Keith Wilmott, associate curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, discusses his research on the biodiversity of butterflies, with a focus on euptychiine, a common yet diverse group. He spends time with research students in the Amazon every year to expand our knowledge of butterflies.
Interview and videos produced by Sam Schulz for Explore Research at the University of Florida.
Keith Wilmott: I started studying them when I did a trip to Venezuela when I was 16 years old with a friend of mine who’s now a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Jason Hall, and we were working on a school project but it seemed that butterflies were a group that was very poorly known, and the field guides we had with us at the time seemed very inadequate for identifying the species that we caught and seemed to have very little information and so we became fascinated with the possibility of, you know, contributing to some field of science relatively early on, one might say, in our careers.
Branching out from that, working on particular groups of butterflies, and I guess what fascinates me most is the diversity of butterflies, the fact that they’re so visible and yet there is still – there’s a great deal known about them, which means that on one hand there are certain kinds of studies that one can do with butterflies that just wouldn’t be possible with other groups of insects in particular, and yet there is still a lot to be discovered and so that new information that we find helps to fill in the gaps.
Butterflies are obviously aesthetically very pleasing as most people know and recognize and love compared to many other groups of insects and I think they’re just a wonderful part of our natural world that people appreciate having around them. Butterflies obviously serve as important pollinators, they’ve been of value in terms of biodiversity conservation. Butterflies are used as indicators of areas that might contain species that are endangered or threatened.
Euptychiines are interesting from many points of view. We have a huge collection of them here, they’re very very common butterflies and yet they tend to be very cryptic, the differences in the wing patterns between them are very slight and so many species can’t really be identified adequately.
There are students all through South America, for example, who go out and do projects, collect many Euptychiine, bring them back and are simply incapable identifying them. And yet they are, you know, very important and common component of butterfly community. And so we started this project about ten years ago and at that time there were maybe 40 known genera and just over 400 species known. Now since our research we now know that they’re approximately maybe 70 genera and about 20 of those that still need to be described.
Learn more about the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity at the Florida Museum.
Learn more about the Systematics of Euptychiina butterflies.