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That which we call a rose...

Saw an interesting post on facebook a few days ago featuring the Four-spot Treerunner. Yes, you read that right, the Four-spot Treerunner. So what the f**k is a Four-spot Treerunner? I have asked a few coleoptera types and nobody has the faintest clue. To put you out of your misery it is the sometime vernacular for Dromius quadrimaculatus. Helpful? No, I didn’t think so. Although with repeated use it might catch on and even become popular because when you think about it, it is sort of appropriate and in a way it sounds pretty good. Trouble is so do many other names, and even more troublesome are the other spotty treerunners we get in the UK. I am not saying the name is a bad one (although I think it is a bit of a mouthful), rather what I mean is something like ‘FFS stop being stupid’ or the inverse ‘stop trying to be clever’ because not only is such behaviour not helpful, it can be downright confusing, misleading and simply f***ing annoying. Put simply I think that if someone cannot get on with scientific names then they’ve made an unfortunate choice of hobby. Sure you can get away with it with Butterflies and moths, even Odonata, sorry I mean Dragonflies and Damselflies, and a few wasps and crickets and things, but not with beetles. Nine times out of ten they simply serve to annoy the hell out of coleopterists (there I go again, I meant beetlers), and even when they do work, like the Great Silver Water Beetle, it’s easier to refer to Hydrophilus, or the Great Diving Beetle, which can only refer to an unspecified Dytiscus. Of course Black-Bellied Diving Beetle might be more specific, but who wants to say that when you can say semisulcatus and avoid firstly any confusion, and secondly looking silly among your fellow beetlers? There are exceptions e.g. Stag Beetle or Green Tiger Beetle which are OK because they are well known, appropriate and they sound good. Some though are simply baffling and annoying, like the clock, but there is a good reason why a few common names have remained in use, and fair enough on the whole I agree with them, but...I have on occasion seen Dor Beetles mistaken for Bloody-Nosed Beetles, and even Galeruca tanaceti (there I go again but I can’t find a common name) mistaken for an Oil Beetle, and so what do I make of it when somebody I know not to be especially knowledgeable about beetles tells me they’ve seen a four-spot Treerunner? I have seen lots of common names for ground and water beetles, and I understand that leaf beetles are becoming more frequently referred to with names like the Tansy Beetle or the Rosemary Beetle. Again fair enough because we have lived with the Colorado Beetle for decades (even though it’s not British). But still I do not see these common names used in keys (very often anyway), and if they were would this make them any more useful? Especially when many of the beetles seen on various social media sites are obviously offered by people that do not use keys and so have to take idents at face value. So in that sense we may as well say four-spot Treerunner as Dromius quadrimaculatus, because in that sense it’s all the same. So why not formalize a list of common names to cover all the species in various families like ground beetles and water beetles and clown beetles and leaf beetles and weevils and all the rest of them, except for rove beetles of course where even having scientific names sometimes seems pointless? Firstly it would take a long time to learn them. Secondly it would cause confusion for some time to come. Thirdly it would make a lot of the literature confusing. And of course, being of a certain nationality we must surely be aware that many foreigners, and with some justification, look upon us as eccentric, if not downright weird. So what on earth would they think were we to come up with a list of three or four thousand common names and then actually start using them in publications?

Some people get on fine with scientific names while others cannot get used to them at all. But in this game they are, at least for the foreseeable future, absolutely essential to anybody wanting to really understand our biodiversity. I have no problem with them beyond the obvious matter of pronunciation, which tends to vary with who you are talking to and is often counter-intuitive e.g. for anybody familiar with geology or geography it might come as a shock to hear Georissus pronounced Gayorissus with a soft G. But what the hell get used to it, right? If you converse with continental workers you will find lots of this sort of thing, you shouldn’t because the names should be understood by everybody. Our modern system of scientific names has been developed over about 270 years, from the days of Linnaeus, and accepting the vast mountain of synonyms and all the rest of it, it has (kind of) settled down into a system we are all broadly familiar with and one that, despite the all too regular changes, we can adapt to and handle. Beyond the education of young people there can be no justification in keep coming up with more and more common names, names which are likely, in the long run, to suffer all the problems that the binomial system has suffered over the centuries. Even if they sound good and they’re cute. Not always the case though e.g. The Wrinkled Death-Lover (Thanatophilus rugosus) might give the wrong impression to young people. And a Ten-Spot Ladybird with only two spots can be confusing. It’s not that I detest common manes, though I often do, it’s more a case of my thinking that if this ever growing list of common names gets into general usage then the boot will be on the other foot, people who were once baffled by scientific names might then be able to baffle the more traditional among us by using common names that make no sense at all to the scientifically minded.

But this might all be quite irrelevant. We have spent the last couple of centuries sorting out scientific names for species and even using names for subspecies when there is no absolute definition for a species anyway. With the ongoing work to map the genomes of every living thing it is likely we will eventually come to understand that while species can be stable (at least morphologically) over considerable periods of time, they are more likely to be at some stage in the process of diverging and that some don’t vary much because they have not diverged very far and that others are very variable because they have diverged a lot further. For this reason I am sure that at some time in the future we will be dealing with specimens defined by genetic bar codes rather than specific names. This might be difficult to imagine because we do not live very long and so we tend to be short-sighted, but go forward a hundred years and with all the inevitable advances in molecular biology and consequent understanding of relatedness, would it still be reasonable to expect a binomial system to cater for this? I very much doubt it. Cabinets would not look the same with bar codes above specimens, and there would likely be many, many more entries; where a single ‘species’ occupies a position in a modern cabinet there will probably be multiple entries under a bar code system where specimens were determined by base pair sequencing and arranged according to absolute relatedness. Admittedly that does sound a bit boring and there will be much resistance to such a system, especially to the time and expense dealing with museum collections, but that is going to be the future. At present people who cannot get on with scientific names can still usefully observe and study at least some beetles based on common names, but it’s a very restricted way of doing things. In the future I imagine scientists will be saying that if people cannot get on with DNA sequencing then they might still do some useful work with a few species based on the old scientific names, but it’s a very restricted way of doing things.

We are very clever and we have discovered lots about the natural world, but like the physicists studying the universe, it should be dawning on us that the old ways are not particularly useful in explaining how things work, however attached to them we are. It will soon be time to forget the binomial system and work out one that will cater for the more complex mountain of data that’s on its way. At some time in the future we will realise that Linnaeus has had his day and that it is time to get down to what Darwin really meant by evolution. We are not there yet.

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