Photos by Peter Houlihan/Story by Alisson Clark
Some of them are carnivorous. Others live in anthills. Some feed on poop.
It's a long way from what you might think about butterflies — when you think about them at all. But University of Florida scientists hope a new PBS "Nature" episode featuring their research will help viewers appreciate butterflies' surprising survival skills.
"Most people think of monarchs and their migration, and that's interesting, but that's the tip of the iceberg," says Akito Kawahara, whose fieldwork is part of the episode "Sex, Lies and Butterflies" airing April 4.
The PBS crew accompanied Kawahara, the associate curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF, as he studied butterfly and moth evolution in Mozambique with graduate students Peter Houlihan and Harlan Gough (pictured above), seen wielding butterfly nets in the episode's trailer.
The crew also filmed at the Butterfly Rainforest in the museum's McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. With more than 10 million specimens, the McGuire Center holds one of the world's largest collections of butterflies and moths.
In Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, Kawahara's team kept an eye out for lions while working to unravel the mystery of how butterflies evolved into daytime fliers. Hungry night-flying bats likely played a major role in the shift, which is why the episode delves into Kawahara's collaboration with Jesse Barber's bat ecology research group at Boise State University. Kawahara hopes the show's look at the ingenuity of butterflies' survival strategies can spark a fascination with the natural world.
Houlihan, a National Geographic Explorer, knows firsthand how nature shows can change lives.
"In many ways, I only knew it was possible to do what I'm doing now because I saw it on TV," he says. "I hope young people can watch this and aspire to do something similar, or pursue something they're passionate about."
Houlihan snags a selfie while climbing a baobab tree in Mozambique.
The beauty of butterflies, the researchers say, is that you don't have to travel to exotic locations to see them. All you have to do is step outside.
"I hope people will gain an appreciation not just for butterflies but for all of the natural things outdoors, both large and small," Kawahara says. "Butterflies often get people excited to look at nature, and that opportunity hopefully can inspire people to look at other amazing things outdoors."
Barber and Kawahara are interviewed by the "Nature" production team. The episode debuts April 4.