University of Florida scientists have name a newly discovered extinct crocodile Anthracosuchus balrogus, after the Tolkien’s Balrog, defeated by Gandalf in the Mines of Moria.
Name one new species after a character from the Lord of the Rings? Big deal. For Leigh Van Valen, evolutionary biologist, longtime University of Chicago professor, and intellectual eccentric, Tolkien was the inspiration for over two dozen species named after people, places, and things in Middle Earth.
In 1978, long before the Peter Jackson movies, Van Valen described 26 newly recognized early mammal species based on fossils (almost exclusively teeth) from Montana and Wyoming belonging to a group known as condylarths, considered the ancestors of ungulates, the hoofed mammals. They date from the Paleocene epoch (as does A. balrogus), the time just after the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Van Valen put some serious thought into these names. For example, the name Thangorodrim thalion was derived from “Thangorodrim, the mountainous triple fortress of Morgoth in The Silmarillion. Reference is to Purgatory Hill.” [the site where the fossil was collected]. Species name “Sindarin (Elvish) thalion, strong. Reference is to the massive morphology and the generic name.”
Here are all of them. Can you identify the references? The first one is easy, but they get harder. Better have your Elvish dictionary on hand. Coming soon will be the answers, as provided by Van Valen himself in the original article [Edit: Find the answers here]:
L. M. Van Valen. 1978. The beginning of the Age of Mammals. Evolutionary Theory 4:45-80
Thangorodrim thalion (synonym of Oxyclaenus Cope 1884)
Arctocyonides [Claenodon] mumak
Platymastus [Aletodon] mellon
Bomburia (New genus, later reassigned)
Protoselene bombadili [reassigned to Bubogonia bombadili Williamson 1996]
Litomylus (?) alphamon
Fimbrethil ambaronae (Oxyacodon agapetillus (Cope 1884))
Mithrandir (New subgenus of Anisonchus)
Ancalagon (New genus later renamed Ankalagon Van Valen, 1980 because the original genus name was preoccupied a Cambrian priapulid, Ancalagon Conway Morris, 1977. No, Van Valen was not the first scientist to have read the Lord of the Rings.)
Niphredil radagasti (an insectivoran now in the genus Paleotomus)
Incidentally, Tolkien wasn’t the only fantasy author he read. Van Valen is most famous for the Red Queen hypothesis, which helps explain why evolution occurs. Its name comes from the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
For more on Leigh Van Valen, read his obituary in the New York Times.
Still want to read about giant extinct crocodiles? See the Anthracosuchus article here: