Why Is a Butterfly Group Named after Sauron from “Lord of the Rings”?

two new butterfly species named for popular tolkien villain

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Two species of butterfly have been named after Sauron from Lord of the Rings. The Saurona triangula and Saurona aurigera were discovered by an international team of scientists. Why name an animal after a fictional character?

Butterfly diversity gathered on a sunny day.
Photo by furoking300 / Shutterstock

Dr. Blanca Huertas of the Natural History Museum of London named a new genus of butterfly after Sauron, the main villain of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Sauron is depicted as an all-seeing eye of flame with a pupil as black as pitch. The newly discovered butterflies feature distinct bright spots on their wings that resemble the iconic villain.

This particular crossover between science and pop culture raises a lot of questions: Why do butterflies have those spots on their wings? What are their wings made of, anyway? Why does Sauron want that ring so badly? To make sense of this story, Wondrium Daily got answers from two very different video series.

The first is Zoology: Understanding the Animal World, in which Dr. Donald E. Moore, III, director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, uncovers the world of butterflies and moths.

Why Are Butterflies Classified as Insects?

“There are about 20,000 butterfly species around the world, and these are outnumbered by more than 150,000 species of moths,” Dr. Moore said. “Some miner moths are as small as the thickness of a coin, less than one-eighth inch from wingtip to wingtip. Others are as large as birds, like the Atlas moth that measures one foot across.”

The reason butterflies and moths are classified as insects is largely due to their physiology. All butterflies and moths have six legs, a head, and a body that is segmented in two parts: a thorax and an abdomen. Their bodies also have two wings, feelers, big eyes, and a proboscis, which is a tube-shaped feeding organ.

“Most butterflies have small knobs on the ends of their feelers, and moths do not; in fact, many moths have antennae that are very feathery in shape,” Dr. Moore said. “These antennae are for smelling and feeling. Many moths do not have a proboscis, because as adults they survive on energy they stored when they were caterpillars.”

Why Are Butterflies So Brightly Colored?

Most of us have seen the bright colors and intricate patterns decorating the wings of butterflies and moths, making them unmistakable to the naked eye. On the other hand, some species are camouflaged. Why? As it turns out, while butterflies often spend their nights in quiet places to hide from predators, many night-flying moths are dark; their camouflage patterns help them hide from predators, as well.

“The wings of butterflies are covered with thousands of tiny colored scales, all of which overlap like roof tiles to create the patterns we can see on the wing,” Dr. Moore said. “Some butterflies have very few scales on their wings, so [they] are clear and are very difficult for predators and humans to see. Some moths, like Promethea moths, have large ‘eyes’ on their hind wings to scare predators.”

These are just a few of the many defense mechanisms that insect species have developed. Some butterflies, moths, and caterpillars have evolved to look like leaves, sticks, bees, dead leaves, and even bird droppings.

Now that we know where the Sauron butterflies got their spots, it’s time to turn to their namesake. In his video series Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works, Dr. Eric S. Rabkin, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, breaks down the staying power of The Lord of the Rings and its possible allegorical meanings.

What Is The Lord of the Rings About?

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendary fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, a diminutive but friendly humanlike race called hobbits live in relative peace.

“Frodo, a Hobbit, is recruited by Gandalf, who is the Merlin figure in this epic, to help destroy an ancient magic ring, which gives extraordinary power to anyone who wears it, before the evil sorcerer Sauron can seize it and use it to enslave the world,” Dr. Rabkin said. “No ordinary fire can destroy this ring, but if it were to be destroyed, Sauron could not have it and it would be possible for the peoples of Middle-Earth to continue about their lives and to avoid enslavement.”

Frodo cannot destroy the ring alone, so he and Gandalf form a group of nine people—a Fellowship of the Ring—to travel to Sauron’s homeland, the wicked Mordor, to throw it into the fires of Mount Doom. The group consists of four hobbits, including Frodo; two men; Gandalf, the wizard; an elf named Legolas; and a dwarf named Gimli.

Though the races of man, elf, and dwarf have had their differences, they forge an alliance to serve the greater good. They are beset upon by orcs, goblins, enormous spiders, and other creatures along the way.

What Does Sauron Represent?

“Like a Proppian folk tale, Tolkien’s is a distillation of traditional materials that resonates immediately because it is told throughout with a particular structure—absentation, journey, return, and so on,” Dr. Rabkin said. “In addition, Tolkien’s own story telling is often stylistically gorgeous. His language is beautiful, and with no disrespect intended to the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings, that poetry is missing when we leave Tolkien’s page.”

But what about Sauron, the evil sorcerer desperate to get his hands on the ring and enslave Middle-Earth? Tolkien fought in World War I and saw the horrors of that war, and the symbolism of good versus evil throughout the books are hard to ignore.

“Another reason that this is so popular is that the works are easily allegorized,” Dr. Rabkin said. “Is the questing Fellowship—this is, after all, a story written during the Depression and during World War II and published shortly thereafter—a representation of the Allies, who are off against Sauron’s Hitler? Is it a resurrection of Jesus’s disciples? Or is it simply the middle class resisting those of privilege? Tolkien always refused to say.”

Sauron’s characteristics are an aspiration for world domination and a disregard for all others. He is also represented throughout the series as an enormous, all-seeing, flaming eye that sits atop a black tower. As Dr. Rabkin mentioned, the series is easily allegorized, and Sauron could represent the dictator of a surveillance state just as clearly as he could represent a satan- or Hitler-like figure of evil incarnate.

Thankfully, the Sauron butterflies seem far less harmful.

Zoology: Understanding the Animal World is now available to stream on Wondrium. Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works is also available.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily