More action on the passionvine: Zebra heliconian

Florida’s state butterfly is supposed to be the Zebra Longwing:

So designated by the 1996 Florida Legislature, it was written into the Florida statutes under the Executive Branch (Title IV), Secretary of State section (Section 15) as follows:

15.0382 Official state butterfly.—The Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius) is designated the official state butterfly. History.—s. 1, ch. 96-153.

Section 15 also designates other key state symbols established over the years, including the state pie (Key Lime, of course), state soil (Myakka fine sand), and state beverage (“The juice obtained from mature oranges of the species Citrus sinensis and hybrids thereof is hereby adopted as the official beverage of Florida. History.—s. 1, ch. 67-4.”). (And since Gatorade was developed at UF, it is most definitely NOT the official “Florida State” beverage.)

I’ve written elsewhere about the problems with statutes like these, particularly in Section 15.031, which designates as our official state tree an organism that is more closely related to grasses than it is to trees.

Problems like this seem to creep up whenever we try to legislate organisms. Just as our state tree doesn’t really exist, neither does our state butterfly, at least according to our most recent and (presumably) accurate descriptions. Although the taxonomic name was incorrect even in 1996 when the Florida statute was adopted, the common name as legislated in 1996 became obsolete in 2001, when  NABA (the North American Butterfly Association), the organization that maintains both common and taxonomic names for North American butterflies, ruled on both the common and the scientific name in its checklist. They changed the common name from Zebra Longwing to Zebra Heliconian, and, following Brower (1994) they clarified the spelling of the taxonomic name as H. charithonia, not H. charitonius.

The Florida Legislature wasn’t just wrong once about the taxonomic name, though—it was wrong twice over! The “correct” spelling, established in 1994 with great clarity by Andrew Brower, of Cornell in 1993 when the article was written, at the American Museum of Natural History in 1994 when it was published, and now at Middle Tennessee State University, is Heliconius charithonia. That is, the specific epithet ends in -a, not -us; furthermore it is spelled with a -th-, not just a -t-. Got that, y’all?

Brower explains that it was some early- and mid-20th century revision that created the confusion over the spelling. Carolus Linnaeus described the species originally in 1767 as Papilio Heliconius charithonia (not charithonius). This name is invalid by today’s naming rules, though, since butterflies don’t all belong to the same genus (Papilio), despite what Linnaeus thought. (Smackdown!)

However, when Francis Hemming tried to create a valid type species for the group in 1933, he published a description under one name (H. charithonia L., whose type specimen would have been described by Fabr.), but soon discovered that this name too was invalid, so he quickly published another description with a slightly different spelling and different type specimen: H. charitonia L—with just a -t- instead of the correct -th-. A year later, he realized his mistake, but it’s not clear whether he stated his refound preference for the “h” until 1967, when he published his magnum opus, The generic names of the butterflies and their type-species.  OK, everyone still with me? We’re not done with the story…

It seems that a second set of revisers, W.P. Comstock and F.M. Brown, went to work in 1950 without awareness of Hemming’s vanishing-but-reappearing h.  Trouble is, they seem to have made a hash of it, despite being among the most respected names in the field (Comstock, after all! Comstock! Of course, this was William Phillips Comstock, not the famous John Henry Comstock of Cornell, but W.P. has a good publication history as well). Their argument, as summarized by Brower, relies on the fact that the index to Linnaeus’s description of the species has a typo in it as well!

[Despite Linnaeus's original published description of the species as charithonia with a -th-,] the index of the 12th edition of Systema Naturae (1767) makes reference to charitonia, as does the 13th edition (1790). [Further,...] the name is etymologically derived from charites, Latinized from the Greek name for the Graces, and thus logically not containing the “h.” They [Comstock and Brown 1950] claimed that since the two spellings are of equal age, and since no other revisers had addressed the issue, they could choose charitonia as the proper spelling. Amazingly, in their next paragraph, they coined yet another version of the name, charitonius, to produce gender agreement between the genus and the species.

This argument depends on spelling in an index, rather than in the main text of a publication, and on an etymology that isn’t necessarily correct. And they were certainly wrong, by the rules of species-naming, to revise the latinate name for “correct” grammar. Dudes! Nomenclature rules!

Despite Brower’s article appearing in 1994, the Florida legislature’s act in 1996 designated the animal by not just the outdated taxonomic name, -us instead of -a, but by the wrong spelling of it, -t- instead of -th! To be fair, the legislature can’t really be blamed for not keeping current with butterfly taxonomy. (… Or can it?) As Brower notes in his article, “every major guide to butterflies published since. . .Comstock and Brown (1950) [lists] the species as ‘charitonia,’ (or even ‘charitonius,’ employing their demonstrably incorrect masculinization).” And of course, it’s not the legislature’s job to keep current on taxonomic names. I’m even reasonably certain that whatever handbook they (or their aides) referred to (perhaps even more than one) used the erroneous charitonius instead of the correct charithonia. After all, the bug book I go to most frequently (Marshall 2006) assigns it the same wrong name (H. charitonius), despite having a lovely photo of the correct butterfly.

And if our legislature can’t reasonably be blamed for the error in the scientific name in 1996, they certainly can’t be blamed for not predicting the future—the common name change in 2001 nullified their 1996 designation of Zebra Longwing. The common name according to NABA is now Zebra Heliconian, to comply with a name change for this entire family of butterflies. After all, according to the committee’s commentary, the name “longwing” was neither the exclusive property of this group, nor did it apply to all members of the group!

[N]umbers of other groups of butterflies also have “long” wings. Ithomiines, widespread in the American tropics have wings shaped liked heliconians. The wings of African actinotes, of mimic-whites (pierids in the subfamily Dismorphinae), and of skippers in the genus Panoquina are all long. And, not all heliconians have long wings.

So the common name now more clearly expresses this butterfly’s relation to other butterflies in the heliconian group. What does all this have to do with the passionvine in my backyard?

Well, this morning I noticed a yellow-barred heliconian (if you put it in initial caps, that would be the common name for this species as it appears in the 1931 Butterfly Book by W.J. Holland) fluttering over the tender growing tips of the vine. As usual with this species, I had a hard time photographing it, but here’s my best shot from today:

As you can see, it appears to be inspecting these tender plant parts for their suitability as egg hosts. If you click on the picture to get the larger version, you can probably see the eggs that it has already laid, as usual for this species, in clusters (unlike the usual one egg-per-leaf arrangement of the related heliconian species, Agraulis vanillae, commonly known as the Gulf Fritillary).

Since eggs don’t fly away when you approach them, I was able to get some reasonably good shots of the egg clusters she left behind:

And, at long last, here is one of the single eggs, miraculously in decent focus:

I think what this episode really shows is the truth of that obvious truism that our names for these creatures are nearly as ephemeral as our sightings of them. By the time I got my camera on the bug, it had already done most of its business. Before I was done with mine, it was long gone.

We should probably remember that the names we use for organisms, whether common names or scientific ones, are only signifiers, not signifieds. Sue Hubbell describes this problem quite nicely, so I’ll let her have the next-to-last words:

[These names, these taxa] are sorting words that we humans use to group a dizzying array of individual bugs that otherwise we would find too many and too confusing to think about. Because of the way we have evolved, we have sorting kinds of brains and feel more comfortable if we put what we see in the world into various piles and categories so that we can get a handle on them. But this says more about us and our brains than it does about the world outside our heads, and we shouldn’t mix up these categories—these taxa—with reality.

Whether you put this yellow-barred heliconian in the Longwing pile or the Heliconian pile; whether you call it a butterfly or a moth  (the distinction between day-flying clubbed-antennaed butterflies and night-flying feathery-antennaed moths is fraught with exceptions, exclusions, and in-betweens),  the animal doesn’t really care. It just wants to pass on its genes. Ironically, as I went out to take pictures of this yellow-barred heliconian, it was going about that business with gusto: it seemed to be chasing away another heliconian species, the Gulf Fritillary, which, had it been allowed to lay eggs on the plant as well, would have put its brood in competition with the young of our state butterfly. And no matter what we call the beast, it can’t allow that.


Brower, A.V.Z. 1994. The case of the missing H: Heliconius charithonia (L., 1767) not “Heliconius charitonia (L., 1767)” J. Lep. Soc. 48: 166–168.

Comstock, W. P., Brown, F. M. 1950. Geographical variation and subspeciation in Heliconius charitonius Linnaeus (Lepidoptera, Nymphalidae). Am. Mus. Novit. 1467:1–21.

Hubbell, S. 1993. Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs. New York: Random House.

Marshall. S. A. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

NABA Names Committee (Cassie, B., Glassberg, J., Swengel, A., Tudor, G.). 2004. North American Butterfly Association (NABA) Checklist & English Names of North American Butterflies. Second Edition. Morristown, NJ: North American Butterfly Association.

Remington, C. J. 1959. William Phillips Comstock (1880–1956). J. Lep. Soc. 13:30.

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