Saturday 2 September 2023

It's in the DNA. Possibly.

There exists a realm of scientific study whose sole purpose is to make life difficult for the amateur naturalist. It is called taxonomy, and is practised by demi-gods known as taxonomists.

Taxonomists decide what is a species, what is a subspecies, and so on, and how they all relate to one another. They have the power to split and to lump, and to completely reorganise a systematic list that everyone was quite happy with, thank you. They are the reason you're not sure where grebes and divers are just now, and why your Redpoll tally goes up and down like a fiddler's elbow. The invention of DNA was a taxonomist's dream, and enabled them to complicate things so much that birders are reduced to pulling out feathers and collecting poo samples in order to have a taxonomist rule on a bird's identity...

As the above soap-boxery suggests, I am well aware that taxonomy has impacted on the humble birder's life in various annoying ways, but now I am also seeing its dastardly influence in the World of Moth. For example, last night's meagre catch included one new species for the garden...

...or did it?

An 8mm sliver of mediocrity which owes its very existence to rites performed at the Genetic Temple.

As per normal when I am fortunate enough to encounter a 'new' moth, I looked it up. The Norfolk Moths website was very enlightening, and I quote:

Originally thought a dark form of Prays fraxinella (Ash Bud Moth) [but] DNA barcoding indicates that P. ruficeps is a species distinct from P. fraxinella.

And there is more on the topic, including some notes on separating P. ruficeps from P. fraxinella. The following appears to be attributed to the late John Langmaid, and I will say in advance that I do like his style:

Only accepted as a valid species in the new British List 2013. P. ruficeps has an unremittingly black forewing without any underlying signs of fraxinella-ish markings, and a rufi ceps (red-brown head), though this can vary somewhat in the rufi-ness of the ceps.

I'm probably imagining it, but I like to think there's a bit of fun-poking going on there. However, the Lords of Confusion always like to have the last word:

There is some debate as to whether this species can be identified without DNA analysis.

Ha ha! There would be! How predictable. Anyway, Prays ruficeps - I'm having it.

Well, for now, while I'm allowed.


  1. If it makes you feel any better, I have P.ruficeps on my list too 😉😀

    1. Excellent. Let's hang on to it while we can! 😄

  2. Gav, food for thought at a higher levels of consciousness required for this little beastie.

  3. Brilliantly written, buddy. JRL was one of the funniest folks I ever met, quietly over the top, incredibly well-educated and damned amazing in the field. I'm sure he was poking fun in that quote.

    1. Thanks Seth. And that's really good to hear about JRL. Evidently had a keen sense of the ridiculous. 😄👍