Dr Don Ewart reflects on what’s in a name when it comes to insects.

Scientific names are not fixed in time. One of the horrors of science is that sometimes you have to let go of names that are comfortable, familiar, and seem just plain right, but are then argued to be not the best fit for the evidence. I can’t count the number of updated species names of plants and animals that I’ve had to re-learn, but this higher-level change is troublesome.

The termites had their own Order Isoptera within the Insecta, which seemed perfectly valid due to their different brand of sociality, reliance on symbionts and a host of other differences. Sure we all accepted that they were very close to the cockroaches and had apparently come from early cockroach stock given that the most primitive (oldest surviving) type, the genus Mastotermes look a lot like cockroaches and lay their eggs in rafts. There’s the problem.

In recent years lots of geneticists have begun to look at the nucleic acids of animals, the DNA, the RNA and often quite specifically the mitochondrial DNA. This data clearly has the termites being of cockroach stock with most of the apparent differences arising as a function of sociality. Some fought to retain Isoptera, but for a while the best solution became the epifamily Termitoidae. That was just being broadly accepted when a concerted thrust by some taxonomists has led to most of us accepting that the name Isoptera has been resurrected as a cockroach infrafamily.

So what does this mean? Not much. Time to change the training materials and get back to work. Still, I’ll miss the simplicity of the equal wing name. (Of course some still cling to bunching termites, cockroaches and mantises in a single group, as Dictyoptera, but to me that has to be a higher level again). That’s science for you, things just keep changing but we know more and more.

(‘Vale’ is Latin for goodbye and ‘salve iterum’ roughly translates as ‘hello again’.)

Dr Don Ewart

Dr Don Ewart is a termite scientist who undertakes consulting, contract research and teaches at NMIT. Dr Don chairs the termite Standard committee and is a co-author of the Code of Practice for Prior to Purchase Timber Pest Inspection. Dr Don can be found at Dr Don’s Termite Pages.