SFU doctoral student Jayme Lewthwaite at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum for Natural History in Washington D.C.

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Award helps student spread her wings at Smithsonian Institute

October 26, 2016
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By Ian Bryce

Jayme Lewthwaite examines hundreds of dead butterflies every day.

Far from a morbid curiosity, Lewthwaite, a doctoral student studying biological sciences at Simon Fraser University, is studying how climate change is shifting the habitat range of Canadian butterflies northwards. This summer, she received a 2016 Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to conduct research at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum for Natural History in Washington D.C.

GIRTA is an annual award that provides support to master's and doctoral students who must travel in order to undertake research for their degrees.

The Smithsonian Natural History Museum contains thousands of shelves with cases of preserved butterfly specimens—including the date and location they were found.

With around 300 butterfly species in Canada, Lewthwaite is creating a database tracking their historic range. By mapping both their past and present habitat ranges, she can determine how far north they have shifted over time.

Initially, Lewthwaite thought her research would take around one month. Yet upon seeing the Smithsonian’s extensive collection, she quickly realized she would require more time. Currently, she has documented 10,000 butterflies but has examined twice as many.

Her research is not a flight of fancy. She says that, due to butterflies’ short lifespans and their sensitivity to cold environments, researchers predict they can see a difference faster in their responses to changing climate conditions compared to other animals’ reactions.

“They bear the flag for other species that aren’t as attractive but are still important to ecosystems and are also affected by climate change,” says Lewthwaite.

She says the award has helped her temporarily move to Washington to complete her research. She arrived in Washington D.C. in June and expects to return to Vancouver in December to complete her thesis.