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Vanessa or Cynthia?


by Michael P.T. Gillett

(The following article appeared in the December, 1992, Newsletter of the Al Ain chapter of the Emirates Natural History Group.)

Entomology on the Inter Emirates Hash at the Taweelah Motel (29 - 30 October, 1992)

Those of you who are members of both A2H3 and Al Ain ENHG may appreciate the title of my article, but will fail to realize its scientific significance! Others, as yet uninitiated into the Hash, will probably realize that the normal activities of hashers are not conducive to the simultaneous pursuit of Natural History. They say 'once a hasher, always a hasher', but this is more a question of 'once a naturalist, always a naturalist'.

On the occasion of the Inter Emirates Hash for 1992, there was at first little opportunity for Natural History. However, never having been to Taweelah before, I was determined to make at least a cursory examination of the local insects. My chance came on the Friday morning. Taking advantage of the 'voluntary nature' of the 'Survivor's Run', I pleaded (with credible justification) a badly blistered big toe and a monumental headache and dispatched my son James in my place.

As the herd of hashers disappeared over the horizon in pursuit of the first of many 'falsies', I had a more leisurely stroll around the area. Surprisingly, I saw very few beetles and these were all common species such as the darling beetle, Ocnera hispida, and the curious cleonine weevil, Ammocleonus aschabadensis. There were plenty of other insects about, especially flies, but it was the Lepidoptera that captivated me. Quite a number of species, both butterflies and moths, were in evidence, but lacking any form of identification guide, I will confine my remarks to those that I could easily identify either on the wing or at rest.

Single individuals of Danaus chrysippus (Plain Tiger) and Papilio demoleus (Asian Citrus Swallowtail) were seen, but during the same period both these attractive species were very much more abundant in the Al Ain region. Large numbers of the diminutive and rather dull lycaenid, Zizeeria karsandra, (Asian Grass Blue) were present around the planted areas of Taweelah.

During the previous evening, a number of quite large lappet moths were circling the lights at the poolside. These I identified as Streblote siva, and their startling sexual dimorphism in size, wing-shape, color and antenna structure were duly noted. The next morning, whilst on my walk, I came upon a female of this species at rest on a banner advertising a certain malt beverage that purports to reach places which other malt beverages don't. Perhaps because of this, or because the product in question comes in green cans, this particular female had laid half a dozen or so eggs (color: white with gray markings; size: +\- 2mm diameter) on the cloth. Calico is definitely not on the list of larval foodplants for this species! So I disturbed her and made her fly away, thinking that next night she might make it to a more suitable substrate for egg laying (Tamarix, Zizyphus etc.). Most moths of this family lay several hundreds, if not a thousand or more, eggs, so that a wasted half a dozen is not a serious loss. In any case, although this was my first encounter with this species, it is thought to be quite common in this region. There is even evidence that it is a serious defoliator of plants important to the pastoral activities of the Bedouin.

Two other species of Lepidoptera, one a moth and the other a butterfly, took up most of my attention. Both are common in Arabia, both are strong migrants and diurnal fliers and both occur across the Old World from Western Europe to Australia. Moreover, I have met with both before in the Al Ain region, but under different circumstances. I refer to the Crimson Speckled Footman moth (Utetheisa puchella) and the Painted Lady butterfly (Cynthia cardui). At Taweelah good numbers of both species were present and were very active flying from plant to plant in the sunshine. However, the numbers of Painted Ladies did not even begin to approach the thousands and thousands present every where around Al Ain in April of this year. The Painted Lady was the first Arabian butterfly that I ever saw, near the Intercontinental Hotel in Al Ain in January, 1991, when I was over for my first visit. When seen in the desert, I cannot help but think how dull and well camouflaged this species is. Such a contrast to the bright showy butterfly so often seen on Buddlia bushes in the late British summer. The forewing markings of the Painted Lady include a design of brownish-pink that many have likened to a map of the British Isles. It, therefore, comes as a shock to realize that such a patriotic little is not truly British. Migrants from S. Europe reach the U.K. and Ireland in the spring in varying numbers each year and if conditions are right a generation of British-born insects is produced in late summer. None of these are able to survive the damp winter and next year's presence depends upon a fresh wave of migrants. The pretty little Crimson Speckled Footman is also only a migrant to the British Isles and is indeed quite rare over there. A hundred years ago, during 1892 when entomology was in its heyday and had many thousands of followers, only four of these moths were recorded as having been collected in Britain. In the years before and after 1892, there are also only a handful of records, often with gaps of several years. Certainly I have never seen this species in either the U.K. or in Western or Southern Europe. In fact, before Taweelah, I had previously seen only one specimen -- on the inside of the window of a music shop in Al Ain city center.

By now it should be obvious that my title has something to do with the Latin name of the Painted Lady butterfly. In fact, I wish to correct an error in scientific naming that has crept into the amateur accounts of Arabian butterflies. Cynthia is the correct Linnaean name for the genus containing the Painted Lady and this is denoted by putting an L. or Linne or Linnaeus directly after the specific name: Cynthia cardui L. An acceptable synonym for this species is Vanessa cardui (L.), the name by which this butterfly was for a long time known in the European literature. In this case, the L. (standing for Linnaeus, the original describer of this butterfly) is placed in parenthesis after the Latin name to denote that the genetic (first) name has been changed since the original description. The current use of the generic name Cynthia indicates that the experts have reinstated cardui to its original genus, making it necessary to remove the parenthesis from Linnaeus. Most of the books and articles (e.g. in Tribulus) which I have seen, and which specifically relate to Arabian butterflies, insist on including the name of each species' author and too often they get it wrong! The Painted Lady always appears as Vanessa cardui L. This is quite erroneous and inexcusable. Whilst the point may seem trivial, it is in fact serious. The scientific nomenclature for insects is a minefield even for the professional entomologist, so that incorrect usage by well-meaning amateurs only adds to the confusion. Anyone sitting down to write a serious article on Arabian butterflies is obliged to deal with the synonymy of each species -- they don't want their task complicated further by having to correct the errors made by natural historians! Much of this confusion could be avoided by recording species just under the trivial and the scientific names without any attempt to add the scientific author. Indeed, if the author's name is included, then the species should be formally synonymized.

Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan