Study of moths in India

A lot of perseverance is required to locate and study moths unlike butterflies which are easier to spot, writes Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

The Tassar silk moth, bred for the fibre produced from its cocoon
The Tassar silk moth, bred for the fibre produced from its cocoon — Photo by O. C. Edwards

The Atlas moth is the largest known
The Atlas moth is the largest known
— Photo by Sunjoy Monga

IT was gratifying to learn that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has at last initiated the task of cataloguing India’s bio-diversity, hopefully as a precursor to eventually conserving the natural resources wealth of the country. Under this dispensation, the Department of Zoology of Punjabi University has been tasked to identify the moths of Punjab.

Moths and butterflies together constitute the Order Lepidoptera wherein the former outnumber the latter perhaps by five times. While butterflies are diurnal and easier to spot, the moths are essentially nocturnal requiring perseverance and dedication of a high order to locate and study them. So Punjabi University that has already listed 300 species of moths from across the state has made a commendable start.

However, the university is working from a false assumption that "there was no record of moths in the country" (The Tribune, March 25, 2007). On the contrary, it is a recorded fact of India’s natural history that Col Charels Swinhoe, MA (Oxon) of the Bombay Presidency Army had gathered a significant collection of moths between 1858-93 amounting to 40,000 specimens, comprising 7,000 different species. And of these, no less than 400 species were then new to science, described for the first time by Colonel Swinhoe. By any yardstick, this will be rated a monumental achievement especially as it was accomplished single handed, on the sidelines of his profession and without the aid of present-day research technologies.

This collection was mostly from around Mumbai, Pune, Mhow, the Sind Province and Karachi district; perhaps from Afghanistan as well. In the series of publications launched under the project "Fauna of British India", Colonel Swinhoe had authored the magnum opus of the insect world titled Lepidoptera Indica. As the author possessed first-hand field knowledge of the subject, that text would be indispensable to all present-day researchers including the Panjabi Univesity. This title will surely be available in the library/archives of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for the simple reason that Colonel Swinhoe was one of the eight founding fathers of this institution in 1883.

Post retirement in 1894 and by then an internationally acknowledged authority on the moths and butterflies of India, Colonel Swinhoe worked from Oxford and the Museum of Natural History (MNH), London. Punjabi University would benefit immensely in its project on moths by accessing his notes and specimens from the archives at Oxford and the MNH rather than spending energy on re-inventing the wheel. And nearer home, I know for sure that Colonel Swinhoe contributed regularly to the Journal of the BNHS, which the Punjabi University may also benefit from. Like his contemporaries, the Colonel may well have written for the Journal of The Asiatic Society, Calcutta, as well.

I had often wondered how Colonel Swinhoe, who had joined the Army as an ensign at the age of 19 carried the MA (Oxon) degree? The mystery was cleared when I came across his obituary note in the Journal of the BNHS for May 1924:

"For his services to Entomology the University of Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of Master of Arts and the Entomological Society of France appointed him an Honorary Member... Colonel Swinhoe’s name will be preserved as the describer of many new butterflies and Moths while many others have been named after him by authors who have wished to honour a name, that has been pre-eminent among Entomologists."

It is a great pity that the moths of India remain so little photographed. Let us hope Punjabi University will now fill that void with state-of-the-art visuals as well as text enjoyable to both the scientist and lay naturalists alike. Moths are larger in size than butterflies, and have flamboyant colours and fancy patterns on wings and body as for instance the Tassar silk moth.

Little wonder that moths (Parvana) had seized the imagination of poets and are the stuff of present-day love lyrics of Bollywood.