A new genus of butterfly, with dark, eye-like spots on its distinctive orange wings, has been named after Sauron, the arch-villain of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic “The Lord of the Rings,” whose gaze lingers malevolently over the lands of Middle-earth.
An international team of scientists identified two species in the new genus — Saurona triangula and Saurona aurigera — but said there were most likely more, the Natural History Museum in London announced on Sunday.
Blanca Huertas, the senior curator of butterflies at the museum, helped name the genus, which is one of nine new ones described by the researchers in a paper in the most recent issue of the journal Systematic Entomology.
The practice of naming new species after celebrities, fictional characters and others has a long history, and “giving these butterflies an unusual name helps to draw attention to this underappreciated group,” Dr. Blanca said. “It shows that, even among a group of very similar-looking species, you can find beauty among the dullness.”
Found in the southwestern Amazon rainforest, the Saurona butterflies are part of a group called Euptychiina, which are difficult to distinguish simply by their physical characteristics. The scientists used genetic sequencing to help tell the new species apart.
“It’s important to study groups like the Euptychiina because it reveals that there are many species we didn’t know about,” Dr. Blanca said. “Some of these species are threatened with extinction, and so there’s a lot to do now we can put a name to them.”
Butterfly populations around the world are threatened by the loss of habitat and the effects of climate change. The monarch butterfly (or Danaus plexippus, which is not based on a Tolkien character) was classified as endangered last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Tolkien often depicted Sauron as a disembodied, all-seeing eye, writing in 1954’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”: “The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.” Film adaptations followed suit.
In addition to the newly designated butterflies, Sauron has a namesake dinosaur, a dung beetle and a frog, according to the Natural History Museum. There’s also NGC 4151, a faraway galaxy that astronomers have dubbed “the eye of Sauron.”
Tolkien’s characters have long provided a rich source of inspiration for taxonomists, including a subterranean fish named for the cave-dwelling Gollum; a crab found in New Zealand — the filming location for the “Lord of the Rings” movies of the early 2000s — that was named for the wizard Gandalf; and the moss-forest blossom bat, a.k.a. Syconycteris hobbit.
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