What’s In A Name?

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A few days ago I took this photograph of a Fatal Metalmark butterfly.

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It’s a tiny insect.  With wings fully outstretched it barely covers a surface area the size of my thumbnail.  I think that it is quite pretty although its beige on brown color scheme is hardly flamboyant.  Check out those green eyes, however!

In looking at this photo I wondered: how did this butterfly get its name?  The “metalmark” part is a bit obscure but reasonably easy to figure out.  Metalmarks comprise a group of butterflies that have metallic scales on their wings.  If you look closely at the rear wings of this insect you’ll see two thin parallel lines of scales that have a faintly metallic sheen.

Ok, so much for “metalmark,” but what about “fatal?”  What’s so fatal about this insect?  It’s not venomous or poisonous and it’s harmless by every measure.  So, how did it acquire a name that is so fraught with malevolent significance?

That took a little research.  It turns out that this insect’s Latin name is Calephelis nemesis.  “Nemesis” is the Greek goddess of retribution.  The Greeks believed that no bad deed went unpunished and Nemesis had the job of delivering payback.  That’s pretty ominous, but why would this little butterfly be associated with retribution?  Well, the color of Fatal Metalmarks can be highly variable.  Although this one is colored beige on brown, many individuals are much darker, to the extent that their wings can be a deep gray on nearly black.  This can be a very dark winged little butterfly. In some depictions of Nemesis, she’s described as an avenging angel, with dark wings.  So, this tiny butterfly apparently at some point stirred the imagination of some naturalist who envisioned the goddess Nemesis, with her dark wings.

It must have been fun to have been a 19th Century naturalist, coming up with fanciful names for new species.  I envy whoever it was who named the Fatal Metalmark.

Photo made with a Canon 5Diii, 180 f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, f16 @ 1/160.

5 responses to “What’s In A Name?”

  1. Tom Munson says :

    Terrific image and commentary, Steve.


  2. Linda says :

    Now this little guy is gorgeous

  3. Liesl Kii says :

    This really is a beautiful little butterfly. Interesting research too.

  4. Sue says :

    Thank you for showing me something-again-that I would never see even if it were right in front of me. Loved the history of the name.

  5. Paule Hjertaas says :

    We found the fatal metalmark here in Ajo as well, in a moist area. Here is my photo of it. https://www.flickr.com/photos/88886389@N02/16195712213/

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