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The Australian Museum has hundreds of moths and butterflies donated in the 1860s by Alexander Walker Scott and his daughters Helena and Harriet. These were collected during their research for AW Scott's two-volume book Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations.

The Scotts' Lepidoptera specimens 2
The Scotts' Lepidoptera specimens 2 Image: Fran Dorey
© Australian Museum

Collecting the specimens

Like all naturalists, Scott himself collected many specimens of adult and immature moths and butterflies and also received a number of specimens from other collectors and naturalists. His daughters Helena and Harriet also helped with collecting a number of species, including live larvae, and amassed a large number of the insects’ host plants.

[Rhizopsyche swainsonii] '… were discovered by us on Ash Island, and by digging carefully around the spot, we happily succeeded at a depth averaging from 2 to 3 feet, in procuring fine living specimens of the larvae and chrysalides, and also some of the former whose bodies were completely occupied by a species of Sphaeria [fungus] ...'
Lepidoptera Volume 1

In some cases, AW Scott gave the insect specimens to other taxonomists to describe, but in many cases he kept the specimens for his own research and publications, in particular his Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations.

Australian Museum records and the Sydney Morning Herald, which published regular lists of donations made to the Museum, indicate that the Scotts regularly donated specimens over a number of years. Many donations were made during the 1860s, even before AW Scott published his first volume of Lepidoptera in 1864.

Of particular importance is the type specimen collection, which consists of those specimens used to describe and name a new species. Some of the type specimens were described by AW Scott, while prolific English taxonomist Edward Meyrick, a microlepidopteran specialist, and Arthur Sidney Olliff, the Assistant Zoologist (Entomologist) at the Museum, described others. Olliff would later collaborate with Helena Forde (Scott) to publish the second volume of Australian Lepidoptera (in five parts from 1890-1898).

Scott’s interest in the genus Aenetus also led him to source specimens from other collectors, and in 1869 he published a paper on the genus in the Transactions of the New South Wales Entomological Society. Some of the specimens used for this paper are also preserved in the Museum collection.

The Scotts' Lepidoptera specimens 3
The Scotts' Lepidoptera specimens 3 Image: Fran Dorey
© Australian Museum

The collection today

The Scott’s donations to the Museum were dispersed throughout the collection according to their taxonomic identity. This is obviously more useful from a scientific point of view, but is far from useful when trying to locate the individual Scott donations. As some of the records, especially those from the 1860s, are not in an easily accessible digital format, this meant days delving through registers and scientific articles in order to find the specimens.

The result? For the first time in 150 years, the Scott collection has been brought together, with many of the original moths and butterflies going on display as part of the Museum’s exhibition Beauty from Nature: art of the Scott sisters, open from 3 September – 27 November 2011. While many are in poor condition, as preservation techniques used in the past are not quite up to modern standards, they remain scientifically significant. They also open an intriguing window into the history of collecting in early colonial Australia.

Eustixis caminaea from the Scott collection
AW Scott’s primary type specimen of Eustixis caminaea (primary types are the original specimens used to describe and name a species). Image: Fran Dorey
© Australian Museum