Few insects have endeared themselves to humanity as much as have the butterflies. It's easy to see why we like them: their boldly patterned wings can be beautiful, even jewel-like, and we usually find them fluttering leisurely through hedgerows and flower gardens (and not, say, burrowing through rotting wood, or hovering over dumpsters). People have liked butterflies for a very long time, too. Many of the first entomologists ("studiers of insects") began as amateur butterfly enthusiasts. Some took on butterfly catching as a lifelong hobby, and left behind massive collections of pinned specimens accompanied by meticulous descriptions of the life stages and host plants of different species.
The bejeweléd treasure trove of knowledge that has resulted should, in theory, make butterflies the best understood of all insect clades, and ideal subjects of ecological research. Unfortunately, a lot of this information is out of reach of the broader scientific community, either gathering dust in the attics of private collections or hidden in the unturned pages of ancient field guides. What the butterflies need is a network: a cooperative online platform to collect, organize, and distribute this information to the public, free-of-charge, for use in research and science education.
To kick off the ButterflyNet project we are producing a complete species-level butterfly phylogeny, the first of any major insect clade, that will let us organize the approximately 18,800 butterfly species according to their evolutionary relationships. To each species we will then attach all available data on geographic distributions, host plant associations, and other interesting life history traits, collected and compiled from digitized field guides and online resources. When our work is done, the accumulated knowledge from centuries of observations and ongoing research will be made available through ButterflyNet to expert scientists and amateur butterfly enthusiasts alike.
For more information, take a look our NSF abstracts:
We are in the process of assembling a molecular phylogeny that will reveal (once and for all) the evolutionary relationships of all 18,728 species within the butterfly superfamily Papilionoidea, as defined by van Nieukerken. To do this, we are using two types of sampling. To start, we are sampling one "exemplar" species from each butterfly genus (1815 total) extremely thoroughly. We are using a specially designed anchored hybrid enrichment probe set to target around 500 loci within the generalized butterfly genome. These 500 loci include 10 "standard" loci that have been used in butterfly phylogenetic research for many years. We will compare the sequence data we obtain from these exemplars, and use standardized measurements of genetic similarity to pin down the evolutionary relationships of all 1815 butterfly genera.
We will then map the rest of the 16,913 species in Papilionoidea onto this highly resolved phylogeny backbone. To expedite the process, we will use a second, simplified probe set to target only the 10 standard loci mentioned above: CAD, Wingless, COI, EF-1a, RpS5, RpS2, MDH, GAPDH, DDC and IDH. This will have the added benefit of allowing us to combine our results with sequence data generated from previous research on butterflies, which will let us estimate evolutionary relationships within each genus with a great deal of confidence!
Hunting butterflies used to be a fairly popular hobby, and most collectors were very good at finding them! Historical records of the "geospatial presence and absence" of different butterfly species cover large portions of the globe, and in some cases multiple centuries. In the past, researchers had to go through museums and field guides to get at this information (which would be scattered, if it was preserved at all). Recently, dedicated butterfly monitoring programs supported by citizen scientists have achieved huge increases in data influx— the only thing that's missing is a unified system of information organization.
Species distribution information is the foundation of most biodiversity research. We plan on combining the disparate sources of species occurrence data described above with modern environmental modeling techniques to produce a "Map of Butterflies," a record of previous and current species distributions supported by ongoing observations from the butterfly enthusiast community. As part of this work, we are using data and infrastructure from the Map of Life to develop maps and methods of characterizing the geographical distribution of butterfly species worldwide.
Species traits are the product of evolutionary selection, and they determine how populations function within a given ecosystem. It is interesting enough to know what types of ecological and life history traits different butterfly species have, but matching this information with our phylogeny and distribution map will give future comparative studies great weight and significance. We will be able to investigate the origins of butterfly biodiversity, explore the co-evolution of caterpillar, adult, and host plant, and predict the responses of different species to climate and land-use change.
Aduse-Poku K, Brattstrom O, Kodandaramaiah U, Lees D, Brakefield P, Wahlberg N. 2015. Systematics and historical biogeography of the old world butterfly subtribe Mycalesina (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Satyrinae). BMC Evolutionary Biology 15:167.
Breinholt JW, Earl C, Lemmon AR, Lemmon EM, Xiao L, Kawahara AY. 2017. Resolving relationships among the megadiverse butterflies and moths with a novel pipeline for Anchored Phylogenomics. Systematic Biology. DOI: 10.1093/sysbio/syx048
Breinholt JW, Lemmon AR, Lemmon EM, Xiao L, Kawahara AY. Anchored hybrid enrichment in Lepidoptera: leveraging genomic data for studies on the megadiverse butterflies and moths. Systematic Biology (in review).
Espeland M, Hall JPW, DeVries PJ, Lees DC, Cornwall M, Hsu Y-F, Wu L-W, Campbell DL, Talavera G, Vila R, Salzman S, Ruehr S, Lohman DJ, Pierce NE. 2015. Phylogeny and biogeography of the Riodinidae (Lepidoptera: Papilionoidea). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 93: 296–306.
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Kaliszewska ZA, Lohman DJ, Sommer K, Adelson G, Rand DB, Mathew J, Talavera G, Pierce NE. 2015. When caterpillars attack: biogeography and life history evolution of the Miletinae (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae). Evolution 69: 571-588.
Kawahara AY, Breinholt JW. 2014. Phylogenomics provides strong evidence for relationships of butterflies and moths. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281: 20140970.
Pierce NE, Braby MF, Heath A, Lohman DJ, Mathew J, Rand DB, Travassos MA. 2002. The ecology and evolution of ant association in the Lycaenidae (Lepidoptera). Annual Review of Entomology 47: 733-771.