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"We lay out hundreds of fake, paper-winged butterflies to see whether they've been nibbled by birds"

Published: 08th March, 2018 at 00:00
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Dr Susan Finkbeiner from the University of Chicago talks to Helen Pilcher about catching butterflies in the jungle and strutting her stuff on the catwalk.

What is it that you do?
I study evolution of patterns in butterfly wings. I often spend months at a time working in jungles in places like Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama.


What’s that like?
Some of the field sites are really remote. There’s one in Ecuador that takes 15 hours to get to from Quito, via bus, 4x4 and boat. It’s surrounded by scattered indigenous communities so you get the opportunity to see what their way of life is like. Every now and then, the kids bring you cool animals to see like baby monkeys.

What do you do in the jungle?
Sometimes we just collect butterflies. They’re high in the canopy, so our nets are up to nine metres long. It takes a lot of practice to catch a butterfly at that range. Other times, we study predation, so we lay out hundreds of fake, paper-winged butterflies then return later to see whether or not they have been nibbled by birds.

Is your fieldwork dangerous?
When living in a city, my biggest worry is missing a train or having a bad hair day. But in the field, you have to worry about deadly snakes, being stung by really gnarly and nasty arthropods, or being stalked by howler monkeys.

You’ve been stalked by a monkey?
I’ve been peed on by howler monkeys. More than once. They can be loud if they want to shoo you away, or they can be quiet and then all of a sudden you think it’s raining! It could be worse though. Capuchin monkeys are notorious for going to the bathroom in their hand and then throwing it at you.

How did you end up being a model?
When I was in high school I did beauty pageants, but I knew my heart was with science. I thought about it again recently and realised that if I became a model, I could help crush stereotypes. I think it’s important to show that models can be smart and have other interests, and that scientists don’t have to be stuck in the lab all the time. I want to show that you can be girly and dress up, and at the same time be a scientist and go running around in a muddy jungle. So I signed up with a modelling agency in Boston.

You recently modelled at London Fashion Week. What was that like?
It’s like being Cinderella for a weekend. I get to wear amazing outfits made by up-and-coming designers who have made clothes for the likes of Katy Perry and Paris Hilton. On the catwalk, the goal is not to walk too fast, because that’s your instinct if you’re nervous. It’s also a real challenge not to smile.

Do we need more entomologists?
Absolutely. I think everyone has an entomologist in them when they’re young, but then grow out of it for all sorts of reasons. Maybe their parents tell them it isn’t a real job. But the reality is that I make a living from going into the Amazon and collecting butterflies. I want to communicate to young people that they should never lose their passion for science and that there’s always a way to follow your dreams.


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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.


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