Unlike their gaudy day-flying relatives, moths are thought to reside in the shadows, denizens of the night, circling around street lights or caught momentarily in the glare of car headlights on a country lane. There are, however, many more species of day-flying moths than there are of butterflies, and as for colours and patterns, many moths rival or even exceed butterflies in the dazzling patterns and colours of their markings. The study of moths formed an integral part of early natural history and many thousands of drawings, paintings and physical specimens remain in museum collections. In recent years there has been a renewed surge of interest in moths facilitated by advances in digital photography, the web-based dissemination of scientific expertise and new projects that enable direct collaboration between amateur experts and scientists. The rich history of vernacular names speaks to a significant place for moths in early cultures of nature: names such as the Merveille du Jour, the Green-brindled Crescent and the Clifden Nonpareil evoke a sense of wonder that connects disparate fields such as folklore, the history of place and early scientific texts.
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Matthew Gandy is Professor of Geography at Cambridge University. His previous books include Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City (2002) and The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination (2014).