May God bless Scotland on this most important day, and forever, no matter which way the vote goes.
Come on Scotland vote yes !
Science, and particularly taxonomy, presents many challenges for scientists, especially in naming. Entomology, and particularly lepidepterology, presents even more challenges. Consider the butterfly genus polygonia illustrated above: look carefully at the wing undersides for a small white mark. The top row is the Polygonia interrogationis, commonly known as the Question Mark Butterfly, distinguished by the small white mark (can you see the period under the swoosh?) in the shape of a question mark. Now look carefully at the bottom row, where a very similar white mark gives the Polygonia comma (commonly known as the Comma Butterfly) its name. To a casual observer these marks are barely noticeable and almost indistinguishable one from the other. For Johan Christian Fabricius, the great Danish entomologist, the differences were both clear and compelling. A student of the father of taxonomy Carl Linneaus, Fabricius was at the very forefront of taxonomy at an incredibly important time. He was also absurdly prolific and dedicated: while Carl Linneaus is considered the founder of taxonomy he only named some 3,000 species. Fabricius on the other hand named over 10,000 in his forty year career. Hence the very small but suddenly very important difference in those two little white squiggles!
Classically educated scientists and naturalists of the time were well educated in both Latin and Ancient Greek and were often fluent in multiple languages. Naming conventions often took small, concrete and descriptive details into account and formulated names to describe the species from the ancient languages. Here, polygonia comes from the Ancient Greek words πολυς polus meaning many and γονια gonia meaning angle, a description of the angular wings typical of the genus. The Latin word interrogationis is almost identical to its English equivalent interrogation with almost the same meaning, to question. And the word comma is an English transliteration of the Ancient Greek word κομμα komma, meaning a break or pause.
Top Left: The Question Mark butterfly, image of top of wings by Derek Ramsay.
Top right: Question Mark butterfly, image of wing underside by John B.
Bottom Left: Comma wing tops, image by D. Gordon E. Robertson, PhD, Fellow of Canadian Society for Biomechanics, Emeritus Professor, School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada
Bottom Right: Comma underside image by Kaldari.
All images used under a Creative Commons 3.0 license, with much gratitude.