Past legacy sheds light on the future | Digital Collections Programme

The butterflies and moths amassed by avid collectors Dr EA Cockayne, Dr HBD Kettlewell and Lord Walter Rothschild make up the core of the Museum’s world famous collection of British and Irish Lepidoptera.

Small copper butterflies that have been digitised and rehoused as part of the project

The Museum is digitising the Lepidoptera collection and using the data to ask important scientific questions about the effects of environmental change. Dr Cockayne passion led him to form the Cockayne Trust for Lepidoptera research, his legacy is funding the digitisation.

Creating the collection

British and Irish Lepidoptera collection was formed in 1970 by amalgamating the Rothschild-Cockayne-Kettlewell collection with the many other important British and Irish Lepidoptera collections already at the Museum

The Rothschild-Cockayne-Kettlewell collection, popularly known as the “RCK”, was formed in 1947 by the amalgamation of the Rothschild British and Irish butterfly and moth collection with the important and extensive combined collections of Drs EA Cockayne and HBD Kettlewell in 1947. The collection comprised about 2000 drawers of British and Irish butterflies and larger moths arranged to display variation in all its forms. Originally housed at the Natural History Museum at Tring, the collection was moved to the Entomology Department of the Museum at South Kensington, London in 1969.

Pre-digitisation (2013) the British and Irish collection comprised of approximately 500,000 specimens of which there were 130,000 butterflies. The collection was housed in 5500 cork-lined drawers and was databased to species level only. This is the most important collection of British and Irish Lepidoptera in existence, containing a wealth of material of both scientific and historic importance.

Catephia alchymista moth from the Cockayne collection captured in 1934

Digitising the collection

The iCollections project was a three year initiative 2013-2016 to digitise all the British and Irish butterflies and Macro-moths. Around 500,000 specimens were digitised and many are now available on the data portal. However half the Macro-moths remain un-digitised and due to the generosity of the Cockayne Trust fund we now have the resources to complete the Macro-moths by the end of September 2017.

Post-digitisation British and Irish Lepidoptera collection are now being housed in plastazote-lined drawers, with all outlying collections being amalgamated including a considerable amount of material found in the world collection.

Nearly half a million digitised

 The butterflies are complete and now consist of 181,545 specimens housed in 1360 drawers. All specimens are now imaged, specimen level databased, geo-referenced and available on the Museum’s Data Portal. Every butterfly specimen is now accounted for and this has seen collections size ‘grow’ from an estimated 130,000 specimens to an actual 181,545 specimens ~ 40% increase in previous ‘counts’.

The Macro-moths are around 50% complete with 267,318 specimens digitised filling 1457 drawers. These specimens will be available on the Museum’s Data Portal in due course. This work has made the specimens accessible to all users via the data portal, virtually eliminating the need for specimen handling and greatly speeding up the response time to collection enquiries we receive.

Dr EA Cockayne
Dr EA Cockayne amateur lepidopterist

Dr Cockayne and his legacy

By profession a physician, Dr Cockayne was an enthusiastic amateur lepidopterist throughout his life and published more than 200 papers and notes in entomological journals. He described and named many varieties of British Lepidoptera. His particular interests lay in the study of life histories, variation and genetics and in the interpretation of genetic abnormalities. In 1951 he set up the Cockayne Trust which now supports the continuing digitisation of the Macro-moths.

Geoff Martin
Collections Manager, Lepidoptera

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