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The Butterfly Men

40 years of friendship, 70,000 specimens: amateur entomologists donate lifetime collection of butterflies and moths to UF’s McGuire Center

As a 4-year-old with butterfly net in hand, Ed Knudson set out to catch insects in his neighborhood. Little did he know his hobby would grow into a lifelong pursuit that would result in a collection of more than 70,000 butterflies and moths.

Knudson (BS ’69, MD ’73) and his close friend and collaborator, Charles Bordelon, have donated their lives’ work — the Texas Lepidoptera Survey Research Collection — to UF’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Unlike many collectors who focus on a handful of Lepidoptera families, Knudson and Bordelon amassed a collection of unusual taxonomic depth, with species ranging from large and flashy to tiny and understudied.

“To have a collection that’s got big showy butterflies and the micro-moths is unprecedented,” Andrew Warren, the McGuire Center’s senior collections manager, says. “There’s no other collection like it. We value it for its incredible scientific value; it’s above and beyond what most collections consist of.”

Even though many of the species are native to Texas and the Southwest, the men had decided to give their collection to UF before Bordelon’s death in 2016. The McGuire Center had the space and resources to care for it and, as the world’s only research institute solely dedicated to butterflies and moths, would put the collection to good use.

“Charles and I had originally wanted the collection to remain in Texas, but we could not find a place that it would likely be used for research,” Knudson says. “The McGuire Center had the things that we wanted and people who could work on the collection.”

Their gift to UF is a combination of Bordelon and Knudson’s individual collections, along with smaller collections donated to them throughout the years. When McGuire researchers went to Knudson’s house in Houston to pick up the specimens, they needed a 16-foot U-Haul truck.

Despite countless hours of fieldwork and an incredible collection to show for their labors, neither Knudson nor Bordelon were professional entomologists. Their collection is a perfect example of how amateur scientists can greatly help professionals, says Andrei Sourakov, the McGuire Center’s collections coordinator.

“These days, everybody talks about citizen science as if it is some new thing, without realizing that lepidopterists’ societies and lepidopterology have been thriving on citizen science for three centuries,” he says.

Big butterflies, micro-moths and everything in between

Diversity makes the collection special, Warren says. While many lepidopterists focus on particular groups of butterflies or moths, Knudson and Bordelon collected them all. Even down to micro-moths: tiny insects with a wingspan typically smaller than a dime and sometimes not much bigger than a pinhead. These smaller species are frequently overlooked by collectors, which is one reason this collection is so impressive, he says.

And while researchers at the McGuire Center often have to verify that donated specimens are correctly identified and sorted — which with 160,000 described Lepidoptera species and more than 120 families can be difficult and time-consuming — Knudson and Bordelon handed over a collection already sorted.

“It’s incredibly well organized, and everything is identified to species, which is unusual,” Warren says.

Along with the specimens and glass-topped storage drawers, Knudson included several self-published, meticulously illustrated books encompassing the results of the Texas Lepidoptera Survey.

Another reason the collection is so valuable is that it includes species from Mexico, says Thomas Emmel, founding director of the McGuire Center. Because national borders do not apply to wildlife, this breadth of representation allows researchers to better understand the fauna of the region as a whole, particularly as climate change extends the distribution of many species northward.

Knudson is happy his and Bordelon’s work will help others learn about Lepidoptera.

“People, especially children, seeing this collection and the statements about it will be encouraged to work on insects and other arthropods,” he says.

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