A moth, a fern, a feline: a species name story

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.

Bird's 1907 paper in Canadian Entomologist

Bird’s 1907 paper in Canadian Entomologist

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.

Henry Bird fesses up (Lyman Museum archives)

Henry Bird fesses up (Lyman Museum archives)

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.



About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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12 Responses to A moth, a fern, a feline: a species name story

  1. Pingback: I’ve Got Your Missing Links Right Here (12 July 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

  2. usymmons says:

    At university I was no big fan of insects, particularly their taxonomy. I largely blame it on my professors, who would make us memorize a seemingly endless lists of Latin species names. For some of these species we never saw specimens, just pictures, and explaining their biology seemed beyond the capacity of the class. So, visiting this blog from time to time has been a really pleasant experience, and I’ve probably learned more about entomology (and natural history) here than during the 2 semesters at uni. I particularly like little gems like this post, because they just make the science come alive (like, people who name insects are real people, and at least one was really into cats 😉

  3. Thanks very much! Taxonomy is a far more dynamic science than many people realize and it definitely has a very human side (and there have been some pretty memorable personalities in the field). You make a great point – one of the things that can turn students off taxonomy is when teachers reduce it to lists of names and rules to be memorized. Yes, those things are important components of the science, but they’re not the whole field by a long shot. So much taxonomy is tied up with understanding the natural history of the organisms. We should be emphasizing that whenever we can.

  4. CommNatural says:

    Terry, thank you for this post! This feline-inspired moth name is an absolutely fantastic example of what I wrote about on ESA’s EcoTone blog a few weeks ago (https://www.esa.org/esablog/meetings/3-reasons-why-we-should-tell-stories-about-scientists-not-just-science/). I’m co-organizing a workshop at ESA2014 about enhancing ecology communication, and my blog post encourages people to write about scientists as humans, not only about science as a dispassionate process. I’m definitely going to reference this post of yours during our workshop, and will add it to the list of good examples for writing-based scicomm on our website (http://advancingecocomm.wordpress.com/).

    • Hi Bethann, Thanks much! I think you’re absolutely right about the importance of recognizing science as a human enterprise. It’s too often presented as a cold, objective process, which is a bit of a caricature. It’s really hard to disconnect science from the humans who DO the science, and I don’t think we should try.

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