Public Service Announcement: Subfamily Spellings

Pristomyrmex africanus (Myrmicinae)

In the comments, James Trager raises an orthographical pet peeve: certain ant subfamilies are frequently misspelled. For example, the great subfamily Myrmicinae, holding nearly half of all ants, is spelled Myrmicinae with an “i”, not Myrmecinae with an “e”. This common error has also been bugging me, hence this post.

Family-level names are born automatically from the oldest genus the category contains. Thus, the rules contain no latitude for creative orthography. With the correct spelling, retrieval of the genus name is easier. Without the correct spelling, the informatics becomes harder. Seems like a minor point, but it matters.

The oldest genus name in Myrmicinae is MyrmicaMyrmica —> Myrmicinae.

The oldest genus name in Pseudomyrmecinae is PseudomyrmexPseudomyrmex —> Pseudomyrmecinae.

The oldest genus name in Myrmeciinae is Myrmecia. Myrmecia —> Myrmeciinae.


Pseudomyrmex phyllophilus (Pseudomyrmecinae)

7 thoughts on “Public Service Announcement: Subfamily Spellings”

  1. Do all taxonomists have at least a cursory knowledge (1 to 2 semesters) of Latin? It seems to me, looking in from the outside, that a lot of disagreements like this arise from forgetting different rules put in place by the ICZN. These rules would be much easier to understand if they were considered as guidelines for proper grammar rather than simply arbitrary institutional decisions.

  2. Clear as mud. According to some, you need more than an understanding of The Code and Latin grammar. Some words with Greek roots have different grammatical rules and simply forming a Family Group name by dropping the ending and adding -inae, -idae, etc. isn’t enough.

    So, for example, the genus Labidostoma would normally drop the ‘a’ and add ‘idae’ to form the family Labidostomidae. However, the root is Greek and the correct formation is Labidostomatidae. Then there are those who add an extra ‘m’ to incorrectly form Labidostommidae or Labidostommatidae. If you want to track down information on the Labidostomatidae, then you’d be well advised to try all four spellings. You should try Nicolletiellidae too, because there was some confusion about the type genus as well.

    It is unfortunate that Myrmicinae and Myrmeciinae are so similar, but it’s not uncommon. Try keeping Hafenferrefia and Hafenrefferia clear in your mind, let along spelling either of them right.

  3. James C. Trager

    Jason – I’m with you, but I’m becoming convinced that some people are simply not wired to understand grammar rules, even though they inherently use them in their own speech. And as Dave points out, there’s more to biological nomenclature grammar than Latin. (Anyway, who reads the Code? ;~) )

    Dave – Two other ant subfamilies that are ridiculously similar are Formicinae (second largest subfamily, derived from Formica) and Formiciinae (extinct giant ants, derived from Formicium). The folks who named these genera should have had more forethought and consideration for posterity, but we must live with them.

  4. I imagine that two different spellings have different pronunciations, and that if one is accustomed to hearing the word spoken, misspellings are less likely.
    As an unconnected amateur, I read about ants a fair bit but never speak to anyone about them.

    I would be enthusiastic about audio recording of the photo captions. A little speaker button that, when clicked, would say “Pristomyrmex africanus (Myrmicinae)”.

  5. I’m with Angela, I dread the day when I have to open my mouth and say Myrmeciinae (but luckily I can usually get around the problem by talking about bull ants and jumping jacks). It would also help us amateurs if the gods could agree on spellings. If GAP’s LUCID key uses Myrmecinae for Myrmicinae we’ve got no chance.

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