August 13, 2002 - Stamford Advocate: RPCV Victor DeMasi works on State Butterfly Atlas

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RPCV Victor DeMasi works on State Butterfly Atlas

Read and comment on this story from the Stamford Advocate on RPCV Victor DeMasi shown in the photo above who is working on the Connecticut Butterfly Atlas, which will be completed in the coming months and published by the State Department of Environmental Protection late this year at:

Butterfly bonanza Stamford native works on state atlas*

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Butterfly bonanza Stamford native works on state atlas

By Louis Porter

Staff Writer

August 13, 2002

Photo Caption: Victor DeMasi, an amateur lepidopterist and a research fellow with the Peabody Museum at Yale University, wades through tall grass

REDDING -- Stalking a swallowtail butterfly in his backyard, Victor DeMasi looked like a naturalist of the 19th century -- long-handled net, bushy beard, straw hat and suspenders.

Like those old-time butterfly collectors, DeMasi, a decorative painter by trade, is a serious amateur lepidopterist. He is not a professional scientist but is devoted to the study of butterflies.

The Stamford native worked on the Connecticut Butterfly Atlas, which will be completed in the coming months and published by the state Department of Environmental Protection late this year or early next year. It is the first survey of the state's butterfly species, where they live and what they look like.

Of about 127 species known to have lived in Connecticut, the professional biologists and volunteers who collaborated on the book found 112 since 1995, when the work began. Butterfly enthusiasts sent in about 8,000 photographs and specimens.

DeMasi, 51, collected many of the butterflies from Fairfield County, tramping through fields and woods in Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Greenwich and other towns to track down as many species as he could.

"It's hard to get on land in Greenwich," he said.

DeMasi, who often includes butterflies in his house and mural painting work, estimates that he collected about 1,000 specimens during the project.

His interest began when he was an undergraduate zoology and art student at the University of San Francisco. He continued collecting butterflies as a Peace Corps volunteer and on trips around the world.

"I had kids, grew up and I couldn't go running off to South America or Africa any more," he said.

Adulthood didn't end his study of butterflies, though. The huge moths, large tropical butterflies and other exotic species he collected were put away in 50 drawers in his home and he turned his attention to Connecticut species.

The tiger swallowtail, a black and yellow butterfly common locally, is his main love now. DeMasi has been catching, carefully marking and releasing the delicate insects near his home and tracking them for more than 20 years, one of the longest biological studies in the region.

He even pairs male and female swallowtails by hand, bringing them close enough and in the right position to mate.

"They have to have foreplay," he said.

In some ways, being an amateur has aided his work, DeMasi said, because he doesn't have to move from one university to the next. He is rooted in one place and can follow the same groups of butterflies for long periods.

"This is my whole entomological life," he said.

DeMasi is a research affiliate with the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, meaning that by conducting his research and volunteering, he has the run of the place, even though he is not a professor or graduate student. He may be the only research affiliate at the museum without a doctoral degree, DeMasi said.

It also means that, along with many other amateurs, he contributed specimens to the butterfly atlas, which was organized by the museum.

Connecticut will be among the first states to complete such an atlas. Some strange and wonderful things happened as it was being compiled.

"We had one live morpho butterfly submitted to us," said Larry Gall of Westport, a curatorial affiliate with the Peabody Museum.

A woman from New Haven found the brilliant iridescent blue butterfly from South America in her yard and brought it in, Gall said.

"We don't know how it got here," he said.

The closest the species lives to Connecticut is Mexico and there are no breeders in the area who may have let the butterfly go, Gall said. The species will be included in the atlas, but not as a state resident.

Some species seem to have disappeared from Connecticut, Gall said. The silvery checkerspot, an orange and black checked butterfly almost 2 inches wide, was not found, Gall said.

"We were aware that it was declining precipitously in the Northeast," he said.

The last confirmed specimen was found in 1986.

Other species have expanded their range into the state, including the silvery blue.

"It basically invaded Connecticut during the start of the atlas program," Gall said.

The changes may be because of many factors, the lepidopterists said, including global warming and landscape changes.

"The atlas actually raises as many questions as it answers," said Jane O'Donnell, coordinator of the atlas project. The work will provide a foundation for future study.

"Why they all of a sudden start expanding their range is one of the greatest mysteries in biology," DeMasi said.

This summer has been bad for butterflies, DeMasi said. The rain in the spring encouraged mold on butterfly eggs, destroying them, he said. This year, he found 59 swallowtails, but in a good year he might have found 300.

"On a good butterfly year, we should see 20 or 30 out here," DeMasi said walking through his yard, planted with cherry trees and other plants butterflies eat as caterpillars or adults.

He has found about 60 species of butterflies on the property.

"This is really a butterfly garden," he said.

Copyright © 2002, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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