As originally appeared in Natural History Magazine, March, 1996
The display case slid out easily from the tall metal cabinet in the American Museum’s Department of Entomology, and there they were-two small butterflies with shiny, azure wings. My father had caught them on the island of Jamaica in 1933. Ten years later, two of the department’s taxonornists, William P. Comstock and E. Irving Huntington, described a new subspecies based on these butterflies and named it Thecla celida shoumatoffi, or Shoumatoff’s hairstreak, after my father. Only fifteen years old when he netted the specimens, my father was spending a month on the island, collecting butterflies and moths with his uncle Andrey Avinoff. The director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a trustee of the American Museum, and an avid lepidopterist, Avinoff was once a gentleman-in-waiting to Czar Nicholas. Before the revolution, he had amassed an enormous collection of mainly Russian and Central Asian butterflies-some eighty thousand specimens. The collection was impounded by the Bolsheviks and is now at the Zoological Museum in Saint Petersburg.
As Avinoff would later put it, Jamaica had been “a dreamland of tropical splendor” since his boyhood, when he vainly scrutinized magazine illustrations of the island with a magnifying glass, looking for butterflies. Later, as an exile in the New World, he made six trips to Jamaica between 1926 and 1940, five of them with my father. The two caught more than fourteen thousand “bots,” as butterflies and moths are known in Jamaican patois, doubling the number of known species on the island to more than a thousand. By day, they dashed around with their tulle nets, pith helmets wrapped in white pongee, pockets bulging with cyanide jars, and canvas leggings to keep off chiggers and ticks. On overnights in the bush, they slept on cots under canopies of mQsquito netting. Once a week, they would put in at one of the better hotels.
One evening, with a deft presto, my dad snagged a noctuid moth that had been dive-bombing a bullet-headed Britisher, and everyone in the dining room applauded. (The presto was my father’s term for catching a butterfly in midair, as opposed to an adagio, which to him meant sneaking up on resting quarry.)
Avinoff’s fascination with butterflies was not just scientific; he also made exquisite, minute, true-to-life watercolors of them. Our house in Bedford, an hour north of New York City, was filled with his flower and butterfly paintings, and as a boy in the fifties, I carried on the family tradition by catching, mounting, and painting local butterflies.
My father, an engineer, was president of the New York Entomological Society, which met at the American Museum. I remember being taken there, gaping at outrageously gaudy tropical butterflies, and meeting Cyril F. dos Passos, a research associate and a cousin of the novelist John Dos Passos. He was an authority on the rules of zoologial nomenclature and wrote many papers on the subject. Cyril dos Passos died three months short of his hundredth birthday in 1986.
Vladimir Nabokov, another Russian emigre butterfly lover, was a frequent visitor to the Museum, although I never met him. He specialized in the blues, cousins of the hairstreaks, and would come in to study the specimens. (I have his 1949 monograph on the neotropical blues, inscribed to Avinoff in Cyrillic.) A Haitian skipper was named for him. One of his poems, “On Discovering a Butterfly,” reads in part:
I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer–and I want no other fame.
Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.
Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfiy.
Bernard Heineman succeeded my father as president of the Entomological Society. In 1972, he coauthored a sumptuous, color-plated book, Jamaica and Its Butte.rfiies, in which he mentions twentyone localities for Shoumatoff’s hairstreak. Three years later, Norman D. Riley, in his Pield Guide to the Butte.rfiies of the West Indies, described the butterfly as “rare and local, chiefly met with in open upland country.” According to Kurt Johnson, a systematist who is a research associate in the Museum’s Department of Entomology, Shoumatoff’s hairstreak is extremely sedentary: “If it’s anything like the other celidas, it rarely strays more than a few meters from its food plant, but nothing is known of its specific natural history. Some of these hairstreaks are so secretive, they are only known from dead specimens collected from spider webs.”
In 1971, when I was twenty-four, I spent a month exploring Jamaica. I kept an eye out for Shoumatoff’s hairstreaks, but the only ones I saw were on pins in display cases at the Jamaica Institute in Kingston. In the years that followed, I made dozens of trips to the tropics.
Sometimes I would stop by the American Museum with butterflies I had caught. The last time I did so, my two sons and I were on the way home from Madagascar, and we showed Fred Rindge, the curator of Lepidoptera, a swallowtail with luminous green wing bars we had netted in a gully. It turned out to be a Papilio mangoura, a specimen now being made scarce by habitat destruction.
Rindge retired in 1990, but he still comes in four days a week from his home in New Jersey. When I dropped in one recent morning, he was dissecting (under a microscope) the genitalia of geometrid moths, “the group I have specialized in for 10 these decades,” he explained. The geometrids, best known in their larval stage-inchworms-are one of the “big three” families of moths, with an estimated twenty thousand species. There areabout ten times more moths than there are butterflies (the true butterflies, or Papilionoidea, number about 14,500 species worldwide), and the moths account for most of the Museum’s rougWy two million specimens of Lepidoptera. The collection is surpassed only by that of the British Museum (Natural History) and is on a par with those of the Carnegie Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. The department was thriving, Rindge told me. It has seven curators now, more than ever before, and has become a leading force in research.
I also met Jim Miller, the current curator of Lepidoptera. “My guys,” as he called the group he specializes in, “are day-flying noctuoids known as Josia, which are in a mimicry complex with metalmark butterflies and tiger moths. You can find them all on the same trail 6,000 feet up in the Ecuadorean Andes.” The Noctuoidea, which comprise 70,000 species, are the largest of the forty superfamilies of Lepidoptera. Like Fred Rindge, Miller was hired for his moth expertise. “Moth systematics border on the intractable,” he told me. “The same moth that has one name in our collection can have another in some other museum’s.”
Shoumatoff’s hairstreak, I discovered, had been upgraded to a species since my last visit. It had started out in 1943 as a subspecies whose only difference from Thecla celida celida, a Cuban subspecies, appeared to be a small, wholly black tailspot on the underside of its hindwing, as opposed to the black-centered orange-andyellow tailspot on T c. celida. But Thecla was a catchall genus and was eventually broken up into more than a hundred genera. In 1964, the subspecies shoumatoffi was placed in a new genus, Nesiostrymon. Then in 1991, Kurt Johnson decided it was really a species of its own and reclassified it as Nesiostrymon shoumatoffi.
By this time, many hairstreaks had been discovered to mate by scent. Minor differences in wing theme, like the color of a tailspot, were now seen as the random results of taxonomically unimportant genetic drift. Examination of its genitalia revealed shoumatoffi to be in fact much closer to a mainland species, Nesiostrymon celona, which ranges from Mexico to Argentina but is not easily seen because it, too, is very local and elusive. Previously, the butterflies of the Antilles were thought to have been dispersed from island to island by wind, but now a portion of them, including perhaps shoumatC!ffi, are believed by biogeographers to have evolved from the original stock after the islands broke off from the Mesoamerican mainland, about sixty million years ago.
I called Tom Turner, an authority on the butterflies of the Antilles, who works in Clearwater, Florida. He told me that shoumatoffi is the third rarest hairstreak on Jamaica; the other two are only known from a single specimen. “The last time I, or to my knowledge anybody, caught one was in 1975, and I’ve been looking for it all the time. It lives in the wettest forest, which gets two hundred inches of rain a year. [My father, however, recalls that he caught it in many different habitats on the island.] Its food plant is not known. With its bright white underside, it appears to flicker on and off as it skips through the bush, so you can see it from a long way off. It looks like confetti blowing in the wind, but a little more motivated, if you know what I mean.”
Later on in that day that I spent in the Museum’s section on Lepidoptera, one of Jim Miller’s proteges, Cal Snyder, showed me a tray of Papilio homerus. The largest swallowtail in the New World, five inches from .wingtip to wingtip, with yellow bands and spatulate tail, it is found only on Jamaica and is a famous rarity. (It is known in the patois as Goula, my father’s boyhood name, which means “little dove” in Russian. Avinoff had shouted “Goula, Goula,” when he spotted one in Jamaica’s eastern Blue Mountains. Their guides thought he was referring to the bot.) Snyder spends half the year in the field, collecting in the neotropics. “Time is running out,” he told me. “Taxa are vanishing before our eyes. Many of the type localities of the thirties no longer exist.” For the moment, homerus, whose range is restricted to the steepest, most pristine slopes of the interior rain forest, is holding its own, but Snyder was worried about it. “In twenty years,” he predicted grimly, “these [museum specimens] could be the last homerus.” The same could soon be true of Shoumatoff’s hairstreaks.