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Dragons may be mythical (which is a relief in the case of J.R.R. Tolkien’s greedy and ferocious Smaug), but there are things that exist which could pass for smaller versions of them.
Fandom has crossed over to science again with a new species of lizard being distinguished within the Smaug dragon lizard genus. With its heavy armor and streaks of yellow fire, Smaug swazicus, or the Swazi dragon lizard, probably only looks fearsome to a wandering insect, but it still appears to be wearing permanent cosplay. It looked so similar to other Smaug lizards that it took years just to distinguish it from its armored breathren. Herpetologists Michael Bates and Edward Stanley recently discovered this species, which was previously thought to be S. barbertonensis, an already known lizard.
“Distinct differences were indeed identified between populations with regard to color pattern, scalation and cranial osteology, necessitating the description of a new species, S. swazicus,” Bates and Stanley said in a study recently published in PeerJ, concluding that There are now nine known species of dragon lizards.”
Like their namesake, Smaug lizards aren’t easy to reach. They live on the mountaintops of southern Africa, climbing ever higher to cool off as the weather warms up. Lizards are exothermic animals that will fry in the heat if they don’t find less scorching place to hang out. They obviously couldn’t breathe fire if they tried. S. swazicus mostly lives on rocky terrain west of the Lebombo Mountains in the country of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). Though subspecies can evolve differently depending on their surroundings, individuals in both the north and south of the country were identified as being of the same species because of their indistinguishable morphology.
S. swazicus might be the largest one in its genus at 13 inches from head to tail. Despite being mistaken for S. barbertonensis, close observations, CT scans and DNA analysis revealed is actually most closely related to another mini-dragon, S. warreni.
They all live around the Makhonjwa Mountain Range, the site of some of the world’s oldest exposed rocks that go as far back as 3.6 billion years, with fossilized evidence of some of the most ancient life on Earth (which spawned in oceans around that time). The lizards’ distant past can explain why they look so similar; both S. warreni and S. swazicus actually diverged from S. barbertonensis about 7.5 million years ago. Mythology and fantasy often do refer to dragons as ancient creatures.
“High resolution [CT scanning] reveals differences in cranial osteology between specimens from all three lineages, with [S. swazicus] being remarkable in having a pronounced ridge and concave region at the lateral edge of the posterior origin of the [mandible],” the reserachers said about its deceptively scary face.
Stanley realized he didn’t even have to search that far for this lizard at the Florida Museum of Natural History, where he is curator. It was hiding in plain sight in a jar of specimens confiscated from the pet trade in the early 1980s. Smaug lizards like to creep into crevices between rocks. Tolkien was a linguist who not only made up languages but liked to twist existing ones. He came up with the name for his infamous dragon from the German smugan, which means “to squeeze through a hole.” Stanley could have easily escaped having to squint into dark places, brave soaring temperatures, lethal snakes and land mines, and have himself subject to suspicion of everything from trespassing to poaching to prospecting for gold. Smaug himself would probably be guilty of that last one.
This one thing S. swazicus has in common with Smaug besides its scaly armor and affinity for hiding in rocky places is that it seems just as lazy. The lizard is really just putting all of its energy into huffing and puffing into something that appears bulky and inedible, so it doesn’t have to bother fighting off predators — or pesky Hobbits.