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2 Posts tagged with the butterflies tag

Lolita, Lepidoptera and us

Posted by Amy Freeborn Aug 21, 2014

It's 56 years ago this week that Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita was published in America (55 years in the UK).


What does that have to do with the Museum, you might ask?


Well, the Russian-born writer was also a keen lepidopterist. He published nine scientific papers on butterflies, developed a pioneering theory of butterfly evolution, and even worked for eight years at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology arranging their collection of Lepidoptera.


Such was his love of the winged creatures that he is quoted in a 1967 edition of the Paris Review as saying:

The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new (butterfly) organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.

Vladimir Nabokov


His specific connection to the Museum came in the 1960s, when he approached our Entomology Department (now the Insects Division) about a book he was working on called The Butterflies of Europe. It was to include over 700 butterflies and he wanted to illustrate it with photographs of specimens from our collection.


Nabokov wanted the book to be the most comprehensive work on European butterflies ever completed. But alas, it was never completed. The publishers said Nabokov was discouraged by the daunting nature of the task; Nabokov said the publishers wouldn't provide enough money to fund it.


But the legacy of Nabokov's butterfly book publishing dream lives on in the Museum's collection to this day, where a handful of drawers still contain specimens the author requested to photograph, labelled with his name (albeit incorrectly spelt).


The drawers contain butterflies from the Nymphalidae and Hesperiidae families, including half a dozen British species.







Butterflies personally collected by Vladimir Nabokov are housed at the American Museum of Natural History, Harvard and Cornell university museums, the Swiss Zoological Museum in Lausanne, and the Nabokov Museum established in the St. Petersburg house where he was born.


Those who know me know that I tend to get a bit twitchy around flying things (eurgh, pigeons, they're crazy and can't be trusted). But I've never been so scared of a winged creature that I felt the need to pull a gun on it.


But then again, I've never been two days deep in the rain forests of New Guinea and confronted by the world's biggest butterfly, which boasts a wingspan of about a foot wide.


However, in 1906 English explorer and naturalist Albert Stewart Meek found himself in that very situation while on a collecting trip for Walter Rothschild, so he pulled his gun and shot that butterfly right out of the sky.


As a consequence, the Museum's type specimen of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), has bullet holes in its wings!


Ornithoptera alexandrae TYPE-edited-700-with-circles.jpg

Bottom: The holotype female specimen of Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), described by Rothschild in 1907. The large tear in the left forewing and the several other smaller holes and chips (circled), are as a result of it being shot.

Top: How a female Queen Alexandra’s birdwing looks when it hasn't been shot for collection.


At this point I should probably clarify that Meek wasn't using regular shotgun shells but, instead, what is known as 'mustard seed' or 'dust shot' cartridges. These were designed especially for daring explorers and collectors of the time to shoot small birds at short range without causing damage to their plumage.


Meek was also responsible for another addition to our curious collection of 'shot birdwing' specimens, this time a goliath birdwing (Ornithoptera goliath), obtained on Goodenough Island, off eastern Papua New Guinea, in 1914.


In a letter between entomological dealer Oliver Erichson Janson and collector Charles Oberthür, it was written:

[Meek] was only able to obtain a few specimens by shooting them as they always flew only about the tops of the highest trees and he couldn't induce them to come down.


The earliest of our shot birdwings is one captured by John MacGillivray on Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands) in 1854, during the voyage of HMS Herald.


In describing MacGillivray's specimen as Queen Victoria's birdwing (Ornithoptera victoriae) in 1856, George Robert Gray wrote:

Its flight is very elevated; so much so that it became necessary to employ powder and shot to secure the specimen.



Above: MacGillivray's holotype female Queen Victoria's birdwing (Ornithoptera victoriae), with damage from shot.

Below: A Queen Victoria’s birdwing collected using more conventional means.




Birdwings are not the only entomological specimens in our collections with bullet holes. We also have a goliath beetle (Goliathus goliatus), captured 125-years-ago, that was recently revealed to have been shot in its back while in flight.



Entry and exit wounds in the goliath beetle, as well as a shotgun pellet still inside its body as revealed by X-ray analysis.