Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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What's in a butterfly name?

Butterflies, like most living things, have names given to them by humans. Every butterfly has a scientific name, and some also have a common name.

The scientific name of any living organism consists of at least two words. One is the genus name and the other is the species name. Sometimes a third word might be added and would constitute a subspecies name. The system of using two names, known as binominal nomenclature, to define a species of organism is based on the work of Linnaeus, an 18th-century naturalist.

Scientific names are, as you might have guessed, written in scientific notation. In scientific notation, the first word - the genus name - is capitalized and the second - the species name - is not. According to scientific convention, the genus, species and subspecies names are printed in italics or underscored.

The other type of name sometimes bestowed on living creatures such as butterflies is called a common name. These are names that are "commonly" used by the general public in place of scientific names, which are sometimes cumbersome to pronounce.

So where do butterfly names originate from? The individual who describes the species assigns the scientific names. That person's name normally follows the scientific name. If the person's name is in parentheses, it indicates that the name has been changed from the one originally assigned.

Historically the names could be based on the way the butterfly appeared. A swallowtail with a short tail was given the species name brevicauda – short tail. Or, the name reflected some historical person such as zabulon after a son of Jacob and one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Sometimes the name was based on a famous person, especially an entomologist or naturalist of the time. This is the case with butterfly species called harrisii, hoffmanni, or batesii. Named for Harris, Hoffman and Bates respectively.

Common names sometimes reflect a scientific name. So Papilio brevicauda, mentioned above, is called the short-tailed swallowtail. One skipper butterfly is known as Horace's Duskywing because the species name is horatius. The Hobomok skipper is named after the Native American guide to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The gorgone checkerspot butterfly apparently has the species name gorgone because the markings on the wings suggested the snake hairdos of those three mythological Greek women known as the gorgones.

Sometimes common names are used in reference to groups of butterflies. The very common butterflies known as whites and sulfurs get their name from the predominate color of the wings. The swallowtails have a swallow-like extension on their back wings. The brush-footed butterflies have forelegs that are hairy, resembling brushes. The fritillary butterflies have checkered color patterns that resemble the so-named corolla of a flower. The gossamer butterflies have wings that suggest the delicate and shimmery fabric of that name. The azures are blue, like the color of a cloudless sky.

Here is an example of how this system works. One of the best-known butterflies in the world has the scientific name Danaus plexippus (Linnaeus). This insect was described by Linnaeus in the mid-1700s and was assigned the genus name papilio and the species name plexippus. Papilio is the Latin word for butterfly, and Plexippus was a mythical figure in Egyptian mythology.

As is many times the case with scientific names, the name for this butterfly was changed as new ideas relative to classification of insects arose. In 1780 a fellow by the name of Kluk changed the genus name of the butterfly from Papilio to Danaus.

As it turns out, Danaus, a king in Egyptian mythology, had a twin brother named Aegyptus. Aegyptus had 50 sons, one of which was Plexippus. Danaus had 50 daughters known as the Danians. In a mythical Egyptian soap opera of epic proportions, the 50 sons of Aegyptus were to marry their cousins, the 50 daughters of Danas. The Danians murdered all but one of the sons of Aegyptus in their wedding beds and the twin brothers, as you might imagine, had a falling out and spent the rest of their lives engaged in warfare. Interesting story, but it is not clear why Danas and his nephew Plexippus ended up in the scientific name.

Some years later an entomologist by the name of Schudder called this insect the monarch butterfly. His reasoning was that the insect ruled over a vast domain, as did King William III of England. Today monarch is the accepted common name for this butterfly. I don't know about you, but I like that common name. It sure beats something like "Warring Egyptian Mythological Brothers" butterfly!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox