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Wings and Other Things

Except for the venomous snakes, Elsita Kiekebusch ’07 says her work in stifling swamps is nearly perfect.

As a zoology Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University, she studies rare butterflies, tenderly raising them from eggs to adults and measuring their survival and developmental rates across temperatures and seasons to link climate change and the delicate butterfly.

“The body temperatures of insects are determined by external heat,” says Kiekebusch. “Increased temperatures due to climate change are causing a variety of impacts to their lives, including shifts in how long it takes for them to develop and alterations to the potential regions where they can survive.”

It’s wondrous and rewarding research—but also hot and dangerous.

“I love being outside,” she says. “But since I work with endangered butterflies, I can’t wear repellent and am exposed to mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers.”

One of the rarest subjects of Kiekebusch’s studies is St. Francis’ satyr, a surprisingly plain brown butterfly found only in North Carolina. Her role in researching it led to the chance discovery of a never-before-documented phenomenon: a third annual generation for this endangered species.

“We had thought they had only two,” says Kiekebusch. “This might sound like a small detail, but it’s actually a predicted effect of climate change. Increased temperatures lengthen the growing season in temperate zones, providing additional time for insects to add generations.”

Because there were no observations from previous years, the N.C. State team continues to rule out other causes.

“This experience showed me there’s still so much to learn about butterfly biology,” she says, “and opened my eyes to a new avenue of research questions to consider.”