‘It’s all Greek to me’ – British Butterflies and their Scientific Names

One of the things that characterises the common or garden naturalist, is their obsession with what seems, on the face of it, trivial, small details that separate species or make them unique and interesting, it’s these details which give them a richer understanding of the natural world around them, and give its study its enormous depth and interest. I am no different, and I’m particularly delighted by butterflies and moths, and their ecology and life cycles, but also, with that classic naturalist’s love of the trivial, their scientific names, having done a bit of Latin and Greek at school, ostensibly useless, dead subjects, it’s nice to find a purpose for all those ‘wasted’ hours in the classroom and tease out the meanings of the mighty binomial system that defines everything living on earth. Green Hairstreak 1First up is a favourite spring species, Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi), flying on moorland, downland and light woodland across the UK from April to June, it is, like most hairstreaks highly territorial and males often engage in vicious dogfights from favoured perches along tree-lines. Callophrys means ‘beautiful eyebrow’ (kallos – beautiful, and phrys – eyebrow, spliced together), and rubi means ‘of the bramble’, a bit of a misnomer, since Green Hairstreaks are polyphagous and feed on foodplants from several plant families, not just bramble, but others, including Gorse, various legumes, and bilberry. A close relative of the Green Hairstreak is the Purple (Neozephyrus quercus), which tends to be a bit more elusive, favouring the tops of oak trees during July and August – check the crowns at about 6:00 on warm evenings, and you should see these silvery butterflies, like the Green Hairstreak, engaging in frequent territorial dogfights. A loose translation of Neozephyrus quercus is something like ‘young west wind of the oak’, whPurple Hairstreak 1ere ‘Neos’ is greek for young or new, Zephyrus is the Greek god of the West wind, and quercus, of course, is oak. Interestingly, in Greek Mythology, Zephyrus was married to Iris (the god of the rainbow), who is commemorated in the Purple Emperor’s scientific name – Apatura iris, perhaps this hints at the way the two species share habitats, both having an affinity for oaks, the Hairstreak as a foodplant, and the Emperor as master trees where males congregate. Another branch of the Lycaenidae is the blues, including the aptly named Small Blue, which, measuring in at just 20mm, is Britain’s smallest butterfly. Its scientific name (Cupido minimus) also picks up on its small stature (Small Blues could be forgiven for feeling downtrodden) with ‘minimus’ the Latin for very small, and cupid the tiny love god of Roman mythology. Keeping with the small theme, Small Skippers get the label Thymelicus sylvestris, where Thymelicus was a dancer in ancient greek drama known for a strange, erratic dance, picking up on the Small Skipper’s bouncing flight style, whilst sylvestris means ‘inhabiting wild places’ – so we have the skipper of the wildlands! The Large skipper (Ochlodes faunus) also receives a wild name tag, with ‘Faunus’ another name for the god of mysterious wild places – Pan/Bacchus, and ‘Ochlodes’ meaning turbulent, relating to the territorial behaviour of male Large Skippers, which often sit motionless, with their wings held at 45 degrees before attacLarge Skipper 1king anything that dares to enter their territory, so this gives us ‘the angry wild thing’ in a rough translation. Returning to the blues, the Large Blue’s Maculinea arion picks up on its life cycle (the story of the Greek musician arion provides a neat allegory for its adoption by ants as a larva, and its colouring, maculinea means ‘many-spotted’, referring either to its underside, with the black spots on a silvery field, or its upperside, with the strong black forewing markings which make it so unique among British butterflies (I haven’t quite decided which). It’s smaller relative, the Silver-Studded Blue (Plebejus argus) again gets its underside examined, with argus a nod to the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, and the spotting on this butterfly’s underwing, and ‘Plebejus’ meaning ‘plebeian’ – it sounds rather damning now, but it was the name given to ‘the common people’ in ancient Rome, and suggests that this exquisite heath-dweller is a pretty widespread species (if only!) A common theme in these names, should, by now be making itself obvious, many of them refer to Greek mythology, they fete butterflies as god-like, ethereal beings, indeed, in ancient Greek, the same word is used for both soul, and butterfly (psyche), these creatures appealed to both the ancients, and more modern taxonomists on a very spiritual level. An interest in butterflies is not a strange delight in the trivial; it is more complex than that, as these 2000 year old roots will testify. They hint at the place of butterflies, and the natural world (at the risk of melodrama), at the centre of the way we live, and teach us a lesson, that now, more than ever, we should learn to live by. The modern, urban world, and the more primal, natural world are not mutually exclusive, the two are intertwined, nature governs our economies, be it through water purification, soil formation (or as we’ve seen, flood defence), and we must not by slow to embrace it and work with it, now, more than ever, an holistic approach is the future.

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As with most naturalists, I've loved wildlife from an early age, with particular interest in Butterflies (transect recorder and obsessive Hairstreak hunter), Moths (weekly trapping in the garden), and Birds (trainee ringer), I also dabble in the dark art of blogging when not busy on the patch in native Somerset.

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