UF student wins $80,000 international conservation award for butterfly research
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida entomology doctoral student Emily Saarinen has received the international Canon National Parks Science Scholars scholarship, an $80,000 three-year award for her research on endangered Miami blue butterflies.
Saarinen is one of eight students from the Americas to receive the award, designed to support training for the next generation of conservation scientists. The program is sponsored by Canon U.S.A. Inc., the U.S. National Park Service and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Saarinen works in UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity and the department of entomology and nematology in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Her research on the endangered Miami blue butterfly in south Florida explores how inbreeding affects endangered populations. She was awarded the scholarship based on two years of foundational research. The scholarship will fund the completion of her project, which integrates ecology and genetics — a fusion that is important for the future of conservation, Saarinen said.
The Miami blue butterfly was once abundant throughout 16 coastal counties in south Florida. Only one population remains in the wild, in Bahia Honda Key State Park. Lepidopterists — researchers who study butterflies and moths — have succeeded in rearing a stable population of Miami blues at the McGuire Center in Gainesville. The program has produced more than 25,000 captive-bred butterflies, and Saarinen and other UF researchers are releasing some of them as caterpillars in Biscayne National Park near Miami to try to re-establish a colony of Miami blues.
Saarinen’s project proposes examining the genetic variability of the Miami blue within the wild, as well as within the reintroduced and the captive-bred populations. She will compare these populations to each other and to the historic butterfly population by taking genetic samples from Florida Museum specimens dating to the turn of the century. The Florida Museum collection contains about 300 Miami blue specimens.
“Having all those different groups to compare gives us an idea of how inbreeding affects the fitness of the organisms and what that looks like genetically, if they are inbred,” Saarinen said.
It is unusual within the field of wildlife conservation to have such diverse populations from which to draw samples for genetic comparisons, Saarinen said.
The Canon National Parks Science Scholars Program was established in
1997 to develop the next generation of scientists working in the fields of conservation, environmental science and national park management. The program annually awards eight scholarships to doctoral students conducting research critical to conserving national parks in the Americas.