Vladimir Nabokov and Butterflies

Many famous people have loved butterflies but this devotion has often been overlooked. Winston Churchill is one such person.  Churchill was in some ways a very unlikely Lepidopterist. Churchill was a soldier who fought on four continents. He was one of the only British prime ministers to have killed a man in battle ( Johnson 2015). He spent time as a prisoner of war in South Africa, was a journalist, politician, writer and war leader. Yet he found time for butterflies.

He planned to release large numbers of Black-veined Whites in the grounds of his home, Chartwell, Kent to try to reintroduce the species-it disappeared from England in 1922 for a reason or reasons that are unclear but that may be related to habitat change and poor weather.  Churchill’s plan ended in farce when his gardener removed the muslin bags containing the caterpillars from the hawthorn hedges and burned them instead of opening them. Now, thanks to a warming climate, Butterfly Conservation UK are planning to reintroduce the species from Northern France.

Churchill’s interest dated from childhood. When he was six, he wrote to his mother, Lady Jennie Churchill: “I am never at a loss to do anything while I am in the country for I shall be occupied with ‘butterflying’ all day (as I was last year).” This was just as well; his father was very distant (he also died young, at 45) and his mother was busy.

Some people ‘find’ butterflies at a time of great tension in their lives. The Liverpool writer of Irish descent,  Michael McCarthy, writes very movingly in his intriguing 2015 memoir, “The Moth Snowstorm” of how he came to discover butterflies in August 1954, just as Churchill was in his final, and rather decrepit state as prime minister.  Aged just 7, his family was in crisis. His mother, Norah, 40, was committed to an asylum and his father, a seaman, was frequently absent. His aunt Mary sold their Birkenhead house (!) and took the Michael and his very distressed brother, John, then aged 8, to live in Bebington,  a much greener location than their Birkenhead terrace. A nearby Buddleia was covered in butterflies. In the midst of the terrible suffering of his extremely distressed brother and confined mother, Michael gazed each day in wonder at the living jewels whose colours caressed his eyes and heart. Those Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells, whose glorious reds, blacks, maroon, purple, blues, salmon pink, white and orange on the purple Buddleia blooms had the young Michael enthralled. So began a life in love with nature.

In Europe (and later in America) the Russian writer, Vladimir Nabakov 1899-1977 combined his literary work with his study of butterflies. While justly famous for his literary work, especially for the disturbing novel Lolita, Nabakov pursued his scientific work with great diligence. His ideas on butterfly migration have recently been taken more seriously. In 2011 it was confirmed that his 1945 theory that Polyommatus blues (a genus of blue butterflies including Polyommatus icarus, the Common Blue, found in Ireland) had colonised the Americas from Asia in a series of waves across Beringia (the Bering Strait and adjacent parts of Siberia and Alaska) was proved correct.

Dr Naomi Pierce, a co-author of the report (Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World), organized four separate trips to the Andes to collect the blues, and then she and her colleagues at Harvard sequenced the genes of the butterflies, as well as comparing the number of mutations each species had acquired. Their research resulted in the revelation that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to America, as Nabokov had originally hypothesized.  The report can be found here: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2010.2213

Nabokov based his original idea of the origins of the Polyomattus blues in the Americas on morphology, especially on male genitalia. His views, in the words of the report, “were uncannily correct in delineating not only species relationships but also the historical ordering of these five key (colonisation) events in the evolution of New World blues.”

Nabokov also worked as a taxonomist, placing species in genus and families and even describing new species.  Many Lepidopterists regarded Nabokov with some disdain seeing him as a reasonable describer of butterflies but lacking important scientific insights.

In 1944, for example, Nabokov published the first description of the Karner Blue, a rare butterfly that lives in the northeastern United States. Judging from its colour and choice of foodplants, Nabokov came to believe that it was a distinct species. But when scientists began to analyze its genes, they decided it was just part of an existing species, the Melissa Blue Lycaeides melissa.

However, a study published in 2010 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsbl.2010.1077) revealed that Nabokov was right.  The study found that gene flow between the Karner Blue and Melissa Blue is low, and comparable to the gene flow between L. melissa and another species, L. idas. Considering this population-genetic evidence, the study concluded that the Karner Blue is a unique evolutionary lineage that should be recognized as Lycaeides samuelis. This matters greatly because not only does it clarify the taxonomic status of the Karner Blue, it also adds urgency to the need to protect the species. This butterfly has suffered because the butterfly’s only known larval foodplant, Lupinus perennis, (a beautiful member of Fabaceae, the pea family)  which occurs in habitats such as pine barrens and oak savanna are being impacted by fire suppression work.

Perhaps more of Nabokov’s impressive work will now be reassessed and confirmed using next-generation genetic sequencing. The work by the scientists in the two studies mentioned here shows that examination of the wing characters, colouring and genitalia undertaken by Nabokov can be a valid way to assess butterfly origins and taxonomic status.

Nabokov’s devotion to butterflies continued to his last days. As he lay dying in July 1977, he remarked to his son Dimitri that a certain butterfly would soon be on the wing. Vladimir, it seemed,  knew that he would not live to see it. But he left a rich legacy of scientific discovery and knowledge as well as his literary work, a life enjoyed and well-lived.

Polyommatus icarus, the Common Blue. Photo J.Harding.