A weevil of Earthsea: Finding the true name for the fourth beetle

“For magic consists of this, the true naming of a thing.” A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books are a crucial part of my development.

Names are important. Without names, things are just stuff. With names, things are individuals. Individuals have pasts, they have futures. We can care about named things. When it comes to biodiversity, names are crucial. A species with a name can be counted, protected, targeted. Names are important.

As a child I was introduced to names through many authors. Tolkien, of course, loved names. Heck, he invented whole languages so that his names had more heft, history, lineage. The author that most exposed me to the power of names was the late Ursula le Guin. Le Guin has for decades been one of the most literary of science fiction and fantasy authors, one of the few such that ‘literary’ readers could read without stigma.

One of her great series of novels was set in the world of Earthsea. This is one of the fundamental worlds of fantasy. A great ocean-covered world with humanity huddled on lots of small islands. Growing up on the islands of Aotearoa, this was a kind of world that was in some ways familiar. With a slight squint, New Zealand could be Earthsea. Surrounded by boundless ocean, a small gaggle of islands, isolated from anything else.

And then there were the names. Names have a fundamental power in the world of Earthsea. Everything has a true name which, if known, gives power over that thing. Magic, in Earthsea, is in knowing and working with the true names of things, whether people, animals or rocks.

A small part of Earthsea, a world of names and sea.

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons, root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being – which is more than its use.” A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book, follows Ged, who is a natural mage, as he grows and learns about his powers. Ged makes a terrible error when using a true name without considering the consequences and releases something terrible, but deeply connected to him, into the world.

“A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly.”  A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula le Guin

The Earthsea books were a revelation for a young me. Although there was adventure and excitement, the hero was not really saving the world, just making mistakes and trying to fix them. Although Ged is nominally the hero he is not even the viewpoint character for more than the first book. Ursula le Guin was good at quietly subverting roles and expectations in genre writing. More importantly, here was a story, an author, that showed the fundamental importance of knowledge, of learning, of names. That was a powerful message.

It is probably no coincidence that part of my role as an evolutionary biologist is as a taxonomist. Taxonomy is the biological science of naming, especially in naming species. As a science, taxonomy has been around since the 1750s, long before evolution was an accepted idea. However, humans have been naming species since we first were able to talk.

Giving a species a name, it’s true name as it were, is nothing short of magic. The biological name transforms a population of similar individuals into something cohesive. Species suddenly have rights. Species can be protected. Species can be counted. We can know a species’s being.

Another thing we can know about a species by naming it, is just how special that species is. Are there lots of species that are similar to your particular species or is it only distantly related to others? This brings us to weevils.

Hadramphus individuals. Image by Adrian Paterson.

Weevils are a type of beetle, usually associated with plants. There are many thousands of species around the world. Some are important pests but most are not. In New Zealand there are around 1500 species. Many of these species are threatened. Four of the most threatened species make up the genus Hadramphus. One species (Hadramphus spinipennis) is only found on two small islands in the Chatham archipelago. Another is only found on the Poor Knights Islands (Hadramphus pittospori). A third is only found is a small part of Fiordland (Hadramphus stilbocarpae). The fourth (Hadramphus tuberculatus) is only found in one reserve on the edge of the McKenzie Country (and may be the most endangered weevil (and possibly insect) species in the world!).

This distribution of threatened weevil species around our Aotearoa Earthsea seems reasonably peculiar. From specimens collected over the last 150 years we know that H. tuberculatus was found throughout Canterbury. H. spinipennis was likely spread over all of the Chathams and H. stilbocarpae was probably found over a much wider area of southern New Zealand. Habitat changes, introduced species and fragmentation have not helped the species of this genus.

H. tuberculatus and H. stilbocarpae were probably in close proximity to each other in the past. There are also plenty of links between the Canterbury region and the Chathams. It is understandable how this group of species formed. However, what is going on with H. pittospori? The Poor Knights Islands are far to the north of the other species and this species stands out from its southern sister species in other ways. It has some body parts that are subtly different in shape compared to the other three species. Originally, when first discovered, this species was placed into its own genus as Karocolens pittospori. Later work implied that perhaps it was similar enough to the other Hadramphus species that it should be included in that genus instead.

Emily Fountain decided that for her PhD studies at Lincoln University that she would examine the relationships of the Hadramphus species using DNA as previous work had used morphology (what the various bits and pieces of the weevils look like). DNA has become a very useful source of data for identifying species from other closely related species because huge amounts of data can be generated from very small samples. Other examples of her work are here, here and here.

Hadramphus individuals (from the front). Image by Adrian Paterson.

Emily collected samples from some of the populations and was able to use DNA from old preserved specimens found in museums to look at how unique each of these endangered weevil species are. Emily has published her findings in Diversity with her supervisors, Adrian Paterson and Rob Cruickshank. She was able to show that, compared to other weevil species, the four beetles were most closely related as previously thought. Despite this finding, she also found that the weevil from the Poor Knights Islands really was quite different to the other three species. Different enough that it really does belong in its own genus. Emily has therefore revived the name Karocolens pittospori for this species.

Does it matter? Knowing the true name does matter. In this case knowing that pittospori is in its own genus tell us that this species has a been separated from the other three weevil species for a significant evolutionary period. Many adaptational changes have taken place in its history that are not shared with the other three species. In terms of conservation significance, if K. pittospori goes extinct then it is the last of its kind. If one of the Hadramphus goes extinct there are at least a couple of other similar species in the Hadramphus genus left. The magic of the true name means that there will now be a higher priority for looking after this species from the Poor Knights Islands.

So a small victory for naming. But as I look around our New Zealand Earthsea, the majority of our weevil species are not named. The majority of our insects are not named. The majority of our species, almost all only found in our island archipelago, are not named. A mighty task, both is size and importance, of discovering all these true names lies ahead of us.

Many a mage of great power,’ he had said, ‘ has spent his whole life to find out the name of a single thing – one single lost or hidden name. And still the lists are not finished.” A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula le Guin

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