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Insects and their colouring

Insects and their colouring (page 1)

Catalogue number: WP1/3/42

Letter from Wallace to Frederick Bates commenting on his collection of insects and describing observations of their colouring in relation to habitat, dated March 1858.

Wallace writes from the island of Ternate in the Malacca islands (Malay Archipelago) to the entomologist Frederick Bates in Leicester, England. Frederick was the brother of Wallace's good friend (also an entomologist) Henry Walter Bates. Frederick had previously commented on Wallace's collection of beetles and here Wallace writes in detail about the specimens.

Wallace estimates that a quarter of the insects in his collection are new species. He describes how he collected some of the tinier specimens: 'I spent hours daily on my knees in wet sand and rotten leaves, hunting the little things and picking up Anthici and Pselaphidae [types of beetle] with the top of my wetted finger.' Wallace was certainly very committed to his studies!

Wallace comments on how the colour of particular Cicindela (a tiger beetle) would match the sand in which they were found. One specimen 'was found on the soft shiny mud of salt creeks, with which its colour so exactly agreed that it was perfectly invisible except for its shadow!' This made Wallace think. 'Such facts as these puzzled me for a long time, but I have lately worked out a theory which accounts for them naturally. The rule however is by no means without exception.' It may seem obvious to us now that this is camouflage, yet few naturalists had considered this concept at the time. Wallace went on to publish numerous articles on the functions of colour in animals.

The remainder of the letter is devoted to Wallace lamenting the lack of complete guides to insects from around the world.

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