A few days ago I noticed the search term “Malagasy Mystery Ant” showing up in the stats for my other blog. This puzzled me, as it wasn’t a phrase I was familiar with. So I googled it.
All mentions of the term trace back to a caption in the New York Times slide show from last week. Goodness. I- your humble blogger- had coined it myself, in a haze of deadline fever while submitting images for the slide show. And then, apparently, I forgot all about it.
Am I going senile already? I hope not.
The problem with insects is their sheer number. There are millions of species. How many million we can’t say, and our guesses even as to the appropriate order of magnitude are tentative.* Certainly, there are too many for any language to absorb into common parlance. Most pass their lives entirely unnoticed by humans, and any specialists who happen to work on them are content with the scientific names. This is to say, most insects have no common name at all.
So when pressed to produce a memorable English name in a situation where the Latin may be inappropriately technical, such as a newspaper caption, entomologists often simply invent something. Like, Malagasy Mystery Ants.
In my defense, the name is appropriate. We know very little about the biology of the genus Mystrium. These uncommonly seen ants occur in tropical regions throughout the old world but are most diverse in Madagascar. They are cryptic predators, odd little creatures belonging to an ancient radiation of ants, the Amblyoponinae, that are best known for their habit of drinking the hemolymph of their own larvae. Some species have an odd reproductive quirk whereby the fertile females are not the bulky queens common to most ants, but lithe red insects dwarfed by the large black workers that leave the nest to pursue prey.
I’ve never understood why some natural history societies attempt to regulate common names. There’s no point. We already have universal nomenclature in the Linnean system, and maintaining two sets of regulated names is redundant. The beauty of common names is that they aren’t regulated, leaving them fluid, free to reflect local sensitivities.
*for more on the diversity of life, see Rob Dunn’s book Every Living Thing.