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Butterflies and moths at Florida museum offer clues to changing climate

GAINESVILLE — In a lush garden planted outside the Florida Museum of Natural History, more than 1,000 butterflies and moths flutter from plant to plant, occasionally landing on delighted tourists. There are owl butterflies whose wings look like unblinking eyes, vivid blue morpho butterflies that turn a dull brown when they light on a leaf, and swallowtails and monarchs galore.

Beyond the museum's 6,400-square foot butterfly rainforest, though, is the real treasure. Inside the museum are 80,000 glass-topped drawers of butterfly and moth specimens.

Some of the specimens are nearly big enough to be called Mothra. Others are so tiny you almost need a microscope to see them. Some date to the mid 1800s. Others were collected this year. Some are common. Others, in drawers secured by thick chains and locks, are rare or even extinct. Some have wings in a dazzling rainbow of colors, and others are as drab as your mother's living room drapes.

This is the home of the largest collection of butterfly and moth specimens in the United States. With more than 5 million specimens, it's second only to the British Museum's 10 million for the most in the world.

Like moths to a burning bulb, researchers are drawn to the Florida collection to study the profusion of specimens and learn their secrets. Lately, according to senior collections manager Andrew Warren, "most people are coming here to study climate change."

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The museum's lepidoptera collection is officially known as the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Environmental Research. It's named for William "Dollar Bill" McGuire, the former United Health Group CEO who in 2007 cut a $468 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over backdating stock options.

McGuire is such an avid collector of butterflies that he has a species named for him. In 2009, he and his wife, Nadine, donated his personal collection of 2 million specimens — from every continent except Antarctica — to the museum.

The museum's founder, University of Florida entomology professor Thomas Emmel, would get downright lyrical about the insects he had been studying for 40 years.

"To most of us, as well as to poets, playwrights, novelists, and artists, they represent an uplifting beauty and delicacy — like 'flying flowers' — that inspires us with the perfection of nature," Emmel told the Associated Press in 2003, when the museum was nearly ready to open.

Not many people go tromping through the woods to collect butterflies any more, said Warren, 41. A Colorado native, he started his personal collection when he was 4 and still exhibits a boyish enthusiasm for the subject.

Perhaps 10 percent of the collection comes from professional scientists, he said. The rest were collected by enthusiasts like McGuire — some of whom, he said, are "people I traded bugs with when I was in high school."

That culture seems to be dying out, he said, replaced by a strong sentiment against collecting butterflies from the wild. Sometimes when he's out in a forest or a marsh with his net, he encounters people who "look at you pickle-faced and then look away, so you know what their attitude is."

But he regards the collections as a valuable resource for scientists, especially now that it's so easy to extract and analyze their DNA.

"This is like a DNA mine down here," Warren said. "It changes the way you think about it when everything is a source of DNA."

That's where the climate change clues come from.

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Despite some prominent skeptics — Florida Gov. Rick Scott, to name one — climate change has been accepted as fact by scientists around the globe, not to mention the U.S. military, the Vatican and such major corporations as Google, Coca-Cola and General Motors.

A changing climate alters the natural world, bleaching corals in the ocean, melting the ice that polar bears call home, and the behavior and habitat of butterflies.

For some species, Warren said, "you can see a change in their coloration." As the world warms up, dark-winged butterflies can live at a higher elevation than before, he explained. That change means "their wings aren't as dark, because they don't need to collect as much solar heat as they used to."

For other species, the changes are more subtle. Take the butterfly known as the Taylor's checkerspot, named for its pattern of orange, brown and yellow wing spots.

"It had been considered extinct in Oregon as of the early 1990s," Warren said. "I had the great fortune of rediscovering it there in 1999."

In September a pair of British researchers, Michael C. Singer and Camille Parmesan, visited the Gainesville museum to pull DNA from the legs of checkerspots that had been collected in the 1930s and 1960s.

By comparing them to DNA from more recent specimens, they are able to document how the butterflies shifted their feeding and egg-laying patterns to adapt, Singer said.

Such studies should also help humans, Singer and his colleagues wrote in a 2014 scientific paper, as it "will improve our ability to predict responses to future climate warming and develop appropriate conservation strategies."

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Butterflies and moths at Florida museum offer clues to changing climate 11/28/16 [Last modified: Monday, November 28, 2016 9:11pm]
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