Research Projects

There are many projects taking place in the lab and with collaborators from other institutions. A few projects are listed below. For post-docs, students and volunteers interested in joining the lab, see the lab’s research opportunities.

Function and evolution of ultrasound

X. falcoHawkmoths are one of the most charismatic groups of moths. With incredible proboscides that can reach more than a foot in length, they are a primary focal group to understand life-history evolution. Building on the phylogeny of Kawahara et al. (2009) and others, our goal is to test ecological hypotheses on how such a remarkable group became so successful. One of our primary foci is an NSF-funded project on anti-bat ultrasound production and hearing in hawkmoths with the Barber Lab at Boise State University. Do these moths communicate with bats? Our recent study suggests that hawkmoths produce ultrasound to bat calls (Barber and Kawahara, 2013). How has sound production evolved in hawkmoths and other moths? We use state-of-the-art filming technology and molecular tools to understand this complex interaction. Fieldwork is conducted in Borneo and South America. A photo gallery of hawkmoths can be
found here.

Evolution of butterflies

More than 18,000 species of butterflies are known, and they have been at the center of scientific research for hundreds of years, but data on these insects are scattered. With the Guralnick Lab at UF, Pierce Lab at Harvard, Jetz Lab at Yale, Reis Lab at George Washington University, and the Lohman Lab at CCNY, we are comprehensively synthesizing trait data and building an evolutionary framework for butterflies. The four-year project funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Evolution of moth wings and their shape

There are nearly 150,000 species of moths and they possess wings with many shapes and sizes, but little is known about why these shapes and sizes have evolved. With collaborators, we are examining the function of different wing shapes and sizes and combining these with molecular phylogenetic approaches to examine why such features have evolved. Our lab is using tools to digitize museum specimens and utilizing geometric morphometric software to characterize wing shape and size. This study is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Environmental Research Council (NERC), totaling nearly $1.2M.

Leafminer Evolution

Leafminer Insect herbivores and their hosts dominate terrestrial biomes and may constitute nearly 50% of the earth’s biodiversity. As herbivores and pollinators, Lepidoptera are one of the primary insect groups responsible for the radiation of flowering plants. Since the pioneering work of Ehrlich and Raven (1964), there has been great interest in trying to detect and understand macroevolutionary patterns in insect-plant associations. Most macroevolutionary studies on herbivorous insects have focused on external plant feeders and few have examined patterns of life history evolution for internal herbivores such as leafminers. Gracillariidae constitute the primary group of plant mining Lepidoptera. With a team of international collaborators, we build on the work of Kawahara et al. (2011; BMC Evol Biol) and seek to utilize available fossil data to understand the evolutionary history of Gracillariidae, their host associations, and stabilize their classification. A photo gallery of Gracillariidae can be found here.

Hawaiian Fancy-Case Caterpillar Radiation

fig_hyposmocoma Fancy Cased Caterpillars in the genus Hyposmocoma include an extraordinary group of moths all endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. The archipelago is one of the most threatened species “diversity hotspots” in the world, and large endemic radiations are thought to have already lost many of their species. The total number of Hyposmocoma species may be greater than the radiation of Drosophila. Unlike most cosmopterigids which are internal feeders of leaves, seeds and stems, Hyposmocoma feed externally. Hyposmocoma have extraordinary, in some cases globally unique, life-histories and behavior. Some caterpillars are carnivorous, feeding on tree snails and others are amphibious living above and under water along streams. Larvae in the genus create silk “cases” in which they perambulate while protected and camouflaged. An extraordinary diversity of larval case types exists, and to date, more than ten different types have been identified. The research is focused on the systematics, diversification and evolution of these moths, and is being conducted in collaboration with the Rubinoff Lab at the University of Hawaii.

Higher-Level Relationships and Diversification in Lepidoptera

We are conducting higher-level phylogenetic analyses of Lepidoptera to understand how major families are related to each other. Some of this initial work has been published recently (Kawahara and Breinholt 2014, Proc B), through collaborations with 1KITE (Misof et al. 2014, Science), and through collaborations with the Lepidoptera AToL core research group (Mitter and Regier Labs) at the University of Maryland. These studies build on the work of Regier et al. (2009; BMC Evol Biol), and additional publications from the Maryland research team.

Twirler Moth Behavior and Evolution

While the spinning adult behavior has evolved multiple times in microlepidoptera, little is known about the significance of this behavior. Building on prior work (Kawahara and Adamski 2006; Kawahara et al. 2011), we are studying this behavior and testing hypotheses on their origins in two unrelated genera, Beltheca (Gelechiidae) and Dryadaula (Tineidae).

Evolution of Acoustic Signaling in Lepidopteran Caterpillars

With the Yack Neuroethology Laboratory at Carleton University, we are examining the evolution of acoustic signaling in lepidopteran caterpillars. Previous work includes Scott et al. (2010) and several other studies are expected to result from this collaboration.

Snout Butterfly Systematics

Snout butterflies (Nymphalidae: Libytheinae) are morphologically one of the most unusual groups of Lepidoptera. Species in the nymphalid subfamily Libytheinae are unique in having exceptionally long labial palpi and modified ventral wings that closely resemble dead leaves. The subfamily has an unusual distribution and it contains both very widespread and local species, including several island endemics. My previous work focused on the systematics and evolution of both the extant and fossil species in this subfamily.