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Patrick Cardona-Cosner: The Summer I Turned Into a Butterfly Catcher

If you had told me that I would be researching butterflies at the University of Cincinnati for almost three months over the summer, I would not have believed you. This experience was one of many that I applied for over the summer, but I had no idea what to expect. Was I going to find my passion in academic research or determine that science was no longer for me? I had so many questions, but the only way to answer them was to dive in head first.

I participated in an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program at the University of Cincinnati Biological Science Department to research topics in Sensory Ecology. This National Science Foundation-funded experience provided a wide range of labs to work in. The project I worked on, butterflies and urban vs rural temperatures, was hosted by the Guerra and Matter Labs, two labs that focus on environmental stressors on organisms.

Urban areas are slowly taking over the natural landscapes many species call home. These urban areas are different from their natural, undeveloped counterparts in many ways, one of these being temperature. Urban areas are victim to a phenomenon known as an “urban head island.” This effect, caused by heat-retaining urban surfaces like pavement and cement, leads these developed areas to be up to 7°F hotter than nearby rural areas. Many studies have already shown that organisms, such as insects, are negatively impacted by higher temperatures, from increased metabolic rates to altered developmental times. At the Guerra and Matter Labs at the University of Cincinnati, we aim to determine if these differences in temperatures in the urban and rural landscapes affect the size of local butterflies as they develop.

This project entailed two main tasks: catching wild butterflies in both urban and rural areas and raising their offspring in two different temperatures mimicking urban and rural heat. Both groups had their thorax volume calculated to determine any size differences caused by temperature.

Between late May and early August, we collected wild butterflies from both urban and rural areas in the Southwest Ohio area. Our urban butterflies were collected from city parks in Cincinnati, whereas the rural butterflies were caught at the UC Center for Field Studies in Harrison (about 30 minutes outside of Cincinnati). The wild butterflies from both groups were then taken back to the lab to breed and produce eggs of two urban or two rural parents. Once the parents produced eggs, we separated them into four incubators, two of which simulated urban heat and the other two simulated rural heat. We then measured the thorax size of both the wild-caught butterflies and the offspring that fully developed to adulthood in the lab. We measured the length, width, and height at the thickest part of the thorax to calculate its volume. Once all the data was collected, we conducted many different statistical tests to determine if the size differences in the groups were significant.

The results that we found were not what we were expecting. This project was the second repetition of an experiment the lab conducted the summer before, so we had a baseline of what the results may look like. We found that there was no difference in the wild-caught urban vs rural butterflies. We wondered why this was the case since it was statistically significant last summer. We noticed that we caught the rural butterflies in two batches, one in late June and one in late July. These two groups were very different from each other, and we determined a possible reason for that was the drastic temperature differences in the two different months. As many know, this has been the hottest summer on record, so we may have observed how these drastic temperature variations can alter size even further. For the second generation, we noticed no thorax size difference in offspring of urban parents and rural parents in the simulated urban heat. This leads us to believe there is no genetic component controlling the caterpillars’ development at the different temperatures.

This experience has taught me crucial lab skills that I can apply in my future research positions. Even though my future career in genetic engineering and biotechnology isn’t directly related to the research I did at UC, I can still use my experimental design skills and work ethic in all my future positions. My connections with the lab PIs will also benefit my career through references, research advice, and grant funding. This experience also helped me decide that academic research isn’t for me. Now I can focus my efforts on gaining experience in government or private companies to determine what is a better fit.

My experience this summer at the University of Cincinnati and in the REU program was an amazing one that I could not recommend enough. Both of my lab coordinators were incredibly kind, dedicated to helping me and my lab partners learn, and cared about our interests. From buying us ice cream after being out in the heat with our nets to teaching us biological statistical methods, my lab coordinators cared about my learning every step of the way. The program also incorporated weekly meetings to discuss topics in sensory ecology, multiple trips to local tourist attractions, and more. The other members of the REU were also amazing friends, lab partners, and science communicators. I learned just as much from hearing about their experiments as I did from my own lab’s research. For those considering an REU program, I could not recommend it enough. A year ago, I would have never thought I would be running through fields in Cincinnati with a net trying to catch some stubborn little butterflies. But reflecting on this experience has shown me how positive stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something unexpected can be for my academic career and life as a whole.