Goblins, orcs and Uruk Hai: taxonomy and Tolkien

Orc diversity: Uruk Hai, Mordor orc, Moria goblin

Tolkien knew the value of naming. More than that, he knew the value of understanding and labeling diversity. Tolkien was not satisfied with simply mentioning pipeweed, he needed to mention several varieties (Longbottom Leaf, Old Toby, Southern Star), each with its own properties. I have commented on the subspecies of hobbits that Tolkien named and their characteristics but this urge to name extends to everything from biscuits (cram, lembas), to elves (Eldar, Avan, Noldor and Sindar ) to months (Solmath, Afterlithe, Rethe). And even orcs. Orcs may be the foot-soldiers of evil but they do come in different flavours.

Apparently the members of two or three quite different tribes were present… In the twilight he saw a large black Orc, probably Ugluk, standing facing Grishnakh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground. Round them were many smaller goblins. Pippin supposed that these were the ones from the North.” J.R.R. Tolkien (The Two Towers)

The large black orc is an Uruk Hai of Isengard. There are hints that they may have gone through a hybridization event with humans at some point. The short crook-legged creature is an orc of Mordor. The small orcs are goblins of Moria. Tolkien, being an expert on languages and names, knew the benefits of a name. Names tell you about the appearance something will take, what behavior may be preformed, the history that might be important, the role that it might play. Thus, Uruk Hai are aggressive, dominating and single-minded, orcs are scheming, cunning and violent, goblins are sneaky, timid in small groups, and nasty. All the orc species look different and are biogeographically distinct (found in different places).

Names become tools which allow us to manipulate groups of individuals. Names are like handles that allow us to pick up such groups to obtain greater understanding of how these groups work, where they are, what they might do. In short names give us power of things and allow humans to control them. The same applies to the biological world.

The science of naming is called taxonomy. Naming a group of individuals as a species allows us to do science like counting them, understanding their particular biology, working out their historical (evolutionary) heritage, supporting or controlling them. Without names it is difficult to do a lot of meaningful research (“Hey we just found out some stuff about some things”).

Taxonomy brings order to complexity by assigning names. Image from Adrian Paterson.

Taxonomists are currently tackling the naming of our planet’s diversity. We have potentially millions of unnamed species and are ticking them off at about 15-20000 a year. So, a long way to go. Much of taxonomy takes place in groups that have not had much study and are new to science. However, a reasonably amount of taxonomy time is given over to checking back through groups that have already be worked on in the past. This is known as a revision.

Why spend valuable time going back over groups that already have named species? There are many reasons. First, new samples may have been collected from areas not sampled previously or more systematically sampled from previously searched areas. Second, new technology (like DNA) may allow us to find species that did not stand out in prior analyses that were based on appearance. Third, changes in analyses may allow us to better use existing data. Fourth, species may have just been missed in the earlier analysis. Fifth, Some differences recognized previously might not have been as significant as was originally thought.

Tolkien (in The Return of the King) has Sam and Frodo observe a potential fourth species of orc. “Presently two orcs came into view. One was clad in in ragged brown and was armed with a bow of horn; it was of a small breed, black-skinned, with wide and snuffling nostrils; evidently a tracker of some kind. The other was a big fighting-orc, like those of Shagrat’s company.” In later years, Sam could have used this observation to help revise the taxonomy of orcs to introduce and name a new species that were small and goblin like but living in the Mountains of Shadow rather than the Misty Mountains.

Platisus flat bark beetles are very… well… flat. Image from Adrian Paterson.

One area in which there are often lots of ongoing revisions is in the naming of beetles. Beetles are one of the most abundant groups of species on Earth and there is a lot of scope for species that were missed from the original taxonomical work. Lincoln University is home to the Entomology Research Museum which has one of the largest collections of insects in New Zealand. Curator John Marris has a particular fondness for beetles and spends a good portion of his time making the most of this collection by revising beetle groups.

Platisus is a genus of flat bark beetles from the Cucjidae family. These beetles are incredibly flat and spend most of their time living in the space between bark and the rest of the tree. Generally this space is caused by damage to the bark which fractionally lifts the bark off the rest of the tree. Into this space come other invertebrates and fungi and a little ecosystem develops. It is likely that the Platisus species are predators of this system. One might almost think of them as ent-lice!

John helped to name a new New Zealand species and realized that there were some work to do in sorting out the species in this group from throughout Australasia. The results of his work are now published in Austral Entomology. First up the new species Platisus zelandicus needed to be added to a key that allows people to identify any flat bark species from the region. A new species found though much of southern Australia (Platisus vespertinus) was discovered and added. Platisus coloniarius was found to be in the wrong genus all together and was shifted to become Cucujus coloniarius. Platisus bicolor had been removed as a separate species in 1885 but this was overturned and is now a species in it own right again. Platisus integricollis is now seen as something less than distinct from Platisus angusticollis and so they have been joined together.

The New Zealand representative, Platisus zelandicus, needed to be added to the key. Image from Adrian Paterson.

This revision of the flat bark beetles has resulted in a number of changes to what has been known for the last 130 years. New diversity has been discovered and some false diversity has been removed. In addition, lectotypes (real specimens that are confirmed good examples of the species for future comparisons) have been identified.  With this revision we are now more confident of managing these species in the future. We also have better tools for identifying any new species that might turn up with more sampling in the future.

Naming species provides us with tools to capture and deal with the diversity of nature, whether this a new species of orc or flat bark beetles. If Tolkien had been a biologist I am pretty sure he would have spent time working on taxonomy. He would have come up with some great names (and maybe found time to do that orc revision).

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