Taxonomy & Evolution
Section 1 - Taxonomy
Section 2 - Butterfly Families and subfamilies
Section 3 - What is a species / subspecies ?
Section 4 - Evolution and Speciation
Section 5 - Lepidoptera and the Evolutionary table
Taxonomy - the classification of organisms by presumed relationships

Before the advent of scientific nomenclature, confusion reigned :

Example 1 - The butterfly known in Britain as the Camberwell Beauty, has at various times in history been known as the Grand Surprise, the Willow Beauty, the White Petticoat, and in the USA is known as the Mourning Cloak.

Example 2 - Two butterflies, known to early entomologists as the Selvedged Heath Eye and the Golden Heath Eye, were later discovered to be the male and female of a single species which then became known as the Gatekeeper. That species is now known as the Small Heath. The name Gatekeeper is now applied to an entirely different species which has variously been known as the Hedge Brown, Hedge Eye, or Large Heath. However, the butterfly which we now know as the Large Heath is yet another species, previously known as the Manchester Argus, or Marsh Ringlet !

The Linnaean System

The Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné ( Carolus Linnaeus ) wanted to put an end to this confusion. He realised that an internationally recognised name was needed for every creature and plant, and that every organism should be classified according to it's relationship with other organisms.

In 1735 he began the Systema Naturae - a catalogue of the names of all known animals and plants. A few years later, in 1753, he devised the Species Plantarum - the starting point for the current system of classifying plants. Then, in 1758 came the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, which is usually regarded as the starting point for the classification of animals by family, genus and species.

Since the time of Linnaeus, thousands of additional species have been discovered and described by taxonomists such as Cramer, Hewitson, Hübner, Fabricius, Rottemburg and Klots. Every known taxon has it's description published in a scientific journal, and is placed within an existing or newly erected genus which includes other species that are very closely related.

Every known taxon is designated a binomial ( two-word ) name constructed from Latin or Greek roots. An example is the Common Blue butterfly Polyommatus icarus :

The Common Blue butterfly, was designated by Rottemburg in 1775 as Polyommatus icarus. The first part of the name translates as "many spotted", and refers to the distinctive pattern on the under-surface of the wings of all butterflies in the genus Polyommatus. The species name icarus refers to a character in Greek Mythology.
According to legend, Icarus and his father Daedalus were imprisoned in The Labyrinth with a terrible creature - the Minotaur. In order to escape, Daedalus fashioned a pair of wings for himself and his son, made of feathers and wax.
Before they took off from the prison, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, as the wax would melt, nor too close to the sea, as the wax would dampen. Overcome by the excitement of being able to fly, Icarus forgot his father's warning, and came too close to the sun, which melted his wings. Icarus then fell into the sea in the area which bears his name, the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island southwest of Samos.
Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus showing the "many-spotted" underside.


Scientific names should be written in the following style, with the Genus, species and subspecies italicised, then the author's name and the date the description of the taxon was first published : Genus, species, subspecies, author, year.

Thus the Common Blue is called : Polyommatus icarus ROTTEMBURG, 1775

Click here to learn how to pronounce Latin names.

Click here to see a the former names of all British butterflies.

The taxonomic hierarchy

The table below shows the Marica Blue Ringlet Chloreuptychia marica marica in relation to the rest of the Animal Kingdom :






Joint-limbed invertebrates






Insects with a 4 stage lifecycle : ova / larva / pupa / imago



Trichoptera ( caddisflies ) & Lepidoptera



Butterflies, moths & skippers



A division based on genitalia characteristics



Scudder butterflies



Brush-footed butterflies



Satyrs, Phantoms & Palmflies



Satyrs ( Browns, Ringlets, Graylings, Heaths etc )



neotropical Ringlets & Nymphs



neotropical Ringlets



Blue Ringlets with elongated silver ocelli on ventral h/wing



the "Marica Blue Ringlet"



south-east Peruvian sub-species of marica


WEYMER, 1911

the taxonomist who described the species


Marica Blue Ringlet, Chloreuptychia marica marica WEYMER, 1911, Manu, Peru
The Linnaean System divides the Animal Kingdom into groups called phyla.
The phylum Arthropoda - animals with jointed limbs and a hard exoskeleton, is divided into classes including Crustacea ( crabs, lobsters, shrimps & woodlice ), Chilopoda ( centipedes ), Diplopoda
( millipedes ), Arachnida ( mites, spiders, scorpions & harvestmen ) and Insecta ( insects ).
The class Insecta includes over 75% of all animal species. It is divided into several super-orders, one of which is Amphiesmenoptera. The latter is split into 2 orders - Trichoptera ( caddisflies ) and Lepidoptera ( butterflies & moths ). These 2 orders share a common ancestor, Necrotaulidae, and have many features in common, e.g. their wing venation is fundamentally similar, their wings are covered in setae ( modified to form scales in Lepidoptera ), and their larvae have mouthparts with structures and glands modified to produce silk.
The Lepidoptera comprises of about 150,000 known species ( this only represents a fraction of the species in existence, as many more await to be discovered and described, especially among the tropical "micro" moth families ). The classification of Lepidoptera is under constant revision, but they are currently divided into 125 families, 6 of which are colloquially known as butterflies - the Hesperiidae, Papilionidae, Pieridae, Lycaenidae, Riodinidae and Nymphalidae.

Butterflies by day and moths by night ?

It is wrong to think of butterflies and moths as being different things. The families which we know as butterflies are generally those with brightly coloured day-flying species, and which have strongly clubbed tips to their antennae.
There are however many brightly coloured day-flying moths particularly among the Zygaenidae, Arctiidae and Uraniidae. There are other day-flying moths which possess clubbed antennae in the family Castniidae. Conversely there are many butterflies, particularly amongst the Hesperiidae, Satyrinae and Brassolini which are very dull and inconspicuous, and would be dismissed as "moths" by most non-experts.
It is little known that night-flying butterflies are quite common in the tropics. Examples include the Caligo Owl butterflies, various Satyrines and certain Riodinids. In temperate regions many butterfly species which are normally day-flying will also fly at night - these include the Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta and the Monarch Danaus plexippus.

Taxonomic revision

Taxonomy is not an exact science. It relies on suppositions about the relationships between various species, and about their evolutionary ancestry. Because of this, the classification ( and the scientific names ) of butterflies and moths are under constant revision. New techniques such as microbiology, phylogenetics, DNA sequencing, and the study of larval morphology regularly shed new light on the relationships between species. This increasing knowledge regularly results in the necessity to revise classification. Sometimes it is a simple matter of relocating a species to a different genus. On rare occasions however it may require that a genus, tribe or even an entire subfamily be migrated from its familiar home and relocated into another family or superfamily.
The inexact nature of taxonomy, and the fact that it relies on opinion rather than fact, unfortunately means that scientists often find themselves in disagreement about which genus a particular species belongs to, or whether two or more butterflies with very similar characteristics should be classified as separate species or as subspecies.
Occasionally a taxonomist will believe that he or she has discovered a "new to science" species and will describe it's characteristics and publish a name for it. Later however they may realise that the species has already been described and named by someone else. In such cases the oldest name takes precedence, and the newer name is discarded, and listed as an invalid ( junior ) synonym.
The reclassification of Bia actorion
As knowledge grows and relationships between different taxa are better understood, it often becomes necessary for a butterfly to be "moved" into a different genus, tribe, subfamily or even into a different family.....
One of the most well known examples of taxonomic indecisiveness is Bia actorion, a neotropical rainforest species first described by Linnaeus in 1763 as Papilio actorion, and placed in the then all-embracing family Papilionidae. During the next century, as more and more species were discovered, it became obvious that many new genera would need to be created, and that species originally placed in Papilio would need to be given new homes. It was decided that the original genus Papilio should only be used for a particular group of Swallowtail butterflies, so in 1819 Hübner created a new genus Bia to accommodate actorion. Hübner believed that the butterfly was related to the "Browns" of Europe, so he placed Bia in the family Satyridae.
In the late 20th century taxonomists decided that the Satyridae, Brassolidae, Amathusiidae, Acraeidae, Heliconiidae etc should all be relegated to become subfamilies of the Nymphalidae.
For a while, Bia actorion ( also known for a while as Napho actoriaena ! ) was retained in the subfamily Satyrinae, but further studies determined that it really belonged to the Brassolinae.
Currently Bia actorion and it's close relative Bia peruana are classified as members of the subtribe Biina, which is placed in the Brassolini, which is a tribe within the Morphinae.
The Morphini ( Antirrhea, Morpho, Caerois ), Brassolini ( Bia, Narope, Caligo, Opsiphanes etc ) and the Oriental Amathusiini ( Amathusia, Zeuxidia etc ) are now all regarded as tribes of equal rank within the Morphinae - yet another subfamily of the greatly enlarged Nymphalidae !

Bia actorion, Manu Biosphere Reserve, Peru

Butterfly books rarely keep pace with taxonomic advances, so unfortunately the same species will often be described under completely different scientific names in different books !  Consequently people recording butterflies, especially those building up records over a number of years using a selection of different reference books, inadvertently include a large number of synonyms. It can be a nightmare eliminating these but luckily a few resources exist that enable them to be identified :


LepIndex - Natural History Museum index of world species nomenclature
Funet - lists most known species in the form of a family tree

Lamas, Atlas of Neotropical Lepidoptera Checklist 4A, Scientific Publishers, 2004

Newly discovered species

How do scientists describe and name a new species ?

When someone thinks they've discovered a new species, they have to provide at least one sample specimen to a taxonomist for analysis. By examining the structure of the wing venation and other anatomical features, and comparing this data to known species, the taxonomist can then easily determine it's correct family, subfamily and genus.
If there are substantial differences between the new species and all previously known species, it will be regarded as sufficiently unique to deserve the creation of a new genus - a new pigeon-hole in which it can be placed together with other very similar species. If on the other hand it's basic structure is similar to other species it will be placed in an existing genus, and will be described and allocated a new name in recognition of it's uniqueness.
One method of establishing uniqueness is to dissect the genitalia of the sample and compare it with that of other species. Other methods include the examination of minute anatomical features such as the wing scales, antennae and legs.
New species are given a descriptive pseudo-Latin name, and a full scientific description, which are published in a recognised scientific journal such as Nature or New Scientist.
The origin of scientific names varies enormously. Some species are named after Greek gods, some are named after the place where the butterfly was discovered, or named in honour of some eminent entomologist. Names can also be descriptive of the colour, pattern or wing shape.

The Charismatic Metalmarks

Taxonomists are not usually renowned for having a great sense of humour, but amongst their more hilarious moments they have colluded to provide us with some entertaining scientific names. Hence we have a pair of metalmarks from Colombia, named by Hall and Harvey in 2002 as Charis ma and Charis matic ! Both have now been renamed rather less attractively as Detritivora ma and Detritivora matic. The new genus name refers to the fact that the caterpillars feed on decaying leaves and other detritus on the forest floor.

The World's Most Dismal Butterfly ?

Sometimes it can be difficult to think up names for some of the more mundane looking species, particularly for the hundreds of near-identical dull brown skipper species found in the neotropics. In 1997 Austin was apparently so totally unimpressed with his latest discovery that he gave a new Mexican species the unfortunate name Inglorius mediocris, which needs little translation !
Below is an example of a scientific description :
Inglorius Austin, new genus
Type species: Inglorius mediocris Austin, new species

Description. Palpi slender, third segment straight, protruding well beyond second segment, about equal to length of dorsal edge of second segment; antennae long, extending beyond end of forewing discal cell, nearly 60% length of forewing costa, black with pale ochreous beneath distad and below club; club just over 1/4 (28%) antennal length, bent to apiculus at thickest part, apiculus length about 2x club width, nudum grey, of 12 segments (3 on club, 9 on apiculus); forewing discal cell slightly produced, 75% length of anal margin, origin of vein CuA2 nearer to CuA, than to wing base, hindwing discal cell just over 1/2 wing width; mid tibiae with four fine spines on inner surface and single pair of spurs, hind tibiae with two pairs of spurs; forewing produced with slight concavity between CuA! and 2A; hindwing convex anteriorly, somewhat concave between CuAj and 2A; no apparent secondary sexual characters. Male genitalia with short tegumen; uncus longer than tegumen, undivided, and hood-like over gnathos; gnathos as long as uncus, divided, extending laterad of uncus in dorsal view and as rectangular flaps mesad in ventral view; vinculum sinuate; saccus short; valva very long, ampulla/costa long and sloping somewhat downward caudad, harpe long, roughly triangular ending in an inward turned point caudad, dorsal margin undulate, weakly serrate cephalad; aedeagus tubular (anterior portion missing), caudal end expanded terminally in lateral view, no apparent cornutus.

More "creative" species names
The taxonomist Burns was clearly having a mental block when it came to naming his new skipper - Cephise nuspesez ( pronounced "new species" ) !
Just to prove that weird humour is not confined to butterfly taxonomists ( ! ), here are some of the equally odd scientific names given to other creatures :

Abra cadabra

a species of clam - with magical properties ?

Agra vation

an "aggravating" carabid beetle

Cyclocephala nodanotherwon

a species of scarab beetle - "not another one !"

Heerz lukenatcha

a species of braconid wasp - "here's lookin' at ya !"

Kamera lens

a protozoan - shaped like a "camera lens"


an extinct parrot, translates as "Pretty Polly"

The above show both creativity and humour, but in 1969 when Spencer had the task of inventing names for new flies, he invented possibly the most boring series of species names in existence, by naming his discoveries sequentially, as Ophiomyia prima, secunda, tertia, quarta, quinta, sexta,  septima, octava, nona, undecima, and duodecima ( Latin for "first", "second", "third", etc. )
Dybowski went to the opposite extreme when he proposed the ludicrously unpronounceable name Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis for a new Amphipod in 1927. It would have been the world's longest scientific name, but luckily common sense prevailed and the name was rejected by the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature.
The honour of having the longest scientific name actually approved by the ICZN actually goes to a species of Stratiomyid fly - Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides. The shortest appears to be that of a Vespertilionid bat - Ia io, although there is a thrip with a single-letter species name - Plesiothrips o !
Click here for a further selection of strangely named butterflies.
For more fascinating scientific names, visit : Earthlink Taxonomic Puns



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