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The Butterfly People-and their impacts on the creatures they love
Sarah Mae Yu
B.A. Biology and English
Dartmouth College, 2011
SUBMITTED TO THE PROGRAM IN COMPARATIVE MEDIA STUDIES/WRITING IN PARTIAL
FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN SCIENCE WRITING
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGYSeptember 2013 @2013 Sarah Mae Yu. All rights reserved.
The author hereby grants to MIT permission to reproduce and to distribute publicly paper and electronic copies of this thesis document in whole or in part in any medium now known or hereafter created.
Signature of Author:
Gradua e Program in Science Writing June 10, 2013
John Durant MIT Museum Directo ofessor in the Sc echnology & Society Program Thesis Supervisor
Seth Mnookin Assistant Professor of Science Writing/Director Graduate Program in Science Writing The Butterfly People-and their impacts on the creatures they love by Sarah Mae Yu Submitted to the Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing on June 10, 2013 in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Science in Science Writing ABSTRACT Humans have been entranced by butterflies for thousands of years. This thesis parses apart the complex interactions between humans and butterflies, focusing specifically on people whose lifestyles are significantly intertwined with butterflies. On-site research observing butterfly collectors, breeders, museum curators, photographers and conservationists was conducted, along with historical and biological research. The effect of humans on butterflies was also analyzed, and it was discovered that enthusiasts often have unexpected impacts on butterfly populations.
Thesis Supervisor: John Durant Title: MIT Museum Director and Adjunct Professor in the Science, Technology & Society Program On July 23, 2006, Ed Newcomer, an undercover Fish and Wildlife agent, finally managed to catch Hisayoshi Kojima. After his plane descended into Los Angeles, Kojima had hidden his valuable cargo in a slim wooden box and attempted to exit the airport. But a suspicious customs official detained him and notified the agent. When Kojima first saw Newcomer, he seemed relieved, thinking him a friend. Instead, Newcomer showed Kojima his badge and arrested him for smuggling.
This was a triumphant moment for Newcomer. He had been trying to catch Kojima in the act since 2003, having infiltrated his smuggling ring. The Fish and Wildlife service had been after Kojima even longer than that, with Kojima's name first being tied to an infamous case back in 1995. Other agents had attempted to unearth enough evidence to arrest the smuggler, but without success.
Kojima earned his livelihood from illicit activities, smuggling and then selling his contraband for tens of thousands of dollars. It was remarkably easy for him to sneak his illegal goods of choice across country borders.
Kojima considered himself the Indiana Jones of smuggling. With his round, friendly, almost-boyish face, he hardly seemed the criminal type.
He didn't deal in weapons, drugs or explosives, but something more unusual; he made his fortune selling rare, poached butterflies. When Newcomer first visited Koiima's small apartment in Los Angeles, he saw shelves stuffed with rare insects, both dead and alive, all ready to sell to anyone willing to pay the price. Customers loved him because his specimens were of the highest quality and his prices were the lowest. Of course, competing salesmen hated him for the same reasons.
Even so, by the end of the undercover sting, Newcomer had spent $14,500 on various purchases, including two Queen Alexandria specimens that Kojima sold to him for $8,500.
I was a bit disappointed to be assigned as an intern in the butterfly room at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). Although an insectlover myself, I have always shied away from butterflies. I was put off by how acceptable it was for ditzy girls to get butterflies tattooed on their ankles. I preferred the stinging, buzzing kind of bug: wasps, bees and flies, perhaps because the pretty girls with the butterfly ankles wrinkled their noses at these unappreciated creatures.
So I began my internship expecting to be slightly bored. I didn't anticipate becoming interested in the specimens or the people that looked after them. But upon starting work, I was surprised to find the butterflies so carefully spread and mounted, the labels on the pins often reflecting the personalities of the collectors. The unique characters of the butterflies and of the people that so obviously loved them drew me in.
Some collectors sketched small, detailed maps denoting where they had caught a particular butterfly, while others would stuff the abdomen of their specimen with cotton, to ensure that the midsections would stay plump and attractive for eternity. A few collectors painstakingly raised butterflies from caterpillars and listed the date of their emergence from the chrysalis.
Many of the butterflies were over a hundred years old, but so carefully preserved that only the dust on their wings told of their age.
Human's love affair with butterflies spans thousands of years.
Throughout history, they have ben included in mythology, depicted in art, and written about in literature. Paintings of butterflies go as far back as 1350 B.C. in Thebes, Egypt, and the Greek word for butterfly, psyche, is the same word that is used for the human soul. Scientists have gradually unraveled some of the secrets of caterpillars' miraculous metamorphosis into butterflies and engineers continue to study the nanostructures of their iridescent wing scales in the hopes of creating new pigments.
Ecologists have learned that some butterflies' spectacular wings are brightly colored to indicate that they are poisonous or unpalatable, while other innocuous species mimic the appearance of poisonous ones. Some have brilliant eyespots that spook animals into believing that the butterfly is much larger than it is. It is ironic that the butterfly's beauty, which originally evolved to ward off predators, has attracted the attention of the most formidable predator of all: mankind.
There is a distinctive smell that emanates from the butterfly room, a combination of dust, fumigants and balsa wood. There are multiple barriers to prevent a curious wanderer from stumbling across this hidden collection, including security guards, a private elevator and a door that is always locked unless someone is in the room.
My museum boss, Rod Eastwood is the caretaker of this vast collection:
hundreds of thousands of butterflies tightly packed into a room not much larger than a small studio apartment. He mirrors a trend that is noticeable in many butterfly enthusiasts: people who learn extensively about butterflies, not for the sake of a PhD, or in order to advance their career, but out of a genuine and fierce desire. Many butterfly people have had other vocations before devoting their time to this, their true passion.
"It's never too late to change direction in your life," Eastwood likes to tell people. Australian by birth, Eastwood spent his childhood roaming around "the Bush", as he calls it, playing with insects and lizards. But he spent a substantial part of his professional life as civil engineer. It wasn't until he was 50 that he finally decided to start over as an undergraduate and then a doctoral student in zoology. But butterflies have always held a prominent place in his life. Long before he became an entomologist, Eastwood was publishing papers on butterflies. By the time he came to Harvard as a postdoctoral student, he had amassed a personal collection that included Lepidoptera of every family from all over the world.
Eastwood now lives butterflies. He works in the butterfly room six days a week, often staying until seven at night, peering at specimens under a magnifying glass, correcting centuries old misidentifications and repairing crumbling pin labels. With his bouncing white hair, slightly lined face and jeans pulled up to his navel, Eastwood at sixty-six, is unmistakably older than the other postdoctoral candidates in the MCZ and everyone treats him more like a professor. Before he inspects a butterfly, he has to don his reading glasses, perching them on the tip of his nose much like a librarian.
Sharon Stichter comes into the room from time to time to work alongside Eastwood. A woman perhaps in her seventies, she lets out a shivery, girly laugh when I tell her that I am interested in her work. She claims to not be an expert in Lepidoptera, but has no difficulty rattling off a string of well-informed observations about the life cycle of swallowtails.
Stichter spends much of her time in the room poring over old manuscripts, trying to piece together the history of butterfly collecting in Massachusetts.
When I first meet Stichter, she is absorbed in collectors' journals. She squints at the documents as she writes comments about them, pressing the pen hard against her notebook, as if to permanently cement historical facts not just onto the paper, but also onto her mind. Like Eastwood, she too had led a completely unrelated life before finally settling on butterflies. And also like Eastwood, she has already had an impact in the community of butterfly people. A retired professor of American History, she has done something that nascent researchers dream of: becoming a co-author on a paper published in the prestigious science journal Nature.
The historical records she has pieced together, along with butterfly surveys from the Massachusetts Butterfly Club, are being statistically analyzed to map regional changes in butterfly populations. Along with Harvard Forest scientists, Stichter has been able to show how butterflies are reacting to climate change, discovering that butterfly species are moving north as the temperature increases. Warm-climate butterflies, such as the Giant Swallowtail, are moving into Massachusetts, while cold-climate butterflies-the Aphrodite Fritillary, for example-are moving out. Stichter and her collaborators believe that this is occurring partly because climate change is causing their host plants to grow in higher latitudes and native Massachusetts' butterflies are migrating north to follow their food source.
Though Stichter and Eastwood are around the same age and work sideby-side peaceably enough, they disagree about butterfly management and conservation. Eastwood, a collector, believes that specimens can be responsibly caught without negatively impacting wild populations. This is possible, he argues, if butterflies are collected in reasonable numbers and precious reproductive individuals, such as young females, are left alone to breed and lay eggs. Stichter, on the other hand, belongs to the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), which discourages collection for anything other than scientific research. Since Stichter and Eastwood hold rather moderate views, they get along. However, more militant collectors and conservationists are often at odds with one another.
There is history hidden beneath the wings of the butterflies in MCZ, secrets that they can tell us about the time period in which they were caught. Some of the butterflies in the Harvard collection are over 200 years old, the labels yellowed and cracking, the ink faded to a faint grey. They come from places that no longer exist on the map, listed under antiquated names like "Formosa" and "Kowloon." These butterflies are true relics of the past. Though their colors remain vibrant behind cabinet glass, the world in which they were caught was dramatically different from our own.
Some of the world's most beautiful butterflies are from Formosa, now known as Taiwan. From the collection tags, it is evident that many of these specimens were first caught and pinned in Taiwan and then sold to wealthy collectors in the U.S. Two particular species in the collection, the Great Purple Emperor and the Taiwan Large Crow, have already become extinct on the island. They are large and charismatic: the Great Purple Emperor has swaths of iridescent blue-violet on its wings, while the Taiwan Large Crow has delicate lavender spots, making them highly coveted. Their demise in Taiwan is due in part to the collecting that made it possible for them to stay preserved at Harvard, reminders of a more fertile past.
Taiwan was once a butterfly haven. There are 400 butterfly species known to live on the island, of which a substantial minority (twenty percent) are endemic - that is, found only in Taiwan. By comparison, the whole of North America-over 680 times larger than Taiwan-only has about 700 butterfly species. But recently, Taiwan's butterflies have been under threat.
Some populations have been reduced to one percent of their original size, and a few species have already become extinct. Urbanization and deforestation are mainly to blame for these loSSe, hut xnnrtation has also taken its toll. From the 1950s through 1970s, at the zenith of the exportation craze, Taiwan shipped out up to 30 million butterflies a year. This booming industry buoyed the economy and supported thousands of families who caught butterflies and worked in butterfly processing factories. Many exported specimens were turned into ornamental decorations and pinned specimens that were sent all over the world. But this trade came at an enormous cost to the butterfly populations themselves.
Eastwood maintains that many of the Taiwanese butterflies were harvested sustainably, and perhaps they were, but he had to concede that the extinction of the Taiwan Large Crow in the 1960s coincided with the peak of exportation.