USGS data - Shuey-etc.

Chris J. Durden drdn at
Wed Jan 31 14:45:16 EST 2001

   We are coming at this from different directions I think. Comments below -

At 09:36 AM 1/31/2001 -0800, you wrote:
>Dear Chris,
>         I'm not sure I agree. I understand that the basic data hasn't been
>gathered to the extent it has in birds, but there is still no reason that a
>group of knowledgeable folks

We have I think today, fewer knowledgeable folk in taxonomic lepidoptery 
than we had 40 years ago. The situation in birds is I think not this bad. 
How many taxonomic experts are there for Snout Butterflies? How many 
taxonomic experts are there for Loons? Granted there are more specialists 
in some aspect of butterfly biology today than there were, this is good. 
These experts are not trained in taxonomy and systematics because when they 
went to school such study was not encouraged.

>  could get together and decide, given the
>information which we have today, what is and isn't a species.

For most problem species pairs and "difficult" genera there needs to be 
much more field collecting, life-history observation and vouchering, 
rearing of different geographic populations away from their habitat of 
origin, chromosome investigation, chromatographic investigation of 
sequestered plant alkaloids and toxins as well as DNA description. Just 
plain old morphologic description is wanting for most species. What do the 
different genitalic morphs in the "Coyote Skippers" mean. How many have 
been described or illustrated? What does the different genitalic morph in 
the "Southern Skipperling" form *rayata* mean? If the Common Checkered 
Skipper is distinct from the White Checkered Skipper why are so many 
individuals with intermediate genitalia found in some areas? What is the 
difference between the ovo-viviparous and egg laying populations of the 
Hecla Orange? Why is it possible to collect 100 specimens of Silverspots in 
one canyon and easily sort them to species, but if 2000 specimens are 
collected there are found to be 2 to 5 percent intermediates between most 
possible pairs? Why have the genitalic differences between most of these 
Silverspot species not been described? Why do these different species smell 
different? Why has their chemistry not been described and their larval 
foodplants determined from compounds sequestered in the adult? I could go 
on and on with the questions that interest me that I cannot work on yet 
because I am busy with other problems or just do not have the technical 
background to tackle.

>  Obviously
>whatever these folks come up with will be changed as more information is
>gathered. As I mentioned in my post to Leps-L, the changes to species
>delineation in birds has been constantly changing, especially in the last
>two decades as people start using DNA as a tool in this process. Beyond what
>constitutes a species, some of the reordering of relationships in whole
>families has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Yes we do need a new version of a checklist of Butterflies of North 
America. The last one was published in the 1870's (Wiedmeyer) and before 
that in the 1860's - that is for the Continent of North America. I for one 
shall not support a committee that will not tackle the whole continent. So 
many taxonomic problems transgress national boundaries.

>         As an example of the problem which can arise without a check list
>committee, I offer the following:  I am as confused as ever about the
>Euplilotes complex here in s. California. I've read some of the papers on
>this subject in the recently published Western Systematics (Emmel et al) and
>am not sure I agree with (or completely understand) they are saying. I would
>love it if a group of knowledgeable folks were to challenge some of this
>published data and finally said yes we agree or no there isn't enough
>information (yet) to back the changes (or some of the changes).

Fred, these authors are the knowledgeable folks. Who else knows anything 
about *Euphilotes*. Unless you are prepared to become an expert in that 
genus yourself you must be obliged to accept the present conclusions of 
these experts as the best try yet.

>  Paul Opler
>choose to use this information as gospel when he published his Western Field
>Guide. I criticized this decision in print in a review I did for American
>Butterflies and I've had some discussions with him while butterflying
>together in Mexico a over a year ago. My take is he shouldn't publish this
>until it has had critical peer review.

Peer review is impossible when there are no peers! In lepidoptery we are 
lucky if we can get at lest one specialist for a genus.

>  His take was he felt the data was
>sufficient for him. We agreed to disagree and still remain friends.
>         About 20 years ago, I was helping publish a book on the status and
>distribution of birds of s. California. The two authors (and close personal
>friends) were aware of some work which suggested reordering the loons to be
>nearer the gulls in the check list order. I fought against this since it
>wasn't yet accepted by the AOU. I got the one of the leading taxonomists at
>the time and AOU committee member, Gene Eisermann, of the Museum of Natural
>History, to talk these authors out of using this order, even though he
>personally was leaning towards acceptance of this reordering at the time.
>Needless to say, the authors went ahead and placed loons with the gulls,
>forever confusing users of this book and, of course, this new order was not
>found valid after critical peer review! Thus we had a book which was to be
>at the cutting edge of ornithological knowledge, but appeared just the
>opposite with its unique species order.

Order is a minor problem. Most of us strive for an ordering from groups 
retaining primitive characters that may have survived a long time to groups 
with specialized characters that may have appeared relatively recently. We 
are nowhere near this for the butterflies yet. Are Skippers regular 
butterflies? We know the Whites and Sulphurs had a different origin in a 
separate group of moths. Are Nymphaloids really related to Swallowtails and 
Lycaenoids or are they independent convergences on the butterfly grade of 
evolution. These are pretty basic questions upon which you will probably 
find no agreement based on character analysis.

>----Best regards, Fred

I don't really mean to be negative but, compared to birds, we really know 
very little about butterflies.
...........Chris Durden

> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: Chris J. Durden [SMTP:drdn at]
> > Sent: Tuesday, January 30, 2001 11:10 PM
> > To:   Fred.Heath at
> > Subject:      RE: USGS data - Shuey-etc.
> >
> > Fred,
> >     We are not yet ready for the equivalent of an AOU for butterflies.
> > Look
> > at the volume of work that has been done per species of bird! We have done
> >
> > equivalent work for only a small fraction of our butterflies. There are
> > still very basic things to be discovered including species. Give us
> > another
> > 25 years and some basic research funding and maybe we can catch up.
> > .............Chris Durden
> >
> > At 04:42 PM 1/30/2001 -0800, you wrote:
> > >Dear Ron,
> > >         Something which has driven me crazy as long as I've been
> > pursuing
> > >butterflies (a short 10 years): There seems to be no "taxonomic ruling
> > >body"! With birds, which which I've been associated for many years, there
> > is
> > >the AOU (American Ornithologists' Union) which has a committee which
> > decides
> > >on matters of taxonomy
> > >as well as....hold on to your hats....common English names!
> > >         Folks submit papers with backup data as to why a species should
> > be
> > >split or lumped or moved to another genus, etc. and the committee
> > considers
> > >and finally decides on these matters. A huge anotated check list is
> > >published every so often with the official status.  Is it
> > >way....after all these are human beings. A number of birds have gone from
> > >species to sub-species and back again. Names have changed so many times,
> > I
> > >still can't remember if it a Common, Great or American Egret today. But
> > at
> > >least there is a taxonomy with scientific and English names which can be
> > >used by book publishers, so communication is fostered throughout the
> > North
> > >American (north of Mexico) ornithological and birding community.
> > >         Why Lep Soc has never taken this on is beyond me. I know Paul
> > Opler
> > >tried to get a group together and there was some discussion about their
> > >results earlier in Leps-L, but this group didn't seem to have an
> > "official"
> > >sanction which would insure the general acceptance of their conclusions.
> > >Instead, what it seems to me, is that there is somewhat a situation of
> > >anarchy and maybe after years of uncertainy, there is some critical mass
> > >which accepts a particular taxonomic conclusion. In the mean time, every
> > >book which is written contains a different interpretation of the exact
> > >status which is confusing as can be to us plain folks and I guess becomes
> > >downright perplexing to folks such as you in the case of a "species" such
> > as
> > >P. joanae.
> > >---Best regards, Fred
> > >P.S. Since there doesn't seem to be any 'taxonomic ruling body", I was
> > >wondering how you came to question the accuracy  of USGS's taxonomy?
> > >Accuracy compared to what or who?
> >


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