘vāedar’ (1aq; song).

Remarks. Found mainly in the North, but go as south as the Riverlands.

Tīkunītsenka, the small winged animals.

Etymology. From ‘tīkun’ (3sol; wing) and the suffixes –ītsos (2 sol; diminutive) and –enka (adj. I).

Ānogro-Bībire-Zōbros, the purple, blood-sucking animal, or bloodfly.

Etymology. Ānogro, from the word ‘ānogar’ (1aq; blood) in the genitive; Bībire, from the verb ‘bībagon’ (to suck); Zōbros, from the substantive of the word ‘zōbrie’ (adj. III; purple). The name means the “bloodsucking purple one”.

Remarks. Bloodsucking, purple insect, living in marshes and ponds in Essos.

Kastys-Raeder, all the green scorpions, or manticores.

Etymology. Kastys, from the adjective ‘kasta’ (adj. I; blue, green), in allusion to the Jade Sea where this creature lives; Raeder, from the nominative collective of the noun ‘raedes’ (4sol; scorpion).

Remarks. They have a black carapace, a barbed tail, and a human-like face. Its sting is poisonous and causes heart attack in humans. They live in the islands of the Jade Sea.

Rīzenka, the group of reptile-like animals.

Etymology. From the word ‘rīza’ (1lun; reptile, lizard) and the suffix –enka.

Basiliskīha-Rīzar, all the Basiliskian reptiles.

Etymology. Basiliskīha, from Basilisk and the suffix –īha (adj. I), meaning “Basiliskian”; Rīzar from the collective of the noun ‘rīza’ (1lun; reptile, lizard).

Remarks. The basilisk is a venomous, large, reptile from the Basilisk Isles.

Drakarenkys-Zaldrīzer, all the fire dragons.

Etymology. Drakarenkys, from the word ‘drakarys’ (2sol; dragon-fire) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I); Zaldrīzer, from the nominative collective of the word ‘zaldrīzes’ (4sol; dragon).

Remarks. These magical creatures once lived in the entire World of Ice and Fire, with four limbs, two wings, strong jaws, sharp teeth and claws, horns, and a long pointed tail (Fig. 6); they breathe fire. Once the source of power for the Valyrian dragonlords and the Targaryens, they were considered extinct since the last dragon died in the 153 AC (After Conquest) following the events of the Dance of the Dragons. However, Daenerys Targaryen was recently able to hatch three dragon eggs.

Figure 6. Drogon, named after Khal Drogo, one of the two surviving Drakarenkys-Zaldrīzer, seen in the dragon pit of King’s Landing. Screen capture from Episode #7 (‘The Dragon and the Wolf’), Season #7, of Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–present).

Suvenkys-Zaldrīzer, all the ice dragons.

Etymology. Suvenkys, from word ‘suvion’ (3ter; ice) and the suffix –enkys (adj. I); Zaldrīzer, see above.

Remarks. A mythical species of dragon that was larger than the fire dragons and breathed ice (Fig. 7). Rumor has it that the Night King was able to create a Suvenkys-Zaldrīzer beyond the Wall.

Figure 7. Viserion, named after Viserys Targaryen (brother of Daenerys Targaryen), the only known specimen of Suvenkys-Zaldrīzer in the World of Ice and Fire. Although seemingly identical to a Drakarenkys-Zaldrīzer, there is clear evidence that this species does not breathe fire. Scholars disagree if a Suvenkys-Zaldrīzer breaths ice or some kind of ‘icy fire’. Screen capture from Episode #7 (‘The Dragon and the Wolf’), Season #7, of Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–present).

Tīkunoqittys-Zaldrīzer, all the dragons without wings, or firewyrms.

Etymology. Tīkunoqittys, from the nominative plural of the word ‘tīkun’ (3sol; wing) with the suffix –oqittys (adj. I; –less); Zaldrizer, see above.

Remarks. Wingless fire dragons from the Valyrian peninsula. Extinct.

Drakaroqittys-Zaldrīzer, all the fireless dragons, or wyverns.

Etymology. Drakaroqittys, from the word drakarys (2sol; dragon-fire) and the suffix –oqittys (adj. I; less); Zaldrīzer, see above.

Remarks. Related to dragons but fireless, surviving in Sothyryos.

Rīdōñe-Rīskelior, all the lizard-lions of the Reeds.

Etymology. Rīdōñe, meaning ‘of the Reed’, in honor to House Reed, whose sigil has a black lizard-lion, and the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Rīskelior, from the word ‘rīza’ (1lun; reptile, lizard) and the word ‘kēlio’ (3lun; lion) in the collective.

Remarks. Crocodile-like lizards with large teeth that live in the streams and swamps of the Neck.

Qarthōñor-Qintrir, all the turtles of Qarth, or phantom tortoises.

Etymology. Qarthōñor, from the city of Qarth and the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Qintrir, from the nominative col of the noun ‘qintir’ (5aq; turtle).

Tegōñior-Qintrir, all the terrestrial turtles.

Embōñior-Qintrir, all the marine turtles.

Qelbōñior-Qintrir, all the aquatic turtles.

Etymology. The first components are formed from the adjectives ‘tegōñe’ (adj. II; terrestrial), ‘embōñe’ (adj. II; marine), and ‘qelbōñe’ (adj. II; aquatic, from the river); Qintrir, see above.

Remarks. Reptile-like animals, whose body is enclosed within a bony shell; they can reach large sizes and have a cosmopolitan distribution. Although probably there are dozens of different species of turtles in the World of Ice and Fire, they are grouped here under three species only, based on their preferred habitat. Further work should focus on describing the various species of turtles included in each of these above-named groups.

Martino-Qintrir, the turtle of Martin, also known as the Old Man of the River.

Etymology. Martino, genitive of Martin, in honor of G.R.R. Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire series; Qintrir, see above.

Remarks. The Old Man of the River is a sacred giant turtle that lived in the river Rhoyne, and is worshiped by the Rhoynars. G.R.R. Martin has publicly expressed his love of turtles and the role that they played in the development of the World of Ice and Fire[2], so this species is named after him.

Embenka, all the sea-dwelling animals.

Etymology. From the noun ‘embar’ (1aq; sea) and the suffix –enka (adj. I).

Grējojōñor-Uēhor, all the great squids of the Greyjoys, or krakens.

Etymology. Grējojōñor, in allusion to House Greyjoy, whose sigil bears a golden kraken, with the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Uēhor, from the word ‘uēs’ (3sol; squid) in the nominative collective.

Remarks. A kind of giant squid, supposedly living in the sea south of Dorne.

Embrōñe-Jēnqañōgher, all the sea creatures with eight arms, also known as octopods.

Etymology. Embrōñe, from the genitive collective of the word ‘embar’ (1aq; sea) with the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Jēnqañōgher, from the combination of the words ‘jēnqa’ (eight) and ‘ñōghe’ (4lun; arm) in the collective.

Qaedrāzmar-Qaedrāzmar, all the great whales, or leviathans.

Etymology. Qaedrāzmar, from the word ‘qaedar’ (1aq; whale) and the augmentative suffix –āzma (1lun) in the collective.

Remarks. An enormous grey whale, among the most ancient creatures of the World of Ice and Fire. Found in the Shivering Sea.

Naggōñe-Embrōñe-Zaldrīzer, all the sea dragons of Nagga.

Etymology. Naggōñe, of Nagga, the mythical sea dragon, with the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Embrōñe, from the word ‘embar’ (1aq; sea) and the suffix –ōñe (adj. II); Zaldrīzer, see above.

Remarks. A sea dragon, feeding on krakens and leviathans. Supposedly extinct since the Age of Heroes, although some believe it still survives in the Sunset Sea.


This is only the first account on the names of some of the most important animals of the World of Ice and Fire. Many more kinds of beings remain lacking formal names, including most domesticated animals and plants. Future work should focus on refining this system of taxonomy and describing the remarkable living and extinct diversity of Westeros and Essos.


Dothraki Wiki (Tongues of Ice and Fire Wiki). (2018) Learning High Valyrian. Available from: (Date of access: 27/Apr/2018).

E_v_a_n. (2017) The Full Taxonomy of Ice and Fire. Subreddit “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Available from: (Date of access: 27/Apr/2018).

International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). (1999) International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. 4th Edition. The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, London.

International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). (2012) Amendment of Articles 8, 9, 10, 21 and 78 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature to expand and refine methods of publication. ZooKeys 219: 1–10.

Martin, G.R.R. (1996) A Game of Thrones. Bantam Books, New York.

Martin, G.R.R. (1999) A Clash of Kings. Bantam Books, New York.

Martin, G.R.R. (2000) A Storm of Swords. Bantam Books, New York.

Martin, G.R.R. (2005) A Feast for Crows. Bantam Books, New York.

Martin, G.R.R. (2011) A Dance with Dragons. Bantam Books, New York.

Martin, G.R.R.; Garcia, E.; Antonsson, L. (2014) The World of Ice and Fire: the Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. Bantam Books, New York.

Peterson, D.J. (2013) Valar Dohaeris. Dothraki: a Language of Fire and Blood. Available from: ris/ (Date of access: 27/Apr/2018).

Wiki of Ice and Fire, A. (2018) Bestiary. Available from: Bestiary (Date of access: 27/Apr/2018).


I would like to thank the Dothraki Wiki community for making available the rules, grammar and dictionary of High Valyrian. I thank the Reddit communities of the Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones for inspiration and comments. Special thanks to the redditors u/hm0119 and u/jackm0ve for their interest to jump in and name some species of their own; these names have not been included herein. I would like to deeply thank the editor of the JGS, Rodrigo B. Salvador, and the rest of the editorial board for useful comments that greatly improved this manuscript. I would like to express my gratitude to David J. Peterson, the creator of the Valyrian and Dothraki languages, who reviewed an earlier version of the manuscript; he managed not only to point out the numerous mistakes I made in the formation of the words in my early version but also to provide valuable lessons through his critical review. His comments and suggestions also made the entire system much more consistent and uniform. Of course, I am solely responsible for any mistakes in the formation of the High Valyrian names. This project has been developed in my free time, but was inspired by the importance of zoological nomenclature and the art of coining species names. I would like to thank my family for their understanding and support when I spend time with projects like this.


Evangelos Vlachos is a big fan of the World of Ice and Fire and, just like G.R.R. Martin, a huge fan of turtles and tortoises. He is currently a CONICET researcher in the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, in Trelew, Chubut, Argentina, working on fossil turtles and tortoises.

[1] See the ICZN’s website ( for detailed information.

[2] From ing/game-of-thrones-turtles/

Check other articles from this volume


One squid to rule them all

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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When it was released in 2014, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment) proved to be the game all Tolkien fans had been waiting for. Its sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, released in 2017, improved and expanded the first game. Besides all the orc-slaying action, the game has a bunch of other activities, including the most staple of gaming side quests: collectibles.

Simply put, collectibles are items scattered throughout the game and completionist gamers go crazy hunting them. In most games, collectibles do very little or even nothing at all, but in Shadow of War, they reveal little tidbits of the game’s lore. When dealing with any Tolkien-related story, we fans are always happy to have more information about the setting and this makes the collectibles in Shadow of War rather enjoyable.

One of these collectibles, a fossilized squid’s beak, immediately and inevitably caught my attention. Since this fossil deserves more time in the spotlight than what it got in the game, I have devoted this article to analyze it more thoroughly.


The fossil in Shadow of War can be found in Mordor and it represents a squid’s beak (Fig. 1). In the game, the item is called “Kraken Beak Fossil” and is accompanied by the following comment by Idril, the non-player character responsible for the treasury of the Gondorian city Minas Ithil: “Our patrols found this fossilized squid beak years ago. If it is proportional to the smaller squids that fishermen sometimes catch, the sea creature would be several hundred feet long.

Figure 1. The fossilized squid beak found in Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Credit: Monolith Productions / Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment; screenshot from the game.

The item is named a “Kraken beak” in allusion to the well-known fact that real-life giant squids were the origin of the Kraken myth (Salvador & Tomotani, 2014). So the characters in the game recognize they are dealing with a “giant version” of their common squids. But what exactly is a squid’s beak? And can fossil beaks really be found in our planet’s rocks? To answer these questions, we will need a little primer in squid biology.


Squids are animals belonging to the Phylum Mollusca, the mollusks, and more specifically to the Class Cephalopoda. Cephalopods are very diverse creatures and the group includes not only squids but also octopuses, cuttlefish, nautiluses and two completely extinct lineages: the belemnites and the ammonoids. Cephalopods live in seas worldwide (from the surface to 5,000 m deep) and are represented by over 800 living species; the fossil record, on the other hand, counts with 17,000 species (Boyle & Rodhouse, 2005; Rosenberg, 2014).

The first cephalopods appeared over 450 million years ago during the late Cambrian (Boyle & Rodhouse, 2005; Nishiguchi & Mapes, 2008). They achieved an astounding diversity of species during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, but some lineages (ammonoids and belemnites) are now extinct (Monks & Palmer, 2002). Today, we have two distinct groups of cephalopods: the nautiluses, a relict group with just a handful of species, and the neocoleoids, a latecomer group that appeared during the Mesozoic and includes cuttlefish, octopuses, and squids (Boyle & Rodhouse, 2005; Nishiguchi & Mapes, 2008).

Squids are soft-bodied animals and their body is divided into three parts (Fig. 2): (1) the mantle, where most organs are located; (2) the head, where the eyes, brain, and mouth are located; and (3) the eight arms and two tentacles (the latter usually look different from the arms and can be much longer).

Figure 2. Diagram of a squid, with the names of their body parts. Credit: Barbara M. Tomotani; image modified from Salvador & Tomotani (2014: fig. 7).

The mouth of the squid is on the center of the circle formed by the arms. It contains a pair of chitinous mandibles, which together are called a “beak” because of their resemblance to a bird’s beak (Fig. 3). Squids hold their prey with their arms, draw it towards the mouth, and take small bites off it using the beak. The beak and mandibles move by muscular action – they are connected by jaw muscles within a globular organ called “buccal mass” (Nixon, 1988; Tanabe & Fukuda, 1999).

Figure 3. Example of a squid: a (dead) specimen of Doryteuthis sanpaulensis (Brakoniecki, 1984). Top: whole animal. Bottom left: mouth region (in the center of the ring of arms). Bottom right (upper inset): close-up of the mouth; the beak is barely visible. Bottom right (bottom insets): beak (removed from the specimen) in frontal and lateral views. The specimen is deposited in the scientific collection of the Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo (São Paulo, Brazil) under the record number MZSP 86430. Photos by Carlo M. Cunha; image reproduced from Salvador & Cunha (2016: fig. 6).

Usually, the only parts of an animal to become fossils are the mineralized (and thus hard) skeletal structures, such as bone, teeth, and shells. Squids are almost completely soft-tissue animals and so are only preserved in the fossil record in exceptional circumstances. The beak of a squid is not mineralized; rather, it is composed only of organic compounds such as chitin (the same substance found on insects’ exoskeleton) and proteins (Miserez et al., 2008). Nevertheless, the beak is reasonably tough and thus, it can become a fossil under the right circumstances. Indeed, several fossil squids (and neocoleoids in general) are known only from their beaks (Tanabe, 2012; Tanabe et al., 2015; Fig. 4) or their internal vestigial shell[1].

Therefore, it is plausible that a fossil beak of a squid could be found in Mordorian rocks. It could be argued that the fossil presented in the game is not morphologically accurate, especially the frontal part of the beak, which seems to be a single piece instead of two (Fig. 1), but we can disregard this here and accept the Mordorian fossil for what the game says it is: the remains of a squid that lived long ago. The game’s description of the fossil implies that the animal would be huge – but how can we know the size of the animal only from its beak? And how big can a squid get anyway? I will try to answer those questions now.


Besides Idril’s comments about the fossil in Shadow of War and how large the actual animal must have been (“several hundred feet”), we have no real indication of the fossil’s size – no scale bar alongside its depiction, for instance. Knowing the actual size of a squid’s beak allows scientists to estimate the animal’s size, based on data from recent species. For instance, Tanabe et al. (2015), described a new squid species based on a fossilized beak (Fig. 4). They named it Haboroteuthis poseidon and, by its lower beak of roughly 7 cm, estimated it to be the size of a Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas d’Orbigny, 1835), with a mantle length of 1.5 m – a giant in its own right. However, nature does not disappoint us in this regard and we have two amazingly huge species, aptly named Colossal squid and Giant squid.

Figure 4. The fossil beak (lower jaw, viewed from several angles) of Haboroteuthis poseidon Tanabe, Misaki & Ubukata, 2015, a squid from the late Cretaceous period (roughly 85 million years ago) of Japan. Image reproduced from Tanabe et al. (2015: fig. 7).

The Colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni Robson, 1925, is the largest living cephalopod species in terms of body mass. It is very bulky, weighing up to half a ton and maybe even more. The Giant squid, Architeuthis dux Steenstrup, 1857, is actually the largest invertebrate alive – it can reach up to 20 meters (about 65 feet) in length, from the tip of its mantle to the tip of its long tentacles. However, Architeuthis has a slender build and even though it is larger, it weighs less than Mesonychoteuthis. Centuries ago encounters on the open sea with Architeuthis left Nordic seafarers in awe, giving rise to the legend of the Kraken (Salvador & Tomotani, 2014).

But since Idril did not take her time to actually measure the fossil, we cannot estimate the body size of the Mordorian squid. Her estimate of several hundred feet is way larger than the “modest” 65 feet of Architeuthis and extremely unrealistic for any kind of animal (both soft-bodied and with a hard internal skeleton); thus, it can be dismissed as a guesstimate of someone without training in zoology. However, given the large “prehistoric” proportions of other animals in Tolkien’s legendarium, such as wargs and oliphaunts, we could expect the Mordorian squid to be really big – but good old Biology would not allow a much larger size than Architeuthis.

But what about the Middle-earth canon? Did Tolkien provide us with some nice Kraken-like legends to settle this matter?


Judging by videos and forum discussions on the Internet, most of the players that found the fossil in Shadow of War just considered it to belong to a monster akin to the “Watcher in the Water” from The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien, 1954a). Of course, that simply cannot be, because the Watcher is not a cephalopod; for starters, he is watching from a pool of freshwater. Its physiology and behavior do not really match those of cephalopods. The Watcher’s physical description (Tolkien, 1954a) is vague enough to match virtually any kind of “tentacled” monster; people just assume it is a cephalopod because of the tentacles[2] (e.g., Tyler, 1976).

In his Tolkien Bestiary, Day (2001) took a huge liberty and gave the name Kraken to the Watcher.[3] Tolkien, however, never mentioned a Kraken (or cephalopods) in his writings – and surely did not relate that name to the Watcher[4] (even in manuscript; C. Tolkien, 2002a).

As Tolkien scholarship is very complex, I reached out to the American Tolkien Society just to be safe. They confirmed the absence of krakens and squid-like beasts in Tolkien’s works (A.A. Helms, personal communication 2017).

We must remember, however, that the video games (including Shadow of War) are not part of the accepted Tolkien’s canon, which includes only the published writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the posthumous works edited and published by his son Christopher. Games like Shadow of War are thus allowed to deviate from the core works and invent new things to amaze and surprise its players. And one of these things seems to be the fossil giant squid.

Therefore, we can think of Shadow of War’s squid as a new discovery: a new species hitherto unknown to Science. New species discoveries always get the public’s attention, but few people actually know how scientists are able to recognize a species as new and what they do to formally describe and name it. So let us take a closer look at the whole process.


The beaks of recent cephalopods have been widely studied by zoologists (e.g., Clarke, 1962; Nixon, 1988) and so they provide a good basis for comparison when someone finds a new fossil. By comparing the morphological features of the new find with previously known species, it is possible to decide if it belongs to one of them or if it represents a new species.

Now let us imagine that the Mordorian fossil was compared to all known cephalopods and we discovered it is, in fact, a new species. How do scientists formally describe a new species and give it one of those fancy Latin names?

The science of defining and naming biological organisms is called Taxonomy and it deals with all types of living beings, from bacteria to plants to animals. Zoologists have long ago come up with a set of rules for describing new species; it is called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, or ICZN for short.[5] We are now in the 4th edition of the ICZN, from 1999. The “Code” gives us guidelines for naming species and for what is considered a good (or valid) species description. For a new species to be recognized by the scientific community, its authors (i.e., the scientists describing it) have to provide a set of crucial information: (1) a description or a diagnosis of the species; (2) a holotype specimen; (3) the type locality; and (4) a scientific name. So let me explain each of these.

The description of a species is very straightforward: the researcher lists all the features (called “characters”) from the species. This includes morphology (e.g., shape, color), anatomy (e.g., internal organs), behavior (e.g., feeding habits, courtship), ecology (e.g., preferred prey), habitat, etc. As Mayr et al. (1953: 106) put it, the characters listed in the description are limited “only by the patience of the investigator”.

The diagnosis, on the other hand, is a list of just those characters that distinguish the new species from all the other species in the same group (like a genus or family). The word “diagnosis” comes from the Greek and originally means “to distinguish between two things” (Simpson, 1961). Both description and diagnosis are written in a peculiar telegraphic way, which will seem very odd for people not used to it.

The holotype is a single physical specimen chosen by the author to be the name-bearing specimen of the given species. That means the scientific name of the species is forever linked with that specimen and this will form the basis for the definition of the species. The holotype should ideally represent the species well, but this is not always the case: it can be an entire animal, such as a squid preserved in a jar of ethanol, or just part of the animal, such as the squid’s beak. The latter case is especially true for fossils, where the whole animal is not preserved. Finally, the holotype should be preserved and kept in a museum or university collection, thus allowing access to anyone interested in studying it.

The type locality is the place where the holotype comes from; the more precise the locality (e.g., GPS coordinates), the better. For fossils, it is also common to indicate the type stratum, that is, the layer of rock where the holotype was found.

Finally, the author gets to choose a scientific name for the species. The scientific names of species are formed by two parts; let us have as an example the species Corvus corax, the common raven. The first part is actually the name of the genus, Corvus, which includes not only ravens but also species of crows, rooks, and jackdaws. The second part of the name (corax) is called the “specific epithet”. However, one should always remember that the species name is not simply corax. The word corax by itself means nothing unless it is accompanied by the genus name. Thus, the complete name of the raven species is Corvus corax.

When choosing the specific epithet, the author can use anything he wants, but most commonly people use a word that denotes: (1) a morphological feature, such as Turdus rufiventris, the rufous-bellied thrush (naturally, rufiventris means “rufous-bellied”); (2) the place where the species can be found, such as the Abyssinian thrush, Turdus abyssinicus (Abyssinia is a historical name for Ethiopia); (3) an ecological or behavioral trait, like the mistle thrush, Turdus viscivorus (viscivorus means “mistletoe eater”); or (4) a homage to someone, like Naumann’s thrush, Turdus naumanni, named in honor of the German naturalist Johann Andreas Naumann (the suffix “-i” in the specific epithet is the Latin masculine singular form of the genitive case). The explanation of where the name comes from is called etymology.

Furthermore, when writing a scientific name, it is good practice to also include the authorship of the species; this means including the name(s) of the author(s) who originally described it. In the example above, the complete species name would be Corvus corax Linnaeus, 1758. Linnaeus is the scientist who first described the species and 1758 is the year he published the description.

So now that the formalities of taxonomy were presented, let us see how our new Mordorian species could be described. If the species in question cannot be placed in an existing genus, a new genus might be described and the same ICZN rules above apply. So let’s start by naming the genus Mordorteuthis n. gen.[6], which reflects the place where the fossil was discovered (“teuthis”, from the Greek, means “squid”).

The new species could then be formally described as Mordorteuthis idrilae n. sp.[7], named in honor of Idril (the suffix “-ae” in the specific epithet is the Latin feminine singular form of the genitive case).[8] The holotype would be the specimen recovered by Talion (Fig. 1) that originally belonged to the treasury of Minas Ithil. For safekeeping, the holotype should then be handed over to a decent academic institution, like the Royal Museum of Minas Tirith (yes, I just invented that). The type locality would be Mordor, close to the Sea of Núrnen; the type stratum, however, remains unknown, as this information is not provided in the game (it is suggested, however, that the fossil was found on a beach of the Sea of Núrnen). The diagnosis should give a list of features (such as its large size) that can distinguish it from other fossil squids from Middle-earth; a hard task, given that this is the very first fossil squid described from Middle-earth. The description would be a full account of the fossil’s shape, proportions, and fine structures; this can be boring even for trained taxonomists, so I won’t do it here (for an actual example, see Tanabe & Hikida, 2010).

Finally, we might glimpse some information about the squid’s habitat: the fossil was found close to the Sea of Núrnen, which is an inland saltwater lake, like our Dead Sea (Tolkien, 1954b). Both the Sea of Núrnen and the Sea of Rhûn to the north are thought to be remnants of the old Sea of Helcar from the First Age (Fonstad, 1991; C. Tolkien, 2002b).[9] The Sea of Helcar would be much larger and thus, perhaps a fitting place for large squids to thrive. Besides, its old age makes it a likely point of origin for a fossil.

Of course, a new species description is only valid if published in the scientific literature. Therefore, our little flight of fancy with Mordorteuthis idrilae here is not a valid species description, but it can sure serve as a nice introduction to taxonomy and to how scientists describe new species.

Finally, it is always worthwhile to mention that several taxonomists have paid homage to Tolkien by naming their genera and species after characters and places from his writings (Isaak, 2014). For instance, we have the genera Smaug (lizard), Beorn (tardigrade), and Smeagol (snail), and the species Macropsis sauroni (leafhopper), and Bubogonia bombadili and Oxyprimus galadrielae (both fossil mammals). But there are many others. That may be inevitable in a sense, as several nerds end up becoming scientists. In any event, geeky names such as these sure make an otherwise arid science a little bit more colorful.


Boyle, P. & Rodhouse, P. (2005) Cephalopods: Ecology and Fisheries. Blackwell Science, Oxford.

Clarke, M.R. (1962) The identification of cephalopod “beaks” and the relationship between beak size and total body weight. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Zoology 8: 419–480.

Day, D. (2001) Tolkien Bestiary. Random House, New York.

Fonstad, K. (1991) The Atlas of Middle-earth, Revised Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.

International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. (1999) International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th ed. The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, London.

Isaak, M. (2014) Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature. Etymology: Names from Fictional Characters. Available from: (Date of access: 11/Jan/2018).

Mayr, E.; Linsley, E.G.; Usinger, R.L. (1953) Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Miserez, A.; Schneberk, T.; Sun, C.; Zok, F.W.; Waite, J.H. (2008) The transition from stiff to compliant materials in squid beaks. Science 319(5871): 1816–1819.

Nishiguchi, M. & Mapes, R.K. (2008) Cephalopoda. In: Ponder, W.F. & Lindberg, D.R. (Eds.) Phylogeny and Evolution of the Mollusca. Springer, Dordrecht. Pp. 163–199.

Nixon, M. (1988) The buccal mass of fossil and Recent Cephalopoda. In: Clarke, M.R. & Trueman, E.R. (Eds.) The Mollusca, Vol. 12, Paleontology and Neontology of Cephalopods. Academic Press, San Diego. Pp. 103–122.

Rosenberg, G. (2014) A new critical estimate of named species-level diversity of the recent Mollusca. American Malacological Bulletin 32(2): 308–322.

Salvador, R.B. & Cunha, C.M. (2016) Squids, octopuses and lots of ink. Journal of Geek Studies 3(1): 12–26.

Salvador, R.B. & Tomotani, B.M. (2014) The Kraken: when myth encounters science. História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos 21(3): 971–994.

Simpson, G.G. (1961) Principles of Animal Taxonomy. Columbia University Press, New York.

Tanabe, K. (2012) Comparative morphology of modern and fossil coleoid jaw apparatuses. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen 266(1): 9–18.

Tanabe, K. & Fukuda, Y. (1999) Morphology and function of cephalopod buccal mass. In: Savazzi, E. (Ed.) Functional Morphology of the Invertebrate Skeleton. John Wiley & Sons, London. Pp. 245–262.

Tanabe, K.; Misaki, A.; Ubukata, T. (2015) Late Cretaceous record of large soft-bodied coleoids based on lower jaw remains from Hokkaido, Japan. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 60(1): 27–38.

Tennyson, A.L. (1830) Poems, chiefly lyrical. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Tolkien, C. (2002a) The History of Middle-earth II. HarperCollins, London.

Tolkien, C. (2002b) The History of Middle-earth III. HarperCollins, London.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954a) The Fellowship of the Ring. George Allen & Unwin, London.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954b) The Two Towers. George Allen & Unwin, London.

Tyler, J.E.A. (1976) The Complete Tolkien Companion. St. Martin’s Press, New York.


Brown, R.W. (1956) Composition of scientific words. Revised edition. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.

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Salvador, R.B. (2014) Geeky nature. Journal of Geek Studies 1(1-2): 41–45.

Winston, J.E. (1999) Describing Species: Practical Taxonomic Procedure for Biologists. Columbia University Press, New York.

Wright, J. (2014) The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. 


I am deeply grateful to the people from the American Tolkien Society (Amalie A. Helms, Connor Helms, and Phelan Helms) for the information about “krakens” in Tolkien’s works; to Dr. Philippe Bouchet (Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris, France) for the help with ICZN articles; and to Dr. Barbara M. Tomotani (Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Wageningen, The Netherlands) and Dr. Carlo M. Cunha (Universidade Metropolitana de Santos, Santos, Brazil) for the permission to use, respectively, Figures 2 and 3 here.


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a malacologist who has made his peace with the fact that virtually no one knows what a malacologist is. In case you’re wondering, it means “a zoologist specializing in the study of mollusks”. Despite being a Tolkien fan through and through, he does think that Middle-earth could use more zoological diversity.

[1] Called “cuttlebone” in cuttlefish and “gladius” or “pen” in squids and octopuses, although some lineages have completely lost the shell. Other cephalopods, like the nautilus, have very prominent external shells, as is the norm for other mollusks (e.g., snails, clams, etc.).

[2] Since people always get this wrong, just let me clear things up: squids have 8 arms and 2 tentacles, while octopuses have 8 arms and no tentacles whatsoever.

[3] Day also took another huge liberty in using the opening verses of the poem The Kraken (Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1830) without giving proper credit to the poet.

[4] Being stricter, the Watcher, like the Nazgûl’s flying mounts, remained nameless.

[5] Botanists (and mycologists) have their own code, the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants. Bacteriologists have their code as well, the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria.

[6] The abbreviation “n. gen.” after the name means “new genus” and indicates that the genus is being described here for the first time.

[7] Likewise, “n. sp.” means “new species” and indicates that the species is being described here for the first time.

[8] The nomenclatural acts on this article are presented simply for hypothetical concepts (a Middle-earth squid) and are disclaimed for nomenclatural purposes, being thus not available (ICZN Articles 1.3.1 and 8.3).

[9] In earlier writings, the names are usually spelled Nûrnen and Helkar.

Check other articles from this volume


The plants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium

Walter S. Judd1,2 & Graham A. Judd3

1Department of Biology, University of Florida. Gainesville, FL, U.S.A.

2Florida Museum of Natural History. Gainesville, FL, U.S.A.

3Independent researcher. South Saint Paul, MN, U.S.A.

Emails: lyonia (at) ufl (dot) edu; gjudd (at) me (dot) com

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Many readers of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings believe that the events of these books occur in an imaginary world and thus have no connection with the world around us. However, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien sought to correct this misconception, stating that Middle-earth “is just the use of Middle English middle-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men ‘between the seas.’” He went on to say that “imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (Tolkien, 1981, Letter No. 165). His writings should not be considered escapist, but instead are meant to reconnect us to important elements of our internal and cultural landscape. They should also influence how we interact with other individuals and with the world in which we live — including the landscapes of our natural environment — and especially plants! The importance of plants in the Tolkien’s Middle-earth is thus considered in detail in our book, Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium, recently published by Oxford University Press (Judd & Judd, 2017), which we introduce here, along with an introduction to the importance of plants in connection with Tolkien’s imaginative world.

Flora of Middle-Earth (book cover, showing forest of Lothlórien)

Our book focuses on one of the major components of our environment — the Green Plants — organisms to which many in our modern, highly technological world have become blind (Wandersee & Schussler, 2001; Allen, 2003). Indeed, some have argued that we are now disconnected from the entire natural world (Yoon, 2009). Plants are ecologically diverse and range dramatically in size — from microscopic, aquatic, green algae to the tallest flowering trees or conifers. They are critically important in maintaining a healthy biosphere — and in fact, without plants, animal (and, of course, human) life would be impossible. They provide our food, construction materials for our homes, add beauty to our surroundings, and even provide the air we breathe. In Tolkien’s legendarium, plants are the primary concern of Yavanna Kementári, the Giver of Fruits and wife of Aulë, who has lordship over all the substances of which the Earth is made. As related in The Silmarillion, she is the “lover of all things that grow in the earth, and all their countless forms she holds in her mind, from the trees like towers in forests … to the moss upon stones or the small and secret things in the mould” (Valaquenta: p. 27). Understandably, she is held in great reverence by the elves, as are the natural environments she oversees. We believe Tolkien’s reference was comparable.

Tolkien’s descriptions of Middle-earth are richly detailed, including succinct verbal sketches of many of its plants, and thus create a realistic stage for his dramas. His detailed treatment of plants plays a major role in the creation of this stage — providing the distinctive landscapes and natural locales of Middle-earth — from the tundra and ice-fields of the north, to the extensive prairies of Rohan, and the coniferous forests of Dorthonion, as well as the broad-leaved forests of Doriath or Fangorn and wetlands such as the Gladden Fields. The dominant species within each plant community are always mentioned, especially the trees, which Tolkien, like Yavanna, held most dear (see The Silmarillion: chapter 2). Thus, it is critical for our appreciation and understanding of Middle-earth to envision these scenes accurately. These plants, however, do more than merely provide descriptive detail, enhancing the veracity of the tales of Middle-earth. The plants within Tolkien’s legendarium are actually part of the story, and in ways that are more deeply significant than merely evident in the actions of Ents — anthropomorphized trees — that “speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them” (The Silmarillion: p. 45). Their significance can be seen in the numerous connections between plants and important individuals in the myths and history of Middle-earth. For example, in the First Age (and earlier), how are we to understand the Two Trees of Valinor, fashioned by Yavanna, and why is it important that Thingol, the elven ruler of Doriath, was called the king of beech, oak, and elm? Why was his daughter, Lúthien, when first observed by Beren, dancing among the hemlock-umbels under the beeches of Neldoreth? And what is the link between her feet and the leaves of lindens? Why did hawthorns obscure the entrance to the Hidden Kingdom of Gondolin? During the Second Age, why did the elves give Aldarion, soon to become the sixth king of Númenor, a White Tree — Nimloth — and what is the connection between this tree and the White Trees of Gondor? Why did the elves bring to Númenor several different fragrant trees from Eressëa — and what did these trees look like?  In the Third Age, how was pipe-weed integral to the culture of the Shire, and why was athelas (kingsfoil) useful in the hands of the king of Gondor? How did these two herbs get to Middle-earth? What is the connection of willows and the Withywindle valley (in the Old Forest), and should willows, therefore, be viewed negatively? Why does Quickbeam love rowan-trees, and why were mallorn-trees important to Galadriel and the elves of Lothlórien? What did mallorn-trees look like? And finally, how should we envision the herbs elanor and niphredil, and what made these two plants so sacred to the elves? Of course many additional questions come quickly to mind, and we deal with these in our book.

It is obvious from even a cursory reading of The Lord of the Rings that the book was written by a person who was botanically knowledgeable — but more than that — a writer who really loved plants! (In fact his introduction to the world of plants occurred very early in his life when he was taught botany by his mother.) But we don’t need to merely accept this from our interpretations of his writings. Tolkien tells us of his appreciation of plants. He said in his letter to the Houghton Mifflin Co.: “I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals” (Tolkien, 1981: Letter No. 164). We agree: his love of plants is obvious, and it is apparent on nearly every page of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Only a writer whose eyes were open to the diversity of the natural world could have accomplished such a task — closely integrating plants into his imagined world, and, as a result, including nearly all the trees of England (and also most European trees) within the Middle-earth of the First through the Third Ages. Because the species of trees (as well as shrubs and herbs) growing in England and other European regions are for the most part members of widely distributed genera that also occur in temperate North America and Asia, especially eastern and southeastern Asia, we can find the plants of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in the forests and fields around our homes. Thus, a major goal of this book, in addition to increasing our appreciation of the imagined landscapes of Middle-earth, is to increase our respect for and understanding of the plants that grow in the natural environments that exist around us. Tolkien appreciated the beauty and diversity of the natural world, and its destruction through urbanization and industrialization angered him (unfortunately, modern followers of Saruman are not hard to find!). Thus, one of our goals is to increase the visibility of and love for plants in our modern culture. And, taking the Ents (i.e., sentient trees, indwelt by spirits “summoned from afar”; The Silmarillion: p. 45) as our role-models, we hope to foster the desire to protect the forests and meadows near our homes (and across the world). Finally, the wild plants of forest and field are not our only concern. In our book we have also described the cultivated plants of vegetable and flower gardens as well as agricultural fields, addressing the interesting and long history of plants and people (or hobbits and elves!). We should appreciate not only wild plants (as do the Ents) but also the plants of orchards and cultivated fields (like the Entwives). In the end, the fact that an investigation of the plants of Tolkien’s Middle-earth reconnects us with the plants of our own world should not be surprising. Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-Stories, said that “Recovery” is one of the goals of fantasy, and by this he meant “a re-gaining — regaining of a clear view” and “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.” Thus, in “experiencing the fantastic, we recover a fresh view of the unfantastic, a view too long dulled by familiarity” (Flieger, 2002: chapter 3).

If the plants of Tolkien’s legendarium are the trees, shrubs, and herbs of our own world, one might ask: What about plants such as elanor, niphredil, alfirin, simbelmynë, mallorn-trees, or the White Tree of Gondor? Are these simply the creation of Tolkien’s imagination, or do they also have links to our own world. The answer, we think, is both — certainly these plants, as Tolkien explained, “are lit by a light that would not be seen ever in a growing plant” (Tolkien, 1981: Letter No. 312) in our world — so they arise, some more and others less, out of his imagination and are used in specific ways in the story in order to clarify aspects of elven, human, or hobbit culture. They are artistic creations, enhancing the wonder and mystery of Tolkien’s imaginative world. But it is also important to keep in mind that perhaps all of the imaginative plants of Middle-earth are based, at least in part, on species of our own world. For example, Tolkien suggested that niphredil — if seen in the light of our world — would be “simply a delicate kin of a snowdrop,” while elanor would be “a pimpernel (perhaps a little enlarged) growing sun-golden flowers and star-silver ones on the same plant” (Tolkien, 1981: Letter No. 312). As early as 1956, Tolkien commented that “Botanists want a more accurate description of the mallorn, of elanor, niphredil, alfirin, mallos, and simbelmynë” (Tolkien, 1981: Letter No. 187), and we trust that many readers today have a similar desire. We have, therefore, done the necessary detective work to connect these imaginative plants with their sources and provide such accurate descriptions. We believe that this botanical knowledge will enrich the experience of those who have read (or are reading) Tolkien’s works. Our book explores the interactions between plants and the speaking-peoples of Middle-earth — such as humans, hobbits, elves, or ents — whether such plants are the common oaks, pines, or grasses found in the sunlight of our world or are those plants lit by a more imaginative light, such as niphredil or elanor. Thus, we attempt in our book to synthesize information from diverse realms: Tolkien’s writings, etymology (the evolution of words), botany and plant systematics (the study of plants and their evolutionary relationships), and artistic endeavors. We hope that Tolkien would approve of our attempt, as he suggested that the gold and silver light of Valinor, pouring from the Two Trees (Telperion and Laurelin), represents the “light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically … and imaginatively” (Tolkien, 1981: Letter No. 131).

In the book we provide detailed treatments of the 141 plants of Middle-earth, and for each of the 100 most important plants of Tolkien’s imaginative world, we include (1) the common and scientific names, along with an indication of the family to which the plant  belongs; (2) a brief quote from one of Tolkien’s works in which the plant is referenced; (3) a discussion of the significance of the plant in the context of Tolkien’s legendarium; (4) the etymology, relating to both the English common name and the Latin (or Latinized) scientific name, and where relevant, the name in one or more of the languages of Middle-earth; (5) a brief description of the plant’s geographical distribution and ecology; (6) its economic importance; and (7) a brief description of the plant. Most of these also are provided with a woodcut-style illustration (as an aid to identification), along with an inset illustrating one of the events in the history of Middle-earth in which the plant played a role.

Niphredil (based upon the snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, in the plant family Amaryllidaceae) with inset (vignette) showing Aragorn and Arwen on Cerin Amroth. Illustration from Flora of Middle-Earth.

It is our goal that the inset illustrations (vignettes) be functional, decorative, and fit visually into the lore of Middle Earth. By abstracting the images with a woodblock aesthetic, Graham, the second author and illustrator, was able to simplify the complexity of the plant pictured, providing a clearer view of the diagnostic features of each plant than a photograph would have offered. In his botanical illustrations, only the information needed to identify each plant is provided, and this same concept inspired his approach to the vignettes and narratives depicted. The tales and lore of Arda have been imagined by all of us, conceived and casted in movies, and depicted by talented and amazing artists. From the Hildebrandt brothers to Cor Blok, these artists and actors have shaded our original conceptions of what these characters, such as Bilbo or Gandalf, look like. Because of this we seek to create an abstracted view, offering silhouettes rife with symbols, pulling heavily on descriptions from the Tolkien’s books to color our conceptualization of these well-fabricated characters. Keeping Tolkien’s concerns in mind, we do not want to infringe on the viewer’s ideation of the characters, but we feel it is very important to provide the framework for people to see the narrative, while still allowing them to project their own conceptualizations onto the image.

Traditionally, when we think of fantasy illustrations, we think of images framed like classic historical paintings or Greek dramas. By focusing on the flora over the fauna, we had to restructure how we approached the composition of each scene. So often plants are only the background that our grand actors stride across, but in contrast, we want to highlight how these narratives played out in the botanically rich and vibrant world that Tolkien imagined. This led Graham to a fundamental restructuring of the composition of each image, so the action or drama of the characters is often deemphasized, with the vignette focusing on how the action would have settled into the environment.

In conclusion, we hope that our book will create a visual reference — and legitimacy — for both the plants growing in our forests, meadows, and marshes, as well as those that we have received as gifts from Tolkien’s imagination.


Allen, W. (2003) Plant blindness. Bioscience 53(10): 926.

Flieger, V. (2002) Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. 2nd edition. Kent State University Press, Ohio.

Judd, W.S. & Judd, G.A. (2017) Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium. Oxford University Press, New York.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1977) The Silmarillion. George Allen and Unwin, London. [Cited here from the 2nd Edition, 2001, Houghton Mifflin, Boston].

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1981) The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by H. Carpenter, with the assistance of C. Tolkien. George Allen and Unwin, London / Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Wandersee, J. & Schussler, E. (2001) Towards a theory of plant blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47(1): 2–9.

Yoon, C.K. (2009) Naming Nature: The Clash between Instinct and Science. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.


Walter S. Judd is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology, University of Florida and also has an affiliate appointment in the Florida Museum of Natural History. His research focuses on the systematics and evolution of the flowering plants. He has published over 230 refereed articles and has described numerous new species of plants. He is also a co-author of the textbook, Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach.

Graham A. Judd has a MFA in Printmaking and received a Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Printmakers at Highpoint Center for Printmaking. He currently teaches at Augsberg College and Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

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Making a vampire

Veronika N. Laine

Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). Wageningen, The Netherlands.

Email: veronika.laine (at) gmail (dot) com

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The modern vampire is often portrayed as a human transformed into a vampire due to a bloodthirsty spirit[1], demons[2], viruses and other pathogens[3], magic or some unknown reason[4].  Neither fiction nor more realistic accounts have shed light on the precise molecular mechanisms of how the transformation happens until the novel trilogy and TV series called The Strain (Fig. 1) introduced some ways as to how the transformation could happen. In The Strain, parasitic worms carry a virus that causes the vampiric changes to happen through a modification in the expression of genes. This change even creates new organs such as the stinger.

Figure 1. Promotional poster of The Strain TV series, directed by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Image retrieved from: IMP Awards (http://www.impawards. com/).

For obvious reasons, no actual experimental studies have been conducted with vampires and so the exact origin and evolution of vampirism remains unknown. A full genome-wide association study or transcriptome analysis would be preferred to recognize the exact genes behind the vampiric traits, but getting enough samples from vampires will most likely be difficult. Thus, the “candidate gene” approach might be the best method for reaching some conclusions or, if there is enough material, a whole genome sequencing and comparison to human genomes.

In this article I will explore some thoughts on how we could make a vampire in the lab and which part of the genome we would need to alter in order to see the necessary changes. Imagine if genetic engineering would be so advanced that when you tweak little bits of the human genome here and there, you could make whatever traits, even vampiric ones, appear (or disappear) any way you like. Unfortunately, reality is seldom as easy, as it has been shown in movies such as Gattaca (Columbia Pictures, 1997), Splice (Warner Bros., 2009) and the X-Men series (20th Century Fox, 2000–2017), although the genome editing method CRISPR (Cong et al., 2013; Hsu et al., 2014) has lifted genomic modification to a completely new level and has already been used in removing diseases in humans (Ma et al., 2017). Alternatively, what if vampires already existed and we could get our hands on their genome sequence? Which genes would be affected by the transformation? Intriguingly, there are real life examples of species and conditions that could be thought of as vampiric and we can find potential candidate genes for vampirism from these traits. These “vampire building blocks” could then be used in constructing a lab vampire (at least hypothetically).

The myth of vampires has been around for thousands of years and the descriptions of vampirism vary between times and cultures. The vampires we know today date back to the 17th century and they have been covered by every platform in our popular culture. A good summary of the evolution of vampire myths can be found in Harris (2001).

The exact way in which humans transform into vampires depends on the source of the story you are reading and it often remains a mystery. In the extensive study of the science of vampirism, Dr. Pecos and Dr. Lomax (2001–2017) from the late Federal Vampire & Zombie Agency (FVZA) suspected that it is a human vampirism virus (HVV) that causes the transformation. The origin of the virus is suspected to be the vampire bats and their fleas, which sounds very plausible since bats are known to be carriers of many diseases such SARS, ebola and rabies (Biek et al., 2006; Smith & Wang, 2013), and it was also suggested in the movies Daybreakers and the Underworld series. Furthermore, rabies has been suggested to be the actual origin of the modern vampire myth (Gomez-Alonso, 1998).

In this article, I will present real life examples of vampiric traits and hypothesize possible molecular mechanisms and candidate genes that could be mutated after the transformation. I will concentrate on the following three vampiric traits that are common to many descriptions of vampires:

  1. Hematophagy (that is, feeding on blood)
  2. Immortality
  3. Sunlight avoidance


For many people, bloodsucking is the first vampiric trait that comes to mind. Blood is a nutritious fluid tissue, full of proteins and lipids and it is easy to consume. In nature, blood consumption has evolved in several unrelated species throughout the animal kingdom. Among invertebrates, leeches, mosquitos and fleas are the best known examples, and some fish (lampreys) are also known to feed on blood. There are several bird species that practice hematophagy, such as the oxpeckers, hood mockingbirds and vampire finches. Among mammals, the best known hematophagic species are the vampire bats.

Several changes in the genome are needed in order for animals to survive exclusively on blood. One of the key features is to prevent the victim’s blood from coagulating while feeding. In vampire bats the plasminogen activator (PA) genes have gone through gene duplication, domain loss and sequence evolution (Tellgren-Roth et al., 2009). These genes are expressed in the saliva glands of vampire bats and the proteins they produce help to process the blood of birds and mammals. In humans, these genes protect against heart attacks by producing proteins that clear the blood vessels by degrading blood clots. The hairy-legged vampire bat’s (Diphylla ecaudata) PA genes resemble the PA genes of the closely related non-blood feeding bat species. These bats feed on the blood of birds and it seems that the activation of PA in saliva glands is enough to keep the bird blood flowing. However, in the two bat species that feed on mammal blood, common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) and white-winged vampire bats (Diaemus youngi, which also feed on birds), the PA genes have gone through more extensive modifications in order to better tackle the natural inhibitors of PA proteins in mammal blood. A transcriptome and proteome study of common vampire bats found additional genes expressed in the salivary glands (Francischetti et al., 2013). Furthermore, by comparing vampire bats and leeches to non-blood feeding species, Phillips & Baker (2015) found additional genes related to blood feeding, such as ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase-1 (ENTPD1), which has not before been linked to secretory expression. They also suggest that alternative splicing of genes has been an important mechanism for these species to rapidly evolve to feeding on blood.

In addition to blood coagulation, the vampire bats needed to overcome the bitter taste of blood. Bitterness in nature often means that the substance is poisonous and should be avoided. However, in all of the three vampire bat species there is a greater percentage of non-functioning DNA in the bitter taste receptor genes than in other bat species. These results suggest that these genes have been relaxed from selective constraint in vampire bats, which has led to a reduction of bitter taste function (Hong & Zhao, 2014).

Lastly, the problem with consuming blood is the ratio between amount of nutrition needed and the liquid consumed.  A typical vampire bat can consume half of its weight in blood in one feeding. The blood is then rapidly processed and the excess liquids are urinated within two minutes of feeding in order for the bat to take flight. Conceivably, the same effect would not be very convenient for vampires. If the vampire weighed for example 70 kg, it would need to consume 35 kg of blood in one feeding and urinate the excess liquid almost immediately, because the bladder can only hold about half litre of liquids. Furthermore, humans have about 5 kg of blood on average, so vampires would need to suck dry about seven people per night and urinate between victims, something that has not been discussed or shown in vampire stories, except in The Strain, where vampires defecate the blood while drinking. To compensate for the low intake of nutrients, vampires might slow down their metabolism and go to a hibernation mode and thus avoid the need to suck several litres of blood in one go. It would also enable fasting through hard times. In many stories, vampires have managed to survive without blood for days (see below).


Vampires are often regarded as undead; they are dead but behave like living beings, which in turn gives them eternal “life”. In this paper, I am not going to discuss whether vampires have a heartbeat or if they breathe (for that we would need actual vampire specimens); I will instead concentrate on how actual immortality could be achieved by giving real life examples.

First, we need to define what immortality is. The concept of biological immortality means that there is no mortality from senescence, which is biological aging. This of course means that the organism is not truly immortal, it can die through injury or disease. Vampires are often presented as highly resilient beings who can survive disease and injuries, but there are things that still kill them, like sunlight, a wooden stake through the heart, fire or beheading.

What is then the ultimate cause of senescence? It is still unclear how the process of senescence happens exactly, since it is a very complex phenomenon. This subject is under heavy research, especially in regard to how we could slow down or even reverse aging (de Keizer, 2017; see movies Self/less [Focus Features, 2015] and Mr. Nobody [Wild Bunch, 2009] for further thoughts). The research has been concentrating on gene expression changes, chemical and DNA damage, and telomere shortening. Telomeres are repetitive regions at the end of chromosomes. Every time cells divide, the ends of the chromosomes are progressively clipped in the replication process. Because the repetitive sequences in the telomeres are not protein coding, the clipping does not affect cell functions. When the telomeres are gone after a certain number of divisions, the cells stop dividing (Hornsby, 2007). However, cells have ways of replenishing the telomeres with an enzyme called “telomerase reverse transcriptase”. The drawback is that the majority of adult somatic (that is, non-reproductive) cells do not express telomerase, but it can be found for example in embryonic stem cells, male sperm cells, epidermal cells and in most cancer cells. In vampires, this enzyme might be active also in the adult somatic cells but this might pose an increased cancer risk. However, vampires might have ways to avoid cancer, as discussed below.

The way senescence happens is not universal; there are species where aging is negligible or cannot even be detected. There are two well-known examples of truly immortal species, the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) and the animals from the Hydra genus. The immortal jellyfish, originally from the Caribbean Sea and now spread around the world, can use the process known as transdifferentiation to rejuvenate itself from its sexually mature free-swimming medusa form to sessile polyp form when the conditions turn harsh for the animal. When conditions are suitable again, the immortal jellyfish again transforms to its medusa form. This cycle can in theory continue forever, making the species immortal in the biological sense. However, this does not save the jellyfish from predators and diseases. The immortal jellyfish also appeared in the TV series Blacklist (Sony Pictures Television, 2013–present), where its cells were injected into humans in order to generate immortality. In the real world, science is not that advanced yet and it is also highly unlikely that it would be this easy to achieve immortality.

Hydras have been under more research than the immortal jellyfish. Hydras are simple freshwater animals (also cnidarians, like the immortal jellyfish) whose cells can continually divide and not undergo senescence. One gene, “Forkhead box O” (FOXO) has been extensively studied in hydras (and also in other species, like the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, mice and humans) (Boehm et al., 2012; Martins et al., 2016). In hydras, this gene is the main player behind the renewal of the cells. In other species, this gene has been linked to aging and longevity in many studies. In an essay by Schaible & Sussman (2013), the authors suggested that during the evolution of the FOXO gene, its function changed from Hydra’s life span extending role to many other pathways related to maintenance, which altered the gene’s rejuvenating functions in multicellular eukaryotes such as humans. Thus it might be that in vampires this gene (or actually all the FOXO genes – mammals have four of these genes) have retained the original function of FOXOs.

In the mammalian world, naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) and Brandt’s bats (Myotis brandtii) are exceptionally long-lived compared to other small sized mammals. Naked mole rats are known for some very peculiar characteristics. They can survive anoxic conditions, they have delayed ageing and live up to 32 years, and the species is highly resistant to cancer, among other things, making them a very interesting species for scientists to study. In studies of the longevity and cancer resistance of this species, scientists found that a gene called INK4, which is the most frequently mutated gene in human cancer, produced a new product through alternative splicing. This protein isoform (that is, protein variant), called pALT(INK4a/b), prevented the mutated cells from clustering together and thus made the naked mole rats more resilient to cancer (Tian et al., 2015). In another study by the same group, extremely high-molecular-mass hyaluronic acid was found in naked mole rat fibroblasts (the most common cells in the connective tissue of animals). The molecular weight was over five times larger than that of human or mouse hyaluronic acid. It was speculated that a higher concentration of hyaluronic acid evolved to keep the skin elastic in underground tunnels. In addition to skin elasticity, long hyaluronic acid molecules wrap around cells tightly, preventing tumor cells from replicating (Tian et al., 2013). Whole genome sequencing revealed additional genes that could be linked to longevity in this species (Kim et al., 2011).

Brandt’s bats are known to live for over 40 years, making it the most long-lived mammal of its size. In the whole genome study of the species, Seim et al. (2013) suggested that a combination of different adaptive characteristics such as hibernation, low reproductive rate, cave roosting and an altered growth hormone/insulin-like growth factor 1 axis could extend the Brandt’s bat’s lifespan. Furthermore, FOXO1 gene was expressed in high levels in Brandt’s bat suggesting a possible role also in the longevity of this species. Hibernation in general has been linked to survival of different species allowing them to withstand extreme conditions (Turbill et al., 2011; Wu & Storey, 2016). The molecular difference between hibernators and non-hibernators seems to be in gene regulation rather than a difference in the DNA sequence itself. Differential expression was detected in the genes that were involved in metabolic pathways, feeding behavior, and circadian rhythms (Faherty et al., 2016). Hibernation or some other kind of dormant state seems to be present in vampires as well, helping them to get through tough times. In the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, the vampires go to a hibernation-related state to cope with changing times. In the Underworld movies, two of the elders are kept in hibernation while a third reigns over the vampires. The reign goes in cycles, each of elders having their turn over the vampires and slave lycans. This cycle has social reasons, but it also gives rest for the elders from their immortal life.


Vampires are creatures of the night and sunlight is often regarded as deadly to them; in many occasions, they burst into flames whenever in contact with sunlight. It is an adverse trait for vampires and most probably emerged through pleiotropism. Pleiotropism is a phenomenon where one gene affects two or more unrelated traits (Paaby & Rockman, 2013). Mutations in genes causing immortality or blood consumption could also cause death by sunlight (antagonistic pleiotropy). Real life examples of bursting into flames due to sunlight are obviously not found, but sun can cause problems to people with certain conditions. Sunlight can cause severe allergic reactions, people can suffer from blood disease called porphyria, or have a rare recessive genetic disorder called “xeroderma pigmentosum”.

“Sun allergy” is an umbrella term for a number of conditions where rash and blisters occur on skin that has been exposed to sunlight. Some people have a hereditary type of sun allergy, such as hereditary polymorphous light eruption, others a non-heritable type, such as solar urticaria. In some cases, symptoms only occur when triggered by another factor, such as certain medications or skin exposure to certain plants. The allergic reaction to sunlight occurs in the same way as in any other allergic reaction, although it is still not clear what the triggering component is. Somehow, the immune system recognizes the sun-altered skin as foreign to the body, which in turn activates the immune defences against it. If vampires suffer from sun allergy, could strong antihistamines and a high sun protection factor sunscreen help them survive under the sunlight, in the same way as people with sun allergies? As death is a very severe reaction to sunlight, it is likely that vampires do not suffer from a sun allergy but from something more serious.

Porphyria, a group of blood diseases, have been suggested as a possible explanation for vampire myths but these ideas have been rejected in later papers (Winkler & Anderson, 1990). However, the mechanism behind porphyria could still shed light on why sunlight would be poisonous for modern vampires. In the cutaneous forms of porphyria where the skin is mostly affected, sunlight can cause pain, blisters or open sores to the patients. The disease is often hereditary due to a mutation in one of the genes that make the heme molecule (a component of hemoglobin, the red pigment in our blood): ALAD, ALAS2, CPOX, FECH, HMBS, PPOX, UROD, or UROS (Badminton & Elder, 2005). These genes could also be suitable candidates for vampire sunlight avoidance.

There is an even more severe sunlight sensitivity illness, the rare hereditary condition called “xeroderma pigmentosum” (XP). In extreme cases, the patients need to avoid all exposure to sunlight as it can cause severe sunburn with redness and blistering. If not protected from the sun, people with XP have a high risk of developing skin cancer. XP patients’ eyes are also very sensitive to sunlight and some of the patients have neurological problems such as seizures and hearing loss. The condition is caused by mutations in the genes that repair DNA damage. This causes a deficiency in DNA repair after ultraviolet damage to cells, which in turn accumulates abnormalities to the DNA causing the cell to become cancerous or die. In most of XP cases, mutations occur in these four nucleotide excision repair related genes: POLH, XPA, XPC or ERCC2 (Schubert et al., 2014). In addition to porphyria genes, these are also potential candidates for vampires’ adverse reactions to sunlight.


Obviously, the transformation from human to vampire would affect many genes, some of the changes being bigger than others, which makes the genetic modification of human to vampire even more difficult. From the real life examples, the PA (blood coagulation) and FOXO (immortality) genes seem to be strong candidates. Furthermore, it is also possible to find more suitable genes to test and to investigate interactions between hematophagy, immortality and sun avoidance genes by using network analysis such as Genemania (Warde-Farley et al., 2010). For example, when inserting the human ortholog (roughly put, the equivalent gene) of bat PA gene, the plasminogen activator, tissue type (PLAT), the FOXO genes FOXO1 and FOXO3, and the four XP genes, POLH, XPA, XPC and ERCC2 to Genemania, it is possible to see how the genes are linked and what additional genes might be involved (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Gene interaction network of the genes PLAT, FOXO1, FOXO3, POLH, XPA, XPC and ERCC2 done with Genemania. Showing 20 related genes with 27 total genes and 207 total links. Input genes are indicated with stripes.

In many of the traits mentioned above, we assumed that mutations in these candidate genes would be the cause of the vampiric traits. However, mutations are not the only possible cause. Epigenetic changes are functional changes in the genome that do not involve modifications in the DNA. Such mechanisms are, for example, DNA methylation and histone modification. External or environmental effects can cause DNA methylation and change gene expression. In vampires, both mutations and epigenetics could be possible players, causing changes and vampiric traits. Furthermore, if vampirism is caused by a virus or a parasite, we need to take into consideration the possible ways the pathogen could affect the human cells, which is a topic of its own.


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I would like to thank Dr. Olaf Thalmann and Angela Boeijen for insightful comments and Nina Haglund for language revision. 


Dr. Veronika Laine is a molecular biologist working currently with the great tit and she is especially interested in behavior, genes, pleiotropism, bats, kittens and vampires, especially Eric Northman. She plays too much video games.

[1] The Queen of the Damned, by Anne Rice (1988).

[2] Old folklore; Buffy the Vampire Slayer (20th Television, 1997–2003).

[3] Daybreakers (Lionsgate, 2010); the Underworld film series (Lakeshore Entertainment, 2003–2016); The Strain (20th Television, 2014–2017).

[4] Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897); The Vampire Diaries (Warner Bros., 2009–2017); The Twilight Saga (Summit Entertainment, 2008–2012); True Blood (HBO Enterprises, 2008–2014).

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Frankenstein, or the beauty and terror of science

Henk van den Belt

Philosophy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

Email: henk.vandenbelt (at) wur (dot) nl

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In January 2018, it will be two hundred years ago that Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus was first published. However, international commemorations have already started and the so-called Frankenstein Bicentennial Project has been launched by Arizona State University. Instead of awaiting the bicentenary of the first publication, meetings have been organized to celebrate the famous occasion on which the idea of the novel was first conceived by Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin). That was during a memorable nightmare in the early hours of June 16, 1816, while she was staying in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. In mid-June 2016, therefore, an international workshop entitled ‘Frankenstein’s Shadow’ was held in Geneva to commemorate this event and to determine the contemporary relevance of Mary’s novel for understanding and assessing new developments in the modern life sciences. After all, in many contemporary debates references to her horror story are still routinely being made. Genetically modified crops, for instance, are often condemned as ‘Frankenfoods’ and life science researchers are frequently accused of hubris or attempting to play God, just as Mary’s protagonist Victor Frankenstein supposedly did. Indeed, the mere mentioning of his name readily brings to mind such associations among laypersons, or as Marilyn Butler writes, “Readers, filmgoers, people who are neither, take the very word Frankenstein to convey an awful warning: don’t usurp God’s prerogative in the Creation-game, or don’t get too clever with technology” (Butler 1993: 302).


The circumstances in which Mary first conceived the idea of her novel may help to illuminate the significance and meaning of her literary creation. In the late spring of 1816 a remarkable entourage, next to Mary Godwin, assembled on the shores of Lake Geneva: the romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (Mary’s lover and later husband), Mary’s step-sister Claire and doctor John William Polidori. The then 28-year-old Byron was the oldest of the company; Mary was still only 18, but had already lost her first child as an unmarried teenage mother. It was a time, just after Napoleon’s defeat, that British citizens could again freely travel through Europe. Each of the participants had their own reasons to flee from the United Kingdom. Byron was haunted by creditors and scandals. Percy Shelley had abandoned his wife and child and made himself unpopular through his overt atheism. Claire had persuaded Percy and Mary to follow Byron in his travels, because she had a crush on the noble poet (her attempt to win his love would however be in vain). Young doctor Polidori had been recruited by Byron to be his travel companion and private physician, but also cherished literary ambitions himself (in 1819 Polidori would publish The Vampyre: A Tale, another product of the Geneva 1816 summer and a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The choice of Geneva as the place to stay had been partly inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the proud “citizen of Geneva”. In the footsteps of their romantic precursor, Byron and Percy Shelley wanted to experience the majestic sublimity of the natural landscape around Geneva. In the nearby hamlet of Cologny, Byron had rented a spacious residence, Villa Diodati; Percy and Mary stayed with Claire at a more modest dwelling in the neighbourhood, but regularly visited Byron to spend days and evenings at his villa.


Figure 1. Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. Painted by Jean Dubois. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.

It appeared as if the summer of 1816 did not want to become a real summer. In the introduction to the revised 1831 edition of her novel, Mary looked back: “But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” (Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 6–7). Incidentally, this was not a purely local weather condition. In North America, the year 1816 would even go down in history as “the year without summer”. We know now that these meteorological abnormalities had to do with the most violent volcanic eruption of the last one thousand years, to wit, the eruption of the Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in April 1815. The enormous amounts of volcanic ash spread throughout the earthly atmosphere massively reflected sunlight and disturbed global weather processes for three years in a row (D’Arcy Wood, 2014).


Figure 2. Possible depiction of the eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa in 1815. Author unknown; image extracted from Scientific American Blog Network (2012).

Confined by incessant bad weather and illuminated by candlelight, Byron and his guests at Villa Diodati tried to keep boredom at bay by reading ghost stories to each other. At some moment Byron proposed a kind of contest in which each of the participants had to come up with a ghost story of their own. Mary accepted the challenge, but was not immediately able to think of a suitable story. A few days later she eagerly eavesdropped on an exciting discussion between Byron and Percy about the nature of the principle of life and the possibility of artificially creating life, until she finally went to sleep in the small hours of the night. In bed, she lost herself in a dream. This was to become one of the most famous nightmares in the history of literature and must have occurred in the early hours of June 16, 1816. In the 1831 introduction, Mary described her nightly vision thus:

“I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would run away from his odious handy-work, horror-stricken”

―Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 9.


Figure 3. The ‘Monster’; frontispiece of the revised 1831 edition of Frankenstein. Theodor von Holst (1831); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.


So Mary finally had her ghost story. On Percy’s instigation, she would elaborate and rework the story during the following months and years into a full-fledged novel. On the precise way the “thing” was brought to life, the book remains understandably somewhat vague. But there is a strong suggestion that electricity played an indispensable role in infusing the spark of life into the lifeless thing. In the 1831 introduction Mary referred to so-called ‘galvanism’, which enjoyed much interest at the time. At the beginning of the 19th century several sensational experiments had been made before public audiences with the newly developed Voltaic battery, showing that electric currents could be used to arouse muscular contractions and thereby to call forth motions of the body parts of dead animals or even human cadavers. It seemed as if those body parts could be “reanimated” in this way. In one notorious demonstration performed in 1803 before a London audience, Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini administered an electric current to the face of a freshly executed murderer, whereupon “the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened” (London Morning Post, January 1803, quoted in Lederer, 2002: 14). It was not too far-fetched, therefore, to think that the mysterious principle of life had something to do with electricity. At any rate, electricity in the guise of lightning plays a major role in the depiction of the ambient atmosphere of the novel. Thus, after receiving the news about the death of his younger brother, Victor Frankenstein witnessed a ”beautiful yet terrific” thunderstorm spectacle with dazzling flashes of lightning going to and fro above the Alps, the Jura and Lake Geneva (Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 77). The electrically charged atmosphere provided a fitting background to the vicissitudes in which Frankenstein and his creature got embroiled. Mary had derived this element of the novel from the exceptional weather conditions she actually experienced in Geneva. As she wrote in a letter to her half-sister in England: “The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before” (Mary’s letter to her half-sister Fanny Imlay, dated 1 June 1816; see Shelley, 1993 [1816]: 174).


Figure 4. ‘Galvanic’ experiments on executed criminals performed by Dr. Giovanni Aldini (1804). Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.


It is not difficult to associate electricity with fire through lightning and heavenly fire. In the title of her novel Mary alluded to the Greek myth about Prometheus, the Titan who had stolen fire from the gods to give it to humankind and who was severely punished for this act. Similarly, Victor Frankenstein brought disaster upon himself and his loved ones by indulging in the “unhallowed arts” of “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” and by creating a human-like being. He aspired “to become greater than his nature [would] allow” (Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 54), or in other words, to play God. For Byron and Percy, however, Prometheus was also the iconic rebel hero who dared to defy the existing divine order in the name of promoting human happiness. In their eyes this endeavour should not even stop short of attempting to overcome death. Mary was apparently less enamoured by the Greek demigod celebrated by her romantic companions and was acutely aware of the possible downsides of “Promethean” ambitions. Or at least she was more ambivalent. As the biographer and historian Richard Holmes noted, the romantic generation of the Age of Wonder (1770–1830) had to discover both “the beauty and terror of science” (Holmes, 2009). Mary portrayed Victor Frankenstein as an investigator who is so much obsessed by his research project that he completely neglects his social obligations vis-à-vis his family, his friends and his fiancée. For her, the outstanding example of a passionately obsessed researcher was the English chemist Humphry Davy, whose main achievements were in the domain of electrochemistry (another connection with electricity and ‘galvanism’!). In the first decade of the 19th century, Davy isolated new chemical elements like sodium and potassium with the help of the Voltaic battery. In his public lectures he also sketched an enticing prospect of the endless possibilities of chemical research that would bestow on man “powers which may be almost called creative” (Davy, 1802: 319). From reading these lectures Mary had concluded that scientists might at times be driven by a truly obsessive preoccupation. In this respect, Davy set the example for Victor Frankenstein: “So much has been done […] – more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 49) ‒ this was how Victor Frankenstein described his new ambition after a university professor had pointed out the virtually unlimited possibilities of modern chemistry to him.


Figure 5. Humphry Davy isolated sodium and potassium by using the Voltaic battery. Magazine engraving (19th century), colored; image extracted from fineartamerica.


For some commentators, Frankenstein’s moral transgression was not that he undertook the over-ambitious or hubristic attempt to bestow life on inanimate matter and thereby usurped the divine privilege. He must rather be blamed for the fact that, once his work finally met with success, he immediately ran away from “his odious handy-work”. He thereby left his creature, which he himself had brought into the world, to its own fate – devoid of any parental care. The middle part of the novel, which follows the creature’s life and vicissitudes, is a morality tale in its own right. From the outset, contrary to the portrayals in most movie versions, the creature is not a ruthless monster. It wants to do good and needs the company of fellow beings and their affection and recognition. However, the saying that when you do good, good things will happen to you did not apply to the creature. Due to its hideous appearance, it repeatedly met with rejection. Its attempt to remind Frankenstein of his parental duties was also to no avail. Only as a result of all these hostile responses did the creature become a monster, intent on revenging the injustices done to it with acts of violence. In an early review of the novel, Percy Shelley summarized the simple moral lesson thus: “Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked.” (Percy Shelley, 1993: 186). Seen in this light, Frankenstein’s greatest moral shortcoming was that he failed to assume responsibility for his own creature and to give it the care that it needed and deserved.


Figure 6. Another reading of the Frankenstein tale. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.

The American philosopher of technology Langdon Winner was the first to use this interpretation of the Frankenstein novel as a clue for dealing more responsibly with new technologies in general: “the issue truly at stake in the whole of Frankenstein [is] the plight of things that have been created but not in a context of sufficient care” (Winner, 1977: 313). His generalized ethical message is therefore that researchers who develop new technologies must be willing to assume responsibility for the vicissitudes of their creations, help them to acquire a suitable role in society and provide adequate follow-up care if necessary. Their task is by no means completed once a new technological prototype leaves the laboratory. With so much emphasis nowadays on the necessity of responsible research and innovation, Winner’s message finds wide resonance. Similar interpretations of the Frankenstein tale have been propounded by Stephen Jay Gould (1996) and Bruno Latour (2012). Gould gives a pointed formulation of this new reading of Mary Shelley’s novel:

“Victor Frankenstein […] is guilty of a great moral failing […] but his crime is not technological transgression against a natural and divine order […] Victor’s sin does not lie in misuse of technology, or hubris in emulating God; we cannot find these themes in Mary Shelley’s account. Victor failed because […] he did not take the duty of any creator or parent: to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptability.”

―Gould, 1996: 61.

Gould’s flat denial that the themes of hubris in emulating God and transgression against a natural and divine order are nowhere to be found in Mary Shelley’s account is quite astonishing. Traditionally, for many readers her novel is precisely also about these themes: they are by no means a later invention of Hollywood adaptations. Mary’s introduction to the 1831 edition directly contradicts Gould’s denial (see the passage quoted above). Thus the Dutch literary critic Pieter Steinz, for one, reaffirmed the traditional reading of Frankenstein: “The moral is clear, and it is more relevant than ever in the 21st century, which is dominated by the advancing genetic and bio-technologies: do not play God and beware of the dangers of technology” (Steinz 2002).

I therefore take it that the themes of hubris, transgression and playing God on the one hand and Victor’s moral failure to take responsibility and proper care for his creature on the other are both contained in the novel, so that there is no need to embrace one element and completely dismiss the other. A nuanced and balanced view, in which the two strands of interpretation are indeed combined, can be found in Mary Threapleton’s introduction to a 1963 pocket edition of Frankenstein:

“In the course of the story, Frankenstein is horribly punished for […] presuming to overstep man’s proper bounds. His brother, his best friend, and his bride all fall victim to the monster he has created. He is punished not only because he has dared to create it, but also because he fails to assume due responsibility for it. He gave the monster life, but he was too horrified to guide it, to make it into a power for good.”

―Threapleton, 1963 (emphasis mine).


The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, set up by researchers from Arizona State University, nevertheless promotes a reading of Mary Shelley’s novel based one-sidedly on the interpretations of Winner, Gould, and Latour, while dismissing the traditional interpretation focusing on hubris and the dangers of playing God as singularly unhelpful. As some researchers affiliated with this project declare in a recent publication:

“The moral of Frankenstein is not a warning about ungodly technoscientific creation; it is a warning against taking a position that does not consider matters of care and concern for those technoscientific creations. […]  Frankenstein’s failure to care for his creation is his downfall – not his act of technological innovation. […] The lack of care for new creations is what ultimately destroys us, not the creations themselves.”

―Halpern et al., 2016: 4, 6.

Although the authors admit that they read the Frankenstein novel “against the grain of many popular interpretations, which see it as a story about the abominations created when man decides to play God” (ibid., 4), they do not explain why they deem the common understanding incorrect as an interpretation of Mary Shelley’s story. However, the protagonists of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project may have good reasons for considering invocations of hubris and playing God “unhelpful tropes” for their own agenda of promoting responsible innovation, as these tropes tend to deny that “the human actors are responsible for their own decisions and for what they do with the fire of creativity” (ibid., 7). Indeed, one may readily admit that the standard objection of ‘playing God’, routinely raised against new developments in the modern life sciences, has been reduced to a facile journalistic cliché or an alarmist slogan, as I have argued myself in an earlier article (van den Belt, 2009). Still, this does not justify treating these themes as completely foreign to a proper understanding of Shelley’s gothic novel, the more so, as the latter’s use of the expression “unhallowed arts” clearly suggests that the very attempt to bestow life on lifeless matter may indeed be seen as “ungodly”. The real interpretative challenge is to explain how the two different readings of the novel (hubris and playing God versus Frankenstein’s moral failure to take care of his creature) can be reconciled, for there surely exists a tension between them.

If the goal is to promote responsible (research and) innovation – the underlying agenda of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project ‒ , it also will not do to declare public fears about hubris and playing God simply out of court. After all, an important part of the new agenda is to take public concerns about new technological developments seriously and to somehow address them in the further course of the innovation process. The general public may also be concerned, and rightly so, about the “Promethean” or “hubristic” projects often being contemplated by contemporary life scientists. However much people nowadays may admire their creativity and imagination, as Mary Shelley and her contemporaries did in an earlier age, they will also feel overwhelmed when the flights of the biotechnological imagination become a little too audacious. As Richard Holmes argues, it was Shelley’s romantic generation which first had to face the beauty and terror of science (Holmes, 2009). It seems that we are still their cultural heirs.

Thus the emphatic assertion that “[t]he lack of care for new creations is what ultimately destroys us, not the creations themselves” is rather unfortunate in that it arbitrarily restricts the scope of meaningful social debate. It suggests that the public should refrain from discussing the desirability of the many new “creations” technoscientists are about to bring into the world and only see to it that proper care is offered afterward once they have been introduced. If we think about some of the wild ideas that currently circulate among synthetic biologists (e.g., proposals to resurrect the woolly mammoth or Neanderthal man and schemes for “gene drives” or for changing the nucleotide ‘letters’ of the DNA alphabet), it immediately transpires that this is too narrow a view.  Indeed, synthetic biologists and other life science researchers often set such bold targets that the audacity of the biotechnological imagination constitutes the contemporary equivalent of what was traditionally called hubris. Of course, their scientific and technological aims should not simply be rejected out of hand, but deserve to be seriously discussed – a discussion that might nonetheless be properly informed by cautionary tales about “Promethean” ambitions like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story.

A final critical point about the interpretation endorsed by the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project is that their notion of responsibility vis-à-vis new technologies is largely modelled on the idea of care – the care Victor Frankenstein failed to bestow on his creature. Now we know fairly well what care means as long as we are talking about parental care towards children. So the creation of an artificial human being would presumably entail taking (parental) care for the new creature, however hideous it may look. But it is far less clear what the idea of care involves when we are talking about the creation of non-human life-forms; and even less so when talking about inanimate technologies. Bruno Latour’s call to “care for our technologies as we do for our children” (Latour, 2012) is simply begging the question. In sum, a proposed ethics of care for responsible innovation sounds nice, but also remains somewhat vague.


Figure 7. The monster demands a mate! Poster for the movie Bride of Frankenstein (Universal Pictures, 1935). Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.


There is one episode in Mary Shelley’s novel where Victor Frankenstein finally appears to become a responsible agent and to act responsibly, but this very episode is ignored and not discussed by the proponents of responsible innovation. I am alluding to the dramatic moment at a later stage in the novel when he is at first inclined to comply with his creature’s wish to have a female companion created for it, but then has second thoughts and refuses the request. He had already been working on the creation of a female being, but then decided to destroy her in her unfinished state rather than complete the job. The considerations that led him to this decision look very much like what today would be called an invocation of the Precautionary Principle. The creature had suggested that it might leave Europe and go with its female mate to an uninhabited part of South America, but Frankenstein pondered the possible long-term consequences with much anguish:

“Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of these sympathies for which the demon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”

―Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 170–171.

Thus Frankenstein’s refusal to create a female mate can be seen as an act of responsibility after all, based on precautionary motives. As Leonard Isaacs writes, “Like most tragic protagonists Frankenstein has learned from his experience. With a painfully acquired sense of the wider consequences of his actions, he takes on the heavy responsibility of opposing the development of second-generation monsters” (Isaacs, 1987: 71; Isaacs draws an interesting parallel between Frankenstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who after the development of the atomic bomb was under pressure to develop a ‘second-generation’ nuclear bomb). The possibility of uncontrolled reproduction is a biological hazard that also has to be taken into account when we create transgenic and synthetic organisms today. Later on Frankenstein justified his decision on the basis of a kind of utilitarian reasoning in terms of the greatest happiness for the greatest number:

“In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and wellbeing. That was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature.”

―Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 219–220.

Incidentally, this whole reasoning is of course predicated on the assumption that the artificial creature was not a member of the human species. From the very outset, its taxonomic status had been somewhat ambiguous. While Frankenstein’s intention had indeed been to create an artificial human being (Shelley, 2003 [1831]: 54), his initial speculations were also focused on creating a new species: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (ibid., 55). It is safe to conclude that the human status of the artificial creature has been problematic from the start.

From the viewpoint of an ethics of care one could argue that Frankenstein should have complied with the creature’s demand to have a female companion created for it, given his parental duty to assure its happiness and wellbeing and given that the creature after many attempts had failed to acquire a recognized place in human society. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there is also ethical merit in Frankenstein’s decision to decline the creature’s wish. At the very least, then, the whole episode could be an interesting test case for probing our moral intuitions about what would be truly responsible action in the given situation.

Two researchers recently formalized Victor Frankenstein’s reasoning by setting up mathematical models of species interaction, in particular modelling situations of “competitive exclusion” between two species. They conclude that “[Frankenstein’s] rationale for denying a mate to his male creation has empirical justification” and that “the central horror and genius of Mary Shelley’s novel lie in its early mastery of foundational concepts of ecology and evolution” (Dominy & Yeakel, 2016). This is a rather surprising new reading of the novel.

We may finally wonder why the proponents of responsible innovation have passed in silence over the entire episode of the novel. Perhaps it is because a (presumably) responsible decision not to create a new entity would not fit their presumption that is not the “new creations themselves”, but only our own lack of care for them that can bring us down.


Butler, M. (1993) Frankenstein and Radical Science. In: Hunter, J.P. (Ed.)  Frankenstein. A Norton Critical Edition. Norton, New York. Pp. 302– 313.

D’Arcy Wood, G. (2014) Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Davy, H. (1802) A Discours introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry, Delivered in the Theatre of the Royal Institution, on the 21st of January, 1802. In: Davy, J. (Ed.) The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy. Smith, Elder and Co., London. 1839, II. Pp. 307–326.

Dominy, N.J.  & Yeakel, J.D. (2016) Frankenstein and the Horrors of Competitive Exclusion. BioScience, October 28, 2016.

Gould, S.J. (1996) The monster’s human nature. In: Gould, S.J. (Ed.) Dinosaur in a Haystack. Cape, London. Pp. 53–62.

Halpern, M.K.; Sadowski, J.; Eschrich, J.; Finn, E.; Guston, D.H. (2016) Stitching together creativity and responsibility: interpreting Frankenstein across disciplines. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 2016: 1–9.

Holmes, R. (2009) The Age of Wonder: How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science. Harper Press, London.

Isaacs, L. (1987) Creation and Responsibility in Science: Some Lessons from the Modern Prometheus. In: Isaacs, L. (Ed.) Creativity and the Imagination: Case Studies from the Classical Age to the Twentieth Century. University of Delaware Press, Newark. Pp. 59–104.

Latour, B. (2012) Love your monsters: why we must care for our technologies as we do for our children. The Breakthrough, Winter 2012.

Lederer, S.E. (2002) Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.

Shelley, M. (1993 [1816]) Letter to [?Fanny Imlay]. In: Hunter, J.P. (Ed.) Frankenstein. A Norton Critical Edition. Norton, New York. Pp. 173–175.

Shelley, M. (2003 [1831]) Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Penguin Books, London.

Shelley, P. (1993 [1817]) On Frankenstein. In: Hunter, J.P. (Ed.) Frankenstein. A Norton Critical Edition. Norton, New York. Pp. 185–186.

Steinz, P. (2002) Mrs. Frankenstein. NRC Handelsblad, June 8, 2002.

Threapleton, M.M. (1963) Introduction. In: Shelley, M., Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Airmont Books, New York. Pp. 3–7.

van den Belt, H. (2009) Playing God in Frankenstein’s footsteps: synthetic biology and the meaning of life. Nanoethics 3: 257–268.

Winner, L. (1977) Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. The MIT Press, Cambridge.

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Harry Potter and the Draconian Laws

Pedro F. Abud

University of São Paulo Law School; São Paulo, Brazil.

Disinfo Squad, Ministry of Magic.

Email: pedro.m1 (at) bol (dot) com (dot) br

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Anyone would say that a world where brooms and carpets cross the skies, unicorns roam the forests and people depicted in portraits talk to you is wonderful, literally magical. However, not everything is as beautiful as it looks – just you wait for the effect of the polyjuice potion to wear off and you’ll see what is hidden behind the reality created by British author J.K. Rowling.

Spells can fix a pair of glasses, turn water into butterbeer, inflate boring aunts and even ignore the immutable law of Lavoisier, creating matter from nothing. However, spells can also be used in not-so-benign activities, as cursing people, destroying things, being inflated by rude nephews and even killing. So in the same way that our international conventions prohibit certain weapons from being used in wars (such as cluster bombs, and chemical/biological warfare; The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Database, 1925), so some charms (Imperius, Cruciatus and Avada Kedavra, collectively called “Unforgivable Curses”) are prohibited from being practiced (Rowling, 2000: ch. 14). As expected, in the same way that not all countries participate in our conventions, not all wizards follow such rules.

Let’s make a brief intermission now. It is true that wizard society has medieval features. However, since it has always been inserted within a community of non-wizards, it was expected to have incorporated the values that were gradually acquired by the international community. Moreover, there are some rights that are guaranteed to all persons, regardless of the country where they live on or its governmental system, which is called “customary law” (ICRC, 2015).

Now back to the spells. The lack of control over spells seen in the books, no matter the severity of the curse, is quite paradoxical, given the intense regulations over magic practiced by minors. Wizards under 17 years old are not allowed to use magic outside their school (unless facing exceptional circumstances), and a Trace Spell detects such activities. To give you an idea, a notification is sent almost immediately to the juvenile offender, which, depending on the gravity of the situation, must then go to the Ministry of Magic (Rowling, 1998: ch. 2; Rowling, 2003: ch. 2). In other words, we may conclude that there is the technical capability to perform this type of identification, namely the age of the offender, the spell used and location. But why the same technique is not used with the Unforgivable Curses is a mystery.

By the way “Mystery” is, incidentally, the name of one of the Ministry of Magic’s departments. An institution so lacking in transparency, and theoretically with such advanced surveillance capabilities of their society (a magic Orwellian Big Brother) is to raise all sorts of suspicions about it. Denying the return of Voldemort (a powerful evil wizard; Rowling, 2003: ch. 4), attempting to use a minor as a mascot in this conflict (Rowling, 2005: chs. 16 and 30), and protecting people who make large donations to them (Rowling, 2003: ch. 9), are just some examples of the Ministry’s flaws.

We could also bring up the prison system of the wizards. The main reference is the prison of Azkaban, which is guarded by creatures known as Dementors, whose ability is to absorb all the happiness of those who are around them, and whose “kiss” sucks a person’s soul, leaving her in an eternal lethargic state (Rowling, 1999: chs. 10 and 12). A fate, perhaps, even worse than death. Since the 18th century, Cesare Beccaria, an important Italian criminal scholar, wrote on the humanity of penalties, their social function, and the necessary proportionality between crime and punishment (Beccaria, 1764). In this regard, we see that the world of Harry Potter is over 200 years late in comparison to the so-called “muggles” (the name given to non-wizards), which in 1789 had already promulgated the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen). So, because of their outdated and ineffective system (even innocents have been sent to Azkaban; Rowling, 1999: ch. 19), serious insecurities of the criminal point of view are raised, and the cruelty of sanctions hurts human dignity.

And talking about fundamental rights, we note that some of the creatures that inhabit this universe so fabulous end up enslaved (such as house-elves) or have suffered plenty of persecutions (such as goblins). Other creatures, like the centaurs, suffer severe prejudice. A considerable amount of wizards extends this prejudice to other creatures, like half-giants and werewolves, and in some cases even to wizards that are not “pure-blood”, resembling the most foul ideologies ever seen in our world.

In contrast, in our current legal system, other animals have been receiving a human-like treatment, as evidenced by the laws of countries like England (the first one to create animal protection rules; Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2013) and Argentina, where a court recently awarded human rights to an orangutan (BBC News, 21 December 2014).

As previously stated, there are exceptions in every group, and it could not be different for the wizards. Also, it is yet to be seen a government without any failures. So, dear reader, take lightly those critics of a muggle who is still waiting for his owl to arrive with his Hogwarts’ letter.


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Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. (1789) Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. Conseil Constitutionnel. Available from: (Date of access: 07/Dec/2015).

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Rowling, J.K. (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Bloomsbury, London.

Rowling, J.K. (2000) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Bloomsbury, London.

Rowling, J.K. (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Bloomsbury, London.

Rowling, J.K. (2005) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Bloomsbury, London.

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The birds of James Bond

Rodrigo B. Salvador1 & Barbara M. Tomotani2

1 Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany. Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany. Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

2 Netherlands Institute of Ecology; Wageningen, The Netherlands. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen; Groningen, The Netherlands. Email: (at) gmail (dot) com

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“The name is Bond, James Bond.”

This particular British Secret Service agent is known worldwide through numerous books, comics, videogames and, of course, films. James Bond was created by Ian Fleming and the series now outlives its creator, continuing to grow on a somewhat constant rate. Fleming’s superspy character was based on many people he met during the time he spent serving in the British Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. In his own words, James Bond “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”.

But what few know is where the name comes from. Actually, it was not invented by Fleming for the character; instead, it was borrowed from a real person. So who was the original James Bond and how Fleming came to know him and to borrow his name?


James Bond was born in Philadelphia on 4 January 1900. After his mother’s death during his teens, in 1914, he moved with his father to England, going to Cambridge University and receiving his degree in 1922. Back in Philadelphia, after less than three years working for a banking firm, his love of natural history led him to join an expedition of the ANSP (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) to the lower Amazon River in Brazil. His father, Francis E. Bond, who led an ANSP expedition (when James was 11) to the Orinoco Delta, perhaps influenced James’ decision, as well as his interest in the natural sciences.

James Bond, in 1974. Photo taken at the ANSP by Jerry Freilich. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

After the expedition to the Amazon, James Bond became a true ornithologist (see Box 1 for a glossary) and curator of the ANSP and started to publish many scientific papers on the South American birds. Nevertheless, he soon decided that the focus of his studies would be the Caribbean birds and this became his life’s work. He spent the next decades travelling through the Caribbean islands and studying their avifauna. The main result of his work in the region was the book “Birds of the West Indies” (1936), containing a scientific account (with descriptions, habits, geographic distribution etc.) of all the known species from the islands. The book was renamed “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” on its second edition (1947), but reverted to the original name on the third edition (1961). Also, from the third edition onwards, the book featured color plates of the birds (by Don R. Eckelberry) and more simplified descriptions. This made the book more similar to modern field guides, making it a must for scientists and birdwatchers alike. After the final edition (1985), Bond kept the book updated via a series of 27 supplements. He finished revising a sixth edition shortly before his death (on 14 February 1989, after a years-long fight with cancer).


Cover of the first edition of “Birds of the West Indies”, featuring the Jamaican tody (Todus todus).

From all the islands that James Bond visited, perhaps the one that most fascinated him was Jamaica, where he realized that the native avifauna was derived from North America, and not from South America as was previously supposed. This kind of study is part of the discipline known as Biogeography and led Bond, in 1971, to establish a biogeographic boundary between the Lesser Antilles and Tobago. This line separates two zones, the West Indies and South America, each with its own type of avifauna. This later led David Lack to propose, in 1973, the name “Bond’s Line” for this boundary.

Map of the Caribbean Islands, showing the West Indies avifaunal region, encompassed by Bond’s Line. (Source: Bond, 1993.)

Besides the books, Bond published more than 100 scientific papers and was awarded many medals and honors throughout his career. He is known today as the father or Caribbean ornithology. What he did not expected though, was the other Bond, which appeared in Jamaica of all places, and caused him a certain deal of consternation.


It was only in 1960–1961 that Bond discovered his fictional namesake from Ian Fleming’s novels, after several novels had already been published (the first one, “Cassino Royale”, dates from 1953). This led his wife Mary to write the book “How 007 Got His Name” (published in 1966). In this book, she tells how she jokingly wrote a letter to Fleming saying that he had “brazenly taken the name of a real human being for your rascal!”

Fleming was a British novelist and spent a couple of months every year in his estate (named Goldeneye) on Oracabessa Bay, on the northern coast of Jamaica. He was interested in the Jamaican wildlife and had a growing collection of book on shells, birds, fish and flora. Also, as any keen birdwatcher on the Caribbean, Fleming used the “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” (he had the 2nd edition, from 1947) and was thus very familiar with the name James Bond. On his reply to Mary’s letter, he explained that he “was determined that my secret agent should be as anonymous a personality as possible. (…) At this time one of my bibles was, and still is, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, and it struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born.” On a later interview, Fleming explained further his choice of name: “I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, ‘James Bond’ was much better than something more interesting, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers’. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure – an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”

The Goldeneye estate, as of 2011. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

On that letter to Mary, Fleming added that in return for using the name he could offer “your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit. Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” This never happened though. Finally, Fleming also invited the Bonds to visit him in Jamaica. This happened in 1964, when the Bonds were there researching and paid a surprise visit to Fleming. This was shortly before the novelist’s death six months later, and luckily, this one-time meeting was captured in video for a future documentary. At first, Fleming was suspicious of Bond’s identity and asked him to identify some birds. Bond, of course, passed the test with flying colors and Fleming had the happiest day of the rest of his life.


Jamaica, despite being a rather small country, has a very diverse avifauna. There are circa 320 bird species living in Jamaica, including migrants. From these, 28 are endemic species, 12 are endangered and 14 are introduced. Some of these species have fascinated James Bond, Ian Fleming and countless other tourists and birdwatchers. Moreover, since Ian Fleming was such a keen birdwatcher, birds sometimes featured in his stories (and later in the films), and a collection of bird trivia can be found in Box 2 further below.

We will now briefly introduce some of the more interesting Jamaican birds and explore a little bit of their natural history and even folklore.

Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus)

The red-billed streamertail, also known as doctor bird or scissortail hummingbird, appears in Fleming’s short story “For Your Eyes Only” (1960). The first lines of the story are: “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.” It is very hard to crown a “most beautiful” bird, but the red-billed streamertail is indeed remarkable. The feathers on the male’s tail (the “streamers”) are longer than their actual body and make a humming sound during flight. James Bond (the ornithologist) seems to agree; well, partially, at least: his book says that the “adult male is the most spectacular West Indian hummingbird”.

This species is the most abundant and widespread bird in Jamaica and was actually selected as the country’s national bird. Frederic G. Cassidy (1962–2000), who studied the evolution of the English language in Jamaica, says that the name doctor bird comes from the way the animals spear the flowers with their beaks to feed. Still, the term “doctor” also carries a superstitious overtone (as in “witch-doctor”) and Cassidy notes that natives referred to these hummingbirds as “god birds”.

Male (top) and female (bottom) of the Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus). (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Male (top) and female (bottom) of the Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus). (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


Jamaican Tody (Todus todus)

The todies belong to the order Coraciiformes, a group that also includes kingfishers, rollers and bee-eaters. The Jamaican tody was at first believed to be a species of hummingbird. Later, it received the name of robin, due to its small size and round appearance. This early folk name still survives in Jamaica as robin red-breas’, an allusion to the bird’s red colored patch below the beak and a copy of the English name of another bird. Robin redbreast is the old name of the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), a totally unrelated species.

The Jamaican tody is a tiny bird that feeds on insects and fruits, nesting in excavated burrows. James Bond was especially interested in the nesting behavior of birds and studied this topic at length. He chose the Jamaican tody as the cover of the first edition of “Birds of the West Indies” (1936). It has a very small geographic distribution and its population seems to be steadily decreasing in the last decade.

The Jamaican Tody, Todus todus. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Jamaican Poorwill (Siphonorhis americana)

Also known as Jamaican pauraque, this nocturnal bird is a species of nightjar, of the family Caprimulgidae. The family name comes from the Latin caprimulgus (goatsucker) and reflects the absurd folk “lore” that these birds sucked milk from goats.

Very little is known about the Jamaican poorwill – it had been extinct long before Bond’s studies, since 1859. It was driven to extinction by introduced rats and mongooses, alongside the usual human-caused habitat destruction. Since the birds nest on the ground, their eggs are easy prey for these introduced mammals. Nevertheless, there are some recent (1998) records of caprimulgids from the regions of the Milk River and the Hellshire Hills in the country, but they remain unconfirmed. Thus, a very small population of poorwills might still exist in these remote regions. Curiously, Bond had also previously alluded to the possibility of a surviving population of these birds on the semi-arid Hellshire Hills.

The Jamaican poorwill, Siphonorhis americana. (Source: Rothschild, 1907.)

Jamaican Blackbird (Nesopsar nigerrimus)

The Jamaican blackbird (family Icteridae) is the only species in its genus and all of its names are rather misleading. Firstly, it is not an actual blackbird (Turdus merula, family Turdidae), which is a species of thrush. Nevertheless, the family Icteridae is popularly known as “New World blackbirds”, so we can let this one slip. As for the scientific name, the genus name comes from the Greek neso (island) and psar (starling) and, as one might guess, this bird is completely unrelated to true starlings (family Sturnidae). Finally, the specific epithet (see Salvador, 2014, for a crash course in species’ scientific names) means simply “very black”, which might not be so descriptive of a “blackbird” after all.

The Jamaican blackbird, Nesopsar nigerrimus. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Nevertheless, a local Jamaican popular name for this bird is “wild-pine sergeant” and is more accurate than the other names. These birds feed on insects they find in tree bark or bromeliads (locally known as “wild-pines”) and are adapted to climbing trees, similar to woodpeckers. They inhabit the montane forests of Jamaica and are arranged in pairs of birds, each pair occupying a vast territory. The severe deforestation caused by mining, forestry, charcoal production and agriculture has led to an extreme habitat loss incompatible with the blackbirds’ large territories. The species is thus considered endangered, but only some very shy efforts have been made towards its preservation.

Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris)

The sad flycatcher (together with the lesser Antillean pewee, Contopus latirostris) is commonly called little Tom-fool by the Jamaican people, for its habit of refusing to fly away when threatened. This flycatcher species inhabits the forests of Jamaica and, as their name imply, feed on insects. In fact, the genus name comes from the Greek muia (fly) and archos (ruler), while the specific epithet refers to the presence of rictal bristles. These bristles are modified feathers (that look like mammals’ whiskers) projecting from the beak; they not only provide tactile feedback (as whiskers do), but also supposedly protect the birds’ eyes as they consumes their wriggly insect prey.

The sad flycatcher, Myiarchus barbirostris. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

To avoid confusion, we must note here that the sad flycatcher is part of the group known as “New World flycatchers” or “tyrant flycatchers” (the family Tyrannidae). The “Old World flycatchers” belong to another family, Muscicapidae, which is only distantly related to the Tyrannidae.

Jamaican Crow (Corvus jamaicensis)

This bird is locally known as “jabbering crow” of “gabbling crow”, for it can produce a variety of jabbering sounds (besides the common “caw” of crows). Their incessant jabbering may also sound like indistinct human languages and, to the British, rather like Welsh people, which led to the birds being nicknamed “Welshmen” in a typical bout of Brit humor.

The Jamaican crows live mainly in the country’s uplands, but may come down to the lowlands during the dry season. They feed mainly on fruit and invertebrates, but may occasionally eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings.

The Jamaican crow, Corvus jamaicensis. (Source: Internet Bird Collection, IBC155934. Courtesy of Ken Simonite.)



Bond’s work with the Caribbean avifauna set the basis for ornithology in the region and most of his insights have been continuously proved accurate. As such, his influence in science shall remain relevant for a long time to come. Well, at least until humans have extinguished all the bird species in the region – unfortunately, birds live only once and Jamaica has already lost three of its endemic species. Meanwhile, the other Bond also remain a relevant figure in popular culture and imagination, with his over-the-top stories, exotic locations, strange villains, Bond girls, fancy suits, weaponized cars and a number of crazy gadgets. James Bond has thus the (somewhat dubious) honor of having his name twice immortalized in History, as a brilliant ornithologist and as a womanizing superspy. (We believe the latter is better remembered than the former though.)

But for those of you thinking that a birder’s life is much duller than a spy’s life, some words from the naturalist and writer Alexander F. Skutch (1904–2004) might change your mind or at the very least make you revisit your beliefs: “our quest of them [birds] takes us to the fairest places; to find them and uncover some of their well-guarded secrets we exert ourselves greatly and live intensely.”


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Cassidy, F.G. (2006) Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica. University of the West Indies Press, Kingston.

Clements, J.F.; Schulenberg, T.S.; Iliff, M.J.; Roberson, D.; Fredericks, T.A.; Sullivan, B.L.; Wood, C.L. (2014) The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world. Version 6.9. Available from: (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).

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