New Jersey

Behind the Science: Dale F. Schweitzer

Renowned entomologist Dale F. Schweitzer is quick with a butterfly net, fleet afoot, and loves being able to touch what he's studying. His passion for Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and other insects, which he began collecting as a boy in neighbors' gardens and by lights at night. "I had started on a very good moth collection by the age of 16," he says, "and I still have it today!"
“I had started on a very good moth collection by the age of 16, and I still have it today!”

Dale F. Schweitzer

What do you love most about your job?

Dale F. Schweitzer:

The incredible diversity of what I study. Hundreds of species of moths can be found on any Conservancy preserve in New Jersey, for example. As a boy I started collecting butterflies, then quickly realized that I had most of the few species found in neighborhood gardens, but that I could find far more species of moths. I was interested in other wildlife too, including birds, but mostly those that I could handle like insects and snakes—even plants.

You could say my hobby turned into my career. For six years I was a collections manager at two university museums before being hired by The Nature Conservancy in 1984. It’s even easier to get started today. There are color guides to caterpillars and many of the moths, for instance, that simply didn’t exist for the public fifteen years ago, and I’ll soon be second author on a new caterpillar guide.

Have you ever feared for your life at work?

Dale F. Schweitzer:

I stepped on a yellow jacket hive on the banks of a river many years ago, and knew it immediately. I went crashing through a green briar thicket, dove into the river, and held my breath on the bottom for as long as I could. Good thing for me it wasn’t winter. When I came back up, there were no yellow jackets around me. They aren’t that persistent. I still haven’t figured out how I got through that thicket. I guess the scariest experience was one night in Florida when a low flying plane with no lights flew right over us, circled, and dropped a crate of what was undoubtedly drugs close enough that we could hear the pickup truck start its engine and drive away a minute later. At least the pilot did not mistake our moth lights for the drop zone.

Could you share a memorable surprise you experienced at a Conservancy preserve?

Dale F. Schweitzer:

One of my favorite finds occurred at what is now the Conservancy’s Manumuskin River Preserve in Southern New Jersey. I was out with another entomologist who had an affection for skipper butterflies. One of the species on our radar was a dotted skipper that had last been collected there in 1903, and there were no other records of the species in that part of New Jersey. My colleague had just spent several days in the Pine Barrens trying to photograph one and was asking me where in Florida he could go to find it — when one appeared. To put it mildly, it made our day to re-discover a 100 year-old occurrence! Actually, most of that preserve was a real surprise. I have still seen very few similar places.

Note: Dr. Schweitzer, an employee of The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe, is putting the finishing touches on a book about the uncommon, rare and imperiled moths and butterflies of eastern U.S. woodlands, and he is finishing up a caterpillar guide with David Wagner. He also serves as Curatorial Affiliate with the Yale University Peabody Museum of Natural History.

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