Reviewed by Arthur M. Shapiro
Butterflies of the Levant is projected as a 4-volume monograph: 3 volumes devoted to specific families and a fourth as an overview of the fauna. The first to appear happens to be Volume II. That may seem odd – but no matter. In a word, it is magnificent.
I am just old enough to be thoroughly familiar with the term “the Levant,” as my students in the University of California are not. Indeed, I am so antiquated that I tend to refer to the quintessential Levantine country as “The Lebanon”. At any rate, the Levant comprises much of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean – Lebanon, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and parts of the adjacent countries. Its geography has made it a crossroads of biogeographical elements in geologic time and of civilizations,religions and empires in historic time. Its climates have varied greatly in the Quaternary. It was formerly much wetter than today, and that regime has left distinctive relicts in favourable locations, particularly the Cedar Mountains in Lebanon. All of this assures that everything about the region will be complicated.The butterflies began to be documented in the 19th Century. In the 20th the Hesselbarth group monographed the fauna of Turkey, while E.P. Wiltshire and Torben Larsen published national and regional faunas in the 1940s-50s and 1970s-80s, respectively. Meanwhile, Dubi Benyamini began collecting in the region as a boy 70 years ago and has never stopped. He has managed to collect personally in places one would think no Israeli could ever go. He has an amazing gift for rearing Lepidoptera and has thoroughly documented the complete life histories of nearly all the species in this book and indeed in the region, so that for many of them the early-stage information is completely new (and fascinating!).
Benyamini has enlisted the help of Roger Vila and his group to clarify relationships in some very dynamic Hesperiid genera. Muschampsia and Spialia appear to be speciating while-you-wait. Very recent (2020) work by Zhang et al. and other authors is cited, bringing this book up-to-the-minute both taxonomically and biologically. In the Papilio machaon group, which is also very dynamic evolutionarily, the latest phylogenetic and genetic findings of Felix Sperling and his associates are presented.
The fact that the Pierid volume came out first pleased me greatly.The species associated with glucosinolate-producing hosts are very diverse in the Levant and North Africa, western North America, and western South America, particularly in Mediterranean climates. Many ecologists have forgotten that in the 1960s the International Biological Programme sought to document community-level convergence in the world’s Mediterranean climate regions. Steve Courtney, who was my postdoc at the time, and I made tentative moves toward such comparisons of the Pierid faunas back in the 1980s. Now this volume so thoroughly documents the Levantine fauna – including rigorous phenological data, which are very important in understanding Pierid faunistics – that our dream of long ago may at last become a reality. Meanwhile, if you have any interest in the butterflies of the eastern Mediterranean, you need these volumes.As of this writing, the distributor in the U.K. is NHBS. There is one competing resource: A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Lebanon and the Middle East, by Hussein Ali Zorkot, published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon and also available from NHBS. It’s not bad, but unlike Benyamini’s book, it has many errors and much less biology. It covers essentially the entire Arab world and unlike Benyamini, it gives Arabic names for many species. But at only 5 years since publication, it is already doomed to obsolescence!