"My time at the museum was enlightening and fascinating; few people get the opportunity to see the vast collections of this museum and I was constantly in awe of the sheer size of it."

Learn More

Read more Travel Reports by SFU graduate students.

View Travel Reports

Meet More Students in Science


Travel Report: Jayme Lewthwaite

Jayme Lewthwaite, a PhD candidate in Biological Sciences, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further her research in Washington D.C.

September 11, 2017

From August 2016 until January 2017, I conducted research for my PhD thesis at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Climate change is causing rapid shifts in species’ range limits, and yet many species are unable to track shifting conditions rapidly enough to keep pace with these accelerating changes. In order to identify and prioritize species and clades at elevated risk of climate change-driven extinction, we need complete range maps.

However, for the butterflies of Canada (a key indicator group) there is no existing database that combines data from both sides of the Canada-USA border. Therefore, I used my time at the Smithsonian Institute to electronically database a subset of their specimens, focusing on obtaining southern range records for the Canadian species whose ranges extend into the USA. This will enable me to quantify observed southern range edge contractions over the past several decades, and generate predictions under future climate change scenarios.

The Smithsonian Institute’s entomology collection has more than 4 million specimens of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. However, virtually none of their Lepidoptera records for Canadian species have been digitized. My research will be mutually beneficial to both myself and the museum: this electronic database will share invaluable, otherwise inaccessible, records with researchers associated with the museum and academics like myself.

These records, which include information on the southern edge of most Lepidoptera species in Canada, will enable me to perform the above-mentioned novel analyses on this diverse group at a large spatial scale. These macro-scale analyses are rare but crucial as they provide a more complete perspective on the challenges that species face in a changing world.

Thus, I spent 5 months focusing on 130 Canadian butterfly species, and recorded the following information:

  • Species
  • Family
  • Geographic Coordinates
  • Location Description
  • Province/State
  • Observation Type
  • Date/Time
  • Collector ID
  • Catalog Number

Throughout my term at the museum, I was able to record approximately 24,000 unique georeferenced observation records, spanning 130 species. I can now update the range maps of these species, combining American and Canadian data. The Species Distribution Models (SDMs) will be rerun, and we will model how these species have moved on the landscape over the past century.

I can then begin to assess if any broad patterns emerge from the analysis; are some species tracking climate change in part of their range but failing in other parts of their range? Are certain groups more at risk of going extinct than others? Will novel communities emerge as species continue to move across the landscape?

More importantly, this research will allow us to prioritize both species and areas on a large scale that are in need of conservation management, while avoiding the arbitrary borders that usually delimit these analyses. The usage of complete range data, cutting-edge modeling techniques and a novel phylogeny will allow me to address questions about this group and this region that have never been possible until now.

As species continue to move north in response to climate change, Canada is poised to inherit new species. As a new haven for American species, it is essential that we are able to understand how individual species are responding to global change across their entire ranges in order to be able to protect their unique contributions to the evolutionary history of Lepidoptera into the future.

My time at the museum was enlightening and fascinating; few people get the opportunity to see the vast collections of this museum and I was constantly in awe of the sheer size of it. I was also struck by how friendly and accommodating the museum staff and scientists were; they were genuinely interested in my study and the potential results and guided me along during my visit. Living in D.C. during a federal election was also something I will never forget! I am extremely grateful to the Smithsonian Institute, SFU and Dr. Arne Mooers (my supervisor) for this incredible opportunity.