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Biodiversity Blog

 

The Robb Butterfly Collection

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Stacks of thin wood display cases fill an overflow room in the Biodiversity Center’s Entomology Collection. The cases contain 10,000 specimens of butterflies gathered from all over the world, starting in the 1970s. They are the Robb butterfly collection UT acquired in the winter of 2017, now being reorganized and queued for incorporation into the main collection.

These butterflies were once part of an evolving collection of the late Dr. Jeff Robb, a professor of government at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Robb was a lifetime collector of Lepidoptera and an advocate of protecting and supporting habitats for them. He developed TWU’s Dr. Bettye Meyers Butterfly Garden to help the dwindling population of pollinators. (https://www.twu.edu/butterfly-garden/)

Robb’s collection is significant as he was active at a time when there were less restrictive collecting laws and less environmental destruction and habitat loss for many butterflies. Some of the specimens in his collection would now be nearly impossible to obtain owing to the destruction of the habitat or collapse of the populations. For example, the Robb collection holds a skipper from Florida collected a decade before the Florida population went extinct.

A big challenge facing the Entomology Collection is the identification of these butterflies. Most have collection data on the labels, but lack assignment to species. Roughly 20 volunteers assist with this momentous task. Some are UT Austin students that come to the collections facility to work, and some are working remotely throughout Texas by accessing photos of the collections via Google drive.

Some of the species can be particularly challenging to identify, as mimicry of other butterfly species is not uncommon. With this, predators such as birds will learn which butterflies are toxic or unpalatable and not eat them. In turn, some butterflies will mimic the wing patterns, shapes, and colors of these other species that are toxic. This sends the signal “I’m unpalatable!” or “I’m poisonous!” to the predator that takes an interest in them.

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Mimicry of certain colors and patterns can be region specific, which can help with identification as it reveals where a specimen is from. However, some species of butterflies have numerous morphs. Female butterflies in particular tend to have greater varieties in mimicry for reasons that are still poorly understood. One species in the Robb collection, the mocker swallowtail, (Papilio dardanus) has 16 female morphs, making identification difficult.

Despite these challenges, the Robb butterfly collection is a welcome component of the Entomology Collection, expanding and diversifying Lepidoptera species representation.

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