Clellie Lynch: The mothamaticians and their name game



Every morning, as sunlight creeps over the horizon and splashes through the trees, a misty fog rises from the dew-damp forest floor. Trees across the lawn loom ghostlike, while a few songsters sporadically break into verse. Invariably, the wood thrush starts off the day a little before daylight with his delightful ee-oh-lay-ee, ee-oh-lay-ee. Soon the scarlet tanager is chip-boing-ing along, creating a very modern, Glass-like duet.

The fog dissipates as soon as the hot, brilliant sun is above the trees. Resident birds may be plentiful in the woods, but are effectively hidden by the leafy, green curtain. Unless they are singing, they are nearly impossible to find. But wait, there are plenty of winged creatures about. The flowerbeds are rife with blooms and the blooms are rife with butterflies, bees and my favorite, the hummingbird clearwing, a daytime moth.


This year, the beebalm in the flowerbed in the backyard is prolific: A great stand of spiky lavender beebalm is adjacent to a great stand of red. Hummingbirds zip from the sugar water to the beebalm (either color, they are not particularly partial to red) only to find their lepidoptera doppelgangers already working the flowers. At one point, a hummingbird navigates its way from flower to flower around five working moths.

Butterflies ignore both of these creatures. Great spangled fritillaries dwarf the orangy metalmarks. Tiger swallowtails mingle with the spicebush swallowtails. A yellow sulfur with dark edges to the wings is not still long enough for me to tell whether it is a common sulfur or a pink-edged sulfur. Cabbage whites disappear as they land on the white hydrangea ball blossoms. Butterflies float and flit silently while the hummers and the moths dash audibly from place to place.

Watching the ruby-throated hummingbird nectaring near the hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe), one can see how the English name of the moth evolved. Both are the same color green on the back. The rear of the moth is reddish while the throat of the hummer is reddish. Both flit about in a similar way and hold their bodies nearly parallel to the stem as they dip into the nectar, the hummer with its long narrow beak, the moth with its extended tongue. Convergent evolution in practice and in name.

Moth names, though, will give you pause. Picture a group of mothamaticians sitting around comparing specimens while trying to determine whether what they have collected are new species. Sheer numbers are daunting. Insecta is the largest Class within the Animal Kingdom with 760,000 species worldwide, and, within this Class, the Order Lepidoptera, the butterflies and moths, contains 120,000 species.

Obviously these thousands were not named at the same time. Once scientists agreed on what a species was and Linnaeus developed the latinate system of nomenclature, the name game was in play. Scientists relied on the Latin names, while amateur field naturalists used the vernacular. Gradually common characteristics gave rise to various families and, within the family, many, many species.

Our hummingbird clearwing is in the family Sphingidae, the Sphinxes or hawkmoths. The name is appropriate. They do have clear veined patches in both wings and do resemble hummingbirds, but many moths have inexplicable names, neither named for the plant they most prefer, such as the honey locust moth or the rosy maple moth, nor for physical attributes, such as underwings which have a hindwing distinctly different from the forewing or tiger moths which have black and yellow stripes.

Many English names describe what the moth does, as in: the grapeleaf skeletonizer, the leaf borer, the Southern flannel moth. Others are named in honor of a long forgotten person: Judith's underwing, Edwards' wasp moth (resembles a wasp), Kent's geometer (the wings are quite angular).

Yet some vernacular names make you wonder. Why give human traits to bug-eyed, furry, winged creatures with long antenna and six legs? Picture that first mothamatician peering at his collected specimen and naming it for some reason: the dejected underwing! Then another mothy lepidopterist, after classifying his specimen latinately, bedubs his new species that looks similar to the dejected, the sad underwing. A little later, another names his species, the inconsolable underwing. Hard to imaging an uncontrollably weeping moth!


We have agreeable tiger moths and dubious tiger moths; sober renias and fraternal renias, jocose sallows and unsated sallows. Odd family names exist as well. There are arches: the implicit arch and the bridled arch. There are the waves: simple, rippled and frigid. The looper family includes the connected looper, perhaps a social climbing sort. Unadorned carpets may live in the same areas as the marbled carpets. Darts may be attentive, clandestine or subterranean. Daggers may be afflicted, exiled or just puzzling. Pinions may be dowdy, wanton or nameless.

My favorites, though, are those that have singular names such as The Thinker. I picture a seated moth with his chin resting on two right legs pondering the problems of mothdom. Or The Scribbler, known for writing and writing, but never coming up with a best-selling moth tome.

Others could be matched in an arena for a few rounds of moth-wrangling: The Abrupt Brother versus the German Cousin; The Cloaked Marvel versus The Grateful Midget; The Cobbler vs The Slowpoke. Would it be a fair fight between The Unarmed Wainscot and The Swordsman Dart?

But how did The Hebrew get its name? It is a lovely little sharp dresser, white with black spots and broken lines. The Intractable Quaker is not unlike the other quakers which neither seem quiet like Quakers or quivering like Shakers. The Confederate is reddish gray with black patches, not much like the uniform of Johnny Reb.

And how did the moniker, The Promiscuous Angle, come about? Angles may be obtuse or acute, but promiscuous? We also have The Gem, The Bad-wing and The Little Beggar. Yes, it is related to The Beggar.

Last but not least, The Laugher leaves us wondering if the mothamaticians have had the last laugh!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle


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