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Charles Remington, 85; Yale professor with an infectious passion for butterflies, moths

June 19, 2007|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Charles Lee Remington, the Yale University entomologist who knew everything there is to know about butterflies and moths and used his studies of lepidoptera to provide crucial insights into the process of evolution, died May 31 in Hamden, Conn. He was 85.

No cause of death was given by the family.

He became a media favorite in the summer of 1996 when he appeared widely on U.S. and international television networks to extol the glories -- and the taste -- of genus Magicicada, the 17-year locust, which had emerged that summer.

Witty and entertaining, and wearing his trademark bolo tie, Remington used the occasion to educate network audiences about the exotic cicadas, throwing in a dollop of information about other species in the process and no doubt setting many youngsters on the path of bug collecting as a hobby, if not a professional passion.

He also demonstrated what he considered the distinctive tastiness of the cicadas, consuming them boiled and fried on camera to the delight and repulsion of newscasters.

"You know the slight sweetness that is in good, young venison?" he said at the time. "Well, that's what the 17-year cicada tastes like."

But the media sideshow was a minor distraction compared with his long-term interest in studying isolated populations of insects and other species and understanding how that isolation contributed to the development of new species.

Remington developed what was known as the "biological species concept," maintaining that a significant proportion of evolution occurred through hybridization among close relatives in these isolated areas, which he called suture zones.

The idea was quickly dismissed by evolutionary biologists but has recently come back into vogue as researchers have continued to explore the evolutionary process.

Remington's expertise with insects was not limited to butterflies and moths -- the biological order Lepidoptera.

"A lot of entomologists know enough about all insects to identify them, but the young guys tend to specialize," evolutionary biologist Rob DeSalle of the American Museum of Natural History said in 1996. "Charlie is cut in the mold of the gentleman naturalist. He can talk very knowledgeably about all of them."

Remington, born in Reedville, Va., on Jan. 19, 1922, grew up in St. Louis, where his father was a prep school teacher with a strong interest in butterflies. Remington soon adopted his father's passion and carried it into his studies at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

A brood of cicadas emerged on campus while Remington was an undergraduate.

That triggered what became a lifelong interest in the creatures, which spend most of their lives underground sucking on the roots of trees, emerging only for a brief fling at mating.

Upon graduation, he joined the military as a medical entomologist, traveling through the Pacific, researching and treating the unusual species encountered by servicemen.

Remington later regaled his students with stories about his war experiences, including the time in the Philippines when he woke up in his sleeping bag with a "fiery pain" in his armpit. Rooting through the bag, he extracted an 8-inch-long centipede, one of many that had been plaguing servicemen in the area.

He preserved the specimen and always displayed it for the students to cap his story.

After the war, Remington enrolled at Harvard University, where he became good friends with author Vladimir Nabokov, another avid butterfly collector.

While he was still at Harvard, Remington and fellow graduate student Harry K. Clench founded the Lepidopterists' Society, which has grown to more than 10,000 members in 60 countries. His and Clench's initial letter to other members ultimately became the Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society.

Upon graduating in 1948, Remington joined the faculty of Yale University, where he remained for the rest of his career. Although Yale had an excellent biology department, he was the first serious entomologist on the faculty.

When he moved to New Haven, Conn., the university had the same number of insect specimens on campus as it had female students: zero.

Remington began building up an insect collection that now has more than 2.5 million specimens. It is not the largest collection in the country, but it has perhaps the best selection of extinct and unusual specimens, including the largest collection of gynandromorphs -- mutants that have both male and female characteristics.

He also established a 90-acre Magicicada preserve in Connecticut, possibly the only one in the world.

Remington's World War II service triggered an interest in island biology. He eventually visited and spent time at more than 75 islands around the world, especially Santa Cruz Island off the California coast.

For nearly 30 years, Remington, his family and his students decamped to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colo. The ecology of high altitudes, he found, produces isolated environments similar to those of islands.

In his later years, Remington and fellow butterfly collector Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University founded Zero Population Growth, dedicated to controlling overpopulation.

Remington is survived by his wife, Ellen Mahoney; sons Eric of Saratoga, Calif., and Sheldon of Hilo, Hawaii; daughter Janna of Boulder, Colo.; and three grandchildren. He is also survived by sisters June Elliott of Napa, Calif., Margery Bates of Laguna Hills and Caroline Kuhn of Sherman Oaks.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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