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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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skipper butterfly

John Burns, Curator of Lepidoptera (emeritus)

  • Phone:   202-633-1043
  • Fax:   202-786-3141
  • E-mail Address:   burnsj@si.edu
  • Mailing Address:
    Smithsonian Institution
    PO Box 37012, MRC 105
    Washington, DC 20013-7012
  • Shipping Address:
    Smithsonian Institution
    National Museum of Natural History
    10th & Constitution NW
    Washington, DC 20560-0105
  • Education:
    AB (Biology) Johns Hopkins Univ.
    MA (Zoology) UC-Berkeley
    PhD (Zoology) UC-Berkeley
John Burns

Research Interests:

I am mainly interested in problems at and around the species level, in the process of speciation, and in evolution; and I work mostly on a family of distinctive butterflies called skippers.  With perhaps as many as 5,000 species worldwide, skippers are especially rich in species in the New World tropics.

In collaboration with others, I started in 2003 to use a new molecular tool dubbed DNA barcoding as an additional character for telling species apart and discovering new ones.  More traditional characters for distinguishing skipper species include geographic distribution, ecological preferences, caterpillar foodplants, color patterns and morphology of caterpillars and adults, and especially secondary sex characters and genitalia of adults.  Recent barcoding studies are showing that what has long been believed—sometimes from as far back as the latter 1700s!—to be a single species of skipper may actually comprise 2, 3, or 4 (or even as many as 10!) separate species, which are more specialized in their life history (including their choice of larval foodplants) than was previously thought.

At least in the American tropics, these studies may be increasing the number of known skipper species by as much as 10%.  Such results have significant repercussions.  For instance, they seriously affect our attempts at estimating biodiversity; they show that the living world is more complex than we thought; and they cast a different light on our efforts at conserving enough habitat to save some sizable portion of biodiversity.

I have written a book of biological poetry called BioGraffiti, which was published (hardbound) by The New York Times Book Co. in 1975 and republished (paperback) by W. W. Norton & Company in 1981.  Although it has long been out of print, people tell me that they can usually find it online.

Selected Publications:

Fernandez-Triana, J., Whitfield, J., Rodriguez, J., Smith, A., Janzen, D., Hallwachs, W., Hajibabaei, M., Burns, J., Solis, A., Brown, J., Cardinal, S., Goulet, H. and Hebert, P. 2014. Review of Apanteles sensu stricto(Hymenoptera, Braconidae, Microgastrinae) from Area de Conservación Guanacaste, northwestern Costa Rica, with keys to all described species from Mesoamerica. Zookeys, 383(Special issue 1-565): 1-565. doi:10.3897/zookeys.383.6418

Burns, J.M., Janzen, D.H., Hallwachs, W. and Hajibabaei, M. 2013. DNA Barcodes Reveal Yet Another New Species of Venada (Lepidoptera: Hesperiidae) in Northwestern Costa Rica. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 115(1): 37-47. doi:10.4289/0013-8797.115.1.37

Grishin, N.V., Burns, J.M., Janzen, D.H., Hallwachs, W. and Hajibabaei, M. 2013. Oxynetra: Facies and DNA barcodes point to a new species from Costa Rica (Hesperiidae: Pyrginae: Pyrrhopygini). Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society, 67(1): 1-14.

Janzen, D.H., Hallwachs, W., Burns, J.M., Hajibabaei, M., Bertrand, C. and Hebert, P.D.N. 2011. Reading the Complex Skipper Butterfly Fauna of One Tropical Place. Plos One, 6(8): 1-15. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019874

Janzen, D.H., W. Hallwachs and J.M. Burns. 2010. A tropical horde of counterfeit predator eyes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107 (26):11659-11665 (+ appendix). pdf

Burns, J.M., D.H. Janzen & W. Hallwachs. 2010. Of many similar species in the Neotropical genus Porphyrogenes (Lepidoptera: Hesperiidae), a new one, repeatedly reared in Costa Rica, is relatively distinct. Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 112(1): 32-42. pdf

Burns, J.M., Janzen, D.H., Hallwachs, W., Hajibabaei, M. and Hebert, P.D.N. 2010. Genitalia, DNA barcodes, larval facies, and foodplants place the mimetic species Neoxeniades molion in Rhinthon (Hesperiidae: Hesperiinae). Journal of the Lepidopterists Society, 64(2): 69-78. pdf

Burns, J.M., Janzen, D.H., Hallwachs, W., Hajibabaei, M. and Hebert, P.D.N. 2009. Genitalia, DNA barcodes, and life histories synonymize Telles with Thracides - a genus in which Telles arcalaus looks out of place (Hesperiidae: Hesperiinae). Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society, 63(3): 141-153.

Janzen, Daniel H., Hallwachs, W., Blandin, P., Burns, J.M., Cadiou, J.-M., Chacon, I., Dapkey, T., Deans, A. R., Epstein, M., Espinoza, B., Franclemont, J., Haber, W., Hajibabaei, M., Hallwachs, J., Hebert, P.D.N., Gauld, I. D., Harvey, D., Hausmann, A., Kitching, I., Lafontaine, D., Landry, J.-F, Lemaire, C., Miller, J., Miller, J., Miller, L., et al. 2009. Integration of DNA barcoding into an ongoing inventory of complex tropical biodiversity. Molecular Ecology Resources, 9(S1): 1-26. pdf

Fordyce, J.A., M.L. Forister, C.C. Nice, J.M. Burns and A.M. Shapiro. 2008. Patterns of genetic variation between the checkered skippers Pyrgus communis and Pyrgus albescens (Lepidoptera: Hesperiidae). Annals Entomological Society of America 101(4): 794-800.

Burns, J. M., D. H. Janzen, M. Hajibabaei, W. Hallwachs, and P. D. N. Hebert.  2008. DNA barcodes and cryptic species of skipper butterflies in the genus Perichares in Area de Conservación Guanacaste, Costa Rica.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105: 6350-6355. pdf

Burns, J. M., D. H. Janzen, M. Hajibabaei, W. Hallwachs and P. D. N. Hebert 2007. DNA barcodes of closely related (but morphologically and ecologically distinct) species of skipper butterflies (Hesperiidae) can differ by only one to three nucleotides. Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society, 61:138-153.PDF icon

Hajibabaei, M., D. H. Janzen, J. M. Burns, W. Hallwachs and P. D. N. Hebert 2006. DNA barcodes distinguish species of tropical Lepidoptera. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS], 103:968-971.pdf

Burns, J. M. and D. H. Janzen 2005. Pan-neotropical genus Venada (Hesperiidae: Pyrginae) is not monotypic: Four new species occur on one volcano in the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society, 59:19-34.

Burns, J. M. and D. H. Janzen 2005. What's in a name? Lepidoptera: Hesperiidae: Pyrginae: Telemiades Hubner 1819 [Pyrdalus Mabille 1903]: new combinations Telemiades corbulo (Stoll) and Telemiades oiclus (Mabille)--and more. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 107:770-781.

Janzen, D. H., M. Hajibabaei, J. M. Burns, W. Hallwachs, E. Remigio and P. D. N. Hebert 2005. Wedding biodiversity inventory of a large and complex Lepidoptera fauna with DNA barcoding. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 360:1835-1845. pdf

Hebert, P. D. N., E. H. Penton, J. M. Burns, D. H. Janzen, and W. Hallwachs 2004. Ten species in one: DNA barcoding reveals cryptic species in the neotropical skipper butterfly Astraptes fulgerator. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 101:14812-14817. pdf

Burns, J. M. and D. H. Janzen. 2001. Biodiversity of Pyrrhopygine Skipper Butterflies (Hesperiidae) in the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 55:15-43 pdf

Burns, J. M. 1998. Pseydodrephalys: A New Genus Comprising Three Showy, Neotropical Species (One New) Removed From -And Quite Remote From - Drephalys (Hesperiidae: Pyrginae). Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society, 52:364-380. pdf

Burns, J. M. 1996. Genitalia and the Proper Genus: Codatractus Gets Mysie and Uvydixa - in a Compact Cyda Group - as Well as a Hysterectomy, While Cephise Gets Part of Polythrix (Hesperiidae: Pyrginae). Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 50:173-216 pdf

Burns, J. M. 1990. Amblyscirtes: Problems With Species, Species Groups, the Limits of the Genus, and Genus Groups Beyond - A Look at What is Wrong With the Skipper Classification of Evans (Hesperiidae). Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 44:11-27. pdf

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