Species Names

Betsy Betros was kind and let me use this definition from her book of Butterflies from the Kansas City area. It explains how names for species are formed. She uses butterflies for examples but the explanation works for other species also.

Names and Nomenclature of Butterflies/Butterfly Families

There is no single naming convention for the common names of butterflies. The most recent field guides to North American butterflies include Brock and Kaufman (2006) and Glassberg (1999 and 2001), which both use the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) common names which can be found on NABA's website. For this book, the NABA common names are utilized for nearly all species, but since common names have and will continue to vary, the common names used by key authors over the years are also included to help the reader when looking through the literature for more information about a species. Miller (1992) has an excellent listing of all the more commonly used names over the years and was the source used for this book on other common names.

The scientific community uses a two word (binomial) system for naming organisms for the genus and species. The species designation is often considered the only "true" classification as it is specific to individuals that can mate and produce offspring that can reproduce. All levels of classification above the species level are generally based on physical similarities. Genetics work is starting to cause some change in the classification scheme, either by supporting existing classification or determining a need for change. There is actually no singularly accepted definition of a species. Opler and Warren (2002) report there are at least 25 species concepts used by taxonomists in various fields, with at least five that are used in the study of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).

When individual populations of a given species are isolated, different coloration can develop due simply to genetics and are retained within a population of individuals. When differences are obvious, scientists will apply the term subspecies to that population. Conversely, from research, an accepted subspecies may eventually be considered a separate species.

For each species, the scientific name (this is often used interchangeably with the Latin name which is just the genus and species name) is given, followed by the author's name and date the species was first described in scientific literature. If the genus name has changed since the first description of the species, then the author's name is placed in parentheses. I provide the date as it is fascinating to me to visualize naturalists in the 1700s and 1800s out discovering and describing the species of butterflies of North America at a time the United States was so young, or even before it became a nation!

Indeed, the naming convention of genus/species used today, was established by the famous Swedish botanist Carl von Linneaus (Carolus Linnaeus) with the publication of the 10th edition of his classic book Systema Naturae in 1758. As an example of how names change, Linnaeus put all butterflies and skippers into one genus, Papilio. Papilio is now the genus for only one group of swallowtails. As research and understanding of the characteristics of butterflies developed over time, a single genus classification soon lost its usefulness. You will find his name listed for the naming of many butterflies, but it will usually be in parentheses because the genus and/or species name has since changed.

A further clarification is used in the name/date in that if the year of the first description of the species is not known specifically, then the date determined by available evidence is shown in square brackets:

For example: The scientific name for the Sleepy Orange is written: Abaeis nicippe(Cramer, [1779])

The genus/species is written in italics when possible (underlined, if not). Cramer was the first to describe the Sleepy Orange, but the species has been reassigned to another genus since that time so his name and the year are in parentheses. Also, when he first described the species is not known specifically and is only known by external evidence, so the estimated date is in square brackets.

Further examples:

Papilio glaucus Linnaeus, 1758

Publication date is known and the name has remained the same since originally published so there are no brackets or parentheses used.

Feniseca tarquinius (Fabricius, 1793)

Publication date is known, but the species was later reassigned to another genus so the author and date are shown in parentheses.

The scientific names for butterflies are for the most part more static than common names, but even change periodically. To assign a scientific name to an organism is not an arbitrary process. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) (founded in 1895) publishes a "Code" which is a lengthy set of rules and recommendations on how names of all animals (including butterflies) should be formed (written).

Scientists naming any animals such as butterflies are expected to follow the Code rules. If the rules are not followed, the name is not considered valid. Even when the rules are not followed, there are procedures to validate such a name in some special cases.

Part of the naming process to create a valid scientific name requires the author to designate a type specimen. In simplistic terms, a type specimen (called a Holotype) is an individual specimen used to describe a species. This means that the specific individual specimens that people like Linneaus used to describe a species still exist in a museum! (Sometimes, type specimens can no longer be found.) The Code has many rules as to what constitutes a valid type specimen. There are quite a few other rules to be followed before a published name is considered valid. Fortunately, for the user of this book, I have set out to present information so the user can have FUN finding and identifying butterflies...leaving all these rules to the scientific community! But just in case you were curious about the naming of butterflies...now you know!

Scientific Classification

Scientists group (classify) organisms based on shared characteristics. Butterflies are classified as follows: Kingdom Animalia (animals), Subkingdom Invertebrata (invertebrates-those animals without a backbone), Phylum Arthropoda (arthropods which includes ticks, spiders, crabs, lobsters, etc.), Class Insecta (all insects), Order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), suborder Rhopalocera (butterflies and skippers), superfamily Papilionoidea (butterflies & skippers), Family, Subfamily, Tribe, Genus, Species, Subspecies.

Swallowtails (Papillionidae)--Large, two to four inches or larger, with long "swallow tails" on the hindwings. Swallowtails are often seen flying high in the sky. This group also includes a group of related butterflies, the parnassians which do not have tails and occur in the western U.S.

Sulphurs and Whites (Pieridae)--Small to medium sized, white, orange or Gossamer-winged (Lycaenidae)--Small, wingspan less than two inches, with many less than one inch or half an inch. None are predominantly white, orange (except the Harvester) or yellow as in the Pieridae. Colors range from blue to dark gray to dark brown to green. This family includes the hairstreaks, blues, elfins, harvesters, and metalmarks. Most fly close to the ground.

Brushfoot (Nymphalidae)--Medium sized to large. A very large and diverse family, with the only consistent similarity being that they appear to have only four legs. The front legs are reduced and appear as "brushes", hence the name of the family. In addition to brushfoot, various authors use brush footed, brush-foot, and so forth for the common name of this family.

Skippers (Hesperiidae)--Small, mostly dark brown with or without markings, some orangish, others gray and white. Usually with hooked-club antennae. Generally fly close to the ground, with a short, erratic flight and hence the name "skipper".

(Papilionoidea). Butterfly books often refer to "butterflies and skippers" as if they are two different things which for the beginner can be confusing.