Review: Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia

The Book: The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia, 2nd Ed.

The Author: Michael F. Braby

According to the author of this book, Australia’s butterfly richness is lacking when compared to the rest of the world. I’ll have to take his word for it – as a botanist flicking through page after beautifully-arranged page of this field guide, the diversity is astonishing. In this botanist’s point of view, butterflies have previously been more of a service provider than a group that deserves its own attention - certainly lovely to look at, but really just there to move pollen. This guide serves to reverse this kind of thinking.

The glory of this book is its introduction. It begins with an anatomy lesson on body, leg and wing structure - the technical vocabulary comes thick and fast, but large and well-labelled diagrams make it easy for a novice to integrate. And it's worth making an effort - as any biologist knows, our linguistic shorthand is essential for a smooth conversation.

The concise and useful lesson on the terminology of wing shape gives a novice both a place to start looking when identifying their butterfly, as well as enough clues to help make judgments. For each of the six families of butterfly present in Australia, a diagram of typical wing veins allows quick comparison and straightforward identification - which then, rather cleverly, makes it simple knowing which section of the book should be flicked open. The sections themselves - one for each family, and one extra for species found on islands near Australia - are made clear and distinct by the coloured page edges, always useful for rapid flicking.

Further shortcuts can be found in the Introduction's section on distribution and habitats. Crisp, vibrant photos of vegetation classes and a zoned map of Australia provide a foolproof method of identifying the local habitat, allowing a reader to quickly rule out any possible butterfly identifications that don't match the source environment.

When it comes to choosing among possible identifications, the layout is informative without being overwhelming. A good description of size and colour (don't forget that vocabulary from the Introduction) is accompanied by colour photographs of the upper and lower sides, along with photographs of any seasonal, regional or polymorphic variations. The distribution maps are small, but the use of colour to show regions makes it simple to read (narrow distributions are either shown with arrows or with a zoomed-in map). A calendar of activity above each map will often have separate lines for different regions or subspecies.

For a budding lepidopterist (which I seem to be becoming as I read further), the most useful features of each species' entry are the descriptions of flight behaviour, the identified food plants of larvae, and the lists of similar species that might confound identification.

On a practical note, the guide also includes a wonderful section on how to collect, store and mount specimens. As the author points out, it's relatively low impact to collect adult specimens - and often the chance of a confirmed identification can help increase knowledge of range or behaviour. The instructions on net size and materials, preserving containers and solvents for morphological or genetic studies, and the materials to best curate a collection for the long term, are all excellent tools to help a collector make the most of their finds and - more significantly - minimise regret.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you're curious about your surroundings, if you want to learn your neighbour's names, or if you simply appreciate the beauty of Australia's butterflies. As Michael Braby points out, new species are still being discovered and documented - you could find the next one.

Cover image via Vicki Nunn / Wikimedia Commons