A reply on common names

Ron Gatrelle gatrelle at tils-ttr.org
Sat Mar 30 01:30:08 EST 2002

I received a nicely toned personal note on the common names which was
somewhat in disagreement.  I have taken that note as a spring board to
editorialize.  Only part of the note is quoted and the sender is anonymous
as this response is partially to a straw man.  I use all caps only to
emphisize a word - it is not "yelling".

Hey- The irony is that up until about a year ago I was a strong _opponent_
common names for several reasons.  Echoing the very thoughts you stated
above at times.  We already have a full compliment of names (scientific)
which are the correct ones anyway - so why have a duplicate set?  I
personally seldom use common names - in fact most of the old line
traditional lepidopterists didn't use them at all or not more than about
20% of the time and that was in personal conversation.

My "conversion" was in realizing that my "problem" was not with common
names - it was with their usage.  Actually, their lack of usage.  Decades
ago when I was introduced to leps scientific names were all anyone used and
always to subspecies. That was the entry level.  That was _common_
knowledge.   The following critters were know as, and referred to as,
cybele, novascotiae, krautwurmi, pseudocarpenteri, carpenteri, charlottii,
letona, pugetensis, leto.  (This was true for all the species groups of

Over just one decade all that changed.  Great Spangled Fritillary is now
about _all_ that is seen or read - for all of those _very different_
subspecific organisms.  In all my years I had only (and do only) employed
that vernacular name to -cybele.  And why write a capitalized three word
semi-sentence - Great Spangled Fritillary - when cybele does fine?  (The
utility in this is evidenced by my now seeing cybele referred to at times
in watcher lists as GSF along with the SSS - Silver-spotted Skipper and
LBJ -Little Brown Job - which is everything small, brown and thus unknown.)

My knowledge of the history of scientific names lets me know that one of
the main reasons the "system" came about in the first place was to bring
accuracy and simplicisity to the system of "common" names that was in place
in 1700. "Rose That Grows in Ireland And Is White" - became simply Rosa
alba.  We have
gone intellectually backwards almost 300 years!

Yes, I saw common names as a huge step backwards.  Then the light went on.
It was not the names -  it was the lack of them.   A new movement had come
along and it pretty much only wanted to use vernacular names -- well there
weren't vernacular names for all the critters we _commonly_ knew WELL as
krautwurmi or pseudocarpenteri or smilacis.   In this shift in nomenclature
the _majority_ of all well known butterflies disappeared almost overnight.
The domino effect was that the new generation lost the knowledge of them -
the uniqueness of them - the appreciation of them - the VALUE of them.   It
is no wonder that to many of the New Butterflyers the attitude toward
butterfly subspecies is - what is that?  Who need them?   We have been set
back 200 years in our knowledge level.

Common names are not a problem at all.  The lack of an identity is.
Anything without a unique idenitiy - remains unknown to humanity.  All of
our endangered "species" of butterflies are _subspecies_, and how
interesting, each has its own unique vernacular name.  But had the
traditional lepidopterists not given them scientific recognition as
subspecies through real research and publication of their scientific
identification (names), they wouldn't exist in the realm of knowledge and
would thus not be protected.

You said
>>>Most people will not id a specimen to the subspecies level based on
diagnostic characters, they will say "this is the subspecies that is found
here so it must be that subspecies". This is no better than using the
species name because the same info is communicated. If a subspecies is
fairly easy to determine common names make sense but if not what good are
they?? I can understand that you are interested in subspecies but  the bird
watcher-butterfly watcher will just use geography to id his specimen to the
subspecies level. I am not saying the above will be true 100% of the time
but maybe 80%. <<<<

You are correct because most will not collect them to check these
characters. Who has taught them this way of doing things?  I do not believe
that the above is the shallow methodology of older or traditional birders.
I think they pay a great deal of attention to subtle diagnostic
characters - including voice.  Good birders don't just say, well we are in
Ohio so it must be X - or do they?    Traditional lepidopterists _only_ use
diagnostic characters -- that is the main reasons we collect them - to
determine what they are by a close examination of their characters.  This
is why we keep harping on "sight" records.  One can't tell many
species just by a glance.  (The writer informed me in another post that
this was his main point - if they have a hard time with sight IDing of
species they will really have a hard time with subspecies.)  You say you
are into micro-moths.  Then you know that with may species of moths not
only is collection necessary but dissection.

You said, "If a subspecies is fairly easy to determine common names make
sense."  Thank you, exactly.  To experienced lepidopterists,  they are
fairly easy (because we were weaned on them from the begining).  To many
others, I have shown them a morpho in my collection and they all said
something like "oh we used to have that one growing up in Illinois".   I'll
never forget how stupified I was the first time I heard that!   The degree
of subjectivity in your statment is immeasurable.  It assumes stupidity -
and thus glorifies ignorance.  The guy next door to me doesn't "see"
(determine) a difference between an Eastern Cloudless Sulphur and an
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail -or- a Phoebis sennae eubule and a Papilio
(Pterourus) glaucus glaucus.  (By the way, his hobby is photographing
"nature".)   I was out in the field the other day and a guy stopped to ask
what I was doing with my net.   He said he hadn't seen a butterfly all
spring!  I had already seen about 15 species that day by _his_ farm.
Determine?  No one will ever determine/discern anything (in any area of
life) until the SEE the need to.

"If subspecies... easy to determine."   First one has to know that there is
something that requires determination before an effort will be made to do
so.  When some people visit the SC-NABN common names lists the first thing
they will say is WOW!!!   Where did all these critters come from!   Why,
these lists are 10 times as long as the naba or usgs "check lists".  I
never knew all these things existed!!   Why aren't they in any of my Field
guides.  WOW!!!   I'm going to go to the used book store (or web site) and
look for a 1951 Peterson Field Guide on butterflies by Klots.  Try to find
Scott's book on North American Butterflies.  Join the Lepidopterists
Society.  Get that book on British Columbia butterflies - yah - that's the
kind of thing I _need _!   And a net!

AHHHH now we come to the _real_ reason some of us think this has all been
dumbed down.  The logical conclusion of where curiosity will lead.  --
COLLECTING --.  Well the cat is out of the bag - we had 1,252 hits on the
common names section just _yesterday_ so someones are definitely
interested.  "If subspecies... easy to determine."   Yes, the old *if* -
*then* principle.  *If* you build it *then* they will come.   If they have
names then they will know they are there - and collect them too.  Keep out
the names - you keep out the collectors.  Make more laws and restrictions
and they will really be kept out.  It will only cost the sacrifice of
knowledge - and that is preferred over the "sacrifice" of butterflies.  But
there are not enough "professionals" in the Museums to find, document, and
protect all the thousands of -subspecies- still unknown in this world.  The
anti-knowledge over-regulated Dark Age we are now in will only insure more
invertebrates go undetected, undescribed, and unprotected.

I am a butterfly conservationist - which is why I want people to know they
exist explicitly - this blue has a name - the Miami Blue.   It is a
subspecies.  If the masses in Florida, esp.Miami, don't do something it
will be gone.  If they  had KNOWN about it it would not be in crisis.  They
would have stopped the guy in the State Park or Hwy. dept. with the
weed-eater whacking down the balloon vine and say hey,  that's the home of
OUR Miami Blue.  What's wrong with you people - are you brain dead.  Even
with a common name this one is not making it. But if it had none it would
be much much more apt to continue on its way into extinction.

So is that Imperial Moth in the northeastern US a subspecies or not?  It
has a subspecific name - but no common one.  I bet if if was know as the
New York Imperial it would get some attention in the Empire State.

Ron Gatrelle


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