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 While he is thought to have created four to five thousand watercolours, most of them were unpublished or uncredited during his lifetime.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.

Wanderer or Monarch butterfly

by Patrick
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments (13)

The Wanderer Butterfly is known overseas as the Monarch Butterfly, so named for being the King, or Queen, of butterflies. In North America they are also known as King Billies, after William of Orange. The Australian name of Wanderer comes from its remarkable habit of long distance migration. The scientific name Danaus plexippus was bestowed by Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy and inventor of the scientific naming system.

Adult female Wanderer Butterfly Adult female Wanderer Butterfly
Source: Patrick Honan

Although not a native to Australia, the Wanderer may not exactly be introduced in the usual sense. Wanderer Butterflies most likely arrived in Australia across the Coral Sea from Vanuatu or New Caledonia, carried by three cyclones in early 1870. This was part of a major expansion in distribution across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from North America in the late 1800s, probably due to a combination of environmental factors, human movement and natural expansion.

Wanderer butterfly feeding An adult Wanderer Butterfly feeding on Cat's Whiskers (Orthopsiphon aristatus).
Source: Patrick Honan

The first recorded observations from Australia were made in February 1871 in Queensland, followed by the first record from Melbourne in April 1872. It is possible that Wanderers had been making the journey to Australia since time immemorial, but only after Europeans established their food plants here could Wanderers establish.

Wanderer caterpillar The distinctive fleshy 'filaments' behind the head of the caterpillar are used as sensory organs.
Source: Patrick Honan

Wanderers have been seen at sea up to 500km from land and occasionally settle on passing ships. This is not unusual – with favourable winds, Australian butterflies such as Common Eggflies often end up in New Zealand. Wanderers have a cruising speed of about 30km per hour with bursts of up to 50km per hour when alarmed.

Wanderer Butterfly pupa. The wings of the adult can be seen through the walls of a Wanderer Butterfly pupa.
Source: Patrick Honan

In North America, Wanderers undertake a famous annual migration from Canada and northern USA down to Mexico and California, and then back again. The populations overwintering in the Oyamel Fir Forests of Mexico roost at densities of 10 million butterflies per hectare. Because the length of time required for the migration exceeds that of an adult Wanderer's life span, those arriving back in Canada are the descendents of those that left the year before.

Map of butterfly migration Map of the North American migration of the Monarch or Wanderer butterfly that occurs each year in autumn.
Source: Via the Frost Lab, Queen's University Department of Psychology

The secrets of the Wanderer migration in North America weren't fully revealed until the 1970s. Canadian Dr Fred Urquhart was fascinated as a child by the question of where all the Wanderers disappeared to during winter, and he and his team of volunteers took nearly 40 years to discover the answer. Professor Urquhart died in 2002 but his life-long search is the subject of the new film Flight of the Butterflies 3D. In Australia, Dr Courtenay Smithers from the Australian Museum began tagging Wanderer Butterflies in the 1970s using many volunteers from the broader community. His studies revealed that overwintering populations around Sydney and Adelaide move into Melbourne and surrounds during summer. This research continues, with many questions still to be answered. In certain years, for example, populations appear to overwinter in some parts of Victoria, such as Phillip Island and the Western Districts, without needing to move interstate, but more data is needed to confirm these observations.

Flight of the Butterflies 3D opens at IMAX Melbourne Museum on 21 March. 

Patrick's next post on these butterflies: More on the Monarch


Clake, A.R. & Zalucki, M.P., 2004. Monarchs in Australia: On the Winds of A Storm? Biological Invasions, 6:123-127

McCubbin, C., 1970, Australian Butterflies, Thomas Nelson Ltd, Melbourne, 206pp.

Want your photo in the MV Field Guide app?

by Nicole K
Publish date
6 March 2013
Comments (2)

If you're looking for Victoria's bird emblem, you won't find it in Museum Victoria's Field Guide to Victorian Fauna app.

This is our best picture of a Helmeted Honeyeater. Do you have a better one? This is our best picture of a Helmeted Honeyeater. Do you have a better one?
Image: Nicole Kearney
Source: Museum Victoria

The app contains over 700 Victorian species, but the Helmeted Honeyeater isn't one of them. Why not? We don't have a picture of one.

Museum Victoria is almost ready to launch the MV Field Guide app on the Android network – we just need a few final images. Can you help?

If you have a photograph of any of the species below, send it to If we like it, we'll give you a double pass for our museums and a $30 gift voucher for our museum shops. You'll also be credited as the image's photographer (and get your name in the MV Field Guide app).

  • Helmeted Honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops cassidix
  • Diamond Firetail Stagonopleura guttata
  • Plains Wanderer Pedionomus torquatus
  • Little Eagle Hieraaetus morphnoides

Haven't got the MV Field Guide app? Download it for free from the App Store. Android users, stay tuned – it's coming soon!

UPDATE: The Android version is now available from Google Play. Hooray!

Terms and conditions

To submit an image, you must be the copyright holder (or have permission from the copyright holder). Images should be provided at a size of 2048px along their longest edge (please do not send watermarked images).

By submitting a photograph you agree that, if your image is selected, Museum Victoria may publish and reproduce your photograph in Field Guide apps and associated projects. Museum Victoria will credit the photographer in every circumstance where the photo is used.

Museum Victoria passes and shop vouchers are valid at Melbourne Museum, Immigration Museum and Scienceworks (for 12 months from the date the selected entries are announced). Travel, parking, accommodation and other expenses are the responsibility of the winners.

This competition is open to everyone. Competition closes 24/03/13 at 5pm EST. Photographs submitted after this date may be considered for future releases of the app, but will not be eligible for the prizes above. Winners will be contacted via email and announced on the MV Blog. Judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

MV's Conditions of Use policy applies.

Culture Shutdown at Immigration Museum

by J. Patrick Greene
Publish date
4 March 2013
Comments (1)

At the 2002 European Museum of the Year awards I described the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a "demonstration of the indomitable human spirit". Thanks to sheer dedication and spirit of its staff members, the Museum had survived a chaotic decade of conflict and destruction. Located in Sarajevo, the Museum was involved in many military operations over the course of the conflict and suffered significant structural losses from intensive bombing. Despite having no roof or heating the staff continued to stand by their institution, opening the Museum for a Museum Day while the war raged on around it. Scientists, security guards, curators all took turns standing guard outside the Museum during the conflict and thanks to their gallant effort only 10 per cent of the objects in the Museum's collection were damaged.

Cello player in wrecked building A cello player in the partially destroyed National Library, Sarajevo during the war in 1992. The cellist is local musician Vedran Smailović, who often came to play for free at different funerals during the siege despite the fact that funerals were often targetted by Serb forces.
Image: Mikhail Evstafiev
Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 via

In 2013, the Museum is again under threat. Today marks the six month anniversary of the closure of the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina after 124 years of existence. Despite the Museum housing objects of national and international significance, in 2012 wooden planks were nailed over its doors after political debate regarding the funding of national institutions could not be resolved.

doors of the closed National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The doors of the closed National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Image: Oslobodjenje

In response, cultural institutions across the world have joined together in order to draw awareness of this crisis by symbolically closing off an object on display for three days culminating in the global Day of Museum Solidarity today. I am very proud that Museum Victoria could take part in this action by symbolically 'taping off' an object on the ground floor of the Immigration Museum. The object being 'taped off' is a model double spiral staircase crafted from Brazilwood by Heinrich Munzel in Brazil between 1835 and 1850. This action is now part of a virtual exhibition showing different institutions' solidarity acts from across the globe including the Museum of Contemporary Arts (NSW), Museum of Modern Art Chicago (USA) and the Oslo Museum (Norway).

To visit the virtual exhibition or find out more about the global Day of Museum Solidarity head over to the Culture Shutdown website.

Showcase with tape across it Taped off Model Staircase by Heinrich Munzel at the Immigration Museum.
Image: Emily Kocaj
Source: Museum Victoria

Amazing Australian ants

by Simon
Publish date
1 March 2013
Comments (3)

There are a number of rituals that go hand in hand with growing up in Australia. It goes without saying that in getting out of the wading pool as a kid (before water restrictions of course), there were bound to be European honey bees gathering pollen and nectar in the clover. It was Murphy’s Law that you would stand on one with bare feet or get one caught in your thongs as you ran across the lawn. The resultant sting was extremely painful and the knowledge that in stinging you the bee has, in effect, ripped its own insides out and will soon die was of small comfort to distraught children.

Neighbourhood cricket on the road (remove wicket and players in the event of a car), falling out of trees and buying firecrackers at the local milk-bar were all great fun for those of us of a certain age.

Bull ant family Bull ant Queen, Worker, larva and pupa
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Museum Victoria

Another rite of Australian childhood is to be stung by a Bull ant or Jumping Jack. This genus of ants numbers around 90 species, and almost all are endemic to Australia. These ants have extremely good eyesight and will come out to meet what they see as threats to the colony they are defending.

Bullant - Myrmecia sp. Bullant - Myrmecia sp.
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Minibeast Wildlife

Jumping Jack - Myrmecia pilosula Jumping Jack - Myrmecia pilosula
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Minibeast Wildlife

Often the nest is fairly well hidden and one sure fire way of finding out you have a nest of these ants is an inadvertent drive-over with the lawnmower. This usually serves to enrage the inhabitants, who will spill out to defend the colony to the death. Bull ants and Jumping Jacks possess powerful venom, and also an impressive pair of mandibles or jaws. These jaws are used to grab the offending finger, leg, ankle, knee or toe while the sting at the end of the abdomen is injected into the skin - sometimes multiple times.  Note that a small percentage of the population can experience an allergic reaction to a sting from ants in this genus, and you should seek medical advice in such an event.

Bee sting (close up) SEM Bee sting as seen through a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)
Image: Ken Walker
Source: Museum Victoria

Bull Ant sting SEM Bull Ant sting as seen through a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)
Image: Ken Walker
Source: Museum Victoria

These amazing Australian ants were captured in May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie along with other Australian wildlife such as goannas, snakes and kookaburras. Bull ants and Jumping Jacks are to be admired for their tenacity and also undertake a great job in cleaning up the environment. The female workers collect live and dead insects to take back to the colony to feed the young.


Bugs Alive!

Australian Museum, Bull ants


Australian Venom Research Unit

About this blog

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