Scientists have named a new group of butterflies with dark eye-shaped patterns on their orange wings after Sauron, the omnipresent evil lord in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels - what the Natural History Museum in London called an "homage to an eye-conic villain."
An international research group has identified two species of butterflies in the newly named Saurona genus - Saurona triangula and Saurona aurigera - and believe that more exist. The discovery is part of a 10-year study of the Euptychiina group of butterflies. The findings were published in the journal Systematic Entomology.
Researchers hope the eye-catching name conjuring the supreme persecutor of Middle-earth will generate more interest in butterfly conservation.
Blanca Huertas, a researcher involved in the project, named the butterflies. Huertas, a senior curator of butterflies at the Natural History Museum in London, said she was inspired by the eye-like patterns on their wings. But she also drew parallels between the battle to preserve species on the verge of extinction and the story of Lord of the Rings - one of good defeating evil against every odd. The world, she said, needs an "army" of people to "get involved in getting worried about nature."
The Saurona group of butterflies comes from the Amazon rainforest, a refuge for an incredible diversity of natural species that is under pressure from deforestation, drought and fires tied to climate change and human activity, including cattle ranching.
They are part of the Euptychiina, a sub-tribe found largely in Central and South America and is "widely regarded as one of the most taxonomically challenging groups among all butterflies" because their small, brown appearance makes them difficult to distinguish from one another, according to the researchers. Some of the Euptychiina species are threatened with extinction.
But the researchers were able to use DNA sequencing technology to identify and classify species within the Euptychiina by their genetics and not just their appearance, according to the Natural History Museum in London.
"Even then, studying the whole of the Euptychiina took over a decade as the team assessed more than 400 different species" as part of the museum's collections of over 5.5 million butterfly specimens, the museum said.
The scale and scope of the research has at times felt to Huertas like her very own Eye of Sauron. She began studying the butterflies 15 years ago for her doctoral thesis and "knew there was a different group," but she didn't have the time to complete the research and publish it until recently, she said. "Ten years dealing with this study is a lot of strain looking at me like Sauron."
Some butterfly species are "threatened with extinction," she said. If butterflies disappear, birds will no longer be able to feed on caterpillars, and so on, affecting entire food chains, "so, missing those tiny species that nobody cares about can cause actually a really big impact." A stronger response from governments and international organizations is needed, she said.
"Ultimately, a bunch of scientists . . . can't change the world," she said. "If you put an attractive name, you get the attention of people and someone might read it and say, 'Okay, well, this is an interesting story, tell me more.'"
Naming animal species after pop-culture characters is not unusual. In fact, a dung beetle, a frog and a dinosaur have already been named after Sauron, according to the Natural History Museum in London.
Astronomers at NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have also named a galaxy - NGC 4151, which is made up of a supermassive black hole and surrounded by gas - the "Eye of Sauron."