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.

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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.

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

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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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Geeky nature

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

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

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Everybody knows that each species on the planet eventually receives a so-called “scientific name”, a two-piece Latin-like name that serves the purpose of scaring people away from science – even more than they already naturally are. So what good do scientific names do?

Cyanocitta cristata, the blue jay. Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

Well, for starters, having an official name assures that every single scientist in the world will refer to a species by its scientific name. This makes it a lot easier to find information about a given species in the vast scientific literature. Just imagine how easier it is to simply search the literature for information on Cyanocitta cristata instead of looking for citations of its popular names: blue jay (in English), arrendajo azul or urraca azul (in Spanish), Blauhäher (in German), geai bleu (in French), ghiandaia azzurra americana (in Italian), gaio azul (in Portuguese) etc.

Species in the genus Panthera are all closely related to each other and, thus, all have similar characteristics. Top row, from left to right: tiger (P. tigris), leopard (P. pardus) and a reconstruction of the fossil Longdan tiger (P. zdanskyi). Bottom row, from left to right: jaguar (P. onca), lion (P. leo) and snow leopard (P. uncia). Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, by stating that a tiger (Panthera tigris) belongs in the genus Panthera, we are saying that it is more closely related to the other species in the same genus (such as the lion, Panthera leo, and the jaguar, Panthera onca) than to any other member of the cat family (called Felidae), such as the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) or the saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis). These statements are the basis for organizing the tree of life.

Now, let us take a moment to review how scientific names work. They have two parts. The first one is the name of the genus, like Panthera in the example above. The second part is called the “specific epithet”, like tigris for the tiger. Now mind you that the species name is not simply tigris. The word tigris means nothing by itself, unless accompanied by the genus name. As such, the complete name of the tiger species is Panthera tigris.

The specific epithet (the cristata of the blue jay example) is usually not a random word. It may help describing a species, giving an idea of what it is like or where it comes from. Let’s take a look now at some useful specific epithets:

  • Take the snail species called Eoborus rotundus, for instance. The specific epithet implies that this particular snail is rotund or round and this is something that makes it different from other species in the same genus. For instance, the species Eoborus fusiformis is, like the name implies, spindle-shaped. As such, the specific epithet serves to point out a feature that makes the species easy to distinguish (diagnose, in the jargon) from other closely related species.

  • The specific epithet can also reflect the place where the species lives or, at least, where it was first found. For instance, we expect to find a bird named Tangara brasiliensis in Brazil and a slug called Arion lusitanicus in Portugal. Sometimes this fails though: the bird Tangara mexicana is not found in Mexico – perhaps a lack of geographical knowledge of the person who named it.

  • An epithet may also reflect the kind of habitat where the species lives in or its mode of life. The snail Cepaea hortensis received this epithet because it is commonly found in groves and orchards.

The round Eoborus rotundus (left) and the spindle-shaped Eoborus fusiformis (right) are fossil land snails species from the Paleocene/Eocene of Brazil.

Also, there are the not-so-useful names, the ones that are given in honor of someone, commonly a great scientist who usually worked with that group of animals before. For instance, there are loads of species, such as the snail Bulimulus darwini, named after Charles Darwin. Of course, Darwin deserves all the honors possible, but sometimes this habit of naming can become more a matter of ass-kissing than anything else. It is thus common (and useless) to name species after the person who funded the research or even after people who are completely irrelevant to science, such as the zoologist’s wife or children. Therefore, we have lots of women’s proper names, especially in the butterflies. Even worse, almost all birds of paradise are named after European nobility or royalty. It might be cute, be it is useless.

Sometimes, a species is named after a mythological being. This is often also useless, despite being way more awesome, like the owl genus named Athene. Yet, it might also be useful sometimes. For instance, the snail Brasilennea arethusae was named after the nymph Arethusa. This snail was the first fossil land snail found in Brazil and naming it after a forest-dwelling nymph made this very clear (at least to people who know their mythology), in a manner similar to the example of Cepaea hortensis above. Another example is Pseudotorinia phorcysi, a snail that lives in the deep sea, named (by myself and two colleagues) after the Greek deity Phorcys, the god of the hidden dangers of the deep sea.

Halystina umberlee. The photo on the left was taken on a light stereomicroscope. The one on the right was taken using a scanning electron microscope, which reveals much more details about the structures of tiny creatures.

And now, finally, I arrived where I wanted: the geek names. Some species have received names coming from geek culture. As the first example, there is Halystina umberlee. This is also a deep-sea snail named by myself and the same two colleagues, but this time, instead of the Greek god Phorcys of the example above, we used the goddess Umberlee. She is also a goddess of the dangers of the deep sea, but she is a fictitious deity, coming from the so-called Faerûnian pantheon of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG. To my knowledge, I was the first geek to name a species after something D&D-ish. But I’m far from being the first geek in the history of zoological nomenclature.

The goddess Umberlee rising from the waves (taken from the book Faiths & Pantheons by Eric L. Boyd & Erik Mona, 2002, published by Wizards of the Coast).

Back in the 19th century, geek zoologists did not have Tolkien or Star Trek yet, so they named their species after the geeky literature of their time. For instance, the jumping spider Bagheera kiplingi – the genus named after the character and the specific epithet after the writer.

From the middle of the 20th century onwards, geekness became much more pervasive. Just to exemplify, we have the spiders Pimoa cthulhu and Aname aragog, the fossil plant Phoenicopsis rincewindii, the mussel Ladella spocki, the fish Bidenichthys beeblebroxi, the dinosaur Dracorex hogwartsia and a whole lot from the Tolkienverse: the weevil Macrostyphlus gandalf, the fossil mammals Protoselene bombadili and Mimatuta morgoth, the leafhopper Macropsis sauroni etc.

The dinosaur Dracorex hogwartsia, from the late Cretaceous of North America. Its skull really looks like that of a “typical” dragon, but the animal was disappointingly an herbivore. Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

Genera (this is the plural of genus!) have also been named after geek culture: the worm Yoda, the slug Smeagol (which has its own precious family, Smeagolidae), the crustacean Godzillius, the snail Cortana (this one is also my fault), the lizard Smaug, the fish Batman (why not an outright bat is something that also baffles me) and the tardigrade (microscopic creatures also known as sea-bears) Beorn, among many others.

One species that deserves a full paragraph here is Han solo. Yes, exactly, I’m talking about the Chinese trilobite. In the official description (from 2005), the author Samuel T. Turvey says that the name comes from to the Han Chinese (by far the most numerous ethnic group in China today) and that the specific epithet solo is because the species is the youngest fossil in the family (meaning the last or sole survivor). Still, Turvey later said that it was all a bet; some friends dared him to name a species after a Star Wars character. But Turvey was rather cowardly in this. He could have stated up front (and proudly) where the name came from. There is no rule in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (the code that regulates the names) against this. I have done it myself and lots of geeks before me have been doing it for a long time. The official description of the fossil turtle genus Ninjemys reads: “Ninja, in allusion to that totally rad, fearsome foursome epitomizing shelled success; emys, turtle.” And no editor or reviewer can prevent the name being given. Well, perhaps they could back in 1900-something, where everybody was worried with proper-this and proper-that, but, come on, not in 2005! Dr. Turvey, you have made geekdom both proud and disappointed at the same time. Please get things right from the start next time.

Skull of the fossil teenager ninja turtle Ninjemys oweni, from the Pleistocene of Australia. Those are some pretty badass spikes and it actually looks a little bit like Slasher. Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

OK, I grant you that geek names are not very useful, but they sure give a little color to zoological (and sometimes also botanical) nomenclature. Taxonomy (the science of naming and classifying living creatures) is very nice and all, but the scientific papers in the area can be very arid and lifeless. Therefore, I think that it is a very valid endeavor to try to have some fun while doing taxonomy, especially if you are a geek and have a whole pantheon of heroes, gods and monsters to get your inspiration from.


I am very grateful to Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms (and, thus, of Umberlee) for his very kind comments on the new species named in honor of the goddess. Also, many thanks to my co-authors of scientific papers for allowing my geekness to run free when naming species.


If you want to know exactly how species are formally described and get their official names, this is the best guide out there: Winston, J.E. (1999) Describing Species: Practical Taxonomic Procedure for Biologists. Columbia University Press, New York.

A less academic approach to the whole naming process can be found in: Wright, J. (2014) The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names. Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

For a more philosophical view and musings about the importance of naming species for scientists and non-scientists alike, try this one (you might want to skip chapter 9 though, which is far too exaggerated on its glorification of molecular taxonomy): Yoon, C.K. (2010) Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

If you want a taste of what a real taxonomic paper looks like, try this one (where Halystina umberlee came from): Salvador, R.B.; Cavallari, D.C.; Simone, L.R.L. (2014) Seguenziidae (Gastropoda: Vetigastropoda) from SE Brazil collected by the Marion Dufresne (MD55) expedition. Zootaxa 3878(6): 536–550.

For the ones who like rules and want to take a look at the “laws” presiding over animal names, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN, for the intimate) is the one and only guide:

Last but not least, Mark Isaak has compiled a lot of geeky scientific names on his website: I must confess that I did not know most of them, since they are insect names (rather removed from my area of study). In any case, it is always good to know that I am not alone – there are many other geek zoologists and paleontologists out there. Just take a look at the sheer amount of Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion names; it’s amazing!

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