In 2009, the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) issued its first ‘Red List’ report, on water beetles, in collaboration with scientists from NI and Scotland. As an enthusiastic amateur entomologist, I often devour such documents for fun. Gradually, however, it has dawned on me that there was something a little unique about this one: specifically, the rather unusual common names ascribed to a number of the water beetle species covered within its pages.
Here, amidst the sparse distribution maps and dry inventories of hundred year old sightings, one can meet such fine fellows as Little Nobby, The Upland Frenchman, The Dinghy Skipper, The Chummier Australian, The Orangeman (‘typically associated with large tracts of brackish water’), The Artist (Gyrinus urinator), sundry sloth weevils and many more.
I particularly enjoyed The Turlough Long-Claw. It put me in mind of a Robert E. Howard and George R.R. Martin mashup – A monstrous avenger, yomping through marsh and mire, to right the wrongs of reclusive crannogmen.
I have no idea what one is looking at here. Surely no serious scientific publication, before or since, has whipped up common names out of nowhere for so many obscure species all in one go like this. Are they translations of names from elsewhere in Europe? (I’m reminded, for example, that the common longhorn beetle Rhagium mordax, sometimes, thanks to the wonders of online translation, goes by the moniker of Black Spotted Pliers Support Beetle).
Perhaps we’re seeing a laudable attempt by the NPWS to kindle some public interest in a group of endangered insects. Maybe it’s an attempt to leaven a dry tome with some welcome humour or, shock horror, could it be a wee prank that may have so far gone unnoticed?
My favourites are the sloth weevils (Bagous sp.), be they short, broad-beaked or miry. The name creates an image in my mind’s eye of one of these lugubrious insects, hanging upside-down from a bending plant stem, looking goofy. That the name fits its owners well, is reflected by how far it has propagated since 2009. A quick google, shows ‘sloth weevil’ to have reached numerous Irish and NI sites (including an appearance in the October 5th 2012 Hansard for the NI Assembly), Buglife and the RSPB in the UK, The EU-wide PESI species directory portal, Fauna Europaea in Berlin, and the swedish-hosted Naturalist portal covering Sweden, Finland and Estonia.
Many of their fellows have not fared so well. The Chummier Australian and The Upland Frenchman net respectively four and five records and nothing beyond our island. I do wonder who coined all those names in Red List No 1 and what the process was behind it. Maybe someone from the NPWS will read this and comment 🙂