Fun With Taxonomy/Nebraska’s Type Localities

Hopefully this post finds everyone healthy and well. So we made it to 2021 but it’s still not butterfly season. So to pass the time (and as time permits) I’ll try to put together some interesting tidbits on Nebraska butterflies and the people who have worked with them to share with you. I hope you enjoy them.

Back in the day (1700s) Carl Linnaeus came up with binomial nomenclature to name living organisms. This consisted of giving every type of living thing a genus and species name with the genus being a group of related organisms and the species being specific to one life form. Kind of like your name except your last name would come first. From there scientists started naming every living thing they found.

A complete binomial name includes the author (scientist naming the organism) and the date he named it following the binomial name. For instance the Monarch butterfly was named by Linnaeus in 1758. He called it Papilio plexippus. Later taxonomists changed the genus name to Danaus. Taxonomic rules (and there are a lot of them) require the author and date be placed in parenthesis if the genus name has changed from the original. So today the Monarch is known as Danaus plexippus (Linnaeus, 1758).

Now that most butterflies have been named lepidopterists are getting restless and amusing themselves naming subspecies which may (or may not) have observable differences from the type specimens. Some scientists have been going down to the molecular level and finding previously undiscovered ancestral links and changing some long used genus names. This distresses me greatly. It’s like if someone you’ve known your whole life changes their name!!

Type specimens and Type Localities – In a separate but related topic, for every new species described the scientist has one (a holotype), or a set of (syntypes) specimens on which they based their description. These are referred to as type specimens and are typically preserved in museums or institutions of higher learning. The location where the type specimens were collected then became the type locality.

There is often a story behind a name. One I find fascinating (OK I’m weird) is Speyeria carolae (dos Passos and Grey, 1942). The butterfly was named after Carole Lombard who died in a plane crash near the type locality just outside of Las Vegas on Jan 16, 1942 (google that story). The butterfly was named later that same year from a type locality near the crash site and was originally named as a subspecies of the Coronis Fritillary Argynnis coronis carolae. The genus was later changed to Speyeria (so the authors and date were placed in parenthesis) and then later the subspecies elevated to full species status. So we end up with Speyeria carolae (dos Passos and Grey, 1942). The area (Red Rock Canyon) is a rugged mountainous park just west of Las Vegas. Someday I will go to Vegas in early summer when it flies and go look for it. Who will believe I’m going to Vegas to hunt for butterflies?

Other scientists name a butterfly after a person. One is Papilio joanae J. Heitzman, 1973 (The Ozark Swallowtail) that was named after the author’s wife Joan. Talk about raising the bar!! Or a more humorous one – the subspecies Chlosyne nycteis pastoron Pellham, 2008 (type locality in North Carolina) was named for Pastor Ron Gatrelle who is a noted amateur lepidopterist in southeast United States.

Still others have named species/subspecies for geographic features where the type locality is located. The subspecies Papilio indra panamintensis J. Emmel, 1982 is named for the Panamint Mountains in Death Valley, the type locality for this subspecies and Boloria selene sabulocollis Kohler, 1977 where sabulocollis is Latin for sand hills.

Other names come from Greek mythology such as the Aphrodite Fritillary – Speyeria aphrodite (Fabricius, 1787) named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love or Indian chiefs like the Mulberry Wing Poanes massasoit (Scudder, 1864) named for Massasoit, a Wampanoag Indian chief who was hospitable to the Plymouth colony.

If you’ve read this far you must be curious as to where this is going. There are two species and eight subspecies of butterflies have type localities in Nebraska. I thought it might be interesting to look at these and some of the scientists who named them. As this is to many to cover all at once I’ll sprinkle them in from time to time.

Happy New Year!!!

One thought on “Fun With Taxonomy/Nebraska’s Type Localities

  1. Loved this historical perspective! Was it common for scientists to be fluent in Latin or did they utilize an expert to assist in the Latin naming?

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