Pressed marbled white butterflies from the collections of Adam Buddle

Pressed marbled white butterflies (Melanargia galathea) from the collections of Adam Buddle, incorporated into the Sir Hans Sloane Herbarium

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Adventures of the oldest butterflies

Discover the explorers responsible for the oldest butterfly collection in existence.

They journeyed thousands of miles in cramped boats to discover new plants and animals, were astounded by their first glimpse of a pineapple, and even helped introduce the British public to chocolate.

Explorers, doctors and scientists of the seventeenth century were brave, competitive and curious, and their desire for knowledge took them far across the planet for months at a time.

They are responsible for the oldest collection of butterflies still in existence, now stored in the Museum.

A male orange tip butterfly specimen butterfly from the collections of Adam Buddle

A male orange tip butterfly specimen butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) from the collections of Adam Buddle, an English cleric and botanist

Between them these men amassed thousands of objects, including butterflies and plants acquired in countries from Jamaica to India.

An age of adventure

Explorers who left England on boats bound for far-flung parts of the globe were highly educated, ambitious men who had both the money and opportunity to travel.

Sir Hans Sloane is the most famous. The Irish doctor was appointed as the surgeon of the second Duke of Albemarle, the Governor of Jamaica, in 1687.

It is thought he suffered from seasickness on the three-month journey over the Atlantic, and once he arrived on dry land, he was amazed at the range of life he found.

In one letter he sent back to England, Sloane claimed the pineapples he tasted were 'far inferior' to British fruit, but he thought the watermelons were 'very good'.

A pressed small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) mounted by botanist Leonard Plukenet

A pressed small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) mounted by botanist Leonard Plukenet and incorporated into the Sir Hans Sloane Herbarium

Early nature enthusiasts also relied heavily on persuading others to collect for them. Much of Sloane's collection was built up through the acquisition of other, smaller collections.

Following his death in 1753, some of these specimens formed part of the foundation of the British Museum dedicated to the appreciation and study of arts, culture and natural history, and for the past 300 years they have underpinned researchers' work.

Collecting insects, especially butterflies, was fashionable among the wealthy in the late 1600s. Many men like Sloane had 'cabinets of curiosities'. For some, the exotic insects took on the status of precious jewels, while for others they were interesting for scientific and medicinal purposes.

From the Caribbean to China

Sloane was far from being the only man intent on finding new and interesting species to add to his collections.

Some collectors were stationed in India and sent home examples of what they found.

A common crow butterfly (Euploea core) in the collection of botanist and doctor Paul Hermann

A common crow butterfly (Euploea core) in the collection of botanist and doctor Paul Hermann, collected in Sri Lanka in the 1670s

A surgeon called Samuel Browne worked in a Dutch East India Company factory at Fort St George, Madras, at the end of the seventeenth century.

He took a great interest in Indian plants, and sent seven bound volumes of dried and labelled specimens back to friends and colleagues. They are now in the Museum's collection.

Browne managed to gather his specimens despite living in the middle of a politically unstable region and having a demanding job as a doctor.

His time in India was fraught with complications. He nearly lost his job after one of his patients was accidentally given arsenic and died, and on one occasion Browne had so much to drink he challenged a fellow physician to a duel.

Collectors back in England acquired Bronwe's specimens at a time when people were becoming more curious about the environment, and collecting insects had become a popular hobby.

Collecting became a 'stock-taking' of the natural world.

The collections

Many specimens ended up archived between the pages of bound volumes, just like these 300-year-old butterflies.

Thought to be some of the oldest butterfly specimens in the world, they were carefully collected and assembled into volumes by their original owners such as the apothecary James Petiver, and later by Sloane himself.

The butterflies are now stored in the Museum's Darwin Centre, where temperature and humidity are closely monitored, and are handled sparingly to preserve them for future generations.

Now fragile and delicate, the pressed specimens provide scientists with examples of butterflies and other insects from all over the world, and they are still being identified by experts.

Up to 800 of the seventeenth century Lepidoptera specimens survive in the collection, and over the years they have been joined by 34 million other insects and arachnids.