Review of The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia, by Michael Braby

Butterflies are perhaps the most iconic of invertebrates, holding a special place in people's hearts due to their beauty and their amazing ability to metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly. Indeed many children's first experience of nature is often taking home a caterpillar or chrysalis and watching a butterfly emerge.


By Chris Sanderson

For those with either a passing interest or a passion for butterflies, I have good news.

There is a second edition of Michael Braby's wonderful field guide for Australian butterflies!

Arriving twelve years after the first edition, this much-needed update includes 19 new species, ten of which have been found on mainland Australia.

With 44 new pages of content the book is only slightly heavier than the first edition and still well within acceptable size and weight for a field guide. The book maintains the familiar layout from the first edition, with the addition of a section on collecting and preserving butterflies for anyone interested in trying their hand.

The book is accessible to people on many levels.

For the casual observer, the photographs and basic species accounts will be the most useful part of the book, for identifying what butterflies are visiting the gardens in your yard or your favourite local park.

For field naturalists, the detailed distribution maps and habitat accounts will be essential for looking for butterflies they haven't seen before, or make a list of things seen while on holiday.

For those who want to delve deeper into lepidoptery (the study of butterflies) the introductory section of the book will be invaluable.

Developed based on the excellent Butterflies of Australia by Common and Waterhouse from 1981, it provides an introduction into the biology and ecology of butterflies and gives the reader a firm foundation from which to understand the technical terms used in the rest of the guide.

Perhaps the most impressive update to the field guide is also the hardest to spot.

An enormous amount of work has clearly gone in to reading hundreds of new scientific papers to incorporate new knowledge into the book. Updates to distribution, known plant hosts, and known flight seasons represent the most up to date current knowledge for butterflies in Australia and to the best of my knowledge this information is not available anywhere else in such a condensed format.

Another nice touch is that the book is printed on sustainably sourced paper, certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (, something all future non-digital field guides should strongly consider.

I recently had the chance to chat with Michael about his book, and a bit about his passion for Australia's butterflies.




CS: What first got you interested in butterflies? Or, what is your earliest memory of being interested in butterflies?

MB: A love of natural history, especially birds and plants as a child. I recall seeing a Monarch at Ivanhoe, Melbourne when I was  less than 10 and thought to myself that can't be real, it looked so amazing [because of its] size and colouration. However, I did not start collecting insects until I was about 16.

CS: What is it about butterflies that most fascinates you?

MB: Their colour, beauty, rarity, intricate life cycles, knowledge gaps.

CS: What was the inspiration behind producing the book?

MB: I was contracted to produce it with CSIRO in 1994 but it never happened, [I] ran out of time, so I just focused on the 'Brable2000' [the Butterflies of Australia 2 volume "bible"]. In 2001 I was inspired by a lecture by Paul Ehrlich in the US about the importance of field guides in promoting biodiversity to the general public (citizen science), so I decided that it had to be done. Then a few months later CSIRO Publishing contacted me because they wanted to start a new series of field guides promoting insects, so everything fell into place and the negotiations started when I came back to Australia in 2002. The Butterfly Field guide was released in 2004 and was the first in the series.

CS: Why is the book important and how has writing it changed the way people learn about butterflies? 

MB: No idea. I was breaking new ground because there had never been a user friendly field guide on Australian butterflies before. I put a lot of thought and effort into the design and layout, adopting the successful approach used by the bird guides.

CS: What is your favourite butterfly moment or experience? 

MB: Too many!!! Mostly involving scientific discovery.   

CS: What's important about butterflies that most people should know? 

MB: They play an important role in several ecological processes and are therefore important in the healthy functioning of our ecosystems and hence our life support systems. They contribute to pollination, herbivory, nutrient cycling and energy flow as food for predators such as birds.

CS: Is there a butterfly that you would most associate with Australia? What is it and why? 

MB: Until recently, the Regent Skipper was thought to be the only butterfly in the world that possessed a wing coupling device comprising a hook and bristle, a feature found in many moths, but now the Hedylids from South America are considered nocturnal butterflies. The Regent Skipper is classified in its own family which is found only in Australia.

CS: What is your favourite place to look for butterflies in Australia? 

MB: I have no favourite place, the whole country is incredible and every region, habitat or biome has unique species endemic to Australia.

CS: If someone wants to look at and learn about butterflies, do you have any hints on how to go about this?

MB: Buy the field guide and read it!


BUY The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia: Second Edition. Michael Braby



CHRIS SANDERSON is a conservation biologist currently doing a PhD on threatened species listing. He has been a naturalist his whole life, beginning with walks through the bush at Girraween National Park at the age of three. His early love of birds and butterflies has grown into a career, working for the NGO Birdlife Australia, and as an environmental consultant. His next project will be building Australia's first online national database of butterfly records, and building a citizen science project around it to help us understand our butterfly fauna better. That project will begin in 2018.

DR MICHAEL BRABY is among Australia's foremost butterfly experts, has published 108 peer-reviewed scientific research papers and four books including The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia and Butterflies of Australia: their Identification, Biology and Distribution, a scientific textbook that won the 2001 Whitley Medal for best book on natural history of Australian animals. He maintains the official Australian Faunal Directory butterfly nomenclature, is publishing Atlas of Butterflies and Diurnal Moths in the Monsoon Tropics of North-west Australia, the first comprehensive butterfly dataset across a geographic region in Australia, and is Chief Editor of Austral Entomology journal published by the Australian Entomological Society.

Wildiaries • October 2017