Godfather to an Insect

A Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) butterfly; photo by Ernst Vikne

Vladimir Nabokov is best known for his literary achievements. Nabokov authored seventeen novels, including the classic Lolita, and penned such masterworks of short fiction as "Signs and Symbols" and "Spring in Fialta."

Less well-known is Nabokov's work as an amateur lepidopterist, a collector and classifier of butterflies. In 1941, Nabokov volunteered to help Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology to organize its collection of butterflies and moths. He was awarded a research appointment at the Museum and developed a novel theory about the origins of a group of butterflies known as Polyommatus blues. This variety of butterfly, he suggested, emigrated to North American from Asia in five distinct waves.

Using modern methods of genetic analysis, the Museum's current curator of Lepidoptera, Naomi Pierce, put Nabokov's theory to the test. In their article, "Phylogeny and Palaeoecology of Polyommatus Blue Butterflies Show Beringia Was a Climate-Regulated Gateway to the New World," Prof. Pierce and her colleagues report that Nabokov's five-wave hypothesis was correct.

"By God, he got every one right," Pierce commented in The New York Times. "I couldn't get over it—I was blown away."

You can find a feature about the study in the Harvard Gazette.