Excerpts from A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths
by Dieter E. Zimmer
Hamburg (Germany) 1996

Except as otherwise noted, all butterfly illustrations are by William H. Howe, who generously allowed them to be reproduced here.

Genera, species and subspecies named by Nabokov

(page 2 of 3)
(Accents added only to facilitate pronunciation)

Lycaeides argyrognomon longinus see under Lycaeides idas longinus

Lycaeides argyrognomon sublivens see under Lycaeides idas sublivens

left, male; right, female
wingspan 25 mm.

Lycáeides ídas longínus NABOKOV 1949 [Lycáenidae], described by Nabokov under the name Lycaeides argyrognómon longinus: one of the four Rocky Mountain subspecies of the Northern Blue (idas, ex argyrognómon) which Nabokov described in Lep14. The type locality is Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The holotype is at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (#27845, Lep 130). Nabokov examined three specimens, two of them (ex Paine collection) captured in 1900 at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the third one, taken in 1920 in the same area, from the collections of the AMNH. In the summer of 1949, right after the publication of the OD, he went to the Tetons in search of this butterfly and took several specimens.

left, male; right, female
wingspan 27 mm.

Lycáeides ídas sublívens NABOKOV 1949 [Lycáenidae], described by Nabokov under the name Lycaeides argyrognómon sublivens, ‘Nabokov’s Blue1’: the genus is Lycáeides HÜBNER, the species is idas (argyrognomon until 1954), the subspecies sublivens; the name probably means ‘getting blue,’ probably an allusion to the interior blue breaking through the female’s basic brown. It is one of the four Rocky Mountain subspecies of the Northern Blue (idas, ex argyrognomon), occurring only in Colorado (San Miguel, San Juan and Elk Mountains), described by Nabokov in Lep14. Unrecognized as a distinct subspecies, the male had been known since 1902 from Telluride, Colorado. In 1951 Nabokov went to Telluride to capture the female. He succeeded on the slopes of Tomboy Road just below Imogene Pass. The holotype is at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (#27844, Lep 130).

Lycaeides melissa inyoensis GUNDER, NABOKOV 1949 see under Lycaeides melissa paradoxa

left, female; right, male
wingspan 26 mm.
photo by Dieter E. Zimmer

Lycáeides melíssa paradóxa CHERMOCK [Lycáenidae]: This is the butterfly that Gunder, in 1927, had described as a local transitional aberration of what in his time was Plebéius melissa, naming it inyoénsis. Then, in 1945, F. H. Chermock declared it to be the same as his own new Lycaeides melissa paradoxa, a subspecies from the Tehachapi Mountains in California. When Nabokov in 1949 sorted the Nearctic Lycaeides (Lep14), he did not follow Chermock and described the form as Lycaeides melissa inyoensis GUNDER, NABOKOV, raising Gunder’s aberrational name to subspecific rank. Notwithstanding Nabokov’s demarche, present-day handbooks side with Chermock; for them, the butterfly is L. m. paradoxa. This is because the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature in 1961 explicitly refused recognition to infrasubspecific names; they are simply ignored, just like common names. For taxonomic purposes, the name inyoensis thus is not available; it is treated as if it did not exist. The form in question comes from Inyo County, southern California, where the type specimen was taken--and where Nabokov himself caught several specimens in 1960 (LolScrpl x). The common name still is ‘Inyo Blue.’ The holotype is at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

left, male; right, female
wingspan 26 mm.

Lycáeides melíssa pseudosamuélis NABOKOV 1949 [Lycáenidae]: one of the five subspecies of the Melissa Blue which Nabokov ”fixed” in Lep14. The holotype was from Pitkin County, Colorado, ”between Mt. Albert and La Plata.” It is at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (#27846). F. M. Brown in 1970 determined that Nabokov’s pseudosamuelis was the same as the nominal Lycaeides melissa melissa W. H. EDWARDS 1873 whose range he had restricted to the very same area, La Plata Peak in Colorado (Transactions of the American Entomological Society, 96, 1970, p. 372). So today the name is no longer considered valid.

left, male; right, female
wingspan 26 mm.

Lycáeides melíssa samuélis NABOKOV 1943 [Lycáenidae], the ‘Karner Blue’: the only eastern subspecies of the Melissa Blue, first described and named by Nabokov. Nabokov himself treated it as a subspecies in his scientific papers until 1949; only later he came to think of it as a full species. ”But he did not live to do the taxonomic work necessary to prove this, and the question remains” (Robert Dirig: ”Nabokov’s Blue Snowflakes,” Natural History, 97 (5), 1988, p. 68–69). The taxonomic work necessary would ultimately have to test whether the Karner Blue is able to interbreed successfully with other melissa subspecies (in which case it would have to be considered as another subspecies) or whether it is unable to do so. In this case its status as a full species would be established.

Robert M. Pyle (1981) says of the Karner Blue: ”The northeastern subspecies [of the Melissa Blue], known as the Karner Blue, was named by novelist Vladimir Nabokov. It is a protected insect in New York State [since 1977]. Limited to such places as the Albany Pine Bush and other sand barrens, the Karner Blue survives in isolated colonies across the northern Midwest and Northeast.”

Nabokov in 1943 (Lep7) had described this Blue on the strength of several old specimens, most of them in the collection of the MCZ and labeled Lycaena scudderii, Scudder’s Blue. The first one had been captured by W. Saunders in 1862 in the vicinity of London, Southern Ontario (”from the cemetery to the Great Western Railroad track”). As holotype Nabokov designated a specimen reared on lupine by Samuel Hubbard Scudder from eggs laid by females at a place called Center (today: Karner) between Albany and Schenectady in upstate New York. The specimens were supplied in 1873 by Joseph Albert Lintner of the New York State Museum in Albany. Some 81 years later (and eight years after he had described and named it), on June 2, 1950, on his way from Boston to Ithaca, Nabokov stopped at Karner--and was fortunate to take several specimens. He went about this capture very purposefully, knowing what to find, where to find it and when to find it. In a letter to Edmund Wilson (May 15, 1950), he mentioned he would be passing through Albany, ”near which, at a place called Karner, in some pine-barrens, on lupines, a little blue butterfly I have described and named ought to be out.” In one of his next letters (June 3, 1950), he reported success: ”Yesterday morning on our way back, we drove to a certain place between Albany and Schenectady where, on a pine-scrub waste, near absolutely marvelous patches of lupines in bloom, I took a few specimens of my little samuelis.”

The holotype is at the MCZ (#26704, Lep 130). The name Nabokov gave is in honor of Samuel Hubbard Scudder whose work provided the holotype.

The Karner Blue is a small butterfly with an average wingspan of 25 mm. The males are an iridiscent violet blue, the females are gray brown often glossed with blue, with a submarginal band of bright orange chevrons which makes the species one of the Orange-margined Blues of North America. The adults live only four or five days. They come in two broods, with adult flights in late May to early June and late July to early August at Karner and throughout the range, settling on moist sandy ground, drinking at puddles and sipping the nectar of Pine Bush flowers. When the Karner Blue was still abundant, it flew in large flocks of hundreds or thousands. The only foodplant its caterpillars feed on is wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis LINNAEUS). This makes it a highly specialized insect, vulnerable to changes in the ecosystem that affect the wild lupine. ”The butterfly’s alarming decline is probably the result of habitat reduction and fire suppression. Without fire, the lupines are shaded out. As lupine abundance and location change within the Pine Bush in response to fires, the Karner blue must be able to follow. While well adapted for these local movements, this butterfly is unable to colonize lupine stations that may be tens or hundreds of miles away. Thus when habitats disappear, local populations are lost forever” (Robert Dirig, ibid., p. 69).

The name Karner survives only as that of a road, or two roads, the Old Karner Road and a new one built parallel to it to accomodate the traffic. They are in the township of Colonie on the northern outskirts of Albany, in a zone of truck yards, storehouses, shopping centers, roadside diners and sundry small business. Right there, between the old New York Central railroad track (still in use) and a six-lane thruway, is an enclosed area of about eight hundred hectares, the remains of what once was a 100-square-kilometer pine barren: sand dunes, scrub oak, isolated pitch pines, a few trails. At the entrance gate, there is a wooden sign reading ”Albany’s Pine Bush Preserve--Home of the Karner Blue Butterfly.”

A male Karner Blue in Saratoga County, NY, nectaring at Common Cinquefoil.
Photograph © copyright 1997 by Robert Dirig

Cornell lepidopterist Robert Dirig has spent twenty-three years investigating the Karner Blue and working towards its preservation. [For recent news of the butterfly, see Dirig's illustrated article "Karner Blue, Sing Your Purple Song" published in American Butterflies, vol. 5, no. 1, pp., Spring 1997.] In his summary of this work, he says, ”it is fortunate that this butterfly was described by Vladimir Nabokov (1943), a literary genius of this century, whose celebrity has enhanced preservation attempts” (D. A. Andow / R. J. Baker / C. P. Lane [eds.]: Karner Blue Butterfly: A Symbol of a Vanishing Landscape. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station University of Minnesota, Miscellaneous Publication 84-1994). It might well be the only case of a butterfly having profited from literature. When Robert Dirig wrote Nabokov in 1975 about his ongoing work concerning the Karner Blue and the Pine Barrens, Nabokov answered that he was delighted and that he remembered the Pine Barrens ”as a sandy and flowery little paradise” (April 23, 1975).

There is a passage in Pnin which refers to the Karner Blue: ”A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin’s shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again. ‘Pity Vladimir Vladimirovich is not here,’ remarked Chateau. ‘He would have told us all about these enchanting insects.’ ‘I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose.’ ‘Oh no,’ said Chateau.” Of course, Chateau was right and poor Pnin was not. He did not realize that his author Nabokov had done genuine scientific work, like naming the very butterfly before him.

Lysándra córmion NABOKOV 1941 [Lycáenidae]: This is the only European butterfly Nabokov described, a Blue of which he, in July, 1938, had collected two specimens, both male, on the flowery slopes near Moulinet in the Alpes Maritimes of southern France, about 30 km north of Menton. He was reluctant to call it a new species, suspecting that it might well be a freakish form that had occurred only once, and did so only because in 1941 there was no hope of ever revisiting ”its lovely haunts” (i.e., to see if it had persisted and to find its females). In appearance, it seemed to be intermediate between Lysándra córidon PODA (the Chalk-Hill Blue) and Meleagéria (: Polyómmatus) dáphnis DENIS & SCHIFFERMÜLLER (Meleager’s Blue). The holotype and the paratype are at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

L. coridon is named after one of Vergil’s shepherds (Corydon); Daphnis is another shepherd’s name. As to the etymology of ‘cormion,’ I can only offer the wild guess that Nabokov perhaps changed the -id- (‘it’) of coridon into -mi- (‘my’).
Today it seems that Nabokov’s precautions were right and that cormion was not a good species. He himself seems never to have found another specimen of it when he was back in Europe. However, in 1942 the Czech lepidopterist Jirí Smelhaus found three males identical to the ones Nabokov had captured in southern France in the vicinity of Mnisek, in Bohemia. Smelhaus never doubted that they were hybrids between Lysandra coridon PODA and Meleageria daphnis DENIS & SCHIFFERMÜLLER (Acta Societatis entomologicae Cechoslovenicae 44 [1–2], 1947, p. 44–46). In August, 1968, the French lepidopterist Francis Dujardin who had taken a look at Nabokov’s type specimens in New York hunted for cormion in the vicinity of Moulinet and actually took two more males. Like Smelhaus, Dujardin concluded that they were a natural hybrid (Entomops [Nice], 15, 1969, p. 241–244). The proof of this was finally given by the German entomologist Klaus G. Schurian in 1989. He had found females of Meleageria daphnis in the Aosta Valley and, with some teasing, crossed them with males of Lysandra coridon, obtaining butterflies that were morphologically identical to what Nabokov had described as cormion. In a further experiment, Schurian tested whether these hybrids were able to produce viable offspring. They proved to be sterile, probably due to the different numbers of chromosomes in coridon and in daphnis (Nachrichten des Entomologischen Vereins Apollo [Mülheim], N.F. 10 [2], 1989, p. 183–192 and 12 [3], 1991, p. 193–195). Hence, there is no cormion. Nabokov’s capture had been one of at least ten known natural hybrids within the polyommatines.



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