Don Davis

Researcher and Curator of Lepidoptera
Wide shot of Dr. Don Davis setting up an insect light trap on a mountain top. A large forest is below him and in the distance
Dr. Don Davis setting up an insect light trap in Taiwan. Image courtesy of Don Davis, Smithsonian.

Growing up on a small farm near Oklahoma City, Donald Ray Davis immersed himself in the natural world. By his teenage years, he had pursued a broad range of interests in science, including archaeology, astronomy, paleontology, and herpetology. He became fascinated with entomology, especially the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), and started collecting specimens. In high school, when he won a trip to Washington, DC to compete in the 1952 National Science Fair, he was fortunate to meet several Smithsonian entomologists. Don’s extensive, identified collection of moths attracted the attention of J.F. Gates Clarke, then curator of Lepidoptera at the National Museum of Natural History, who encouraged him to pursue a career in entomology.

Don conducted his doctoral work on bagworm moths (Family Psychidae) at Cornell University, under John Franclemont, and began his long career at the Smithsonian in 1961. His research on the biogeography and phylogeny of Microlepidoptera has taken him to more than fifty countries on four continents. Through extensive field work particularly in Chile, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, countries linked to the ancient super continent Gondwanaland, he investigated the biology and phylogenetic relationships among primitive moths. Assisted by his wife, Mignon Marie Davis, he has added about one million insect specimens to the Smithsonian collections. Among the many interesting ecological associations they have examined have been the insect faunas of caves in Africa and the Americas.