A daring heist - lepidochromy or nature-printing of butterflies and moths.

by Ann Sylph on

A few weeks ago I came across a word new to me - ‘Lepidochromy’, a term I had simply not come across in my career. It is a technique of ‘nature-printing’, using the imprint of butterfly or moth wings.

So how did I become aware of this word? You may have seen in the press that some rare books were stolen in 2017 in ‘a daring heist’ ‘Mission Impossible-style theft’ from a warehouse in Feltham, near Heathow. The books had been recovered in Romania and have now been restored to their owners. But four books have yet not been recovered, one of these was a volume of pressed butterflies (Brown and Giuffreda, 2020).

As well as being Librarian at ZSL, I am Secretary of the Society for the History of Natural History. One of our Honorary Members, Charles Nelson, got in touch with me about the still missing volume of butterflies suggesting a tweet. I did a tweet for the Society for the History of Natural History and decided to post a note about the volume on an online discussion list hist-nat-hist, there was an amazing response and so much interest in lepidochromy or nature-printing of butterflies and moths. A ZSL Fellow, Roger Wotton, then contacted me referring to a blog he had written on the subject https://rwotton.blogspot.com/2013/08/nature-printing.html

Becoming more and more interested in lepidochromy, I began to read about the subject and looked in our online catalogue to see if we had any such volumes in ZSL’s collections. Disappointingly we did not have any mentioned in the discussion on hist-nat-hist or the volumes mentioned by Roger in his blog.

I found a paper from 1968 by Lt.-Col. C.G. Cowan on ‘Butterfly-wing prints’ published in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, in which he wrote about the ‘Butterfly fauna of Ceylon’ (now Sri Lanka) by L.G.O. Woodhouse. Excitingly we have three editions of this book in ZSL Library, the 1st edition, a 2nd edition and an abridged 2nd edition! According to Cowan 96% of the colour illustrations “of all species from the island were produced from scale transfers from the wings of actual specimens, the bodies and antennae having been drawn in”.

Text explaining what was thought to be a new technique of printing butterflies
Introduction the technique used in 'The butterfly fauna of Ceylon'


I am pleased to share some of these illustrations with you…photographed when I visited ZSL Library & Archives, my photographs do not do justice to the prints but I hope they help you to appreciate the technique.

Illustrations of swallowtail butterflies in the book with a short description of each
Swallowtails in 'The butterfly fauna of Ceylon'

A page of Pierid butterfly illustrations
Pierids in 'The butterfly fauna of Ceylon'

A page of Lycaenid or blue butterfly illustrations
Lycaenid or blues in 'The butterfly fauna of Ceylon'


Unfortunately the volume of pressed butterflies which initially led to this interest is still missing, now you have read this blog you know to look out for it and it may yet be recovered!

My thanks to Charles Nelson and Roger Wotton for their help.


References and further reading

Mark Brown and Angela Giuffrida (2020). Rare stolen books, including works by Newton and Galileo, returned to owners: Books worth more than £2.5m found in Romania after Mission Impossible-style theft. The Guardian, 10 November 2020.

C.F. Cowan (1968). Butterfly-wing prints. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, Vol. 4 (7), pp. 368-9. https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/jsbnh.1968.4.7.368

L.G.O. Woodhouse and G.M.R. Henry (1942). Butterfly fauna of Ceylon. Colombo : Ceylon Government Press. 7QU/QK

L.G.O. Woodhouse ([1949]). Butterfly fauna of Ceylon. 2nd complete edition, Colombo : Colombo Apothecaries. QU/QK

L.G.O. Woodhouse ([1950]). Butterfly fauna of Ceylon. 2nd abridged edition, Colombo : Ceylon Government Press. QU/QK

Roger Wotton (2013). Blogspot: Nature printing

Hist-nat-hist JISCMail discussion list 


ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we aim to inspire, inform, and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. Information is vitally important in conservation.

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is currently closed to visitors. You can still explore and discover our collections in a variety of ways –

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.