Friday, October 10, 2014

Name That Bug

"Red-breasted nuthatch?" That works.
Among the job titles I would like to have had in this world is Namer of Animals. It would be even better than being a Namer of Paint Colors and almost as good as a Namer of Racehorses.

I can tell you right now that in this position, I'd have done a bit better by some North American birds, the ones that are burdened with dull identities because they were named after naturalists who described them or after people whom these naturalists admired.

"Steller's Jay," for example, doesn't exactly do justice to this bright blue bird of the black Mohawk and raucous cries. "Gambel's Quail" leaves out the fact that this chunky little bird sports a jaunty topknot on its head. Nor would you ever know that "Lewis's Woodpecker" has a pink belly, or that the little "Townsend's Warbler" wears a yellow and black mask worthy of a lucha libre wrestler. And "Scott's Oriole" is pretty lame for a species in which the yellow male has an executioner's hood.

Of course, there are plenty of North American birds with smashing names (Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Red-Breasted Sapsucker, Whooping Crane, and Roadrunner tell you lots of what you need to know about each species, for example). But when it comes to descriptive names, insects have really won the lottery.

Dear reader, you are no doubt thinking I must have a lot of time on my hands to be thinking about bug names. Trust me, I have a lot on my hands, but time is not among this quantity. I only happened to think about bug names because I found these bugs living it up on a mystery plant growing beside the driveway:


I knew they were leafhoppers (two, two, two facts in one name! A+!). But I didn't know what kind. A Google search turned up a likely candidate: the wonderfully named Candy-Striped Leafhopper. Its other common names mention its colors in various combinations (scarlet, blue, red, green), but for my money you really can't beat "candy-striped."

Candy-striped leafhoppers, however, are mainly East Coast insects. This colorful insect is most likely a rhododendron leafhopper--not nearly as fabulous a name, but at least it tells you where you're most likely to find one. They're native to eastern states, too, but were introduced accidentally to the northwest sometime back in the 1920s on nursery stock.


Whatever the heck it is, it belongs to an athletic family: some leafhoppers can leap up to 40 times their length. Jumping is the insect's go-to defense. It may be the source of the leafhopper's alternate common name of "sharpshooter, "which, according to an Audubon field guide, was inspired by how it "leaps rapidly from danger with the speed of a sharpshooter's bullet."

Other sources suggest that it's called a sharpshooter because it sidles and hides behind stems, like a sniper taking cover; that the name comes from the precision with which it jabs its mouthparts into leaves to suck out fluids or its ovipositer to lay eggs in them; or that it was inspired by the "pop!" with which the insect expels honeydew from its hind end (a sound that is apparently just audible to people with far, far better hearing than I have).

Here, by the way, is a leafhopper exuding honeydew, that sweet fluid so delectable to ants. Listen closely.


No comments:

Post a Comment