The History of Butterfly Study in Canada

The first published illustration of a butterfly from Canada appears to have been a drawing of a White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) that decorated a plan of the town of Halifax by Moses Harris published in 1749. Harris, the author of a number of books on British butterflies, spent part of 1749 in Halifax, where he made a collection of some of the local flora and fauna.

The centuries since have seen a great deal of activity and an increasing number of publications concerning Canadian butterflies, too numerous to be fully documented here. The following are some of the major figures in the field and their activities with Canadian butterflies, concentrating on those of national and historical importance.

Sir Joseph Banks, the well-known British naturalist who sailed with Captain James Cook around the world, visited Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766. He made a collection of the plants, mammals, birds, and insects (including butterflies) that he encountered and kept a diary. Also along the coast of Labrador, Moravian missionaries from the eighteenth century on were sending natural-history specimens back to Europe. These specimens, including butterflies, came to the attention of some of the eminent naturalists who were making descriptions of new species being sent to Europe from around the world. The Labrador butterflies became the Type Specimens of naturalists such as Jacob Hübner and J.C. Fabricius.

The next noteworthy butterfly-related activity came from John Richardson, the naturalist with the first and second Franklin arctic expeditions of 1819-22 and 1825-7. During this expedition, Richardson took specimens of Canadian butterflies that later appeared in his four-volume Fauna boreali-Americana (Kirby, 1837). Of particular historical interest was the naming of a new species of elfin, the Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus), after Augustus, one of the Inuit guides with the Franklin expeditions. A number of other arctic explorers of this period, such as Commodore John Ross (1829-33), also brought back specimens that were then described scientifically by eminent European naturalists such as W.O. Westwood and J.A. Boisduval.

About the same time on the east coast, Philip Henry Gosse of England was living in Carbonear, Newfoundland (1827-35). This famous naturalist, who was at the time a clerk in a mercantile house, made notes and beautiful illustrations of most of the insects he encountered. Many years later, the butterfly portion of these notes appeared in the Canadian Entomologist (1883). Gosse also lived for a time in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and published The Canadian Naturalist (1840), a book on the natural history of the area. He lived in the town of Compton, after which he gave the common name of the Compton Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis vaualbum) to a butterfly he found there.

From 1859 to 1862, Robert Kennicott of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, travelled and collected in the then Northwest Territories that made up western Canada. While at Fort Simpson, he met Christina Ross, wife of the Hudson's Bay Company factor, and encouraged her to collect butterflies. She sent large numbers of specimens to William H. Edwards of Coalburgh, West Virginia, among which was a new species that he named after her, Colias christina. Edwards, one of the pre-eminent lepidopterists of his time, had correspondents in many parts of Canada who supplied him with many new species. Another famous American lepidopterist, William Holland, author of The Butterfly Book (1898), travelled across western Canada from Winnipeg to Victoria on the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1887 collecting at stops along the way.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Canada was also producing its own notable lepidopterists, most of whom were actively involved with publication of the journal The Canadian Entomologist, which started up in 1869. John Macoun was a botanist who travelled the country collecting plant and other natural-history specimens for the federal government. Macoun's Arctic (Oeneis macounii) was named in his honour. William Saunders became the first Director of Experimental Farms for the federal department of agriculture in 1886. A pharmacist, Saunders was already a noted entomologist and made a large collection of insects, including butterflies. He described for science one of Canada's endemic butterfly species, the Short-tailed Swallowtail (Papilio brevicauda). James Fletcher, who held the post of Dominion Entomologist from 1884 to 1908, made extensive field trips across Canada to collect insects (including butterflies) and to encourage other lepidopterists in their studies.

Scientists such as Macoun, Saunders, Fletcher, and other early lepidopterists amassed important collections that all eventually became part of the Canadian National Insect Collection that is housed today in the K.W. Neatby Building with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa.

Early in the twentieth century, the government of Canada took a particular interest in the northern part of its territory, largely for political purposes to establish territorial claims, but also to document the natural resources of the region. From 1913 to 1918, the Canadian government financially backed the Canadian Arctic Expedition led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson and R.M. Anderson. The Expedition, which had scientists from many disciplines, including entomologists, was divided into two parties: the northern party covered the Arctic Ocean and its islands and the southern party covered the arctic coast. Despite serious setbacks, including the death of some members of the northern party following the sinking of the ill-fated vessel Karluk, a collection of lepidoptera was eventually deposited with the National Insect Collection in Ottawa. It was studied and described by Arthur Gibson.

From a butterfly point of view, an interesting side story from the expedition centres on a single Colias specimen collected by Frits Johansen in 1916 on a small hill near Bernard Harbour. He identified it as Colias meadii, a species known only from the Rocky Mountains between Alberta and Colorado. Many years of further collecting in northern Canada failed to turn up any additional examples of this species, so the specimen was assumed to be mislabelled or misidentified. In 1988, Jim Troubridge and Kenelm Philip used Frits Johansen's diary to relocate the hill and rediscover a thriving colony of this butterfly, which was described as a new species and named Colias johanseni after its original discoverer.

During this time, other institutions were also amassing insect collections put together by their own entomologists or donated from an increasing number of private collectors. Two such examples now containing important butterfly collections are the Lyman Entomological Museum on the Macdonald Campus of McGill University in Montreal and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History in Regina.

As the lepidoptera section of the National Insect Collection in Ottawa continued to grow, full-time lepidopterists were hired as curators and researchers. Among these are some of the best-known names in Canadian butterfly study. James McDunnough was a tireless collector and systematist in the first half of this century who built up the Canadian National Collection considerably. He also named four butterfly species and 26 subspecies from Canadian specimens. In 1947, T.N. Freeman began what was to become a major ten-year project to increase dramatically knowledge of the insects of the Canadian Arctic. The Canadian Northern Insect Survey collected almost three-quarters of a million insect specimens, including many butterflies, and shed tremendous light on the distribution of butterflies in northern Canada. The list of well-known Canadian lepidopterists would not be complete without mention of Eugene Munroe. During his many years as a systematist with Agriculture Canada, he established an international reputation. Now retired, he still continues to freely give advice to lepidopterists from around the world.

In more recent years, there has developed a large cadre of professional and amateur butterfly specialists in Canada, too many to properly be dealt with here. There have also appeared in print considerable numbers of butterfly articles and books on the butterflies of seven provinces of Canada (see the Bibliography). We hope that new generations of lepidopterists will continue to build on this solid foundation.

© 2003. Reproduced with permission from The Butterflies of Canada by Ross A. Layberry, Peter W. Hall, and J. Donald Lafontaine. University of Toronto Press; 1998. Specimen photos courtesy of John T. Fowler.