Butterflies, and their names | Butterflies of Kanha National Park

Butterflies, and their names

‘What is there in a name?’ ‘A Rose by any other name would still smell the same.’ These might be philosophical statements with profound meaning behind them. But in practical life, naming things most of times becomes mandatory. When you learn the name of something, you immediately associate all characters of the said thing with that name. For instance, you would not imagine the smell of a Rose if I mentioned Marigold to you. The given name also becomes an identity for the thing in question; just like your name is a very important part of your identity. An argument can be made that an animal or a plant is not even aware of the name we have given it, and does not even care for it. But it most definitely has an identity. A sparrow will be a sparrow all its life, and not adopt the identity of a crow ever. That is the sparrow’s identity, and it is important for the sparrow. We call this identity ‘sparrow’. So my argument is that names are important.

We learnt this recently when we undertook a project to make a booklet of the butterflies found in Kanha region. The first task at hand was to create a list, and for this we needed to learn the names. Scientific names given to species are universal. They cannot change no matter what; a particular name will always refer to a specific species or a specific group. But scientific names are usually long, mostly in Latin (a language we don’t understand), sometimes very difficult tongue twisters, and almost always difficult to memorise. That is why easier English names have been coined for many species, which are easier to mention in publications and more convenient to form an association with. It would come as a surprise that the practice of giving English names to organisms started in mid 19th century in India, and with butterflies! (Source: Wikipedia – as stated by Harish Gaonkar of Natural History Museum, London.)

Grass yellow butterflies, such as this Common Grass Yellow (Eurema hecabe), are mostly seen fluttering close to the ground in open, grassy areas.
Bushbrown butterflies, such as this Dark-branded Bushbrown (Mycalesis cf. mineus), also prefer to stay closer to the ground, but in areas with dense and bushy vegetation.

Colourful and beautiful winged insects – is probably the first description that comes to mind when we think of butterflies. So naming butterflies based on their colours is probably the easiest way to go. Names such as ‘grass yellow’ and ‘bushbrown’ are quite self explanatory. These names not only tell you about the butterfly’s colour, but also gives you a hint about what sort of habitat they might prefer. But these are groups of butterflies, and not just a single species. When you dive into deeper details, finer characters can be used to distinguish individual species, and these can be used in the English names too – such as Three-spot Grass Yellow or Dark-branded Bushbrown. But this formula of naming has been used in reverse order as well. Pansies, for example, come in many different colours. So one colour cannot be associated with the entire group. But once a butterfly has been identified to be a pansy, its colour can be used to recognise the species in some cases, e.g. Blue Pansy, Grey Pansy, Yellow Pansy, etc.

Like most other pansy butterflies, the Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya) has bright colours on the upper side of the wings, while the underside of the wings are drab-coloured.
A Large Oakblue (Arhopala amantes) in its usual resting posture, where the wings are closed.
A couple of Large Oakblue males basking in the sun with their wings held open.

Not all butterfly names, with colours mentioned in them, are so obvious though. The Large Oakblue, one of the most common butterflies during the summer time in Kanha, is mostly drab-coloured at first look when seen resting on a leaf. Only when it takes flight or opens its wings to bask in the sun, the shimmering blue colour on the inner side of the wings becomes evident. In fact, an entire family of butterflies, Lycaenidae, has been given the name ‘blues and coppers’, as many species have metallic blue or copper colours on the inner side of the wings. The Large Oakblue belongs to this family. But not all species in the family have this feature, and yet the colour gets mentioned in their English name. The Common Lineblue is an example of this. This tiny butterfly is mostly pale brown in colour on outer and inner side of the wings, and a bit of blue shimmer is visible on the inner wings only in some cases.

A male Common Lineblue (Prosotas nora) showing a hint of blue colouration when the wings are held open.
A Spot Swordtail (Graphium nomius) butterfly, with quite a unique tail-like projection on the hindwings.

Continuing with the use of physical features to name butterflies, features other than the colours have also be used to formulate English names. Striped Tiger – black and orange striped markings, Spot Swordtail – featuring a long, tail-like projection on the rear end, oakleaf – a mimic of leaf, tinsel – metallic shine on the wings, eggfly – egg-shaped markings on the wings, are some of the examples. The Painted Lady has been named so simply due to the fact that it is pretty.

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) in one gorgeous-looking butterfly.
The Lime Swallowtail (Papilio demoleus) belongs to the swallowtail group, despite lacking the tail projection on the hindwings.

Butterflies are also very specific when it comes to choosing a plant to lay their eggs on. Thus, it comes as no surprise, that this behavioural characteristics have also been used to name butterflies. Lime Swallowtail, for example, lays eggs on lime plant. Common Castor lays eggs on Castor plant. Pea Blue prefers Pea plants, and can become a pest in Pea plantations.

Caterpillars of the Pea Blue (Lampides boeticus) are commonly found while opening pea pods.

There are many other examples where the other behavioural traits of a butterfly have been used to name it. Common Evening Brown is mostly seen to be active in the evening, emigrants and wanderers are known to migrate, sailers have been probably named so because of their gliding or sailing flight, and skippers seem to hop or skip from flower to flower while feeding on nectar.

Male Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) is mostly black with an striking band of white spots.
The stichius form of the Common Mormon female. Another form (romulus) has more red markings, while a third form (cyrus) has more white markings compared to this one.

It is when physical features and behavioural traits have not been helpful in naming butterflies, that people have become really creative. How the Common Mormon got its English name is a very interesting story. The male of the Common Mormon comes only in one form, which is mostly black with a row of white spots. But the female of the Common Mormon has three different morphs – mostly black, but with variations of white and red spots.  It can thus be imagined that the male has three different wives. The name ‘mormon’ was thus given as an allusion to Mormon sect in America who used to practice polygamy.

Indian Nawab (Charaxes bharata) – Nawab is a royal title used in South Asia. It is comparable to Maharaja or western titles such as Grand Duke or Viceroy. Not so surprisingly, there butterflies with names such as rajahs, dukes and Viceroy!

But I feel that it was while naming butterflies from the Nymphalidae family that people went crazy. Several Nymphalid butterflies have been named after monarchial or nobility titles or military ranks. Thus the group has rajahs, nawabs, barons, counts, sergeants, and a Commander (among several other similar names). This trait probably started as a way to please some ruler or high ranking military official, but then simply continued as a practice.

Common Sergeant (Athyma perius) – Sergeant is a rank in the military and police force. The word is derived from French language, and means ‘one who serves’.
Commander (Moduza procris) – Commander is a naval and air force rank.

The process of learning these amazing and amusing names for our butterfly booklet was not only a lesson in taxonomy, but also an exploration of literary creativity for me. Butterflies are often blamed to get more attention because of their prettiness, while other smaller creatures are ignored. I personally feel that it is not only because of their beautiful appearance that butterflies draw your attention, but their interesting, and sometimes whimsical names have also contributed in their popularity. Hopefully, species from the other groups of ignored fauna also start getting such entertaining English names sooner or later.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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