Amjad with purple hairstreak butterfly on his finger

‘Chasing butterflies’ at the Museum of Zoology

Amjad Khalaf, undergraduate student, writes:

Amjad with butterfly

One of my fondest childhood memories is chasing butterflies and ladybirds in the garden and being fascinated by their vibrant colours as they flew around. Thinking back, that was one of the main reasons I became interested in biology; I often found myself wondering  why they looked the way they did and how they lived their lives that were so different from mine.

Despite always being interested in insects on some level, I never realised how much I actually wanted to study them until I attended one of the Evolution & Behaviour lectures in my first year. I remember being charmed by the various insects and arthropods Professor Michael Akam discussed in the lecture, and I emailed him after the lecture asking if he knew of any insect-related projects I could get involved in. He was extremely kind, meeting with me in person to discuss my research interests and pointing me to a few people I could contact.

I was subsequently introduced to Dr Andrew Bladon, who was working on butterfly thermoregulation.

Thermoregulation is a process that allows your body to maintain its core internal temperature. For many animals, this means using their environment as a tool to either warm up or cool down.

Dr Andrew suggested I investigate the link between butterfly colouration and their thermoregulatory abilities. This is particularly interesting because butterfly wings are known to be important for helping butterflies to manage their core temperature (thermoregulatory devices), so their colouration could play a role in that; especially knowing that colour affects heat absorption.

Amjad with purple hairstreak butterfly on his finger
Purple hairstreak (c) Amjad Khalad

I worked on the project in my ecology fieldtrip that summer and for most of the Michaelmas term with Dr Andrew and Matt Hayes. The fieldtrip was an amazing experience, and I even got to make friends with a very feisty purple hairstreak! I enjoyed working on the project so much as part of my ecology module that I later emailed Dr Andrew and Matt to ask them if they would be interested in expanding the project and potentially producing a publication.

I’ve been working on this project ever since – almost a year now! To this day, I’m still thrilled about working with butterflies; it’s as if I’m still that child chasing insects back in my garden in Amman, Jordan.

Swallowtail butterfy specimens

As part of my project, I accessed different butterfly collections in the Museum of Zoology. I was lucky to observe the beautiful specimens closely and admire them, photographing specimens of all the British species with Matt as part of my data collection.

In this year of research, I’ve learned many useful photography, coding and statistical skills. I have also made some wonderful memories and good friends, all of which I hope will stay with me in the future.

Discover more about butterflies found in the UK from Matt Hayes here: White and Yellow Butterflies

Esme Ashe-Jepson explores the question ‘Do caterpillars like it hot?’ in her International Womens Day post.

Read more about the work of scientists in the Department of Zoology and beyond in Research Stories

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