Hoax or Joke?

I had a great day today training volunteers to work with digital and library sources to help them identify butterfly species they will come across when transcribing and digitizing information in the Jones Icones as part of the HLF funded Flying Icons project. The Jones Icones is a six volume unpublished manuscript that was illustrated by naturalist William Jones (1745–1818). Many of the butterflies contained within the manuscript were drawn from original specimens in the collections of Drury, Linnaeus and his student, Fabricius. Most of the specimens originally depicted in the work have now been lost or destroyed.

After the training, we were all lucky enough to attend a lecture by the world’s foremost expert on the Jones Icones, Richard Vane-Wright. During his talk, Vane-Wright mentioned a curious illustration contained within the Icones- a species called Papilio ecclipsis.

The illustration was based on a butterfly sent by William Charlton to to James Petiver in 1702, who wrote: “It exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R. Rhamni), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings. This is the only one I have seen.”

Image of "Papilio ecclipsis" from linnean.org

Image of “Papilio ecclipsis” from linnean.org

Linnaeaus also examined the specimen, and designated it a new species. The original description was published in Centuria Insectorum Rariorum, and he included it in his Systema Naturae.

Eventually, someone realized something about this insect was fishy.

In 1793, Linnaeus’s brightest student Johan Christian Fabricius, recognised that the dark patches had been painted on, and that the specimen was a common Brimstone butterfly (now called Gonepteryx rhamni). The specimen at that time was held in the British Museum, and the curator was said to have been incensed enough to “stamp the specimen to pieces” when he found out it was a hoax.

Actual Brimstone butterfly

Actual Brimstone butterfly

I actually find this a real shame that this curiousity was destroyed, and apparently so did William Jones, who created two replicas of the fake butterfly that are now housed in the Linnaean Society, London.

It is unknown whether the specimen was intended as a hoax or was a practical joke by Charlton that apparently went too far. Either way, the two painted specimens of Gonepteryx rhami are now known as the Charlton Brimstones.


2007 “Linnaeus’s Butterflies” Vane-Wright R.I. Pg 63 The Linnaean Collections, The Linnean Special Issue No. 7

“The Charlton Brimstone Butterfly”. The Museum of Hoaxes. Retrieved June 16, 2010.

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