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The Shannon butterfly collection

Ray Shannon started collecting butterflies while stationed in the Solomon Islands during the Second World War. In 2008 he gifted his collection of more than 13,000 specimens to Auckland Museum where it is used by entomologists (and border officials) for butterfly identification and classification.

Ray Shannon graduating from Victoria University of Wellington, 1941.

A generous gift

In 2009 the Museum acquired a collection of butterflies and books about butterflies bequeathed by the late Ray Shannon, a private collector. The collection contains about 13,000 specimens of just under 3,000 species and subspecies. They come from all over the world with Australasia, Asia and South America being particularly strongly represented. The New Zealand specimens have been removed and incorporated with the Museum’s main collection but the remainder are housed separately in 567 standard entomological drawers. In addition to butterflies there are several drawers of some of the larger and more spectacular moths.

Auckland Museum Curator Entomology, John Early, first encountered Ray in the 1990s and is now managing this astonishingly beautiful collection. He describes how Ray Shannon's obsession took flight.

Active service with a butterfly net

Raymond Thomas Shannon (1 July 1917 – 6 June 2008) was an electrical engineer with the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department for his entire working life but his butterfly hobby commenced during the Second World War.

Male birdwing butterflies are spectacularly coloured.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

He must have had some prior interest because when he knew that he was being sent to the Solomon Islands he first visited the entomologists at the old Plant Diseases Division of the DSIR (now Landcare Research). Armed with good advice on how to collect and preserve insects, some basic equipment and a jar of cyanide for killing them he went off up to the Solomons.

Ray recounted a defining moment soon after he arrived where he was based up in the hills and responsible for radio communications. A large birdwing butterfly lazily flew past. These are among the largest butterflies in the world and males are spectacularly coloured. 

There was no time to grab his net so instinctively he leaped into the air to try and grab it without taking time to consider that on the steep hillside the ground fell away rather abruptly. Ray crash-landed several metres down the slope suffering grazes and bruises for his efforts but no butterfly.

While in the Solomon Islands, Ray Shannon kept his insects mounted on layered card in metal tins.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

He kept his insects mounted on layered sheets of card in two metal tins, each layer separated by a scaffolding made from brazing rods. When moving between islands he didn’t worry too much about his kit getting wet but took great care that the insects remained safe and dry – they were his first priority. 

A serious collector

After the war he used his holidays to actively collect butterflies with several trips to Asia and South America. In addition to those that he caught himself, he bought specimens from local collectors. This continued well into his retirement until health prevented travel to far flung places but he continued to collect, using the internet to make contact with and buy specimens from insect dealers all around the world. He was a quiet and reserved man but not one to be messed around, and his files contained correspondence to dealers expressing his disappointment and dissatisfaction when he received butterflies which were not in as good a condition as he expected.

In addition to the butterflies themselves he assiduously combed book publishers' catalogues and built up an extensive library on the subject, and was just as proud of these as he was of the butterflies themselves. The books had pride of place in his living room while the drawers of butterflies completely filled the spare bedroom, stored vertically on purpose-built shelving like books rather than horizontally in cabinets.

The collection has proved to be valuable for checking identifications of butterflies suspected by border officials of being species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. There are so many look-alike species where differences between them are very subtle.

Two of the butterflies in drawer 133 are a rare and protected species (Papilio grosesmithi) from Madagascar. The remainder are a common species from Africa.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

It isn't possible for every officer to know the finer points of butterfly identification on the spot so they may be retained and checked, being returned to their owners if they don't belong to one of the protected species. In the photo above, the two butterflies at the top right marked with a red dot are a rare and protected species (Papilio grosesmithi) from Madagascar. Two very similar species to their left (Papilio demodoeus and Papilio erithonioides) are common species in Africa and not protected.

Illustrating the diversity of butterflies

The collection shows some of the amazing diversity of the world's butterflies. They illustrate many the biological processes like mimicry, where a benign species looks very similar to another species (often not closely related) that is toxic if eaten by birds. Others show patterns of evolution and how similar but distinctly different species have evolved on the different islands of a particular geographical region. And in addition they are rather beautiful and elegant animals which have a wide popular appeal.

The Shannon butterfly collection

107 of the 567 drawers have been photographed. The species are arranged vertically in columns with the species name at the top. The sexes are often very different for many species and males and females are marked with the symbols ♂ and ♀ respectively. The colours and patterns on the underneath side of the wings can be strikingly different from the top side and important for species identification so some butterflies have been pinned and prepared upside down. They are indicated with the tag 'underside' above the specimen.

The job of scientifically categorising the Ray Shannon Collection is the job of Collection Technician Rosemary Gilbert. She explains how the collection is much more than a stunning display of exquisitely-coloured butterflies. It's now an invaluable resource for identifying protected species. Rosemary also demonstrates some of the processes required to prepare specimens for display - softening each butterfly in a relaxing chamber, pinning to set the wings, and data labelling.

Cite this article

Early, John. The Shannon butterfly collection. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 May 2016. Updated: 13 May 2016.

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