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Old Guys and Butterflies

Photo by Susan Middleton, from Evidence of Evolution

“Are you looking for Weight Watchers?” A tall man with a clipboard looks concerned, and I am, in fact, confused. The plushy red saloon-style interior of Oddfellows Hall in Davis, California doesn’t seem quite right for the 68th annual meeting of the Lepidoptera Society. Butterflies love sunlight, after all.

“Do I look fat?”

The man doesn’t laugh, nor does he say yes, or no, or anything. Butterfly aficionados tend to obsessively hunt, name, and catalog bugs, and then spend lots of time arguing over species names and who gets to say so. They opine over who is an idiotic lumper and who is an insane splitter. Nimble social interaction is not big in the lepidoptera world. In fact -- get out of the way, I think I see a butterfly over your shoulder.

There’s a framed photograph on a nearby table, a boy with a Monarch butterfly perched on his finger. The expression of inward preoccupation is identical on the man he has evidently become. Photos of younger selves with butterflies is a common trope in the butterfly world – suggesting the mania is cast in the pupa stage. I’m in the right place.

This is confirmed once I plunge fully into Oddfellows darkness. From the back, rows of white heads facing the stage look like a large bed of snowy kelp. Many of these white heads sport commensurate white beards. While not universally adopted among the old white guys of lepidoptera, there is a certain organic look to the tribe, including highly utilized khaki clothing of that not-quite-right outdoor fabric that yet seems to have no better replacement. And yes there are sandals – don’t ask about the toenails. There’s also gear. Cameras, field bags, and affixed to some belts, rather nifty little kits for collecting butterflies. The number of bugs collected in the name of entomological science – the act of filling all those temperature and moisture controlled museum trays with specimens -- generally does not put any sort of pressure on butterfly populations. I persist in feeling revulsion at the passion for netting, killing, sorting, pinning and storing butterflies. I look forward to the day when artificial intelligence will supersede our clumsy methods for cataloging life on Earth. At the same time, since we are fast consigning living butterflies to oblivion, those specimens will become ever more valuable, heart-wrenching testament to the world that was.

There are a few younger people in the room, mostly graduate students and PhDs in the earlier part of their careers. There are even a couple women. The Director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, co-host of the meeting, is a woman, Dr. Lynn Kimsey. Arguably one of the best-known stars of lepidoptera is a woman, Camille Parmesan, who is on her way to Kathmandu for a meeting of the International Panel on Climate Change. Her husband Mike Singer (who has white hair, a white beard, and naked toes), will report out on their work: “Climate-change resilience in a climate-sensitive butterfly, Edith’s checkerspot.” Parmesan’s work showing that Edith’s checkerspot butterflies shift their range in response to warming temperatures was among the first to establish climate change impacts on the living world. Parmesan and Singer’s more recent hypothesis suggests that Edith’s checkerspot is a nimble adapter and “as a species has a good chance of outlasting human civilization.”

Scott Loarie, the co-director of iNaturalist and not yet 40, cheers me up as he addresses the group. iNaturalist has been growing by leaps and bounds, and its swelling ranks of participants suggests that a lot of people out there do love nature and are involved with it. Many of them are young. Loarie tells the lepidopterists that iNaturalist can be a useful tool in helping establish the species designations of butterflies and moths. He encourages them to use it more often. The scientific utility of iNaturalist is reiterated next by Mark Epstein, reporting out on how users who contribute photographs are widely expanding our knowledge of which caterpillars turn into which butterflies or moths, and deepening understanding of life histories, species limits, and distributions. The amazing thing is that questions pondered within small groups like the one gathered here are also being worked out on a global scale through iNaturalist.

But the eclectic, intellectual curiosity of the lepidoptera community doesn’t find the same sort of expression online as it does at Oddfellows. Despite my mistaken Weight Watchers identity, I was welcomed into the fold to give a talk about Vladimir Nabokov – not exactly a hard science subject. David Lee Meyers presented on his beautiful new book of photographs, Wings in the Light. Robert Michael Pyle, who beautifully straddles the worlds of art and science, broke the Power Point mold and read the group a selection of his new novel, Magdalena Mountain, one of the main characters in which is a butterfly. Amateurs as well as PhDs presented on passion projects as well as on genomic analyses.

The inherent biases and prejudices, the social constraints that have resulted in filling the Lepidoptera Society with mostly white men, is not operating on iNaturalist. No matter your age, gender, race, shoe size – you can contribute to the database, and your observation will be taken seriously. This is one of the fantastic dimensions of citizen science. I hope that the butterfly people will use iNaturalist more, and share the love. But I also hope that digital users will look more deeply into their observations, and maybe join an association or society to find out more. The only way we are going to save nature is by coming together to do so. Not virtually – but actually.


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