Award helps student spread her wings at Smithsonian Institute

Jayme Lewthwaite, Crawford Lab member, at the Smithsonian

October 26, 2016
By Ian Bryce

Jayme Lewthwaite examines hundreds of dead butterflies every day.
Far from a morbid curiosity, Lewthwaite, a doctoral student studying biological sciences at Simon Fraser University, is studying how climate change is shifting the habitat range of Canadian butterflies northwards. This summer, she received a 2016 Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to conduct research at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum for Natural History in Washington D.C.


GIRTA is an annual award that provides support to master’s and doctoral students who must travel in order to undertake research for their degrees.

The Smithsonian Natural History Museum contains thousands of shelves with cases of preserved butterfly specimens—including the date and location they were found.

With around 300 butterfly species in Canada, Lewthwaite is creating a database tracking their historic range. By mapping both their past and present habitat ranges, she can determine how far north they have shifted over time.

Initially, Lewthwaite thought her research would take around one month. Yet upon seeing the Smithsonian’s extensive collection, she quickly realized she would require more time. Currently, she has documented 10,000 butterflies but has examined twice as many.

Her research is not a flight of fancy. She says that, due to butterflies’ short lifespans and their sensitivity to cold environments, researchers predict they can see a difference faster in their responses to changing climate conditions compared to other animals’ reactions.

“They bear the flag for other species that aren’t as attractive but are still important to ecosystems and are also affected by climate change,” says Lewthwaite.

She says the award has helped her temporarily move to Washington to complete her research. She arrived in Washington D.C. in June and expects to return to Vancouver in December to complete her thesis.”

Ben Sandkam wins Quirks and Quarks Award!

Ben (and Felix) hard at work in the field.

Congratulations to Ben Sandkam of the Breden Lab, whose PhD thesis “Beauty in the Eyes of the Beholders: Colour Vision and Mate Choice in the Family Poeciliidae,” has earned the Quirks and Quarks Graduate Award for Best PhD Thesis!

Ben studied sexual selection in guppies, and his thesis work was characterized by its integrative approach to the problem.  His work ranged from field studies in Guyana and Trinidad, to behavioural ecology, to molecular biology (sequencing and cloning opsin genes from guppy retinas to investigate gene expression).  He published a new Hybrid Sensory Expansion hypothesis in the journal Evolution, and his research on opsin expression was published inMolecular Ecology (he published a total of 9 papers from his thesis work).  Ben is currently pursuing post-doctoral research at the University of Maryland.

Here’s how Ben summarizes his work:

“For my PhD, I developed an integrated programme to discover the genetic effects of mate preferences, a powerful force shaping animal evolution and diversity. My work revealed that guppy colour vision co-varies with mate-preferences across natural populations (Sandkam et al 2015a), showing that mate preference can shape sensory genes and ability. I also revealed that colour vision differs more across populations than across species (Sandkam et al 2015b), a startling result given that colour vision was assumed to be fixed within species. My results are key to explaining how mate preferences evolve and diverge across populations, and led me to develop the Hybrid Sensory Expansion (HSE), which posits that hybrid offspring exhibit a wider range of tuning than their parental species (Sandkam et al. 2013).

I also discovered that the genomic architecture of long-wave sensitive loci results in high rates of double-recombination, which reduces the ability to discriminate red and orange colours, potentially deleterious for animals that select mates based on these colours. I showed double-recombination is significantly reduced in species with mate preferences based on red and orange colour, the first evidence that sexual selection can affect recombination rate (Sandkam et al- In review).


Article from the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University