Adventures of a Lepidopteran Conservationist

Published 3:58 pm Thursday, July 6, 2017

Written by Vincent Verrecchio

Photographs by David Ahrenholz, MD, FACS, and Vincent Verrecchio

Imagine your shirt weighted with sweat, salt in your eyes, and the air so humid, you work to breathe. The cradle of your palm is damp under the base of your 35mm camera. You’re looking for a photo opportunity, glancing around and upwards for darting brown or gray butterflies in the enveloping green shades of rainforest vegetation. But you’re not looking down and miss what’s swarming around your feet. Above you, a Skipper butterfly flits away. As you step in pursuit, the smell hits, rising with vinegar pungency.

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You’re standing on a curiously vibrating brown mat about six feet long and three feet wide. On closer inspection, you’re into it about three inches, and its darkness is creeping up your boots. The smell is formic acid sprayed by army ants as they swarm to devour larvae, beetles, grasshoppers, and other insects that fail to get out of the way.

Such was the first Brazilian butterfly expedition for David Ahrenholz, MD, FACS. It was 1989 and he was armed with 80 rolls of 36-exposure Kodachrome and hoping he had sufficient film. There are, after all, 3,500 species in the Skipper family of Hesperiidae.

On vacation far from the severely burned patients and sterile operating rooms of his surgical career, Dave was seeking rejuvenation in the natural world of the Lepidoptera. Based on ancient Greek for “scaly wings,” Linnaeus first used the term in 1735 for moths and butterflies. Centuries later, there would be 180,000 Lepidoptera species and uncounted unknowns, and Dave was on a mission as a Smithsonian entomology research associate to find, identify, and photograph all that he could.

“I became hooked on butterflies in third grade,” says Dave. “I had no ability to draw or paint but thought that with photography I could bring people into the art and beauty of living butterflies.” His first camera, a Kodak Brownie, “couldn’t focus on small objects.” Working summers digging for his grandfather’s excavating company in Iowa, he saved enough by tenth grade to buy a Pentax camera.

“I wanted to study with V. B. Wigglesworth at Cambridge and become a PhD entomologist…but I also took the MCAT exam.” 

The Medical College Admission Test assessed problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of scientific principles. These would have been intellectual characteristics necessary for an entomologist but Dave’s high scores gave him pause to consider an alternative career. His chosen avocation spanned 33 years as a burn and trauma surgeon, teaching at the University of Minnesota. He retired as co-director of the Regions Hospital Burn Center in St. Paul, Minnesota before moving with his wife to Landrum, S.C. Over the years, his passion for butterflies continued to deepen with appreciation and knowledge of their essential elegance and role in biodiversity.

“My scientific credentials are in medicine, but I consider myself a self-trained naturalist. I am a researcher, photographer, and hesitant collector.”

When asked about the adjective “hesitant,” Dave tells a story that starts in 1980 with his first trip to Ecuador where he met a Smithsonian researcher. Subsequently, Dave was invited to show his slides to Dr. Robert Robbins, the Smithsonian’s curator of lepidoptera.

“I wanted to know the names of what were in my photos. My eighth slide showed a tiny butterfly and Bob got really excited. He asked, ‘Where’s your specimen?’ Specimen? I just wanted to photograph butterflies, not kill them. I had documented a new species, but the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature forbids naming a species based only on photographic evidence. A preserved specimen must be available for study in recognized museums. There can be no legislation protecting a unique species and its habitat without a species name. Then scientists and conservationists can and will invest the necessary resources.”

Bob asked if Dave could return to the same location for a specimen, but the answer was no. The forest habitat was already gone. When Bob finally convinced Dave to collect for the Smithsonian, it was the beginning of an ongoing relationship with lasting significance. For example…

From a precipitous mountaintop in Ecuador Dave brought back an unknown species of Hairstreak with a two-inch wingspan, largest to date, and currently the avatar of the species in the museum’s restricted collection.

A book with Dave’s work on Ecuadorian Metalmarks is in preparation for publishing by the Smithsonian. His photographs have already illustrated dozens of works, including 68 images in the Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterflies.

The museum is pleased to have Ahrenholzia pimpillala, a new genus to be named for the discoverer and a region in Ecuador.

In thanks for collecting examples of more than 715 Metalmark species, each with previously undocumented behavioral data based on Dave’s methodology, the Smithsonian has provided museum storage boxes and collection permits. Ecuador, for example, requires an eight-page national collecting permit, a separate export permit, and transportation permits to cross each provincial border.

The Smithsonian published a paper, “The Ahrenholz Technique for Collecting Neotropical Skippers,” reporting what Dave learned after hurrying out of the Brazilian army ants. The Skippers would light long enough for a photo while feeding on the droppings of Ant Birds that, in turn, had been eating the insects fleeing from the devouring swarm. In trying to attract the butterflies without the company of birds and ants, Dave experimented with baits, eventually succeeding with tissue torn to the size of a dropping and moistened with saliva. In a private letter of thanks from Robbins, Dave was congratulated on becoming “internationally famous for bird poop and toilet paper.”

Despite being caught alone on a jungle trail in 2013 by a hostile Ecuadorian tribe with machetes and accused of being a headhunter, Dave, as of this writing, is climbing 60 flights of stairs per day in preparation for one of his twice-yearly return expeditions.

Using an alliterative term he probably coined, Dave gives a few reasons for going, “Butterflies are our most beautiful biomarkers of biodiversity. Fragile creatures of the air…pollinators of many plants, a food source for many birds, a fascinating indicator of environmental well-being.” •