Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Aurelians …

Oxford University Museum - Part 2

The first known British specimen of the Bath White (Pontia daplidice) was reputedly caught by William Vernon (fl.1660-c1735) at White Wood, near Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire in May 1702. The specimen purporting to be the first, a battered female (pictured below), resides in the Hope Department of Entomology at Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) through the collections of James Petiver (1663-1718) and James C. Dale (1792-1872). Although 1702 is claimed to be the date of capture of the first specimen (Ford, 1945) and (Howarth, 1973), it would appear that this is in fact incorrect. It is more likely that the specimen in the OUMNH is a specimen subsequently collected. It is nevertheless still believed to be the oldest known pinned entomological specimen in the world.

The most likely date of capture of the first specimen must be before 1699 as Petiver, in the fourth of his Musei Petiveriani Centuria, completed on 31st August 1699 and published later the same year, lists Papilio leucomelanus, subtus viridescens marmoreus, (black and white butterfly with the underside marbled green) and states “the only one I have seen in England Mr Will Vernon caught in Cambridgeshire”. Consequently 1699 is the latest possible date for the capture and there is other evidence to suggest that it may have been in or before 1695.

In my opinion it is impossible to separate the history of British butterflies from that of their collectors, as our current knowledge of the butterflies is the result of four hundred years of collection and research by the collectors. Our attitudes towards collecting butterflies have rightly changed and although this alone, in many circumstances, is unlikely to have caused the loss or decline of treasured species, in other circumstances it may well have been instrumental in the species demise.

Our knowledge of the entomological world continues to grow partly, at least, through responsible collecting, but this often requires specimens to be killed. This is far less likely with our beloved Lepidoptera, though essential with many of the other insect groups where accurate identification often requires microscopic examination of a non-moving insect. Inevitably this usually means that the insect will be dead. There is also the requirement for a voucher specimen(s), which can be referred to in cases of future doubt or for further research. This last point requires that the collector make responsible and appropriate arrangements for the preservation of his research efforts after he has ceased to care for them.

Death, like it or not, is an integral element of many aspects of detailed entomological research. Providing it is justified, and we learn from our studies in order to better conserve for the benefit of future generations, then I support it. However, if purely for monetary gain or to seek personal pleasure as a collector of large series of the same insect, in the same way as perhaps a philatelist may with small squares of pristine coloured paper set neatly in rows in an album, it cannot and must not be justified without challenge.

Food for thought …

Images copyright OUMNH. Photographed by Katherine Child, Hope Department of Entomology.

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