t’s been a while since I’ve added to my Wonderful Latin Names series – posts celebrating Latin names that strike me as interestingi, or beautiful, or just fun to say. I guess that’s mostly because I’d been writing a whole book on the topic of Latin names – eponymous ones, in particular. That project is in the hands of the printers now, but of course I wasn’t able to pack every Latin name I like into the book. So now I can celebrate some of the others. Today: the leaf mining fly Liriomyza ivorculteri.
I love leaf mining flies. (Together with my excellent colleague Julia Mlynarek, who did most of the work as a postdoc in my lab, I’ve even published a recent paper on them.) There’s just something ineffably cool about an insect that spends its entire larval period eating its way through the middle layer of a leaf, like a child tunneling its way through the filling of a giant Oreo. Leaf miners are also fascinating to me because they’re diverse but rather poorly known – especially, with respect to their host ranges. Are they tight specialists or broad generalists? Some of each, surely, but mostly we don’t know – and we’d like to.
But the coolness of leaf miners in general isn’t my point today. Instead, I’m here to admire Charley Eiseman and Owen Lonsdale’s (2018) choice of name for the particular leaf miner species Liriomyza ivorcutleri. They described this species from a single specimen, reared from a mine on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).* But why ivorcutleri? It’s probably obvious that the name is eponymous – but that only pushes the question back one step. Who was Ivor Cutler, and what does he have to do with this fly?
Well, eponymous names often honour collectors, or colleagues in the discipline, or wives and husbands and sons and daughters.** But Ivor Cutler was none of those. He was (1923-2006) a Scottish humourist, poet and songwriter, whose closest brush with worldwide fame was probably a brief appearance in the Beatles movie Magical Mystery Tour. He’s thought of fondly by some entomologists for having recorded I Believe in Bugs (1974). But more to the point: in 1975, he recorded Yellow Fly. Scroll up, now (I’ll wait) and look at L. ivorcutleri again. That’s right – a lot of Liriomyza are brownish or blackish flies; but not L. ivorcutleri.
Now, Eiseman and Lonsdale could easily have named this new species Liriomyza flava (flava meaning “yellow” in Latin). And some folks, who prefer straightforward descriptive names over eponymy, might have preferred that. But I’m delighted. First, the world already has thousands of species with names like flava. Second, I enjoy a little bit of whimsy with my science – especially a clever but harmless bit of whimsy like this. And third: I’m not actually a fan of the idea that all species names should have obvious descriptive interpretations. (It’s been more than 250 years since Linnaeus invented the binomial system, the whole point of which was to free names from the necessity of being fully descriptive.) I think of names like ivorcutleri as little loose threads. When you pull on one, you end up learning something. Through names, I’ve now learned about Ivor Cutler. Some day, when David Bowie’s music is no longer omnipresent, the long-legged and orange-haired spider Heteropoda davidbowie will point someone to it; and some day, when Steven Spielberg’s movies are no longer so familiar, the pterosaur Coloborhynchus spielbergi will lead someone to find and watch Schindler’s List or The Color Purple.
So, if I were to have a favourite species of Liriomyza (and who doesn’t?), it would be L. ivorcutleri. It wraps subtlety, whimsy, and learning into a single, wonderful, Latin name.
© Stephen Heard December 17, 2019
Images: Liriomyza ivorcutleri © Charley Eiseman CC BY-ND-NC 1.0; Ivor Cutler, © Roger Kohn CC BY 3.0
*^As far as I know, it’s still the only known specimen. And this is for a species mining a reasonably common and very obvious plant distributed over a pretty large chunk of North America. If anyone tries to tell you that we know a lot about nature in our own back yards: if we have one specimen of this fly, how many flies do we have zero specimens of?