What Does a Lepidopterist Do?

Valerie Clark

A lepidopterist studies moths and butterflies. They are biologists or zoologists who specialize in the behavior or evolutionary history of various moth and butterfly species. Another name for someone who studies insects is an entomologist. They are often employed by universities and spend most of their time in a laboratory or in the field. As with most research-based professions, the role involves submitting results to relevant journals for publication.

A butterfly.
A butterfly.

Lepidoptera is the name of the order to which butterflies and moths belong in terms of scientific classification. On a broader scale, Lepidoptera falls under the insect class, a group of organisms that is more diverse than any other class and more abundant. Insects include more than half of all living organism on the planet. Insects have considerable value in experimental biology.

A moth.
A moth.

Insect scientists are called entomologists. Not every entomologist will become a lepidopterist, but all lepidopterists are entomologists. Research is a big part of what a lepidopterist does. Conservation biologists, evolutionary biologists and many others study insects to learn about evolution and behavior. Thus, a lepidopterist also can be a conservation biologist or evolutionary biologist.

Butterflies.
Butterflies.

These scientists apply fundamental biological and zoological principals on a daily basis in their experiments. Statistics, mathematical modeling, and biology are just a few tools that a lepidopterist may use to conduct research. Lepidopterists study butterflies and moths because they are a keystone species with an important role in many conservation and environmental issues.

Inchworms are the larvae of the geometer moth, a species of Lepidoptra.
Inchworms are the larvae of the geometer moth, a species of Lepidoptra.

Insects are heavily studied in terms of environmental issues, primarily because they have short life spans and tons of offspring. The reproductive cycle and life expectancy of most insects is short; therefore, a lepidopterist can study multiple generations of butterflies in a short period of time. Insects that lepidopterists study provide an excellent model for testing theories involving genetics and climate change.

Lepidopterists study butterflies and moths, like the silkworm, which turns into a silkworm moth.
Lepidopterists study butterflies and moths, like the silkworm, which turns into a silkworm moth.

When a lepidopterist has completed a research project, there are several journals that may be interested in publishing the results. When the research gets published, it becomes part of the cumulative knowledge and data obtained from lepidopterists internationally. Most lepidopterists are members of The Lepidopterists’ Society or the Lepidoptera Research Foundation, which were founded in 1947 and 1962, respectively.

Some entomologist are also lepidopterist and concentrate on moths and butterflies.
Some entomologist are also lepidopterist and concentrate on moths and butterflies.

The Lepidopterists’ Society was established with the intention to distribute a periodic publication of research from all branches of study and to facilitate an exchange of specimens and data between lepidopterists. The Lepidoptera Research Foundation (LRF) was created to encourage ongoing research efforts in academia, along with the periodic publication of the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera (JRL). Both of these organizations support ongoing research efforts of lepidopterists.

A lepidopterist will study the evolutionary history and behavior of moths.
A lepidopterist will study the evolutionary history and behavior of moths.

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Discussion Comments

Mykol

I think there is more interest in studying and saving butterflies than what some people realize. I have a friend who is on a mission to save a particular butterfly that is common to her area.

I don't know many details other than they are concerned about this and she is head of a committee trying to bring about public awareness. Even though this is not something she does for a living, she has a personal interest in moths and butterflies.

bagley79

@LisaLou-- I know what you mean about most people not having a clue what this is all about. My brother is a member of the Lepidopterists' Society and has even published a couple articles in different journals.

I must say, they can be very interesting to talk to and he is very passionate about what he does. There aren't many people who share this same interest or enthusiasm for moths and butterflies, so they seem to be a tight knit group of people.

LisaLou

I have a cousin who is a lepidopterist. Most people have never heard of this word and have no idea what it means. Even when he explains to people that the study of lepidoptery is researching butterflies, most people just kind of give him a blank look.

It is hard to envision how someone can make a living doing this, but he got interested in this through a professor in college. Many things he talks about are over my head, but I do know more about butterflies than I ever used to.

I also think more about how beneficial it is to study moths and butterflies and their importance for the whole eco-system. Sometimes it takes knowing someone in a field like this to realize just how much work and research is being done in an area like this.

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