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The Author in the Name

The non-professional often has only a blurred idea of how a person's name may become part of the scientific name of an animal or a plant. Usually he thinks the person must be the discoverer who wanted to commemorate his feat. However, there are two quite distinct ways neither of which involves any boastfulness on the author's part.

(1) If somebody thinks he has before him a creature so far undescribed, he will check collections, journals and manuals to see whether his hunch is correct. If he thinks it is, he will eventually publish his find, giving the new species a name by taking the appropriate name for the genus and affixing to it a name of his own invention. The species at this stage is marked "n.sp.", that is, new species. If his account is not seriously disputed, he will henceforth be considered the new species' "author", and his name will become automatically attached to it. For instance, in a paper on some Asiatic skippers (Lep3, 1941) written soon after his arrival in the United States, Nabokov introduced a new name, 'Carterocephalus canopunctatus new species'. Henceforth this butterfly was 'Carterocephalus canopunctatus (Nabokov, 1941)'. (If the 'n.sp'. in question should turn out to be an old one, having been named before by somebody else, the name is just a junior synonym and has to go.)

(2) In making up a new name for a species or a genus, its author may wish to honor a colleague or a teacher, a friend or a spouse, and as he is free to choose whatever name he likes, he may choose that person's name. In this way Dr. Hans »Rebel made the invented insect dealer, Pilgram (of The Aurelian), the namesake of a species that he, Rebel, was the first to describe and thus had the right to name, Agrotis pilgrami Rebel. Pilgram himself had nothing to do with that insect, may indeed never have seen it.

If there is a small geometer moth called Eupithecia nabokovi, or Nabokov's Pug in the vernacular, it is because its author, the Canadian entomologist James H. »McDunnough chose to call it thus. He had a special reason for doing so: two years before, Nabokov had caught the pug and sent him the specimen to analyze and describe. In this case the name of the actual discoverer happened to become the name of the species, but not because he himself decided to commemorate his feat; the decision was that of the author, that is McDunnough's.

To cite another example: if there is a genus called Nabokovia, it is because Francis »Hemming found that one of the four new generic names Nabokov had coined in a 1945 paper (»Lep9) – the name Pseudothecla – was a homonym and as such "unavailable", having been used once before to denote a different genus. Hemming suggested to Nabokov that he choose a different name, and Nabokov courteously left this task to Hemming who as a substitute introduced the new name Nabokovia.

While it is always nice to have people who think highly of you and are even willing to give your name to a street, a boat or an insect, the claim to fame in science consists not in having considerate friends but in the discoveries one has the acumen, the knowledge and the good fortune to make. So the name appearing as the third component of a scientific name is worth more. It is the personal signature appended to a discovery. Such a discovery Nabokov celebrated in his 1943 poem "A Discovery":

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,

poems that take a thousand years to die

but ape the immortality of this

red label on a little butterfly.

(In collections, ordinary specimens have white labels while holotypes are distinguished by red ones.) One may surmise that Nabokov objected to the spreading habit of omitting the author's name in commercial publications not only for the practical reason that it hampered identification but also because it obliterated the personal achievement involved.

It is not hard to guess why publishers object to including the authors' names. They may put off the amateur. This is mainly because the names were traditionally given in an abbreviated form which only the professional was able to decipher and pronounce. Sometimes even he would be hard up. Or who exactly was 'Rtzb'. or 'Hmpsn.'? And what was the good of adding a 'Rtzb'. if even the specialist lacked information about when and where 'Rtzb'. published the name of the butterfly in question? (Especially the older German butterfly books suffer from a dearth of taxonomic data.) Sometimes the abbreviation was downright ridiculous, like abbreviating the Swiss entomologist 'Fuessly' to 'Fuessl.'. For this reason, in this Guide the names are always given in full, with the dates. With thousands of names within the Lepidoptera used more than once and some of them hundreds of times, and with all the shifting of species between the genera that has been going on, it certainly helps in pinpointing a particular insect, today more than ever.

The word 'discovery' in zoology is a somewhat misleading one. It makes the non-professional think of naturalists out in the field spotting, observing, pursuing and possibly capturing some animal nobody else has ever laid his eyes on. In entomology at least, discoveries rarely happen in this way. In fact, they rarely happen in the field at all. Many species and subspecies are so similar that even an expert eye could not distinguish them while they are on the wing. Catching ('taking') a butterfly is a sport. (Nabokov who had played soccer and worked as a tennis coach called moth-luring the "noblest sport in the world.") Science comes in only when it is examined. The actual discovery happens later on, in the laboratory. He who captures an insect must not necessarily be the one who recognizes that it has never been described. And he who figures as its author, as the person who recognized its novelty, published a description of its type specimen and named it, is not necessarily the one who had collected it. He may never have seen it on the wing.

Constantly discoveries are being made in existing collections when an expert re-examines what other collectors have perhaps rashly labeled and filed away. This is what Nabokov had to say on this topic: "As for pursuit, it is, of course, ecstasy to follow an undescribed beauty, skimming over the rocks of its habitat, but it is also great fun to locate a new species among the broken insects in an old biscuit tin sent over by a sailor from some remote island" (Int18 124).

This is true of Nabokov's discoveries, too. One of his captures (Eupithecia nabokovi) ended up with somebody else as its author, and he himself recognized the originality of various species and genera he examined in museum collections, stemming from regions of the world he himself had never visited.


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