noms vernaculaires/common names

Dr. James Adams jadams at
Wed Apr 22 09:06:24 EDT 1998

Dear Listers,

      I have heard the loosely applied but semiappropriate "mariposas 
nocturnas" and "mariposas diurnas" in Latin America, as well as       
"Tagfalter" and "Nachtfalter" in Germany (besides the commonly used 
Schmetterlinge).  This leads into the following  question, asked by 
Liz Day:

> I have often wondered why the systematists do not come up with
> more precise names for the larger groupings (higher than family) 
> of those animals that have been reclassified to the point that
> the original common names are not correct.  

A great question!  However, one of the points here is that certain 
names, although they may lack phylogenetic validity, are still 
*understandable* by the vast majority of the public as well as the 
scientific community.  
> e.g. we are now told that alligators really belong
> in the same group as birds, while the rest of the reptiles belong
> in a separate group.

Absolutely true, though again alligators are *recognizable* as 
reptiles, with their scaly skin, etc.  Actually, if someone wanted to 
be completely phylogenetically correct, then all birds are 
technically speaking "feathery reptiles" and mammals (including us) 
are just "hairy reptiles".  I personally have no problem using the 
recognizable but phylogenetically "incorrect" name of reptile, 
realizing while I'm using the name that the reptiles are not a 
monophyletic group.  The point is that both birds and mammals arose 
from ancestors *within* the reptiles, so excluding birds and mammals 
from the reptiles makes the reptiles paraphyletic.

>  Or I gather that 'moths' and 'butterflies' are
> not systematically legitimate groups - rather, some of the moths 
> belong with all of the butterflies in a group separate from
> the rest of the moths.

The idea here is basically the same as for the birds and mammals.  
"Butterflies" can be applied phylogenetically, representing a group 
that arose from an ancestor within the "moths".  Moths simply 
represent what was "left behind" when what has been perceived as a 
"special" group of leps (butterflies) evolved from the sea of moths.  
Again, like the term reptiles, the term moths is paraphyletic, as it 
does not include all of the decendents of a common ancestor (the 
butterflies being excluded).  Yet again, I have no problem using the 
terms while at the same time realizing as I am doing so that the term 
"moth" refers to a paraphyletic grouping.  Just because a term does 
not have phylogenetic validity does not make it non-useful when 
trying to communicate, especially to the public as a whole.

>  So when do we get to have a vernacular - or any
> other easily memorized - name for "alligators and birds" or any of the
> other correct groupings?  The public is never going to understand
> these changes without a name they can use.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that such new names are 
not likely to be fast in coming, as the current groupings are so 
strongly entrenched in the language.  And, not trying to insult 
anyone here, but I'm not sure the public in general "wants" to 
understand new groupings such as these.  Just look at how quickly the 
U.S. populace has embraced the metric system!!
> Or are there already such names - and if so *what are they*?

Don't worry Liz.  Phylogenetic purists are bothered by names like 
"reptiles" and "moths".  Although they may never become widely used, 
you can count on systematists to provide you with names to use.  
There are some names out there, such as Macrolepidoptera, which 
includes the butterflies and some of their closest moth family 
relatives, but of course then you run into the problem of 
Microlepidoptera being paraphyletic because of the exclusion of the 
Macroleps.  Ah, it never ends . . .


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