I joined Twitter seven years ago, and I was, and continue to be amazed by how many people out there run moth traps*. One of the many side-effects of the Covid-19 crisis is an increase in the number of trappers; every day my Twitter feed is filled with pictures of their more notable specimens. The other day in response to this deluge of moths, I remarked on the fact that the common names of moths range from the extremely prosaic, to completely lyrical flights of fancy. Take for example, the baldly descriptive Orange Underwing and the gloriously named Merveille du Jour. To these I could add the beautiful, but literally named, Green Silver Lines and the bizarrely named Purple Thorn.
Orange Underwing and the Merveille de Jour.
Green Silver Lines and a Purple Thorn. I see no purple 🙂
Now, I have seen a mouse moth in action, so I totally get its name. On the other hand, while browsing Paul Waring and Martin Townsend’s excellent Field Guide (I was trying to identify a Yellow Shell I had come across in the garden), I noticed a mention to the sharks. Intrigued, I skipped down to the species notes to see why they were called sharks. The answer was simple; Paul and Martin say it is the way their wings are folded at rest to give the appearance of a dorsal fin. Looking at the picture, I could live with that, and it also gave me an idea.
As loyal readers will know, I have a penchant for delving into insect names. Who could forget my in-depth investigation into the naming of thrips or the mystery of the wheat dolphin? I figured that here was yet another subject for a blog. I had, however, been beaten to the punch! Naturalist Extraordinaire, Peter Marren has written a whole book about the often, gnomic names of Lepidoptera :-). Having discovered it, I had, of course, to buy it. You will be glad to know, that even though it cost me the princely sum of £20, and although as a Yorkshireman, I toyed with the idea of getting a second hand copy, I don’t regret the purchase one iota.
Peter Marren (2019) Little Toller Books £20
It is a lovely little book. It is amusingly written, brimming with history and filled with factoids over which any entomologist setting a Pub Quiz will drool. Take my word for it, well worth the investment. My only complaint is that there aren’t enough colour plates, but that is only a minor quibble. I don’t want to stop you buying Peter’s book so I am only treating you to a few of the gems contained therein.
I’ll start with the more obvious ones. There is a group of moths within the Erebidae (they were Noctuids when I was student) known as the snouts. When you look at them from above it is obvious why. They have long palps that protrude very noticeably, forming a very distinctive snout. Just to confuse you, some pyralid moths are also known as snout moths, but their snouts are feeble affairs.
Hypena proboscidalis – The Snout
In the Noctuidae proper, we have the one that started it all, the shark, Cucullia umbratica, so called because it is sleek, grey and from above has a pointed shark like nose and a dorsal fin.
Cucullia umbratica – the shark. yes, it is quite shark-like, but also a bit like a bit of bark. Perhaps it should be called the wood chip 🙂
Also within the Noctuidae we find the wainscots, so named because their pale grainy wings resemble wood panelling.
Mythimna pallens – common wainscot and would definitely be able to hide in a wood panelled study
The three examples above definitely fit their common names. The next two I feel have been somewhat misnamed.
Yet another Noctuid, this time Acronicta psi, the Grey Dagger. According to Peter Marren, the markings on the wings look like daggers. Personally I don’t see them, but I do see something that resembles pairs of of scissors 🙂
Daggers – the grey dagger wing markings suggest daggers, but look more like scissors to me
And finally, a Geometrid, a pug. Supposedly the resting posture is reminiscent of the head of a pug dog with its drooping jaws.
Pug anyone? I don’t see it myself – someone must have had an overactive imagination!
If you want to know about the brocades, shoulderknots, carpets, quakers, prominents, rustics, eggars, thorns, sallows, and all the others, you’re going to have have to buy his book
Waring, P. & Townsend, M. (2003) Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset, UK.
Thanks to the Butterfly Conservation Trust for allowing me to use the moth photographs.
*it always amuses me how many of them are vertebrate ecologists 🙂