A legacy founded in butterflies

Published: Apr. 29, 2019 at 5:30 PM AKDT
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After retiring in the 1970's Ken Phillip took what first began as a hobby into what is now the largest private collection of arctic butterflies in the world.

Philip, who died in 2014 at age 82, was a research associate of the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Alaska Museum of the North and the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology. He gathered more than 111,000 specimens from Alaska, Canada and Russia.

Derek Sikes, Professor of Entomology and Curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum of the North spoke about the collection and Phillip.

“Ken Phillip was a radio astronomer, astrophysicist. He came to Alaska in 1965. He had a passion for butterflies he was doing that as a hobby, but when he retired in the 70’s he really dove into it full time,” said Sikes.

He wanted to make a field guide to the butterflies in Alaska but he was also interested in the Beringia and the connection with Asia. So he made three trips to Russia and did a number of collection trips in Western Canada as well. He created a group called the Alaska Lepidoptera Survey, lepidoptera, meaning butterflies and moths.

He worked with over 600 volunteers in that group who he said sent specimens from remote locations around the state and other places to fill in the gaps where Phillip wasn't able to visit. Now with the new online data base the volunteers can now see the collection what they helped build. Sikes called these volunteers an elite privileged bunch who helped create this field guide.

“Their specimens are in the collection here, they are either in envelopes or on pins, Ken would go through specimens that people donated and sometimes he would take them out and put them on pins and would add to the pin collection, which the pin collection is 50,000 , of the whole 128,000 specimens in the entire collection,” said Sikes.

He says it's an enormously valuable collection for science because it has such a long time series, going back to the 1970's.

“We can ask questions on how. We can ask questions on how butterflies have changed over time, their flight activity, or even their body size,” he said.

Graduate student Kathryn Daly studied how butterflies respond to warming on the North Slope, and how their body sizes tend to get smaller following a warmer summer.

“This was first observed in Greenland and Kathryn wanted to see if it was happening here in Alaska too and it is, at least in two of the three species she was looking at,” said Sikes.

Kathryn was also hired by the National Park Service to curate this collection after Phillip passed away in 2014. Where they then brought the collection to UAMN from Phillip's home. She inventoried the entire collection, counting by hand and eye all of those specimens. All 128,000 of them.

UAF undergraduate student Nina Sikes photographed them in 2016, after the collection had been moved from Philip’s home in Fairbanks to the UA Museum of the North. Philip arranged for most of his pinned specimens to be donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The website includes lesson-plan ideas for using the collection website. Collection data is available for specimens in each drawer of Beringian & Alaska specimens and selected butterflies and moths were imaged with a scanning electron microscope at UAF’s Advanced Instrumentation Laboratory.

To see the whole collection, including all 400 drawers of butterflies and moths visit