As taxonomists, we give names to new species that we describe. The name is entirely up to us (within a few limits imposed by rules of grammar, and a recommendation that they not be offensive). Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the source of the species name; sometimes it’s not. Authors of new species names generally explain the derivation of the name when they first publish it, but that hasn’t always been the case. And that can create confusion, especially when the origin of a species name looks pretty obvious, but actually means something completely different.
Henry Bird was an entomologist from Rye, New York. In 1907 he described a new species of noctuid moth that lives in bracken fern. He called the moth Papaipema pterisii. Makes sense — at that time, bracken fern was in the genus Pteris, and lots of species are named after the thing they live in, live on, or eat (In this case, the Latin ending “-ii” is a bit wonky, but we’ll get to that in a bit).
Even though Bird wrote a fairly long description of the taxonomy and natural history of this moth, he didn’t explain the source of the species name. It wasn’t much of an issue in the case of Papaipema pterisii; the name was a bit of a no-brainer and it would be reasonable to assume that he named the moth after the fern. Some later authors have actually given that explanation for the name.
As it turns out, assumptions aren’t always right.
I was going through some old archival documents here in the museum yesterday — a box of notes, letters and manuscripts from Henry Lyman, the founder of the museum, and a well-known Lepidoptera taxonomist. One of Lyman’s oldest friends and colleagues was the Rev. Charles Bethune who, over a long and productive career in entomology, served as the Editor of our national entomological journal: The Canadian Entomologist. I found a letter in the box, written by Henry Bird to Bethune in 1907. Bethune apparently passed it on to Lyman, who was also on the editorial board of the journal.
Bird and Bethune were having one of those Editor/Author discussions about a few small details in the manuscript. Bethune and Lyman apparently weren’t keen on the spelling and formation of the species name of P. pterisii. Bird’s explanation was probably unexpected. And it’s fairly priceless.
Dear Dr. Bethune:-
I was glad to hear from you, as always, and note your remarks concerning pterisii. Perhaps it would have been better I not used this term, but those who infer — and I admit it is natural — that the species is named after the food plant are in error [. . . ]
Now Pterisius happens to be a pet cat that accompanies me on my frequent trips to a nearby clump of Pteris and who is ever ready to spend as many hours there is search of mice, as I care to do on my knees observing the Papaiema larva. It was due to him that I first discovered this little patch was infested with this species [. . . ] I am less in favor than formerly of naming species after a foodplant, for in different localities, they are apt to have alternative ones, and it gives the impression that a particular foodplant is responsible in a certain way for a certain species, or that it never occurs in anything else.
Henry Lyman published a short note in The Canadian Entomologist the following year (1908) in which he talked about Bird’s new species, among other Papaipema-related things. Bird’s cat explanation finally made its way into print. Lyman still wasn’t impressed.
I don’t know if Bird was joking about naming the moth after his cat. I guess it doesn’t really matter.
A hundred years before Facebook, Henry Bird had it figured out: it’s all about the cats.