Keith Willmott, Ph.D. Associate Curator of Lepidoptera and Biodiversity
Florida Museum of Natural History
Keith Willmott’s research focuses on the diversity, distribution, and natural history of Central and South American butterflies, in particular those of Ecuador and neighboring tropical Andean countries.
With the most species-rich, complex, and poorly studied butterfly fauna in the world, the tropical Andes are not only a natural laboratory for studying evolution, but also a high priority for conserving global biological diversity.
Willmott’s primary research, with collaborator Jason Hall, involves the relationships and classification, or systematics, of Ecuador’s butterflies, in addition to field work to enhance research collections and provide training opportunities for students. Willmott’s fieldwork has added approximately 15,000 butterfly specimens of 2,000 species to the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH) and collaborating collections in the US and Ecuador, significantly improving the research value of these collections. In particular, these specimens are an essential source of tissue samples for DNA sequence data, a vital new tool in systematics. At the same time, Willmott is archiving tissue samples from examples of the million or so worldwide Lepidoptera specimens that constitute the recently donated Ulf Eitschberger collection.
In addition to describing 75 butterfly species new to science, his research has also contributed to a better understanding of broader research themes in ecology, evolution, and conservation.
Competition is widely believed to be a key process explaining which species can co-exist, but through fieldwork on transparent ‘clearwing’ butterflies Willmott and colleagues found that the benefits of mimicry, where similar species share a common warning pattern, actually causes species to converge in their ecological niche. They also documented the most diverse caterpillar mimicry complex known to date, and discussed theoretical reasons for the rarity of caterpillar mimicry.
Willmott also plans to build upon his recent Tropical Andean Butterfly Diversity project, funded by the UK’s Darwin Initiative, an international collaboration which identified the first set of priority areas for research and conservation of Andean butterflies. He hopes to locate long-term study sites in priority areas, providing research opportunities for Andean country students, as well as data to better understand distribution, ecology, and relationships among Andean butterflies, and ultimately develop more effective conservation strategies in the region.