Large Blue and Large Copper Butterflies

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Large Blue butterflies © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Professor Paul Brakefield, Director of the Museum of Zoology, writes:

The Insect Room of the Museum smells wonderful – at least to any entomologist – and its beautiful mahogany cabinets team with important specimens.I am especially taken with two drawers about which our Curator of Insects, Dr William Foster, had told me. Opening one reveals numerous flashing bright blue butterflies – they are all small but each one is larger than the blue butterflies still flying in Britain today. They are all important specimens of the Large Blue Butterfly which sadly became extinct here in the last century in spite of efforts to save it. I opened this drawer recently to show a special visitor, Jeremy Thomas – an exciting moment! It was especially apt since Jeremy is the key conservationist who, having made fascinating discoveries about the intricate life cycle of the Large Blue and its interplay with ants, dedicated tremendous effort to returning this species to some of its old haunts in England. Jeremy set up an ultimately highly successful re-introduction program that was launched using live butterflies collected in Sweden. Our old specimens of the original British population can now be compared with these new large blues on our islands to reveal more about how evolution works. A neighbouring drawer also produced a wonderful series of Large Copper Butterflies, flashing a fiery copper red in the light. This species is alas also now extinct in the UK, and is similarly larger and more spectacular than the Small Copper Butterfly that remains quite common here. The Large Copper is very much of local interest having flown in many Fenland habitats. I have seen them myself flying in good numbers within the city limits of Kracow in Poland but never of course in Britain. The drawer of our local specimens brings home to us the sadness of any loss of species from our islands but perhaps a species as beautiful as the Large Copper has a special impact. However, the story of the Large Blue demonstrates how dedicated knowledge and conservation can provide the springboard for a successful return. Our Museum collections can also play an important role here, both with respect to research and to raising awareness.

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Large Copper butterflies © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

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