Angus Moth Project: The Moths of McManus

Georgia Carr, Project Officer at McManus Dundee writes for the Scottish Museums Federation in the first of several blog posts focusing on the Angus Moth Project.

Funded by Museum Galleries Scotland and in partnership with University of Dundee and Angus Alive, the 18-month long Angus Moth Project is well underway.  Spring has sprung and the nation’s butterflies and moths are on the wing. In the McManus Collection’s Unit, in the heart of Dundee city, I have taken one significant moth collection out of hibernation. Having remained largely untouched since its arrival in the 1990s, the historical Robertson collection holds much needed information about moth populations in the county of Angus. Moths are consistently overlooked; they are dull, brown, annoying little things that are supposed to be attracted to light but always end up flying into our faces, right? Wrong! Moths are a vital part in our ecosystems and are important environmental indicators. Even the dead ones can help us answer the greater ecological and conservation questions.

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Catocala fraxini – the Victorian collector’s must-have, the Blue Underwing aka the Clifden Nonpareil with handwritten label.

Those tiny labels, hidden underneath the specimen so as to not ruin the view from above, they were not written flippantly. They may be small and hidden out of sight, but they should not be forgotten. A moth with a label opens a door to the past. From that label we know where that moth was and when. What they looked like 150 years ago. What they ate. Collections like this play a huge role in our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, population dynamics and ecological changes. By digitising and further georeferencing our museum specimens we can map the distribution of our collections and identify changes in time. The completed data set will be sent to Butterfly Conservation’s National Moth Recording Scheme. Data will also be shared via the National Biodiversity Network, an online portal that maps records of all species in the UK and is shared openly with all members of the public.

Over the course of 18 months I will be unveiling from the collection, endless examples of the beauty and variation the layman rarely sees in moths. Fantastic examples of mimicry, sexual dimorphism and hybridisation, as well as rare species now hard to track and unethical to collect. Moths such as the Victorian collectors favourite, the Clifden Nonpareil, and the subject of one of Colchester Zoo’s breeding programs, the Fisher’s Estuarine. Now one of Britain’s rarest moths, limited to two locations on the south coast.

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Endromis versicolora (Kentish Glory) – An example of sexual dimorphism in nature. The male is the smaller of the species which can only be found in the highlands.

I will also be rehousing the collection. Robertson lovingly crafted every single tray he used from MDF, polystyrene and greenhouse glass. The time and resources he put into his moths is extraordinary, but there is plenty of evidence of unwanted Biscuit Beetles, Case-spinning Moths and pseudoscorpions finding their way through his craftsmanship.

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One of Robertson’s original trays. The moths are cramped and there is plenty of frass (insect larvae droppings) to be seen.

Without monitoring and control, pests can decimate whole collections containing specimens hundreds of years old. Rehousing the collection to hermetically sealed drawers ensures that these Lepidoptera, including the Fisher’s Estuarine, will be available for generations to come.

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A finished tray – Rehoused moths in their new hermetically sealed home.

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