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Title: Information Sheet, Dr. Marc Epstein
An Interview with Dr. Marc Epstein at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, August 2003.
Mr. Matt Minor interviewed Dr. Epstein.
I added information (some within square brackets) to clarify the interview.
E. M. B. 2003.
What inspired you to enter the field of entomology?
Oh, it was a very young childhood hobby.
I was four years old when I started collecting insects, butterflies in particular, and I just kept doing it.
In general, I have always liked natural history.
I also liked dinosaurs and pet reptiles and amphibians.
I went to college as undergraduate in entomology.
I chose Colorado State because it had a good entomology program.
It turned out I had a famous advisor Dr. Howard Evans, who inspired me to continue onward in entomology.
I then went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where I received a Masters and a Ph.D. degree.
What specific kind of work do you do?
My main work in systematics is on the family Limacodidae [Slug Caterpillar Moths].
I also look at the higher classification of the superfamilies of Lepidoptera.
I have long had an interest in the biology and ontogeny [development] of Lepidoptera.
I have been involved in biodiversity projects in Costa Rica for the last 20 years or so and other places around the United States including the Rockies and Smokies [Great Smoky Mountains].
I grew up in Colorado, which was a natural place to do survey work.
The elevation gradients and headwaters of four rivers in Colorado allow different butterflies to exist within a small region.
Not only are there different species at different elevations, but there is a progression of species – different species appearing on the wing in the same locality every couple of weeks.
This was a very rich place to grow up as a lepidopterist!
What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?
Zygaenoidea, the superfamily that includes Limacodidae (Slug Caterpillar Moths).
What is the most exciting project you have worked on?
One of the more exciting aspects of my job is traveling different regions of the world looking for species and doing surveys.
The most exciting thing that I have found in recent years is how the same species of moths in Costa Rica can be larger at higher elevation than at lower elevations.
My son Joseph did a 6th-grade science fair project on this size variation.
He measured and statistically analyzed the samples from museums.
To have my son involved in what I do and find the statistical difference in size was exciting for me.
What keeps you excited about your profession?
Being able to involve people internationally and locally in my studies is an aspect of my job that will always be exciting.
Just recently, I have connected with two people in the Washington, D.C., community: John Lill, an ecologist interested in caterpillars, and Mike Gates, a systematist who works on parasitic wasps that attack caterpillars.
Lill is a new faculty member at George Washington University, and Gates is on the staff of the USDA located at the Smithsonian Institution.
Lill is now pursuing some of the questions that I had raised in my dissertation about the caterpillar evolution in the Limacodidae, including the preference for smooth leaves as their food.
He will be doing some lab experiments on preference of these caterpillars for smooth leaves versus hairy leaves.
My colleague will also be testing these hypotheses by looking at limacodid data that he has from Missouri and other places.
He is also able to provide information about different host plants.
Therefore, I guess working with other people is part of what makes the job exciting.
I am also hooked on video projects and other artistic representations of Limacodidae.
My recent shift to digital equipment and conversion of analog tapes to digital files on the computer has expanded what I can do with them.
Before digital equipment became available, all of my presentations with nondigital video were in linear sequence.
Now I can show four pictures at once and pop up different video clips of different time sequences on the screen in a PowerPoint-type presentation.
I can now include sounds of the caterpillars for my audience, which makes the presentations more interesting.
Would you like to work on any arthropod group that is currently outside your assignment?
Perhaps other families of Lepidoptera.
In retirement (if you ever feel like retiring), would you continue work with arthropods?
How often do you see changes occurring in species due to environmental changes that occur in your specialty arthropods?
I do not really see species morphological changes in the time scale that I am working on.
[For example, Dr. Epstein means evolutionary changes in morphological characters of limacodids, such as the appearance of a new color pattern in a species or the appearance of a new species.]
I guess in theory such changes can happen, but the changes I see are more along the lines of extinction of populations.
I also see changes within species population, but I do not see actual changes in morphology in the time scale of my studies.
Is biotic conservation important to you?
If yes, why?
I guess it has always been important to me.
As I grew up in Denver [Colorado], I saw different species disappear due to habitat destruction.
This was upsetting because you could no longer see the species close to home.
I did a project for the State of Colorado on a subspecies of a Silver Bordered Fritillary butterfly, which occurs in small populations on the plains in Eastern Colorado and in the Sand Hills of Nebraska in seepage areas.
A much more common subspecies occurs in the Rocky Mountains.
I monitored the population of the plains subspecies at a locality near Fort Collins [Colorado], where I went to college.
This population is now extinct.
A special experience for me with this species was that when I was in the Great Plains, I could look into the distance and see the continental divide where its mountain population occurs in bogs at 10,000 feet elevation.
To my knowledge this was a classic example of reproductive isolation within a species in North America, similar to the Abert Squirrel and the Kaibab Squirrel [color forms of the Tassel-eared Squirrel, Sciurus aberti
] in the Grand Canyon area.
[The Kaibab Squirrels live on the north rim, and the Abert Squirrels live on the south rim.
These squirrels of the same species were in one continuous population before the Grand Canyon formed and divided the population.]
You can stand on one side of the Canyon where one kind of squirrel lives and see off into the distance where the other kind occurs.
These two populations don't really interbreed at present.
Because the Fritillary was a similar, remarkable biological phenomenon, I thought that was a real tragedy that the plains population vanished.
What is your most remarkable "bug" encounter?
One time, I was on a foothill in Colorado taking a butterfly count and I was talking with Bob Pyle who is really a major figure in the insect conservation movement in this country.
He also introduced the concept of butterfly watching, and he has always supported sensible collecting.
We were talking about the Short-tail Black Swallowtail and just as we said the words “Papilio indra
” [its scientific name], one flew right between us.
What is your most dangerous "bug" encounter?
Perhaps some scorpions in Israel, or black widow spiders.
Many of the caterpillars that I work with can give you a bad welts from their spines, but I have been lucky so far.
If you had to choose between a vertebrate ("animal") and arthropod ("bug") for a pet that would you choose.
Exactly what would you choose?
I’m pretty fond of vertebrate pets.
As I mentioned before I like herpetology, but I guess as an adult, I like cats and dogs.
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