All his life, Kevin Gauthier has followed the tracks of insects with an unrelenting passion. Today a master’s student–researcher, he shows me around the Insectarium’s sparkling new display-preparation room. The biologist reveals the results of his fieldwork by opening two large metal cabinets. In them are dozens of entomological drawers crammed with more than 5,000 specimens gathered on the mountain peaks of the Gaspé Peninsula. The inventory he’s responsible for represents a valuable database. When sampling is repeated in three years’ time, scientists will have a basis for comparison that will help us better understand the impact of climate change on the evolution of these butterfly populations.
Came to it naturally as a kid
“When I was little, my mother gave me heck because I came back from school with my pockets full of worms on rainy days,” Kevin tells me. Around the age of eight he moved to a small farm bordered by a large forest and a pond. A world opened up to him! As the occasion arose, the budding scientist disappeared at sunup to explore streams and undergrowth in search of microfauna.
In high school, with the support of a science teacher, young Kevin replicated the ecosystem of a pond in his class and founded a club for animal lovers. Quickly the class became a shelter for a host of animals considered “undesirable,” including snakes, tarantulas and rats. To feed them, Kevin planted a garden in an adjoining classroom and started rearing darkling beetles. The same year, he discovered scientific research during a one-week training session at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in the company of researcher Narin Sri. And that confirmed his desire to devote his academic career to science.
Mountains and butterflies
During his bachelor’s degree in environment at Université Laval, the pandemic struck, and distance learning became the norm. Kevin took advantage to set off to work as an independent researcher in Nicaragua while continuing his remote studies. He alternated between contracts in Nicaragua and Québec. And an opportunity that arose in Québec – assisting a student of Maxim Larrivée’s, researcher and director of the Insectarium – brought the two butterfly fans together, a highly successful collaboration that resulted in a master’s project.
Two years later, the field collections came to an end. Among the thousands of butterflies captured in the mountains of the Gaspé, more than 300 species have been identified. Kevin tells me that most of the species are rare, or their geographical distribution range was unknown to that point.
Armed with patience and meticulousness
Sampling butterflies in the mountainous terrain of Québec is no walk in the park. “Icy wind, rain, flies and blisters can be demoralizing,” relates Kevin. “Remaining scientifically rigorous in the middle of a rough day and with blistered feet is probably one of the biggest challenges of the work.”
Setbacks like a simple flat tire take on bigger proportions when you’re far from town. Coming back from a sampling tour on an especially steep road, Kevin found two flats on his rental car. Once the accident was dealt with, and a number of days of collecting were lost for want of a means of transportation, Kevin returned to the shelter and realized he’d left his butterfly specimens on the counter instead of storing them in the freezer, jeopardizing the integrity of the specimens, which can be attacked by parasites or mold. So he got busy meticulously cleaning off all traces of mold by delicately passing a paintbrush dipped in alcohol over each specimen. An essential task, which saved his harvest and the data it contained.
Far and away the most fastidious thing about his work is the preparation of data labels. For each of the 5,000 butterflies gathered, a tiny label is created to identify it. On it is information on the date of harvesting and the method of capture used by the sampler, the location, the GPS coordinates, the habitat and the altitude. Added to that are, following identification of the species, the name of the person who identified it and the date. All this data is gathered together, and each of the little squares is printed and scrupulously placed on the pin underneath each insect.
It’s clear that these less adventurous aspects of research are in no way dampening the student-researcher’s enthusiasm. “Every summer I get paid to walk around in nature and catch insects. It’s just amazing. The kid in me would be proud of the adult I`ve become!”
And it’s a safe bet that the career of this scientist is just getting started..
To learn more about research at the Insectarium.
Every year in the month of November, Space for Life presents Researchers’ Night, a unique event that celebrates research and makes it accessible to children and grownups both.
Watch the rebroadcast of the talk show “En terrain inconnu” from the 2021 edition, which took place at the Biodôme de Montréal.