Parnassius is a genus (a group of closely related species) of butterflies known as Snow Butterflies. They are classified with Swallowtail butterflies, but none of the Parnassius species have tails. They are northern circumpolar and montane butterflies of Europe, northern and central Asia and western North America.
The exact number of species within the genus is disputed; numbers range from 38 to 47. This is because the species are not easily defined.
The Rocky Mountain Apollo Butterfly, Parnassius smintheus
An important collection
There are around 2,500 specimens in the Ulster Museum’s collection of Parnassius butterflies. Only the Leiden Museum of Natural History in Holland and the Paris Museum of Natural History in France have larger collections.
Many of the specimens in the Ulster Museum are from the collection of James John Joicey (1871–1932). His story shows what can happen when collecting gets out of control.
Joicey went bankrupt for the very large sum of £30,000. The judge made him promise to stop collecting orchids, which had caused his financial problems. He did stop, but started to collect butterflies instead. By 1930, his private museum, the Hill Museum, contained more than 380,000 specimens.
He went bankrupt again in the 1930s, this time for more than £300,000. Most of his collection was given to the Natural History Museum in London.
The Parnassius butterflies were sold to H. M. Peebles in the late 1940s and then, via Harrow school, came to the Ulster Museum.
Types are the most significant specimens in biological science.
A type is a specimen which fixes a name to a group of organisms. The name has two parts, the genus name and the species name.
In Parnassius glacialis from Japan, East China and Korea, the genus is Parnassius and the species is glacialis. This particular butterfly has several named geographic races, each called a subspecies. Subspecies too (since they are named) also require types.
This type specimen of Parnassius glacialis shikokuensis is from Isizuchi, Shikoku, Japan. It was collected by the Japanese entomologist Waro Nakahara in May 1935 and described by him that same year.
The Rocky Mountain Apollo Butterfly, Parnassius smintheus
Alpine meadows are high-altitude grassland communities. They support a diverse and unique group of plants, animals and insects, including Parnassius smintheus.
The treeline is rising in the Rocky Mountains of North America and in other alpine areas of the world. This is partly due to global warming.
As the treeline rises, the meadows shrink and fragment. This creates smaller isolated populations and increases the risk of local extinction. Ultimately the spread of trees may eradicate the meadows altogether and create an environment in which few meadow species can survive. This is a worldwide phenomenon which threatens almost all alpine species.
Sadly, museum collections may be the only place to see snow butterflies in the future.
Here is a typical set of specimen labels.
The top label reads ‘Peña Labra 27.VII.1927’ (Peña Labra is a 2,018m peak in the Cantabrian Mountains, North Spain).
The pink label (left) is that of the dealer Otto Bang-Haas (1882–1948), who was based in Dresden, Germany .
The faded pink label on the right, as well as the pink of the Otto Bang-Haas label, show that the specimen was sold as a type. Both labels originally were red.
Despite what the labels indicate, this specimen cannot be a type. It was collected in the year 1927, whereas the original description was published in 1926.
‘45’ is the number in a sale list.
The bottom label reads ‘v [variety] ardanazi Fernandez Y [the Spanish entomologist, Yepez Fernandez] Picos a Europe NordSpanien’. It is in the handwriting of Otto Bang-Hass.
Parnassius apollo ardanazi is now considered to be a synonym of (i.e. it is the same as) Parnassius apollo asturiensis Pagenstecher, 1909.
The labels with each specimen are fixed to the mounting pin. If removed, they are replaced in the same order. Without them the specimen has no scientific value.
A rare species
Parnassius boëdromius Püngeler, 1901 is a very rare high-altitude butterfly. It is found only along the borders of Kirghizia, Kazakstan and Xinjiang.
It was named for Boedromius, (the helper in distress, a figure in Greek mythology) by Rudolf Püngeler (1857–1927) of Aachen, Germany.
Püngeler described very many new species in the journal Deutsche Entomologische Zeitschrift Iris, Dresden. His most important work was on the Lepidoptera of Central Asia and China.
Over its vast range in Russia, Korea and China, Parnassius bremeri varies widely in morphology.
The insect is found in flat open landscapes, along slopes with woodlands up to the alpine zone (1,500m) and on forest steppe. It flies in May and June.
DNA studies confirm that most of the variation is due to geographic isolation and subspeciation. Some variation is related to habitat and the effect of temperature on the pupa.
Is this species successful due to its innate variation, or is it variable because it is so successful?
The Apollo butterfly
The species Parnassius apollo is one of the largest, most beautiful and most famous butterflies of Europe – but it is also one of the most endangered. It is already extinct in various European countries and protected by law where it is still found.
The Ulster Museum has specimens from all of the insect’s former range.
The large black spots on the forewings and red eyespots on the hindwings vary in size and form, depending on where the butterfly comes from.
Many geographic races or subspecies have been described. Some of them are now extinct – so the specimens in the collection can never be replaced.
All species of Parnassius butterflies are under threat from destruction of their open habitat by rising treelines and forest fire suppression.
Habitat protection programmes are in place and some populations have been augmented by captive breeding. Most species are now protected by law and many Parnassius that are popular with collectors cannot be netted or sold.
Some species are very endangered, such as P. arcticus, P. ariadne, P. boëdromius, P. cardinal, P. felderi, P. loxias, P. patricius, P. simo and P. simonius. Nearly all species from Xizang Autonomous Region of China are threatened.
Some of these species are listed in Red Data Books for China, Russia, Yakutia and Tajikistan.
Many species are known from only a few specimens and several have been rare in collections for decades. Work is in progress to assess their true range.
The False Apollo
Archon apollinus, the False Apollo, is closely related to Parnassius. It has reduced wing scaling, no tails and a similar wing pattern.
The foodplant of the larva is different, however, and many important characters are not shared.
This specimen was collected by Philip Perceval Graves (1876–1953). He was an Irish journalist and writer best known for exposing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an anti-Semitic fraud.
Graves was an expert amateur entomologist who specialised in the butterflies (Lepidoptera) of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Most of his collection is now in London, but parts are held by the Ulster Museum.
The Bhutan Glory
Bhutanitis lidderdalii, the Bhutan Glory, is a close relative of Parnassius. It is found in Bhutan, parts of north-eastern India and parts of South-east Asia.
The Bhutan Glory flies from 5,000 to 9,000 feet in its Indian range. While not rare, it is hard to collect because it flies at treetop height.
This specimen was collected by Charles Thomas Bingham (1848–1908). Bingham was an Irish military officer in the Bengal Staff Corps.
Many of the exotic butterflies in the Ulster Museum were collected by army officers, by clergy serving abroad, or by businessmen with colonial interests. However, Bingham had a more scientific approach than most. He wrote Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma – Butterflies (two volumes, published in 1905 and 1907).
Allancastria cretica is another butterfly closely related to Parnassius. It is found only on the Greek island of Crete.
Species like this, confined to a discrete geographical unit (e.g. an island or nation), are known as endemics.
This species is very rare in collections. It was only discovered in our own collection during a specimen audit. This specimen has lost its antennae, but is otherwise intact.
The Ulster Museum also has specimens of Allancastria lourisitana, a species found only in western Iran.