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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Natural History Museum Digitisation team rediscover Leopard moth collected by founder Richard Owen

In an on-going effort to digitise all the Natural History Museum’s 80 million specimens and make them accessible for free online to researchers around the world the team occasionally re-discover unusual and important specimens. Recently whilst digitising a drawer of Leopard moths (Zeuzera pyrina), digitiser Louise Berridge was drawn to one of the labels in the collection that read "Taken by Prof. Owen in his garden at Richmond. July 1873."

Sir Richard Owen was the founder of the Natural History Museum, London and the leading comparative anatomist and palaeontologist of his time. He is perhaps best known for coining the word dinosaur and is not known to have collected or studied insects, making this new discovery very special.

Geoff Martin, Senior Curator in Charge of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum says, ‘I believe this is the first known moth that Owen has collected and what makes this find particularly interesting is that according to the data on the label it looks as though Owen collected the Leopard moth from his own garden. It’s fantastic that by unlocking the collection through digitisation we have been able to re-discover this moth 218 years after Richard Owen was born on 20 July 1804.’

Moths and Butterflies (lepidoptera) are very sensitive to changes in land use and temperature. The Museum has so far digitised over 770,000 Lepidoptera which have been used by researchers around the world to measure the impact of climate change. While most data about insect responses to human activities comes from surveys from the 1970s onwards the Museum has specimens dating back over 200 years. Natural history collections are one of the only sources of data that extends the time period of biodiversity information available to scientists.

This rediscovery of what may be the only moth collected by the Museum’s founder emphasises the importance of digitisation. Sometimes Museum digitisers are the first people to look at an entire collection in decades. The data created is then shared online with researchers around the world allowing them to make use of these collections. This process also identifies which specimens need additional curatorial care and lessons learned can impact other collections and recommended important data to capture in the future. Alongside producing biodiversity data, the process often uncovers forgotten histories behind specimens and their collectors.

Since the Museum's Digital Collections Programme was initiated in 2014 the team have digitised over 5.16 million specimens. These are now freely available via the Museum’s Data Portal world wide and the data has already been used to inform 1900 scientific studies. It is hoped that through continuously unlocking this treasure trove of information we can understand some of the most difficult issues facing the natural world today and work towards a future where both people and planet thrive.

Notes to editors

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The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited indoor attraction in the UK last year. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens accessed by researchers from all over the world both in person and via over 30 billion digital data downloads to date. The Museum’s 350 scientists are finding solutions to the planetary emergency from biodiversity loss through to the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome millions of visitors through our doors each year, our website has had 17 million visits in the last year and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 20 million people in the last 10 years.