New Butterfly Species was Right Under our Noses

Butterflies are a wonderful part of the spring season. Many people seek them out or plant gardens to attract them. Kids and adults alike enjoy seeing these creatures of beauty. What many people don’t know is that people who study butterflies are a species of their own. They are called lepidopterists. It has been a long time since there has been any news of unknown species in the buttery world. Yet, recently, a new butterfly species has been named.

The Collection

This new species has been right under the noses of scientists for almost 60 years. A teenager named Thomas Emmel knew he loved butterflies from an early age. He is now in his 70s and is a reputable lepidopterist, working at the University of Florida. At the age of 17, Emmel ventured out on an expedition in Mexico. He came back with a collection of fawn colored butterflies. Emmel’s butterfly collecting began when he was eight years old with homemade net constructed by his father.

Emmel was invited to assist ornithologist, L. Irby Davis, on a trip to southern Mexico and British Honduras. This venture was aimed at recording song birds. Emmel’s job was to take care of the parabolic reflector during the early morning and evening hours. He was free to explore and collect butterflies the rest of the day. Emmel made good use of time, collecting thousands of specimens.


The butterflies in question were a part of this collection. There were nine males and four females. They came from an area of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border. They were found in a pine-oak forest. He listed them as satyrs and added a description of their color and markings to his notes. He referred to them as “velvety brown”, and stated that they had “odd-shaped blue ocelli on the hind wings.” He also notated other noticeable colors and bands on the underside of the butterfly.

The Discovery

These butterfly specimens remained with Emmel for many years. He eventually landed a job focusing on his interest at the University of Florida. He began working with a colleague named Andrew Warren. The butterflies were on campus at the lab where the men worked. They had been stored in a group of butterflies that had not been sorted yet. No one seemed to notice that they did not fit the description of any other species until one day when Warren took a closer look. Warren inquired about their origin and soon was able to declare them a new species, naming the species after Emmel.

Warren had been one of Emmel’s students at a summer workshop for butterfly enthusiasts. Warren was happy to name the species after Emmel. The name Cyllopsis tomemmeli is now official, adding to a long and successful career for Emmel. He has spent countless hours mentoring aspiring lepidopterists and several professionals. He also accomplished his dream of opening a research facility that focuses only moth and butterfly studies.

More Details 

The Cyllopsis tomemmeli is one of 30 species of Cyllopsis butterflies. These butterflies prefer to live in small habitats, and accomplish this by carving out a place for their home. Their limited exposure to open areas may be the reason why there has been no more sightings of them over these many years. They have a width of about 2 inches and are a dark, greyish brown. The underside of the butterfly presents with several uneven reddish bands. This is a common characteristic of the Cyllopsis species. Also noticeable, are two pairs of spots with rows of metallic scales next to them. The male Cyllopsis tomemmeli possess hairy scales that may be used to distribute scents. The females vary a little in color, as they are a bit lighter.

The Importance of Collections

This situation shows how important museums and university collections are to research efforts. Sometimes the technology has not caught up with what needs to be studied. This is similar to the situation in police labs. Advances in DNA research made it possible to open up many cold cases and solve them. The same type of thing happens in scientific research. Scientists can go back and take a fresh look at specimens when more knowledge, techniques, or equipment becomes available. In the case of these butterflies, it simply took a fresh pair of eyes in the lab.

Some specimens can survive for hundreds of years and be used for study many times. Butterflies, in particular, are important for assessing the health of our environment. The wings and bodies of butterflies can be used to find out what kind of pollutants are in the area. They are like maps of the atmosphere. Pesticides, climate change, and heavy metal pollution are all able to be seen by studying butterflies.

This new species of butterfly has not been seen since that fateful day that a curious teenager took a few samples while on a trip to Mexico. Emmel has dedicated his life to the study of butterflies, making this discovery and honorable naming a perfect milestone for his career. Butterflies are a beautiful part of our environment, as well as a crucial assistant to the understanding our environment.

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