By Eduardo Faúndez
Last year I wrote about some interesting scientific names that have been given to insects, and about why entomologists choose such names. Now we can add a new one to the list, this one based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth novels, which have inspired many people around the world, including entomologists.
Recently in the insect systematics lab at North Dakota State University, we discovered a new species of shield bug in the family Acanthosomatidae and decided to give it a Tolkien-based name: Planois smaug.
The research was conducted by Mariom Carvajal, an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology, Dr. David Rider, and me. When we give insects names like this, the first question we hear from people is, “Why?”
The answer for this particular one comes from Mariom, who actually chose the name for the bug and took the lead on the research.
“We called it Planois smaug because the specimens of this new species were ‘sleeping’ in collections for about 60 years, like Tolkiens’s creature,” she said. “Another factor that contributed to the choosing of this particular name was the large size of the bug. Smaug was also very big, and this bug is the largest of its family in the southern tip of South America. Finally, the place it inhabits — the Cabo de Hornos Biosphere Reserve on Navarino Island — resembles Tolkien’s Middle Earth.”
“Resembles Middle Earth?” I asked her. “What do you mean?”
“I say that because I lived in that area, the southernmost town in the continent, when I was three years old,” she answered. “When I was first introduced to Tolkien’s universe, I realized that the place in which I lived was very similar. When I started to work in taxonomy, I always believed that if I found something new from that area, a Tolkien-based name should be used.”
The Cabo de Hornos Biosphere Reserve is a very isolated but beautiful place on the southern tip of Patagonia. It has been described as one of the most pristine environments in the World. Because of this, it has been a destination for many expeditions, and now we are still discovering new things from the collections. Giving a species that is endemic to this area a special name can also increase the awareness of this place, which has beauty and a hidden treasure — one that is known as biodiversity.
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Eduardo I. Faúndez is a PhD student at North Dakota State University in the laboratory of David A. Rider in Fargo, ND, and he is the director of the Medical Zoology Department at Centro de Estudios en Biodiversidad in Chile. His major research areas are systematics of the Heteroptera and medical zoology.