What’s in a name?

Pale tussock moth caterpillar

Hello there!

I met a new friend in the park today. He’s a fellow vegetarian, even shorter than me, with spiky hair and stumpy legs. Unfortunately I think I scared him – he took one look at me and froze. I had to leave him under the tree where I found him.

As you might have guessed from the picture, my small hairy friend is a caterpillar. I was delighted to see him (not only because I was looking for something to distract me from some work I was meant to be doing). I LOVE caterpillars – they’re small, colourful, comical and really cute. But after a squeal of ‘awww!’ my second response was, ‘what’s your name?’

Luckily my smartphone was to hand – so I sent a picture to my dad (who needs Google?). Well, actually I did – my dad didn’t know. Later, I discovered my little friend is a pale tussock moth caterpillar. So his (or her – not easy to tell with caterpillars) official name is Dasychira pudibunda (or possibly Calliteara pudibunda… nothing’s ever simple).

I had ticked the box and identified my bug, and so I carried on with my day (after getting sidetracked by images of more amazing caterpillars). But later I wondered, why did it matter so much to me that I knew the little critter’s name?

Of course, it’s only polite to learn your new friends’ names. But it’s not as if the caterpillar could have told me (why should he care anyway?). I think this urge to classify the creatures I find goes back to a very childish reason for loving the natural world – because I enjoy adding animals to my collection.

If that sounds a bit sinister, rest assured I have never pinned any bugs to cardboard (I can’t even kill hairy spiders, I feel too guilty). But I definitely tick off my sightings in my mind – platypus, check – killer whale, check – kiwi, check – Toco toucan, godammit one day, one day!

To me, it’s a little bit like the Seven Wonders of the World. My time on Earth would be wasted if I didn’t at least try to see some of the coolest things nature has to offer. If I had come back from New Zealand without seeing a kiwi in the wild, I would have genuinely been gutted. This fanaticism can sometimes bring out the worst in me – on the night walk where I did eventually spot one, I shouted at two small Scandinavian children because they were being too noisy. Not sure their parents appreciated that much… But I saw a kiwi. (And so did they, noisy buggers… they should be thanking me).

So I think my obsession with names is a manifestation of nerdiness crossed with collector’s instinct. I love animals so much I want ALL OF THEM. And I want the director’s cut, deluxe edition with bonus features. The fact you can’t really buy these things only makes them more desirable – true collector’s items. On my wish list at the moment are: komodo dragons, Tasmanian devils, great white sharks, wild chameleons, snow leopards… I could go on forever.

Like any true collector, I know my collection will never be complete. There will always be something else I want to see. But when my latest sighting is unplanned and unanticipated, like the little caterpillar, it becomes even more important to record it in my mind. I think the name helps me remember and add it to my list – and of course it means I can benefit from all the things wiser people have learned about that particular animal.

I guess in the end that’s what names are for – so we can leave our knowledge in the right place and make sure it gets passed on. But there’s something more instinctive too – a fleeting thought of ‘yes, I was here, I saw that.’ A bit like planting a flag on the moon or at the top of Everest – the joy of discovery. It’s a great feeling! So don’t forget to stop and smell the roses, just in case there are any bugs inside.

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