SARAH MAY on discovering a new species and the importance of being aware of Nunavik’s biodiversity
By Miriam Dewar
It was the end of June 2019, about an hour north of Kuujjuaq and Sarah May was with a team from the insectarium in Montreal. She was part of the inaugural Nunavik Sentinels community science program, where Inuit and Cree youth are trained in insect monitoring, preservation, and identification.
“It was a clear day with a few clouds, we were on the Ippialuk plateau walking along the edge of a ridge when I caught an unusual butterfly… After carefully examining it, I noticed it was different from the ones I had previously studied and observed.” she says. They looked like Booth’s Sulphur butterflies. “I mentioned that it was different and waited two years until I was contacted and informed that the species that I had collected was in fact, a never-before documented species of butterfly in the world! I was absolutely ecstatic and have to admit I was jumping with joy!”
And even more exciting, this new sub-species would be named after her: Colias tyche siaja.
“I had never collected insects, or pinned them before,” she says. “I just used to watch them and handle them, and learn about them, but I had never collected them. It was something that I wanted to do for a long time, so I was very happy.”
Sarah comes by her passion for insects naturally. Her great-uncle John May collected insects from all over the world and traded with other naturalists as well. His collection is now housed at the John May Museum Center in Colorado. The May Museum touts itself as Colorado Springs’ premier bug museum.
“I can in some way, say that it felt natural. As a fifth-generation insect enthusiast and collector it was amazing, and in a way, it felt like it was meant to be. Insects and the natural world have been a fundamental part of who I am and who we are as a family (on the May side). I felt extremely grateful and overjoyed. Now I can say that I have many sauniks fluttering around Nunavik (saunik meaning a person or living thing named in your honour).”
The Nunavik Sentinels program offers summer jobs for young people aged 15 to 30 where they are trained to participate in its monitoring program. Sarah, who was 31 when she was informed that she had discovered a new species, now helps to recruit Sentinels.
She was part of this year’s Kwe! festival In Quebec City, which touted the theme of Biodiversity. She, along with the Director of Montreal’s Insectarium Maxim Larrivée, presented ‘The Butterfly Effect of Climate Change,’ through the weekend event. Under a domed tent, the duo spoke about the importance of documenting the fauna of the North, as well as developing more knowledge about its biodiversity, especially when it comes to pollinators.
Sarah spoke about her experience being the first Nunavik Sentinel back in 2019 and says she was happy to participate as it gave her a chance to inform Indigenous populations and others about the amazing discovery that was made in Nunavik. It also allowed her the chance to discover other Indigenous cultures and to see what they were presenting.
Sarah says it is important for the people of Nunavik to be aware of the biodiversity that exist on their homeland especially since the climate is shifting and in the past 30 years has undergone drastic changes.
“If we are open, interested, and willing to understanding the effects that climate change is having on our ecosystem it will help us to see what we can do in terms of protection, conservation, and research. When we talk about research, I do feel like it should be done in collaboration with our research organizations in Nunavik. Having this data accessible to all Nunavimmiut is essential for our path to self-determination, empowerment of our people and recognition of our traditional knowledge.”