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When is it all right to kill something in the name of science? The question has many aspects and many answers. The animal-rights organizations tend to focus on the side of the question that involves captive animals. They protest the decapitation of rats in space and ghastly surgical procedures performed on monkeys in laboratories.

Conservationists are more concerned with wild creatures. When are we justified in collecting, which is to say killing, a wild animal? When does the knowledge we gain from the killing outweigh the loss of the animal?

Consider the case of the Karner blue, Lycaeides melissa samuelis Nabokov. The Karner blue is a butterfly whose wingspan wouldn't reach from one end of its scientific name to the other. The insect takes its common name from a town called Karner in upstate New York. It was discovered and named--as the last word in its impressive appellation shows--by the novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov. The presence of three Latinate words in the name shows that the Karner is considered a subspecies of the Melissa blue and not a separate species. However, investigation continues into whether it deserves full species status.

Melissa blues are widespread. The caterpillars can live on a number of different legumes, including alfalfa, so the future of the species seems fairly secure. But Karner blue caterpillars live only on wild lupines, Lupinus perennis. These gorgeous flowers grow only in very sandy soils, so the butterfly is very restricted in its habitat.

The type location for the species is a sand savanna where pines and oaks grow. There is a population at the Indiana Dunes in similar habitat. There are more populations in Wisconsin and Michigan, but the status of this insect is so precarious that last December the secretary of the interior added it to the federal endangered-species list.

Until last year the only records of the species in Illinois were two specimens in the collection of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign. These were collected in the 19th century and are identified only as coming from "N. Ill."

Lepidopterists have long believed that the place where those specimens were collected was probably the oak savanna at Illinois Beach State Park north of Waukegan. The park provides the right kind of habitat and lupines do grow there, but in decades of looking nobody could find any Karner blues. Until last August. On August 16, 1992, a man named Irwin Leeuw found a Karner blue adult at Illinois Beach and collected it. He returned the next day and collected another. And on August 18 Jim Wiker and Brad Sims collected three more. Two of the five specimens were females that had not yet laid eggs.

Wiker is one of the most active lepidopterists in Illinois. He has collected 125 species in the state, and he logs up to 20,000 miles a year searching for butterflies and moths in Illinois. He has been collecting since he was four. He even got married on a collecting trip, going right from the wedding dinner to spend the evening using a black light to attract moths.

He holds a permit from the Illinois Department of Conservation that allows him to collect on DOC lands pretty much what he wishes. The DOC relies on him--and on other volunteers--to provide information about what lives on DOC holdings, and he has supplied much valuable data. But should he have collected those particular butterflies?

Wiker believes he did the right thing. Other entomologists disagree, and the issues raised by the disagreement suggest a major change in how we think about invertebrates and how we think about nature.

Wiker's point of view could be characterized as the traditional way of thinking about these questions. In this view no record of the occurrence of a particular species in a particular place can be accepted as valid unless it is supported by a specimen. Depositions from reliable witnesses or photographs will not do the job. And you should really have a number of specimens--a "series" to use the jargon of the trade--from each location. Properly preserved specimens will be available for study long after the person who collected them has gone to his reward, and a good series allows researchers to study variations within populations as well as between populations.

Traditional collectors might take a hundred specimens from one location, and by that standard Wiker was, as he describes himself, "a very conservative collector."

"I don't go out and rape the countryside," he told me. "You would like to have a series of 15 or 20 specimens. I take only a few." Of the five specimens that he, Leeuw, and Sims collected, two will be placed in the Illinois State Museum in Springfield and two will be placed in his private collection. That collection is available for study by researchers, and it will eventually be donated to the Illinois State Museum.

Wiker suspects that the Karner blue is not permanently established at Illinois Beach. It has not been found previously in this century not because people weren't looking at the right time in the right place, but because it wasn't there. "This state is obviously marginal for the species," he told me. "Our specimens could be the offspring of a single female who drifted in on the wind." He has found a number of western species in Illinois that were carried in by the wind but could not become established here.

As a final argument, Wiker points out that insects are at the bottom of the food chain. Five small butterflies could be a light breakfast for a kingbird. "If losing five individuals wipes them out," he says, "they never had a chance anyway."

Ron Panzer is an entomologist who frequently works on contract for the Illinois DOC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He has also helped train a group of volunteer butterfly counters who are surveying natural areas in Illinois to learn about the distribution and abundance of our local butterflies.

Panzer's attitude toward collecting Karner blues is straightforward: "These guys should be in jail," he told me. "This insect is easy to identify. You don't need a specimen for a certain identification." Panzer says there are four possible courses of action for someone who discovers a rare butterfly. The first is to collect some experts and bring them to the place where you found the insect. With luck you can find it again and get confirmation of your identification. The second ("What I would have done") is to capture one, photograph it, and release it. The third is to collect one individual to verify the sighting. The fourth, "the most radical course," is to collect several individuals. "But why in heaven's name do that?"

It might be useful here to bring in some historical perspective. The year is 1869. The place, the Holyoke Mountains of central Massachusetts. C.W. Bennett, a serious collector of birds' eggs, discovers a nest of the peregrine falcon. The Holyokes are the only known nesting site for this species in the state. He collects the one egg in the nest. The birds build a new nest. Mr. Bennett discovers it and collects three eggs. The birds try again, but the indefatigable Mr. Bennett finds the new nest and collects three more eggs. This was ornithology. A.C. Bent, writing in Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, published by the U.S. National Museum in 1937, recalls reading the "thrilling account" of these exploits as a child and "long(ing) to have a similar experience."

The fathers of the field, men like Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, made the shotgun their principal research tool. It took decades for ornithologists to begin to accept sight records or photographs as documentation for the occurrence of a bird outside its normal range. A few reactionaries still won't consider any report valid unless it is accompanied by a corpse.

The huge number of specimens collected by the early ornithologists enabled us to work out the taxonomy of our bird life. They even contributed directly to conservation. In the 50s scientists were able to compare new eggs of peregrine falcons and other birds of prey with the old eggs in museum collections and determine that the shells of the new eggs containing DDT were thinner than the shells of the old eggs. The eggs Mr. Bennett collected in the 1860s helped make the case against DDT.

Contemporary entomology seems to be undergoing the sort of shift that began to happen in ornithology in the early years of this century--a shift away from specimen collecting toward the study of the living animal. The vulnerability of insects is part of the consciousness of many entomologists today--especially among people like Panzer who work around metropolitan areas where the bulldozers never sleep. So many forces are conspiring to wipe these tiny creatures off the face of the earth that nobody with an interest in them would want to contribute to their demise.

Panzer's suggestion that Wiker, Leeuw, and Sims ought to be in jail may seem hyperbolic, but just four months after they collected their specimens the Karner blue was placed on the federal endangered list. Once the listing was made, collecting Karner blues without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service became a felony.

But would the Fish and Wildlife Service be willing to issue a permit to collect Karner blues at Illinois Beach? Amelia Orton-Palmer, an endangered-species biologist with the FWS office in Barrington, thinks not. "This is a historical site for the species, and we wouldn't want to do anything to harm them there. We would not approve taking specimens just to verify their presence."

The FWS might approve taking specimens for genetic study--to establish, for example, whether the Karner blue is a distinct species. But those specimens would have to come from a place where the species was not quite so close to extirpation. As it happens, Wisconsin is such a place. Catherine Bleser, a biologist with the Bureau of Endangered Resources of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, has been surveying the Karner blue in her state for the past three years. Wisconsin is one of the centers of abundance for the species, with 92 known locations. Bleser has counted 7,500 individuals in those 92 locations. From this population she collected 22 males. The DNA from these insects will be examined to determine if the Karner blue is indeed a full species. This falls within the realm of responsible collecting.


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