Vicar of the Amazon cover

Philip E. Howse

Butterflies and Amazonia Publishers


ISBN: 9781739885601

Reviewed by Hugh D. Loxdale

This is a wonderful book about a truly extraordinary individual, The Reverend Arthur Miles Moss (1872–1948), not only a man of the cloth, in his case Anglican with a profound sense of duty for his parishioners, almost if not verging on love for them and their lives, but an entomologist of some note. Moss showed a great commitment, drive and determination to document the amazing array of insects he found around him, not only in the UK and mainland Europe but more especially in his parishes in South America, initially Lima in Peru (1907–10), later in Belém (Pará) in Brazil (1912-–45), whereafter he returned to the UK to retire. Indeed, according to the Wikipedia entry about him (see below), he possibly holds the title of having the largest parish ever for a single priest, which he administered as best he could, often going on trips up and down the rivers of the Amazon basin to visit his flock, and thereby undergoing considerable personal dangers. These arose not only from the wildlife, including blood-sucking insects, and the river and its hazards, but occasionally from the people he met en route, including guides and rivermen ferrying him to his desired destinations, but also on one particular instance, mutinous members of the Brazilian army.   

He clearly was a man of strong will, a robust constitution (until near the end of his life when he suffered from arthritis and perhaps Leishmaniasis) and had a range of formidable talents:  as chorister, organist, composer of songs and church music, poet, landscape painter, both in watercolours and oils, and field entomologist. He used his skills as an artist to produce a raft of very well-observed and accurate impressions of the insects he found, especially moths and butterflies, and their pupae and larvae, some displaying adaptations in terms of mimetic disguise or aposematic warning patterning, often involving truly amazing changes in morphology in an attempt to avoid or deter predators, presumably, but not exclusively, birds. As such, he noted butterflies with wing patterning not only mimicking the eyes of predators, such as owls (e.g., owl butterflies, Caligo spp.), but hindwings mimicking the head of piranha fish, and the caterpillars of hawkmoths evolving to look like deadly tree snakes, and even certain pupae with ferocious-looking eyespots.  

The Revd Moss was no slouch. In addition to attending with vigour to his pastoral duties, including designing and raising funds to build an Anglican Church in his home city of Belém, a church that exists to this day, he actively sought new and hitherto poorly documented species of Lepidoptera, many of which he sent to Lord Walter Rothschild (1868–1937) and his colleague and right-hand man, Dr Karl Jordan (1861–1959) at Tring Natural History Museum. Descriptions of these species were later published in the journal that these gentlemen produced and edited at that time, Novitates Zoologicae.  He was also keen to know what the various caterpillars he found on his travels would turn into. He thus actively bred them, having first determined their correct food plants before illustrating their life histories. In this way, he reminds one of the brilliant late 17th‒early 18th century German-born entomologist, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) in her similar quest to find the truth concerning the life cycle of these wondrous insects (Bellamy, 2023). 

For sure, he was man of his times, with butterfly net, setting boards, rearing cages (often in his bathroom or bedroom where he was staying or was visiting), and in this way, was hence a representative of the long tradition, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, of collecting and pinning out butterflies and moths, as well as some other insects that took his fancy or interest, e.g., the Lantern Bug (Fulgora laternaria (L.), Hemiptera: Fulgoridae). This he dutifully sent to Professor Edward Poulton FRS (1856–1943), Hope Professor of Entomology at Oxford and President of the RES at that time, a fellow aficionado on insect mimicry (p. 115).  

But he was much more than an amateur collector. He actively and systematically collected particular groups of Lepidoptera and wrote several treatises on them, including the Hawkmoths (Sphingidae) and Papilio butterflies of Pará. He also wrote quite a few scientific papers, including in the pages of the journals of the (after 1933, Royal) Entomological Society of London, his last published posthumously shortly after his death in 1948 (cf. also Wikipedia entry about A.M. Moss). He also collected moths using a tall tower which he had constructed on the edge of Belém near his home and which attracted moths and other insects using large electric lights. In this way, he was certainly ahead of his time and reminds one of his fellow contemporary entomologist and butterfly enthusiast, C.B. Williams FRS (1889–-1981), one-time Head of the Entomology Department at Rothamsted, and a pioneer in the use of Williams’ design tungsten filament lamp light traps. Subsequently these were used to monitor night flying moths and other insects as part of the Rothamsted Insect Survey, which is still operating these traps to this day (Harrington, 2014).  

Lastly, he also observed and recorded the Parasitic Hymenoptera that emerged from the larvae and pupae of the Lepidoptera he collected. Like many before him and indeed, still today, he was appalled at this destruction of beauty occurring before his very eyes. Like Charles Darwin, he questioned how an omnipotent and loving God could allow such wanton destruction, and wrestled mentally with the implications of what he witnessed, but eventually concluded that it was all part of the greater scheme of things and the economy of nature. In this respect, he was again ahead of his time and certainly read and appreciated the books of Bates, Wallace and Darwin and to some degree embraced their take of the reality of the evolutionary process, all too obviously unfolding in front of him as he explored the rich biodiversity and ecology of Amazonia.  

As for his own rich life history and ecology, you will have to read this for yourself, and it is an amazing story too. I will give you a clue that he grew up on the banks of Lake Windermere in the Lake District of present-day Cumbria, an area he clearly cherished and desired to return to late in his life, although the reality of which didn’t quite pan out as he had hoped. Of his extensive collections of Lepidoptera, the bulk of these were purchased by the Tring Museum for the (then) large sum of £500, enough money on which he could eek out the remainder of his days, sadly days of ill health and frustration, since he missed his parishioners back in Belém and still wished to work on some of the huge amount of insect material that he had collected during his many years in South America and had brought back with him (another portion of which is now also displayed in the Kendall Museum). Sadly, although he seems to have liked female company and appreciated their entomological endeavours, more especially that of Margaret Fountaine (1862–1940), whom he had persuaded to visit him and collect with him in Belém and surroundings, and who was clearly fond of him, yet even so, she never returned to visit him after she left Belém in 1930. He also seems to have had some sort of liaison with a local woman and her daughter who helped look after his house and domestic affairs and whom he once brought back to the Lake District to meet his family. But nothing more seems to have come of this relationship. As an Anglican priest, he certainly could have married, but perhaps he never met a suitable partner, stuck as he often was in remote locations in Brazil, occasionally for long periods of time.  

On a more topical note, Moss wrote extremely fluently, often with passion and concern, about the changes he witnessed occurring in and around Belém, especially the destruction of the forest habitat with the concomitant loss of wildlife. He, like Bates, Wallace and Darwin before him, fully appreciated the unique beauty and precious nature of the life forms he saw, and was concerned with its protection and continuity. [Howse himself complements this concern with several footnotes relating to the destruction of regions that Moss had travelled to and are now alas degraded, as he himself witnessed]. 

As for the writing of this book, it is in my view very well-written and the narrative flows seamlessly between chapters, and clearly is very well researched, providing a wealth of ancillary, but relevant, historical information setting the life and times of Moss in context, for example, the rubber boom on the 1920s and 30s which was to influence, sometimes very negatively, the lives of the indigenous people of the region he was living in.  Each chapter has a very well-chosen quote from the literature, either scientific, poetry or non-fiction. The photographs, many full-colour, especially of Lepidoptera, are wonderful and complement the text most skilfully. The author, Philip Howse, is well known for his considerable interest and knowledge of insect mimicry, having written several books on the topic. Not surprisingly then, several chapters embark on a detailed exposé of the incredible nature and variety of mimicry in relation to Moss’ encounters and sometimes it is truly hard to believe that this is merely the result of random, stochastic mutations leading to selection and, ultimately, survival adaptations of one form or another. 

Howse provides a useful biography of Moss’ published works (Appendix 1), a list of music composed by Moss (Appendix 2), an Appendix 3 showing two black and white photos Moss took of set moths mimicking Hymenopteran models of one sort of another, presumably both the result of Batesian and Müllerian mimicry, a helpful Notes section, a Timeline of Moss’ life and, lastly, a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) written in 1848 to the Neath Mechanics Institute in South Wales concerning the amazing biodiversity, more especially butterflies, that he witnessed in his nine-month stay in Belém. This book, as the author tells us, is part of a series about the Amazon and its people and wildlife, and certainly, what with the current and ongoing destruction of this most precious of habitats, this is indeed a timely series and one of considerable worth in bringing the reader’s attention to the plight of these fragile ecosystems.   

Returning to the subject of random mutations, my only serious criticism of the book concerns the plethora of typos scattered throughout the text, which can hopefully be readily corrected in a revised edition. It is also a rather big and heavy book and certainly not a pocket-sized volume, more, one feels, a coffee-table one. Whatever, this is an interesting and important work and I strongly recommend it to my fellow entomologists as well as all those interested in the natural world. 


Bellamy, E.S. (2023) Antenna 47 (1), 19. 

Harrington, R. (2014) Antenna 38 (3), 158–166.