Tuesday, August 7, 2018

What's in a name?

Often there is some interesting history in scientific names - and my friend Michael Ohl probably has a lot to say about that in his  book 'The Art of Naming', but I do not have the book yet, so sometimes I speculate by myself. For example the family of Metallic Wood boring Beetles is shortly called Jewel Beetles in Great Britain and Australia, in Germany we call them Prachtkeafer. All those names, from metallic to jewel to Pracht refer to their shiny beauty based on structural elements in their exoskeleton that refract the light that they reflect like so many prisms. 

But does their scientific name is Buprestidae have a similar meaning?  Buprestis is the name giving genus, and the ending 'idae' simply signifies that we are talking about the entire family of beetles that the genus Buprestis is a part of. 

So what about the name Buprestis? It goes all the way back to Carolus Linneus (Carl von Linné) who named the species in 1758, so right when he published his Systema Naturae, therein formalizing the binomial nomenclature, and thus becoming the father of modern taxonomy.

 But what did the name mean to him? It turns out that the Romans already called a colorful, maybe metallic beetle buprestis. Of course, they had stolen the word from the ancient Greek βούπρηστις

While trying to research the meaning of βούπρηστις, I nearly fell into a trap: I figured out that Πρήθω, f. -σω, p. πέπρηκα means to set on fire, burn, inflame. So I smartly concluded that the ancient Greeks had already observed that certain buprestid beetles were drawn to fire (females of some species lay their eggs into still smoldering logs, sometimes burning off their own feet), and called them something like 'Fire Bugs'.  So tempting an explanation, but wrong, sorry.

I then found out that βούς means Ox. This cured me of jumping to conclusions, even tempting ones. Burn-cow?
if βούς, πρήθω literally means burn-cow,  or rather cow burn, it seems to have referred to a something toxic that cattle might eat, only to die from colic and with burns and inflammations on their lips and tongues. To me, that sounds suspiciously like blister beetle poisoning. I also know that in Europe some blister beetles are quite metallic and colorful, just think of the shiny-green Spanish Fly (the one of Cantharine fame) that was once considered a Soldier Beetle, but clearly is a blister beetle. So I think the origin of the word buprestis lies in the toxic capacity of a beetle very different from our jewel beetle. Oh, well. I still think they are among the prettiest beetles.

All Buprestids, Jewel Beetles, Metallic Wood-boring Beetles shown here are Arizona Buprestids. Containing the enormously species rich genus Agrilus, Buprestids are one of the very largest families of beetles.

1 comment:

  1. Always love the intersection of entomology and etymology.