Wild Ideas: Critter naming, from Assassins to Hellbenders

Over the years, as I’ve plumbed the mysteries of nature, I’ve often been struck by our own peculiarly human take on it. So much of what we find wonderful, horrible or just odd in other species is often a projection of our own behavior and motives. Nowhere is this more obvious than in what we name other species.

I think about this every time I pore over a field guide trying to determine the identity of some animal, as I did recently when I discovered a bug I had not encountered before that showed up in a photo of a peach blossom.

A nymph of the assassin bug Zelus luridus looking for prey on a peach-tree blossom. In its adult form, this bug will darken and have transparent wings and a curved beak used for piercing and sucking its prey.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A nymph of the assassin bug Zelus luridus looking for prey on a peach-tree blossom. In its adult form, this bug will darken and have transparent wings and a curved beak used for piercing and sucking its prey.

After a lot of research, I determined that the critter in question was the nymph (young) of Zelus luridus, a common species in the assassin-bug family, which encompasses more than 7,000 species. Assassin bugs range up to one inch long and have a piercing, sucking proboscis (beak), like stiinkbugs, which are in the same insect order, Hemiptera, or “true” bugs.

We give most species of animals common or “vernacular” names, such as “Painted Turtle” or “Grand Daddy Longlegs,” that evolve from the general public’s relationship to them or that are bestowed by scientists. These names are usually based on the way the species looks or behaves and can vary according to geographic region.

The common names of animals can also run to the more prosaic but descriptive, such Virginia’s native Green Stinkbug and Brown Stinkbug, carry the name of the person who discovered them or be named in honor of someone else. Bachman’s Warbler, for example, was named for Reverend John Bachman, who discovered the species in 1832 and presented skins and descriptions of them to his friend and collaborator, John James Audubon, according to Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett in “A Field Guide to Warblers of North America.” Fowler’s Toad was named in honor of the Massachusetts naturalist S.P. Fowler.

The “scientific” or Latin names of species can echo their common names, but the scientific classification system strives to be more precise in terms of the animal’s evolution. The scientific names of many species have thus changed as knowledge about evolution at the genetic level has increased.

Assassin bugs get their sinister common name from their stealthy, deadly attack on their insect prey in which they use their curved beaks to inject a lethal toxin that dissolves tissue. Maybe the curved beak is the source of the family’s scientific name, Reduviidae, which is Latin for “hangnail.”

Aggressive and not afraid to take on species much larger than themselves, assassin bugs share some tactics across species but also vary in some ways. Those in the Zelus genus, for example, first trap their prey with a sticky substance produced in a gland in their legs before injecting them. Predominantly insectivores, some species of assassin bugs focus on bedbugs and garden pests and even other assassin bugs, while others (“kissing bugs”) will bite humans around the mouth to extract blood. Still others “spit” saliva on their prey that is toxic enough to blind a human. While assassin bugs actively hunt for prey, ambush bugs, a subgroup, prefer to lie quietly lie in wait for potential victims.

Zelus luridus, like many of the millions of insect species, has no common name, as far as I could find. However, its scientific name is equally as evocative as its family’s common name. Zelus comes from Zelos, a Greek mythological figure who was a winged enforcer of Zeus and the spirit of dedication, emulation, envy, jealousy and “eager rivalry.” The English words zealous and zealot are derived from his name. Luridus is Latin for shocking, horrid or gruesome. So, basically, Zelos luridus could translate as “Gruesome Zealot.” Combine that with the family name, assassin bug, and you have a quite an image – one based more on human behavior than the bug’s.

A Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), a large amphibian whose name belies a shy, harmless nature.Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons
A Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), a large amphibian whose name belies a shy, harmless nature.

Among amphibians, the Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) arguably takes the prize for having the most interesting name. I could find only one explanation for the name’s origin, from Wikipedia, which noted that the origin was “unclear” but cited a back story from the Missouri Department of Conservation website: “The name ‘hellbender’ probably comes from the animal’s odd look. Perhaps it was named by settlers who thought ‘it was a creature from hell where it’s bent on returning.’ Another rendition says the undulating skin of a hellbender reminded observers of ‘horrible tortures of the infernal regions.’” Seems like an apt origin story, but the link to the MDC site was broken and I could find nothing about the origin of the name on the site or elsewhere.

This beast’s superficial attributes easily inspire the darker side of the human imagination. Large, dark, wrinkly, slimy and nocturnal, it lives a mysterious life in the bottoms of streams. In reality, the Hellbender is shy, feeds on fish and crayfish and is harmless to humans. Its appearance evolved from functionality, as most species’ traits do.

Cryptobranchus means “hidden gill,” denoting this 161-million-year-old species’ unusual way of taking in oxygen. Rather than relying on its lungs, Hellbenders absorb most of their oxygen from the surrounding water through their skin. The creepy-looking folds in the skin serve to maximize surface area. Virginia’s native Cryptobranchus is the subspecies Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis), which lives in the southwest panhandle and grows up to 20 inches long.

The number of common names any species has is usually directly proportional to how long humans have been aware of it and how much we’re fascinated by it. The Hellbender scores high on both, and so has also been dubbed “Snot Otter,” “Devil Dog,” “Mud Dog,” “Ground Puppy,” “Mud-Devil,” “Grampus,” “Allegheny Alligator,” “Old Lasagna Sides” and “Leverian Water Newt.”

For more about nature in Virginia as it unfolds throughout the seasons, visit the author’s blog at wildideasintheblueridge.blogspot.com.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 280 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”