Robert Shelford

Robert Walter Campbell Shelford (1872-1912)

Although he was a cockroach specialist and little of his published work was on mantids, Robert Shelford’s work is significant because of the large number of Bornean phasmid specimens that he collected for the Sarawak Museum during his time as curator. Many of these mantids were described as new species by Giglio-Tos. Shelford’s life and mantis work is outlined here.

Robert Walter Campbell Shelford was born 3rd August 1872 in Singapore, the son of a prominent British merchant. As a child, after an accident at the age of three, he developed a tubercular hip joint that incapacitated him for several years as a child. He became more mobile after an operation but was never able to participate in active sports as a child, although as an adult he enjoyed playing golf. The tuberculosis recurred in later life, and was the eventual cause of his death at an early age. Shelford studied at King’s College, London, and then at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After graduating from Cambridge in 1895 he went to Yorkshire College in Leeds as a demonstrator in Biology. 

In 1897 he went to Sarawak as the Curator of the Sarawak Museum, a post he held for seven years. While he was at the Sarawak Museum quite a lot of specimens were sent to his old university at Cambridge.  In 1905 he left Sarawak Museum and returned to England. He went to Oxford and became an Assistant Curator of the Hope Department of Zoology at the University Museum. On his way back to England he collected many specimens which he gave to the Hope Collection in Oxford, in addition to “the vast collection of Bornean insects which he had presented [to the Hope Collection] during 1899-1901 while Curator of the Sarawak Museum” (Smith, 1986: 58).  Most of his work at Oxford was on cockroaches, but he also worked on the other insects he had brought back from Borneo, and assisted in the library. 

Shelford married Audrey Gurney from Bath on 25th June 1908. In April 1909 he slipped and the tubercular disease flared up and severely limited his work throughout the final three years of his life. Robert Shelford died at the age of 39 on 22nd June 1912.

Shelford’s best-known publication, his book A Naturalist in Borneo (Shelford, 1916), was published several years after his death, having been completed by his Oxford colleague, Edward Poulton. The book was popular when originally published, and was reprinted in paperback by Oxford University Press in1985.

Species named after Shelford

Shelford has had several Orthopteroid insects named after him. These include one Bornean mantis: Deroplatys shelfordi Kirby, 1903, one Bornean phasmid: Baculofractum shelfordi Bragg, 2005, two genera of cockroaches: Shelfordella Adelung, 1910 and Shelfordina Hebard, 1929, and 17 species of cockroaches.

Shelford’s mantids

The vast majority of mantis specimens in the Sarawak Museum in Kuching (SMSM) were collected during Shelford’s time as curator, this is probably also the case for the majority of insect groups in the collection. Many of the Bornean specimens in both Oxford (OXUM) and Cambridge (CUMZ) University collections are also specimens collected during Shelford’s time in Sarawak.

Shelford never described any new species of mantids, but Kirby’s description of Deroplatys shelfordi Kirby, 1903, is attached at the end of Shelford’s 1903 paper describing the behaviour of mantids.

His 1913 paper on orthopteroid insects, in which he describes his five new species of phasmids, only records one species of mantis: two males of Thrinaconyx kischianus Saussure & Zehntner, 1894 from Santo Domingo de Los Colorados in Ecuador.

In his book, A Naturalist in Borneo, Shelford (1916: 128-147) includes many observations on the behaviour of mantids, although many of these had already been published in his paper of 1903. Shelford’s observations of Bornean insects are based on both observations in the wild, and in captivity.


Shelford, R. (1902) Observations on some mimetic insects and spiders from Borneo and Singapore. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 2: 230-284, plates 19-23.

Shelford, R. (1903) Bionomical notes on some Bornean Mantidae. Zoologist, 7: 293-504.

Shelford, R. (1913) Orthoptères. Blattides, Mantides et Phasmides. Mission du Service Géographique de L'Armée pour la Mesure d'un Arc de Méridien Equatorial en Amérique du Sud sous le contrôle scientifique de L'Académie des Sciences, 1899-1906. Volume 10(1): 57-62, pl.3.

Shelford, R.W.C. (1916) A Naturalist in Borneo. T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., London.

Smith, A.Z. (1986) A History of the Hope Entomological Collections in the University Museum, Oxford with lists of Archives and Collections. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Wed, 2008-08-20 03:58 -- pbragg
Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith