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3 Posts tagged with the butterfly 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.


I love a good war hero story: my great uncle was a flying ace in the Battle of Britain and I relished hearing about his feats of daring (... and will gladly recount them given the slightest prompting). However, my tale today is of the wartime exploits of Museum entomologist Graham Howarth. They might not be grand in the combat sense (though he was awarded a medal for saving a senior officer during the Blitz earlier in the war), but in the scientific and curatorial sense, they are as bold and heroic as any you will probably hear.


During WWII Howarth was enlisted for army service in Southeast Asia. He was stationed in Singapore and tasked with identifying the breeding grounds of malarial mosquito species and disrupting their habitat in the hope of eradicating the tropical disease. As a result of his work, Howarth says it was 'safe to say that Singapore was a malarial-free zone'. But, in February 1942, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese and Howarth was taken as a prisoner of war. He recalls:

'The war was over as far as I was concerned, but a new one, a much more insidious affair, was about to begin. A war against boredom, starvation, pestilence, and death.'


He was held prisoner for three years, first at Changi and then Jinsen, Korea. But, ever the entomologist, Howarth - known as 'The Prof' to his fellow captives - maintained his scientific curiosity by collecting insects. He says:

'(Collecting) gave me something to think about rather than the boredom of being confined to an area with a hell of a lot of other people, with nothing very much to do. We weren’t worked too hard. And as long as you exhibited a certain amount of respect for the guards, and didn’t stick your head above the parapet too often... Of course, with a butterfly net, I would tend to be a bit conspicuous, but I didn’t flaunt it, shall we say.'


He had fashioned a net from a piece of galvanised wire and some mosquito netting, and if he saw ’a butterfly or a living insect or a flying insect'  he would catch it, kill it, paper it and put it in an empty cigarette tin. His most important and remarkable find came in July 1944 when he spotted a caterpillar in the POW camp's garden.

'We had a flowering cherry in the garden, and on one occasion I looked up and there was a little caterpillar and I collected that. I didn’t recognise it, being something foreign to me. I found some more and I took them in and fed them on the cherry and bred them out. And (when I got home and properly identified them) it turned out to be a new species.


That's right: in between the forced labour and subsisting on meagre, weevil-infested rice rations as a prisoner of war, Graham Howarth discovered a never-before-documented moth.

'It was nice to discover a species new to science in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances.'


On his return to the Museum he described his discovery as Apatele cerasi, after Cerasus, the scientific name for the cherry on which the larvae fed.


apatele cerasi documentation-700.jpg

Apatele cerasi documented by Graham Howarth in the Proceedings and Transactions of The South London Entomological and Natural History Society 1949-50.


But, aside from finding the larvae, breeding it out, recognising it as something different and keeping his collection below the radar of the guards, it was the getting it all back to the Museum that was another feat in and of itself. By the time he was liberated, Howarth had amassed about 1,500 specimens and he had to beg kit bag space from his comrades to help bring it all home.

'(When I got back to the Museum) I set them and documented them, and they’re still there, 1,500 of them.'


Part of the Graham Howarth POW collection, which fills 13 trays and includes 1,115 Rhopalocera, 347 Heteroera and nearly 100 specimens of other orders. And, of course, Apatele cerasi.


The Museum's Lepidoptera collection consists of around 10 million specimens stored over four floors and curated by 5 scientists. Butterfly curator Blanca Huertas says it is the largest collection in terms of time and geographical range, represents 65% of all known species and contains more type specimens than any other museum. You can discover more about the collections and how they are maintained in Alessandro Giusti's Curator of Lepidoptera blog.