Chasing butterflies

Biologists make the best travel buddies. They’ll probably be excited about obscure and wonderful things you haven’t heard about before, and most will be happy to tell you all about it. For better or worse – many an unsuspecting traveler sitting next to me on planes/trains/buses hears all about fluorescent genes shuffled from species to species. Did you know that the genes that signal an eye should be made are incredibly conserved, but in flies, they will make a fly eye, and in chickens, they will make a chicken eye wherever they’re expressed? Anyway, I digress.

Meet Simon Martin (@simonhmartin), from the Zoology Department at Cambridge. Simon is studying butterflies. Here is a biologist in action, chasing butterflies in Nairobi:

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It turns out that butterflies of the genus Simon is interested in are fast, and remarkably difficult to catch. They also move around in a really non-linear manner, so they’re really difficult to take pictures of. During my one lunchtime of shadowing a field biologist, I took lots of pictures, and only a few by sheer luck ended up in focus with a butterfly in them.

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The next step is to identify the butterfly species and see if it is the interesting one he is trying to study. In good news – there are butterfly enthusiasts all over the world, and some of them have incredibly elaborate collections and databases, including pictures and data on the spread of specific butterfly populations. However, what makes it really difficult is that even within a specific genus or species, there can be a huge amount of diversity. Furthermore, a lot of butterfly species rely on mimicry to defend themselves from predators, so that makes them even more difficult to recognise correctly.

Some of them are easier to take pictures of though.

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In general, there is a huge diversity of animal life here, even in the city of Nairobi. We have so far seen a variety of birds, an amazing caterpillar, and a whole range of other insect species. We also met some stingless bees, which are nice and gentle, and make great honey. I’m looking into stingless bee UK imports as we speak :)

Marabou storks are everywhere too. I find them really impressive, so it’s very strange seeing them in cities.

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We have a whole group of biologists here, so in effect we all end up chasing different creatures. Richard Smith-Unna (@blahah404) is a plant biologist, but seems to be on good terms with a whole range of creatures including singing frogs and praying mantids. Behold another biologist in action:

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