by Skylar Hopkins Contributing Writer
If the flap of a single butterfly’s wings can have rippling effects across the world, what impact might a professor who researches butterfly conservation have? Dr. Ronald Butler has been a professor in the Division of Natural Resources at the University of Maine at Farmington since 1986.
In the past 34 years, he has taught and mentored thousands of students through summer research projects and courses such as Zoology, Entomology, Ornithology, Ecology, Conservation Biology, and Tropical Island Ecology. His students now live across the world, spreading the ecological knowledge and life lessons he passed down to them.
Butler’s biology courses were always popular because he took students on field trips to study local wildlife. Students fondly remember tiptoeing through meadows with a butterfly net, flipping rocks in streams to look for aquatic insects, and looking at lichens on trees using a hand lens. (Many housemates and parents of Butler’s students less fondly remember unexpectedly finding a collection of dead insects in the freezer, waiting to be pinned for a class project.)
Many students made lifelong friends and memories during Tropical Island Ecology, a travel course that Butler co-taught with Dr. Nancy Prentiss, which involves snorkeling in coral reefs and hiking in tropical forests on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Though his field trips were literally “a walk in the park”, Butler’s courses were more like strenuous and rewarding hikes than casual strolls. First-year biology majors crammed for his Zoology exams. Ecology students sat in the Spatial Ecology Lab at all hours of the day and night running statistical tests. Entomology students fretted over microscopes while counting tiny insect hairs or analyzing wing veins, because Butler would subtract two times as many points as an insect was worth in their final collection if they included an insect identified incorrectly. All of this made his students work harder and achieve more at UMF and in their careers after college.
Amidst his full teaching and mentoring responsibilities, Butler always found time to be a champion of insect conservation in the state of Maine and beyond. He has been an integral part of several state-wide citizen science initiatives, including the Maine Damselfly and Dragonfly Survey, the Maine Butterfly Survey, and the Maine Bumble Bee Atlas. While participating in those projects, his summer research students often lived their best lives. Butler also published many scholarly articles about critters ranging from lichens to birds to insects and guidebooks for insects in Maine and New England.
Butler will be retiring from teaching at UMF after this academic year and his science fiction book recommendations and iconic phrase of agreement (“right, right, right”) will be dearly missed. Despite retiring, Butler will continue to be involved in insect conservation projects, including new book writing projects, for many years to come. His students and colleagues near and far wish him all the best of luck in his future endeavors.