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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

More Classical Animal Names

This is the last - for which you may be grateful! - in this little series on plant and animal names derived from classical mythology. Having talked at some length on birds last time, we'll conclude with a bit of a round-up of 'other animals' - though I confess that another bird has also slipped in here, which I trust you can forgive.

Let's start with a family who pretty much embody all that the Greek theistic panoply stood for - murder, outrageous punishment and revenge, and lots of sex, preferably incestuous. Uranus was god of the skies, married to Gaia, goddess of earth. (These are very much the abridged versions of the stories, of which in any case there are often differing and even conflicting versions.) They had six sons and, conveniently, six daughters, who pretty much inevitably formed six couples producing children. The youngest was Cronus, married to sister Rhea. For reasons typically obscure the French zoologist Mathurin Brisson applied Rhea as a genus name to the South American ratites (an ancient group of giant flightless Gondwanan birds) in 1760. (Though other sources credit German biologist Paul Mohring, a little earlier - I don't understand this.)
Darwin's Rhea Rhea (sometimes called Pterocnemia) pennata, with chicks, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
These twelve siblings were the Titans, generally described as 'godlike giants'; the word has of course become a synonym for anything large.

Acrophylla titan, Nowra, New South Wales.
This magnificent stick insect can be 30 cm long.
Another son - and another giant - was Anax, a word which in Ancient Greek also more generally meant a king.

Green Emperor Anax gibbosulus, Litchfield NP, Northern Territory.
Even emperors can come to grief it seems, this time in the form of a spider web.
Gaia really needed a break from all this fertility, especially with the production of giants being involved, and enlisted Cronus and his sickle to help. Where the drops of blood from Uranus' castration fell to earth, the Erinyes (equivalent to the Roman Furies) emerged. These beauties have been described as having coal-black bodies, dogs' head with the interesting embellishment of snakes wound round them, bats' wings and eyes that dripped blood. At least two of them live on in the names of two very different, but equally blameless, animals.

Tisiphone fell in love with the mortal Cithaeron - lucky him! When he politely demurred, she killed him with the assistance of one of her convenient head snakes. What this has to do with a butterfly is anyone's guess.
Swordgrass Brown Tisiphone abeona, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
One of her sisters was Alecto ("the implacable of unceasing anger" - a bit like some teenagers actually). Now while fruit bats can be pretty squabbly, this description seems a bit over the top, but I think the blackness implication is the relevant one. 
Black Fruit Bats Pteropus alecto, Charters Towers, Queensland.
Yet another product of Cronus' dreadful deed was, according to some stories at least and improbable as it sounds, Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, inter alia. Aphrodite (her Roman equivalent was Venus) went by numerous aliases, partly due to different groups of worshippers, and partly to her many roles. Adonis Morpho, 'fair shaped', was used in Sparta.
Morpho butterfly, Morpho sp., Sacha Lodge, Ecuador.
When opened the wings are a gloriously brilliant blue, but I was always too slow to snap them!
Aphrodite Urania was 'heavenly Aphrodite' (in apposition to the more earthy love of Aphrodite Pandemos). The Urania moths are limited to the tropical Americas; I refer here to the genus Urania, though the common term is also used for all members of the family Uranidae, which is much more widspread.

Green-banded Urania Moth Urania leilus, Yasuni NP, Ecuador.
Many butterflies and moths sip moisture from river bank silts with their proboscis.
And there I think it's time to leave that particular family of gods well and truly alone. An apparently more benign entity was Hamadryas, mother of the hamadryads, eight spirits associated with particular trees.
Cracker Butterfly Hamadryas sp., Cerro Blanco Reserve, Guayaquil, Ecuador.
These butterflies typically use their camouflage to hide on tree trunks. Their common name is based on their
habit of 'cracking' their wings, apparently by clapping the tips together, though the purpose is still debated.
The Hamadryas Baboon, Papio hamadryas, of north-eastern Africa and Arabia, is also named for her.
King Aegeus was key to the founding of Athens, according to the legends; the Aegean Sea, in which he drowned himself through a classic misunderstanding, was also named for him. So is this rather nice local butterfly.
Female Orchard Swallowtail Butterfly Papilio aegeus, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
Diana the Huntress has many names also; apparently Diaea is one variant, applied to a genus of spiders by Swedish aracnologist Tord Tamelan Teodor Thorell, working in Italy. He described over a thousand spider species in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Flower Spider Diaea sp., National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
I'm going to end though with a name from legends much closer to home. When Mike Archer, then curator of mammals at the Queensland Museum, named a new genus of tiny marsupial carnivores as recently as 1975, he turned to indigenous stories of minute nocturnal hunters with short feet - all very descriptive of the animals he called Ningaui.
Wongai Ningaui Ningaui ridei with delicious winged termite.
Photo courtesy of David Nelson.
This time however I must take full responsibility for anything you wish to dispute. I'm not sure what we'll be discussing next, but it won't be names, and murderous or licentious Greek deities will not rate a mention!

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2 comments:

Jeannie Gray said...

Lovely post, Ian. I must say I do find the stories behind the names endlessly interesting. And I do like your squabbly Black Fruit bats! But re alecto: the Furies also had "coal-black bodies" and when I was looking at the relatively serene Shining Flycatcher, Myiagra alecto, I took the word to indicate blackness, rather than squabbliness! However, I have since found another meaning for the name: "she who does not rest", which certainly sounds pretty flycatcherish to me!

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for that Jeannie. Yes, the 'coal-black bodies' was a key piece of information about the Erinyes that I inadvertently omitted! (I've now fixed that in the text.) That is certainly the key point in my opinion re the implication of 'alecto' to the Black Fruit Bats. However it raises the question as to which meaning of Alecto - ie the personal name of Erinye II, or 'black' - came first, and I'll certainly bow to your knowledge on that one. You're of course dead right about the appropriateness of the restlessness tag to flycatchers, but I'm sure that Temminck never saw a live one, so I think your first interpretation was the correct one.