UF student wins $80,000 international conservation award for butterfly research

October 19th, 2006

Photos available

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida entomology doctoral student Emily Saarinen has received the international Canon National Parks Science Scholars scholarship, an $80,000 three-year award for her research on endangered Miami blue butterflies. Saarinen is one of eight students from the Americas to receive the award, designed to support training for the next generation of conservation scientists. The program is sponsored by Canon U.S.A. Inc., the U.S. National Park Service and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Saarinen works in UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity and the department of entomology and nematology in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. She is co-advised by Jaret Daniels and Jacqueline Miller.

Her research on the endangered Miami blue butterfly in south Florida explores how inbreeding affects endangered populations, and she was awarded the scholarship based on two years of foundational research. The scholarship will fund the completion of her project, which integrates ecology and genetics—a fusion that is important for the future of conservation, Saarinen said.

“My research looks at the genetic variability of the Miami blue butterfly,” Saarinen said. “Some of the research questions are: Why did this once-common species suddenly plummet? Did genetics have an influence? If they are severely inbred, what are the effects on the last population of butterflies?”

To answer these questions, Saarinen is examining “molecular markers”—or regions within the Miami blue butterfly genome—that are inherently variable in a healthy and genetically diverse population. These regions of the genome change with each generation, adding to the inherent genetic variability of the species. However, if the butterflies are inbred due to an extremely small population size, they will have a higher frequency of regions that are similar to their relatives—rather than different—and to other individuals, which indicates a loss of genetic diversity. Losing this inherent genetic variation between generations equates to a loss of ecological flexibility to adapt to changing habitat and environments.

“It’s that genetic variability that is the fuel for evolution and change,” Saarinen said.

The Miami blue butterfly was once abundant throughout 16 coastal counties in south Florida. Only one population remains in the wild, located in Bahia Honda Key State Park. Lepidopterists—researchers who study butterflies and moths—have succeeded in rearing a stable population of Miami blues at the McGuire Center in Gainesville. The program has produced more than 25,000 captive-bred butterflies, and Saarinen and other UF researchers are releasing some of them as caterpillars in Biscayne National Park near Miami to try and re-establish a colony of Miami blues.

Saarinen’s project proposes examining the genetic variability of the Miami blue within the wild, as well as within the reintroduced and the captive-bred populations. She will compare these populations to each other and to the historic butterfly population by taking genetic samples from Florida Museum specimens dating to the turn of the century. The Florida Museum collection contains about 300 Miami blue specimens.

“Having all those different groups to compare gives us an idea of how inbreeding affects the fitness of the organisms and what that looks like genetically, if they are inbred,” Saarinen said. It is unusual within the field of wildlife conservation to have such diverse populations from which to draw samples for genetic comparisons, Saarinen said.

To sample the living populations, she removes a two-by-two millimeter bit of the wing, from which she extracts genetic material in the lab. Losing this piece of wing material does not harm the butterflies.

“I’ve seen individuals I’ve just taken a sample from, and 10 minutes later they’ve found a mate,” Saarinen said. “So it’s not adversely affecting their behavior.” From museum samples, she removes a leg.

“This is a wonderful project because I get to spend time in two places that I love: working in the field and then working in the lab,” Saarinen said. “This research gives us a really nice look at how genetics and ecology work together in conservation.” Saarinen said she has received support from many different groups and people.

“I have gotten immeasurable support from the entomology and nematology department, chaired by John Capinera, as well as support from IFAS,” Saarinen said. “I owe a lot to Ricardo Zambrano of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Sue Perry and Elsa Alvear from the National Park Service. This project will be a success because of the multi-agency participation.”

The Canon National Parks Science Scholars Program was established in 1997 to develop the next generation of scientists working in the fields of conservation, environmental science and national park management. The program annually awards eight scholarships to Ph.D. students conducting research critical to conserving national parks in the Americas.

“Emily’s project illustrates the power of genetics to aid species conservation, and in so doing help preserve the ecological integrity of national parks,” said Gary Machlis, director of the Canon National Parks Science Scholars Program and Canon Professor of Conservation at the University of Idaho.

For more information:

Canon National Parks Science Scholars Web site:
http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~gmachlis/director.html

Emily Saarinen—E-mail: eheff@ufl.edu; Phone: (352) 846-2000, ext. 242

Gary Machlis—Director of Canon National Parks Science Scholars Program; E-mail: gmachlis@uidaho.edu; Phone: (208) 885-7129

Media Contact: Paul Ramey,  (352) 846-2000,  pramey@ufl.edu
Writer: DeLene Beeland