MV Blog


John Abbot’s Lepidoptera

by Hayley
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments (1)

The MV Library holds an important collection of 18th and 19th century scientific literature. Many of these books began as working tools for early museum curators studying the local fauna. Now, they form part of our rare book collection and are prized for their beauty and rarity.

The library's collection has an interesting history, forming from the amalgamation of two specialist collections from the National Museum of Victoria and Science Museum. Books have been purchased since the earliest days of the National Museum of Victoria, when the first director, Frederick McCoy, acquired important titles such as the entomological works of Maria Sybilla Merian.

While the library collection at MV is relatively small, it is also surprisingly unique. Library staff are currently working to identify titles unique to Australian libraries, a project which has exposed some real gems in the collection, such as John Abbot’s The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (1797).

Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Abbot left his native England in 1773 for the colony of Virginia in North America, in order to procure specimens and make drawings of the local insects. Following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, Abbot moved to Georgia, where he spent the rest of his life recording the local insects and birds.

Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Although he was a prolific natural history artist and well regarded in his lifetime, Abbot is not as well remembered as some of his contemporaries, who included famous naturalists such as John James Audubon. While he is thought to have created four to five thousand watercolours, most of them were unpublished or uncredited during his lifetime.

The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia includes 104 hand-coloured plates by John Harris, after original artwork by John Abbot. It's an important early work to depict North American butterflies and moths, and has been appreciated by scientists and collectors alike for its accuracy as well as its beauty. The introduction was written by James Edward Smith, a founder of The Linnean Society of London.

While it is exciting to encounter rare material in our collection, it is also nice to be able to share it. Luckily, the work has been digitised and is now freely accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, so have a browse online or download your own copy of this rare work!


Gilbert, P. & Hamilton, C., Entomology: A Guide to Information Sources, London & New York: Mansell, 1990.

Gilbert, P., John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders, London: Merrell Holberton and Natural History Museum, 1998.

Job, Frank, “The Library of Museum Victoria” in Rasmussen, C. (ed.), A Museum for the People: A History of Museum Victoria and its Predecessors, 1854-2000, Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2001.

Rogers-Price, Vivian & Griffin, William W., "John Abbot: Pioneer-Naturalist of Georgia," Magazine Antiques (October 1983): 768-75.

A moth flurry on the Murray

by Mark Norman
Publish date
15 December 2011
Comments (2)

Mark is Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria. He's reporting back from Neds Corner in this series of blog posts.

There was a flurry of excitement among our moth team over the diversity of moths and some exciting new records for the region and state. Members of the Entomological Society of Victoria, Marilyn and Dean Hewish, Grace Lewis, Ken Harris and Josh Grub, set up night light stations with bright mercury vapour lamps in front a large white sheet. They run all night, as different groups of moths arrive at different times of the night. They clocked up over 120 moth species.

Two Neds Corner moths Left:Sceliodes cordalis | Right: A perfectly camouflagued Convolvulus Hawk Moth, Agrius convolvuli.
Image: M. Hewish
Source: M. Hewish

There are several theories on why moths come to human light sources. The generally accepted theory is that moths use points of light in the night sky (such as the moon) to orient their flight paths. They keep the brightest light at a particular angle to their flight direction in order to fly straight. As they go past our electric lights they keep turning inwards to maintain the correct angle until they spiral into the porch light or the light station sheets.

The arriving moths came in all shapes and sizes. Two of the weirdest were the Twisted Moth and the plume moths. The Twisted Moth contorts its body as part of its camouflage to look very not-moth-like. The plume moths have long narrow wings with the rear pair hidden under the front pair. They get their name from the feathery tips to their wings.

Two Neds Corner moths Above: Twisted Moth, Circopetes obtusata looks just like a dry eucalyptus leaf. | Below: A plume moth, Stenoptilia zophodactylus
Image: M. Hewish
Source: M. Hewish

Colour patterns ranged from the excellent camouflage of the hawk moths that perfectly match the grey tree bark to brightly coloured forms including some with false eye spots, known as ocelli.

Two brightly-coloured Neds Corner moths Two brightly-coloured Neds Corner moths. Left: Pale Spotted Tiger Moth, Amata aperta | Right: Grammodes ocellata with beautiful eye-spots, or ocelli.
Image: M. Hewish | D. Hewish
Source: M. Hewish | D. Hewish

The wood moths (family Cossidae) caused the most excitement. These beautiful moths are not particularly common and the three species found included two ornately-patterned species and a third smaller species that is a new record for Victoria. The males of these moths (and many other moth groups) can be recognised by their large feather-like antennae. These are the chemosensory organs of the males, used to 'smell' the pheromones released by the females. By contrast, females have much narrower, less-feathery antennae.

two wood moths Two wood moths. Left: Endoxyla sp. | Right: Endoxyla neuroxantha representing a new Victorian record for this species.
Image: M.Hewish
Source: M. Hewish

Bush Blitz is a biodiversity partnership discovery program between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton and Earthwatch Australia, that aims to document the plants and animals across Australia's National Reserve System. Museum Victoria also participated in Bush Blitz at Lake Condah in March 2011.

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.