After my presentation to the Austin Butterfly Forum last month, I opened the floor to questions from the membership. Three questions stood out, and I would like to share them here, along with perhaps more refined answers than I gave at the time. Meanwhile, I am always happy to entertain questions from my readers. Ask away!
Q: You mentioned finding all these species new to your area. How do you figure that out, and how do you decide whether to make that public?
Answer: I do not always know whether I have something significant or worthy of reporting, but I like to err on the side of a possible new discovery. Making an observation public helps in the verification process because more eyes, and often better-informed individuals, are looking at it. If someone shames you for posting a "common" species that you identified as something more rare, then that is on them, not you. If you are not posting [to iNaturalist or Bugguide.net for example], then you are not contributing to our collective knowledge. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you are not, then you are not learning, as well as not contributing. There is always a risk of looking stupid, but it is never wrong to put something out there (I then shared my own misidentification of a Mexican Silverspot butterfly that turned out to be much more exciting and significant than posting what I thought at the time was "merely" a Gulf Fritillary). While I normally have a better-than-average idea of what is supposed to occur where, I am as vulnerable as the next person to making mistakes or incorrect assumptions. It bruises your ego for a bit, but everyone is more informed in the long run.
Q: Have you noticed a decline in insect populations, and if so what do you attribute that to? Do you think global warming is having an impact?
Answer: Where I live we see great fluctuations in insect abundance and diversity from one year to the next, usually related to the amount of precipitation we receive, or lack thereof. The extreme swings of the weather pendulum seem to be something rather new, and would tend to lend credence to the idea that climate change is a real phenomenon. We are seeing more southerly species appearing in Colorado that we have not seen previously, or not as frequently. There have been scientific studies that show pretty conclusively that alpine species are dwindling in numbers as their high elevation habitat becomes too hot and inhospitable. I think there is no question that global warming is having an impact. Those whose occupations are in the fossil fuel industry may have another opinion.
Q: What would you say is the most exciting place you have ever lived, or traveled to, for insects?
Answer: That is a something of an unfair question [I was addressing folks in Austin, Texas and thought maybe that location was the answer he was looking for], but....I'm not sure that I can point to a particular geographic place. I think for me it is a matter of specific experiences, isolated encounters with animals that leave the most vivid impressions and that I can recall most intensely. It is not always an insect that figures into the picture, either. A couple days ago when we were at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory and we came across a coral snake, very suddenly, right in the middle of the road. Before we traveled here I had contemplated what kinds of potentially dangerous creatures we might stumble upon, and a coral snake was not even on my radar. I don't see snakes very often, anywhere, let alone one so colorful and venomous. That got my adrenaline pumping, and I will not soon forget the experience. The short answer is that I can find wonderful creatures anywhere, from my backyard to a southern swamp. Yes, some places may be more exotic than others, but they are all what you make of them.
Please feel free to share your own questions in comments and I will periodically make a blog post to answer them.