NORFOLK, Va. — Lincoln Brower, who was considered one of the foremost experts on the iconic monarch butterfly and a scientist who advocated for the declining species’ protection, has died. He was 86.
Linda Fink, his wife, confirmed Friday that Brower passed away Tuesday at home in Nelson County after a long illness. Besides his wife, Brower is survived by a son and a daughter.
Brower studied the orange-and-black-winged insect for more than six decades. It is famous for its epic migration each year.
“What attracted Lincoln is they’re so incredibly interesting,” said Karen Oberhauser, a monarch expert and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.
Light as a paper clip, the butterflies migrate like birds or whales. Most travel 2,000-plus miles from various states in the U.S. and Canada to the mountains of Mexico. A much smaller number goes to the California coast.
In those places, the winter climate typically doesn’t freeze them. But it’s cool enough that the insects maintain their fat preserves to begin their return.
It’s a multi-generational journey north as the butterflies and their offspring feed off milkweed. Eventually, the cycle starts anew.
Brower spent a lot of time in Mexico, where massive clusters of monarchs hang like Spanish moss in fir forests.
“Just imagine a place where there are a hundred million of whatever you were studying hanging from the trees,” said Brower’s son, Andrew Brower, who studies butterflies and is a biology professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Brower also charted the butterflies’ stark decline. Its overall population has fallen by about 80 percent over the last two decades, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group.
Herbicide use, logging and severe weather events have all threatened the butterfly. In 2002, freezing temperatures and rain lead to a massive die off in Mexico.
“Sticking my hand to gently pull out the beautiful delicate creatures I’ve worked with for 25 years, there was an almost overwhelming feeling of sadness,” Brower told The Associated Press.
In 2014, Brower placed his name alongside conservation groups to petition the federal government to protect the monarch under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a decision next year.
“He was the only scientist who joined the petition — it’s a gigantic deal,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “A lot of scientists shy away from advocacy.”
Brower grew up in northern New Jersey and earned a biology degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in zoology from Yale University.
He taught at Amherst College before moving to the University of Florida. At the time of his death, he was a professor at Sweet Briar College.
John Morrisey, a Sweet Briar College professor who worked with Brower for the past 11 years, said Brower’s humility is what he will remember the most about his former colleague.
“As an undergrad student I had to read a lot of papers and his [Brower] were among some of the most important that I read,” Morrisey said. “I had been at Sweet Briar College for about three years before I realized that he was the Lincoln Brower whose papers I had read.
“Success like his may have gone to the head of many people … but that wasn’t the case for him. He was one of the most gentle, kind, humble and generous people that I have ever met. He was my friend and colleague for many years and he will be missed.”
Staff writer Shannon Keith contributed.