Wednesday, June 7, 2023

‘Rimmed with fire’: rare butterfly genus named after Sauron in Lord of the Rings

Researchers have uncovered a new genus of butterfly, with distinctive orange wings and dark eyespots. It is a striking appearance that has led the international team to label the genus Saurona, after Sauron, the evil lord of Mordor whose all-seeing fiery eye brought terror to Middle-earth and the Shires in The Lord of the Rings.

It is an intriguing monicker. As JRR Tolkien describes it: “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.”

And the two species that form the new genus – Saurona triangula and Saurona aurigera – are certainly distinctive with their eyelike markings of vivid orange and jet black, although they are unlikely to invoke quite as much terror as Mordor’s cruel ruler. They are relatively small even by butterfly standards. Nevertheless, their discovery and naming is important, say scientists.

The Eye of Sauron from the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar

“Butterflies are under enormous pressure from habitat loss, and we desperately need to identify and study new species before time runs out for them,” said Blanca Huertas of the Natural History Museum in London. “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 the UK, three-quarters of all butterfly species are now believed to be in decline, while across the globe they are similarly threatened thanks to widespread habitat destruction, pesticides and accelerating climate change.

Huertas is a member of an international group of researchers that has spent more than 10 years tracking down new butterfly species. Other scientists involved in the project are based at Harvard University and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

This global project has taken more than a decade to complete and has assessed more than 400 species of butterflies using advanced DNA analysis and other techniques. These have allowed scientists to achieve a new understanding of butterflies, in particular of the sub-tribe known as Euptychiina.

At present, only two species of butterfly of the genus Saurona have been discovered. However, it is thought that many more undiscovered species exist in the wild.

“Essentially, naming them after key fictional characters helps to pique people’s interest in them, and that is important for their conservation,” added Huertas.

Being labelled after Sauron is a first for butterflies but not for other members of the animal kingdom. A dung beetle, a frog and a dinosaur have all been named after the ruler of Mordor. In addition, several dozen other creatures have been given tags that recall various Tolkien characters. These include Macrostyphlus gandalf, a species of weevil; Gollum attenuatus, a bottom-dwelling shark; and the Hairy-footed Moss Forest Blossom Bat of New Guinea, also known by its official name Syconycteris hobbit.

Indeed, using Tolkien characters in scientific labels is now a common practice in science. For example, the Eye of Sauron has been used as a nickname for several astronomical objects, including distant galaxies and also the star system HR 4796A, and has even been employed to label an ancient undersea volcano discovered near Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

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