Monday, December 5, 2011

On Ladies and Butterflies: What's in a name?

What's in a name, that which we call a rose by any other would smell just as sweet

Hey ya'll 

After reading up on the Common Mormon butterfly earlier this evening, and reading up about how its name was derived from the Mormon sects of America which practices polygamy, I decided to take a further peek into the names of other species of lepidoptera to find out about their origins. Turns out, many butterflies and moths were named after women, several noted birdwing butterflies for example are named after famous queens, Helena's Birdwing (Troides helena) for example, or perhaps the more famous and sought after Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae). 

The famous Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae)
Another group of butterflies, though somewhat modest in size compared to the mighty and large birdwings which are also named after a woman are the Vanessids (Vanessa) a group of brush-footed butterflies from the order nymphalidae so called (brush-footed, that is) because their fore-legs have been greatly reduced, giving them the appearance of having only, well, four legs. Anyway, the name Vanessa, according to multiple name-rating websites, can be traced to having latin origin meaning "from Venus". Venus, as some of you might know is synonymous to Aphrodite, the Goddess of beauty and love, which perhaps suggest the connection between fairness, beauty, femininity and butterflies.

The Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)
But while many of these butterflies have been associated with what human males have perceived to be the "fairer sex", it is quite ironic that in the natural world it is mostly the male butterflies, not the females, which possess the most strikingly beautiful patterns and mesmerizing colors. One the one hand, while the colors on a butterfly's wings may be understood through Darwin's theory of sexual selection as a means through which females root out the healthiest and strongest of all the males (It's actually more complicated than that but I will explain it to you later, in a separate post), it is actually also more practical for the survival of the species that the females (which carry the eggs and therefore, the bulk of the genetic material that will constitute the next generation of butterflies) remain inconspicuous so as to avoid predator detection.

But that is not all, and I certainly did save the best for last. A quick jaunt to Martin's blog on moth's revealed what must be the most inventive of lepidoptera names out there. It seems, and I quote, that an exceptionally "waggish chap... gave a string of moths names such as pollykistmi, pennikistme, [and] aliskistmi."  And if you do not get it yet, try saying those names aloud!!! Did you get it now?

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