The Mordor squid: Comparing fossils found in Middle-earth and New Zealand

The Mordor squid: Comparing fossils found in Middle-earth and New Zealand

Science Researcher Rodrigo Salvador compares the squid fossils of a fictional Middle-earth and those found in the ‘real’ one, New Zealand.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the latest Lord of the Rings game, released late last year for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. In it, you continue the adventure of Gondorian ranger Talion that started in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor in 2014.

Screenshot of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, 2017. Monolith Productions / Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Besides all the action, the game has a bunch of other activities, including the most staple of gaming side quests: collectibles. In most games, collectibles do very little or even nothing at all, but in Shadow of War, they reveal little tidbits of the game’s lore. While most collectibles are man-made (sometimes orc-made or elf-made too) items such as weapons and jewelry, there is one item that deviates from the norm: a fossil.

Screenshot of the fossilised squid beak found in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, 2017. Monolith Productions / Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

This palaeontological treasure is a fossilised squid’s beak. In the game, it is said that this fossil was found in Mordor, more specifically on a beach of the Sea of Núrnen.

Squids are cephalopod molluscs and are almost entirely soft-bodied. The exceptions are the “pen” (an internal remnant of the shell) and the “beak”, a pair of hard chitinous mandibles that resemble a parrot’s beak. Cephalopods’ beaks can sometimes become fossilised and several extinct species are known only from their beaks.

As a matter of fact, it is even possible to estimate the size of a squid by the size of its beak. For instance, the fossil species Haboroteuthis poseidon found a couple of years ago in Japan, was deemed to be a very large beast. It is not the largest of all squids, though. That title goes to the giant squid Architeuthis dux (in length) and to the colossal squid Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni (in weight). We have both these monsters here at Te Papa, but the latter certainly has stolen the spotlight.

Idril, a character in Shadow of War, used a similar rationale to estimate the size of the Mordorian fossil squid when she said: “If it is proportional to the smaller squids that fishermen sometimes catch, the sea creature would be several hundred feet long.” Clearly this is a crazy exaggeration, but it’s the intention that counts, right?

If you want to see a full “scientific” analysis of the Mordorian squid, check out this article on the Journal of Geek Studies – the squid even gets a mock-up Latin name. Otherwise, let us take a look at real squids now.

If a fossil squid has been found in Mordor, what about “real-life Mordor”? Were any squid fossils discovered here in New Zealand? As a matter of fact, yes, albeit a very tiny one.

A fossil ram’s horn squid, Spirula, is known from the Miocene epoch (15 to 20 millions of years ago) of Kaipara Harbour. Spirulids are a little different than other squids, because they have a small internal shell shaped as a spiral. As a matter of fact, it is still unclear whether spirulids are more closely related to squids or to cuttlefish. Unfortunately, the New Zealand fossil is in very bad shape – it is the oldest known spirulid! – but it is very similar to the present-day species.

Fossil Spirula sp. from the Miocene of Kaipara Harbour. Photo by Neville Hudson. Geological Collections, University of Auckland (AU2376)
Reconstruction of the fossil Spirula sp., by Margaret Morley. Out of the Ocean into the Fire: History in the rocks, landforms and fossils of Auckland, Northland and Coromandel Peninsula (Bruce W. Hayward, 2017, Geoscience Society of New Zealand)

There is only one spirulid species alive today, namely Spirula spirula. They are about 5 cm long and live in deep tropical and subtropical waters, down to 1,000 metres deep, but come closer to the surface every night to feed. Their shells seem delicate, but are actually quite sturdy, so beachcombers can find them on beaches all over the world – including New Zealand.

Shells of Spirula spirula found in Kaingaroa, Chatham Islands. Te Papa (M.110449)

Because they are so tiny and live so deep, very little is known about the life of these intriguing cephalopods other than their ability to produce green light. Unfortunately, the same thing is true for most sea creatures – we are still completely ignorant of their biology. It’s even becoming a cliché to say that we know more about the Moon or Mars than we do about the depths of our planet’s oceans.

Spirula spirula from the Bear Seamount, in the Atlantic Ocean, by Alistair Dove, Deep Sea News. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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