Thursday, July 19, 2012

Danaus Plexippus

It rained yesterday off and on; the sun was not much evident. Late in the afternoon Brigitte noticed a butterfly, at rest on one of our cone flowers. We had moved that pot right next to our milkweed, and the visitor may have landed there first. Butterfly experts tell me that milkweed is the sole food for Monarch’s caterpillars. Our visitor was definitely a Lady and may have been engaged in leaving some offspring on that plant. We’ll see if that is so. Brigitte fetched me in a hurry—but by that time the visiting lady had moved a little bit further north and settled for a brief time on an azalea plant growing in our neighbor’s yard but reaching past the wire into ours. So today we bring our first photograph of a Monarch, such as it is.

The monarchs travel from Mexico to Canada and back again. It takes three generations to make the trip. The first of these wanderers (one of their names) appear in Spring. They’re most numerous in the Fall when they are headed south. Three generations suggests that they might be breeding both going and coming, so the extended visit of a lady pleases. The females are predominantly yellow, the males more reddish-orange. They belong to the Nymphalidae superfamily.

In the course of this current effort to document our visitors, I’ve discovered that it is very difficult to run down the meaning of any Latin biological name; these names are Latinized Greek, or Latin, or people’s names with Latin endings. In Greek mythology, Danaus was the son of a mythical Egyptian king—famed for having had 50 daughters; the usual gruesome thing: they were ordered to marry 50 men and to murder them on their wedding night, etc., etc.— welcome to ancient Greek modernity. But is that where the name is rooted? Are these lovely things the daughters of Danaus? Possibly. Monarchs utilize the toxins in the milkweed to discourage being eaten. — At the same time, somebody has launched the word that the name means “Sleepy transformation,” evidently pointing to the “miracle” of metamorphosis. But, here too, I am conflicted. Fledgling monarch caterpillars promptly eat their egg-shells; and if they find still unhatched brothers and sisters, they proceed to eat them too. Quite awake, actually. — Yet another source informs me that the name means “something like” “Greek horse-driver.” Many repeat this, too, on the web—and always also add “something like,” showing that they are copying. If any reader knows of an authoritative reference that supplies the meaning of these manufactured names, I’d appreciate hearing about it....


  1. Plexippos was one of the husbands killed by one of the daughters of Danaos according to Hyginus's Fabulae, so the connection seems very plausible. However, if this early twentieth-century butterfly book is to be trusted, the plexippus goes back to Lynnaeus (p. 726f.), but the Danaus seems more recent -- the genus was originally called Anosia until it was joined with another genus called Danaus to make the new genus, also called Danaus. So maybe a happy accident after all? Very puzzling.

    Searching through the Perseus Project database turns up nothing on plexippos meaning horse-driver or charioteer; so that seems unlikely.

    1. What wonderful pointers! Thanks very much. Pleasing coincidence that, Plexippos! I was aware of the renaming--but had discovered in yet another very old book that all insects as well as plants named Danaus or Danaiae, etc., were "noxious," foul-tasting, etc., hence it strikes me that the linkage of toxics-containing milkweed was in some way responsible for the naming. Glad to be rid of the Greek horse driver or lasher, as some sources claim...although Greek mythology also appears to have some horses that eat their riders or drivers...

    2. From the 1767 edition of Linnaeus's Systema Naurae, p. 758, the note on the name Danaus: "Danaorum Candidorum nomina a filiabus Danae Aegypti Festivorum a filiis mutuatus sum," roughly, 'The members of Danaus Candidi have been named from the daughters of Danaus, the members of Danaus Festivi I have borrowed from the sons of Aegyptus.' (Unfortunately, he doesn't say why he did so.) And sure enough, there's a partial overlap between the names Linnaeus gives and Hyginus, especially with the sons of Aegyptus. There's a Danaus Plexippus on p. 767; it looks like it's our butterfly! he summary is cryptic, and the edition is different from that mentioned in the other butterfly book, so conceivably I could be missing something, but it doesn't seem so. Curioser and curioser. Perhaps it's a case of double renaming? Linnaeus calls the butterfly Danaus plexippus, then someone thinks that all these Danaids really fall into different groups, and so splits them, then somebody reorders them again and returns to plexippus its original name?

    3. Somehow I mangled up the translation from Linnaeus in the previous comment when revising and didn't catch it before I hit 'publish'; it should read: "The names of the Danaus Candidi I have borrowed from the daughters of Danaus, those of Danaus Festivi from the sons of Aegyptus."

    4. Looking at Linnaeus' actual text gave me a certain sense of closure. The sheer masses of creatures just on page 767 tells me that Linnaeus' was up against it, first in finding new names and second in keeping his book manageably sized; that's why he had to conserve his words. His description of the Monarch as "another wholly yellow-brown: extensive black veins, black edges with white points...Habitat in northern America" is both accurate and parsimonious. The Latin: "Papilio Danaus alis integrerrimus fulvis: venis nigris dilatatis, margine nigro punctis albis... Habitat in America septentrionali."

      Amused to discover that word, septentrionalis, which Romans used for "north" but which derives from the seven stars of the Great or the Little Bear. Until I tried the variant spelling, septemtrionalis, I thought they referred to Ptolemy's "seventh climate."


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