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Lepidoptera

The AMNH collection of moths and butterflies, some 3.5 million specimens, is among the five largest in the world, following those in the natural history museums in London, Washington D.C., and Paris. While the AMNH collection is almost global in scope (Australian taxa are weakly represented), it is particularly strong in New World Macrolepidoptera and has the pre-eminent collection of North American butterflies. The nucleus of the AMNH Lepidoptera collection was formed in the late 19 th century by acquisition of the Grote and Robinson collections of Tortricidae moths, and by the global collection of Henry Edwards. Other major collections added soon thereafter were of North American inch-worm moths (Geometridae), from J. A. Grossbeck and R. F. Pearsall; North American butterflies from J. D. Grunder, and extensive material collected by the Lang-Chapin expedition and by W. H. Holland in the Congo. The first steward to the AMNH Lepidoptera was Frank E. Watson, who cared for and built the collection for 25 years before his retirement in 1939.  Charles D. Michener followed, who was at the AMNH only from 1942-1944, but during which time he published major monographs on the heliconiine butterflies, the saturniid moths, and the morphology of bees.  

Without question, the current collection is largely a creation of Frederick H. Rindge, who was curator of Lepidoptera from 1949 to 1994. Under his stewardship the Lepidoptera holdings more than doubled. Indeed, soon after his arrival, in the 1950s, he arranged for the acquisition of major North American collections from J. B. Smith and G. D. Hulst (32,000 specimens), Otto Buchholz (125,000 specimens), and J. Sperry (181,000 specimens). During this time, Frank Johnson was a generous benefactor who helped purchase collections from South America. Also, the Archbold Expeditions brought in large amounts of specimens from New Guinea and surrounding areas. Accessions continued to grow through the 1960s, with acquisition of collections from Spain (M. Ibarra), Tunisia (A. Chnéour), and the U.S. (W. H. Howe, A. C. Frederick). Rindge himself collected in the Solomon Islands, California, the Rocky Mountains and the Caribbean, adding some 150,000 specimens to the collection. The addition of 23,000 Kenya butterflies in 1970 (the V.G. L. Van Someren collection) and another collection in 1983 from South Africa greatly expanded the Africa holdings. Major accessions during the 1980s included collections of North American butterflies from C. F. dos Passos (65,000 specimens) and L. P. Gray (20,000 Speyeria: Nymphalidae). The AMNH holds approximately one-third of the primary types of the 160 species of the North American genus Speyeria. Other comprehensive collections include North American Erebia and Euphydryas butterflies (Nymphalidae) from P. Ehrlich, South American blues (Lycaenidae) from R. Mattoni, megathymine skippers (Hesperiidae) from A. H. Freeman, Mexican moths from E. Welling, and Chilean moths from L. Peña. More recent holdings are from Madagascar (collected by E. Quinter), Ecuador and Venezuela (collected by James S. Miller).

Rindge did all of his own curation, from arranging loans to personally incorporating massive amounts of new material into the collections. It required a strict daily regimen of curation in the morning and research on his geometrids in the afternoon. His only assistant was Adelaide Vernon, who spent full time pinning, spreading, and labeling new specimens – for 50 years. James S. Miller (below) sorted and identified many cabinets of assorted Neotropical noctuoid moths. The AMNH macrolepidopterans are arguably the best organized of all the major Lepidoptera collections, thanks to their efforts.

James S. Miller started at the AMNH as a Curatorial Associate from 1987-1991, then as Assistant Curator for Lepidoptera from 1991-1996. From 1996-2001 he was a musician, then returned to the AMNH as a Research Associate, where he is currently funded through grants. He is a revisionary monographer, particularly interested in the Notodontidae (prominent moths) and other taxa in the massive superfamily Noctuoidea. He has published monographs on the relationships among genera of swallowtail butterflies (Papilionidae) (Miller, 1987) and Notodontidae (Miller, 1991). His most recent work (Miller, 2009) is a 1019-page monograph on the species of the Neotropical dioptine moths, which have repeatedly evolved mimicry complexes. It is the most comprehensive monograph ever published at the AMNH on Lepidoptera. In 2006 Dr. Grimaldi became Interim Curator of Lepidoptera, and the AMNH remains the only major museum without a full-time curator of Lepidoptera.

Curator-in-Charge: Dr. David Grimaldi

Collection Assistants: Lesley ThayerSuzanne Rab Green

American Museum of Natural History

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