The leopard moth collected by Owen next to his hand written note. The moth itself is a faded creamy-yellow colour with black spots splattered across its wings.

The specimen collected by Richard Owen is 149 years old, making it one of the oldest leopard moth in the collection ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

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Rare moth collected by Museum founder Sir Richard Owen rediscovered

While digitising the Museum's micromoth collection, a leopard moth collected by Sir Richard Owen - the founder of the Museum - was rediscovered.

This is the only insect in the Museum's entire collection known to have been collected by Owen.

Louise Berridge, a digitiser at the Museum was going through a drawer of moths when she came across an old label that piqued her curiosity.

The yellowing label, which was pinned under a large, black-spotted white-winged moth, read 'Taken by Prof. Owen in his garden at Richmond, July 1873.'

This was interesting because Richard was known for his work on dinosaurs and mammals, not insects. In fact, out of the Museum's 34 million insect specimens, this is the only one known to have been collected by Richard.  

Geoff Martin, Principal Curator in Charge of Lepidoptera, says, 'Richard Owen was the leading comparative anatomist and palaeontologist of his time, and well respected for his work on dinosaurs and mammals, but he is not known to have collected insects.'

'We do not know why Owen collected the Zeuzera pyrina moth from his garden. This is the first known moth that Owen has collected.'

The only other insect known to have caught Owen's interest was the larvae of a botfly he discovered in the stomach of a rhinoceros that he was studying, which he would eventually name as a new species.  

The leopard moth was rediscovered as part of an ongoing project to photograph and digitise around 30,000 British and Irish micromoths in the Museum’s collection.

The UK and Ireland are home to 1,850 species of micromoths but the project will work on only 37 larger micromoth species across six families. This includes the Cossidae family which the leopard moth belongs to.

The Z. pyrina leopard moth is a fairly common species of moth, found across much of Eurasia and down into northern Africa. It is a frequent visitor to woodlands and orchards, as well as gardens such as that of Owen. 

Louise Berridge sat at a desk and in front of a computer and tray of moths, carfully picking up a leopard moth using a pair of tweezers.

Louise Berridge works on digitising a moth collection, which includes the clearwing and the many-plumed moths ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Digitising the Museum's vast collections

The Museum houses over 80 million specimens, many of which have been long-forgotten. Sometimes, digitisers are the first to look at an entire collection in decades.

Digitisers carefully go through hundred of specimens every day and upload the information to the Data Portal. This is accessible to the public and scientists all around the world for further research.

The process also allows digitisers to identify specimens which may need additional curatorial care and sometimes, stumble upon forgotten histories behind specimens and their collectors, such as Owen's leopard moth.

'It's fantastic that by unlocking the collection through digitisation we have been able to rediscover this moth 218 years after Richard Owen was born,' says Geoff.

Digitising Museum's collections contributes to thousands of researchers

The rediscovery of what may be the only moth collected by the Museum's founder emphasises the importance of digitisation.

The Museum's collections span 200 years - a critical time where humans have had a major impact on biodiversity.

Nearly 2,000 research papers have cited data from the Museum's data portal since its launch in 2015. These studies range from agriculture, biodiversity, evolution, ecology, species distributions and human health.

A hand holding the leopard moth collected by Richard Owen.

The Museum's butterfly and moth collection is one of the oldest and largest collections in the world containing over 12.5 million specimens ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

One of these studies is being led by PhD student Galina Jönsson. Her research is using the Museum's collections to learn how human activities have impacted butterfly populations throughout the twentieth century.

Butterflies are sensitive to their environment, making them good indicators of wider ecosystem responses to habitat and climate change. Preliminary results from Galina's research shows that British butterflies had declined by 15% since 1900.

The butterflies were separated into two groups - generalists and specialists - depending on what type of environment they required.

While the generalist species nearly doubled over the last century, the specialists had halved. This means the areas inhabited by butterflies has declined.

When the number of species in an area becomes unbalanced, it can have a detrimental impact on other species. Those already under pressure, such as the specialist butterflies, can become at risk of extinction and change the ecosystem.

Galina's research continues to investigate the unique quirks of each specimen which contributes to how vulnerable it may be to environmental and climatic changes.

The Museum's digitised collection allows for ease of access to refine models, produce more accurate future projections and make conservation decisions to the bend the curve of global biodiversity.