What’s in a Name?

Among the insects, it would be hard to say there is a single group of more importance to humans than the mosquitoes. Oh, to be fair bees (and all pollinators) are wonderful, necessary parts of our agroecosystems, and there are many herbivorous insects (and their predators) that impact agriculture. But for a single family, the mosquitoes are likely tops for affecting humans.

As such, there are a good number of non-academic professionals whose day to day duties include identifying and counting mosquitoes. Some of these folks are such “cracker-jacks” at this that they can tell an Aedes from a Psorophora at 20 feet. And, naturally enough, they learn the scientific names of the mosquitoes, usually just once. However, starting in 2004, a group of mosquito systematists radically changed the names of many genera of mosquitoes. This left mosquito biologists at all levels confused, annoyed, and disheartened. Personally, I was ambivalent about the reorganization, but it certainly was the talk at many scientific meetings and mosquito control districts.

A recent paper has come out that suggested the reorganization was unnecessary and we should revert to a more traditional taxonomy of mosquitoes, even if this results in some systematic no-nos, like polyphyly. I find this approach interesting, as it balances the sociological considerations of a novel, confusing (but perhaps systematically more correct) taxonomy with a traditional, understood taxonomy. When I say “interesting” I mean conflicted, because the scientific purist in me wants there to be one true phylogeny, but the practical mosquito biologist in me never liked having to learn a bunch of new generic names.

This topic may seem quite esoteric, but I think it exposes the tenuous relationship between pure and applied science, objective and subjective truths, and operational and scientific reality.

2016-02-03T21:48:06+00:00September 12th, 2015|News, Uncategorized|

About the Author:

I am an assistant professor of Entomology at North Carolina State University, with an abiding interest in arthropod vectors of disease and their ecology.