Recently my friend Kent Fothergill launched a series of posts
ranting about discussing the difficulties associated with common names. The inaugural post featured the insect I show here, Dectes texanus, a member of the family Cerambycidae (longhorned beetles) that has gained attention in recent years as an occasional pest of soybeans, especially in the upper Mississippi Delta (Tindall et al. 2010). As is usual, when an otherwise obscure little insect suddenly begins costing somebody money people feel compelled to give it a common name. Rather than the uninspired “soybean stem borer” or ironically Latin-ish “Dectes stem borer” monikers that seem to have taken hold for this species, Kent jokingly suggested that if people were serious about common names, this insect should actually be called the “Texas prick” as a direct translation of the scientific name.¹
¹ Actually, I couldn’t find any reference to the word “Dectes” as a Latin word or “prick” as its English translation. Rather, my copy of Brown (1956) lists dectes as a Greek word meaning “biter.” I think this must be what LeConte (1852) had in mind when he first coined the genus name, since he mentions among the characters that define the genus several features of the mandibles. If that is the case, then to be accurate the alternate common name for this beetle should be the “Texas biter.” However, that name causes nothing like the snicker that “Texas prick” elicits, and since common names are bound by no rules whatsoever, I choose levity over accuracy and stick with Kent’s proposed name.
Being the pedantic, anal retentive, taxonomist-type that I am, it may surprise you to learn that I actually don’t have a problem with common names. To be honest, however, I will admit that this is a fairly recent change-of-mind for me—for many years I was a die-hard “scientific-names-only” type of guy. I not only thought common names were useless (for all the reasons listed by everybody who opposes them), but I even refused to learn them—my geek passive aggression, I guess. In the years since I started this blog, however, I’ve not only grown less oppositional in my stance, but have actually learned to embrace common names for what they are—comfortable names that don’t intimidate the taxonomically disinclined. Labels is all they are, and if one common name can refer to several species or several common names refer to one species, it’s not the end of the world. Common names aren’t meant to replace scientific names—how could they? Scientific names fulfill a special set of needs for a select group of people (i.e., to reflect phylogeny), and despite its flaws the Linnaean system of nomenclature that has been in use for the past several hundred years has served this purpose better than any other system devised. The reason for this is because genus and species names also provide a convenient and relatively easily memorizable system of labels that allow scientists to actually talk about organisms in a way that makes sense. This is an advantage that the Linnaean system has over any numerical phylogenetic system, no matter how much more precisely the latter can indicate phylogeny. For scientists, scientific names, in effect, serve a dual purpose. Non-taxonomists, however, don’t need dual purpose names—they just want easy-to-say and easy-to-remember labels, and if common names engage more people in a discussion about nature and its inhabitants then I’m all for it.
This is not to say that I will ever give up scientific names. I love scientific names, and it is my goal in life to know as many of them as possible—even synonyms (I know, sick!). I also think that scientific names are not as scary as some people believe. Boa constrictor, for example (yes, that is both its common and scientific name), or gorilla (Gorilla gorilla)… or Dectes stem borer! To help bridge the gap, I have taken to mentioning, as a matter of practice, both the scientific name and—when one exists—the common name for the insects and other organisms featured on this blog. This applies not only at the species level, but families and other higher taxa also (e.g., “jewel beetles, family Buprestidae”). It is my way of talking science in a way that welcomes the interested lay person. Considering the increasingly anti-science din in our country by creationists, climate change denialists, knee-jerk GM critics, etc., I think the more we can get scientists and non-scientists comfortable talking to each other the better off we will be.
The insect featured in this post was found and photographed in a field of cultivated soybeans in northeastern Mississippi. It’s identification as Dectes texanus (other than its association with soybean) is based on the face being only slightly protruding and the relatively large lower lobe of the eye. There is one other species in the genus, D. sayi, also broadly distributed in the U.S. but distinguished from D. texanus by its distinctly more protruding face and small lower eye lobe (giving the impression of “tall cheeks”). This species, too, is known to bore in the stems of soybean but is much happier doing so in common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) (Piper 1978). The species name—sayi—was given to honor the 19th century entomologist Thomas Say, regarded by many as the ‘Father of American entomology.’ This species also has been called “soybean stem borer” by some, which doesn’t do much to alleviate concerns about common names referring to multiple species. I am reluctant, however, for reasons of respect, to use the common name for D. sayi that results if one uses the same rationale used by Kent in coining his common name for D. texanus…
Brown, R. W. 1956. Composition of Scientific Words. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 882 pp.
LeConte, J. L. 1852. An attempt to classify the longicorn Coleoptera of the part of America north of Mexico. Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia (series 2) 2(1):99–112.
Piper, G. L. 1978. Biology and immature stages of Dectes sayi Dillon and Dillon (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 32(4):299–306.
Tindall K. V., S. Stewart, F. Musser, G. Lorenz, W. Bailey, J. House, R. Henry, D. Hastings, M. Wallace & K. Fothergill. 2010. Distribution of the long-horned beetle, Dectes texanus, in soybeans of Missouri, Western Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Journal of Insect Science 10:178 available online: insectscience.org/10.178.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013