Museum Researcher Names Lizard Genus After Tolkien’s Dragon Smaug

by AMNH on

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The villain of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit–the fearsome dragon Smaug–dwells deep in a cavern with a massive hoard of treasure and terrorizes nearby villages.
Giant Girdled Lizard, Smaug gigantus
Smaug gigantus is a newly-reclassified giant girdled lizard from South Africa.
Photo courtesy of E. Stanley

His real-world namesakes aren’t quite as fearsome. Smaug is the new name given to a genus of girdled lizards from South Africa by Ed Stanley, a doctoral candidate at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History, who reclassified the genus in a paper published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution in January 2011. Stanley’s work is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Smaug lizards live in tunnels in the highlands, including the appropriately named Drakensberg (Dragon Mountain) mountain range of southern Africa. But the inspiration for the name came from a connection to the author rather than the fictional character. “Tolkien was born in the Free State, South Africa, where this lizard was found,” says Stanley.

Though much smaller than the massive fire-breathing dragon of Tolkien’s tale, the real-world reptile bears thick scales of armor on its backs and has a weak underbelly that is vulnerable to predators, much like its novelistic namesake.

The natural predators of the Smaug genus may not be the biggest threat to the survival of the species, however. The exotic look of the lizards makes them attractive to wealthy pet collectors, and their habitat happens to intersect with valuable farmland.

“They have a wide range, but it is getting more fragmented,” say Stanley. Plows in particular devastate their habitat, cutting into the shallow tunnels that the lizards dig for themselves. Once the land has been plowed, girdled lizards like Smaug won’t re-colonize it, abandoning the area to human crops.

“Between being plowed out of their land, collection for the international pet trade, and used in muti [traditional medicine], they really are quite endangered,” says Stanley.