Lawrence Gilbert, professor of integrative biology, director of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory and self-described “childhood naturalist,” began his career researching the coevolved traits — how species influence one another’s evolution — of a variety of insects and plants.
Although he works with a diversity of insects, he says butterflies hold a special place in his heart. He has studied the genetics of their wing color patterns, such as how different coexisting species develop seemingly identical patterns that warn off predators such as birds and lizards.
“If you transport me blindfolded to anywhere in South America, I can tell you where I am within a few hundred miles by looking at wing patterns of local Heliconius butterflies,” Gilbert says as he gently picks up a spotted butterfly in one of his campus greenhouses, on the roof of the J.T. Patterson Laboratories Building.
Gilbert’s fascination with butterflies began when he was a child, but he says he never thought of it as more than a hobby.
“I found a caterpillar on a plant in the pasture behind the house, raised it up and a big swallowtail butterfly came out,” Gilbert says. “I was hooked on collecting butterflies in school, but I never thought of it as something that would be a career.”
Gilbert came to The University of Texas at Austin in 1961 as a freshman biology major. He joined the faculty in 1971.
Through his work on the genetic interactions between species in his greenhouses, including at the Brackenridge Field Lab, Gilbert says he is able to provide the materials necessary for other research projects around the world.
“I can raise everything,” Gilbert says. “They’re always writing me: ‘Can we get this kind of plant?’ or ‘Can we get this stock of butterfly?’”
Gilbert says most of his current research deals with invasive species — such as imported fire ants and certain African grasses — that are overwhelming habitats in Texas.
Working with his butterflies, he deals with natural predators such as wasps that control butterflies and moths.
“Tiny parasitoid wasps no bigger than a period in a sentence get in through vents and fans and lay eggs in butterfly eggs,” he says. “As many as 10 to 15 wasps can emerge from a butterfly egg just over 1 millimeter tall.”
Undergraduate students and research assistants help Gilbert collect butterfly eggs before wasps can get to them to help keep up the population for research.
Although most of his funded work these days doesn’t involve butterflies, he still maintains his greenhouses and helps students who have an interest in research involving butterflies, passion vine plants and other natural wonders.
“As far as the butterfly research goes, a lot of that is keeping my pure passion for working with that system going and helping anybody else who wants to work on fundamental questions like how novel wing patterns evolve,” he says.