On The Wings of Butterflies

by Stephen Demarest Rath

From poets to scientists, the butterfly has long captured the human imagination as a creature, delicate and ephemeral, and at the same time, the most enduring symbol of transformation. At the Lloyd Center for the Environment (LCE), Mark Mello is a Lepidopterist, a person who collects and studies moths and butterflies. His life’s work is receiving considerable attention from Harvard University, which has begun to transfer and preserve the Lloyd Center’s collection of 70,000+ individual specimens assembled by Mark from the LCE to Harvard’s prestigious Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). The transfer will also include species covered under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). In order that the LCE can maintain its own comprehensive collection of this region’s moth diversity, the Lloyd Center will keep one to four specimens of each of the 1,200+ species.

As a long as Mark can remember, he was fascinated with “everything that walked or crawled or swam”, and, by the time he was four or five years old, a singular event piqued his curiosity about moths: My neighbor gave me a cecropia cocoon, which is one of the giant silkworms. I put it in the aquarium in my room and promptly forgot about it, until one day this giant moth appeared in the cage. That just seemed to be the most interesting thing I’d ever seen!

He adds pensively: It’s another one of the moths that’s declining. As a kid, we could go out and collect 25 or 30 cocoons after school without breaking a sweat. And now, if I see one a year, it’s a lot.

Establishing the cause of decline in moth and butterfly populations can be elusive. For instance, Martha’s Vineyard was never sprayed with DDT, like most of the state was, and it did not have a fly introduced that was used to control the gypsy moths and giant silkworm moths. However, the moth populations decreased, and some are on the list of endangered species. For a researcher and environmentalist like Mark, this can pose difficult questions: So, was the reason for the rest of the decline that was seen in other areas because of DDT spraying, the introduction of the fly, or some combination of both? Trying to find out can be a maddening thing.

Habitat destruction is a likely cause, particularly in the dry upland areas of Plymouth and the Cape, which has seen an influx of urban development and the ensuing damage to the Pine Barrens habitat. Currently, controlled burning programs are being employed to lessen the chances of catastrophic wildfires and to maintain the area’s rare ecosystem by controlling the pitch pines and black oaks, thereby “creating great habitats for some of our rarer moths.”

Though less well known, another variable in the decline of butterflies and moths is the impact of parasites and viruses. The Regal Fritillary Butterfly, for instance, disappeared completely from the Northeast, even in areas that were left undeveloped, thereby ruling out habitat destruction; “The thought is there may be a virus or pathogen that got into their system.”

Mark’s path to the Lloyd Center’s prestigious butterfly and moth collection and, ultimately, his tenure as Interim Director in the 1990’s, was the combination of his academic credentials (M.A. in Zoology from the University of Maryland), experience in the field, and a fortuitous encounter with Alan Hankin:

I was working at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. The Center received a notice that people in South Dartmouth were looking to start a field station in what is now the LCE; and that was the first time that I became aware that something in this region was going to have some kind of environmental focus.

Around the same time, Mark met Alan Hankin, who led Science Education Afield participants to Cape Cod to go on whale watches, and where Mark could provide them with coastal field studies that included marsh and dune walks. The two men “hit it off”, and after Alan became the founding executive director of the Lloyd Center, he received a three-year grant to hire a research coordinator. He asked Mark to apply for the position.

I had already been finding all kinds of rare species up in Provincetown and the outer Cape, and I thought it would be pretty neat to compare them with insects in Dartmouth. After I found out Alan was hired at the LCE, I called him and asked if I could run a light trap there to catch moths. The trap looks like a big bug zapper over a bucket. And he said, “Yeah, c’mon down.” That was 1983 when I started doing that. By 1985, Alan got the grant, and in 1986 I was hired.

Mello’s tenure continued when he became Interim Director of the Lloyd Center in 1990 when Alan Hankin resigned. His new role put him in direct contact with the LCE’s founder, Karen Lloyd:

click to enlarge

A much closer interaction started when Alan left and I became Director. Clearly, Karen (KG) was intent on this place surviving by hook or by crook. And so fortunately, we just got along. We seemed to have meshed, and she had confidence that I at least had some vague idea of what I was doing. [laughs]

As a postscript, ideally, this article should have been much longer. Trying to capture the breadth, scope, and magnificence of Mark Mello’s scientific research in a few pages is like marching down to the Atlantic Ocean, splashing a few drops into a beaker, and then proclaiming, “Look, I’ve got the sea!” Moreover, what began as a temporary position for Mark has become a distinguished career for the LCE’s longest serving member.

With his infectious laugh and his gift for understatement, Mark concludes, “What I thought was going to be a three-year and out position is, well, I’m still here!”