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Museum Experts Sift Through the Arctic's Largest Butterfly Collection

Fairbanks, AK - It will be a few months before butterflies flit through the air in Interior Alaska, but the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was recently filled with them.  The museum is working to catalogue the second-largest collection of Arctic butterflies and moths in the world. It’s the largest private collection of its kind.  Eventually most of the specimens will be passed on to the Smithsonian.

The faint scent of moth balls hangs in the air in a back hallway at the Museum of the North.  In fact the smell was so strong a few weeks ago, some employees left work early. Halfway down the hall, there’s a small, locked lab. “So, we’re in a small room packed, every surface and most of the floor space is covered with the drawers of Kenelm Philip’s butterfly collection.” Derek Sikes is the Curator of Insects at the Museum.  He usually works on arthropods – hard bodied bugs like beetles and spiders, but lately he’s found himself literally surrounded by stacks of wooden boxes filled with more delicate and graceful Lepidoptera, better known as moths and butterflies. 

The specimens came from Kenelm Philip, one of the first scientists to start collecting butterflies and moths in the Far North back in the 1960’s. “Almost nothing was known about butterflies in Alaska," says Sikes.  "Butterflies are a very high profile group.  They’re like the birds of the insect world. So, imagine coming to Alaska and nobody knowing anything about the birds.”

But Kenelm Philip didn’t just catch butterflies. Sikes calls him a ‘scientific Renaissance Man.’ “In addition to loving classical music, he had his PhD from Yale in radio astronomy," Sikes says. "He also published on fractals, he published on microscopes, so he was into the mechanics of microscopy and he also wrote a computer program, a mapping program.”

Philip passed away in March, leaving behind one of the largest collections of Arctic Lepidoptera in the world. He kept his specimens in a fire-proof lab he built next to a house filled with microscopes, old computers and piles of field notes, not to mention an endless supply of moth balls - an adventure for someone like Derek Sikes, who was charged with transporting the entire collection to the Museum. “We were just sifting through piles and piles of papers and we would come across weird surprises, like underneath a pile of papers, there’s a jar of cyanide or a bullet, so it’s an interesting problem to work on.”

There are at least 83,000 butterfly and moth specimens, but Sikes says they haven’t been counted since the 1980’s. “We don’t really know how many he added to the collection since then.  So, there’s more than 83,000.”

The diverse array of Arctic butterflies and moths are joined by more exotic specimens from faraway places like Ethiopia and the Philippines There are some specimens that haven’t been lined up and pinned under glass.  But those that are, are nearly perfect. “You can see here, the arrangement of these drawers is artistic.” Sikes pulls out a drawer filled with rows of small, iridescent blue butterflies.

“These are blues, a delicate group of the smallest bodied butterflies," he describes the insects inside. "Of course the blues have this very metallic and gorgeous color.”

Their heads and antennae are aligned perfectly.  Their wings are spread wide.  Underneath a glass cover, they float permanently over little squares of paper, covered in fine handwriting.  Each tag notes where and when the butterfly was collected. Some come from Murphy Dome north of Fairbanks. Others come from Philip’s favorite spot on Eagle Summit, 120 miles away. There’s also a row from Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territory. “He would align species by their color patterns and geographically so that if there was a change from a northern, to southern part of the range, you’d be able to detect it in the specimens.”

This collection holds answers about differences in geography and sex.  A collection that spans as many years may also answer questions about the effects of climate change over time.  Sikes says there is plenty that may come from the collection. “I’m sure there’s treasures we have yet to uncover,” says Sikes.

Before he passed away, Kenelm Philip negotiated to transfer 90 percent of his collection to the Smithsonian Institution.  The Museum of the North will house the rest.  Sikes and colleagues will work through the summer to catalogue and photograph everything with funding assistance from the National Park Service and the National Science Foundation.