Philip DeVries, professor of biological sciences at the University of New Orleans, has received a prestigious award from the Lepidopterists’ Society, an international nonprofit organization focused on promoting the study and appreciation of butterflies and moths.
The Karl Jordan medal, named for a German entomologist who initiated and founded the first International Entomological Congress in 1910, is awarded in recognition of outstanding original research in Lepidoptera natural history. The Lepidopterists’ Society has named an annual recipient of the medal since 1973. Jacqueline Miller chairs the organization’s committee charged with reviewing nominations and selecting the honoree.
“It is not an easy matter to arrive at a conclusion as each of the candidates has contributed markedly to study of Lepidoptera and each may have been recognized with several prestigious awards,” said Miller, who is also associate director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the University of Florida.
“Dr. DeVries was recognized for his extraordinary in-depth original research, with major publications on the evolution, community ecology, natural history, behavior and phylogenetic studies on the Lepidoptera,” she said. DeVries received the award during the Lepidopterists’ Society annual meeting held in Tucson, Az., from July 30 through Aug. 1, 2017.
Notable among DeVries contributions to the biological sciences field is his experimental demonstration of acoustical communication systems between caterpillars and ants and the discovery of amber fossil evidence showing that these symbiotic relationships are at least 20 million years old. DeVries found that caterpillars from certain butterfly families, “singing caterpillars” as he named them, make calls that attract ants and also produce chemical secretions that are food for the ants. In return, the ants provide protection for the caterpillars from predators. In his experiments, DeVries was the first to show that acoustical calls of one insect species can evolve to attract unrelated species in a symbiotic relationship. He also showed that, in concert, caterpillars use their specialized organs to modify ant behavior and mediate the symbiosis. He was the first to demonstrate an evolution in the length of caterpillar legs and the use of chemical camouflage in carnivorous butterfly caterpillars.
Among DeVries’ other contributions to the field are his development of sampling methods that facilitated long-term data collection in tropical butterfly communities. Working with international collaborators he helped generate significant insight into the diversity and dynamics of rainforest insect communities. He also collaborates with his wife and UNO colleague, Doris Zemurray Stone Professor Carla Penz, on the evolution and diversification of various butterfly groups.
DeVries discovered an affinity for nature during his childhood in rural Michigan. He earned a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in botany from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources in 1975. His lifelong interest in butterflies began soon after, when a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer he served as curator of Lepidoptera at Museo Nacional de Costa Rica where he built the museum’s first major butterfly collection. Observations during his extensive travel in Costa Rica and elsewhere in the tropics informed what would become his first two volumes: “The Butterflies of Costa Rica and their Natural History, Vol. 1 and 2.” DeVries has published over 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles, and maintains an active research program.
As a doctoral student in zoology at the University of Texas at Austin in 1982, DeVries won a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship that sent him to the Natural History Museum in London (then known as the British Museum of Natural History). He was awarded pre- and postdoctoral fellowships from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. After the completion of his Ph.D. in 1987, he won a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that allowed him to continue his observations in Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Argentina and many other tropical countries.
DeVries’ academic posts include visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, UK (1990–1991), associate of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University (1990–1992), Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Fellow at Harvard University (1993–1994) and assistant professor at the University of Oregon (1994–2000). From 2000 to 2004 he was the Director of the Center for Biodiversity Studies and curator of Lepidoptera at the Milwaukee Public Museum in Wisconsin. He arrived at the University of New Orleans in 2004. In 2015 he won a Fulbright-Hayes Distinguished Chaired Research Professor scholarship to conduct research at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil. He is a research associate of the American Museum of Natural History, Missouri Botanical Gardens, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
DeVries has lent his expertise to the production of more than 15 documentary films, serving as writer, advisor or on-screen presenter for productions by National Geographic, Oxford Scientific Films, Scientific American Frontiers and BBC Television. As a natural history photographer, he has had work published in Ranger Rick, Nature, Science and scholarly textbooks. Other photographic works of his document the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, street life in the French Quarter, New Orleans musicians and rural Louisiana culture.
In addition to the Karl Jordan Medal from the Lepidopterists’ Society and other accolades throughout his career, an asteroid discovered in 2001 was named in his honor by astronomer Bill Yeung.