The question—What was the Sphinx Vespiformis of Linnæus?—is one that has occurred to almost every entomologist. It seemed rather strange that Linnæus should have described, in all his works, an insect which had no existence; yet that really appeared to be the case. Laspeyres, the clever monographer of theEuropæan Sesiæ, previously to the appearance of that work, wrote to my highly valued and ingenious friend, Mr. Clark, requesting that he would investigate and describe for him the real Linnæan specimen of Vespiformis which was in the Linnæan cabinet, at that time in the possession of the late Sir J. E. Smith. Mr. Clark not only described the specimen in question, but employed that excellent artist, Sydenham Edwards, to make a drawing of it, which was forthwith forwarded to Berlin. Laspeyres exclaims—"Sed quod spectaculum!—Sesia asiliformis erat." This was too much to believe; the search was given up as hopeless, and the existence of the Linnæan Vespiformis was pretty much considered a fable. On making some inquiries, a few months back, about the species of Ægeria, the total loss of one out of the three Linnæan species appeared a little unaccountable; and seeing the name of my friend in Laspeyres' work, in the note above referred to, I determined to have recourse to him, as the best authority on the subject. Mr. Clark, with the greatest kindness, at once accompanied me to pay a visit to the said Sphinx, now in possession of the Linnæan Society: we instantly, on seeing it, fell in with the decision of Laspeyres—"Sesia asiliformis erat;" yet it agreed excellently with the character which Linnæus had assigned to Vespiformis: "Alis fenestratis; abdomine barbato nigro; incisuris tribus posterioribus margine flavis: capite annulo flavo." —No character could be more correct; the specimen was labelled in the handwriting of Linnæus, and the fenestrated wings merely arose from the specimen being exceedingly wasted. The fact was decided: the proof is open to all; and the existence of Sphinx Vespiformis must henceforth cease to be a fable.
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To ascertain the place among insects, or even animated beings, which this Sphinx Vespiformis naturally occupies, I have attempted in the following pages.
The Systema Naturæ has for years been the object of my most diligent search; but the idea which I have here taken of the subject is scarcely a month old. An anxiety to hear the opinions of others has urged me to scribble these few pages, with, I fear, far more haste than good speed; for it has happened that other engagements have prevented my affording them any time but that usually devoted to repose: so that the rapid and careless manner in which the sketch has been drawn, must be my apology for the very imperfect state in which I now offer it to the public. I feel, however, a firm conviction that my theory is too near an approach to truth, to suffer from any garb, however slovenly, in which I may have dressed it.
I must for the same reason here observe, that I will in no way pledge myself to the infallibility of the precise points of contact hereafter proposed, nor shall I notice any attempts which may be made to invalidate the principle of my theory, by appealing to such trivial inaccuracies. Feeble efforts of this kind are naturally and very excusably called forth by a feeling of disappointment at the sudden destruction of favourite and long-cherished theories: skilfully managed, they often throw a momentary shade over truth, but never can extinguish it; he, therefore, who is confident in having truth on his side, would be acting ungenerously to quarrel with them.
To conclude—for many excellent suggestions, and the kind and continued interest which he has taken in the progress of this little Essay, I embrace this opportunity of publicly acknowledging my sincere thanks to my esteemed friend, Mr. Edward Doubleday; feeling, however, that such thanks are a very inadequate return for his invaluable assistance.
January 25, 1832.