Scientists Discover New Butterfly Species Hidden in a Drawer 60 Years After It Was First Found

A new fawn-colored species of butterfly has been named after a teenage insect enthusiast who first collected it in 1959, and went on to become a world famous lepidopterologist. 

Almost six decades ago, Thomas Emmel became the first and only person to collect what is now officially known as Cyllopsis tomemmeli

During a three-month expedition in the Mexican highlands, Emmel collected thousands of butterflies. Among them were what are now known to be 13 Cyllopsis tomemmeli, in a pine-oak forest in Chiapas. The butterflies were deemed unremarkable until Andrew Warren, senior collections manager of the Florida Museum of Natural History's McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, noticed they were an unidentified species.

The Cyllopsis tomemmeli is around two inches wide. Females are slightly paler than the males, who have fuzzy scales which experts believe excrete a scent.

butterflies2 Tom Emmel in 1949 with his butterfly collection. A new species of butterfly that he discovered in 1959 has been named after him. Tom Emmel

Now 76, Emmel’s lifelong fascination with butterflies began when his father made him and his brother John butterfly nets when he was 8-years-old. 

"He thought we would be interested," Emmel said in a statement. "To his great surprise, and eventually regret, it consumed us as a hobby and finally became a profession for me and a continued avocation for my brother."

The budding scientist was able to make the trip to the Mexican highlands by striking a deal with ornithologist Louie Irby Davis. If Emmel helped him document birdsong, he could use the rest of his time to gathering butterfly specimens. 

Emmel has earned a reputation as a world-famous lepidopterist and the founder of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the University of Florida—the world's only institution solely dedicated to butterfly and moth research.

To honor his devotion to the insects, his colleagues at the University of Florida formally identified the new species after Emmel in the journal Zootaxa.

butterflies3 Thomas Emmel discovered the Cyllopsis tomemmeli during an expedition. University of Florida

"I pulled out that drawer and immediately thought, 'That's new,'" Warren said. "I went upstairs to Tom's office and said, 'Hey, what were you doing on March 26, 1959?' Tom said, 'Oh, well, it was a beautiful sunny morning. I was in the highlands of Chiapas'."

"The fact that something can be preserved for future students and professional people to study at a time when new techniques are available to verify the discovery is very important," commented Emmel. "It shows just how long specimens can be preserved, hundreds of years in a museum, and still be invaluable to understanding the changes that have occurred. Climatic change, pesticides, heavy metal pollution in the air—all that is recorded in the wings and bodies of butterflies."

The discovery comes after scientists named a new species of butterfly after President Donald Trump. Writing in the journal ZooKeys, Dr. Vazrick Nazari said he named the insect Neopalpa donaldtrumpi to raise its profile in the hope it would encourage the preservation of natural habitats.