Nabokov's Butterflies

Harvard biologist Naomi Pierce confirms the Russian author's theory about the winged creatures' migration and evolution.

Butterflies frequently appear in Vladimir Nabokov's novels, but the winged creatures were more than a trope for the multifaceted Russian writer. As curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, he collected butterflies and developed a hypothesis of butterfly migration that disputed previous theories.

His theory, which involved butterflies traveling from Siberia to Alaska to South America, wasn't taken seriously by biologists during his lifetime. But the New York Times reports that a group of scientists, including Hessel professor of biology Naomi Pierce, has published a journal article confirming Nabokov's hypothesis.

Pierce, who now holds Nabokov's old post as curator of lepidoptera, rediscovered his theory in 1999 while preparing an exhibit to commemorate her predecessor's centennial. "It was an amazing, bold hypothesis," she recalled, "and I thought, 'Oh, my God, we could test this.' " Using techniques including DNA sequencing, they did.

For more about Pierce, read the 2001 Harvard Magazine feature article "A Life with Lycaenids."

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