They arrive in wooden drawers with glass tops and in glassine envelopes - sometimes by the truckload. Last year, 333,000 butterfly and moth specimens were sent to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
But where once the delicate specimens were catalogued and, sometimes, displayed, they're now playing a new role: nature's telltale.
Butterflies are good environmental indicators, biologists say. Tracking the types and numbers of butterfly species across time and space can provide early warnings when something is amiss. That's why Jacqueline Miller, cocurator of the museum's McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, is using its more than 3.5 million specimens to create a detailed national butterfly database.
If it succeeds, the United States will have in place a biological gauge to measure everything from the health of prairies to changing weather patterns. It will also be following in the footsteps of Canada and Mexico, which already have butterfly databases.
"People think these are dusty old things," Dr. Miller says. "But there is a lot of information locked in these collections."
For example, many butterfly species rely on one family of plants for survival. Often, these plants are found only in a particular habitat (such as prairie or tropical rain forest), and in a certain temperature range. So by tracking the butterfly population in a certain area, scientist can tell, for example, that the tall-grass prairie is quickly disappearing from a broad swath of North America. Or that the long-term weather patterns in an area have shifted over several decades.
Now Miller works weekends adding information from the McGuire Center collection into her database.
The Mexican and Canadian databases include the date and location of where the butterfly was observed or collected. They have already answered such questions as how much of the vital habitat for endangered Canadian butterflies is already protected in national parks. (Answer: very little.) The reasons the US lags behind its North American neighbors in tracking butterflies are as complex as international politics and as simple as money and logistics.
While Miller won't need cooperation from many other collections in the US to make her national butterfly database comprehensive, the amount of time and energy needed for data entry is daunting.
Canada's database contains about a half-million records, says J. Donald LaFontaine, a research scientist at the Canadian National Collection of Insects at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa. The US specimens in the McGuire collection may be twice that number. The center's butterfly and moth collection is the second largest in the world. Only the Natural History Museum in London has more.
Miller plans to donate her time, and can count on dozens of colleagues and students to help enter data, but she says it will still take $250,000 to $400,000 to get the project off the ground. Miller applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for funding in years past, but was rejected.
In Mexico, the federal government contributed much of the funding for its database, as well as for databases of mammals and birds. The project is an effort to comply with the Convention on Biological Diversity, known as the Rio Convention. The treaty mandates the creation of a worldwide biodiversity database.
The Canadian effort was also motivated by the Rio Convention, says Mr. LaFontaine. The Canadian government seeded the butterfly database as the pilot project for a nationwide biodiversity database, which is linked to the global database. "My guess is if we had to go through our equivalent of the NSF, we would still be waiting," says LaFontaine.
Although the US has not ratified the Rio Convention, some federal agencies are working to improve access to biological information about butterflies. The US Geological Survey's National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) recently took over hosting a 10-year-old attempt to get nationwide butterfly information on the Internet. Currently, the project's website (www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/bflyusa.htm) is more of an electronic book than a database. Hyperlinks take users from page to page. Maps of butterfly ranges are by county and are static. The website was last updated two years ago.
Revamped by an NBII team in Bozeman, Mont., a new version will feature maps that reflect the latest records, and will be easier to update. The new site is expected to debut in September.
The founders of the project, called Butterflies of North America, would like to add features similar to the Mexican and Canadian databases, reports Kelly Lotts, the science content specialist at the NBII's Bozeman location, but adding those features will take money that isn't available now.
Miller plans to resume her quest for funding this winter. Meanwhile, she is diligently entering data on the collection's butterflies from northern Mexico. Backed by the same sources funding the rest of the Mexican database, her work will become part of the center's database as well as being added to Mexico's.
"We've tended not to sell our programs as well as we should," Miller says. She suspects that marketing, a concept almost alien to butterfly scientists, is needed. "We need to make everyone think about how important these species are to our lives."