Auckland Museum has approximately 250,000 insect specimens, including Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) collected from around the world. This collection of Lepidoptera consists of thousands of brightly coloured butterflies and beautifully patterned moths collected by numerous entomologists; some specimens are over 100 years old. The insect life of Samoa is relatively understudied, but we do know that the butterflies and moths of Samoa are diverse and some are unique to the region. For Samoa Language Week, we take a closer look at some of these unique species, some of which are specimens within our collection.

Blog by Melissa Kirk, R T Shannon Assistant Curator of Entomology 

Pepe and pepe lelefua

Pepe and pepe lelefua

In Samoan, the word for butterfly is pepe and the word for moth is pepe lelefua. Lepidoptera have been said to have a cultural significance as well as entomological. Samoan insects have been linked to the belief of reincarnation (fanaufouina), where the spirit (agaga) of the dead is said to return in the form of pepe lelefua.

The scientific recording of insects within the Samoan Archipelago started in the mid-1800s during the German colonial trading period. This period of cataloguing saw the naming of many species, including the Samoan swallowtail butterfly Papilio godeffroyi (Semper 1866), known in Samoan as Pepe ae. During the 1920s there was a buzz of collecting by many entomologists, with the British Museum of Natural History later studying and examining material collected, leading to several publications on the taxonomy of insects from the region. Since this peak in scientific study not much research has been undertaken, so the true biodiversity of Samoan insects is unknown.

Gnathothlibus erotus

Butterflies of Samoa

Butterflies found in Samoa mostly originate from the Indo-Malaysian region and have reached Samoa via Fiji. At least 30 species of butterflies have been found within the Samoan Archipelago. Native butterflies include Pepe ae: Papilio godeffroyi, Samoan blue tiger butterfly: Tirumala hamata melittula, Samoan crow butterfly: Euploea algae schmeltzi, Samoan ranger butterfly: Phalanta exulans, and Samoan evening brown butterfly: Melanitis leda hopkinsi. Many of which are subspecies and are only found within the Samoan Archipelago.

Euploea algea

Pepe ae

Godeffroy's swallowtail

Pepe ae

Pepe ae is a dark coloured butterfly with prominent white, blue and red markings from the Papilionidae (swallowtails) family. It is endemic to the Samoan Archipelago, and the caterpillars feed on Talafalu (Micromelum minutum), a plant species found within the family Rutaceae. This butterfly was once considered abundant and widespread but is now only found on the island of Tutuila. A significant decline in the population of this species occurred, resulting in its current distribution representing only 5% of its previous habitat. This species has been classified as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list. Pepe ae is considered an indicator species, as its presence can indicate healthy, undisturbed ecosystems with limited invasive species present.

Papilio godeffroyi in Adalbert Seitz's 'The Macrolepidoptera of the World'

Blue Moon Butterfly

Blue Moon Butterfly

Hypolimnas bolina, is also known as the blue moon butterfly or the great eggfly. This butterfly has a wingspan of approximately 80 to 100mm and is a dark winged, black bodied butterfly within the Nymphalidae family. This species is found in wooded areas, scrub land and urban areas. It displays sexual dimorphism, in that the male and females look quite different to one another. This is due to the female butterfly’s ability to mimic other species. Mimicry is the ability to look like other species of butterfly in the region that is toxic; therefore, by copying their ‘warning markings’ the females have a reduction in predation.

This butterfly was affected by the parasite Wolbachia bacteria on the Samoan islands of Upolu and Savai'i. Interestingly, the parasite only affected males, and was passed on via the females but only killed males of this species before hatching. Male blue moon butterflies declined to only 1% of the population in 2001. Yet, after just 10 generations, males had developed resistance to the parasite via a genetic mutation that suppresses the bacteria. This evolutionary trajectory resulted in a massive increase of males, now representing approximately 40% of the population. This is an example of one of the most rapid instances of natural selection witnessed in a wild population.

Male (top) and female form one (middle), female form two (bottom) of Hypolimnas bolina. Bottom image attribution: © 2010 Jee & Rani Nature Photography 
(License: CC BY-SA 4.0). Image rotated and cropped.

Moths of Samoa

Many species of moths found in Samoa can be found in other Pacific islands like Fiji, Rarotonga and the Cook Islands, as well as Australia. Some endemic moths of Samoa include the owlet moth Anomocala hopkinsi, crambid moth Glaucocharis dialitha, hawk moth Gnathothlibus samoaensis, and a lichen moth Monosyntaxis samoensis.

Argina astrea


Hawk moths

Hawk moths or Sphinx moths are medium to large moths in the Sphingidae family. They are widely distributed across the world and are distinctive due to their large thick bodies and narrow wings, and their unique flight pattern like a hovering hummingbird. A few hawk moth species have been found within our collection from Samoa including:

Macroglossum hirundo is a medium sized moth approximately 40mm in wingspan, brown in colour with orange and faint white markings. It has a wide distribution found in Fiji, Australia, Cook Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, Solomon Islands and Papa New Guinea. The caterpillars feed in many plant species within Rubiaceae.

Daphnis torenia is a large species of moth with a wingspan of approximately 100mm. This species was first described in 1882 by the English entomologist Herbert Druce. Daphnis torenia distribution includes New Hebrides, Fiji and Hawaii.

Gnathothlibus erotus, also known as the white-brow hawkmoth, is a large-bodied moth with a wingspan of 70mm with brown forewings and orange hindwings. This species was first described in 1777 by the Dutch entomologist Pieter Cramer. Its distribution includes Australia, Cook Islands, Polynesia, New Caledonia, Pitcairn Island, Borneo and India. The caterpillars are extreme generalists and have a huge host range including many plant species within Convolvulaceae, Vitaceae, Dilleniaceae, Escalloniaceae, Melastomataceae and many more. Another species of Ganthothlibus that exists in Samoa is G. samoaensis. This species is found only in Upolu, Samoa, and was described by Lachlan (2009).

Common fruit-piercing moth

Common fruit-piercing moth

Eudocima phalonia is a large brown and orange moth species within the family Erebidae, it is also known as the common fruit-piercing moth. The species was first described in 1763 by the famous Swedish taxonomists Carl Linnaeus. The adults are large-bodied moths with wings spans of approximately 8 to 11cm. They have a very wide distribution. The species is native to the Indomalaya region but has spread across Asia, Africa and Australia, and in many other introduced regions. The host plants of this species are primarily vines within the Menispermaceae family. The caterpillars of this genus Eudocima are quite distinctive in appearance and behaviour. When the caterpillars are threatened, they raise their body to ‘loop’ around, bringing their ‘false eyes’ or otherwise known as eyespots on their abdomens closer together and in a more ‘head-like’ shape.

Eudocima sp. larvae with ‘eyespots’. Attribution: © 2014 Vinayuraj VR 
(License: CC BY-SA 4.0). Image cropped.

Portrait of R. A. Cumber (kindly provided by family), AWMM. This image may be subject to copyright.

More information ›

Auckland Museum's Collection

Most of the Lepidoptera (especially moths) species in our collection from Samoa were collected by Ronald Cumber during 1955 in Afiamalu, Upolu. Ronald Cumber was awarded his PhD in entomology at London University. He moved back to New Zealand in 1948, and worked at Cawthron Institute and Foxton, investigating diseases associated with flax. He then moved to Apia, Western Samoa to find a biological control agent to control the coconut beetle. It was here where he collected many moth specimens in Afiamalu, Upolu via light trapping. This method uses a light source (mercury-vapor lamps, fluorescent lamps, light-emitting diodes) to attract insects, mostly moths due to their positive phototaxis.


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