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A skullduggers guide to taxonomy

Taxonomists and the collectors associated with them are generally rather law-abiding sorts. While there are no reliable statistics, it's a fairly safe bet that among taxonomists on the whole there is a lower incidence of homicide, violent assaults, traffic offences and illegal jaywalking than in the general population.

But sometimes, even taxonomy leads to crime. And as usual, the crimes are driven by greed and passion.

A recent paper by entomologists Michael Braby and Rod Eastwood published in Invertebrate Systematics deals with the taxonomy of an interesting and evolutionarily important group of lycaenid butterflies, the genus Pseudalmenus. In the paper, a rare subspecies of the widespread Pseudalmenus chlorinda, restricted to northern New South Wales between Barrington Tops and Tenterfield, is raised to species rank as P. barringtonensis on the basis of morphological, molecular and ecological evidence.

Rare and beautiful - a female Pseudalmenus barringtonensis. Photo: M.Braby; Source:

So far, so taxonomically straightforward.

But while closely studying the type specimen of P. chlorinda barringtonensis, Braby and Eastwood noticed something distinctly odd. The specimen stored at the Australian Museum as the type (the key specimen designated to represent the species) was in fact a fake - it was a specimen of another subspecies, P. chlorinda chloris, carefully painted with red paint to make it look like the Barrington Tops subspecies. The label was original, but the true type specimen was missing!

Fortunately, it wasn't too hard to work out what had happened, and there was no need to involve Scotland Yard - in fact, they'd already largely solved the case.

In the mid 1940s, British butterfly enthusiast and collector Colin W. Wyatt spent several years in Australia, collecting butterflies and studying specimens at several major Australian museums. While in Australia he was given free rein in the museum collections (he was British after all, and clearly charismatic). He repaid the hospitality by nicking specimens, particularly of rarities. All up, he arrived back in the UK in 1947 with around 3000 stolen specimens, augmenting very nicely the ones he'd collected legitimately.

In the case of Pseudalmenus chlorinda barringtonensis - a particularly desirable specimen for Wyatt as it was known at that time by a single specimen - he went further. Presumably realising that the theft of the only specimen - the holotype - would be noticed, he took one of his own specimens of the related P. chlorinda chloris and (he was also a skilled artist) carefully painted it to look like the holotype of P. c. barringtonensis. He then swapped the label from the original holotype onto his fake, replaced it in the collection, wrote a new (fake) label for his stolen specimen indicating (falsely) that he'd collected it, and nicked it.

Wyatt arrived back in the UK to be met by detectives from Scotland Yard, following a tip-off from Australia after someone twigged what he'd been up to. The stolen specimens were repatriated to Australia, where curators and taxonomists tried to sort out the mess of swapped and forged labels, and returned the butterflies to their original collections, each annotated with a label that the specimen was being returned from the 'C. Wyatt Theft Collection'.

At his trial in 1947 at West Ham Court, London, Wyatt blamed his moral lapse on having recently broken up with his wife - always blame the wife - and was fined £100. Clearly this was only a minor setback for Wyatt who, when he died in 1975, had amassed a collection of 90,000 specimens. Presumably for the rest of his life he was watched very closely whenever he visited a museum.

It's important to note that this sort of thing happens very rarely in the world of taxonomy, which is not normally populated by rogues and scoundrels.

Having said that, though, it does seem to have happened a bit more than average in the competitive and sometimes lucrative world of butterfly collecting. One French lepidopterist and collector, for example, had a habit of carefully slicing two freshly emerged butterflies, one male and one female, down the midline, gluing them together, then selling them as rare and valuable gynandromorphs.

But that's another story...

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