We have much to learn from bugs.
Attention to detail. An open mind. A willingness to experience life in all its changes.
For Kathleen Prudic, lessons from insects can come in many forms, from watching for a flutter of detail to facing different ways of navigating life.
Prudic always knew she wanted to be a scientist. When she was a kid, she wanted to explore the sea. But she discovered her stomach couldn’t take the motion that comes with sailing. She needed firm ground to stand on.
She realized there are still boundless creatures to be observed on land. Things with wings that can fly through the air.
Prudic became an explorer. She’s spent her life investigating the nature of animals that live partly in the sky and partly on earth.
It’s not the ocean she’d dreamed of when she was young, but the science of bugs has meant charting a new world as vast and filled with the unknown.
Prudic studies bugs — butterflies mostly. She teaches her students at the University of Arizona to see the world through the eyes of an insect. She says bugs can teach us how to adapt.
“For example, insects, bees have their own language, right?” Prudic says. “And they express that language through a dance versus through auditory sounds.”
One of her favorite insect adaptations is signal partitioning, when a butterfly has eyespots on one side of its wings to attract mates and on the opposite side to protect themselves from predators.
Adaptations in Prudic’s own career have involved responding to unpredictable forces in an evolving science and academia market that doesn’t include many female entomologists.
As a woman of science, she feels a need to keep learning and teaching others what she’s discovered.
Over the years, she’s expanded her expertise to learn new skills such as computer programming. But in the field, she spends her time introducing her students and citizen scientists to the lives of butterflies.
She’s slowly helping build a community of conservationists and one of the biggest butterfly databases in the world.
Turning her attention to butterflies
As co-director of eButterfly, Prudic works with professional and recreational butterfly enthusiasts from Central and North America and the Caribbean who are on a mission to better understand how butterflies are responding to changes in the environment.
The program trains people how to track their photos and observations of butterflies on a website that has become one of the largest “insect data resources to inform our understanding of ecological and agricultural systems in the region.”
It’s described as “a study through time.”
“Each participant, each observation and photograph, each checklist, and each identification builds the database,” says an online introduction to the program. “eButterfly then shares this treasure trove of butterfly information with a global community of community scientists, educators, students, lepidopterists, conservationists, and land managers. In time, this information will become the foundation for a better understanding of butterfly distribution and population trends across the region.”
Prudic describes her work more simply. She’s learned “how to think like a bug.” And with each new study, she’s furthering a global understanding of what motivates an insect.
Prudic has a Ph.D. in evolution and ecology with a minor in entomology. But she originally wanted to be a marine biologist.
Prudic was taking a marine biology course at Shoals Marine Laboratory in New Hampshire and went into the sea with a group on a large research vessel to study whale biology in the Atlantic Ocean. While out on the vessel, watching for animals, navigating waves, she made a discovery — she is prone to seasickness.
“It’s a happy accident,” Prudic says of the moment that turned her in a new direction and shifted her attention to insects.
Ever since, it has been all about bugs.
Urgency in biodiversity
The goal of Prudic’s research is to learn how climate change affects pollinators like butterflies. She wants to understand how we can help the creatures survive.
Prudic’s mission is increasingly critical amid the declining abundance of insects, which she gauges to be about 80% over the past 20 years.
Prudic says there is a sense of urgency in biodiversity, and not just with insects. In the fall of 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the removal of 23 species from the endangered species list because they are now considered extinct, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Prudic grieves the loss of these species and their unique contribution to ecological stability.
“Whenever you lose even one, it’s always a little heartbreaking because you know the history, the amount of time, the sort of nuances and specialties that each species brought to the environment,” Prudic says. “And you understand that the things that were connected to it no longer have that … interaction, those resources.”
Reflecting aloud on her favorite species, Prudic says the scientific name is: Speyeria idalia. She spends a minute trying to remember the insect’s common name. Then, she turns to one of the students she’s tutoring in the UA library, but she doesn’t recall either.
It’s a teaching moment that turns into a butterfly fangirl moment.
The common name is regal fritillary. Turning to the student, she says, “It’s a pretty bug, isn’t it?”
Prudic’s first major publication was her research study into the mating behavior of butterflies. The article, “Developmental Plasticity in Sexual Roles of Butterfly Species Drives Mutual Sexual Ornamentation,” was published in “Science” magazine.
It sounds complex and is, but people, she says, “were very enthusiastic about sex.” Turns out male and female butterflies change their sexual roles depending on their larval rearing temperatures.
Publishing in Science was a milestone. But Prudic has been a researcher long enough to have learned to celebrate other parts of her career. Scientists often experience long gaps between major publications, she says. And that’s OK for Prudic because she loves spending time in the field collecting data, details and witnessing the lives of butterflies.
“I focus on the process and then the people,” Prudic says.
Science is a team effort, not an individual one, she says. Scientific exploration, she says, is dependent on collaboration and learning how to listen.
Another important lesson in entomology, is carefully designing experiments in order to get the most accurate view of the situation, she says.
“You may make the wrong decision to try and help this organism,” she says.
For someone who’s spent her life trying to preserve the lives of insects, that kind of mistake in science is not one she’s willing to make.
Making human life better
Art Shapiro got to know Prudic when she was a student. He knew she was destined to be an entomologist.
Shapiro is a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. Prudic worked in his lab for more than three years.
Shapiro still remembers the day they met.
“I was sitting in this very chair, in this very office,” he says, when a young woman working as a lab technician brought in a friend from her hometown.
That was Katy Prudic.
She was visiting the campus with the intention of transferring there, and was immediately intrigued by Shapiro’s work. She asked if she could get involved.
“And I said, ‘Well, I suppose you could get involved even before you transfer if you’re really motivated,’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah, I want to start right now!'” Shapiro recalls.
He describes Prudic as highly motivated and self-directed. She “knows her own mind” and has a clear vision of her goals.
During her time with Shapiro’s lab, Prudic worked in five of the 10 mountainous sites in his study. She conducted this work from an elevation of 2,700 feet up to the tree line in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Her first season in the field, Prudic learned to identify more than 100 species visually, without capturing them. At Shapiro’s suggestion, Prudic applied for and received the President’s undergraduate fellowship.
Prudic completed a project titled “Evaluating a putative mimetic relationship between two butterflies, Adelpha bredowii and Limenitis lorquini.” It was published in the journal Ecological Entomology in 2002.
Shapiro has watched Prudic’s career and studies grow, but he remembers her being a young scientist who spent time outdoors studying insects and indoors skating with her roller derby team.
Shapiro spent many days in the field with Prudic growing a mentor-mentee relationship with the future entomologist.
Life has come full circle, as Prudic now mentors undergraduate students herself.
Maxine Papag-Cruz is a junior ecology and evolutionary biology major at the UA. She met Prudic through an internship with the NASA Space Grant program when they worked together on a biodiversity project involving iNaturalist data.
The project is an initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. People can download the app and follow a video that teaches users how to scientifically record their observations of animals and plants.
Prudic’s involvement expanded her work with the citizen scientist world and gave it a local focus. The studies analyze pollinator biodiversity throughout Tucson compared with the university campus.
In 2015, that work to build a science community with people who are fascinated by butterflies earned her an invitation from the White House. She participated in a forum aimed at launching a government-sponsored citizen scientist toolkit.
Papag-Cruz says Prudic has helped her understand what it means to be a scientist who loves her work and cares about the insects she studies.
“She’s, probably, honestly one of the most happiest professors I’ve ever met,” Papag-Cruz says with a laugh, recalling how Prudic got her through a difficult year during the pandemic.
Prudic is both researching and mentoring in a field where female representation makes a difference. According to an Entomology Today article, women account for more than 40% of doctoral degrees in this field, but are still outnumbered 3-to-1 by men in federal and university workplaces for entomology roles.
Papag-Cruz says Prudic tries to instill in students the idea that change is OK and not to limit their careers to one specific area.
Prudic and Papag-Cruz had planned a camping trip together to search for a moth species in the mountains, but it got canceled because of inclement weather. To ease Papag-Cruz’s disappointment, Prudic told her she’d gift her some insect specimens to pin.
“When she said that, I thought it was just like a small Ziploc bag,” Papag-Cruz says. “But she gave me like, three Tupperwares that are like” — she gestures — “this big!”
Papag-Cruz still has the bugs in her freezer for preservation.
Prudic says people are starting to realize the importance of bugs in the ecosystem. She’s trying to expand the exploration and appreciation of insects beyond the field of science.
“Our tiny neighbors are really, by and large, very helpful,” Prudic says. “And they make human life better.”
On iNaturalist, Prudic’s profile shows she’s made 216 observations of 125 species. In her profile photo, she’s hunkered in a field of green reeds, eyeing her surroundings for tiny creatures that fly.
Prudic’s uploaded images of bees, Blue Jays, owls, frogs and squirrels. And of course, butterflies — from the muted Fatal Metalmark to the extravagant Painted Lady.