I tried to make this readable for both biologists and non-biologists. Please keep in mind that English is not my native language thus making it sometimes hard for me to use certain scientific terms the correct way.
These are my personal thoughts on Middle-earth’s biology as shown in The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey. They are in no particular order.
I have seen long discussions about this. People without a big interest in biology saw the leaf shaped antlers of the deer and immediately called it a Moose. If you know Moose however, it will become quite obvious this is another deer species. And indeed the Fallow Deer Dama dama (a Eurasian species) has very similar antlers and even looks very much like the deer in the movie. However with a shoulder height of barely 100 cm it is impossible for a man or elf to ride it.
Now one might think Peter Jackson just invented a large deer to suffice as a riding animal. While this might be true in today’s world, it isn’t when looking far back into the past. Deer of the extinct genus Megaloceros were also distributed throughout Eurasia and looked very much like the Fallow Deer, only twice as large. They also had antlers which exceeded even those of a Moose in size and made them quite an impressive sight. There are quite a lot of known skeletons and maybe your local museum of natural history has one in display. When you stand in front of one you can immediately imagine this being Thranduil’s deer. Considering that the Megaloceros went extinct about 10,000 years ago and Middle-earth is supposed to be an ancient version of Europe this even makes a lot of sense.
The only weird thing about this is: Megaloceros had such vast antlers that forests were impassable obstacles for them; they therefore lived in plains and grasslands. One can only wonder how Thranduil is going to ride through Mirkwood on it; however, that remains to be seen in the second Hobbit movie.
Ponies are small but sturdy creatures so they make really good carriers. What I loved most about the ponies in the movie was their fur. Various different pony breeds (for example the Shetland Pony or the Icelandic Horse) really look this fuzzy at winter time. However the ponies of the Dwarves looked like this even in summer. Weta Chronicles states they were therefore covered in fur suits to make them look woolly for the movie. It is a little trick but at least not completely wrong as ponies do wear fur like this, just in another season.
I personally found the Wargs in LOTR really awful. They looked like poorly animated robots to me and not at all like wolves. Especially their body shape resembled that of hyenas. Keep also in mind that hyenas are actually Feliformia (“cat-like carnivores”) which makes their usage as Wargs seem even more wrong.
Luckily though the Wargs in The Hobbit could definitely be classified in the order Caniformia (“dog-like carnivores”), which puts them a lot closer to wolves. I don’t want to go so far as to describe them as “wolf-like” as wolves tend to be a lot smaller and less fleshy. Wolves also hardly ever show such aggressive behaviour which more reminds me of attack dogs. Wolves are more tender and careful animals. So I see those Wargs simply as “invented” creatures. Weta Chronicles calls them “demon wolves” which also sounds reasonable to me.
Fur colours vary vastly in real world wolves so having a white Warg within the pack is completely acceptable.
There is not really a lot to say about them. Anatomically they are clearly rabbits and not hares, which is good. However for me at least the glimpses we have of them are so short and quick-paced that I find it impossible to make out the exact species. The most obvious guess would probably be the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) considering it is the best known and – sadly, because not natural – the widest distributed rabbit species.
They also show at least one characteristic behaviour: they thump on the floor with their hind leg when alert. Apart from that I doubt that neither could they pull a sleigh with a human on it nor could they be tamed enough to make them run in groups. But I see those as slight modifications that are acceptable in a fantasy world.
Not much to say either. They look like hedgehogs although they don’t necessarily sound like them. They most likely resemble the European Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), a very common animal in Western, Central and Northern Europe.
They give me a bit of a headache. Of course they are far too large for any eagles of the real world. There simply is not and never has been any species of eagle or other bird of prey even nearly this large. The largest birds of prey, depending on either wingspan or weight, are the Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) or the Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja). Needless to say they are both much smaller than the eagles in The Hobbit and further they don’t even look anything like them.
The largest eagle ever to have lived was the Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei), indigenous in New Zealand, large enough to attack moas but definitely not to carry a wizard, a dwarf or even a hobbit.
So the reason the eagles give me a headache is not the size (it is clear they are ridiculously large) but just the way they look. I don’t think they can be assigned to any real eagle species. I would go this far to say that they appear to belong to the Aquila genus, most likely Aquila chrysaetos (Golden Eagle), though the colours are slightly off. Aquila is good enough though; it’s a genus widely distributed over the Old World and that makes them good to belong to Middle-earth. A Bald Eagle for instance would have never fit into that world!
There is nothing to complain about their way of flying or grabbing objects and that is really all the behaviour we see of them.
Larry Dixon who worked with his eagle Mina on bringing the eagles in The Hobbit to life kindly confirmed in the comments below that the species used indeed was the Golden Eagle. You should check out his website where you can see him with one of the eagles used for LOTR and The Hobbit:
Thank you very much for contributing and refining this essay, Larry!
Note by DJ: Larry has further provided a picture of Mina and the original reference mount used for Gwaihir in LOTR:
The birds nesting in Radagast’s hair go by too quickly for my eyes. I gladly accept any suggestions on their species from somebody else.
There is also a dead bird lying on the floor which is clearly a Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius).
Now the bird that shows Radagast the way to Dol Guldur seems odd to me. It looks very much like the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) thus making it also a thrush.
Even the colouration around the eye matches this bird. However this really bothers me considering Peter Jackson was clever enough to only include European wildlife with all the other animals. I don’t see a reason why he did not choose the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) or any other bird species native to Europe for this task. I might be a nerdy biologist when I say this now, but I see this American Robin as one of the big mistakes Peter Jackson made in this movie. Most other people probably won’t even notice it is there, but it annoys at least me a lot to see it.
The thrush at the end of the movie clearly is a European thrush and so I could reconcile with Peter Jackson again. The exact species is hard to make out – lots of thrush species tend to look very similar – but we are most likely in the genus Turdus and we are most likely in Europe which is good enough considering the thrush is going to be one of the key characters in this story (or let’s say: hopefully it will be also in the movie) and should therefore look credible.
One thing especially wonderful for me to see was this bird showing the most typical thrush behaviour ever. They tend to smash snails against rocks to crack them open. Even the movement looks natural. Usually they like to visit the same rock over and over again and it becomes clear in the movie why the thrush chooses this rock: There are lots of snails crawling around it.
We haven’t seen a lot of him yet but one can still conclude a bit. First of all he seems to be HUGE, which is really nice. If he’d be too small he would never be as frightening. His colour is clearly true to the book. You can see him being reddish from the glimpses you see of him in the prologue. Don’t be tricked by him looking blue in the very last scene of the movie; that is really just the reflection of the objects around him. If you look closely you can even see his red colour in that shot.
He also appears to be no wyvern but instead walks on four legs and additionally has two wings. How do I know? From the way he walks and breaks down the doors to Erebor it is nearly impossible for him to stand on only two legs.
Also a biped reptile (like a Tyrannosaurus Rex) would have its legs positioned more centered beneath its hips whereas a reptile walking on four legs would have them positioned laterally. Just think of a Komodo Dragon as reference here.
Without seeing his body Smaug’s legs still seem to have a rather outward position.
Now one may argue: dragons clearly are reptiles and there are no vertebrates with six limbs. While this is true, we could just be lazy and say “This is fantasy, don’t worry.”
I do want to bring up a remarkable little lizard that is very much real in our world: Gliding Lizards, better known as Flying Dragons, belonging to the genus Draco (you see how all those names fit our topic?) may not be able to actively fly, but they do have quite large membranes stretched between their exceptionally long ribs to allow them to “fall” gracefully. Let’s take thoughts on further evolution of this extraordinary anatomic feature: ribs could become even longer, with the membrane covering a larger area between them. We all know that vertebrates have muscles in their back; some of them could be adapted to move those wings and voila! We just need to combine this with the size of a dinosaur and the atmosphere of Jurassic Age to allow reptiles to even grow that large… Yes, I know this is complete nonsense, and a reptile this size would neither be able to fly actively nor even get off the ground, but anatomically and evolutionary I wouldn’t call dragons entirely impossible – IF all necessary components apply. And please keep in mind that birds by terms of evolution are nothing else than feathered, flying dinosaurs either.
However I can’t come up with any biologic explanation to breathing fire so I take at least that part of dragons to be a mere product of fantasy.
There is one more little detail about Smaug that made me happy to see: His nictitating membrane (the third eyelid) is clearly visible, which makes him even more lifelike to our world considering that most vertebrates – and especially reptiles – have them.
The whole moth scene irritates me a bit to be honest as I am really not sure about the time of day in this particular scene. It is clear sunshine before and clear sunshine after the Warg attack. For some reason though it appears to be very dark DURING the Warg attack. So I am not sure if it is supposed to be even daytime at this point.
Let us put all time inconsistencies aside and assume it is night time at the point where Gandalf picks up the moth. It irritated me at first because for a long time I actually thought this was a butterfly and not a moth. However it could resemble Saturnia pavoniella, a moth with very limited distribution in Europe: it can only be found south of the Alps.
Why did Peter Jackson choose a rather unknown species? Maybe simply because it is an exceptionally pretty moth. To be honest I am still not sure the moth in the movie is supposed to be this exact species, though the Saturniidae family seems to generally be a good guess here. If you have any better suggestions I would gladly accept them!
As pointed out by Bracken Brandybuck in the comments below the moth strongly resembles another member of the Saturniidae family. The Emperor Gum Moth (Opodiphthera eucalypti) is native to Australia and was later on also introduced to New Zealand. Obviously this moth was already used in Fellowship of the Ring as messenger moth between Gandalf and the eagle to also give local species some screentime. This species is very variable in colouration so the two moths in the two movies being of the same species is definitely credible. I chose a picture of a bright orange specimen to go with The Hobbit.
I have been neither to Australia nor to New Zealand so I am not familiar with their local insects. However after looking at some pictures of Opodiphthera eucalypti I prefer this species over the one I originally suggested. Thank you, Bracken Brandybuck!
Thoughts on different humanoid creatures:
Orcs to me seem to be mainly made out of muscles. In this way they remind me very much of Great Apes, which also vastly exceed the human body in strength. I kind of imagine having to battle a gorilla and am already scared at the thought of it. It would probably take 10 men to bring him down. I suppose this is the big advantage of Orcs: massive strength.
Goblins on the other hand seem to be weak little creatures who above all are also a lot dumber than Orcs. Their strength mainly lies in number and when I look at the wide shots in Goblin Town it actually reminds me very much of an ant hill in there: there are so many of them and despite seemingly having no brain they all appear to know what they are supposed to do.
They are ugly little creepers who seem to have lost any beauty in years and years of evolution. Living under the mountain has made their skin all squishy and pale. Their anatomy looks crippled as they obviously like to run around bent down. Their eyes are very big as it is normal for animals living in a dark environment. They either lose their eyes because they are useless or they tend to get bigger and bigger to catch even the last rays of light. The Goblins definitely look like a race that lives underground but would be incapable of living in the bright sunlight.
I have been thinking of Dwarf anatomy for quite a while now. I would really like to see a Dwarf naked, not to gush over him but because I would love to see their proportions. From the way they move and the illusion they give us by their clothes I imagine their legs to be rather short. As far as I’ve heard they helped the actors to be tricked into this illusion by applying heavy fat suits to them which meant they had no other choice than to move like a dwarf. Watch them walk or run closely; you will make out what I mean.
Looking at their fingers and faces makes it obvious that Dwarves are a lot more meaty than humans. This makes perfect sense since Tolkien described Dwarves as exceptionally strong so they too had to be very muscular and needed to have limbs to work with.
Dwarven hair is also something very interesting. I have to admit I did try to imitate Fili’s hair on myself but I soon found it impossible to arrange human hair like this. If I want to make a braid as thick as Fili’s I’d have to use half the hair of my head. However he has FOUR braids like this and still a lot of free hair flowing around. Which means Dwarves have either a lot MORE or a lot THICKER hair than humans. I want to think it is a combination of both. And it doesn’t only start with the hair, the beards are also enormous next to even the biggest of human beards. Just look at Gloin’s: no way a human can ever be that hairy, even if he never shaved throughout his life.
I am still not sure if this topic is of biologic or geologic concern. I wouldn’t really have a real world explanation for them anyway, so you are free to make up your own mind.
Goblin King’s skull:
The Goblin King has a skull on the stick he is holding. That skull amused me as it seemed to be a combination of sheep (wound horns) and boar (large tusks).
Things in the next movie:
We have hardly seen anything of the spiders yet, I can’t wait to study their anatomy.
Beorn lives with a lot of different animals in the book; I wonder how many of those will actually appear in the movie. And will they really talk and set the table? I am also looking forward to the large bees that collect honey for him.
Also there will finally be a full view of Smaug so there will be more to say about him.
This means I am pretty sure there’ll be another biologic analysis by me for the next movie.
Please feel free to disagree or add further input in the comments. Your opinions are very much welcome!