Butterflies and moths (order Lepidoptera) are among the most majestic of insects. Their vivid colours and striking patterns are mesmerising both in nature and in museum collections. Transient, fluttering and fragile, or adept flying machines, these wonderful creatures are one of the highlights of RAMM’s natural history collections.
Thanks to past curators
The size and quality of our collections is largely thanks to the dedication of Major Bertie Gay and Anthony Adams who painstakingly sorted the specimens into consolidated collections that were arranged in taxonomic order. Major Gay also purchased, from his own pocket, a considerable number of rare and tropical specimens for the collections as well as numerous cabinets for their storage.
We have over 120,000 Lepidoptera specimens making ours one of the finest, most extensive and scientifically valuable Lepidoptera collections of any provincial museum in the country.
Butterflies and moths undergo complete metamorphosis. Tiny larvae (caterpillars) hatch from the eggs and most start feeding immediately. They shed their skin several times in order to grow. The larvae pupate, sometimes inside a silken cocoon, before emerging as winged adults. The juvenile stages are very different from the adults.
All life stages have been preserved in our collections.
Empty pupal cases and cocoons are relatively simple to preserve, but larvae are much more difficult due to their soft bodies. If the larvae were just left to dry naturally they would become shrivelled and lose the appearance they had in life. The easiest way is to store them in a fluid such as alcohol, but this can make them difficult to study and cause them to lose their colour.
As a result collectors had to come up with an ingenious method of preservation. The insides of the larva would be squeezed out of a small puncture in its rear end. A very fine glass tube would then be inserted through the puncture allowing the larva to be inflated while drying the skin over a heat source. It would then be mounted on a piece of wire for display in the cabinet. These larvae are extremely fragile – they are a little like a tissue paper balloon.
The literal translation of Lepidoptera from ancient Greek means ‘scaly wing’. The beautiful patterns on a butterfly’s wings are made up of thousands of pigmented (coloured) microscopic scales. In some cases, however, the colour is not produced by a pigment, it is generated from the way the structure of the scales reflect light. This is called iridescence. Many butterflies show iridescence but the best known are those in the genus Morpho.
Some butterflies lack scales on their wings making them transparent.