Jim Morrison was a king of sorts, at least in his own mind. The lead singer of the Doors sang in one cover song that he was “a king bee.” In another, he said, “I’m the crawlin’ king snake.”
But Morrison most famously wrote in a poem that he was “the Lizard King,” a name that stuck. So naturally, when a paleontologist who happens to be a Doors fan came across the fossil of a giant lizard, one of the largest ever to trod the planet, he named it Barbaturex morrisoni, after the enigmatic singer of the Doors.
“I’ve been a Doors fan since college,” said Jason Head, an assistant professor in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Head had read Morrison’s poem “Celebration of the Lizard,” the basis of the Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth,” which ended with the line about his being the Lizard King.
A description of the fossils, which existed 40 million years before Morrison, was published this week in the biological science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Head’s co-authors are Patricia Holroyd of the University of California at Berkeley, Gregg Gunnell of Duke University and Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa.
Weighing in at an estimated 60 pounds and measuring 6 feet, the “lizard king” would dwarf today’s plant-eating iguanas, measuring about 3 feet and weighing 11 pounds. But B. morrisoni would probably be smaller than its distant relative, the island-dwelling Komodo dragon, which eats meat and can grow to 10 feet and weigh 200 pounds.
Head said the fossils came from Burma, but that’s not where they found them. They had been sitting in a museum collection at the University of California Museum of Paleontology since the 1970s, along with other lizard remains that had not been thoroughly examined.
The museum’s holdings include more than 15,000 specimens, fossils from tens of thousands of places, awaiting further study, according to its Web site.
Head was looking at other fossils in 2006 when a Berkeley researcher said, as he recalled, “We have these lizards too. Maybe you should look at those.’” As the team worked, Head noticed the herbivore teeth and a jaw that held beneath it some spiky material, a telltale sign that the creature resembled modern lizards that are much smaller.
In time, the scientists realized that they were looking at something special. “It’s a plant-eating lizard from a time period and a place from which we don’t have a lot of information,” Head said.
When he studied its modern relatives, “I realized just how big this lizard was,” Head said. “It struck me that we had something here that was quite large and quite unique.”
The researchers theorize that at a time when no ice existed at Earth’s poles, carbon dioxide was high and the diversity of plant life was tremendous, these lizards ate their fill and evolved into giants in spite of the presence of animals that preyed on plant eaters.
“You’ve got to figure out a name that fits,” Head said. Because of the stuff hanging from the lizard’s jaw, he thought it was like a bearded king. Then his writhing singing idol came to mind.
The name was appropriate in so many ways. Research suggests that today’s reptiles could go the way of Morrison, who died under mysterious circumstance in 1971 at age 27.
“We’re changing the atmosphere so fast that the rate of climate change is probably faster than most biological systems can adapt to. So instead of seeing the growth of reptiles, what you might see is extinction,” he said.