Researchers have identified nine new groups of butterflies—though one in particular seems to have caught their eye.
With fiery orange and jet black eyespots at the bottom of their wings, the butterflies in this new genus, dubbed Saurona, reminded the scientists of the flaming Eye of Sauron—the all-seeing eye of the evil ruler of Mordor that looks out over Middle-earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In the first book of the three, The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien writes, “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.”
Inspired by this chilling description, the team documented two new species in this genus, named Saurona triangula and Saurona aurigera, which live in the lowland rainforests of the southwestern Amazon. Blanca Huertas, the senior curator of butterflies at the Natural History Museum in London and a co-author of the study, selected the literary-derived name for the insects.
“Naming a genus is not something that happens very often,” she says in a statement. “It was a great privilege to do so, and now means that we can start describing new species that we have uncovered as a result of this research.”
The paper, published last month in the journal Systematic Entomology by an international team of scientists, assesses more than 400 different species of butterflies. Over more than a decade, the study authors used both visual identification and DNA sequencing to analyze the insects. They focused on butterflies in a sub-tribe called Euptychiina, which is a notoriously difficult group to study. Butterflies in this group appear very similar, sharing traits such as brown wings.
Ultimately, the team discovered “up to 20 percent more species than there were before the project,” according to the statement.
The new study is significant for showing just how much scientists are “still in the discovery phase” when it comes to documenting and defining types of insects, says Robert Robbins, a research entomologist and curator of butterflies and moths at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, to Smithsonian magazine.
“Even though a million species of insects have scientific names, the vast majority of them do not,” says Robbins, who was not involved with the study. “Some people estimate five million more, some people estimate 25 million. Nobody has any real, clear idea, though.”
But discovering and naming new species of insects, particularly butterflies, is crucial for conservation efforts, Huertas says in the statement. And pop culture-inspired names can go a long way in raising awareness to the beautiful insects’ plight.
“Butterflies are under enormous pressure from habitat loss, and we desperately need to identify and study new species before time runs out for them,” Huertas tells the Guardian’s Robin McKie. “By giving them unusual names, we can bring attention to what is happening to butterflies, which are in real trouble across the world today.”
In addition to being pleasant-looking additions to any garden, butterflies are vital pollinators. Though perhaps lesser-known for the purpose than bees, they can play a critical role in agriculture and small-scale farming. But climate change and habitat loss are putting stress on the delicate insects. In the United States alone, five species of butterflies have gone extinct since 1950, according to the nonprofit Xerces Society. And the well-known Monarch butterfly was named an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature last summer.
When it comes to protecting these creatures from extinction, describing new species can help identify the threats that face them, Huertas says in the statement. “There’s a lot to do now we can put a name to them.”
Several other species of animals are named after the Dark Lord Sauron: a dung beetle, a frog and a dinosaur, per the statement. The Lord of the Rings has also inspired other scientific names over the years, from a crab named after Gandalf the wizard, to a type of fish named for Gollum, a former hobbit whose desire for the One Ring drove him to madness.