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A Sense of Uncertainty

The scientific names of animals are not vague like their common names. Still, a good deal of uncertainty has accumulated even in the scientific nomenclature, especially before the introduction of strict regulations in the course of the 2oth century.

On the level of species, the main sources of confusion are synomymy and homonymy. Over the centuries, almost every species and subspecies has been described and named more than once, making the names synonyms. Or the same name was used more than once within a genus, making the names homonyms. The chief reason was that up until the nineteenth century entomologists often did not know of each other's work and named animals which without their knowing, or without their recognizing it, had already been named by somebody else. For a nineteenth century entomologist in say St. Petersburg there was no easy way of knowing whether in some collection in Budapest or Stuttgart there existed a holotype that would deprive the specimen he had before him of the status of a new species. If he could not travel to visit collections, he had at most the verbal descriptions and the figures in books to go by, and these sometimes were not exactly true to life.

Even today it is no easy matter to avoid and to recognize synonyms. It sometimes takes much historical research to find out just who published the very first description of a particular insect. The task is made harder still by the fact that often it is not quite clear exactly which species an early describer meant.

Yet 'synonymization' is one of the foremost tasks of a present day lepidopterist. It happens when a 'revision' of a particular group of Lepidoptera takes place. In a revision, two things are bound to occur: the reviser discovers that some specimens that had conveniently been stuffed in one taxon need to be separated from it; he also finds that specimens filed away under different names actually are one and the same taxon. When he then rearranges the group, synonyms and homonyms are done away with, and perhaps some new names are introduced.

The reviser says, for instance, that the Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) from the Maritime Alps that Roger »Verity in 1911 considered to be a special race which he called alpica is "nothing but" a machaon itself, within the normal range of variability of this variable species and not deserving a name of its own. Thus 'alpica' becomes a synonym of 'machaon' and as the newer name has to be discarded.

The checklist  of French and Belgian Lepidoptera by Patrice Leraut[1] makes visible the  carnage synonymization has wrought in the nominal fauna of western Europe just by quoting obsolete names of all levels, specific, subspecific and some of the infrasubspecific ones. Though many, perhaps most of the names formerly proposed are not mentioned at all, nearly 60 per cent of the names it does list have not survived the revisions that have taken place over the last decades. The quality of a taxonomist's work very much depends on how well he succeeds in avoiding synonymy in his own naming practice and how astutely he does away with other people's synonyms in his revisions.

Given all that volatility, it is rather amazing that the species' names have remained as stable over time as they have, compared to the generic names. The constant systematic reshuffling on this level was of course due to the fact that with knowledge of the fauna expanding in width and in depth, the known species had to be ordered into an ever increasing and ever better delineated number of genera. Linné, in the 1753 edition of his Systema Naturae, had lumped all of his butterflies into one sole genus, Papilio (diurnal), and all of his moths into two, Phalaena (nocturnal moths) and Sphinx (moths flying at dusk). In the 1758 edition, there were around 850 species in Papilio and 1,400 moths and microlepidoptera in nine genera, Alucita, Bombyx, Geometra, Noctua, Phalaena, Pyralis, Sphinx, Tinea and Tortrix. Obviously that was not enough to take care of the varying degrees of diversity and similarity within this ever expanding group as it has emerged since Linné's time.

Nabokov's lepidopterological interest was chiefly in collecting, morphology, taxonomy and biogeography, and his principal work was concerned with a group of butterflies that was especially hard hit by nomenclatorial upheavals, a certain group of blues. The reason for this, of course, was the fact that these blues look much alike to the naked eye and that it took an ever closer examination to sort them in a meaningful way. Nabokov's main contribution to science, apart from discovering a few species or subspecies, was an attempt to straighten out some of the disarray. In the phase of inventorying butterflies which for the well studied faunas is gradually coming to a close, new species and subspecies were constantly being discovered and placed into the existing genera, sometimes quite haphazardly. Once in a while somebody had to take the trouble and have a close look at what had accumulated within a genus and in its vicinity, to examine whether it made sense and possibly to suggest a new ordering. This is what happens in a 'revision' on the generic level, or in a 'review' if it is not based on a thorough examination of all the relevant material but just on tell-tale samples of it. Nabokov's principal scientific work consisted of one such multi-generic review, that of certain blues of South and Central America, and one revision on the specific level, concerning the North American blues of the genus Lycaeides. It was only a small genus, but a difficult case, rich in dubious material. The new systematic arrangement he established for this genus is still valid, and there is a good chance it will remain so, even if the genus itself has been fused into a larger one. There have been later revisions of South and Central American blues, and they have more or less upheld Nabokov's basic ordering of the group. So his taxonomic work has lasted longer than the twenty-five years he himself gave it.

If not all of his proposals have been accepted, this does not necessarily mean that his systematic reasoning and the morphological observations and measurements leading up to it have proved to be wrong. All groupings in taxonomy are tentative. When more material becomes available for study, they may require modification. Sometimes Nabokov's taxa were ignored out of sheer inertia. Authors compiling works that list and figure hundreds or thousands of butterflies do not always take the trouble to check what has happened scientifically to genera they are not experts in. Thus Lewis (1973) had not noticed that the South American blue Pseudolucia faga had been assigned to a genus of its own by Nabokov who had called it Pseudothecla; and that this name had been changed to Nabokovia by Francis »Hemming in 1960. So in Lewis' widely used book one does find a picture of this modest and rarely figured insect, but only under a name that was already obsolete at the time of its printing.

[1]  Patrice J.A. Leraut: Liste systématique et synonymique des lépidoptères de France, Belgique et Corse, Paris: Alexanor, 21997



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